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You’ve heard this advice before: we live in a diverse religious world, so we need tolerance. But is tolerance enough?
To find out, let’s look at the dictionary definition of the term:
tolˊerˑance n. to respect others’ beliefs, practices, etc. without sharing them.
Seems harmless, right? Why shouldn’t we tolerate the beliefs of others, anyway? Well, to understand what tolerance really means, you might want to look at its root word, which comes from the Latin tolerare, meaning “to bear:”
tolˊerˑateˊ n. to bear someone or something disliked; put up with.
Religious tolerance, then, can mean holding your nose and continuing to dislike other religions and their followers, while putting up with their existence. Not a very appealing way to connect with others, is it?
Here’s what Diana Eck from the Harvard Pluralism Center has to say about religious tolerance:
…pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.
So sure, we have plenty of religious diversity, and if we merely tolerate one another, that can sort of look like peace, love and understanding—from a distance. Up close, it often means that we create religious ghettoes, with hard and fast dividing lines separating them. It means that we haven’t really accomplished much in the way of understanding and building actual bridges between beliefs.
Want to personally test this idea? Ask yourself a question: When was the last time I hung out with a person or a group of people from a totally different belief system than mine?
In the modern world, we have many, many examples of this kind of separate-but-diverse religious segregation. When Kosovo fell apart less than two decades ago, for instance, it immediately split along religious lines—“Christian” Serbs versus “Muslim” Albanians. Despite the fact that the two religious groups had lived side-by-side in the very same society for many years, and had managed relatively peaceful interaction, a few bigots and despots, installed in leadership positions in government and the military, managed to rapidly bring the old divisions back to the surface and begin a genocidal war. In Africa, the Middle East, and many other places in today’s world, we see the same problems play out.
So if members of different religious traditions want to encounter each other in dialogue, address their differing beliefs and actually resolve their conflicts, they will need to establish common ground.
How do we do that? First, with knowledge.
What do you know about your Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim neighbors—and about their beliefs? Have you spent any time investigating other traditions besides your own? Have you ever gone to a worship service or meeting from another Faith? Have you read any books about other Faiths, or do you know only what the news media tells you? Do you have friendly, productive relationships with anyone outside your familiar cultural or religious groups?
Gaining knowledge about other beliefs isn’t difficult—now, more than any other time in history, we all have access to an enormous wealth of knowledge about other religions and beliefs. That rich repository of knowledge—in schools, libraries, houses of worship, community groups and online—means we have no real excuses for remaining ignorant about religion.
The Baha’i teachings ask each of us to become an “investigator of reality” by actively exploring and educating ourselves about the beliefs of others:
Baha’u’llah continually urges man to free himself from the superstitions and traditions of the past and become an investigator of reality, for it will then be seen that God has revealed his light many times in order to illumine mankind in the path of evolution, in various countries and through many different prophets, masters and sages. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 8-9.
What’s the only way to go beyond simple tolerance? To transcend mere toleration, knowledge is necessary:
… the religion of God is the promoter of truth, the establisher of science and learning, the supporter of knowledge, the civilizer of the human race, the discoverer of the secrets of existence, and the enlightener of the horizons of the world. … in the sight of God knowledge is the greatest human virtue and the noblest human perfection. … For knowledge is light, life, felicity, perfection, and beauty, and causes the soul to draw nigh to the divine threshold. It is the honour and glory of the human realm and the greatest of God’s bounties. Knowledge is identical to guidance, and ignorance is the essence of error.
Happy are those who spend their days in the pursuit of knowledge, in the discovery of the secrets of the universe and in the meticulous investigation of truth! – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 154-155.
Once you’ve begun to acquire some knowledge about the world’s belief systems, you’ll find, as the Baha’i teachings suggest, that knowledge is light, life, felicity, perfection and beauty.