Why Should We Care What Others Believe?

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There is an inherent conflict within Christianity between the urge to preach and convert, and the attitude of tolerance that says “live and let live”.

We think we know where the urge to preach comes from. It is supposedly from the “Great Commission” where followers of Jesus are told “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”

Written, as it was, many years after Jesus died, it is almost a certainty that this “great commission” was cooked up by zealous Christians intent on legitimizing their impulse to convert others, and enhancing their importance in their own minds.

If you think of it, this is really quite scary. Here we have a bunch of people who believe it is their “mission” to change the world. I guess we are supposed to admire the motivation behind this – not for political gain, not for economic profit, not for personal power – but simply…for what? The desire to do good? to save people’s souls? Right. I guess so.

But this is the very impulse that drives zealous believers to destroy cultures that happen to be different from their own.

Imagine what would have motivated the Spanish conquistadors if not for this great commission. Yes, of course, there were other factors. The conquistadors were brutal military types unwilling to let anything stand in the way of out and out conquest, quite willing to subjugate anyone who got in their way.

Imagine if the Spaniards (or French in what eventually became Canada) had just said: “We see you have different beliefs. That’s OK. We believe in “Live and let live.” I don’t think so. Without that zeal to convert there likely would not have been a conquest. Or at least it would have been quite different.

Be that as it may, it is not difficult to see this conflict between the zeal to convert, on the one hand, and the impetus to tolerate diversity. Both of these things are central to the schizophrenic development of western society. We trumpet tolerance and steamroll real difference.

What we see in the historical developments of the last few hundred years is a divergence between these two things. Religious zeal has been crystallized and isolated in religious fundamentalism – both Islamic and Christian. Meanwhile tolerance and diversity are celebrated in democracy, along with the recognition and gradual elimination of more blatant forms of discrimination.

The point is, that as religious zealotry is gradually revealed for what it is – essentially irrational, exclusionary, intolerant, potentially and actually violent – it will gradually be driven underground. Fundamentalism will become (if it has not already become) a reflection of a past we are striving to put behind us.