Religious Tolerance: Lack of Conviction, or World’s Only Hope?

In the course of the (really interesting) reader responses to yesterday’s Does God REALLY Answer My Questions? came this comment, from self-proclaimed “model agnostic” Brian Shields (whose website is here, and whose splendid photographs of my old stomping grounds, San Francisco, are here):

“While God talking to John Shore seems benign to me (or even hilarious in [John’s book] “Penguins, Pain …”) there are some people who KNOW God is talking to them and telling them to hijack planes and fly them into buildings. It seems to me the world would be a better, safer, and dare I say it, more godly place if fewer people KNEW God was talking to them and more were unsure about the source of the message and the necessity to act upon it.”

Now, isn’t that special? It so is! Because it perfectly articulates the evident absurdity of anyone saying that the God of their truth is the God of all truth. I’ve written about this more often than I care to remember ( in Zealous: Good; Zealot: Bad, Why Must Others Be Like Us?, What Non-Christians Want Christians to Hear, and There’s No Arguing It: We Can’t KNOW If There’s a God or Not, to recall just those four), because we all better be interested in the point at which benevolent religion becomes problematic dogma.

I’ve got a friend who’s a Muslim. He is just as certain that Allah is the one true God as I am that the Christian God is the one true God.

Between us only three things are possible. Either one of us is wrong; we’re both wrong; or we’re both right.

What is a matter of ever-increasing urgency for all of us is that the only hope for enduring, world-wide peace lies in the only one of those three choice that is a logical impossibility.

Until everyone who believes in one religion or another adheres to their belief the idea that just because something is right for them doesn’t mean it must be right for everyone else, we’re all doomed. We must expand our understanding of the relationship between “logic” and truth. “Religious tolerance” isn’t just a mamby-pamby term for lack of conviction. It’s our only way out.


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  • I was going to mention how bright that Brian guy seems to be until (not so)Shy informed me that I was silly and pat… and then completely made up my motivations.

    To me the key question here, first posed by John in the previous posts' comments, is that of certainty. John asked how a Christian KNOWS God is talking to him when I'm agnostic about where I get answers when I open myself up to them. I stand behind my comments that someone who is certain he or she is getting a commandment directly from God is more likely to perpetrate pure evil than someone who thinks that evil thought is coming from him or herself. If God tells you to kill, who are you to say "no"?… this dates all the way back to Abram being fully prepared to kill little Jacob.

    Shy also makes the mistake of suggesting I think belief in God always leads to evil. Clearly it doesn't. Belief in God historically has been the motivation for BOTH tremendous good and tremendous evil. Interestingly dogmatic atheism has also had the same history. That's why agnosticism, skepticism and doubt seem the more reasonable and safe course to me.

    As for John's comments that this is an argument for religious tolerance, I like the idea but am skeptical that it's a long-term solution. Religions seem to compel people to proselytize if only out of some perversion of the positive emotion of compassion. If you really believe that I'm going to burn in hell if I don't believe that Jesus committed Human Sacrifice/Suicide for me or if I don't follow Sharia law or I don't grow a beard or keep a turban wrapped around my head, the only compassionate thing it seems for many to do is to insist that I do follow their practices.

    If religion was really about finding a personal path that works for you but doesn't compel others, it would be certainly more attractive and less of a threat to the peace and stability of the world.

  • Julian Ostrow

    I'm of the opinion that (unfortunately), moderate religion, which is what we're conditioned to tolerate, only casts a protective veil over "true" (fundamentalist) religion. Most of us can agree that any sort of fundamentalist religion only leads to trouble.

    Brian, I'm interested to hear about the tremendous evil that was perpetrated in the name of dogmatic atheism– certainly, atheists have done many horrible things… but in the name of atheism?

    I find it equally delusional to be absolutely convinced in either direction– there are degrees of agnosticism, and I do call myself an agnostic. But I refuse to live my life in a manner that suggests any supernatural powers may influence me or judge me (or others!)– and I feel this way of living encourages personal responsibility, which the world desperately needs right now.

  • ShyAsrai

    no one is 'more likely' to believe commands for evil are justified because they come from 'God' than someone who believes they come from demons, or aliens or human authority figures.

    an excuse to perform evil deeds is available to evil people anywhere they look. witness the horrific inhumane evil perpetrated upon various populations by non-believers. i daresay that even noting only modern time non-God-directed evil, non-God-directed evil has outperformed beyond all expectations.

    your logic is seriously flawed.

