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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 19th, 2007 - 01:45:35

Politics and society: Dealing with religious extremism
By Jeffrey S. Victor Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 19, 2007, 01:40

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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 religious belief?

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 France compared

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 expression.

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 extremism

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.

Jeffrey Victor is a sociologist who lives in France during the winter months. His wife of 41 years is a French citizen.

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