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A Conversation With Kelly James Clark

Can devoted Jews, Christians, or Muslims remain true to their own fundamental beliefs and practices, yet also find paths toward liberty and respect for those of
A Conversation With Kelly James Clark
A Conversation With Kelly James Clark

Can devoted Jews, Christians, or Muslims remain true to their own fundamental beliefs and practices, yet also find paths toward liberty and respect for those of other faiths? 

Don't miss the conversation today at 3pm et with Kelly James Clark 

The following excerpt is from ABRAHAM’S CHILDREN, edited by Kelly James Clark, published by Yale University Press in June 2012. Reproduced by permission.


Caricatures of Religious Intolerance

There is a familiar narrative of religiously motivated violence. It claims a long and unbroken chain from antiquity to the present of the intolerance on the part of religious groups, especially the Abrahamic religions, toward members of other religious groups. It is a narrative of violence, oppression, torture, and war. This highly selective narrative omits any of the goods that religions have brought to the world and is deeply caricatured. Many of its claims are blatantly false. Sadly, because of its influence, it needs to be retold, reconsidered, and reevaluated.

Caricature #1. The early Hebrews, under strict orders from their God, razed villages devoted to competing gods, destroying men, women, and chil- dren alike. Their subsequent oppression by virtually every other religious group and their forced sojourn from their home is well known. And the Holocaust is surely one of the worst atrocities in all of human history. But since their return to Israel, the oppressed have become the oppressors—the Palestinians were forcibly rejected from their homeland of more than 2,000 years and are treated as second-class citizens or worse. Any non-Jew who dares question Israeli policies is an enemy of Israel and an anti-Semite; Jews who dare ques- tion Israeli policies are self-loathing and self-hating.

Caricature #2. Although the Christian scriptures teach that love has no bounds, Christians throughout history have set narrow limits to their love. They have betrayed their own deepest commitments, often in the name of God and against practitioners of other religions. The institutionalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire set an apparently pacifistic religion on a path of violence. The Crusades sought unsuccessfully but at great human ex- pense to rid the holy lands of Muslim “infidels.” The atrocities and religious wars of the Reformation, committed and waged by all sides, caused the river Seine to run red with blood. Native Americans have been exploited and de- stroyed under the banner of God. Christopher Columbus brought the gospel and germs to the New World, taking back slaves and gold. In our own day we have witnessed the excesses of religious fundamentalists who kill in the name of God or in defense of fetuses. And American leaders have used Chris- tian commitments to inspire the nation to new holy wars in Iraq and Afghan- istan with careless disregard for human welfare.

Caricature #3 (especially fashionable since 9/11). Islam is, by its very na- ture, a conquering religion. Although the Prophet Muhammad demanded hospitality to strangers inside one’s tent, outside the tent plunder and pillage ruled the land. Islam spread by the sword from the tiny oasis of Medina to all of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, to create a huge earthly em- pire. Post-9/11, the term “Muslim” has become synonymous with “terrorist.” Israeli Jews fear that their Muslim neighbors cannot be trusted and are plot- ting their destruction as a nation. The frequent missile strikes from the Gaza Strip into nearby Israel are not reassuring.

There is much to dispute in these highly selective and tendentious narra- tives. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian beliefs have motivated deep and lasting good, maybe much more good than evil (we will come to that later). But they have, indeed, been implicated in deep and disturbing evil—evil that is hard to explain given their commitment to an All-Merciful God. But, some charge, religiously motivated violence is not so hard to explain when one fully under- stands the faith of Abraham’s children.

The New Atheist Challenge

In his documentary “The Root of All Evil?” Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins proclaims (in spite of the question mark) that religion is the root of (nearly) all evil. Apparently sacred, benign, and even peaceful religious faith sets the young and committed believer on the sure path to stonings and sui- cide bombings. According to Dawkins, the paradigm believer is not, as one might expect, Gandhi, St. Francis, or Mother Teresa, but rather the funda- mentalist terrorist who has followed his or her religious belief to its logical conclusion—unquestionably assisting an angry God in the just eradication of false beliefs and practices (by persecuting the impious and destroying their idols). He charges that religions themselves are the cause of most of the vio- lence and intolerance that we find in the world. He also claims that religiously motivated violence and intolerance are inevitable given the essential charac- teristics of the children of Abraham—Jews, Christians, and Muslims: “To fill a world with . . . religions of the Abrahamic kind,” writes Dawkins, “is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”1 To paraphrase the famous Christian hymn: “Onward Christian, Muslim, and Jewish soldiers.”