  • Shy: either start being more respectful / less snarky in your comments, or I'm going to bar you from this blog. Just lighten up.

  • Kara

    Shy, I think you're building strawmen here. Brian didn't mention "demons, or aliens or human authority figures." He simply said that when someone is convinced that God told them to do something, they're more likely to believe it's a genuinely good thing to do despite all evidence to the contrary. (Flying planes into buildings or staging the Spanish Inquisition, as examples.) And I don't think that you're right in implying that it's always evil people looking for an excuse. Parents are still stoning their children, whom they genuinely love, because they believe God demands it. They want to do good, but have a warped view of "good" because they're convinced God told them to do this or that.

    I'm rather with Brian on this one. I consider myself a Christian agnostic. I believe what I believe, but I'm well aware that I can't know for sure. Can't prove it; can never possibly prove it. I have faith. Other people have faith in something else. I don't think they're right, they don't think I'm right. But we're both just living on faith, and their faith is as genuine as mine. I can't prove they're wrong. They can't prove I am. But I'll respect and defend their right to have faith in something I don't, and would hope they'd do the same.

    Those who think they know any religious truth "just like" they know the law of gravity are understanding spirituality and what that is incorrectly, in my opinion. By definition, you can't have absolute (religious) certainty about anything beyond your own spiritual experience.

  • Julian: The tremendous evil I had in mind in the name of atheism was pretty much the entire life and career of Joseph Stalin.

    Kara: You said it better than I did. Thanks.

  • ShyAsrai

    What a pat argument from Commenter Brian! Silly, but pat. Obviously oft used to persuade himself that belief in “God” leads to evil.

    Does he actually believe that a person’s belief in a “god” or “the God” unlocks some latent savagery in their brains that would not exist or would not be acted upon if it did exist without the excuse of “God said so…”?

  • Geoffrey Miller

    Mr. Shore, I think you would benefit from reading some of Cardinal Ratzinger's (Pope Benedict's) books like, "Truth and Tolerance." His writings provide a lot to chew on along these veins.

  • Geoffrey: Can you give us a taste? Is the pope pro-tolerance or con-tolerance?

  • So you gonna use a monofiliment line with that bait, Brian, or go with a braided?

  • Oh ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

    It was actually an honest question, John. I can imagine Ratzinger coming down on either side of the question and since I have a fair amount of stuff on my reading list before I get to the current Pope’s book, I was hoping for at least a hint.

  • So monofiliment, then. Cool.

    No. Kidding. Sorry. Carry on.

  • Carry on beats checking your baggage any day.

  • Okay so I did what any reasonable modern person would do, I Googled it and found this:

    It does seem the future Pope is trying to walk a very fine and delicate line here… advocating “inter-religious dialogue” but seeming to me to fall short of what most of us would consider tolerance. The page is an interesting read.

  • I tried to find the quote, but I remember reading of a Christian woman who became enamored of Buddhism and asked the Dalai Lama how to go about becoming a Buddhist. His reply was to the effect of "No, go back and become a better Christian". In no way did he suggest that Christianity was superior to Buddhism, or vice versa, but he understands and respects other spiritual traditions.

    I did find this quote of Mother Theresa's :

    "I love all religions. … If people become better Hindus, better Muslims, better Buddhists by our acts of love, then there is something else growing there."

    I like these.

  • Roger

    It seems to me it is impossible for both the Muslim and Christian to be correct.

  • Roger: It seems to me John is saying the path to peace is to act now as if both are correct while recognizing that ultimately one, the other, or neither will be proven true.

  • One of the things that strikes me about these types of conversations is the use of the word “religion.” Religion tends to be the set of rules followed by a body of people. It’s the rules — the religion — that gets us into trouble.

    As I’ve gotten older, and hopefully wiser, I tend to be less religious and more faithful. It is my Christian faith that guides me, not a Christian religion.

    I’m sorry, I can’t be tolerant of religions; but I can be tolerant of faiths. It’s the religions — rules — that send someone flying into buildings or forcing women to wear long, dowdy dresses. It’s faith that allows us to accept that others might not believe as we do.

  • “What is a matter of ever-increasing urgency for all of us is that the only hope for enduring, world-wide peace lies in the only one of those three choice that is a logical impossibility.”

