Why religious people can be more tolerant than secularists

Our culture perpetuates a myth that tolerance stems from indifference. But respect for another's religion often grows from commitment to one's own faith.

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Supporters demonstrating in favor of an Islamic prayer center near New York's World Trade Center site.

Our culture perpetuates a myth that tolerance stems from indifference. But respect for another's religion often grows from commitment to one's own faith.

Swirling around the recent ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was an array of questions about religious practice and freedom, about tolerance and intolerance.

How are we to make sense of these issues, even to think about them, in the present charged and often ugly atmosphere? Where are we to turn for guidance?

Someone I have found helpful is a Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. He is also the author of a number of books which address these vexing questions, including, “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations,” and “How to Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility.”

Sometimes, when it comes to such matters, it seems that the world presents us with but two choices: religious extremism, on one hand, or thoroughgoing secularism, on the other. When confronted with the religious extremist like the Gainesville pastor who threatened to hold an Qu’ran burning or the Imam who has put a Seattle cartoonist under a death threat, one is certainly tempted to say, as many have, “If that’s what religion is, I want none of it,” and to sign on with the secularists.

The interesting thing about Sacks is that he feels, and argues persuasively, that the way ahead for religiously pluralistic societies (and a religiously pluralistic world) will not be charted by either of these types or options. Certainly not by the religious extremist; but neither will the thoroughgoing secularist be of much help.

The secularist may argue for tolerance. Tolerance is a hallmark virtue of modernity, and certainly a necessary one. But is it sufficient?

At least sometimes, tolerance masks indifference. The person who breezily declares that, “Well, all religions are really just the same, only different paths up the same mountain,” may not be that helpful or persuasive to those whose faith is at the core of their life and culture. People who dismiss religious faith often end up dismissing people of faith. They lack the vocabulary and points of reference to enter into some of the most important conversations.

In a passage from The Dignity of Difference, Sacks relates a parable told to him by a Jewish mystic.

“Imagine two people who spend their lives transporting stones. One carries bags of diamonds. The other hauls sacks of rocks. Each is now asked to carry a consignment of rubies. Which of the two understands what he is now to carry? The man who is used to diamonds knows that stones can be precious, even those that are not diamonds. But the man who has carried only rocks thinks the stones are a mere burden. They have weight but not worth. Rubies are beyond his comprehension.

“So it is, he said, with faith. If we cherish our own, then we will understand the values of others. We may regard ours as a diamond and another faith as a ruby, but we know that both are precious stones . . . True tolerance, he implied, comes not from the absence of faith but from its living presence. Understanding the particularity of what matters to us is the best way of coming to appreciate what matters to others.”

This, suggests Sacks, is what is needed in our time. We need people who have mined their own religious traditions deeply. We need people who are used to carrying diamonds and so know something of the value of rubies. We need people and communities of faith that are both deeply rooted in their own tradition and radically open to people of other faiths and traditions.

Sometimes in modern and Western cultures we imagine that the person best equipped to be truly tolerant is the person without any deep or particular religious or world-view commitments of his or her own and who, as such, is assumed to be open to all. It is the myth of detached objectivity.

Sacks argues for a different option, something more and something deeper than tolerance: a radical openness and respect for the faith and traditions of others, because one is so deeply rooted in one’s own.

In the immediate wake of 9/11 in 2001, there was understandable apprehension among Muslims in Seattle. The Church Council of Greater Seattle, a Christian group, set up a combination patrol-vigil at the Islamic Center in North Seattle. Day and night volunteers were present, keeping watch, being a visible presence to allay harassment and acts of violence.

Perhaps these Christians had carried sufficient diamonds in their own faith lives and traditions to understand the value of the precious gems of others and thus to watch over them, even if it meant putting themselves at some risk.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.