Inter-faith dialogue: Why we shouldn't settle for mere tolerance

In the US, inter-faith dialogue often settles for the idea of 'tolerance' for non-Christian faiths. But when 'tolerance' means inferior, how can this be right?

hidden December 15, 2012 12:44:36 IST
Inter-faith dialogue: Why we shouldn't settle for mere tolerance

By Rajiv Malhotra & Kaajal Ahuja

I have long advocated that Hindus in the US should challenge the “tolerance” that is patronizingly extended to them by Judeo-Christian religious leaders at inter-faith gatherings and see it for what it is - a put-down rather than any endorsement or acceptance of their faith.

In a previous blog, I’ve written that most of us would find it downright insulting to be "tolerated" at someone's dinner table. No spouse would appreciate being told that his or her presence at home was being "tolerated." No self-respecting worker accepts mere tolerance from colleagues. We tolerate those we consider inferior. My experiments over the years in attempting to replace “tolerance” with “mutual respect” for the Dharmic religions are further documented in my book Being Different, An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (HarperCollins India, 2011).

It seems that the “tolerance” word is finally being seen as problematic even in mainstream circles. At least they are beginning to give lip service to it. For instance, there was an interesting moment at the recent World Congress of Religions, an inter-faith meeting held in Washington DC recently commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda (which falls on 12 January 2013). In the Q&A session that followed her keynote address at the event, former US Secretary of State and speaker Condoleezza Rice admitted to the inherent deficiency in the word “tolerance” when extended to members of other faiths or races.

Interfaith dialogue Why we shouldnt settle for mere tolerance

Representational image. Reuters

Yes, Rice acknowledged, she too felt that the word “tolerance” implied that one way of looking at the world was better. “Tolerance” toward the other, Condoleezza Rice agreed, sounded too much like “I am better”.

It is difficult for a decent and fair-minded person to feel or say anything other than what Rice said. But in their history and engagement with the Dharmic faiths, the Abrahamic religions and their leaders have almost never extended to the former this most basic decency. In my inter-faith work of the past 20 years, I’ve found that there is considerable resistance from the Abrahamic faiths to making changes in language (let alone attitude) - from tolerance to respect - when referring to Hinduism and the other Dharmic faiths.

The religious leaders of Rice’s Presbyterian faith would find it impossible to jettison the word tolerance and replace it with respect. Were Rice to go so far as to offer respect to Hinduism, she’d be disavowing some of her church’s beliefs. The idea of "mutual respect" which requires appreciation of what makes other faiths distinct from one’s own poses a real challenge to Christianity, which insists that salvation is only possible by grace transmitted exclusively through Jesus.

These formal teachings of the church preclude respect for all other faiths, making “tolerance” the best they can do when engaging with other faiths.  As I’ve wondered in my book, can Christians really leave behind the chauvinism and exclusivism contained in that belief toward other faiths when they leave their pews and function as neighbours, friends, teachers, employers and public officials to non-Christians?

At inter-faith meetings, Hindus are routinely put on the defensive for “caste discrimination”, whether or not they indulge or subscribe to it in any way and irrespective of the huge strides made in alleviating it by various reform movements. Yet, the intolerance implied by the word tolerance passes unchecked. That Indians, settle so easily for the religious second-class status extended to them would have been offensive to Swami Vivekananda, whose 150th birth anniversary we celebrate this year.

Among his many achievements and contributions, Swami Vivekananda rekindled in Indians cultural pride. In his travels across India, he realised that colonised Indians could hardly awaken to political freedom without a revival of their self-esteem. One of the keys to reviving this self-esteem was the rejuvenation of India’s spiritual heritage and the defence of Hinduism, which he undertook courageously. In spite of his example, disappointingly, Hindus seem to acquiesce as if in agreement when thrown the scraps of tolerance even as they purport to celebrate his life.

Instead they must demand respect, a pre-requisite in my view for meaningful inter-faith dialogue. For how far can dialogue go when all the participants are not considered equals and the prevailing attitude on the Judeo-Christian side is, to quote Rice, that “I am better”.

There could be no greater tribute to Swami Vivekananda than to embody the courage and self-esteem that he showed. In channeling Vivekananda, Indians would do well to read and recall these and other empowering words – “realise your true nature. That is all there is to do. Know yourself as you are – infinite spirit” - Vivekananda famously exhorted Indians to arise and awake. Surely he didn’t intend Hindus to arise and awake to their true nature of infinite spirit and then settle for the parsimony of mere tolerance.

Interfaith dialogue Why we shouldnt settle for mere tolerance

Rajiv Malhotra

Rajiv Malhotra’s journey started in physics in St Stephens College and went to computer science in the USA, and further on to telecom, corporate strategy, management consulting and entrepreneurship. He took early retirement, and for the past 20 years has reinvented himself as writer, speaker and public intellectual in philosophy, international relations and current affairs.

Updated Date:

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

also read

FA Cup: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s brace helps Arsenal clinch 14th title, make last-minute entry into Europa League
Sports

FA Cup: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s brace helps Arsenal clinch 14th title, make last-minute entry into Europa League

It not only sealed Arsenal's fourth FA Cup in seven seasons. but a place in the Europa League, having only finished eighth in the Premier League.

Formula 1 2020: Max Verstappen relishes day of personal, family landmarks with Silverstone win
Sports

Formula 1 2020: Max Verstappen relishes day of personal, family landmarks with Silverstone win

On a day of personal and family landmarks, Max Verstappen passed his father Jos as the Dutchman to have started most Formula One races and confirmed himself as the Netherlands most successful driver.

FIA Formula 2 Championship: India's Jehan Daruvala finishes fourth at Silverstone
Sports

FIA Formula 2 Championship: India's Jehan Daruvala finishes fourth at Silverstone

It was a much-needed result for Daruvala, who had to endure slow starts in the earlier races due to clutch issues including the feature race on Saturday, when he finished 12th after starting seventh on the grid.