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Religious tolerance is imperative in modern societies because it allows people with separate faiths, beliefs or values to coexist with one another. Acknowledgment of the validity of other people’s religions requires placing these different religions in their traditional contexts in order to understand them.
Furthermore, understanding the history of other cultures allows one to appreciate how similar experiences led to different conceptual systems. One must realize that people created their belief systems in order to make sense of their worlds or the chaos around them. Therefore, every religion is reflective of the culture and history of its followers.
In order to become religiously tolerant, one must familiarize oneself with the history of this religion. The Hindu pattern is again evidence of the fact that all religions are depictions of the experiences of the people involved and the conceptual systems that they deduced from them.
The Hindu religion has more than one holy text, more than one religious authority, several deities, theological systems and understandings of morality. Adherents of this religion are highly tolerant because of its henotheistic nature. Nonetheless, most followers still believe in one Supreme Being who manifests his powers through different divinities.
Central aspects of Hinduism include Vishnu (the preserver), Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer). Belief in the cycle of life i.e. the Samsara is central to the teaching of these adherents. However, it is possible for one to achieve enlightenment and thus escape this cycle. Many assert that one’s present life stems from the consequences of one’s past life.
This religion has four major doctrines that include dharma (righteousness in religion), artha (economic success) and kama (sense gratification) and nivritti (renunciation of the world). The latter is achieved through renunciation of the world in a process called moksha. Mankind’s supreme’s goal is to reach moksha.
Therefore, moksha is a solution of samsara. It is derived from the Buddhist faith. Doctrines from the latter religion were crucial in resolving complications in this religion. All these concepts can be traced back to the history of the Hindu religion. By dissecting the experiences of the Hindu people, one can understand why they came to follow their present practices and this should foster religious tolerance among non Hindus (Esposito et al., 2002).
The Hindu religion began as far back as 4000 BCE in the Indus Valley. It began with the Indus valley culture, which was held by native Indians. Thereafter, some Aryan tribes from Central Asia and Europe entered India and introduced Vedism. Since their immigration was done slowly or in waves (according to recent scholarly discoveries), most natives easily took up the Aryan religious with ease. This explains how the latter religion started amalgamating different belief systems. The Vedic belief system underwent various changes between 900 and 500 BCE. At first, the religion began with an emphasis on sacrificial rites. Emphasis was on perfecting people’s performance of the rites. However with time, some intellectuals decided that focusing too much on the rites instead of the wisdom associated with them was wrong.
They were called the Upanishads, and they introduced the focus on total dissociation from society in order to reach ultimate spirituality. They challenged the original structures of the Vedic religion because the latter was highly organized around sacrifices and priestly rituals. The priests who performed these rites were called Brahmans. They represented the capacity of the human to possess divine power.
When the Upanishads introduced their concept of total detachment from society or moksha, the Brahmans felt that this would threaten the organization of their society. As a result, they proposed a middle way in which one could strive towards moksha but still maintain the social hierarchies in society. It should be noted that the priestly class of the Brahmans arose earlier on in the Vedic faith because of some fire rituals that the Vedic believers carried out.
These rituals yielded successful results and led to the belief that their priests had a superior status. The Upanishads wanted to internalize the ritualistic process, hence their shift to the individual. This belief in developing the spiritual self led to the acceptance of moksha as a solution towards the problem of cyclical life (Fallows, 1998).
Thus far, one can appreciate why Hinduism has a hierarchical system that places the priestly class above all others. This was a way of preserving order in their society. One can also appreciate why the religion appears to be polytheistic. The god of fire and other gods were manifestations of a supreme being. One can also comprehend why these adherents believe in moksha; it provides them with a mechanism for solving the problems of this life.
It also gives them something to aspire to or work towards. This small history, therefore, heightens religious tolerance because it places these belief systems in context and establishes the experiences that led to their development. Some of them were social (entry of the Aryans into the Hindu culture), others were intellectual (internalizing rituals) while others were economic (preservation of social order for material prosperity).
In China, some people practice Taoism, others Confucianism and others believe in Buddhism. Certain followers combine elements of all three faiths. The experiences of members of these cultures also provide important insights concerning the influence of people’s experiences in the development of their belief system. By placing those occurrences in context, one can then gain religious tolerance of adherents of these faiths even though one does not ascribe to any of them.
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In Confucianism, most adherents believe that social harmony is the most important goal (Hopfe & Woodward, 2004). This school of thought was started by Confucius. He lived at a time when his society was struggling with the reinforcement of laws. Confucius thought about the ineffectiveness of coercive laws.
People simply followed them without really understanding them. This meant that the method was reactive rather than proactive. The intellectual proposed that if people internalized behaviors before acting, then they would act in an appropriate manner. In this regard, they would abide by their mutual obligations, and thus prevent the occurrence of disorder in that society.