Dawkins is not alone in his claim that religion especially tempts human beings to violence and intolerance. Frequently called the “New Atheists,” a group of influential writers has charged that all religions are inherently intol- erant and lead inevitably to religious persecution and violence. According to Christopher Hitchens, “People of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction. Religion poisons everything.”2 Striking a similar chord, Sam Harris writes that those who are adherents of theistic religions seem to all agree on one thing: that respect for other faiths and for the views of unbelievers is not something endorsed by God. He writes:

While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecu- menicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers.3

These writers contend that promoting secular defenses of religious tolerance will not solve the problems of religious violence and intolerance. As they see it, the problem is religion itself.

Dawkins commenced his critique of religion after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. These attacks were, for Dawkins, the final straw: “My

last vestige of ‘hands off religion’ respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th, 2001, followed by the ‘National Day of Prayer,’ when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.”4 So what caused this irresistible force in the first place? According to Dawkins, unthinking faith and misguided devotion to a particular sort of delusion—an egomaniacal and zealous deity; of Yahweh, he writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochis- tic, capriciously malevolent bully.”5 Little wonder, if that is his nature, that Yahweh incites his faithful to inflict extraordinary and horrific suffering.

Amongst these writers, two important claims emerge. Religion is a force not for good, but for violence and intolerance. The exclusive claims of religions, particularly beliefs about salvation and the afterlife, motivate, even necessi- tate, intolerant behavior. Again, a few days after 9/11, we find Dawkins argu- ing the following:

If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly and be reluctant to risk it. This makes the world a safer place, just as a plane is safer if its hijacker wants to survive. At the other extreme, if a significant number of people convince themselves, or are convinced by their priests, that a martyr’s death is equivalent to pressing the hyperspace button and zooming through a wormhole to another universe, it can make the world a very dangerous place. Especially if they also believe that that other universe is a paradisiacal escape from the tribulations of the real world. Top it off with sincerely believed, if ludicrous and degrading to women, sexual prom- ises, and is it any wonder that naïve and frustrated young men are clamour- ing to be selected for suicide missions?6

According to Hitchens, religion “does not have the confidence in its own various preachings even to allow coexistence between different faiths.”7

A second charge goes beyond the claim that the fundamental beliefs of religion inspire intolerant and harmful behavior. Although there certainly are religious extremists, most religious believers are just your average neighbor and citizen, who show in their lives respect and tolerance for the views of oth- ers. But their religious beliefs are not, as one might think, the source of their respect and tolerance. “Religious moderation,” Sam Harris writes, “is the product of secular knowledge and religious ignorance.”8 So the second claim is that religious moderation arises not from religious belief but from the

believer’s secularization. According to Harris, religious moderation “has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of the divine law.”9 If one paid heed to divine law, one would be out killing infidels. So one can be a religious moderate only by ignoring much that is in the sacred texts of one’s faith. Thus, taking one’s uncompromising Abraha- mic faith seriously is unlikely to lead to tolerance or respect for other faiths. Moderation can be achieved only through secularization, not through reli- gion properly understood and followed.

Because Harris thinks moderation can be achieved only by embracing secular humanism, he argues that the religious moderate has no basis from which to argue against the religious fundamentalist. “From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is noth- ing more than a failed fundamentalist. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we can- not even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowl- edge of scripture is generally unrivaled.”10 In the words of Hitchens, religious moderation and tolerance “is a compliment to humanism, not to religion.”11 He claims that only secular humanism, not divine revelation, can motivate tolerance and respect for other religions.

The path to peace, then, calls not for the promotion of tolerance and re- spect for other religions, but rather for the dissolution of religious belief it- self. Peace can be achieved only if we convince individuals to abandon their religious beliefs. To end the religious intolerance and violence that we find in the world today requires that people abandon their mistaken and exclu- sive views and adopt in their stead a secular humanist viewpoint. For the future of humanity, religious belief—especially the monotheism of Abra- ham’s children—must be abandoned.

Religion: A Force for Good or Ill?

