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30 April 2012

The Newness of Religious Tolerance

I was listening last week to Martha Nussbaum on The Diane Rehm Show discussing her new book, The New Religious Intolerance, and I just had a few thoughts.

Lest we forget, there is nothing new about religious intolerance. In fact, religious tolerance is a very recent phenomenon. Before the push of globalization, most religions were free to despise and disparage the other religions and their adherents. It isn't until people were pushed into close contact with the "others" that they really had to consider tolerating them. After all, intolerance helps to draw the boundaries between groups and (thus) generate solidarity within groups. There were two factors that overrode the functionality of this solidarity. First, it is in one's interest to tolerate others so that they reciprocally tolerate him. Second, it is decidedly less difficult to condemn the distant other than the proximal neighbor. Pointing fingers from afar is a lot different than yelling at the guy who shares your fence-line. Because our communities are (on average) much more heterogeneous than they were in the past, tolerance won the day.

However, tolerance is not all that good for religious vitality. Just look at the religions that have been the most tolerant (e.g. Mainline Protestantism). They are in poor health. Monopolistic religions, on the other hand, are stronger and growing (e.g. Evangelical Protestantism). Proselytization often implies intolerance--even if its done with a smile.

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