Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies
Overcoming Religious Intolerance
By George A. Boyd © 1988
Religious intolerance is a divider of nations, the harbinger of war, and breeds ill will, animosity and contempt. It sets neighbor against neighbor by creating beliefs about the nature of man, the universe, the origins of the universe, what is correct behavior and right relationships with others. These beliefs exclude those who have different beliefs or behavior. It is the bastard child of fanaticism, which labels others who believe and behave differently as evil, unworthy of respect, of livelihood, and yes, even of life.
Religions are founded by individuals who have entered into mystic communion with Life's deepest Laws of Spirit, of Universal Mind, of Love and Power Unbounded to bring about spiritual advancement and to destroy the roots of man's inhumane behavior and self-limiting beliefs. Central to this activity is the formation of a core teachingcreating maps of consciousness, describing the universe, the nature of the Divine, the laws of Life. This world vision in turn may become codified in the form of a written scripture, and these scriptures are later subject to interpretation and elaboration by subsequent generations of priests and philosophers.
A religion through this process changes over time. Man's new knowledge of the world, new political conditions must be explained by this grand philosophy upon which each religion is founded. Individuals discontent with the parent teaching may start their own group, emphasizing some point of practice, of ritual or interpretation of scripture. The original parent teaching becomes multiplied, splintered into myriad sects, each claiming their own identity and claims to absolute validity.
In the changing topology of culture, the crust of religions is a dynamic force, inspiring architecture, art, literature, philosophical speculation, social reform, humanitarian effort, and conversion of values within a society. How a religion impacts a culture is a reading of both the change within a religion and also the relative health of the religion. Change within a religion is its ability to adapt to new trends in the world through technological advances, to contact with other cultures and exposure to competing ideas, beliefs, and practices. The relative health of a religion refers to whether in its journey through history it remains a vital and vibrant force or whether it becomes an insidious force. When it is a positive influence, it finds new ways to revivify its idealism and altruism, and continues to be a source of hope and meaning for mankind. When it shows its dark side, religion breeds fear, paranoia and xenophobia, instills guilt, and fosters hatred of other religions in the minds and hearts of its followers.
The psychological impact of a religion upon the individual is one of the pulses that we can take of a religion's health. Fanaticism is the collective of the deleterious influences of religion upon the individual psyche, where the excesses of the individual are grossly amplified and distorted by the group mind.
Fanatics are motivated by terror, by rage against a world they feel that does not understand them. Fanatics within a religion project this rage against an enemy personifying evil. In the mind of the fanatic it seems that the invisible Satan controls external forces in the world, making his appearance as a competing religion, an oppressive political regime, another nation, a dissimilar race or creed. By destroying this apparently external source of evil, fanatics believe that salvation and victory will finally be gained.
What is really happening is that they are massively denying their own pain, fear, and feelings of powerlessness. Instead of experiencing those feelings,, which would allow them to get in touch with their genuine humanity and sense of connectedness with others, they act out in fantasy. They fantasize conquest, which makes them feel courageous. They plot revenge against their enemies, which tries to make the pain and grief go away by punishing another. They posture in defiance, which is an attempt to feel powerful by belittling, hurting, or oppressing another. In the fanatics' wake, people's lives, families, communities, even nations are torn asunder. These cowardly acts are labeled as heroism; needless death as martyrdom, genocide as purification. Euphemism hides a multitude of sins.
Religious intolerance is an attitude spawned by fanaticism. The time worn, ossified habits of rites and rituals, the constant reminders and homilies of morality that religion impresses on its follower's lives were set into motion long ago. These rites and dogmas were established with the intention of motivating virtuous behavior, to foster loving thoughts and deeds of charity and kindness, to be pleasing to Divinity and harmless to fellow man and fellow creature. The fanatical fringe of religion, however, knows none of these. All manner of human suffering and lasting hatreds, untold cruelty and abiding prejudices have come out of fanaticism's radical solutionscrusade, holy war, inquisition, forced conversion and revolution.
Revolution is born of psychological and social upheaval, from bearing injustice and oppression for far too long. But the revolution of fanaticism is blind, and often leaves in its wake a more potent oppression than the one it supplanted. Religious mania coupled with nationalistic fervor have brought to power many like the Ayatollah Khomeini throughout History, who crush dissent and free-thinking, who dictate oppressive law and strict morality, and lead their followers onward into needless war, misery and suffering.
Is it that fanatics feed on our need to have a mighty Power outside ourselves vanquish the evil in the world, so that we might no longer experience suffering? How ironicin giving away our power to another, we often create an even greater suffering for ourselves.
Taking back our power, taking responsibility again over our prejudices, our resentments, our deep-seated intolerance is one way that fanaticism can be defused. Towards this end, I offer the following meditative ideas (seed thoughts) that can help us move from the thicket into the clearing about this subject:
When all is said and done, the phenomena of religious intolerance yet persists in the world. It takes courage to challenge the assumptions of religion, and to look at the role it plays in our lives.
As long as external forces and institutions still dictate how we shall think and act, what we shall believe, in that measure we have capitulated our birthright to find truth for ourselves. Religion at its best should not enslave us to rite and creed, a weary round of pilgrimage and whisperings, but rather it should point us to the Light Within. It should introduce us to Wisdom, to Genuine Altruism, to the gifts that dwell in the Soul, but then it should cease speaking and allow us to listen to our own Voice of the Silence, our Inner Teacher. It should hold high for us the noble examples of the past for us to emulate, but then it should lead us to the doorway of our own Soul, and encourage us onward to the Greatest of Journeys, the Sublimest Adventure.