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A View from the Back Pew

Tim’s Blog Tour


Intolerance of Religion

by Tim O'Donnell | August 26th, 2010

One of the themes running through A View from the Back Pew is that we humans have an unquenchable desire to know stuff.  We are continually increasing our knowledge about our natural surroundings and also seem to have a primal need to know about things beyond our understanding of the natural.  Humans have also had a tendency to be pious – to worship something – at first animals, then forces of nature, then a council of gods and ultimately most adopted a monotheistic (one god) idea of the divine.


It might seem logical then that since mankind has an insatiable desire to know and a collective tendency to worship that we would have landed upon some universal system of worship.  Not so – not even close.

From the earliest human history our species has been attempting to articulate beliefs about the supernatural and the result is a myriad of belief systems we call religions.  These religions originated in various parts of the globe, using local dialect, and at different times throughout our history.  Since there is no universal human language, quite naturally we have no universal religion either.

Religious beliefs tend to be sensitive and brittle – kind of inflexible. We do not trust those who do not believe as we do, are often offended when someone expresses a different view than ours and we typically attack those who voice opposition to what we believe.  Religious differences have been the cause of more bloodshed than any other in human history; it’s estimated that more than 100 million people were killed last century in the name of God.

Much of the conflict in the world today is due to such differences as well.  At this very moment, people are being killed in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sudan – just to name a few- do to differences of belief.

Today, in the United States, a country founded in large part as a bastion of religious freedom and tolerance, there is a national discussion ensuing that demonstrates the antagonistic nature that differences of belief can cause as the debate intensifies over the construction of a building that is intended to be a center of religious worship in New York.  It has expanded from a neighborhood discussion to a national dialogue and it has the earmarks of growing into something much more divisive than dialogue.

I attempted three times to write on this topic but found myself drifting far from my target.  I’m mostly interested in, and have attempted to limit my comments to why we humans are so brittle about what we believe, why we even concern ourselves with what another believes.  Try as I might to contain my comments to the fragile nature of the human practice of faith, I found it difficult not to jump into the debate.  I’m tempted to opine on the issue when my intention is to simply comment on the brittleness of our beliefs.

Why, when it comes to religion we can’t simply live and let live?

I’ve noticed a progression in my own stance that seems to mirror the debate at large.  There is a movement of thought that I think both sides of the argument pass through.

First:  The whole legal right argument seems to be the first stop on the train of thought.  The community wishing to build on the property in question violates no building codes or ordinances so therefore they have the right to build and nothing should interfere with them proceeding.  The legal right is not in dispute by anyone. I’ve not heard even the more strident opponents deny the legal right to build.  Since we are a country of laws then it should be game over right?  At first glance this would seem to be the case but this debate has gone past the black and white, one-dimensional discussion about ordinances, building codes and legal rights. This debate is about belief systems and this means religion which means it gets sticky – religion is anything but simple or one dimensional even when it comes to the black and white of the law.

Second: Next stop – the wisdom argument.  President Obama addressed the wisdom issue less than twenty-four hours after he pointed out the obvious legal right just mentioned.  The wisdom of building at a site so close in proximity to the scab that remains open at ground zero, said the prez, was not something he wished to comment on.  Obama was accused of flip-flopping, but he is correct in pointing to the difference between the legal right to build the mosque and the wisdom to do so. (Obama didn’t flip-flop as he’s been accused, he simply chose to sit on the fence – this refusal to take a stand is what the real criticism should be.  Here again, we want to know what he believes.)

Third:  The next level of the debate leads us into beliefs and perceptions. What are the motives of each side and what are the beliefs at the root of those motives? Here is where it really heats up.  Is one side attempting a display of triumphalism?  Is the other side islamophobic? These are relatively new words in the American lexicon but notice how confrontational they both sound.  (I don’t think I’d want to be labeled as either.)  At this point lines are drawn and it would seem a concession will be required by one side or the other.  History tells us we concede almost nothing when to comes to belief systems.

Here is a simple breakdown of the beliefs in play:

Since mosque building at certain times in history has unquestionably been a symbol of Islamic triumph (Jerusalem, Istanbul, Spain) and that there is no tangible way to determine if this is the true motive in the case of the mosque at 51 Park Place (Park51), it doesn’t seem unreasonably paranoid for mosque opponents (especially New Yorkers – 7 out of 10 oppose the mosque) to be concerned about the motive in this case. Here again, we see on full display the mistrust of another groups belief system.  The Muslim leaders claim they are not attempting to practice triumphalism but the exact opposite; they state that Park51 is intended to be place if interfaith understanding.

The opponents of Park51 are being labeled “islamophobic”.  They are being portrayed as prejudiced, racists and haters of IslamThey respond by saying they are simply protecting the memory of those killed on 9/11. They also readily admit that they do not want to accede victory to the criminals who attacked so near to that location in the name of Islam; that in effect, this mosque would be a kind of tribute to the terrorists who attacked on 9/11.

Of course, this reduces each side’s beliefs to the most basic arguments and many esoteric political and philosophical justifications from both sides are being layered on top of these basic differences of belief, but –  it really is this simple isn’t it? One side wants to build a house of worship dedicated to a specific religious belief system and the other side believes they should build elsewhere in deference to the majority of its neighbors desires. One side wants the other to recognize the law, the other side concedes the legal right but seeks respect for a de facto national “holy ground”.

There are earnest and honest people on both sides of this argument, but – is this an argument that is likely to result in blood being shed? If history is any indicator, the answer, unfortunately is yes.

This is a live, dynamic example of how brittle and strident humans can be when it comes to religion.  It’s astounding that modern man so ardently defends ancient religious belief systems.

A dozen not so simple questions:

• Why are humans so sensitive about their religious belief systems?

• Why does it matter to us what another believes?

• Why do we fear what another believes?

• Why do we mistrust those who believe differently than we do?

• Why do we defend our beliefs with same vehemence we defend our offspring?

• Are we born to mistrust others beliefs or are we indoctrinated to do so?

• Why do many religions call for adherents to convert others to their belief systems?

• Are we hard wired to be defensive about what we believe?

• Are we hard wired to believe?

Why does the human race justify killing in the name of God?

Do Americans who claim to stand for religious freedom really want to be on the side of religious intolerance?

Do American Muslims really want to poor salt into an open wound of their American brothers and sisters?

Got any answers?

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