The meaning of religious tolerance presents a particular
dilemma for liberals, because we feel called upon to preach tolerance as a
central ideal in our worldview. What constitutes religious tolerance towards
Christian extremists at home and Islamic extremists abroad? How should we deal
with religious extremists who preach hatred and violence toward people of
religions other than their own? Are we intolerant when we strongly oppose
religious ideologues who use government to promote their particular brand of
We need to keep in mind that the rules for religious
tolerance arose out of centuries-long struggles to regulate religious conflict
in society. The rules for tolerance differ in different societies, because they
are a product of different struggles to attain religious tolerance. In every
democratic society, the rules for religious tolerance exist on two levels: the
official ones in law and informal ones in social custom. In democratic
societies, peaceful political struggle between religious groups is normal and
consistent with rules for religious tolerance.
The roots of religious extremism
Today, the social forces provoking religious extremism are
modernization and globalization. The prime mover of modernization is science,
as a way of thinking and relating to the world. It emphasizes doubt and
questioning rather than faith, rationalism rather than tradition, and inductive
logic rather than deductive claims of truths from scriptures. It focuses
attention on the material, natural world, rather than the invisible
supernatural. Globalization brings us influences from distant and unfamiliar
cultures and religions. It results in increasing religious pluralism and
multiculturalism within societies.
Extremist Christians, Moslems, Jews and Hindus have many
similar ways of thinking. They want to purify religion from the influences of
modernization and globalization. They regard themselves as being victims,
oppressed by anti-religious forces in society. That is why they are so angry.
They condemn their society as morally corrupt. They preach an absolutist
religious morality and belief system. They insist on the one right way for
everyone. They emphasize punishment for sin, rather than compassion. Therefore,
they condemn religious pluralism and religious tolerance.
Religious extremists are
not all of one mind. There is a wide spectrum of differences among them. Most
religious extremists are non-violent and simply try to isolate themselves from
the surrounding �corrupt� society. Some organize themselves to impose their
ideology on society through the political system. Only a small minority preach
violence as a means to gain their ends.
Rules for religious tolerance in America and
In American society, the First Amendment of the Constitution
holds that the government should not support or encourage any particular
religion. In addition, the government should not restrict any religious
practice. Americans, unlike people in some other democracies, believe that
there should be no restrictions on proselytism, even if some people feel
harassed by it. Different religious groups may compete with each other for
members, as long as they don�t use violence. In practice, religious hate speech
is regarded as being disreputable, but it is protected by freedom of
American society is the most traditionally religious of all
industrial societies. One reason is that in American culture, the practice of
religion, any religion, is socially encouraged as an expression of �good�
citizenship. American nationalism and generic religion are merged. As a result,
atheism and agnosticism are regarded as disreputable and informally discouraged
as potentially immoral.
In American society, Christian extremists regard themselves
as an oppressed minority threatened by anti-religious influences in society. In
contrast, religious modernists regard these fellow citizens as unfairly trying
to use the government to proselytize and to impose their morality on society.
The basic issue being contested involves a strict versus a weak separation of
religion and government. Hot button issues are familiar: teaching about
evolution, acceptance of homosexuals, the right to abortion, medically assisted
suicide, stem cell research, government support for birth control education,
prayer in public schools, and sex in the mass media.
We can gain a deeper understanding into different meanings
of religious tolerance from cross-cultural comparisons. In Western Europe, the
potential for religious conflict is much greater than it is in the United
States. Western Europe is where the social influences of secularization and
de-Christianization clash with Moslem immigration and Islamic fundamentalism.
In the countries of the European Union, there are 23 million Moslem citizens.
Islamic extremists have carried out terrorist murders in Spain, the United
Kingdom and the Netherlands.
The rules for religious tolerance in French society offer
liberals an interesting and useful contrast with those familiar to Americans.
Unfortunately, the religious context of France is commonly misunderstood by
Americans. The dominant ethos of contemporary French culture is secular and
hostile to religious influences in politics. Religion is limited to the private
sphere of life and discouraged in public life. According to surveys, the overwhelming
majority of French people are atheists (33 percent), agnostics (14 percent) or
simply indifferent, non-practitioners of organized religion (26 percent).This
means that the dominant majority, of French people (73 percent) are very
secular in orientation. (However, many non-practitioners get baptized, married
in a church and buried by the rites of the Catholic or Protestant church.) In
France, at least 8 percent of people are Moslems and a similar percentage, only
8 percent, are actively practicing Catholics.
As in the United States, the French constitution guarantees
the free practice of religion. There exists a very strict separation of
religion and government. However, unlike in the United States the government is
committed to the principle of a totally religiously neutral (secular) public
sphere of life. As one example of this principle, the French government
recently outlawed the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols in pubic
schools, including large crosses for Christians, scull caps for Jewish boys and
head scarves or veils for Moslem girls. (This was widely misunderstood in the
United Sates as an act of religious intolerance.) Another example is that
religious groups are legally prohibited from engaging in any political
activities. If they do so, they will lose their tax-exempt status. Tax-exempt
religious groups are restricted to engaging in purely religious ritual
activities. A further example is that religious hate speech is a crime if it
leads to violence.
In terms of informal norms, politicians are expected to
avoid any public religious expression. Most French people don�t care about the
private religious beliefs of their president or prime minister. Active
proselytism is informally discouraged, as intrusions upon personal privacy.
Religious proselytizers must register with the local authorities and, just like
any salesmen; they may not receive permission to go door-to-door.
Preserving tolerance in the face of religious
So, what does religious tolerance mean in these times of
growing religious extremism? First, we need not tolerate any claim or behavior
justified by a religion. Liberals should not hesitate to criticize and oppose
Islamic and Christian extremist demands. We must oppose the introduction of
religious beliefs into the running of government and public schools. We should
organize opposition to religious hate speech in public. We must recognize that
the people who bomb abortion clinics and the people who make themselves into
suicide bombers have the same religious mindset.
Victor is a sociologist who lives in France during the winter months. His wife
of 41 years is a French citizen.