Prof Arvind Sharma on how history suggests religious tolerance leads to peace, prosperity

Prof Arvind Sharma's latest book is a comprehensive and encyclopedic survey of the concept of tolerance in the texts, philosophies and histories of ten major religions.

Partha P Chakrabartty August 26, 2019 09:22:09 IST
Prof Arvind Sharma on how history suggests religious tolerance leads to peace, prosperity

Prof Arvind Sharma has authored over 50 books and more than 500 articles over a long and illustrious career as a scholar of Religious Studies, and as the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

His latest book is a comprehensive and encyclopedic survey of the concept of tolerance in the texts, philosophies and histories of ten major religions. In this interview, conducted over the phone, he discusses the main ideas presented in Religious Tolerance in the World Religions. We discuss what tolerance means, how it can be beneficial to society, and how the current rise of religion in politics all over the world can be understood and contended with.

Prof Sharma is going to be teaching at Nalanda University in Rajgir, Bihar, for a year.


Prof Sharma, you mentioned that you owe some of the ideas in this book to the three world conferences of religion that you organised, which included Nobel laureates like the Dalai Lama and Shirin Ebadi. Can you tell us a bit about those conferences, and what led you to write Religious Tolerance?

So the connection between the three conferences and the book is, in a sense, tangential. I organised those conferences with the idea of producing a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World Religions [available online here]. So that was the main motivation. But, simultaneous with those activities, I had been pursuing the idea of a book on religious tolerance for a long time. I made several attempts, but gave them up, because they were too unexciting. They seemed like a rehash of what is already there.

However, the connection between the conferences and the book is that I saw the importance of religious tolerance in greater detail because most of the participants in the three conferences emphasised this dimension.

Prof Arvind Sharma on how history suggests religious tolerance leads to peace prosperity

Prof Arvind Sharma

I was particularly intrigued by your idea of the failure of secularism to fully contend with the influence of religion, which is what led you to organise the conferences, and also write this book. Could you elaborate on that?

I believe that the instinct for religion is universal, and secularism’s attempt to dismiss it was a failure. Now, there is a confusion in discussing the term ‘universal’. The term universal seems to imply that something is present all the time. But take the example of food. The need for food to survive is universal. However, we are not hungry all the time. So this introduces a new element into our understanding of ‘universal’.

When I say the instinct for religion is universal, it does not mean that it is present all the time. That is why secularists can form the mistaken impression that it is possible to dispense with the instinct for religion. Just because I don’t feel hungry for most of the day, doesn’t mean I can skip meals forever! In the same way, we cannot banish the instinct for religion. Once we realise this, we are not puzzled by the fact that the world can be secular for a long time, and then suddenly, after the Iranian revolution, we have the re-emergence of religion in public life in such a big way.

If religion is an important need, a need that cannot be dispensed with, then sooner or later, the religious factor will regain importance. It is during such a time that this book becomes relevant. Part of the argument of the book is that religions themselves possess the resources to deal with that for which secularists resort to secularism. To put it distinctly, acceptance of true religion by religious traditions would serve the same end that is achieved by secularism.

You have spoken of the importance of the State when it comes to the way religious thought and institutions have developed.

I was genuinely surprised when I wrote this account of the central importance of the State. While I always knew it was important, it never crossed my mind that it was that important. I think the reason for this is that both the State and religion make ultimate claims on us. That is to say, the State wants us to sacrifice our life for the State, and the same is true of religion. The loyalty that they demand from us is extreme, and comparable. I have not been able to work this point further. It is an insight that I am still trying to figure out.

Your book has shown that the seed for tolerance and intolerance exists in all religions. Which seed gets activated seems to be determined by historical, political, cultural circumstances.

Here I would like to say that I agree, that religion, or the study of religion, can only be carried out in a context in which the political, the social, the economic, all these are significant. But I am not sure that religion can be reduced to these.

So you get two kinds of reductionism. You can call one methodological reductionism, and the second one as ontological reductionism. I would be very hesitant to accept the claims of ontological reductionism, but it is obvious to me that methods that consider political, social and economic contexts have explanatory power when it comes to some dimensions of religious behaviour.

Ontological reductionism would say that religion can be reduced to politics, or economics, or society. This is an extreme form of it that I do not agree with.

So you are saying that apart from controlling political, social and cultural factors, it is important also to look at religious factors and ideas. That therefore a book like this, or scriptural defences of religious tolerance, are also vital to achieve a tolerant society.

Yes, for that very reason.

In this book, you have covered ten major religions. For each tradition, you show the movement of religious thought, classifying ideas as falling under ‘exclusionism’, ‘inclusionism’ and/or ‘pluralism’. What do these concepts mean, and why did you choose them to explore the idea of religious tolerance?

The use of these terms has to do with religious salvation. If the position is that only one religion can ensure that salvation, and no other religion in any way can do so, then this is the exclusivist position. So to say that Christianity and Christianity alone, or Hinduism and Hinduism alone, can secure your salvation, this would be an exclusionist position.

The inclusivist position would be that the religion in which you already are may prepare you in some way for coming to the religion which alone can give you salvation. So, in other words, Judaism may prepare you for turning to Christianity. Ultimately it has to be that religion, but the religion is inclusive in the sense that it allows for the other religion preparing someone for salvation.

The third position, the plural position, is that every religion is equally potent in securing your salvation.

From what I can tell, these three dimensions are not exactly mapped to tolerance or intolerance. For example, I can imagine a time when a pluralist religion is intolerant towards a group that rejects its pluralism.

