Payday loansPayday Loans
The Relevance of ReligiousTolerance in a Pluralistic Society PDF Print E-mail

Nithiya Sagayam
Commission for Justice, Peace and Ecology, Italy

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

Good morning to you. I will begin my paper with a small story. There was a master in a monastery that had about thirty disciples. They used to conduct meditation, prayer, and other spiritual exercises. The master loved cats, and therefore had a cat in his monastery. During meditation, the cat would run around disturbing the meditation. The disciples complained to the master, so the master tied the cat in the corner of the meditation hall during meditation time, in order that it would not cause a disturbance.

Thus, things went on. During meditation, the cat would be tied in the corner, while at other times it was free to roam. Several years later the master died, but the cat remained, and the disciples continued to tie the cat in the corner during meditation. Eventually, the disciples changed, and in time the cat died.

The new disciples did not know why there was a cat inside the hall during meditation, but they bought a new cat and tied it in the corner during their meditation time. As time went by the group grew and founded new monasteries. The new guru did not know why there was a cat in the corner during meditation. He said that it helped the meditation and therefore declared, “Let us have a cat tied in the corner during meditation time in all our monasteries.” So in all of their monasteries, there was a cat and there was silent meditation with a cat’s noise. Afterwards they started to write theses on the significance of having a cat in the corner during meditation. Some disciples wrote that it is impossible to meditate without a cat’s noise. This is most of what the theology and philosophy of religion is.

Most things start like this. What is the significance of having this chalice in a golden color, or a silver color? What is the necessity of having a small washing after the offertory in the altar? Many things that religions follow are nonsensical and disturbing, but we have accepted these as relevant, helpful, and meaningful.

I am going to touch on two things. One is the relevance of tolerance for other religions, and the other is to understand the basics of the religions that we follow. In recent years, religious intolerance has become very high.

In Pakistan, on 6 May 1998, Bishop John Joseph fired a bullet into his own head in front of a courthouse where, on April 27, a Catholic had been sentenced to death under the blasphemy law. Under the blasphemy law, a person is convicted on the same day on which he is accused of the offense. Under this law, no one is allowed to represent the accused at trial. The courts, themselves, have to reckon with the intense pressure of fundamentalists. According to human rights organizations, the charges were false, and were intended to force fifteen Christian families to drop a land dispute. This has nothing to do with religion, or blasphemy. They wanted to get people off their land. The blasphemy law in Pakistan has been condemned throughout the world for many years. However, there have been no changes in the provisions of the criminal law, or the death sentence for alleged acts of blasphemy.

In recent years, Hindu fundamentalism has grown considerably in India. Since the desecration of a mosque in 1990, aggravating Muslim anger, extremists have openly created problems for Christianity as well. In recent years, a good number of Christian missionaries have been murdered in north India. Almost every month someone is killed. That is what is happening in India in the north-most of this while they were working for the liberation of the poor and the outcast. This is another important reason—not a religious reason—but the importance given to the poor and oppressed.

The Sinhalese fundamentalists, dominated by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, seem to be blocking peace with the Tamil militants, who are Hindus and Christians put together on that island. The tension in Israel/Palestine between Jews and Muslims, in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, and in many other places, are witnesses to intolerance on the part of religion. Religions speak of love and tolerance but, in practice, religious fundamentalists—who claim that they are the true believers—practice violence and bloodshed against the innocent. These, and many other religious tensions, bring to us a shameful story of how religions can be intolerant and violent.

This causes us to reflect on the relevance of religious tolerance in our pluralistic society today. These tensions arise due to a lack of knowledge regarding the fundamentals, as well as the thought processes, of one’s own religion. In short, I will just put forward to you a few questions upon which to reflect. Then that will be a basis.

Whose need is it? Is it the need of God, or of man? Who created religion? Did any god come and preach, “You create a religion for me!” Never. Actually, there is a multireligious context. Which religion does God belong to? We belong to the religion of God, but does God belong to any particular religion? Most of us believe in monotheism. If I believe in one God, and since there is only one God, then whom do other religions worship? Is it not the same God, or do they worship another God? Is not my God and your God, one and the same God? This is a principle with which the fundamentalists don’t want to agree.

