Does tolerance truly play a part in interfaith harmony?

This is the project paper that I submitted for the Interfaith Wisdom module that I took. Would love some feedback as I wait for it to be graded 😉

Symbols of various faiths
Symbols of various faiths (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Malaysia – in August 2009, a group of Muslims stamped on the head of a cow, an animal that is considered sacred to Hindu’s, in front of a State department building to demonstrate their protest on the relocation of a Hindu temple to a majority Muslim neighbourhood in the state(AFP 2009). In 2010, a local Muslim magazine had to make an apology amidst public outcry when it was found that two of it’s writers had participated in the Eucharist at a Roman Catholic church, gone outside the church spitting out the communion wafer and photographing it. The picture was then inserted into an article that allegedly investigated the claims that Muslims in the country were being converted to Catholicism (BBC News 2010).

In todays’ world of multi racial, multi cultural and multi religious communities, government and non-governmental agencies advocate the importance of religious tolerance. However, is tolerance the correct word to use? What does religious tolerance actually mean? And how much does tolerance allow the growth of interfaith harmony?

Don Carson gives the definitions for the word tolerance in a web article on the subject.

“In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first meaning of the verb “to tolerate” is “To respect (others’ beliefs, practices, etc.) without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing. 3. To put up with; to bear; as he tolerates his brother in-law… When we turn to Encarta’s treatment of the corresponding noun “tolerance”, however, a subtle change appears: “1. ACCEPTANCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS the accepting of the differing views of other people, e.g., in religious or political matters, and fairness towards the people who hold these different views.”

He then goes on to expand on the types of tolerance – is it the tolerance of respecting the differences even though we may not agree or if it is the tolerance where we agree that all views are valid – and how the subtle difference in it’s definitions may mean a big impact on the understanding of the word itself. Some of the examples that he gives are:

“A Muslim cleric says, “We do not tolerate other religions”: does this mean that, according to this cleric, Muslims do not think that other religions should be permitted to exist, or that Muslims cannot agree that other religions are as valid as Islam? A Christian pastor declares, “Christians gladly tolerate other religions”: does this mean, according to the pastor, that Christians gladly insist that other religions have as much right to exist as Christianity does, or that Christians gladly assert that all religions are equally valid?”

And if all religions are equally valid then how does each religious institution resolve the issue of their teaching that a particular religion is the only way to God? Do we then need to understand that there is no “only” way to God? To add to the complexity of the situation, how can one be assured that the actual meanings of tolerance are translated correctly in the lay person, especially in countries where English is the second language? In Malaysia, for instance, the word tolerance carries a meaning of “to put up with, to bear with” instead of “to respect”. In a country where race and religion based politics are practiced very strongly, the message that has been instilled is one of the majority putting up with the minority as an act of benevolence, which may be revoked at any time.

What is religious tolerance? Is there a difference in meaning or significance? According to the web article “Religious tolerance – What is it?” it is now known as the “New Tolerance”.

“This is the politically correct position that all beliefs and life styles should be accepted no matter how illogical or misguided”

It further elaborates on the idea that this new take on the traditional definition of tolerance is based on relative truth.

“This subtle change in the definition is based upon the philosophy of relative truth. Relative truth negates the belief that some beliefs are true and some are false. As a consequence, all beliefs are equally valid and all must be accepted.”

However, the New Tolerance also takes into account the behaviours of a person, wherein the consequence of adopting this definition of tolerance means that we have to accept bad behaviours as well. This means that, as communities with our societal norms, we have to be willing to accept and celebrate the uniqueness of different belief and cultural systems. Another aspect or question then is, should we also have to accept behaviours that are considered sinful or immoral, and therefore practice “ the love for the sinner yet remain intolerant to the act itself”? This question though very important in the context of tolerance is beyond the scope of this paper.

Based on these two web articles that attempt to explore the meanings of the word tolerance and religious tolerance, we can see that the core principle is the respect and acceptance of the different belief systems, which also incorporates elements of the different cultural aspects of communities practicing particular religions.

In an age when countries have a mix of different races and religious communities, interreligious groups and dialogues have become increasingly important, especially in the face of interreligious intolerance, disputes and wars. In more recent times, the word interfaith has been used more compared to interreligious. The difference in the usage of one word can be very telling.

“Interfaith, then, in our view, points toward activities or relationships between people with different beliefs or faith identities…

…but it seems to us that interreligious is used most properly when talking about the activities or relationships between or among different religious institutions.” (Mackenzie, Falcon, Rahman 6)

“International peace building efforts have discovered the usefulness of interfaith dialogue as a tool for shifting group differences into a shared, value framework for sustainable peace. Although religious differences are often exploited for political gain, interfaith dialogue can help religious groups discover mutual or “third culture” values (Patal, Li, Sooknanan, 2011).” (qtd. in Joyner, Mengistu 1)

Tolerance of the differences has also been the key point in many discussions. However, the question is: Does tolerance translate the same universally? Is there a better word that removes the ambiguity or vagueness that the word tolerance carries or is one word not enough? Could the success of interfaith harmony lie in an idea and a practice that cannot be summed up in just one word?

