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The Nature of Religious Bigotry
by Swain and Eric Wodening

Bigotry, the intolerance, fear, and hatred of those different from ourselves, is still a far too common occurrence in the world today. Bigotry is now almost universally considered wrong because it robs others of their rights as human beings through discrimination and persecution. Here in the United States when we think of bigotry we tend to think of it in terms of ethnicity, and surely bigotry against those not of European origin is still the most common form of bigotry to be found in the United States. Bigotry can take other forms however, and one can be bigoted against others because of their religion, culture, political beliefs, and opinions, as well as their ethnicity.

Indeed, religious bigotry may well have been the most common form of bigotry for much of Europe's history. Most of us are familiar with the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, in which they were fed to the lions in the Coliseum and even blamed for the burning of Rome. During the Middle Ages, the Jews were persecuted to no end, not simply because they were another ethnic group, but another religion as well. Religious bigotry still exists in the world today and one need look no further than Bosnia or Ireland. Both are places where religion has cost more lives than any American war prior to 1860.

This sort of religious bigotry and persecution is nothing new. It dates as far back as 1180 BCE when the monotheistic Hebrews exterminated the polytheistic Canaanites. However, religious bigotry did not become common until rather late in Mankind's history. One of the worst cases of religious persecution took place in 70 CE when the Romans put down a Jewish Revolt. While this situation was largely political, it was partly the Jews refusal to give into emperor worship that lead to the Romans taking the lives of over 100,000. Later persecutions would come such as the forced conversion of the pagan Saxons to Christianity by Charlemagne (when 3,000 were massacred), the Spanish Inquisition, and the Mormon Wars of the last century. Perhaps the worst however was the Holocaust when over 6 million Jews were put to death at the orders of Adolph Hitler in a fit of "Christian" nationalism.

There are more subtle forms of persecution resulting from religious bigotry. These may involve character assassinations and harassment of members of minority religions. Often members of minority or alternative religions find themselves in the position of the outsider and are refused jobs and even mocked. Sometimes religious bigotry will be cloaked with false accusations that members of minority religions are lazy or insane or a criminal element. The most common form of persecution is to accuse the minority religion of being a cult or Satanic in nature. Another means of persecution is to accuse the persecuted of being the persecutor, such as was the case in pre-WWII Germany when the Nazis accused the Jews of hoarding the nation's wealth. Such means of persecution is nothing new. Early Christians were accused of sacrificing babies, cannibalism, and one piece of ancient Roman graffiti shows Christ with a donkey head. No one would accuse Christianity of such things now. There was a time when out of religious bigotry such accusations were made.

A term for such behavior is religious intolerance. The Ontario Centre for Religious Tolerance defines religious intolerance as: "spreading misinformation about a group even though the inaccuracy of that information could easily have been checked and corrected; ridiculing an entire group for their sincere beliefs and practices; attempting to force religious beliefs and practices on others." Such behavior from a single individual towards a member of a religious minority may not seem like much, but coming from dozens of individuals each day, what were single instances of off hand remarks becomes a tool for persecution and oppression. Such intolerance in the name of religious bigotry actually says more about the persecutor(s) than the member of the minority religion.

After all, bigotry of any kind seems to stem from the same source. Sociologists early in the 20th century developed the theory of the authoritarian personality. An authoritarian personality has strong feelings of inadequacy, dependency, and hostility, particularly toward those in authority or those they view in authority, even though they may be an authority on their own. Because of this, the authoritarian personality tends to displace their own sense of low self esteem and their own feelings of self hatred to another group. The individual who expresses hatred for another ethnic, religious, or cultural group, or attempts to stereotype them in some way, or even goes so far as spread lies about this group is then simply expressing feelings about themselves.

According to the theory of the authoritarian personality, then, not only is bigotry wrong because it hurts others, but because from a psychological standpoint it is damaging to the one who practices it. After all, self hatred lies at the root of many mental illnesses and unless one deals with one's own self hatred, they cannot prevent the development of any mental illnesses they may have in times to come. Obviously, as long as the bigot insists upon transferring their own self loathing to another ethnic, religious, or cultural group, they are not dealing with that self hatred. In addition, such self hatred directed outward can result in the low self esteem of the persecuted, causing such line of thought to escalate, when the persecuted tries to defend against the persecution. In most parts of the world, through-out history, bloodshed soon follows.

While religious bigotry of that sort is seen in Ireland, Bosnia, or the Palestine, it is very rarely seen in the United States of today. Still, the more subtle forms of intolerance are ever present. According to the Ontario Centre for Religious Tolerance a photographer in the Four Corners area of New Mexico came upon a group of Boy Scouts with chisels and hammers, chipping away ancient Native American petroglyphs. When the photographer asked why, a scout master responded that the petroglyphs were pagan symbols of Satanic origin and that it was their duty to destroy them. At the "Wild Magick Gathering" held Sept. 20-22, 1985 in Yellowwood Forest in Brown Co., Indiana, participants were harassed by the police and fundamentalists. Once sheriff's deputy claimed to have seen blood drinking, a goat sacrifice, and consumption of raw meat. None of these events occurred. What did occur was a typical Wiccan ritual, a shamanic meditation, and a scarecrow party (a costume party where everyone shows up as a scarecrow).

Another such case is that of the Church of Iron Oak. The Church of Iron Oak is a Wiccan congregation in Palm Bay, FL. In August 1994, members of the church were cited by city zoning officials for holding services in their back yard. Then later that year, the city's Code Enforcement Board ruled they could continue to hold services in their homes. Nonetheless, the church decided to file a civil lawsuit against the city, alleging their civil rights were violated when they could not hold services between the time they were cited by the inspectors until the time the hearing took place. Since the church first filed the lawsuit, their have had several incidents of harassment by the Religious Right. When performing the invocation for the City Council of Titusville, Florida, Fundamentalists turned their backs on the priests and priestess, and then accosted the members of Iron oak outside after the meeting. Illene Davis, the Councilwoman that invited the Wiccans to give the invocation has since received death threats. Had the situation been reversed, and the Fundamentalists had performed the invocation for the City Council of Titusville, they certainly would not have appreciated similar treatment by non-Fundamentalists. What was meant to be an act of religious diversity and equality by the City of Titusville was used by a relative few to persecute a religious minority. But then such is the way of religious bigotry.

In a multi-religious nation like the United States where the practice of the religion of one's choice is protected by the Constitution, there is no reason for religious bigotry of any kind. Nearly all religions teach one should be kind to their fellow man and believe in some form of sin or karma. The very practice of religious bigotry by anyone defeats the purpose of most religions. If as individuals we truly wish to extend tolerance to all others and if we wish for members of our communities to be mentally healthy, loving individuals with high self esteem, then we must take steps to end religious bigotry and religious intolerance. The first step is to educate ourselves about other religions. One may not believe in the Hindu concept of karma, but if we understand that it encourages the same kind of moral behavior as the Christian concept of transgression against God, one can at least respect the belief and those that adhere to it.