The New Atheists claim that in spite of its pretensions to love and peace, religion is really a force for evil in the world. Religious groups may have estab- lished the odd hospital or orphanage, and believers may have visited the oc- casional prisoner and widow (although the New Atheists concede little, if any, of religion’s goods). But, so the New Atheist claim goes, overall religion is more likely to produce or enflame—and, indeed, has produced and enflamed— bigotry, hatred, persecution, violence, and death. The result is that there is more religiously motivated wickedness than religiously inspired goodness.

How does one determine if religion is an overall force for good and evil in the world? How does one count the religiously motivated good and then subtract the religiously motivated bad? How does one determine if it was religion, after all, that motivated, say, the Crusades or the Inquisition or 9/11 and not the nonreligious desire for earthly power, prestige, or wealth? We can- not peer into the human heart, so we cannot know for sure if violence is moti- vated by faith in a heavenly God or by mundane human selfishness (in the guise of religion). According to Chris Hedges, a veteran New York Times for- eign combat correspondent, it is a myth that religions are the source of war:

The ethnic conflicts and insurgencies of our time, whether between Serbs and Muslims or Hutus and Tutsis, are not religious wars. They are not clashes between cultures or civilizations, nor are they the result of ancient ethnic hatreds. They are manufactured wars, born out of the collapse of civil societ- ies, perpetuated by fear, greed, and paranoia, and they are run by gangsters, who rise up from the bottom of their own societies and terrorize all, includ- ing those they purport to protect.12

Although religion is not the cause of war, religion may be the solution. Ac- cording to Hedges, only the self-giving, other-regarding charity and kindness made possible by deep religious commitment can counter the native human impulses to war.

Recent research has shown that religious conviction is superior to nonreli- gious motivations to morality and is empirically verified as better at motivat- ing moral behavior. Although religious beliefs sometimes channel intolerance and violence, they are more likely to tame our vicious and selfish nature than any secular alternatives. The health and longevity benefits of being part of a religious community have long been known, but the moral benefits of reli- gion are just as well attested. Arthur Brooks, the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Government Policy at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, concludes that active religious believers are consider- ably more generous than nonbelievers.13 In Who Really Cares, Brooks pres- ents the striking moral difference between religious and secular Americans: the religious believer is vastly more likely than the secular person to, among many other things, volunteer, give blood, and loan money to friends and fam- ily (and to do so more generously). On nearly any metric of generosity, the religious person trumps the secular person. Brooks concludes: “Religious people are more charitable in every measurable non-religious way—including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty— than secularists.”14

The New Atheists, who trot out horrific anecdotes such as the 9/11 terror- ist attacks and female genital mutilation, ignore the goods delivered by reli- gion. In addition to generosity and honesty, religious belief has produced

many other great goods. What about religious involvement in the eradica- tion of infanticide, gladiatorial games, and slavery? Or religiously motivated poverty and famine relief, or the general kindness shown by the believer to her children, her neighbor, or even strangers (not to mention widows, or- phans, and prisoners)? Many helping institutions, such as hospitals, univer- sities, and orphanages, owe their origins to religious believers. Natural and equal rights, and, hence, democracy, arose within cultures that affirmed the equality of all children of God. Human dignity originated from the doctrine of creation in the divine image.

Moreover, to make their case against religion and for secularism, the New Atheists ignore or try to explain away secular atrocities. In our century alone, the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Communist pogrom dwarf the collective religious atrocities throughout all of human his- tory. Even if we take the highest estimates of deaths caused by the Crusades and the Inquisition—150,000 and 50,000, respectively—these religious atro- cities are mere fractions of the millions, perhaps more than a hundred million, killed by Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. If we were to add Hitler’s death camps and World War II, and Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia, the differ- ence would be even greater (even if, on the other side, we add the more than 3,000 killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and every other religious murder). In the atheist evil versus religious evil contest, atheistically motivated evil is the easy winner.

Winning this contest affords no great prize. Although the Abrahamic faiths may beat secularism in the good/evil contest, it is nonetheless unde- niable that a great deal of violence has been done in the name of religion (even if it is disputable that such violence was motivated by genuine faith) and pos- sibly even by sincere believers moved by their faith. A quick look at many global hotspots where we find chronic and seemingly intractable conflict re- veals all too often that religious intolerance is part of the problem, adding fuel to the flames of conflict. Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, the Su- dan, the Balkans, Kashmir, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus ( just to name a few) all provide examples of persistent conflict that is at least partly exacerbated, if not caused by, religious belief.

