Saturday, September 11, 2010

A 9/11 Meditation:
The Real Reasons for Religious Toleration

In an earlier post, I indicated that I would be reading the Koran between September 11, 2010, and September 11, 2011. (In another post, I invited people to join with me in the movement, “Christians Reading the Koran”; come visit us on Facebook.) I actually have a somewhat wider intent—I will not only be reading about the Koran, but about its context, and about Islam generally—so I began today with reading Stephen Prothero’s book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—And Why Their Differences Matter; Dr. Prothero has a chapter on Islam that I will read to help provide context for my reading of the Koran itself.

I like reading Dr. Prothero’s work, in part because he has a clear understanding of some truths that are accurate and important, although they fly in the face of political correctness: There are real differences among religions, these differences have important consequences, and it would be good for people to understand these differences. Reading Dr. Prothero’s book today had me thinking about the real roots of religious toleration, and why it is important.

False Basis: ‘All religions say the same thing’

There are those who take the position that we should be tolerant of different religions because ‘all religions really say the same thing, at heart.’ This is a feel-good message that seems assuring in our difficult times. However, it is not true.

People of different religions believe radically different things about the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity. This is about as fundamental a set of differences in belief as anyone could hope to find. Different religions do have some areas of overlap, notably in the areas of basic ethics, although even in ethics different religions have basic differences. Overall, different religions say very different things about life and the universe, and these differences have very important consequences for many domains of human life. What constitutes a good education, a proper occupation, a good marriage partner, proper recreation, even a good day—all these can be radically different across different religions. So, the myth that ‘all religions say the same thing’ cannot be the basis of religious toleration.

False Basis: ‘We cannot prove one religion superior to another’

There are those who take the position that we should be tolerant of different religions because ‘we cannot really prove the superiority of one religion over another.’ It may be extremely uncomfortable to confront this issue, but this position is another myth.

People of different religions often think that they actually can prove the superiority of one religion over another. For some, the evidence is found in tradition; for others, in personal spiritual experience; for yet others, in the facts of science and history. I am not here taking a position on the adequacy of any of these positions (which is a question for another time and place). All I’m saying is that the notion that ‘we cannot make statements on the validity of one religion over another’ is itself rejected by many religious traditions. This myth as well, then, cannot serve as the basis of religious toleration.

To my mind, there are two basic arguments that really work as the basis of religious toleration. One is based on the sciences of human behavior (psychology, anthropology, and sociology); the other, interestingly enough, is based on religion.

A Solid Basis: Human Survival

Human beings have always lived in a multicultural world. Six centuries ago, in 1410, some of my ancestors were Polish Christians, living on farmland not far from today’s Warsaw; they may not have seen anyone but a Polish Christian their whole lives. Other ancestors were Russian Jews, living in shtetls where they may have only rarely saw anyone from another background. Still others were indigenous Native Americans living in the jungles of what is today Puerto Rico; they were a lifetime away from being “discovered” by Europeans.

But some of my ancestors were Spanish Christians, living under Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula. (Indeed, for all I know, yet others of my ancestors can be found among those very Muslims.) And, in other places in the world, there were millions of Muslims in the Middle East; Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Eastern Asia; Hindus by the million in South Asia; practitioners of indigenous religions throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

In this multicultural landscape of six centuries ago,where there was religious toleration, then there was peace; when there was not religious toleration, there was hideous war and death. (This message is brought home dramatically in Philip Jenkins’s book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.)

Now fast forward six hundred years to 2010. It’s still a multicultural world, but now it is multicultural on a micro level, not just a macro one. Multiple cultures are evident almost everywhere you look in the United States. This is especially obvious in New York City, where I now live; about half the people who prepare my lunch sandwiches are African Muslims from one country or another, and the other half are from Central America, East Asia, and Oceania. But multiculturalism is not just a New York City or even an urban phenomenon. In a world where one can find a substantial Ethiopian community in Fargo, North Dakota, I’m on solid ground in saying that we have arrived at the Age of the Multicultural World. In this world, even moreso than six centuries ago, religious toleration leads to peace, and lack of religious toleration leads to strife and conflict. It’s just that now, that applies across the Earth, and conflict can be played out with suitcase nukes and basement lab-built pandemic organisms.

It comes down to simple human survival, the ultimate practical consideration. Religious toleration leads to survival; intolerance leads to war. To my mind, there is no more powerful rationale for religious toleration.

Except perhaps for one other.

A Solid Basis: Divine Approval

Although I am the first one to agree that there are major differences among the religions of the world, I find it interesting that the world’s various religions are agreed in placing a strong emphasis on the value of peace.

It would take a very long entry to demonstrate this across world religions, and this is already an epic-long post. But think about it: one of the points of the meditative disciplines taught by Hinduism and Buddhism is to find inner peace; one of the drawing points of the obedience to God preached by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is to find peace; the point of the the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is to end suffering and find peace; even the various manifestos of secular humanism are written in support of peace, both political and personal. Yeah, these various movements have only imperfectly practiced their search for peace. In this, all have sinned, and I do mean all. However, there is no denying that peace is a big deal for the religious and spiritual traditions of the world.

The inescapable conclusion is that, if there is any divine source or power expressed through any of these movements, that Source values peace. Implicitly, then, that Source values religious toleration, as that is a fundamental cornerstone of a peaceful world.


Religious toleration is a prerequisite for human survival. One of the relatively few things that all religious and spiritual traditions agree on is the value of peace, inner and outer. In search for that peace, religious toleration is crucial.

Promoting religious toleration for the sake of our common human survival, and to express our individual traditions’s best values: that is certainly On The Mark. (And, in my opinion, it is one of the best ways to honor those innocents who died in the terrorist attacks on America on that dark Tuesday, September 11, 2001.)

[The photo above is described by its author as follows: “A young patriot salutes heroes at the 2009 National Memorial Day Concert on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol.” The author is the U.S. Army. As a work of an agency of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)


  1. Thank you, Mark, for the important work you are so selflessly and courageously assuming in educating those like me and others. I fully agree that understanding and tolerating another's religion, as Mohammad did in establishing the city of Medina, is a requirement for our the survival of our cultures in today's pluralistic, global society. You have well made clear the point that we, of all religious and humanist traditions, have a common cause of peace in the world. And that aim for each of us, individually and collectively, will only be met through the tough work of learning about other religious traditions than our own. Thank you.

  2. islomane: Thank you for your thoughtful comment.


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