Going beyond religious tolerance

You stink but I tolerate your odour ... I am holding my breath while talking with you. This is a vivid illustration of tolerance. Tolerance is a bad word and religious tolerance is just as bad. It seems to connote that somebody else's religious beliefs and practices are affecting you in a negative way and you (for the sake of religious harmony) put up with the situation.

"To tolerate your neighbour is to live with the uneasy knowledge that his existence and way of life could impinge upon your individual happiness and progress."

Stephanie Neubronner and Tan Simin
Researchers at the Institute of Policy Studies
"Inclusiveness not just about economy" in The Straits Times, January 17 2011

The two researchers went on to say that we need to talk about and reach a consensus on difficult issues including conflicts that may arise from increasing religiosity and the physical limits of our shared space.
An example of negative impact of religious practices is the burning of joss paper in common spaces because when the wind blows, smoke fills the air and ashes drift into the houses nearby including your home. Should you simply tolerate? Religious tolerance stops at the negative and leaves you irritated. Can we go beyond religious tolerance?

Nowadays, “religious tolerance" also seems to mean that you don’t hold that anybody's religion is wrong … everybody's religion is equally right. But this meaning of religious tolerance makes no sense. If the other person is right then what are you tolerating? What is the object of your tolerance? The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines "tolerate" as "endure, put up with". In other words, we tolerate or endure what is unpleasant or what is bad. If everybody is right then there is nothing to tolerate!

This new “religious tolerance” is actually intolerant of proselytism because if you ever suggest that someone's religious beliefs might be wrong then you are deemed arrogant (of your own beliefs) and intolerant (of other beliefs). Live (your own life) and let (others) live (theirs) is their cry.


In her 2004 poll of 2,779 students aged 13 to 18, sociolinguist Dr Phyllis Chew found that 76% of the respondents said that they do not ever talk about religion and stressed that it was very important to be tolerant of other religions.1 “Tolerance” is construed as “not talking about religion” which is a way of avoiding possible conflicts. The result is less discussion of different religions and the merits of their competing beliefs. The survey also found that students who gave specific details on their own faith could make only superficial remarks or had nothing to say about other religions.2 Examples: “It is associated with monks” for Buddhism, “they go to church and sing hymns” for Christians and “cannot eat pork” for Muslims. Is this ignorance of or disinterest in other religions a good or bad thing?

In February 2010, a pastor was called up by the Internal Security Department for a chit-chat in connection with his comments and insinuations about Buddhism and Taoism at his church sessions. In May 2010, a Christian couple was found guilty of distributing seditious or objectionable publications and has been sentenced to eight weeks jail each. How do all these events plus the new brand of religious tolerance (that everybody’s religion is right) affect Christians? Do they cause us to step back and stop talking about our faith?

I am not advocating insensitive evangelism that has no humility and that puts down the religious beliefs of its audience. D.T. Niles, a Ceylonese pastor defined evangelism as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”. We are all beggars (sinners) in need of God’s mercy. There is no ground for any Christian evangelist to be haughty. A Christian is still a sinner albeit a forgiven sinner. Now, he is to tell others how they too may be forgiven of their sins.

Evangelism is telling others what Jesus Christ did on the cross. One thing I do NOT do in evangelism is to make statements about another person's religion, not to mention criticizing it. Whatever I know of other religions are from secondary sources so I have no assurance that my knowledge is accurate. However, I do ask questions about their beliefs with the intention to show them the "flaws"3 in the religion of their choice. Before you jump at me and label me "arrogant", note that asking questions cut both ways. If your answers are sensible and I am honest in evaluating them, you may have a new convert in me. But if you do not have a good answer then that may prompt you to either find out more about your own faith or explore mine.

Why don't Christians "live and let live"? This is because "live and let live" also means "live and let die". In early 2009, my 80-year old mother was diagnosed with liver cancer and surgery to remove 60% of her liver was the only option. Suddenly, death loomed to the forefront. But what was foremost in my mind was "after death". The Bible says that man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (Heb. 9:27) and if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). I desperately desired that my mother would have the opportunity to hear the good news of salvation before she went for surgery. The salvation of my mother is more important to me than the outcome of the surgery.

It is in view of this lake of fire and coupled with Jesus' claim to be the only way to heaven (John 14:6) that we Christians talk about our faith. We cannot live while others die. However, if you do not wish to listen, politely and firmly tell the would-be evangelist. He does well to respect your right not to listen and your (religious) freedom to believe whatever you want to believe.

I believe no one leaves a social interaction unchanged ... not necessarily as a new convert but at least with new understanding and appreciation of one another.
"Promoting respectful conversations on difficult issues will promote deeper understanding of divergent points of view."

Stephanie Neubronner and Tan Simin
"Inclusiveness not just about economy" in The Straits Times, January 17 2011
Do we have the maturity to go beyond religious tolerance? Can we talk about our own faith without putting down another and move towards religious harmony in which we all recognize that the rejection of a belief is not a rejection of the person who holds that belief?

"Our practice of tolerance must mean more than peaceful coexistence, crucial as that is. It must be an active understanding fostered through dialogue and positive engagement with others."

Ban Ki-Moon
UN Secretary-General
In "Active tolerance vital during times of extraordinary change"
UN News Centre, November 16, 2012


1 Chew, Phyllis Ghim-Lian. (2008). Religious Switching and Knowledge among Adolescents in Singapore. In Lai Ah Eng (Ed.), Religious Diversity in Singapore (pp. 396). Singapore: Institute of South-East Asian Studies.

2 Ibid., (pp. 391-393)

3 As perceived by me based on my understanding of the secondary sources




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