    But then this brings up another dilemna: If you alter any of the Big 3 to be more tollerant will it still be Christianity/Islam/Judaism?

    “Until everyone who believes in one religion or another adheres to their belief the idea that just because something is right for them doesn’t mean it must be right for everyone else, we’re all doomed. We must expand our understanding of the relationship between “logic” and truth. “Religious tolerance” isn’t just a mamby-pamby term for lack of conviction. It’s our only way out.”

    Though I agree with you I simply do not see the Big 3 becoming uniformly more tolerant. Not without a big messy fight with a high body count. It simply is not possible. Not yet at least.

    Is it any wonder non-Abrahamic faiths are on the rise….?

  • This is my entry to your blog. All I want to say is that posing the right questions is very powerful.

    If we say God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, we have to stick to that right through our thinking.

    If we say on the one side God is omnipotent (which means He is in TOTAL control of every minutest action in creation), and the next moment we ascribe evil to the Adversary, we are kidding ourselves.

    Its all about control, really. Its all about us not even want to think this loving God of ours is capable of evil…its too scary, because it means we are not in control and totally at the mercy of this sovereign God. Its all about not being able to totally surrender to this sovereign God…even to death and suffering, not having our eyes on what's to come, but rather on this temporary life on earth.

    The hardest command to apply to is LOVE and that's exactly what the path to holiness and transformation is all about….to become humble and to see GOD and not man, trusting Him to be in control and know what He's doing.

    To my mind Christian Universalism is the key to freedom, because it believes that ALL are going to make it eventually and ALL are under God's control and divine plan, playing a definite, worked-out (before we were born) role in God's awesome drama.

    The "baddies" are always getting the rap; because then we appear to look better. Meantime the 'baddies' are just playing out the role God (YES the God of love) has given them… teach US to learn what real love is and what real humility is and what the word forgiveness means in essence. Its a tall order and I find it to be such a big part in my own suffering, because I just seem to not getting it right myself.

    How else would we experience God's grace, if its not for evil? How else will be practice love and forgiveness if it's not for the 'baddies'? We have to THANK them! And, that's not all….WE are the 'baddies' for the other 'baddies' too; the extremists, the satanists, the fundamentalist, the whoever.

    See, we are all in the same drama, playing out our parts until eventually ALL will be drawn to God. Christian Universalism (reconciliation) is still doing its job teaching me to not to judge anybody, because nobody is to blame, even the suicide bombers. We are NOT in control.

    Its a very difficult concept, but I truly believe it, because to me God is really omnipotent and not to be surprised by man at all. I think I've never be so liberated in my entire life……trials and all.

  • Julian Ostrow

    Willen, "We are NOT in control" is a very dangerous outlook on life. What if you're wrong? (and it's hubris not to consider the possibility– I do.)

    As I mentioned in my first post here, personal responsibility is paramount in society. Statements like yours and "let go, let God" (which John Shore actually wrote an article about) are shortsighted and counterproductive.

  • Julian, It's because of man wanting to be in control that 'messed' up the world. I truly understand your response so well. The mere question of yours "what if you're wrong?" has become a common question posed to me. So it's not new to me. It also reveals the element of fear so clearly.

    I have my own theory and I also don't hesitate saying it. Here goes…

    It's a very difficult thing for us all to do introspection and to analyze ourselves; it's more convenient to analyze others (I'm speaking for myself here too by the way), than to acknowledge our own total dependency upon God.

    It's also the hardest thing to do, because in doing so we are 'signing away our own life'. NOT doing it is (to me) short-sightedness and not trusting God Who has the bigger picture and knows better and see better the glory He has in store for us.

    The Bible explicitly says we are not to judge and there is a reason for that, made very clear in the cross words of Jesus, viz "Father forgive them for they know not what they do…". Why did He say that? Because He knew the Plan and the perpetrators did not.

    We can only learn not to judge by being constantly busy with the Lord Himself, asking Him for insight and wisdom and guidance and the grace of love in our hearts. This is such a huge topic that this message does not have the scope to make myself better clear. The mistranslations in the Bible is just one of such discussions and the gigantic implications it has, especially in the Christian world.

    It's just a natural thing to judge, analyze and evaluate others than ourselves. In doing that we turn the attention away from us and we're 'off the hook'.

    One sees this in societies, cultures, governments and politics all over the show……nailing others. Politics do not start in the composite, it starts at the singular, the individual. Its like the singular gene of 'self-righteousness' being carried over to 'infect' the multitude. Sorry, this sounds a bit harsh I guess, but I don't know how else to describe it.

