Religious hatred and violence run rampant throughout the entire civilized world. Ireland remains torn by fighting between Protestants and Catholics. In Bosnia, Muslims are undergoing "ethnic cleansing" - an antiseptic euphemism for mass murder! India's Sikhs and Hindus routinely clash, burning houses of worship and killing one another. Israelis and Palestinians die in strife between religious visions of the Holy Land. The list of religiously inspired conflicts goes on and on.
How strangely ironic it is for violence to be sanctioned in the name of religion! Throughout history, religions more often have been a positive force in promoting human culture. Think of the great advances of ethical monotheism, of the Ten Commandments and Jewish ethics and law. Consider also the stunning intellectual achievements of 12th- and 13th-century Islamic philosophers, who singlehandedly preserved and transmitted the classics of Greek thought, systematized mathematics (al-gebra is an Arabic word), and took poetic analysis to new heights. Christian theology, both on its own and in response to these Muslim intellectual initiatives, produced the very staples of Western culture. Yet again, recall the uplifting and deeply spiritual literature of Hindu epics, Confucian philosophy, and the Hebrew Bible.
American culture has been much improved by its foundation in the Bible. On a social level, biblical tradition stands behind beliefs in blind justice ("You shall have but one law for rich and poor!"); in careful and truthful examination of witnesses in court ("Justice and only justice shall you pursue!"); of punishment that fits the crime ("If the criminal deserves punishment ... he shall receive it in proportion to his crime!"). On an interpersonal level, the Bible provides the bases of our ethics ("Do not place a stumbling block before the blind!" or anyone else for that matter); laws protecting life ("You shall not murder!"); family stability ("You shall not commit adultery!"); and religious tolerance ("The stranger among you shall be as the homeborn ... for you once were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God!"). On a personal level, biblical admonitions attempt to build character, true to people's selves, desiring nothing ("You shall not covet!"), and swearing only to the truth ("You shall not bear false witness!"). Indeed, the ethical legacy of the Bible - and of all religion - is uplifting, not full of hate.
Somehow, though, the world has turned against these uplifting religious messages. Prohibitions against worshipping other gods have led to intolerance, hatred, and even destruction of those who have other religious beliefs. Biblical war legends - in context clearly meant to "grandfather" the Land of Israel for the Jews - now are taken as justification for armed struggle. The Islamic jihad (holy war) is but one example. Messianic predictions from the Bible encouraged David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers to amass a frightening arsenal of weapons, arms they all too clearly were willing to use to defend themselves against outsiders.
What lies at the root of this misuse of religion? There is a straightforward correlation between exclusivity and intolerance. When religions hold to an absolute claim on the truth, they turn inward, marking outsiders as "The Other. "If I am really right and you disagree, then you must be wrong. Notice how this rhetoric places the issue in stark, black-and-white terms. The emphasis is not on "what you believe is wrong," which allows for interesting discussion, but on "You are wrong," which brands an individual and makes value judgments explicitly personal. By contrast, when religions take a more measured and pluralistic view, they tend to turn outward, welcoming the best of each culture and its special wisdom.
It is the recent worldwide trend toward fundamentalism and absolutism that has led religions to promote hatred, or at least to sanction it in the name of a higher authority. …