Why religious tolerance isn’t good enough

Is being tolerant good enough in Interfaith Relations?

By Rajiv Malhotra

It is fashionable in interfaith discussions to advocate “tolerance” for other faiths. But we would find it patronizing, even downright insulting, to be “tolerated” at someone’s dinner table. No spouse would appreciate being told that his or her presence at home was being “tolerated.” No self-respecting worker accepts mere tolerance from colleagues. We tolerate those we consider inferior. In religious circles, tolerance, at best, is what the pious extend toward people they regard as heathens, idol worshippers or infidels. It is time we did away with tolerance and replaced it with “mutual respect.”

Religious tolerance was advocated in Europe after centuries of wars between opposing denominations of Christianity, each claiming to be “the one true church” and persecuting followers of “false religions.” Tolerance was a political “deal” arranged between enemies to quell the violence (a kind of cease-fire) without yielding any ground. Since it was not based on genuine respect for difference, it inevitably broke down.

My campaign against mere tolerance started in the late 1990s when I was invited to speak at a major interfaith initiative at Claremont Graduate University. Leaders of major faiths had gathered to propose a proclamation of “religious tolerance.” I argued that the word “tolerance” should be replaced with “mutual respect” in the resolution. The following day, Professor Karen Jo Torjesen, the organizer and head of religious studies at Claremont, told me I had caused a “sensation.” Not everyone present could easily accept such a radical idea, she said, but added that she herself was in agreement. Clearly, I had hit a raw nerve.

I then decided to experiment with “mutual respect” as a replacement for the oft-touted “tolerance” in my forthcoming talks and lectures. I found that while most practitioners of dharma religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) readily espouse mutual respect, there is considerable resistance from the Abrahamic faiths.

Soon afterwards, at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit in 2000, the Hindu delegation led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati insisted that in the official draft the term “tolerance” be replaced with “mutual respect.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), who led the Vatican delegation, strongly objected to this. After all, if religions deemed “heathen” were to be officially respected, there would be no justification for converting their adherents to Christianity.

The matter reached a critical stage and some serious fighting erupted. The Hindu side held firm that the time had come for the non-Abrahamic religions to be formally respected as equals at the table and not just tolerated by the Abrahamic religions. At the very last minute, the Vatican blinked and the final resolution did call for “mutual respect.” However, within a month, the Vatican issued a new policy stating that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in agravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” Many liberal Christians condemned this policy, yet it remains the Vatican’s official position.

My experiments in proposing mutual respect have also involved liberal Muslims. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, in a radio interview in Dallas, I explained why mutual respect among religions is better than tolerance. One caller, identified as a local Pakistani community leader, congratulated me and expressed complete agreement. For her benefit, I elaborated that in Hinduism we frequently worship images of the divine, may view the divine as feminine, and that we believe in reincarnation. I felt glad that she had agreed to respect all this, and I clarified that “mutual respect” merely means that I am respected for my faith, with no requirement for others to adopt or practice it. I wanted to make sure she knew what she had agreed to respect and wasn’t merely being politically correct. The woman hung up.

In 2007, I was invited to an event in Delhi where a visiting delegation from Emory University was promoting their newly formed Inter-Religious Council as a vehicle to achieve religious harmony. In attendance was Emory’s Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, who happens to be an ordained Lutheran minister. I asked her if her work on the Inter-Religious Council was consistent and compatible with her preaching as a Lutheran minister, and she confidently replied that it was. I then asked: “Is it Lutheran doctrine merely to ‘tolerate’ other religions or also to respect them, and by respect I mean acknowledging them as legitimate religions and equally valid paths to God”? She replied that this was “an important question,” one that she had been “thinking about,” but that there are “no easy answers.”

It is disingenuous for any faith leader to preach one thing to her flock while representing something contradictory to naive outsiders. The idea of “mutual respect” poses a real challenge to Christianity, which insists that salvation is only possible by grace transmittedexclusively through Jesus. Indeed, Lutheran teaching stresses this exclusivity! These formal teachings of the church would make it impossible for the Dean to respect Hinduism, as opposed to tolerating it.

Unwilling to settle for ambiguity, I continued with my questions: “As a Lutheran minister, how do you perceive Hindu murtis (sacred images)? Are there not official injunctions in your teachings against such images?” “Do you consider Krishna and Shiva to be valid manifestations of God or are they among the ‘false gods’?” “How do you see the Hindu Goddess in light of the church’s claim that God is masculine?” The Dean deftly evaded every one of these questions.