The urgent need for greater religious tolerance and for the protection of religious liberty for all is by no means limited to areas of chronic conflict or the developing world. As increasing numbers of immigrants have moved to Great Britain and Western Europe, the continent has seen a backlash against its Muslim immigrants and even its Muslim citizens. The summer of 2010 saw many expressions of this anti-Muslim fervor and anxiety; several European countries considered legal measures targeting the religious expression of their Muslim citizens. Belgium became the first European country to ban the wearing of the burqa in public. A few months later, France passed a similar ban, adding to previous legislation that had banned the headscarf and other religious symbols in schools. A similar ban was narrowly defeated in Spain. Some parts of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands have previously banned schoolteachers from wearing the headscarf. And just a year earlier, in 2009, Switzerland passed a nationwide ban on the construction of minarets (the prayer towers of mosques). Demographers project that Muslim populations will grow twice as fast as non-Muslim populations over the next twenty years, and so the percentage of Muslims in European countries will increase dra- matically. Fear of the Islamization of Europe is palpable. Fear of Islamization likely drove the 2011 massacre of civilians in Norway.15

Anxiety and fear of Muslims is on the rise in the United States as well. This, too, became apparent in the summer of 2010 when efforts to build an Islamic community center two blocks from ground zero—the former site of the World Trade Center—drew national coverage. Widely portrayed in the media and by right-wing political pundits as “the mosque at ground zero,” it was, ironically, neither a mosque nor at ground zero. One of the leaders of the efforts to build the center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, was portrayed in some media as connected to radical terrorist groups. These unjustified claims gained cre- dence by being widely repeated. All this was despite the fact that Rauf was chosen by the U.S. State Department, under both the Bush and Obama ad- ministrations, to tour the Middle East speaking about religious tolerance and the need for interfaith dialogue. Following the national coverage, fueled by anti-Islamic anger, a torrent of anti-Muslim sentiment ensued, along with a wave of vandalism directed at Muslims. A Muslim cab driver in New York was repeatedly stabbed after the perpetrator asked the man if he was Mus- lim, and a Florida preacher threatened to have his congregation burn copies of the Qur’an.

If religious believers have access to divinely ordained, transformational processes—through divinely inspired writings, divine grace, divine rituals, or divine assistance—then we should expect to find transformed behavior. “Faith- based intolerance” seems a contradiction in terms. Because of the corrosive effects of sin, we do not expect perfection, of course, but moral and spiritual improvement surely. So there remains a disturbing tension between the Abra- hamic command to show mercy to the stranger and the religiously motivated intolerance and violence that we see in our contemporary world and through- out history.

Faith-Based Tolerance

I conceived of Abraham’s Children after I had completed a draft of my book Explaining God Away? written in response to Dawkins and the New Atheists. In that book, I address their philosophical arguments against rational religious belief. I only briefly consider their claims regarding religious intol- erance because these claims are irrelevant to the philosophical discussion that concerned me. But their insistent recitations of religious intolerance and violence deeply troubled me. Not their insistent recitations, though: religiously motivated intolerance and violence deeply trouble me.

I embraced the New Atheists’ allegations as a challenge to religious believ- ers to do everything in their power to prevent the New Atheists’ claims from coming true. That is: religious believers should do everything in their divinely motivated power to effect religion as a force for good. Believers should make it so that genuine faith in God inspires kindness, compassion, and liberty but not intolerance, hatred, and violence. So I invited prominent political figures, as well as those deeply involved in peace and justice movements, to defend religious liberty and tolerance from the perspective of their own faith tradi- tion. If religious believers don’t work hard and together, religiously inspired evil may eventually win out over religiously motivated good. Without reli- gious believers doing everything in their power to bring peace and reconcili- ation to our broken world, religion could be the death of us all.

Instead of the usual Western, universal legitimations of tolerance grounded in impartial reason, I invited religiously particular defenses of tolerance that begin with the sacred writings and beliefs of the various major Abrahamic religions. Each writer was asked to write persuasively, passionately, and win- somely from within his or her own religious tradition. Instead of denigrating tradition in deference to “pure reason,” we celebrate tradition and seek de- fenses of tolerance from within these Abrahamic theological traditions. The authors were asked to use holy writ, theology, and narrative to understand and ground liberty and tolerance. Given the diversity of personal experiences and religious beliefs of each author and the differing narratives they accept, sometimes to account for or explain the same historical facts, the reader can expect to encounter a diversity of opinions in this book. Each essay is its own unique mixture of experiential, philosophical, and political opinion, making the collection as a whole occasionally contradictory or paradoxical.

