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Rethinking religious tolerance

Respect for different traditions butts up against concern about their views on women

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2002



MIDDLEBURY, VT.

As a working mother and local activist in Newburyport, Mass., Amantha Moore says her heart breaks every time she hears how women suffer in Afghanistan.

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But when she heard a recent radio news report about American women in Afghanistan urging local women to remove their veils as a sign of new freedom, she winced even more.

"So we got a good photo for the nightly news to say, 'look at these liberated women,' " Moore says. "But who are we to make that suggestion when they might get shot if the wrong person is around? What happens when the cameras are gone?... I'd be for people in that country to choose what'd be best for them."

Just a stone's throw away in Amesbury, Barbara Hildt says she, too, takes pride as a Quaker in practicing religious tolerance. But the more she learns about how women are treated in Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere, the more she finds many religious ways to be intolerable.

"When I feel people are suffering and people's rights are being infringed upon, I have a responsibility to speak up," Ms. Hildt says. "I think it's important, no matter what religion people are, to speak out on human rights."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, calls for greater religious tolerance and understanding have reverberated from coast to coast. Many a public forum has emphasized that world peace may hinge on growing acceptance of religious traditions that once seemed threatening or just unfamiliar.

Yet for those committed to universal human rights, religious tolerance poses a problem if it can be used to justify the unjustifiable. Increasingly, such a posture – which for a century has been a benchmark of sensitivity and professionalism – is causing soul-searching dilemmas. It's a particularly touchy issue in the United States, where an assumed religious tolerance can butt up against practices that may seem discriminatory.

The discomfort factor

"I ask: 'What would be the most effective way to undermine those practices?' " said Rita Gross, a historian of religions at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. "I think there are minimal human rights. If you go the total relativism route [of refusing to judge others' practices], you have no grounds for opposing anything."

But others say there are limits to pushing for change in others' traditions. E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociologist at Middlebury (Vt.) College, sometimes challenges Hare Krishnas on their treatment of women. But, he says, "It might not be justified.... I cross that line, and I feel discomfort crossing it. But if I didn't say anything, I'd feel discomfort with that, too."

Attitudes toward women are a key place for this conflict to come into play. At a conference earlier this winter at Middlebury, presenters displayed graphs and slides to show how women have made inroads in attaining prestigious clergy roles, becoming Buddhist instructors, and sitting side by side with men in synagogues.

That didn't lead to single-mindedness about whether to tolerate religious practices one finds deplorable. Indeed, while scholars agreed women should be men's equals in religious life and spoke of the importance of religious tolerance, the question of how to do both in a world where many religions regard men and women differently remained unresolved.

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