Is Religion a Tolerant or Intolerant Human Phenomenon?

Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, has a theory. He thinks that religions tend to be morally neutral in terms of tolerance—and that their ranges of tolerant expression are dependent on the contingencies that they find themselves in. Hence, for example, Islam is not inherently a violent religion, nor is Christianity an inherently peaceful religion:

“When a religious group senses an auspicious non-zero-sum relationship with another group, it is more likely to create tolerant scriptures, or to find tolerance in existing scriptures; and when it senses no prospect of a win-win outcome, it is more likely to summon intolerance and belligerence.”

I like this neutrality theory of religion. It’s elegant. It makes smug moral superiority and demonic projection of out-groups more difficult. What’s not to like?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Is Religion a Tolerant or Intolerant Human Phenomenon?

  1. C. Wiles says:

    I think there’s some truth to this, and it could easily be supported by the pages of history. But I struggle with viewing religion through the lens of how it interfaces with surrounding cultures. While this is one dimension of religion, it does not tell the whole story. I tend to ascribe to Ninian Smart’s comparative approach where she describes several dimensions of religion and how they serve a personal or social need. So while I agree that the above theory is sometimes true, it fails to evaluate the depth of most religious conviction, and the history of interpretation often reveals hermeneutics not shaped by cultural forces but by the internal character of the community.

    Chris Wiles

    • I DID not know Ninian Smart was a woman! I’ve always thought she was a man. How about that.

      I like the ‘religion is dependent on context’ idea too, at least I think it’s useful for studying how believers actually act.

  2. calledsoldiers says:

    The faith in Jesus Christ is exclusive to itself, leaving no room for others. For Jesus, unbidden said, I am the way, the truth, and the life… no man can come to the Father but by me.
    Also saying in another scripture, If any man climb up some other way he is a thief and a robber.
    Therefore I (I guess you’ll says intolerably), disagree with your placid statement.

  3. Pingback: Dr. Jekyll, Meet Mr. Hyde: What Can Happen To a Gentle Person Under the Spell of Nationalism, Ideology, or Religion? « Prometheus Unbound

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