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Religious Freedom and the Dogma of Tolerance

by James Hitchcock
November 22, 2003

Traditional religion is under growing attack in our culture. What is not obvious are the full reasons for this hostility. Sexual morality is obvious. Orthodox Christianity is regarded as a negative force that retards a "progress" that now includes almost every kind of sexual activity short of rape. The Church is the chief institutional threat to this new "freedom", especially to abortion, which is essential to a morality that considers sex merely another kind of recreational pleasure.

Orthodox religious believers are also condemned as intolerant, since they hold beliefs that they insist are true and they deny that all religions are equally true. Here anti-Christian sentiment reveals its own illiberality. Catholics who, with the Second Vatican Council, think that the fullness of God's revelation is found only within the Catholic Church do not demand that other religions be suppressed, and the Council also proclaimed religious freedom as a Catholic doctrine. The "intolerance" of believers is thus found not in their actions but in their beliefs themselves.

A certain kind of liberalism now demands that everyone be a philosophical relativist, confessing that there are no truths and that every creed is merely the expression of a "point of view". To think otherwise is said to be dangerous in a democratic society. There is fundamental hypocrisy here, because those who condemn dogmatism in religion do not condemn their own dogmatism. If this liberalism were self-critical, it would have to admit that claiming all beliefs as relative is itself a dogma.

Ironically, while orthodox believers are now regarded as enemies of freedom, it is actually the secularists who constitute that threat. Those who think dogmatic religion is dangerous often try to inhibit the freedom of orthodox believers. There is respectable liberal opinion that holds, for example, that believers should not be allowed to hold public office (as in the current attempt to block the appointment of pro-life judges) and which even holds that parents should not be allowed to "indoctrinate" their children in the parents' own religions.

Of the Ten Commandments, the one most under radical attack for some time has not been the Sixth, as appears obvious, but the First, which for most Christians is not even an issue. In the end orthodox Christianity is feared and disliked because it is monotheistic. It affirms, along with Judaism and Islam, that there is only one God. In that sense it is an inherently intolerant religion, and those who want Christianity to be endlessly "inclusive" forget that it is radically exclusive at its very foundation.

The Romans were rather tolerant of other religions, as polytheism can afford to be. (If you believe in more than one god, there is no reason not to believe in other people's gods besides your own). But the Romans also tried to exterminate Christianity, precisely because it was a monotheism and therefore Christians would not honor the Roman gods. Just as relativism can tolerate everything except dogmatism, so polytheism can tolerate any religion except monotheism.

Some Christians are attempting to overcome this problem, but in ways which destroy the very essence of Christianity. One is the sentimental belief that somehow all religions are expressing the same truth in different ways. This idea has long been a staple of pop religiosity, but it belies all known evidence. (The Dalai Lama has recently reminded us of its falsity, observing that there are "fundamental differences" among religions.)

Other Christians, especially those who now turn to the spurious Gnostic Gospels for enlightenment, have made their faith into a mere emanation of the human imagination rather than a revelation from God. Thus some feminists who still call themselves Christians see no difficulty in honoring various goddesses. They do not, I suspect, actually believe that goddesses exist. Instead they think all beliefs are humanly created and everybody should worship whatever deities make them comfortable.

Secular animosity toward orthodox religion can only grow stronger, and it will be increasingly difficult to protect even the civil freedom of what are deemed to be "exclusive" religions. I fear, however, that most professing believers do not understand how deep the issue really goes, nor are they prepared, intellectually or emotionally, to respond to it.

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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