I completed the outline for Abraham’s Children while attending a seminar at Oxford University on the psychological origins of religious belief. We are, so it seems, naturally disposed to religious belief; religious belief is in our bones and brains. So in spite of the New Atheist hope, religious belief is unlikely to go away. And if religion is not likely to go away, pinning liberty and toler- ance on irreligious humanism seems futile. Moreover, Western, secular, lib- eral, rationalistic justifications of liberty and tolerance are unlikely to appeal to serious, conservative religious believers. Such believers do not take Western (“imperialistic,” “rationalistic,” “atheistic,” “colonizing,” “immoral,” and so on) culture and values as their source of authority. They take only their own holy writ and their own religious tradition as authoritative. Calling such be- lievers “ignorant” unless they accede to Western secular, liberal arguments is unlikely to do more than make the name-caller feel superior to “benighted” religious believers and to cause such religious believers to dig in their righ- teous heels. All this seems counterproductive to liberty and tolerance.

Suppose the New Atheists are right: religion, especially of the Abrahamic variety, encourages intolerance and even violence. Let me state clearly that I am not conceding that they are right—human beings as such are tempted to intolerance and violence. Intolerance is a fundamental human problem; it is not the special vice of the religious. It can find a wide variety of manifestations— race, color, nationality, socioeconomic status, geographical and political affili- ation, and sometimes religion. Humans, as humans, have a hard time tolerating those others who are not us, those who are not part of our own kin or group. It is as simple as that. But suppose also that religion is not going away. How then can religious believers resist the religious temptation toward intolerance and find their way to mutual peace, uncompromised liberty, and principled tolerance?

What Is Tolerance?

We have been speaking roughly of tolerance and intolerance, yet we have not carefully understood these terms. Let us pause to do so. Although people with deep and sincere moral or religious convictions are often intoler- ant, deep and sincere moral or religious convictions can provide the pre- conditions of tolerance. Without a robust sense of rightness with respect to religious beliefs or moral practices, tolerance is simply not possible. Toler- ance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or endure”; it connotes putting up with a weight or a burden. Tolerance is, at first glance, the disposition to endure or bear beliefs and practices that one takes to be either false or im- moral. Tolerance assumes that some beliefs and practices are true or right and that others are false or wrong. The beliefs and practices that one finds true and right are not burdensome, but there must be, for tolerance to be possible at all, some beliefs or practices that are burdensome. Only when

I am in firm possession of my own moral and religious judgments can I toler- ate people with differing beliefs and practices.

Disagreement alone, however, is not an adequate precondition of toler- ance. People routinely disagree about matters they take to be trivial or un- important; this sort of disagreement does not require tolerance. I prefer vanilla ice cream and you prefer chocolate. I do not tolerate your chocolate preference because I do not care about your ice cream preferences. Tolerance requires, in addition to disagreement, an element of caring that is usually rooted in a deep commitment to the belief or practice in question. The sort of caring relevant to tolerance must be deep enough to create a burden, which is why tolerance usually arises in connection with matters of fundamental human concern. We may not care about ice cream preferences, but we do care, very deeply, about our moral and religious beliefs and practices.

Because of the depth of care about matters of fundamental human concern, it is easy to see why human beings seem naturally inclined toward intoler- ance. We invest ourselves in the things we care about, and those who dis- agree with us deny that our concerns are worthy of such care and investment. When we find that what others care about is a burden to us, we naturally wish to preserve our own cares and investments. This often leads to dismiss- ing, alienating, or even persecuting those with different practices and beliefs.

In tolerance, one devalues the other person’s beliefs or practices without devaluing the person who holds those beliefs. The tolerant person chooses to treat the person with significantly different beliefs and practices as in- trinsically valuable, in spite of that person’s rejection of her fundamental human concerns. Tolerance is the disposition to subdue our natural inclina- tion to distance, reject, or persecute others whose beliefs and practices differ from our own. The tolerant person is, rather, disposed to respect the other in spite of these differences. The tolerant person says, in effect, “Our fundamen- tal disagreement does not diminish my estimation of your worth as a human being, and, therefore, though I disagree with your beliefs or practices, still I will endure them.” Intolerance, by contrast, acceding to the natural incli- nation to devalue the other, encourages the rejection of the person (which can then issue forth in harm). Tolerance, then, is a virtue that must be culti- vated to tame our natural disposition to reject and disrespect those who are different from us.

