Religious Tolerance

Religious Tolerance

Religious tolerance is essential to a peaceful future. But is it enough just to be tolerant?

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.John F. Kennedy1

History shows that people tend to feel more secure among those of similar cultural and religious worldviews. In this sense, “foreigners” represent a threat simply because they are different.

However, the real threat may stem from one’s inherent fear of change or a need to expand one’s own understanding of the world. It is, after all, scary to consider that something new might show us that we’ve been living a lie.

The concept of the “global village” and increasingly mobile lifestyles have led to a greater need for understanding and integration among people of differing social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. The resultant sense of insecurity creates inner tensions that can lead to overt conflict. However, religious tolerance invites us to live peacefully with people of differing—or even opposing—beliefs, accepting one another despite divergent worldviews.

One can’t help but wish that the lessons of history and the trumpeted benefits of religious faith had better prepared us for the social challenges of our world and its accelerating pace of change. Our future may very well depend upon our ability to coexist peacefully with people of other faiths—people who live just around the corner, no longer across a border or on the other side of an ocean.

But how do we learn to do this while also maintaining our own convictions? Is that even possible? The following three suggestions may help as we walk this journey together.

Judge and Grow Ourselves

Mahatma Gandhi was a man of strong convictions and a Hindu. His philosophy of renunciation and nonviolence was inspired by his reading of the Christian scriptures alongside the Bhagavad Gita. He was especially drawn to the Sermon on the Mount, which is a summary of Jesus’ teaching.2

In this sermon, Jesus tells his followers to remove the metaphorical “plank” from their own eyes before helping their neighbors with the speck in theirs.3 That is, we must remember that our own failings not only exceed the faults we may find in others but also hinder our ability to “see” them graciously.

Not one of us is perfect, and therefore we can all always grow. We need others to help us with this growth because of our own blind spots. We all have primary responsibility for our own selves, and yet even in this we occasionally find ourselves powerless to change.

If we believe that our future rests upon our ability to live together in peace, then our first responsibility is to look within ourselves at what stands in the way of that. Then, with the support of others, we make the choice to grow. This is the more difficult work, which is why it is often overlooked or ignored.

Aim Higher than Mere Tolerance

As virtuous as tolerance appears, though, it may hide an attitude of indifference. So we must press on to even higher ground.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shocked his listeners by telling them to love and not hate their enemies. For the sermon’s original audience, “enemies” typically meant strangers, aliens, and outsiders—those of a different race and religion. Jesus explained that to love meant doing the best for such people and asking God to do the same.4

We do this when we respect and honor those of a different or no religious affiliation as, first and foremost, people just like us. We have more in common than we have differences.

While tolerance requires only passivity, love demands action. To truly respect those who differ from us, perhaps we should listen more than speak, give rather than take, and risk more by opening our hearts and homes. This could mean simply inviting someone to eat with us so as to hear each other’s stories.

We should not settle for mere tolerance but rather strive to reach out in love.5

Learn to Live with Mystery

There can be an unhealthy drive within us to know and understand all things and then justify our positions at the expense of those who differ. This is dangerous territory. We are entitled to hold strong convictions, but these must be tempered with a constant attitude of grace and humility toward others.

The essence of most religious faiths is the belief in a higher power, one (or ones) who stands in ultimate control and by whom we will be held accountable. It is good to remember, however, that each of us depends primarily upon his (or their) mercy rather than justice.

There is a time and a place for honest discussions about truth and beliefs, but that requires both parties to be truly open. When we force the issue or communicate in a way that lacks respect, we risk isolating ourselves and causing damage to the relationship.

Love itself is a mysterious force that compels us to trust and not enforce. There are some things that we can strongly believe that provide deep assurance to us. There are also uncertainties best entrusted to God.

When we allow our beliefs to foster an attitude of humility and love within us, we can draw others to us rather than repel them. We can grow in tolerance and love without relinquishing our own convictions.

  1. “201 of the Greatest Sayings, Quotes and Proverbs Ever,” Intense Experiences, 
  2. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 5–7.
  3. Ibid., Matthew 7:1-5. “‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’”
  4. Ibid., Matthew 5:44. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
  5. For more information about the differences between mere tolerance and “high” tolerance, see A. J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2001).
  6. Photo Credit: Morgan DDL /