Religious toleration is the condition of accepting or permitting others' religious beliefs and practices which disagree with one's own.
In a country with a state religion, toleration means that the government permits religious practices of other sects besides the state religion, and does not persecute believers in other faiths. It is a partial status, and might still be accompanied by forms of religious discrimination. Religious toleration as a Government policy merely means the absence of religious persecution; unlike religious liberty it does not mean that religions are equal before the law. Toleration is a privilege granted by Government (which it may do by law or charter), not a right against it; governments have often tolerated some religions and not others.
Religious toleration "as a government-sanctioned practice — the sense on which most discussion of the phenomenon relies —
is not attested before the sixteenth century", which makes it rather difficult to apply the concept to topics like Persecution of religion in ancient Rome.
Historically, toleration has been a contentious issue within many religions as well as between one religion and another. At issue is not merely whether other faiths should be permitted, but also whether a ruler who is a believer may be tolerant, or permit his subordinates to be. In the Middle Ages, toleration of Judaism was a contentious issue throughout Christendom. Today, there are concerns about toleration of Christianity in Islamic states (see also dhimmi).
Proselytism can be a contentious issue; it can be regarded as an offence against the validity of others' religions, or as an expression of one's own faith.
The element of objection
For individuals, religious toleration generally means an attitude of acceptance towards other people's religions. It does not mean that one views other religions as equally true; merely that others have the right to hold and practice their beliefs. This element of objection is important. People, who take these matters seriously, often experience distress when they are confronted with religious beliefs that they regard as idolatrous, superstitious, heretical or schismatic.
Contexts of religious tolerance
At least five contexts of religious tolerance can be distinguished. Religious tolerance as a state sanctioned practice can more precisely termed civil tolerance. Civil tolerance is concerned with "the policy of the state towards religious dissent". In contrast to this, ecclesiastical tolerance is concerned with the degree of diversity tolerated within a particular church. Without this distinction, the Christian debate on persecution and toleration in England could not be adequately understood.
Furthermore, there is also a social and a polemical context of religious tolerance. The grand theme of divine tolerance is the emphasis on "the patience and longsuffering of God" as it is frequently portrayed in the Christian Bible; This image of God has been invoked by early Christian advocates of toleration.
The polemical context
Contemporary authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett have all challenged the tolerance of religion. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris asserts that we should be unwilling to tolerate unjustified beliefs about morality, spirituality, politics, and the origin of humanity. In his preface to The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." Such secularism is often perceived as in itself intolerant by people of faith.
- 539 BC, Cyrus the Great issued a proclamation on the occasion of his conquest of Babylon, the Cyrus cylinder, arguably one of the first acts of religious toleration.
- 364-332 BC, Ashoka the Great declares religious freedom in the Edicts of Ashoka
- 311 AD, The Roman Emperor Galerius issues a general edict of toleration in his own name and in those of Licinius and Constantine.
- 313, The Edict of Milan issued by the Emperors Constantine I and Licinius proclaiming religious toleration in the Roman Empire.
- 622, Muhammad declares religious freedom in the Constitution of Medina
- 1190, Genghis Khan composes his code of law, the Yassa, in which there is religious freedom for all who were under his rule.
- 1264, The Statute of Kalisz guaranteed safety, personal liberties, freedom of religion, trade, and travel to Jews in Poland.
- 1554, Castellio writes the pamphlet "De haereticis, an sint persequendi" (Whether heretics should be persecuted), the first modern appeal for toleration.
- 1571, January 11 - Maximilian II declares religious toleration towards the nobles of Lower Austria, their families and workers;
- 1573, January 28 - Warsaw Confederation granting religious toleration.
- 1598, April 13 - King Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes, allowing religious toleration of the Huguenots.
- 1609, July 6 - Rudolph II grants religious toleration in Bohemia.
- 1657, April 20 - New Amsterdam granted religious toleration to Jews;
- 1689, English Act of Toleration passed, granting toleration to Protestant dissenters.
- 1829, April 13 - British Parliament granted Catholic Emancipation in the spirit of religious toleration;
- 1900 Robert G. Ingersoll publishes his plea for religious liberty.
- 1948, December 10 The United Nations General Assembly issues the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 declares that everyone has the right to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
- 1965, December 7 The Roman Catholic Church Vatican II Council issues the decree Dignitatis Humanae (Religious Freedom) that states that all people must have the right to religious freedom.
- 1986, October 7 The first World Day of Prayer for Peace is held in Assisi when representatives of one hundred and twenty different religions came together for prayer to their God or gods.
- 1988, April 29 - in the spirit of Glasnost, Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev promised increased religious toleration.
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