Confucius, therefore, created the concept of mutual relationships and the need to respect one another. From this small history, one can understand why loyalty, etiquette and humanness are so important in the Confucian faith today. It was an attempt at creating social harmony by ensuring that everyone understood his place. Through education and personal effort, it was possible for people to become better.
In the Taoist school of thought, it is held that the ideal way of life is to accept things as they are. When one resists nature, then one actually causes things to get worse. It is in line with this thinking that Taoists believe in the Ying and Yang.
One represents the strong and hard force and the other represents the soft and feminine force. Therefore, by finding a balance between these forces in the universe, then calmness will prevail. The Taoist faith came after the Confucian school of thought. Confucianism taught about personal involvement and striving to become better.
However, subsequent intellectuals realized that they needed a new way of thinking that promoted greater peace and harmony. They lived at a time when there was too much active striving as seen in the warring era. Therefore, it was imperative to introduce the concept of yielding to nature. In this school of thought, it was argued that there was a force of life called Tao that flows everywhere.
One’s major goal was to be in harmony with the Tao. Through the use compassion, moderation and humiliation, one can develop important virtues. Most problems arise when one tries to fight or interfere with the Tao by acting in opposition to nature. One must strive to find answers within through meditation. The story of the emergence of Taoism demonstrates that experiences are crucial to the formation of one’s belief systems.
It was a response to the challenges of Confucianism and the social upheavals it had created. Too much active strive led to war in that community; this prompted an alternative way of thinking. Once again, one can become tolerant to this religion by realizing that it was a natural creation of the political and social problems of that time. Taoism complemented Confucianism in this society. In fact, many individuals abide by the principles of both these faiths.
They epitomize religious tolerance because they understand that belief systems carry a certain purpose in one’s society or one’s history. The same reasoning allows one to understand why Buddhism plays an important role in the Chinese society as well as many others in Asia. It is philosophical in nature and has generated minimal conflict with other faiths hence its acceptance (Keown, 1996).
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are the three main religions that have come to be associated with Abraham monotheism. A large part of Christian scriptures have been adopted from the Jewish faith. Similarly, many parts of the Islamic faith have stories or portions from the Jewish scriptures. In order to enhance religious tolerance, it is imperative to look at the history of the formation of these faiths in order to understand why their adherents hold the beliefs that they do.
Judaism is a religion in which people believe that they have a special relationship with God. This stems from the fact that they are a chosen people, having descended from Abraham. God gave them a gift of laws called the Torah to assist in maintaining their relationship with him and with one another.
The Jews have been misunderstood by many as a ritualistic and legalistic religion as seen through their scriptures, which are called Torah (interpreted as laws). In order to negate these misunderstandings, one must understand why the Jews called their scriptures the Torah.
The Jews think of themselves as God’s special people. It is believed that in order to promote harmony with God, they needed some guidance. Also, God needed to give them a commentary on how they could act towards one another; this was the reason why he gave them the guidance of the Torah.
Therefore, one can become tolerant of this religion by understanding the origin of their ritualistic practices. Judaism is also a religion that is highly diverse. The diversity stems from some cultural and theological experiences of members of this religion. Some individuals resettled along the Mediterranean or other parts of Europe and thus created their own version of the religion.
Conversely, some individuals understood the rituals and religious practices differently. These theological differences led to the birth of reconstructionists, reform Jews, Liberal Jews, Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Therefore, a cultural dissection of the Jewish religious system allows one to understand it. In this regard, one can accept adherents of the faith based on the premise that their history and their values led them to that place.
Christianity is the most predominant faith in the world today. In the US, most citizens associate themselves with some form of Christianity. It is still necessary to understand the development of Christianity in order to foster tolerance among the various sects if one happens to be a Christian or to build tolerance for non Christians.
The Christian faith began when Jesus of Nazareth was born in Jerusalem; a Jewish community. He was regarded as the incarnation of God as he was his son. This was seen through the fulfillment of prophecy as well as his life on earth – he performed miracles and did other divine things.
After he died and resurrected, the first Christian church officially began. Therefore, for non Christians, it is possible to understand why Christians focus on Jesus; they believe that he was God living amongst men. Furthermore, Christianity is monotheistic because having such a supreme being is the only consistent way to understand what their Holy Scriptures say about nature and the universe.
Religious tolerance can be effectively promoted when one understands the experiences and the history of the people who abide by them. Hindu-Buddhism, Chinese religions and Abraham Monotheism all emanated from a series of events or encounters that shaped those faith systems.
Some issues were political such as the warring states in China and Taoism; others were social such as the need to stick to certain social structures as in Hinduism. In essence different experiences led to different conceptual frameworks hence religions. It is this statement that makes religious tolerance possible.
Esposito, J. Fasching, D. and Lewis, T. (2002). World Religions Today. Oxford: OUP
Fallows, W. (1998). Religions East and West. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Publishers
Hopfe, M. & Woodward, R. (2004). Religions of the World. London: Pearson-Prentice hall
Keown, D. (1996). Buddhism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University press