Unlike the members of the animal kingdom, man has had to depend on his own understanding of his predicament. He was sickened by the fear of insecurity. So, it is said, primordial man inherited fear. This fear is the cause and birth of religion. Religion, as a form of psychological security, has helped him to grow into modern man and achieve so many skills, but the fear has not disappeared. He is as insecure as the first man was, as if it were born with him.

With the growth of civilizations, many religions have arisen. They are all institutionalized. They are powerful, even now. What is the essence of religion? What is this relationship to man? This has to be constantly assessed, reassessed, and adapted. This process has been, and is, going on.

Every religion basically speaks of the same thing. That is God, devotion, a life of love, understanding, peace, justice, etc. But, religions differ in their expressions, such as liturgy, rituals, customs, and traditions. We are ashamed to know that many wars have been raised under the banner of God and religion. Religion, instead of going God’s way, often went the ways of money, power, and domination.

Religion is only a means to reach God, not an end in itself. Religion is not equal to God. Every religion is like a signpost. It points toward the destination, God. We are invited to go ahead and reach the destination. Instead, most often, we cling to the signposts, falsely imagining that we have already reached the goal when, in fact, we are still at the signposts. We tend to create a false satisfaction with our rituals and traditions, and forget God.

Religions, which are supposed to unite people—religare—have often created division and hatred. One of the fundamental reasons for the inter-religious tensions is ignorance of the richness of other religions, and the value behind their traditions. Unless one knows the wealth of other religions, one can neither understand, nor appreciate one’s own. Gandhi said, “In order to know your religion, learn other religions equally well.” No religion is perfect. Those who think that theirs is the perfect one, create all the tensions.

God created the world in all its variety and multiformity, and our human society is rich due to this. Every religion is a precious gift to humanity, born and brought up in a certain sitzenleben, out of necessity, and with an immediate goal, as well as a lasting vision. Susan Mendus, in her book, Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives, says that truth sets the standards and limits of tolerance. It is the truth, the knowledge of the dimensions of man, which sets the standard. Tolerance is a means to strive toward the end, which is truth.

I would like to present here the approach of Gandhi, which is very helpful. He was killed on 30 January 1948. This year we are celebrating the fiftieth year, the Jubilee. He was killed by a Hindu fundamentalist, because he was praying for unity between the Hindus and the Muslims. On the day that India gained independence, 15 August 1947, all the parliamentary leaders were gathered in New Delhi, but Gandhi was not there. He was already in Bengal, on the borderline, creating peace between Hindus and Muslims. He was a martyr for peace, a victim of interreligious violence. He was martyred for that. So, how did he proceed?

Actually, he was a very successful lawyer, but when he returned to India, he wanted to live in a monastery, a small ashram, with an interreligious group. So, he lived in South Africa. He wanted to live an interreligious life. All throughout his life in India, until the end, the prayers he conducted were always interreligious . There would be readings of Hindu, Christian, and Islamic scripture, followed by chanting. He found this a necessity, and valuable.

He pursued God as truth. He said, “Truth is God, not God is Truth.” He always distinguished between the absolute truth and the relative truth. He said, “God is the absolute, the absolute truth. No one can claim to have known this absolute truth fully.” One does not arrive at a stage where he says that he has the absolute truth. Hence, no one can speak of God in absolute terms, due to his human limitations. Man’s search for God is constant and continuous. This striving takes him one step closer to God every day.

Finally, God is the absolute, and we all deal with relative truth. All that we speak of religion, all that we speak of God, all that we speak of saints, everything is only relative. We can never be absolute in our expression of God. We can never comprehend Him, and even if we start to express it, we only create mistakes. That humility is needed in every religion, and every religious leader. Only God is absolute, and we all deal with relative truth. All our expressions, our methodologies, our dogmas, our rituals, and liturgies, are relative.

