The myth of religious tolerance
As a recent incident in Olympia, WA shows (see article below), the belief that American is a place of religious tolerance is in some aspects a myth or perhaps even ideology. Despite the imposition of more generalized Christian holidays in public schools, the pledge of allegiance, and the colloquial invocation of Christian beliefs (love thy neighbor for example), we can also find that religious tolerance only encompasses a very particular definition of religion. It is clear from the dozens of hate crimes and everyday discrimination faced by non-Christian groups that religious tolerance is the exception and not the rule. In this sense “tolerance” is acceptable only if and when other religious beliefs do not affect, impinge on or even assume a public face. Just imagine the outcry if there were menorahs, Hannukah sweaters, and dreidels in every store window and on every commercial? In Gramsci’s work on hegemony and ideology we can see how the phrase ‘religious tolerance’ has been used itself as a tool of religious domination. What religions do we tolerate? Certainly not Wiccan or Candomble. The definition of religious tolerance itself is centered on a Christian model. Is this what we mean by tolerance?
Missing Atheist sign in Olympia, WA
I am British not American but I find that – naturally, the idea of society not having a general cultural worldveiw – absurd. Of course there is one.
But equally of course it is not Christianity, it may have some cultural trappings of Christianity, but they are vestiges of a Christian past, Christian ethics, Christian ritual as a part of daily life (as opposed to an increasingly selfconscious and awkward part of occasional pomp and ceremony of state), Christian ideas of the place of man in the universe and the role of the individual and social bodies and the responsibilities between them – all these have been out of fashion for over a century – and increasingly so.
Our affinity for Christmas trees over menorahs is no different to our affinity for jeans and t-shirts rather than saris. It is on the level of pure superficiality. It is closer to xenophobia than religious intolerance when we reject headscarves and embrace cross earings.
There is a sort of hegemonic religion, but it is not Christianity in any sense as recognisable to me (and I am not narrow in my definition of Christian, if it embraces the council of Nicea and the morality of the Didache then its Christian as far as I am concerned.) Actually I find myself laughing sometimes at how little the mainstream has moved on since the 19th century, the same arrogant enlightenment universalism that is anything but universal still seems to pervade everything – in the UK at least.
Think of the use of the word “tolerance” (definition: the capacity to endure continued subjection to something; in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with). It’s a skewed work by itself. For some reason which I will never understand, most Americans believe that this is country that was founded on Christian beliefs. I don’t recall explicitly being taught that in school, but it was most certainly implicit. I think as long as we use the word “tolerance,” we will continue to have the underlying level of marginality of faith paths that follow anything but Christianity in all American institutions.
One of the problems of being a ‘member’ of a religion is that we start to have opinions about ‘us’ being better than ‘them’.
This obviously works against any idea of tolerance, other than the most patronising.
If we progress with spiritual development, we begin to let go of these opinions and this is the basis for ‘grown up ‘ tolerance in my opinion…
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