Lecture on Religious Tolerance

Good afternoon. My name is Saddie La Mort. Within this short talk, I will attempt to look into some controversial issues - but then again, there are seldom any other type, when personal freedom is involved.

During the lecture, I will talk about
- The role of religion in post-conflict nation building
- The tension between freedom of expression and freedom of religion
- The impact of terrorism on intolerance towards religion

The role of religion in post-conflict nation building

Whenever a nation is in trouble, people start to look for 'divine help' to help them through a difficult time. This is a normal reaction, although one that is usually fully exploited by certain religions. Wherever a religion is a power point, that is to say, a strong institution with a lot of followers, the usual reaction of the religious leaders is to try to strengthen their hold on political power as well. This is nothing new, the same pattern can be seen throughout even the earliest periods of religious history.

However, this poses no threat to a democracy, as long as there are several different religious paths are involved. Examples of this can be seen throughout most ex-communist countries. Because the hostile stance that was taken by communism against religious (and of course esoteric and occult) philosophies and practices, most of the former "eastern block" is now sprouting literally hundreds of congregations, churches, religious and alternative philosophy groups.

In Hungary, for example, more than 300 churches are recognised as legal entities. Of course, the downside of this is that a lot of them are what in english are called cults, but all over Europe, most people call them "sects". (I would like to add, that the former term is more correct, a sect - from latin 'sectio' - is a smaller group that detaches itself from a larger religion or church; this surely cannot be said about a large number of these groups).

In some countries this is dealt with simply by not dealing with it - everyone can believe in whatever they will as long as they don't break the laws, but the state itself does not recognise any of the churches. In others, all churches are recognised, and get the same tax exemptions, benefits, etc. The former method is, in my view, the more democratic one, for there cannot be a real equality. How could there be between a, say, Wiccan church, with 200 active members, and the Christian Catholic church - a lot of the people say they are Catholic even though they are not even religious, simply because they were christened into that particular religion. This, of course affects financial aids given by the state as well.

Recognised by the state or not, different religions do appear in those countries, gathering donations, membership fees, etc. Some of them have a solely financial reason to exist, some are in it for the power, yet others do have a strong faith in what they do; it is all fine and well. Real controversy begins, when, in spite of the fact that the country supposedly supports religious freedom, there is nothing like equality in terms of religious rights. For example, in Germany Christian religious studies are compulsory for school children, to the annoyance of Pagan parents (followers of modern Pagan religions such as Druidry, Shamanism, Witchcraft, Asatru, Female and Male Spirituality, etc.).

Yet more problems arise, when there is only one strong religious group, and it is supported by the state. After, or even during a conflict, people will turn to the only god they know - or, more accurately to the priesthood of the religion. The religion will become an inseparable part of state, and it's laws will start to find their way to the homes of all citizens - and this is where democracy ends. Most religions hold strong views on 'religious freedom', if they can get away with it, and usually, they are not built on democratic grounds.

How can, for example, a clash may be resolved, where religious laws oppose basic human rights? This problem is quite obvious in the light of the moslim faith. While the religion itself is originally gentle and peaceful, some interpretations of the Quran state that women are not equal to men, and they are second-class citizens. This problem boggles the mind of even the most intelligent of law-makers, therefore I will not even attempt to give a single elegant solution; although I do feel that some answers may lie in the right to travel.

The tension between freedom of expression and freedom of religion

Everyone knows quite a few religious jokes. In our society, it is usually not a problem, to make fun of anything - faiths, politics, certain jobs, certain colours of hair, etc. Some of these jokes, of course, are not very funny and can hurt the feelings of the followers of the group of people it is about, but usually it is not a big deal - Robert Frölich, ex-teacher and friend of mine - Rabbi of the Dohány street synagogue in Budapest, Hungary - himself said it's okay to say jew-jokes. The problem is with jew-bashing jokes. Jokes are one of the ways people can deal with diversity. Typically, the best policemen jokes can be heard from policemen, the best blond jokes can be heard from blonds, and Rabbi Frölich was an infinite source of great jewish jokes.

So how can this "Western mindset" deal with people, who can't take a joke? A most prominent example could be seen when only recently Danish cartoons were published in a newspaper, and a Danish embassy was blown up in retaliation.

