Tolerance Isn’t Good Enough: The Need for Mutual Respect In Interfaith Relations ~Rajiv Malhotra

It is fashionable in interfaith discussions to advocate “tolerance” for other faiths. But we would find it patronizing, even 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. In religious circles, tolerance, at best, is what the pious extend toward people they regard as heathens, idol worshippers or infidels. It is time we did away with tolerance and replaced it with “mutual respect.”

Religious tolerance was advocated in Europe after centuries of wars between opposing denominations of Christianity, each claiming to be “the one true church” and persecuting followers of “false religions.” Tolerance was a political “deal” arranged between enemies to quell the violence (a kind of cease-fire) without yielding any ground. Since it was not based on genuine respect for difference, it inevitably broke down.

My campaign against mere tolerance started in the late 1990s when I was invited to speak at a major interfaith initiative at Claremont Graduate University. Leaders of major faiths had gathered to propose a proclamation of “religious tolerance.” I argued that the word “tolerance” should be replaced with “mutual respect” in the resolution. The following day, Professor Karen Jo Torjesen, the organizer and head of religious studies at Claremont, told me I had caused a “sensation.” Not everyone present could easily accept such a radical idea, she said, but added that she herself was in agreement. Clearly, I had hit a raw nerve.

I then decided to experiment with “mutual respect” as a replacement for the oft-touted “tolerance” in my forthcoming talks and lectures. I found that while most practitioners of dharma religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) readily espouse mutual respect, there is considerable resistance from the Abrahamic faiths.

Soon afterwards, at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit in 2000, the Hindu delegation led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati insisted that in the official draft the term “tolerance” be replaced with “mutual respect.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), who led the Vatican delegation, strongly objected to this. After all, if religions deemed “heathen” were to be officially respected, there would be no justification for converting their adherents to Christianity.

The matter reached a critical stage and some serious fighting erupted. The Hindu side held firm that the time had come for the non-Abrahamic religions to be formally respected as equals at the table and not just tolerated by the Abrahamic religions. At the very last minute, the Vatican blinked and the final resolution did call for “mutual respect.” However, within a month, the Vatican issued a new policy stating that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” Many liberal Christians condemned this policy, yet it remains the Vatican’s official position.

My experiments in proposing mutual respect have also involved liberal Muslims. Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, in a radio interview in Dallas, I explained why mutual respect among religions is better than tolerance. One caller, identified as a local Pakistani community leader, congratulated me and expressed complete agreement. For her benefit, I elaborated that in Hinduism we frequently worship images of the divine, may view the divine as feminine, and that we believe in reincarnation. I felt glad that she had agreed to respect all this, and I clarified that “mutual respect” merely means that I am respected for my faith, with no requirement for others to adopt or practice it. I wanted to make sure she knew what she had agreed to respect and wasn’t merely being politically correct. The woman hung up.

In 2007, I was invited to an event in Delhi where a visiting delegation from Emory University was promoting their newly formed Inter-Religious Council as a vehicle to achieve religious harmony. In attendance was Emory’s Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, who happens to be an ordained Lutheran minister. I asked her if her work on the Inter-Religious Council was consistent and compatible with her preaching as a Lutheran minister, and she confidently replied that it was. I then asked: “Is it Lutheran doctrine merely to ‘tolerate’ other religions or also to respect them, and by respect I mean acknowledging them as legitimate religions and equally valid paths to God”? She replied that this was “an important question,” one that she had been “thinking about,” but that there are “no easy answers.”

It is disingenuous for any faith leader to preach one thing to her flock while representing something contradictory to naive outsiders. The idea of “mutual respect” poses a real challenge to Christianity, which insists that salvation is only possible by grace transmitted exclusively through Jesus. Indeed, Lutheran teaching stresses this exclusivity! These formal teachings of the church would make it impossible for the Dean to respect Hinduism, as opposed to tolerating it.

Unwilling to settle for ambiguity, I continued with my questions: “As a Lutheran minister, how do you perceive Hindu murtis (sacred images)? Are there not official injunctions in your teachings against such images?” “Do you consider Krishna and Shiva to be valid manifestations of God or are they among the ‘false gods’?” “How do you see the Hindu Goddess in light of the church’s claim that God is masculine?” The Dean deftly evaded every one of these questions.

Only a minority of Christians agree with the idea of mutual respect while fully understanding what it entails. One such person is Janet Haag, editor of Sacred Journey, a Princeton-based multi-faith journal. In 2008, when I asked her my favorite question — “What is your policy on pluralism?” — she gave the predictable response: “We tolerate other religions.” This prompted me to explain mutual respect in Hinduism wherein each individual has the freedom to select his own personal deity (ishta-devata, not to be confused with polytheism) and pursue a highly individualized spiritual path (sva-dharma). Rather than becoming defensive or evasive, she explored this theme in her editorial in the next issue:

“In the course of our conversation about effective interfaith dialog, [Rajiv Malhotra] pointed out that we fall short in our efforts to promote true peace and understanding in this world when we settle for tolerance instead of making the paradigm shift to mutual respect. His remarks made me think a little more deeply about the distinctiveness between the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect,’ and the values they represent.”

