Thursday, January 15, 2015

About religious and thought intolerance

A photo-gram in film Intolerance (1916)
We can hear frequently people stating that cultures and civilizations in ancient times were respectful and tolerant with other religions, in such a way that all beliefs lived together in peace and harmony. This turned to religious intolerance and religious wars when monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) dominated a great part of the world during the latest 2000 years.
The supposed tolerance of paganism has prevailed as a myth in our modern mindset, but is not true. To see it, we should remember that all the wars in pagan countries (Egyptians against Hittites, Assyrians against Syrians, Babylonians and Egyptians, and so forth) were always considered as conflicts between their gods. The victors attributed their victory to their own gods, and felt a religious right to act cruelly against the losers. Just remember the pyramids the Assyrians built when they conquered a city with the heads of all the men and boys living there; women and small children were just deported as slaves. Or just remember that the death sentence against Socrates was really a case of religious persecution, for he was incorrectly accused of teaching atheism to the youth.

The supposed religious tolerance of the Roman Empire is based on the ease with which Romans assimilated the gods of the conquered countries, either through syncretism (by identifying them with their own gods) or by adding them to their pantheon, as they did with Cybele, Isis or Mithras. But this supposed tolerance became intolerance as soon as their main dogma (the multiplicity of gods) was questioned. Remember their persecutions against the Jews, which gave rise to the destruction of the Temple by Titus in the year 70, and to the Jew Diaspora ordered in 118 by Trajan, an emperor with a high renown of tolerance, who -by the way- also maintained the persecution against Christians. Remember also that one of the most violent persecutions against the latter took place in Syria in the time of the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, supposedly the paradigm of tolerance.
The Empire of Gengis Khan
If we move to other, supposedly tolerant religions, such as Buddhism, we should remember the atrocities performed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, when they conquered two thirds of Eurasia, although the official religion in the Mongol Empire was Lamaism, the form of Buddhism currently considered the most tolerant. We could also mention persecutions against Islam in China, against Christianity in Japan, or those by Hinduists, even in our time, against Christians and Muslims in India, the country of religious tolerance! And what about the mass human sacrifices performed by Aztecs when they conquered other nations in pre-columbine Mexico, which earned them their hate, pushing them to enter in alliance with Cortez, thus giving rise to the Spanish conquest?
The intolerance and persecution of Catholics in ancient times against heretics and other Christian branches must also be put in context: the reciprocal, often previous intolerance of other Christian branches against Catholics. Just two examples: the persecution against Catholics by Arian Vandals in North Africa; and the discrimination against Catholics, considered as second-class citizens, in the Visigoth kingdom in Spain and France, whose rulers were also Arians. We should also remember that during the so-called religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe during the sixteenth century the following agreement was reached: cuius regio eius religio. In other words, the religion of the rulers must necessarily be followed by their subjects. And in the 30-year religious war in the seventeenth century, both armies contained a strange mixture of both Catholics and Protestants. Just read Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy, for instance.
The last examples provide us with the key to the problem, the golden rule that can be easily tested against all the previously mentioned cases:
Intolerance (religious or otherwise) does not come from a concrete religion (Judeo-Christianity or Islam) or from a concrete ideology, but from the exercise of power. Whoever holds power (lawfully or unlawfully) cannot stand that their subjects think differently from their ruler.
Catholicism was not intolerant until Catholics reached temporal power. Now that we have lost it, we are tolerant and objects of persecution in half the world. Now that the rulers of many countries (democratic or otherwise) are atheists, atheists are becoming intolerant, as proved by Richard Dawkins’s words in The God delusion (preface to the paperback edition) against the liberty of religious education:
And I never tire of drawing attention to society’s tacit acceptance of the labeling of small children with the religious opinions of their parents. Atheists need to raise their own consciousness of the anomaly: religious opinion is the one kind of parental opinion that — by almost universal consent — can be fastened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is. There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. Seize every opportunity to ram it home.
I believe the conclusion is clear enough: intolerance (religious or otherwise) does not depend on a concrete religion or ideology; it concerns all of them and can be reduced to the natural intolerance of the rulers to the freedom of thought of their subjects. Thus it must be considered a constant fact for human beings.

Manuel Alfonseca

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