Crucial Need For Promoting Religious Tolerance

A Bahá’í Perspective

International Day for Tolerance is observed annually on 16 November – commemorating its declaration by UNESCO in 1995 to generate public awareness of the dangers of intolerance.

Religious intolerance and fanaticism are responsible for immense suffering, for bloodshed and wars in many parts of the world. Fanaticism and conflict poison the wells of tolerance and represent corrupt expressions of true religious values. The prejudices of race, nationality, tribe and gender are gradually being chipped away by a growing understanding of their destructive impact.  But religious prejudice still persists.  Perhaps this is because many believers find it difficult to reconcile deep religious conviction with tolerance of other beliefs.    

If religion is to help in meeting the diverse challenges confronting the world community today, it must be free from fanaticism, prejudice and animosity. The Bahá’í Scriptures emphasize that “religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man.  If it rouses hatred and strife, it is evident that absence of religion is preferable and an irreligious man is better than one who professes it”.

Primary instrument for order in the world

Religion is the fruit of the creative Word of God, which transforms human thought and action.  Throughout history, the main agents of spiritual development have been the world’s great religions. 

Religion, writes Bahá’u’lláh, is “the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world, and of tranquillity amongst its peoples … Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine”.

Religion plays a crucial role in civilizing human character, defining human identity as well as promoting social order.  Religion has exalted the lives of peoples everywhere and has brought cohesion and unity of purpose within and across societies. In the Bahá’í view, “there is no credible replacement for religious belief as a force capable of generating self-discipline and restoring commitment to moral behaviour”

In a period in history afflicted by moral crisis and social fragmentation, the need for deeper insight about human nature and behaviour is vital for the achievement of lasting peace and well-being.  Historically, such insight has been provided by religion.

Religion, according to the Bahá’í Writings, “is the source of illumination, the cause of development and the animating impulse of all human advancement” and “has been the basis of all civilization and progress in the history of mankind”.  It has the power to motivate and to awaken in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct.

However, it is important that religion becomes a source of fellowship and illumination and not wars and division. Religion provides the teachings and unifying power by which entire societies can achieve order and stability. The universal spiritual principles which lie at the heart of religion – tolerance, compassion, love, justice, humility, sacrifice, trustworthiness, dedication to the well-being of others, and unity – are the foundations of progressive civilization.  

The world’s great religions

The world’s great religions are equally valid in nature and origin, and spiritual life is equally accessible to everyone.  The Baha’i Writings state:

         “… that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary …” and “… that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed.”  

Given the thousands of years during which successive revelations of God have addressed the changing needs of a constantly evolving civilization, it could hardly be otherwise.

The Universal House of Justice (the governing council of the Bahá’í international community), in its message of April 2002 to the world’s religious leaders, appeals to the honourable leaders of religions to consider promoting the principle that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.  By doing so, the process of harmonizing the world’s great religions will receive a considerable boost, and will make religion a more effective instrument for progress and peace. 

The world’s great religions should become the cause of unity and peace. They should emphasize that the individual’s spiritual fulfilment and well-being are tied up with the collective progress of the entire world community.  The teaching that ‘we should treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated’ is an ethic repeated in all the great religions and it sums up the moral attitude we should cleave to, as well as the peace-inducing aspect of religion.  By following this golden rule and promoting the teaching of oneness of humanity, religion can become a mighty force towards establishing peace on earth.

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OPINION: Flora Teckie