“While tolerance is certainly an important short term goal between conflicting parties, peacemaking should strive to move parties towards a greater level of empathy and understanding as tolerance alone may in reality only support “…the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination” (Marcuse, 1965).” (qtd in Joyner, Mengistu 2)

Words such as acceptance, validity, respect, understanding and empathy are all a part of interfaith harmony. Interfaith harmony contains the meanings of each of these words and more. It forces us to look beyond the differences and dig deeper into the faith traditions, beyond the doctrines and theological interpretations of religious institutions and into the Universals which are common within each tradition. It is also an exercise of humility to acknowledge that each tradition has particulars that do not support the universals of love, peace and justice (Mackenzie, Falcon, Rahman 7). It calls us to “…learn to discriminate within each tradition between which belongs to the universal religious tradition of mankind and that which belongs to its own limited and particular point of view.” (Fox 9) It is an invitation to explore people, their faith and cultural traditions in its diversity; and to enrich our understanding and reverence towards our own faith.

A study conducted in Australia from 2006 – 2008 by the Melbourne Interfaith and Intercultural Cluster used the concept of Socratic Circles as a Learning and Teaching Strategy (Chapman, Devine, Staples 51). The aim of the study was to provide opportunities for interaction among students from different traditions to dialogue around important issues. The elements of this method were active listening, sharing of ideas and questions in response to contributions and search of evidence to support views, within the key value of respect. The process made students more aware of their ideas and opinions in relation to others; and cultivated a respect of self, others and the learning process.  This process is similar to the five stages of the inter faith journey shared by Mackenzie, Falcon and Rahman (8).

In conclusion, we need to acknowledge that faith traditions should not be equated to religious doctrines and institutions; and interfaith harmony is to not only acknowledge the differences but to go deeper and find the universal values that bring us together. It is to go beyond tolerating each other’s beliefs because “diversity requires more than tolerance.” (Mackenzie, Falcon, Rahman 33)

Works Cited

1. “Malaysian Muslim ‘cow head’ demo criticized.” Google News.  AFP. 29 August 2009. Web. 01 March 2013.

2. “Malaysia magazine sorry for communion-spitting offence.” BBC News. BBC. 06 March 2010. Web. 01 March 2013.

3. Carson, Don. “Contemporary Tolerance Is Intrinsically Intolerant.” The Gospel Coalition Blog. The Gospel Coalition Blog. 26 February 2012. Web. 01 March 2013.

4. “Religious Tolerance – What is it?.” AllAboutWorldView. n.d. Web. 01 March 2013.

5. Mackenzie, Don, Falcon, Ted, and Rahman, Jamal. Getting to the Heart of Interfaith, The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friednship of a Pastor, a Rabbi & an Imam. Woodstock, Vermont: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2009. Print.

6. Joyner, Nina Frola, Mengistu, Berhanu. “Transforming Tolerance into Empathy: Cultural Imperatives in the Interfaith Dialogue.” Global Awareness Society International 21st Annual Conference – New York City, May 2012. n.p., n.d. Print.

7. Fox, Matthew. One River, Many Wells. 2000. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2004. Print.

8. Chapman, Judith, Devine, Catherine, and Staples, Adam. “ SOCRATIC CRICLES AS A LEARNING STRATEGY IN VALUES EDUCATION AND INTERFAITH AND INTERCULTURAL UNDERSTANDING.” Journal of Religious Education 56(3) (2008): 51-57.Print.

6 thoughts on “Does tolerance truly play a part in interfaith harmony?

  1. an in depth study, Shree, which shows how difficult it is for some to understand the true meaning of tolerance… It’s so easy for one religion to state it tolerates another, whilst not actually practising it… The New Tolerance statement “This is the politically correct position that all beliefs and life styles should be accepted no matter how illogical or misguided” points this out so well… Who decides which religion is misguided/illogical? for those who follow that religion look upon others the same way. The most successful religions are the intolerant ones, because of their belief theirs in the only religion. … My goodness you’ve woken up my brain cells this morning. 😉 … I await to hear your markings for your project paper… I for one give you top marks… xPenx


  2. This becomes a minefield the more you look into it, I find, Shree. Tolerance is a very fine line between different religions; if one group believes one thing is ‘bad’, yet another group believes the same thing is ‘good’, both groups’ core beliefs are being tested… eek! No matter how tolerant as a whole each group is, the individuals within may be less so. A thought-provoking start to a Sunday, Shree… I hope you are graded well for the work you have put into this!


  3. Fascinating paper! You’ve raised some very important and insightful points about the fundamental problems with the interpretation of “tolerance”. I’d have to write a discourse much longer than yours to discuss my thoughts on religion, so I won’t go there. But I do like your distinction between religion and faith, and the relationship of each with tolerance in its various forms. Very well thought out!


  4. That was very good. I never thought about the different ways to interpret “tolerance” and how that might affect the way people view other religions. Tolerance is certainly better than intolerance, but as you pointed out there is room for a better or more encompassing approach. I think the only intolerance we should have is when people use religion as an excuse to do harm to others.


  5. Love the look of your blog. As far as the post, so deep, and raises a lot of questions. It really points out the shame in cruelty and disrespect, and obviously hatred on so many levels.


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