The pity is that these relative things dominate in our condemnation of other persons and groups. This is what happens where there is a lot of religious freedom, because we give importance to relative truths and consider them as the absolute. When one religion speaks in terms of knowing and possessing the absolute truth, this would mean that other religions that follow another path cannot and do not have the same capacity and, hence, are to be removed. This mentality is one of the root causes of arrogance and intolerance in a religion, and generates intense tensions that lead even to war. This mentality of knowing the absolute also blocks an interest in knowing other religions.

The emergence of new religions and new methodologies can be either a development—a fruit of classical or major religions—or a deviation against their rigidity. The latter case may be a disagreement with certain methodologies, or certain perceptions—even dogmas—because of an insistence on external observances, or as a response to a lacking in their internal search. So, this is why new religions come. Christianity was a new religion, 2000 years back, taking a path away from the Jewish tradition. The Protestant Reformation began when Luther began another path. So, it is always a different trend in a particular sitzenleben.

Wise persons all through the ages have spoken of purification within religions, or of leading society onto a new path. Instead of learning the wealth behind these, and critically evaluating one’s own institutions and its forms of expression, there is a tendency to suppress them. This is an indicator of a weakness and the domination of the majority over the minority. However, the fact that they are the majority does not necessarily mean that they are right. If many people come together and, finding the sun, say, “This is the moon,” it does not become a moon. Hence, in this pluralistic society, interreligious tolerance and cooperation are not only a need, but a must for the betterment of humanity.

Gandhi also spoke of ethical religion. That is the basis of religion. All religions speak of ethical living. Gandhi always spoke of ethical religion with the following basic demands: unassailable faith in God; belief in the law of cause and effect and, hence, the right and pure means for noble ends; belief in the universal presence of a moral law; and the belief that all religions are equally true, and entitled to respect. A religion has to be judged, not by its worse specimens, but by the best it might have produced. This is how we are to respect a religion.

Gandhi also rejected authoritarianism in religion. No one can enforce a religious course on others. He wanted to help others to slowly evolve in religious life. Man can only be persuaded to be religious, and not dictated to be.

The attitude of tolerance is mainly focused on the human person, and on human life. Respect for people, and reverence for human life, is part and parcel of the culture of tolerance. In a pluralistic and multicultural society, an attitude of tolerance is never a luxury or license, but a necessity.

Nobody is born tolerant, but everyone can become tolerant by useful and voluntary action. One learns to be tolerant. You see children. They are free. They express freely. They are not tolerant, but you help them to learn tolerance. Tolerance is not an inborn tendency in man. It is acquired by daily practice. It is learned by the good examples of others. It is cultivated in a familial, communal, and social context.

M. Searle Bates, in his book, Religious Liberty: An Inquiry, says, “I shall not try to write the history of intolerance. That would be to write the history of the whole world.” It is due to this world scene that many social reformers spoke of a new way of life, and that religious leaders began new paths to follow. No religion in its essence and manifestation advocates intolerance. Respect for people, reverence for human life, and communal harmony, are the primary creed of every religion.

Our world today is nothing but a conglomeration of pluralistic and multicultural societies. Hence, tolerance as social practice, is of vital importance in order to accept the other as he or she is, to acknowledge the reality of various traditions, cultures, religious and racial differences, and to encounter the other in his or her own context. This is an arduous process but, as a joint venture of all the peoples of the world, it is worth promoting for the betterment of humankind. To tolerate the members of different races, cultures, and religions, is not an allowance that one gives to the other, but the necessary just due that one pays to the other. It is not a concession, but a duty of everyone.

Acts of intolerance committed around the world threaten the very structure of humankind. For example, this issue of the Pakistani and Indian nuclear bomb, is the fuel for religious fundamentalism. It is not just political, it is political survival based on religious fundamentalism. It is a pity.

It is only by creating the culture of tolerance that humankind can be rebuilt into a community of nations. Tolerance is to be learned, and to be fostered in a global community of nations. It is the duty of every individual to foster tolerance in oneself, and one’s family. It is the duty of family members to foster tolerance within the family, and toward the members of the community. It is the duty of the members of society to foster tolerance within one’s community, and toward members of neighboring societies. Thus, we will have a global society, a community in which everyone is respected, and we will have peace.