About two years ago, I invited prominent Muslims, Christians and Jews to defend religious liberty and tolerance from within their own faith tradition. I had previously written several scholarly articles about liberty and tolerance from a Christian perspective (which were likely read, as are most scholarly articles, by just a handful of people). And I had completed a book-length manuscript, Explaining God Away?, in response to the so-called New Atheists who proclaim that religion, especially the Abrahamic religions, foster intolerance and hatred towards other faiths. Apparently sacred, benign, and even peaceful religious faith, they claim, sets the young and committed believer on a sure path to stonings and suicide bombings.
I embraced the New Atheists’ allegations as a challenge to religious believers to do everything in their power to prevent their allegations from coming true. That is: religious believers should do everything in their divinely motivated power to bring it about that religion is a force for good. Believers should make it so that genuine faith in God inspires kindness, compassion, and liberty, and not intolerance, hatred, and violence. If religious believers don’t work hard and don’t work together, religiously inspired evil may not win out over religiously motivated good. Without religious believers doing everything in their power to bring peace and reconciliation to our broken world, religion could be the death of us all.
Most defenses of liberty and tolerance are written from the Western, liberal perspective; these preach mainly to the Western choir. For more conservative Muslim, Christian and Jewish choirs, music in their own theological language is required. So I asked the contributors to write from within their own theological tradition. I asked for essays that could prove persuasive to those who share their tradition. But I also hoped that each essay would help readers from various traditions to sympathetically understand practitioners of other religions. Sympathetic understanding makes it a lot harder to restrict the liberty of others.
How then can religious believers resist the temptations to intolerance and find their way to mutual peace, uncompromised liberty, and principled tolerance?
Abrahamic faith at its most confident should create humility and mercy rather than the arrogance and hatred so evident in purveyors of intolerance. The faith of Abraham is the faith that a merciful God is in control and that submission to God’s providential will is the path of human righteousness. The Muslim saying, “there is no god apart from God,” should preclude any mere human from making god-like proclamations concerning life and death. The Jewish Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are but creatures wholly subject to God. And Christians are instructed, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, not to put limits on their love.
This book is just one part of a project that aims to get the message of “peace, love and understanding” from religious believers to their fellow religious believers. I have been working with local Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders in Indonesia, Turkey and Israel to find ways to effectively communicate this message to Indonesian, Turkish, and Israeli Muslims, Christians and Jews. It is my hope that, together and apart, we can foster peace and liberty.