I think this point is best explained by an example from politics. Democracy allows freedom to all sorts of views about the State. Even the Communist Party can fight an election in a democracy. Now, the question is, what happens if the communist party forms the government, and in keeping with its teachings, abolishes democracy?

Therefore, a democracy can allow a communist party to function up to that point, after which it threatens the system itself. Similarly, pluralism can allow for exclusivism and inclusivism, but not to the point where the very structure that allows pluralism to exist will be destroyed. This constitutes the limit of pluralism.

One special feature of pluralism can guard against the tendency of a religion to become intolerant. This key element of pluralism is the idea that you can be a follower of more than one religion at a time. This idea of multiple religious identity is a very important idea in this context.

If we encounter a situation where Christianity takes over a democratic system, and establishes theocracy, that is a great danger. But it would not be a great danger for religious tolerance if the Christians believed in dual religious identity, that you could both be a Christian and a Jew, or a Christian and a Muslim. You can see this position in Hinduism, as people will say Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are all part of one family. Also in Nepal, among the Newari people. There is a report in anthropological studies, where if you ask them, are you a Hindu, they say yes, and you ask are you a Buddhist, they also say yes.

Prof Arvind Sharma on how history suggests religious tolerance leads to peace prosperity

Religious Tolerance: A History, by Arvind Sharma

There is a strong belief amongst non-Muslims of Islam being a particularly intolerant religion. And yet, you begin your chapter on it by stating that there is ‘considerable evidence’ which ‘attests to tolerance both within Islam and in Islam’s interaction with other religions’. Would you like to elaborate on this?

My answer to that can be found in two places. The first is, that there is considerable evidence in the Qu’ran, and in history, which I have documented in the book. For instance, there is the fact that there are at least two parts in the Qu’ran where it is said: ‘Return evil with that which is better’, just as Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi said.

Similarly, in the Hadith, there is a famous saying of the Prophet: ‘The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr’. This should surprise many who see Islam as an intolerant religion. And there are many examples from history that I have given in the book. I have mentioned that a fact runs like a golden thread through much of Islamic history, that persecuted people — Jews as well as Christians — often sought shelter under Islamic rule from religious persecution. For example, the Jews found a place in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain.

Now we come to the question, why does Islam have this reputation now? I think it has to do with its relationship with the ‘modern’ world, especially the Western world. This world has been in ascendance ever since Napoleon marched into Egypt. That march demonstrated to the Islamic world that Islam is now no longer the successful religion it has been. Since then, the Islamic world has been obsessed with the question: What went wrong? It is in a state of psychological crisis on how to deal with the West. What is happening is that it is trying various responses, and the extremist response is just one facet of this struggle for an answer.

You do not see the extremist response as the result of current economic and social crises in these communities?

It could be that too, but I think this is a deeper issue. I may be wrong, or my explanation may be limited. What I am trying to argue is that their focus is not on questions of tolerance. If a person is at ease with oneself, they are amenable to these arguments of tolerance. My feeling is that the tradition has been in a state of constant agonising over which way to go.

Now, my perspective may be the result of my focusing on the history of these traditions, and so my attempt may be ‘superficially deep’. But, it seems to me, that this element has to be considered.

What, in your view, are the benefits of ideas of religious tolerance? Do they promote things like prosperity and progress?

I think there is historical evidence that when countries have been religiously tolerant, they have also prospered. You see this from the evidence of Spain, in the Convivencia during the Muslim rule, during the Ming dynasty in China, and in the Mughal dynasty in India. This seems to suggest that religious tolerance plays a role. It certainly contributes to prosperity to the extent that peace contributes to it. Also, it allows people to trade and cooperate.

For instance, in the case of Spain, the Umayyad rulers also allowed people of other religions to reach high office.

Yes, and we see the same thing in Mughal India, and in Ming China. In China, a Jesuit was the head of the official astronomical bureau during the Ming dynasty.

Many decry religion’s tendency towards social exclusions. For instance the Feminist critiques, or Dalit critiques of religion, where they say that because religion is so toxic to us, and to justice in society, we are better off without it. The atheists also say that religion has done far more harm than good.

There are two points in response to this. The first is that, the past century is full of secular experiments, including Communism and Fascism, which aimed to exclude religion from life itself, or, as in the case of secular democracy, from public life. So this idea has been tried. I think that believing one can bypass religion altogether has an element of secular romanticism in it.

The second point is that, while it is true that religions have been against some of our modern norms, at least historically, there is also the point that if you take the highest ideals of those religions, and contrast them with the institutions of those religions, which have these toxic features, then you will find that these toxic features are challenged from within the religions themselves.

So, what I am saying is that one could propose that in the ideas of these religions, we have a measure by which we can judge the validity of the institutions which have become associated with them. Which is to say, an internal critique along the lines of feminism, or the Dalits, is possible. By dismissing religion as negative to begin with, we are potentially dismissing a force which could be an ally in our quest for justice. This would be a mistake.

So you believe social justice movements should form an alliance with groups that are carrying out this internal critique.

Yes, those sections in those religions which feel that these toxic institutions and toxic features have betrayed the very ideals of those religions. These can be a plus factor, working hand in hand with the secular forces.

Do you think this kind of internal critique is substantial in the world religions? Because they do not seem to have much influence at the moment.

I definitely believe that it is substantial and present. I also believe there is a tradition of religious people speaking truth to power as well, including to internal religious authorities — the prophetic tradition in the Abrahamic religions is a powerful example of the same.

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