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Clearing Up the Symptoms of Religious Intolerance

When I get a cold, I take Actifed, and it clears up my sinuses (most of the time) right away. However, it does relatively little for my daughter, who has to take a different medicine. What works for me does not work for her. There is no right answer to a runny nose. If I met someone else with a runny nose, I would certainly recommend that they try the brand that works for me. I would certainly not demand that they use my brand-no one in his right mind would.

When I play golf I see lots of different kinds of swings. Most have the same general pattern, but some are very different. Jim Furyk, for example, has a very unorthodox stroke, and it sure works great for him. What works for one person does not always work for another: there is no "right" swing. Sometimes a golfer will offer advice to another-try standing this way, or swinging that way-in an effort to help them improve. But no one would ever dream of threatening another player with death if they didn't do it a certain way.

When I travel the world, I meet many people with different religions. There are Muslims who know very well what Christianity is about, but who find that their own religion fulfills their needs quite satisfactorily and are not inclined to convert. Likewise there are many Christians who are very knowledgeable about Islam but who do not convert. There also are members of many religions who find out about the teaching of another religion and do convert. Why? Because the first religion was not doing the job for them, and the second religion was more effective at providing whatever the individuals were seeking from their faith.

The point is that like medicine and golf, there is no right answer in religion. If there were, then there would be one religion that no one ever converted away from. But there is no such religion.

There are Muslims who know very well what Christianity is about, but who find that their own religion fulfills their needs quite satisfactorily and are not inclined to convert.

And yet, the history of the world is replete with examples of people forcing other people to adopt their religion (or, at least, to behave the way their religion tells them to behave). The most visible militants in the world these days are the fundamentalist Muslims, but they are far from alone.

It is very hard to find a religion that has not attempted to convert by the sword-or some equally violent method of conversion. Christianity is one of the worst in this regard: think of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the conquest of the Americas. Jews were persecuted and expelled from many countries at one time or another, until they founded their own homeland; Mormons were expelled from many American states until they (sort of) founded a state of their own.

And most of these groups, despite their persecution, proceed to do exactly the same thing to others once they find themselves in power. America was founded by people trying to escape persecution for their beliefs, yet many Americans, even today, are still trying to force their moral code on others who do not share it.

What I choose to believe, and how I lead my life, is none of your business unless it affects how you lead your life. I wish we could all learn to accept each other as we are and stop trying to force beliefs and behavior on others.

Why is it that, unlike medicine and golf, people all over the world are convinced that their religion is the right answer, and the only possible answer? Why do people kill other people for having a different set of beliefs? I don't know, but I do know this: The world would be a much more Godly place if people would stop trying to force God on each other.

David Reingold is a professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.