In contemporary America, tolerance is sometimes viewed as more of a vice than a virtue. No one wants to be tolerated—they want to be respected, es- teemed, valued; they do not want others to hold their noses while putting up with their stinky beliefs and repulsive behaviors. This betrays a deep misunderstanding about tolerance: we do not tolerate people, we respect, esteem, and value people; we tolerate behaviors and beliefs. Moreover, al- though tolerance has such negative connotations (who, after all, wants to be endured?), it would be a dramatic improvement in most other parts of the world. In places where those who convert are killed, Jews are forbidden, Christian churches or mosques cannot be built, believers are imprisoned, and people are not permitted religious or much other self-determination, religious believers are begging to be endured. Where the current option is murder, perse- cution, discrimination, and shunning, being endured would be a very positive step forward. So although those in the West sometimes denigrate tolerance, it is precisely the step that needs to be taken where some are currently intolerant of others’ religious beliefs and practices (that is, everywhere).

And yet bearing or enduring is not the essence of the virtue of tolerance. In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, tolerance should be grounded in respect, and this respect is grounded in the dignity and worth of all human beings, which is, in turn, grounded in the image of God.

Religious persecution and intolerance might be as old as religion itself, and the threat of religiously motivated, shaped, or focused violence is not likely to fade away any time soon. In fact, tensions between different reli- gious groups appear likely to increase as the world becomes more intercon- nected and it becomes easier to export intolerance and violence around the world. Globalization brings increased awareness of and contact with moral and religious differences, as well as all the fears, anger, and frustration that that instills. If we wish to avoid misunderstanding and violence, tolerance and respect are increasingly valuable commodities. Let us hope and pray they are not scarce commodities.

Religious Defenses of Tolerance

Although tolerance is a desperately needed virtue, many religious believers are skeptical of liberal defenses of religious tolerance that either ignore or dismiss their religious convictions. For them, “impartial,” liberal de- fenses of religious tolerance are unappealing and lacking authority. Whether good or bad, many religious believers reject secular, Western, liberal reason. Religious believers must, then, find within their own traditions the essential ingredients of tolerance and liberty. Religious leaders and thinkers, then, must speak up and show why and how tolerance is defensible from within their own tradition. This perspective is crucially needed, moreover, as some religious extremists passionately cite holy writ in defense of intolerance and violence.16

The Abrahamic faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) claim that their particular beliefs and practices are essential for personal salvation. Given these exclusivist claims, the New Atheists argue, these religions foster an antagonism toward the unbeliever and create an environment conducive to religious violence and oppression. As the beliefs and practices of religious believers are held to be of supreme importance and as they think that they are in possession of the one and only Truth, it follows (so the charge goes) that sincere religious believers are incapable of dialogue and respect. The problem, as the New Atheists see it, is that the religious believers’ unwavering faith in their own beliefs, their unfettered confidence, precludes valuing the beliefs of other individuals. Moreover, those individuals who hold contrary beliefs are neither respected nor valued: they are viewed not as simply and sadly mis- taken but as idolatrous, impious, and even immoral; religious believers take the slight step from viewing other believers as wrong to viewing them as infidel. It is no surprise, then, that intolerance ensues. Infidels attack nothing less than God himself and it is the true believer’s solemn and sometimes final task to protect God’s honor.

This charge—that exclusive religious claims lead to intolerance—is an im- portant claim that must be addressed. It merits attention in part because it is claimed to be the direct and inevitable result of religion fully grasped.

The essays in this book offer various responses to this charge. Writing from within the three Abrahamic traditions, the authors illustrate how a Muslim, Christian, or Jew can retain their distinctive religious identity, beliefs, and practices while fostering tolerance and respect for those of different faiths. Each of the essays in this book comes from a believer in one of the Abraha- mic faiths. And each particular faith has its own tradition, its own sacred texts, and its own unique resources that can be put forward to motivate and call for religious tolerance.

Shared Grounds for Liberty and Tolerance

Although distinct, the Abrahamic traditions share some fundamental beliefs that are foundational to tolerance and respect of other faiths and other people. These beliefs not only can but also should motivate tolerance and respect for believers of other faiths. Shared understandings of divine justice and love also support religious tolerance. Finding that there is shared ground would be a very good thing. We tend to focus on the differences be- tween our own beliefs and those of other religions (and they are undeniable, substantial, and sometimes irreconcilable). This often leads to thinking of other believers as faithless, disobedient, and maybe even not fully human. As they are denigrated and disrespected, they are then easier to ignore, perse- cute, and even kill.

