Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Religious Intolerance

I would like to expand some of the ideas I addressed in my last post. In the United States, especially this time of the year, intolerance of Muslims is the most visible form of religious discrimination, but it is not alone.

One thing I love about the United States is its diversity. We are surely a melting pot, and I think we are blessed to live in a country so heterogeneous.

A few months after his election, President Obama said:

"One of the great strengths of the United States is ... we have a very large Christian population --we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

The sentiment expressed in the quote is noble but, sadly, I am not always sure it is true. There are a multitude people in the US who presume the country "belongs" only to them and that those other groups whose ideas and beliefs are not aligned with their own are "un-American". How often during the 2008 elections did we see a politician claim he or she represented "real Americans"? Since when are people living in New York or California not "real Americans"? 

During my life, I have witnessed frequent act of intolerance, but the most vivid was the religious intolerance. It goes far beyond mere disagreement. People become threatened by followers of other religions. They apply sinister motives to the presence of these people (e.g., "All Muslims are terrorists and want to destroy America", or "Atheist are kicking God out of schools so they can indoctrinate our children"). This creates the dichotomy of 'us versus them', which I believe leads to this absolutely absurd idea that there is a "real America" and a "fake America".

To be honest, I do not understand this attitude. Why are people so threatened by difference? How does somebody praying to Allah in a mosque or another giving a public reading of The Origin of Species harm you, your family, or this country? Why do some believers feel the need to force others to conform to their moral standards?

All major religions have a version of the Golden Rule: treat others the way you wish to be treated. Yet a minority (but a vocal minority) of religious people act as if that rule comes with a starred footnote saying: "*NOTE-only applies to those others who look, sound, and act just like you".

The goal of religion should be to unite, not to divide. Our common belief in a higher power should demonstrate to us how similar we actually are, even if our beliefs about this higher power can be contradictory at times. God did not make us as cookie-cutter models. That would be boring. How could we learn to be good people if we could not learn to tolerate and, eventually, understand, those who are different from us? In the real world, people who expect everyone to conform to their wants are considered selfish and spoiled. Why does this not carry over to religion?

Personally, I suspect this conflict comes about because of the exclusivity in religion. If you believe only you and those with identical beliefs are saved, then the rest of humanity becomes expendable. Yes, they might say "God still loves them" but they still "know" they are dammed, and therefore, not actually equal in the eyes of God. If you agree with their premise of exclusivity, is actually a fairly logical conclusion.

The difference for me is not just disagreement with this premise, but outright disgust. My universalism tells me that God loves every single individual on this planet absolutely unconditionally. There are no favorites. There are no special groups. There are no expendables. All people are the children of God, no exceptions. So treating anyone of them poorly is identical to treating my own brother badly. 

The past 100 years has seen great progress in human tolerance. Racism and sexism are slowly fading in much of the world. Even homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted. When will religious differences stop inciting wars or tearing apart families? When will religion stop being one of the last barriers against a united humanity?

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