On Religious Intolerance

First published in Network Magazine Jan. 2013

In the 1st century BCE, the Romans banned druidic practices throughout Gaul as part of Julius Caesar’s efforts to win the seven year Gallic War.  The Romans were perhaps the first civilisation to make religious intolerance an official foreign policy  (after centuries of multiplicity) and they imposed their Roman pantheon wherever it was practical to do so (places such as the Jewish state of Judea being a notable exception).

Nearly 400 years later in 325CE the Roman emperor Constantine I effectively took over the growing Christian religion (at the Council of Nicea) forcing conformity on the developing churches and beginning the gradual process of making Christianity the official religion of the empire, to the exclusion of all other religions.

During the middle ages, the Celtic Churches of Ireland and Britain were forced to conform to Roman doctrine, ‘heretical’ forms such as those of the Manichians, Cathars, Coptic Gnosticism etc were either made to convert or violently destroyed.

With the emergence of the reformation, instead of accepting the need for reform the Roman Catholic Church proceeded with a counter-reformation leading to centuries of bloodshed and conflict, the repercussions of which are still with us today.  We are all familiar with the ‘troubles’ in the north of Ireland and even as late as the 1980s Catholic-Protestant intollerance flared up in Fethard in Co. Wexford.

Of course Christianity is not the only religion to have been subverted for political purposes or used to suppress other religions. In China there was a period of conflict between Taoism and the incoming Buddhism, although this was eventually resolved harmoniously with assimilation of much of Taoist thought into the more dominant Buddhism.

In India and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh there has long been conflict between Hindu and Muslim religions and tension remains high even now. Currently, in Nepal, Buddhists and Muslims are locked in bitter rivalry which threatens to plunge the country into a civil war.

We are all aware of the strife in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has been almost continuous for over sixty years now. Indeed, the conflict in that region stretches back to the 9 Catholic crusades against Islam begun under the auspices of Pope Urban II. Further back still, to the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem in 587BCE there was cultural and religious conflict; with this most famous of cities being attacked or captured 52 times in its almost four thousand year history.

The great sadness of this ongoing religious conflict that still afflicts the world is that things were not always thus. Evidence of the peaceful coexistence of a multitude religions and religious cults exists stretching back into the pagan (i.e. pre Roman rule). Of course religion was tied up with politics stretching back into the early city states of Sumeria and Egypt, however religious zealotry was pretty uncommon, perhaps the notable exception being the reign of Egyptian Pharoh Akhnaten who instituted a monotheistic policy revolving around Aten (Ra); which led subsequent generations to try to erase him and his revolutionary dogma from history.

Despite the fact that there appears to be more religious strife than ever, due to the almost instantanious reporting or modern media; we are now living in a world where peoples of all races and creeds seek to have the right to practice their religious and spiritual practices without impediment.

This appears to be part of a general trend towards a demand for greater freedom from oppression in all areas of human experience. Just as racial and sexual descrimination has become more and more unacceptable, religious intolerance must also become unacceptable.

I believe that at the core of all religions and spiritual paths the message to mankind is basically the same – a message about how to live in this world and what is important in life.  Of course it is possible to have morality without religious beliefs, but seeing as the vast majority of people on this planet believe in some form of divinity this sense of morality is connected with their religious beliefs in most cases.

Peaceful existence, respect for each other and the world around us are fundamentals of religious or spiritual life, but unfortunately for many this goes out of the window when dealing with others of a different belief system. For many people their views of other beliefs are dominated by fear of the unknown and quite often this is whipped up into hysteria by sensationalism in the media.

Division, hatred and intolerance do not help anyone, it does not make human existence or life on this planet any easier. Surely we have enough problems in the world already without continuing to add religious insensitivity to the mix?

Perhaps it’s time that we all reconsidered our perceptions of faiths other than our own and tried to look at them objectively from a position of curiousity or empathy rather than one of disdain or fear, usually based on total ignorance. We might find that we have more in common in our beliefs and attitudes than the gutter press would have us believe.

Vested interests, from ancient empires to the present day have always been interested in creating division and conflict where it suited their purpose. However, ordinary people the world over are just people trying to live their lives as best they can, if we give each other a fair hearing maybe we can learn to appreciate what we do share and respect each others’ differences.

Luke Eastwood is a writer and horticulturist living in Co. Wexford, he is author of ‘The Journey’ published by Moon Books. www.lukeeastwood.com