Abrahamic faith at its most confident should create humility and mercy rather than the arrogance and hatred so evident in purveyors of intoler- ance. The faith of Abraham is the faith that a merciful God is in control and that submission to God’s providential will is the path of human righ- teousness. Abraham’s attempts at self-assertion—his strayings—were disas- trous. The Muslim saying “There is no god apart from God” should preclude any mere human from making god-like assertions concerning life and death. Complete submission to the will of God (Islam means “submission”) should preclude blind submission to the vicious orders of contemporary “prophets.” The Jewish Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are but creatures wholly subject to the one true God.

What other beliefs do children of Abraham share that can prevent intoler- ance? First and foremost is the belief that all humans are created in the image of God. This understanding of the human person, shared by Judaism, Chris- tianity, and Islam alike, undergirds a conception of the human person as a bearer of intrinsic and immeasurable value. This robust understanding of human value supports a healthy sense of respect for other persons, even when they disagree with you regarding matters of fundamental importance. This divinely instilled value grounds the respect for persons that is required for tolerance.

Believers of the Abrahamic faiths also affirm the creatureliness of human persons. That is, they recognize humans as finite, frail, and fallible beings. There is one God and we are not him. Given this belief, we can expect all hu- mans, including ourselves, to err in some of our beliefs and practices. Thus, the religious believer approaches her own beliefs and those of others with a healthy dose of creaturely humility. Recognition of the inevitability of error provides a motive for real and substantive respect for people with whom we disagree.

I do not mean to suggest that religious believers are required to doubt the most fundamental beliefs of their faith—for it is precisely those fundamen- tals that ground mercy and respect. And mercy and respect thusly grounded can overcome our natural tendency to distance ourselves from others with differing beliefs and practices.

Creaturely humility should also instill both a sense of fallibility with re- spect to the nonessentials of our faiths and allow for liberty on matters that are neither fundamental nor clearly conceived within our holy writ. Christians, for example, have shamefully persecuted other Christians based on differing understandings of the proper age for baptism, the exact relationship of the

Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and various roles of faith and works. Yet all the while, such Christians shared the deep belief that Christ bore their sins. That belief should powerfully unite Christians who are so easily disposed to divide over peripheral beliefs. I have no doubt that Muslims and Jews could easily fix the heart of their own faith and then, based on the heart of their faith, find a way to tolerate those practices and beliefs that are neither as essential to nor as clearly taught as the heart of their faith.

Taking these beliefs together we can begin to see how religious belief need not entail dogmatism and intolerance. Merely having confidence in a belief that we take to be important does not mean we will ignore or alienate or per- secute those with whom we disagree. Although this is an all too common hu- man tendency, it is by no means exclusive to religious matters (consider, for example, the type of dialogue we find when it comes to matters of politics). However, the religious believer has good reason to recognize and then resist this tendency: humans, after all, are fallen creatures and are prone to error. This belief, joined with the belief that all humans are immensely valuable, precludes persecuting or alienating others for their religious beliefs. The reli- gious believer respects the other, even when they disagree. Moreover, she under- stands she might have something to learn from those of different faiths.

One might think that I have just offered a Western, liberal, irreligious de- fense of tolerance. After all, one might think that there is nothing especially Abrahamic or even religious about human dignity, respect, and fallibility. This sort of objection fails to recognize the deep religious roots of these con- cepts and values. The enlightenment values have deep religious roots—they did not spring into the minds of English and French thinkers ex nihilo. They arose from within Christian-Jewish-Muslim cultures after centuries of theo- logical reflection on, say, creation in the image of God and the priesthood of all believers. Indeed, most of the so-called secular enlightenment figures were deeply religious, mining their own religious traditions for the doctrines that would come to support liberty and tolerance. John Locke did not think it was even possible for an atheist to be tolerant! Contemporary secular philoso- pher Richard Rorty concedes the hundreds of years of religious influences that turned these extraordinary and revolutionary ideas—human dignity, human rights, human equality, natural law, and so on—into common sense.17 These doctrines find their roots within religion.

