San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Intolerance and religion

Jack O'Brien

With so many deadly quarrels going on around the world right now, many of them based not just on religious differences, but on minor differences of interpretation within a single religion, perhaps the time has come to say a word or two about intolerance and religion. We live in a terrifyingly hostile world where we would scarcely last a day without our protective skin and an immune system trained to seek out and destroy any microorganism not displaying the identifying label of “Self.” As hosts to a ruthless killer, it is scarcely surprising that our attitude toward people our own size but different in race, creed or custom is similarly intolerant. The history of blacks, Jews and of minorities generally is ample proof of that.

But just as the immune system tolerates the existence of food and fetal material, which, although not displaying the protective label, are essential to our existence, so we tolerate dissimilar humans who can satisfy our needs. This is a precarious balance, however, where a single misstep on either side can precipitate renewed intolerance and mutual aggression. Intolerance and aggression are basic to the human condition and can never be eliminated, whatever our desire to the contrary.

Turning now to religion, we would find it hard to struggle on for decades if we did not believe there was some purpose to it all, and that our final departure is not the end of the story. But I have bad news for you. The building blocks of which you are constructed are the same as those used to construct the sea slug and the blade of grass, and in fact we all share identical subunits. You must be prepared to concede that whoever or whatever created you also created them, and that if you are to claim life after death, so can they. In which case we are currently living in our own future, which is simply silly.

Statistically, moreover, even our very own species will go missing within the next million years, to be replaced by something a bit more adaptable.

Obviously, if we are to have a God, and I don’t deny we need one, it had better be someone or something with a credible explanation for creating you, the sea slug and the grass from the same materials. I offer Evolution, with Charles Darwin as its prophet, as a necessary and sufficient explanation for everything, but you are quite welcome to offer any credible alternative.

However irrelevant they may be, all major religions preach tolerance of our neighbors and teach us to be ashamed of our basic instinct to kill, so, naturally, when we fall from virtue, our first instinct is to blame our mentor. But to kill in the name of religion is downright absurd; we kill because it is in our nature, our protection against a world which at every level, from microbe to man-eater, is out to eliminate us.

But let’s not blame religion.

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