Editorial: Religious Freedom And Human Dignity

It was rather rich to see Saudi Arabia sponsoring a United Nations conference last week on religious tolerance. This from an Islamic nation that maintains a national police force to enforce strict Wahhabi orthodoxy. As one dissident Saudi Shiite Muslim put it, that’s like having a U.N. conference on racial harmony put on by apartheid-era South Africa.

Saudi Arabia is not the only Islamic nation with problems tolerating other religions. Bahais are persecuted by Iran. Religious intolerance abounds in Iraq. Egypt is grappling with similar issues. Even the Palestinian territories, previously known for strong Christian-Muslim relations, are experiencing a rise in tension.

Religious intolerance is not just a Muslim thing. Last week, authorities in India arrested nine alleged members of a radical Hindu terror cell in connection with a bombing that killed six Muslims. And Hindu extremists also have been intensifying their deadly attacks on India’s tiny Christian minority. The persecution has gotten so bad that a coalition of U.S. Christian leaders petitioned President George Bush last week to intervene with the Indian government.

As it happened, Mr. Bush spoke at the U.N. summit, where he called on nations “to understand that religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society.” True, that.

However imperfect, America is a prime example of a modern nation of religious vitality in a broad culture of religious tolerance. It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate how unusual this is.

Religions make truth claims about reality. They may all be wrong – an atheist would certainly affirm that – but they cannot all be right. For the truly devout, religious orthodoxy is the most important thing imaginable, because it involves ultimate truth.

When competing religious truth claims clash in America, we typically agree to disagree. But throughout human history, and in much of the world today, religious conflict often turns violent. Religious tolerance cannot exist if one believes that to tolerate another’s faith is to diminish one’s own by accepting an untruth.

Is there a way out? In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church, which had long denied religious freedom to non-Catholics with the teaching that “error has no rights,” reconciled religious orthodoxy with modern pluralism. The Second Vatican Council declared that indeed error has no rights, but humans do. In other words, people have a God-given right to be wrong about God.

In that simple but revolutionary formulation – based on the groundbreaking work of the American Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray – the Catholic Church opened the door to genuine respect and tolerance for non-Catholics, while preserving its own truth claims.

In that new understanding, to deny religious freedom is to affront the dignity of humans created in the image of God, and in turn, to offend God. It may not be as easy for theologians in other faiths to find grounds within their particular traditions to justify religious tolerance, but God knows they should try.