What if you were absolutely certain that those who believed as you do would spend eternity in bliss, while “unbelievers” would suffer terrible tribulations for eons?
Would you honor these unbelievers for being religious in an otherwise materialistic world and respect their sincerely held beliefs? Or would you try to convince them to change their ways and accept the “right beliefs” out of concern for them and their ultimate fate?
On that route, how far would you go?
Would you shun them as lost, forbid intermarriage and proselytization? Would you burn their scriptures, destroy their houses of worship, kill their religious leaders and force members to convert on penalty of death?
As one descends this scale, the gold that is “caring about one’s neighbor” is alloyed with the lesser metals of iron swords and leaden bullets. The more forceful and intolerant the method of “changing” others, the more corpses litter towns and battlefields.
Care and concern are replaced by the necessity to “stop the spread of evil” or just “wipe out those with whom we don’t agree.” Thus the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, turmoil in the Middle East and on and on.
All these horrific conflicts were rooted not in religion but in religious intolerance. They involved, in many cases, the aggressors ignoring the principles of love, tolerance or respect inherent in their own religious scriptures.
In Myanmar, long-simmering hostility toward its ethnic Rohingya minority escalated to violence in recent years, and in 2013 Buddhist monks—who, in their religious vows, pledge to follow principles of nonviolence—reportedly joined in the persecution and murder of Rohingya Muslims in what is today described as “ethnic cleansing.”
They make the point all the more obvious that it is men and human nature—not religion—that spark the descent down into intolerance, violence and death, even though these men may say they are doing God’s work while they slay, and even while their religion and the Gods they claim to serve, forbid the killing of innocents.
But men have also succeeded in restraining violence and hate and liberating “the better angels of our nature,” to embody principles of compassion, hospitality and forbearance that have been essential ingredients of any civilized existence, down through history.
As for the bigots, they still exist. They spend their time vocalizing the intolerance and hatred they live in.
Cyrus the Great, for example, (600-530 BCE) ruled a vast Persian empire of different races, religions and cultures. He decreed that all men could freely practice their beliefs, speak of those beliefs, and worship their own Gods. Cyrus treated all religions equally. Jews, who had been enslaved earlier in Babylon, were freed and allowed to practice their beliefs. Cyrus reversed thousands of years of efforts to force diverse peoples into a single culture and instituted a policy of tolerance and inclusion.
This was a practical solution. It was perhaps less than satisfactory to many groups, but it brought social harmony and an end to religious warfare. And Cyrus’ practical solution touched the Founding Fathers of the United States, set an enlightened standard of conduct, and informed the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Under those principles, and in today’s America, people can knock at your door and talk to you about their religion, they can hand out tracts or preach on street corners, put up websites, build houses of worship and practice their faiths. You may not agree with what they say, and you don’t have to listen, but you know it is their right to say it. And for people at the top of the scale who respect one another’s rights, this works out quite well.
As for the bigots, they still exist. They spend their time vocalizing the intolerance and hatred they live in. But, in most countries today, the line which they must not cross has already been drawn.
“Religious tolerance does not mean one cannot express his own beliefs,” said Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard in his nonreligious common-sense guide The Way to Happiness. “It does mean that seeking to undermine or attack the religious faith and beliefs of another has always been a short road to trouble.”
Men and women of nearly every religion believe that they are spiritual in nature, that they have a purpose and a role that is larger than the next meal, the next weekend, the next paycheck. The religious traditions of mankind—while varying greatly—in essence affirm that connection. And so if one is absolutely convinced that those with other beliefs are condemned, then most certainly try to convince them to change their ways out of concern for their well-being. Communication and persuasion are part of the game of religious freedom, a game played best with good intentions and a forgiving heart.