The Only Thing I Hate More than Religion Is Religious Intolerance

Swami Vivekananda

In my essay “Rejecting Spiritualism,” I complained about the relativism (and corresponding meaninglessness) that plagues the language of spirituality. In reply, someone referred me to the following statement by Swami Vivekananda: “I pray for the day to come when there are as many types of religions as the number of people in the world.”

Leave it to the ever-quotable Swami V to come up with a comment favoring religious propagation that I could get behind.

This requires a little explanation.

The only thing I hate more than religion is religious intolerance. I say this without the irony that gives the line its pleasing comical tenor. I mean it. This is the curse of liberalism.

I would be quite happy – and I think the world would be a better place – if everyone lost interest in religion, and it all just atrophied away. This, of course, will never happen. So, since there will always be religion, I am forced into a more realistic fallback position that is as principled at its core as it is pragmatic in its genesis.

Mr. Jiva-is-Shiva’s one-religion-per-person plan would accomplish both my ideals. It would represent the absolute obsolescence of religion as well as a manifestation of perfect tolerance and interpersonal harmony.

You may say that Swami Vivekananda, John Lennon, and I are dreamers (but we’re not the only ones). Imagine.

6 Responses to “The Only Thing I Hate More than Religion Is Religious Intolerance”

  1. 1 millyonair 6 September 2007 at 12:41 pm

    As usual, I enjoyed this interesting post. I suppose that in order for me to really respond to it though, I would need you to clarify what you mean precisely by “religion”. If you mean the mindless adherence to rote, and/or the shameful adoption of a behavior-dictating paradigm in lieu of the exploration and development of one’s own ideas and morals, then I must say I am in agreement with your disdain. If, however, you are suggesting that spirituality is valueless, then I must disagree. And I might argue with you that true spirituality is, in fact, a deeply individual endeavor.

  2. 2 mbjesq 6 September 2007 at 3:26 pm


    You make an excellent point. My bad.

    I like your take on “religion”, though it is a bit more descriptive than definitive. Let’s just define religion as any system of myth, mysticism, superstition, theology, or metaphysical speculation, codified in writing or ritual, that has managed to attract a community of adherents.

    The substitution of individual ethical decision-making for obedience-based behavioral modification is, as you say, shameful. It is the under-recognized, pervasive tragedy of religion.

    On the flip-side, I will say that for the rare, thoughtful, naturally inquisitive person, religion can be a useful tool for exploring philosophical questions, including moral issues. For these folks — people like Thomas Aquinas, Rev. Heng Sure, and Acharya Shri Chandanaji — it hardly matters which tradition they follow; one suspects they would have drawn similar understanding using any such tool. In fact, I suspect people like these are sufficiently brilliant that they really don’t require religion at all.

    Of course, the salutary effects of religion in a few capable hands is vastly outweighed by the damage it does in evil ones; and the even greater (though far more subtle) injury done in the disservice of the weak, frightened, and incuriously faithful.


  3. 3 millyonair 7 September 2007 at 7:49 am

    Well, okay. You were right about me being more descriptive than definitive. Something of a weakness with me. I like your definition – pretty much covers all the bases. I looked the term “religion” up on and their definition had a much less negative connotation than did yours or mine. But then I decided to drag my enormous, ancient Webster’s Unabridged off the shelf (it’s one of those 50 lb. jobs that smart people leave out on a pedestal in their library so that other people will be impressed by their devotion to things literary). I’ll spare you an excerpt, but words like “obedience” and “incumbent” were used, and that, I suppose is the attitude I was attempting to indicate with my definition. When it comes right down to it, I just plain don’t like the word “religion”. Maybe its overuse has garnered it some negative connotations (for example, a person might say that they wash their car or check their email religiously).

