One of the most important philosophical challenges we are facing today is that of intolerance, particularly religious intolerance. Repeated terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and elsewhere, remind us all of how far these intolerant religious believers are prepared to go.
A possible explanation of why religious believers react violently when challenged is a phenomenon known as ‘cognitive-dissonance’, a theory put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. Cognitive dissonance can be very briefly summarised as a deep conflict occurring in the brain caused by the presence of conflicting and/or incompatible ideas or beliefs. This can lead to incoherent and sometimes violent manifestations in the affected individual.
We have all had conflicting ideas or feelings that were so deeply rooted in our mind that we were not able to act normally. Have you ever had that feeling of having said or believed something and being ashamed or not daring to say that you might be wrong? I have…These inner conflicts are everywhere to be found, even on Facebook and Twitter. I have had this experience, being called “pathetic” on Facebook, and told to “sod off” on Twitter.
The most extreme example of cognitive dissonance is that of suicide bombers and other religious terrorists whose actions and worship for their God, they say, lead to redemption in heaven, even at the expense of their own lives. They are so deeply rooted in these beliefs that, not only do they not accept that others dare to differ, but also feel that they must kill all opponents of their deep rooted beliefs, even within their own faith. Although, today, this evil is perpetrated in the name of Islam. We must bear in mind that, only recently, similar atrocities were also being performed in the name of Christianity. The 1970’s in Northern Ireland remain part of our living memories.
I deeply respect all religious believers. Belief is for them an essential component of their lives and source of comfort in hard times. But people are distinct from beliefs and my problem comes from religious beliefs becoming non-personal. Believers must not tell me how I should live my life and must respect the fact that I do not share their views. In 1763, the French enlightenment writer Voltaire published a “Treatise on Tolerance” following the trial of Jean Callas in 1762, falsely accused of murdering his son to prevent him from converting to the Catholic Church. Voltaire fiercely condemned the unjust condemnation of Jean Callas and went on to criticise all forms of religious intolerance throughout history:
There are about forty million inhabitants in Europe who are not members of the Church of Rome; should we say to every one of them, ‘Sir, since you are infallibly damned, I shall neither eat, converse, nor have any connections with you? (Treaty on Tolerance Chap 23)
We could update this quote with:“Sir, since you are infallibly damned, I shall kill you and others in your vicinity.”
Voltaire’s treatise gained enormous popularity following the attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in 2015, underlining the fact that his comments and views are still very much alive.
Even today, in our so-called secular societies, we have examples of religious infringement in the public domain, even to the point of religious-based persecution of individuals. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch Member of Parliament, left The Netherlands in order to be able to freely express her views without the fear of being assassinated. It followed the brutal assassination in Amsterdam of writer and director Theo van Gogh.
She worked with van Gogh for the film Submission (2004), a critical account of the treatment of women within Islam. Theo van Gogh’s assassin managed to pin a letter on the dead body that was nothing less than a death threat against her. Following television revelations, Hirsi Ali admitted delivering false information at the time of her Dutch asylum application in 1992, and her reasons for leaving her homeland remained controversial. Although this led her to giving up her parliamentary seat, it does not change the proven fact that she was being persecuted for her dissident stand against Islamic fundamentalism. The Netherlands is a country that is more tolerant than most, but even there we are seeing signs that tolerance may be a fast declining virtue.
Religious followers, particularly fundamentalists, seem to think that they have the divine right to enforce their convictions on others by any means. They ignore the fact that each and every one of us is but an infinitesimal small point in the universe and that our lives are insignificant in comparison with eternity.
This little globe, which is but a point, rolls through space, as do many other globes; we are lost in the immensity of the universe. Man, approximately five feet tall, is assuredly only a small thing in creation. (Treaty on Tolerance Chap 23)
In 1981, the United Nations adopted a declaration on the “Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief”. Article 3 of the declaration states that,
Discrimination between human beings on grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations.
It is high time that the “Word of the United Nations” be taught in the same way that the “Word of God” is.