    My statement as to the omnipotence of God is very much relevant in every aspect of life……and, it determines our own peace. The two questions every one should ask him/herself are "Am I at total peace?" and "Am I content?". If we don't have it, we should look for it.

  • Tolerance is a fine baby step I suppose. It's just sometime discouraging when we're actually commanded to love everyone… and yet even simple tolerance seems so far from us. I'm glad Jesus set the bar high with love. I'm not sure where we'd be if he commanded us to tolerate our neighbors.

    I understand what you're saying John… I guess I'm just sad that it has to be said.

  • I am willing to take whatever criticism here, but I simply HAVE to ask these two questions and I think its crucial: Is it impossible to consider the fact that we are NOT capable of love at all unless its given to us by God Himself? Is it possible that the amount of time alone with God in submission and in seeking the truth and in asking Him (and not man) for guidance (every second), is directly equivalent to the amount of love He will give in our hearts for our fellow man…especially becoming a reality when someone offends us, or hurts our loved ones?

    Hebrews 10:31 (NIV)…"It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God".

    Its not a picnic…..I know, but the result is becoming progressively better.

    We can only know when we try it.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Brian: Thanks for the comment clearing that up (though I’m frankly not quite sure in what sense John, as you interpret him, means that one of those possibilities will be ultimately proven), because I got the impression of John’s position being way to close to relativism for me. I was about to post a comment to the effect that the Truth is one and yada yada yada.

    But I completely agree that it is unwise for anyone to simply abandon all uncertainties, drop any margin of error, and move from a belief in what (s)he understand as right (and don’t we all believe that we ourselves are right?) to an assumption of certain knowledge. I do suggest, however, there are more than just those three possibilities…

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Very intelligent comments, Mr. Strutz! All three of them insightful and provocative in just the right way that certain Christians need to be provoked in our time.

  • Thank you Matthew (hope you don’t mind me addressing you by your first name). My husband and I have left the organized church (Dutch Reform) a few years ago on our journey to the Truth. Even a comment like this will stir up some emotions as people in general have their own ‘truths’ and defend it….it’s a natural carnal thing to do, because paradigm shifts are really fearful. I ONLY belief in absolute Truth; to me there is no such thing as relative truth….because God is absolute. And this absolute Truth is revealed by Him, bit by bit….which makes it so exciting! One day we all will know the whole Truth.

    The root of the problem we Christians have with religious tolerance is our reliance on carnal man to be our teachers in interpreting the Bible FOR us. Our carnal minds can only interpret the Bible at carnal level. That’s why there are such a myriad of interpretations. If we solely go the ONLY Teacher, we will all get the same answers and there will be congruency……and more tolerance and understanding.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    So it would seem, Roger, until you understand the following, more completely articulation, reducible to the same (and a reason for my mysterious remark below): The Muslim is right, and John is wrong, and the Muslim is wrong, and John is right. (Yes, it is logically reducible to the null (or nowadays "empty") set (as the only set of solutions in our universe of discourse that satisfy the given constraints, i.e. no solutions) which, critically, is a necessarily existing set without contingency, omnipresent subset in any other set, the source for all miraculous things such as this. From it, you and the rest of the universe (the set of all sets, which–in another seeming miracle–necessarily contains itself within itself) are revealed by reducing similar statements to one half thereof by falsifying the other after definition of its terms (which thus creates a law explaining the previously miraculous in the relation of the terms so defined), which is not something that will happen between these religions, I think, because the terms used do not in fact meaningfully conflict but are as two different reference frames referring to the same reality, or like the particle nature and the wave nature which in light (and in fact all matter) have proven equivalent in reality, though seeming at one time mutually exclusive theories.)

  • Julian Ostrow

    And once more, in English? :]

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Right, sorry, my pocket translator is broken ;). Maybe it would help if I at least got the grammar right ("completely" -> "complete")!

    I didn't realize anyone would actually be following new comments to this old post 🙂

    I only really expected it to make sense to certain analytical types, and had to since anything less rigorous regarding such topics tends to quickly spiral into an argument of decreasing rationality and increasing emotion.

    The basic point, though, is that there can be more than one way of seeing & saying the same thing.

  • Julian Ostrow

    Oh I agree! Just giving you a hard time.