Religious Fervor vs. Religious Tolerance

By Eby, Lloyd | The World and I, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Religious Fervor vs. Religious Tolerance


Eby, Lloyd, The World and I


Religious fervor nearly always clashes with tolerance of religious diversity wherever religion has been passionate. In the early centuries of Christianity under the Roman Empire, Christians were required by the Romans to give sacrifice and obeisance to the Roman emperor. But most Christians refused to do so because, in their view, doing so constituted idolatry--because the emperor was a god for the Romans. To the Romans, however, their refusal amounted to treason. The Romans could not understand the Christian view, asking "Why are these Christians being so unreasonable?" After all, the Romans were quite content to tolerate Christianity and allow the Christians to worship their god and perform their religious rites, just as long as the Christians also acknowledged the Roman gods.

Religions, especially fervently held ones, are nearly always exclusivistic and triumphalistic. Religious exclusivism is the view that only members or adherents of that particular religion, cult, sect, or subsect can engage in fight thought or conduct, or receive whatever advantage or value the religion is supposed to confer: salvation, forgiveness, being under the domain of God or heaven, or receiving divine protection, grace, or other benefit. Religious triumphalism is the doctrine or attitude that one religion or religious creed is superior to all others. Religious exclusivism usually leads to or implies triumphalism, but it need not necessarily do so, and religious triumphalism usually leads to an emphasis on evangelism--on getting those who are not members of the religion in question to convert to it--although it, too, need not do so.

After the triumph of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire as the official religion of the Empire in 392 under Theodocius I, the Europe of the Middle Ages had a single faith in the sense that there were no alternatives except heresy. Whatever debate and religious struggle existed occurred between the religious and the civil authority. But a universally held view of the cosmos embraced both sides as part of one larger entity.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, however, the conflict became much more insurmountable and difficult to manage. The ensuing religious wars that engulfed Europe in the seventeenth century were known generally as the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648). This series of wars fought by various nations for various reasons, including struggles between Catholics and Protestants and between various Protestants (especially Lutherans and Calvinists), resulted not in any resolution of these religious differences, but instead in exhaustion and in a reaction against the intense religious exclusivism that had produced them. These bitter and destructive conflicts--carried out without a resolution--gave rise, particularly on the part of neutral observers and nonparticipants, to an intellectual and moral revulsion against religious exclusivism and fanaticism. The humanistic side of the Renaissance combined with Enlightenment ideas of the role of reason and led to notions of tolerance as a value, a value, for some people, greater than religious fervor. The central question of this point of view could be expressed as "How can we live together without the destruction that comes about if people assert the truth and exclusivity of their religions and carry this attitude into the political and public arena?"

Since exclusivism and triumphalism, when taken up in the public arena, frequently lead to war and bloodshed, some way of threading the needle between religious fervor with its attendant exclusivism and triumphalism, on the one hand, and tolerance of religious difference, on the other, seems to be necessary. But this dilemma is difficult if not impossible to reconcile. Can religions become tolerant unless they become exhausted or decadent? Does an attitude of tolerance mean that an accommodation has been made with evil, that there has been a "loss of first love" as suggested in Revelation 2:4?

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