Once we spend some thought upon belief, we inevitably meet the issue of plurality in religion. Is the origin of a new religion or religious school of thought the work of a man or thinker, or is it a new divine revelation? This question is both the most essential and unanswerable. However, the consequences of new religious ideas are considerable and it is up to all of us to lead them into desirable directions. It is tempting to accuse a religious innovator of self-invented holiness, for what proof can he offer. And can we offer, for that matter! Tolerance towards difference in religion and religious innovation has differed through history as religion as a factor of truth and order in society differed. Had religion a limited role, tolerance of dissidence increased, or so it appeared. Sometimes the ruling class was tolerant and had to put up with a minority that claimed to hold the final truth. For instance, in the Roman era the conquered peoples were allowed to leave an image of their god or gods in the Pantheon, together with the other gods among whom the Roman gods. The just emerging Christians refused this, because their main concept was that of one unique god next to whom no room is allowed for other gods. This apparently threatening attitude ended Roman tolerance towards Christians. Even today we witness persecution and oppression of minorities, sometimes even the majority of a people, by the dominant religious group.
Why does it exist: intolerance towards dissident thinkers and believers?
Change of religion is always accompanied by guilt feeling in both the person who changes religion and the people around him or her. There is fear for divine sanctions when a person leaves the truth and painful self-criticism of those around him. And what is truth when we have no absolute knowledge of it. Leaving the faith is therefore a painful process, also for the bystanders who fear for the dissident’s well-being and future. A change into the other direction, from free or atheist thinking into strict religion, is considered no less a threat to the modern freethinking bystanders than an individual leaving strict religion in a strict religious society. Apart from that, no one appreciates rejection of cherished truths. Guilt feeling, fear for unknown sanctions and hurt pride are as much causing religious intolerance as hunger for power. These fears are also the reason for religious communities living separated from each other. Most of all, the individual’s transfer to the other community is sometimes felt as an extra threat and therefore it is surrounded by heavy prohibitions and barriers. As soon as people perceive that their opinions have not been proved to be necessarily and obviously superior over other people’s, tolerance towards others is likely to increase, unless those others persist in defensiveness. The pure fear of the other’s possible intolerance and greed for conquest in itself leads to intolerance and defensiveness. Another way towards more tolerance is fatigue of intolerance and the violence it leads to, or the lapse of time. Tolerance comes from within ourselves, however, we depend on others to make it. Often people scream before even having been hit when we all should remember that we make tolerance and freedom ourselves by our willingness to listen and negotiate with others. It takes trust not to immediately assume an aggressive propagandist agenda in the other when they open their mouth about their religious and other beliefs. This is a difficult yet compulsory task, if peaceful and pleasant cohabitation is what we want.
It should be noted that there is a big difference between ‘enlightened’ and ‘tolerant’ belief. ‘Strict’ beliefs can be tolerant when the believer enforces them on him- or herself only. Enforcing a view is not the same as propagating and stimulating others to follow it. As soon as enlightened views are forced upon societies through the law and it’s inhabitants disagree, one may wonder if they loose their enlightening force. The most tolerant philosophies have been forced on people through canon’s barrels and concentration camps. There is no natural connection between strictness and (in)tolerance.
We also should note that ties of family and friendship are not confined to nationality, language or faith. People marry and make friends across the borders. This urges to lessons in trust and tolerance.