Haag explained that the Latin origin of “tolerance” refers to enduring and does not convey mutual affirmation or support: “[The term] also implicitly suggests an imbalance of power in the relationship, with one of the parties in the position of giving or withholding permission for the other to be.” The Latin word for respect, by contrast, “presupposes we are equally worthy of honor. There is no room for arrogance and exclusivity in mutual respect.”

Rajiv Malhotra, (born September, 1950) is an Indian-American philanthropist, public speaker and writer on current affairs, world religions and cross-cultural encounters between east and west. A physicist and computer scientist by training, his career until his early retirement at age 44 spanned the corporate world as a senior executive, strategic consultant and a successful entrepreneur in the information technology and media industries. In 1995, he founded the Infinity Foundation, seeking to foster a better understanding of the dharma religious traditions of India (most notably Hinduism and Buddhism) both in the US and on the subcontinent.

The Foundation has given more than 400 grants for research, education and community work. Since he established his foundation, Rajiv has organized and led numerous conferences and scholarly events to address the challenges and opportunities arising from the growing encounters of civilizations east and west; his articles, blogs and books have a wide audience, and he is frequently interviewed and invited to deliver keynote addresses.

Only Spirituality Can Solve The Problems Of The World ~ Deepak Chopra


Before addressing the importance of spirituality in modern times, we should first define it. Spirituality is the experience of that domain of awareness where we experience our universality. This domain of awareness is a core consciousness that is beyond our mind, intellect, and ego. In religious traditions this core consciousness is referred to as the soul which is part of a collective soul or collective consciousness, which in turn is part of a more universal domain of consciousness referred to in religions as God.

When we have even a partial glimpse of this level of awareness we experience joy, insight, intuition, creativity, and freedom of choice. In addition, there is the awakening of love, kindness, compassion, happiness at the success of others, and equanimity. As the turbulence of our mind settles down, our body also begins to heal itself because it also quiets down. The body’s self-repair mechanisms are activated when the mind is at peace because the mind and body are at the deepest level inseparably one.

All religions are founded on a deep spiritual experience of unity consciousness where there was complete union between the personal and universal. Unfortunately, many times the followers of religion, instead of understanding the religious experience and seeking it for themselves ended up merely worshiping the founder of the religion. It is more important to fully grasp the teaching of the religion and its basic tenets, that have come from a deeper experience of transcendence. Self-righteous morality is not a means for experiencing higher consciousness.

Higher consciousness, spontaneously leads to moral and ethical behavior. However, because spiritual knowledge is powerful, the custodians of organized religion have frequently ended up with destructive behaviors — power mongering, cronyism, control, corruption, and influence peddling. As a result organized religion has frequently become quarrelsome, divisive, and led to conflict. No organized religion has been immune to this unfortunate tendency. So, we have had the crusades and witch-hunts of Christianity, the Jihads of Islam, the violent communal riots instigated by fundamentalist Hindus and the persecution of minorities and ethnic cleansing all in the name of God.

Our present times are particularly dangerous because ancient habits combined with modern capacities and technologies of destruction are a devastating combination that can destroy life on our planet.

As we begin to have a more scientific understanding of the transcendent level of our existence and look at the basic tenets of all religions, we find that the spiritual experience is fundamental to all and similar in all. This experience can be had by anyone through the practice of meditation, prayer, contemplative self-inquiry, the expression of love and compassion in action, intellectual inquiry into the deeper meaning of life, and self-less service.

With these practices, we begin to realize that consciousness is a field of infinite possibilities; that it is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely creative. This experience also leads to unbounded love and compassion. Getting in touch with our deepest self is therefore the utmost importance because it is our connection to the mystery that we call God.

As the Sufi mystic Rumi has said, “You’re not just a drop in the ocean, you’re also the mighty ocean in the drop.” If there is anything that will at this moment heal our wounded planet with its immense problems of social injustice, ecological devastation, extreme economic disparities, war, conflict and terrorism, it is a deeper experiential understanding and knowledge of our own spirit. With this deeper understanding and with an interfaith dialogue that looks at our commonalities rather than our differences, we have the opportunity to solve the problems of the world, address its inequities and heal ourselves. The word, “healing” and the words, holy and whole, all mean the same thing. To be healed is to have the return of the memory of who we really are. When we return to our sacred source, the world will be holy, and it will be healed.

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