As an aside, now, again, I must remind you, that it was not "the moslims" who did the deed. It was terrorists. The problem is that these acts do not help religious tolerance at all. People tend to think in boxes - jokes are based on this exact fact. Therefore, if one person from a group of people does something, they will draw the conclusion that all the people in the group are like that. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Back on topic; The moslim faith is not the only one that forbids images of certain types. Most of these religions have dealt with this problem, though - they do not do it, but they do not seek to 'push' their views on others. However, again, we do have an absolutely different culture than that of the middle-east. Official statements condoning the cartoons were given, apparently oblivious to the fact that in Europe everyone can express their thoughts in whatever form they choose.

This is also a problem we will have to deal with sooner or later - again, I can not attempt to give one single answer on the 'how'. It would be very easy to say 'they have to see and accept our views' - but how could we say such a thing without being hypocrites? They could say the same, and with the same right to do so. Therefore, this, again, remains a most controversial issue.

The impact of terrorism on intolerance towards religion

As we have previously understood, the acts of religious fundamentalist terrorists have an effect on how people will view the followers of the faith. Strong anti-moslim feelings did rise out of the attacks that happened recently - but, again, the issue is not simply black and white. The question is always the 'why'. Why would someone blow himself up on a street in, say, London? People like to think in terms of "us" and "them". "We" are always righteous, gentle, peace-loving, friendly; it's always "them" who are evil, warlike, unethical. If we look at the world now, most of the wars have a real reason (usually money or resources), a cover-up reason (usually along the lines of "they are threatening us, therefore we must fight them"), and most importantly the underlying main reason: that "they" are not "us" and we never really liked "them" anyway.

When we have this view on both sides, we get war, terrorism, hate. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Religious fundamentalists can be found everywhere, throughout space and time. Buddhism seems to be free of that mindset, but we shouldn't forget the massacre they comitted in Tibet - the victims were Bon priests, followers of the original Tibetan religion. However, in Europe today the most pressing issue should be Christian fundamentalism. Although the topic is rarely discussed, they also commit violence quite often. Rev. Angela Buchanan of the Circle Sanctuary wrote an article for a symposium on religious violence, in which she mentions several events - the most shocking of which happened to a young pagan college boy, who was ran down by a pickup truck, tied, then beaten with cane and hose, cut with knife from neck to hip, then eventually tied to a tree and left there.

Acts like this are, and I cannot stress this enough, acts of religious fundamentalists. They are not committed by 'the Christians', 'the Moslim' - they are done by certain violent people, who are blinded and driven mad by their own religious ideals. But again, it is easier to simply hate "them" whomever "they" might be.

Religious intolerance of course is helped when the followers of a particular faith that is discriminated against are physically different from the discriminators. If this occurs, then racism comes into play as well, and we can see examples all over the world. People with darker skin are almost strip-searched at airports, abused by their classmates at school, or shot by the police (as we all remember the London incident).

The possible solutions

Most problems do have a solution in theory. Our present topic is no exception to this rule, but, unfortunately, the solutions are not feasible in the present situation. Therefore what we can do is start working for a world in which true religious tolerance is a very real possibility. We have to do our own part first.

If we are to ease the problems, we all have to alter our individual mindset first. We have to learn to think in terms of individuals rather than groups. It's harder than it sounds, for our mind won't give up the concept of "Us vs. Them" without a fight. If you wish to do an excercise for that, write a page about the people you have seen on the street while going home. Consciously avoid terms that would categorise a person into a group - as an example: don't write "I'v seen a priest". Write "I have seen a man wearing black suit and a white collar". This excercise helps the mind understand diversity without judgement. After all, the person wearing the same suit might as well be someone going to a costume party.

Another very important step would be education in comparative religious studies. It is easier to relate to a particular religion, if we understand it's basic concepts. We don't have to believe in them - we just have to accept that others believe in them.

A third concept is already making it's mark all around the world - the Living Library project. It is basically a possibility to let people meet members of some discriminated groups (Moslims, Jews, gypsies, Witches, etc.) - it's so much harder to hate a person you meet, than a faceless group of people you don't know.

I hope this talk will start thoughts within you. You don't have to agree with me, certainly not. But the fact that you think about the issue makes you part of the possible future solution. Thank you.