The Importance of Religious Tolerance. (FIRST PERSON)

By Travis, Julia | The Humanist, November-December 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Importance of Religious Tolerance. (FIRST PERSON)

Travis, Julia, The Humanist

You're going to hell," my best friend old me, her eyes fierce. "You don't believe in God, so you're going to die and go to hell." I was nine years old.

Eight years later, I stood in the library of my suburban public high school, wrestling with masking tape and colored paper, trying to hang the display I had created in honor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I was finally done, I stepped back to get a better look at the project I had spent weeks on. Two students, unaware that I was its creator, stopped to evaluate the display.

"Yom Kipper?" said one, mispronouncing the words with disdain. "What, did we get more Jew kids around here?"

"Yeah, what the hell," agreed his companion. "Isn't this thing, like, discrimination or something?"

I cringed inwardly as they walked away. Not that I hadn't heard comments like that before. In my predominantly white, middle-class, Christian city, diversity--especially of the religious sort--is fairly nonexistent and rarely promoted. Growing up an atheist, albeit a church-going one, never failed to separate me from my peers. In elementary school I was the only one who kept my mouth shut when we pledged allegiance to the Christian god. In middle school, I sat home on Wednesdays while my friends hung out with the local church's youth group. Now as a high school student I have explained more times than I can count what it means to be Unitarian Universalist and how I can go to church without believing in God.

Why is religious tolerance so important? Wouldn't it be easier for us to go on living in our cozy shells, immersed with only the view of the world we have adhered to all our lives? The simple answer is yes. However, the simple answer is not the right one.

It is much too easy to point to infamous examples of religious intolerance, such as the Holocaust, and say, "That will never happen again." It seems much too grand and too vague, over half a century later, like an evil that was long put to sleep. But the comments of the boys looking at my display only serve to prove the importance of teaching tolerance. Not to say that these high school students will grow up to be the next Hitler--but if they aren't taught to respect the religions and cultures of those around them at an early age, they will grow up to be the bigots of the future, carrying the torch of intolerance.

I have always been taught that it is important to learn about others so that I can better know myself. I have prayed with Baptists, meditated with Buddhists, and built a Sukkoth. While I may not embrace the teachings of all of the world's religions, I certainly have an understanding of them and, thus, a deep sense of respect and appreciation.

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