    As a Christian, I struggle with the perceptions held by those outside of my faith about those who share my faith. There was a time in my life during which I was a staunch atheist. Then I (ever-curious) explored other “systems” of spirituality (and found that most contain the same basic truths and moral guidelines). I remember the revulsion and disdain with which I once regarded Christians, and I would be lying if I said my own perception of them (as a whole) was completely changed. However, I think it is a common mistake for people both within and outside of a religious system to expect its adherents to transform into perfect beings, abandon their flaws and achieve absolute enlightenment. When their behavior is disappointing, it is therefore easy to criticize ans speculate about the contradictions between what they profess and what their actions declare. I’m certainly not accusing you of being so parsimonious in your opinions, I only mention this phenomenon because it is something I struggle to overcome myself.

    America seems to have two distinct factions (or maybe three) when it comes to religion. There are of course those people who vehemently, zealously cleave to Christianity, without really exploring or internalizing the messages of Christ. They use their religion as a way to justify themselves, their prejudices, and their intellectual laziness. We Americans have something of a reputation for inertia. Then there are those who see religion as an affront to their personal sovereignty (as in, “The hell if I’m a-gonna let some preacher-man tell me what what I can and cain’t do on a Saturday night! I’m an American, dammit!”) Then there are those who just don’t care. It all seems too archaic or irrelevant.

    Well, I was going to sum this up with some sort of tidy conclusion, but I’ve forgotten the point I was intending to make. Oh well. I hope you’ll forgive these ramblings, as I’ve very much enjoyed your eloquent response, and the occasion to discuss “religion” with someone who has clearly given much thought to the matter. Thank you for including the links- I found the information they included (esp. re: Acharya Shri Chandanaji) very interesting.


  4. 4 Fred 7 September 2007 at 9:39 am

    Hey Mark, hope you guys are doing well.. I read your post and then just happened to bump into this funny bumper sticker:

  5. 5 mbjesq 1 January 2012 at 12:03 pm

    It seems Cee Lo Green has stirred the shit by singing a (rather poor) cover of John Lennon’s Imagine in Times Square, shortly before midnight last night, in which he altered the lyric “and no religion too” to sing “and all religions true”. This set the atheist twitterspace atwitter, apparently.

    It’s hard to see why.

    Cee Lo seems to have simply been calling for religious tolerance. I’m okay with that. And while no one should be monkeying-around with the work of the incomparable John Lennon (even his poorer efforts, of which Imagine is certainly no one), I don’t think Mr. Green changed the message much. In a world were all religion is true, none are true; and then, what’s the point?

    This echos my teasing debate with Nipiun Mehta of more than a decade. Nipun claims to be an omni-theist. I insist that makes him an atheist, like me. I did, however, waiver on this razz at his multi-faith wedding ceremony, at which I delivered a blessing on behalf of atheists. I averred that I represented the one tradition not properly within the description of the umbrella.

    I have friends, like the reverend Heng Sure and Sadhvi Shilapiji, who work tirelessly on interfaith dialogue. They are deep thinkers who are not only appalled by the conflict caused by religious discord, but are among that rare breed of whom I spoke in the essay, above: they utilize religious thinking in a way quite different than does the common religious person. For the religious everyman, however, social discord based on religious intolerance makes perfect (if nauseating) sense. If you’ve been schooled in a fear-based system which substitutes textual infallibility for active moral agency, it seems only right and natural to loathe all who don’t follow your “one true religion.” In that sense, religious tolerance is a bit of a fraud — or at least a bait-and-switch. It requires a liberal rethinking and relearning of meta-religion by masses who have been strictly taught not to think outside of doctrine. And that I am struggling to imagine.

  6. 6 Lavanya 10 February 2012 at 7:00 am

    Loved the discussion in the comments! I have been thinking about this myself, and find that though I subscribe to spirituality, and deeply admire Swami V and his thoughts and agree with most of them; I would rather befriend an atheist than a religious person who has no concern for the well-being of our fellow-men. Hinduism in its purest form is the one where I have seen hardly any form of fear-based philosophy, though in practice it is seen significantly (which departs from the spirit of it). From that perspective I am perhaps closer to an atheist!! Regarding the religious traditions, I think Hindu philosophy encompasses atheism – there is supposed to be a stream started by a sage called Charvak that was atheistic, and embraced some of the values as a way of life instead of believing in a God. I don’t know much about this branch of Hinduism, though; and have definitely not seen this in other religions.

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