Religious intolerance vs. civic intolerance I

1. Today, in countries like England, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United States, many religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and many brands of some of these religions (Catholicism, Protestantism of various shades, Orthodox Churches, etc) coexist. In Belgium or Italy, for instance, the Catholic Christians do not impose their faiths on those who are not Catholics, i.e., they do not go around “proselytizing” the non-Catholics in their countries; in The Netherlands and Germany, for instance, the Catholics and the Protestants do not go around assaulting each other the way they did during the period of Reformation. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not impose their faith, when they canvass the “Good Word” from door to door. The Muslims in Britain, for instance, do not go around converting all non-Muslims either. Questions: Does that mean that Catholic Christianity in Belgium and Italy (for instance) has become more tolerant than it was couple of centuries ago? Does it mean that Protestantism has become more tolerant than it was some three centuries or so ago? Does it mean that Islam in Britain (or in the United States) is more tolerant than Islam, say, in Africa?

Or does it mean that these countries have become more tolerant of the existence of several religions and religious denominations in the interstices of their society than they were a few centuries ago?

That these questions can be raised intelligibly and that they can be answered through historical research show that the word ‘tolerance’ might mean different things depending on the context in which it is raised. Tolerance of the existence of different religions within one society is a civic virtue that all citizens within that society accept. (This is the case with the Catholics in Belgium and Italy; Protestants in Holland and Germany; Muslims in the United States, etc.)

2. Does the foregoing indicate that Catholic Christianity (and its believers), Protestant Christianity (and its believers), Islam (and its believers) have become more tolerant of each other and of other religions? That is to say, does Islam, today, think that Christianity is as true as it itself is; does Catholic Christianity think that the Protestants’ claims are as true as their own? Does Judaism believe that their belief that the Messiah had not come is as true as the claim that he has? And so on.

Their respective beliefs were one of the reasons for the religious struggles of yesteryears. Consequently, if these religions have become more tolerant of each other, then it is because either (a) their beliefs have changed; or (b) the believers interpret these beliefs differently, or (c) both.

Further, if this situation has come about because of the civic virtue I spoke of earlier, then one could indeed claim that these religions have become more tolerant than they were before. Is this the situation?

Again, these questions can be raised intelligibly. One can also give different kinds of answers. Some of the answers in this context might even have to appeal to answers provided in 1. From all of these considerations, it follows that the notion of tolerance used here has a different extension than the notion of tolerance as a civic virtue. Let us call this “religious tolerance” to distinguish it from “civic tolerance”.

3. Tolerance as a civic virtue revolves around building a society free of religious strife. That is, it answers the question, ‘how can different religious communities coexist in one and the same society?’

Religious tolerance, on the other hand, revolves around the question of truth. That is, it is an answer to the question, ‘which religion is true?’

This is an additional reason to distinguish between these two.

4. Notice that one could cultivate the civic virtue of tolerance without, in the least, being required to be religiously tolerant as well. One cannot be religiously tolerant without, at the same time, having the civic virtue of tolerance as well. (This is a further indication that these notions have different extensions.)

At first sight, then, it looks as though religious tolerance implies civic tolerance. However, that is not quite the case: one could be religiously tolerant, i.e., accept that all religions are either equally true (or equally false, as the case may be), and yet be intolerant, say, of fascists. This shows that the implication between religious and civic tolerance holds only in the context of discussion about religions.

This is a further indication that there is a substantive difference between civic tolerance and religious tolerance.

5. Even though more nuances can be added and more reasons adduced to distinguish between civic and religious tolerance, I hope this is enough to provide a prima facie plausibility to my suggestion that, for the sake of clarity, we would do better to distinguish the two from each other.

6. In my book, I have been insisting that Christianity is an intolerant religion because it is a religion in the first place. In my book I have shown why this is the case. I have argued there that faith and intolerance are two faces of the same coin, i.e., one is intolerant precisely because one believes.

To put it in terms of the distinction I have introduced: Jews, Christians and Muslims (of today) might or might not have learnt the civic virtue of tolerance; but as Jews, Christians, and Muslims they are religiously intolerant. That is, they cannot accept that each of them is as true as the other.

7. Not only that. While each of the above three religions (and their believers) think that the other is deficient in their worship of God, all of them believe that our traditions are false religions. The latter are that because they worship the false gods. In other words, there is a difference even with respect to their religious intolerance: regarding each other, the above three religions think that the other is deficient in worshipping God; regarding us, all three believe that we worship false gods.

Check this post: religious tolerance and ecumenism

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  • The Protestant-Roman Catholic disputes were essentially political in nature. If you look at the stakeholders, the European princes (with their sponsor-a-heretic-for-the-week) and the existing Papal power (which was the unifying force till then, with not so powerful string of monarchies). The reformation could be seen as the announcement of political independence from Rome, and allowing the monarchies to shake off the papal authority.

    one is intolerant precisely because one believes.

    I haven’t read your book (first time here), but I will read it to see how you back this up.

    I don’t have particularly developed views on this, but what I feel is intolerance (persecution?) has a political aspect, in societies where the religion moved on, civic society filled its place. Islam is a late entrant in such spaces and it is not unexpected of them to not fit in, and that’s how they coexist peacefully.