Only a minority of Christians agree with the idea of mutual respect while fully understanding what it entails. One such person is Janet Haag, editor of Sacred Journey, a Princeton-based multi-faith journal. In 2008, when I asked her my favorite question — “What is your policy on pluralism?” — she gave the predictable response: “We tolerate other religions.” This prompted me to explain mutual respect in Hinduism wherein each individual has the freedom to select his own personal deity (ishta-devata, not to be confused with polytheism) and pursue a highly individualized spiritual path (sva-dharma). Rather than becoming defensive or evasive, she explored this theme in her editorial in the next issue:

Haag explained that the Latin origin of “tolerance” refers to enduring and does not convey mutual affirmation or support: “[The term] also implicitly suggests an imbalance of power in the relationship, with one of the parties in the position of giving or withholding permission for the other to be.” The Latin word for respect, by contrast, “presupposes we are equally worthy of honor. There is no room for arrogance and exclusivity in mutual respect.”


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  • To me, tolerance implies respect for the other. (It may or may not be mutual.) You cannot separate tolerance from respect, for without respect, why show tolerance?

  • I cant seem to differentiate between mutual respect and tolerance as you put it.
    If Mutual Respect implies that I have to accept that all of the different religions are simultaneously true then I believe I have lived my life through ‘tolerance’, because believing so would violate the tenets of my faith. However I do believe that all of them are just as equally likely to be true in the sense that my religion can be just as wrong or right about that ultimate truth (if any) as any other religion, the only thing that separates it from the rest being the fact that it is the one I consider truth. Another person might see it differently.
    As I see it, I respect a person’s religious views the way I respect their opinion regardless of whether I agree with them or not i.e. that each person is entitled to their own and it is true for them. While I myself do not believe the Hindu murtis to be divine, it doesn’t imply that I cant acknowledge that they may be so for another person.
    Would this be tolerance or respect?

  • Bruce, Unfortunately, there is so much tolerance w/o respect. It would be ideal if people mention tolerance with an implicit idea of giving respect. For example, Church saying idol-worshippers are heathen and go to hell. You can find this in almost every church’s FAQ on their web sites about idol-worship. So many people in India are taught this and are being converted (please read coerced). How do we address Church’s blatant remarks about tolerating Hindus but not respecting them? (That’s why urge to convert, as the missionaries claim “harvest souls”).

    Irfhan, I believe you are respecting me. But, does the Quran say so? If yes, can you provide references please? Because, so many people are taught tenets of religion rightly (then, we need to question Quran if it preaches only tolerance but no respect) or wrongly (then, we need to question why they do that?)

  • I think you can talk about “tolerance” at a political and bureaucratic level because impersonal institutions don’t love but should be designed to treat everyone the same. However, I totally agree that at the level of interpersonal relations it is rather insulting to merely tolerate your neighbor. That fosters coldness rather than community. It is too often that we fail to consider at what level of society our terms are applied to.

    We should understand that religious traditions developed before the emergence of complex society with impersonal bureaucracy and that you cannot simply look to ancient scriptures to answers about new forms of social institutions that were able to develop because of those cultural teachings.

  • From what we generally see and experience around us, I feel that tolerance doesn’t most often signify mutual respect. Tolerance tends to imply, “I am and what is mine is superior to you or yours. But I magnanimously acknowledge you and let you have your way. However, mind, I am greater.” Mutual respect is the excellent way of taking the other as your equal – no higher and no lower than you. Regarding religious faith, mutual respect is the gentleman’s way and the only way to religious harmony and thereby world peace.Tolerance is an attitude of wilful concession or leniency on the one side and helplessness and resentment on the part of the other. Hence I agree with the author that in matters of religion, mutual respect and tolerance is the right attitude.

  • I think it depends entirely on how you define the words. For me, respect is something that is felt for individuals and has to be earned, so whether or not a particular individual and I respect each other will depend on our experience of each other: if I show them that I’m a liar, for example, they’d feel no respect for me and they’d have no reason to. Tolerance is another matter: it is behaving with ordinary civility to people whose appearance, values, faith, or anything else are different from yours, and that can be done whether or not you know someone well enough to know whether or not they’re worth respecting.

    I think we make a mistake — however well-meaningly — when we tell people courtesy isn’t enough. It enables civil discourse even among strangers, and there’s nothing condescending about recognizing someone as being as entitled to consideration as you are yourself simply because they are, like you, a human being. When people speak of being willing to settle for nothing less than ‘acceptance’ and ‘mutual respect’, I feel, quite frankly, as if they’ll accept nothing less than my active approval, which they should not require, and my espousement of their position on whatever matter, and that I may not be able to do. I am a courteous person, I support equality of access and opportunity, and beyond that, I mind my own business and leave others to mind theirs.

  • If all religion of the world have their religion tolerance why any religion need to do any forcible religion ?????

  • Tolerance can be associated with resistance for the fear of unknown, fear of failure, fear of losing something important to you. We must walk through the hard stuff to get to the other side. We can start to see a time of resistance as an opportunity for change. When we can see what is in front of us, we can make choices rather than blindly making knee-jerk reactions.