We have looked at some beliefs that are shared in the Abrahamic tradi- tions. Are there religiously particular defenses of tolerance? Let me briefly explore that from within my own tradition.

A Christian Defense of Tolerance?

This Christian defense of tolerance is a Christian defense in two senses—it was offered by a Christian clergyman, Roger Williams, and it draws on Christian beliefs. Moreover, it draws on the unlikeliest of Christian beliefs—early American Puritanism. “Puritanism” and “intolerance” are prac- tically synonymous in contemporary parlance. Williams (ca. 1604–1684), the American founder of the colony of Rhode Island, was a Protestant Christian. Growing up a persecuted religious minority in England, Williams was on the receiving end of religious intolerance. He lamented the blood shed during centuries of wars and persecution by those professing allegiance to Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace. Williams, in his plea for religious liberty, defended libertynotonlyforhisfellowChristians,butalsoforpagans,“anti-Christians,” Jews, and Turks (Muslims). Christian belief was not thereby diminished nor were Christians precluded from defending their confidently held beliefs— however, Williams claimed that Christians should persuade only by God’s word, not by the human sword. Religious coercion at the tip of the sword was nothing more than a “ravishing of conscience.” It is morally and spiritu- ally wrong, and of the highest order of wrong, to “molest any person” for their religious beliefs.

For Williams, the need to tolerate and respect the religious belief of others is grounded in the inherent dignity and value of each individual’s conscience, something Williams took to be infinitely valuable and precious. Williams thought that many of the Christians living around him in the new American colonies were seriously mistaken about their religious beliefs. However, like all good Protestants (those who protested against the authority and hege- mony of the Roman Catholic Church to mediate between God and human- ity), he believed that each individual’s conscience must consider and decide religious matters on their own; this is the essence of faith. Williams’s Protes- tantism, therefore, grounded his radical individualism. So Williams’s belief that his version of Protestant Christianity was the absolute truth (and that deviations from this belief would damn a person’s soul to hell) was not in opposition to his belief that each individual’s conscience and personal choice are infinitely valuable and so worthy of respect and liberty.

Williams considered religious persecution “soul rape,” making clear his theological and spiritual condemnation of intolerance. Williams’s beliefs in support of religious toleration do not stray far from his theological convic- tions. In fact, his religious beliefs explicitly support his beliefs about con- science and free choice.


The threat of religious intolerance looms large in our world today. Yet amidst this threat there is opportunity. Against the charge of the New Athe- ists that religions foster only intolerance and hatred toward other faiths, religious believers can and must defend the contributions their religious tra- ditions have made to tolerance, and they must continue to work toward building a more tolerant and respectful climate for people of all faiths. And frequently we can find religious believers responding to this call.

In the United States, in the months of debate and attention that surrounded the building of a community center (“the mosque at ground zero”), many re- ligious believers and religious organizations voiced their support for the mosque and for Muslims citizens and spoke out against the defamations and lies being spoken about Muslims. One of the strongest defenses of the mosque came from the Jewish mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. In sev- eral speeches, Bloomberg forcefully defended the construction of the center and, according to aides close to the mayor, his passionate defense was moti- vated to a large extent by the prejudice his own family faced growing up.

There is, however, a flip side to this opportunity. Although the religious persecution and religious intolerance in our world today gives religious be- lievers a chance to reclaim the true nature of their faith and put into practice the tolerance and respect that their God demands, it also leaves open the possibility that believers will fail to respond.

Our hope in writing this book is that children of Abraham will seize the opportunity, embracing tolerance and respect. The God of Abraham calls us to show mercy to the stranger. And Abraham’s children understand humans as created in the image of God. Both mercy and the imago dei are theologi- cally specific groundings of tolerance toward those outside our own circle of faith. We offer these theological defenses of the mercy, respect, and humility necessary to both understand and respect those who hold fundamentally dif- ferent beliefs and practices; this would, in turn, create safe space for practi- tioners of other religions. We are seeking within our own traditions precisely what is already there—a theology that motivates mercy and embraces both human dignity and human creatureliness. Recognition of these theological truths can ground kindness, humility, compassion, hospitality, and so on to- ward the stranger (without fear or anger). The essays that follow illustrate and draw upon the religious basis for tolerance and respect for other faiths that is found in the Abrahamic traditions. In doing this, we hope not only to reinforce these traditions’ contributions to religious tolerance, but also to show to religious believers that taking their faith seriously can create a freer and more tolerant future.