In God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, S. T. Joshi writes:
[A]ll religions that claim exclusive knowledge of the truth — and that includes the “big three” of the West: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — are inherently totalitarian. If you believe you are right and everyone else is wrong (as all Christians, Jews, and Muslims are commanded by their respective scriptures to believe), then you have no option but to force your beliefs upon others.
I disagree that simply believing that one is right and others are wrong necessitates that one therefore force that truth on others — it’s a common progression from one to the other, but it’s not automatic and necessary in every possible case. Other elements are always needed and, at least when it comes to religion, such elements include the idea that being wrong is immoral or puts a person in grave danger.
Joshi proceeds to discusses these factors:
Indeed, such coercion will, on this hypothesis, be for their benefit: one does not, after all, wish more people to go to hell than is absolutely necessary. Punishment of heretics is sanctioned by nearly every sacred text in existence. It is, in fact, precisely because the believers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were adhering rigidly and faithfully to their scriptures that they produced the “horrors” we now decry.
The only reason these horrors have ceased is because the decline of religious belief caused more and more people to question whether the scriptures were in truth the words of a god, and therefore whether the appalling acts of cruelty and viciousness committed for centuries on end could be theologically or morally justified. The real reason most Christians, Jews, and Muslims do not kill heretics is not because of some fancied movement toward “toleration” [but] because they lack the courage of their convictions.
Christians and Jews no longer really believe it when the Psalmist pleads: “Thou therefore, O Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel, awake to visit all the heathen: be not merciful to any wicked transgressors” (Ps. 59:5), or when Paul commands Christians to have nothing to do with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6: 14) — a command echoed in the Koran (5:56), which instructs Muslims not to have Jews or Christians as friends.
Religious believers have never given perfectly equal weight to every passage in scriptures or to every tradition. The fact that most religious believers no longer accept the authority of scriptures which command them to treat non-believers violently doesn’t mean that they have completely lost the courage of all their religious convictions or that they no longer take any of their religious beliefs seriously.
Instead, it means that they are approaching their religious traditions and scriptures with cultural filters on — culture affects religion to a significant degree, just as religion affects culture. Unfortunately, most religious believers simply don’t realize this. When Christians owned slaves, they justified it with religion and didn’t recognize that their slave-owning culture was influencing them. Now that Christians don’t own slaves, they justify it with the same religion without admitting that the opposite is equally valid and that their salve-opposing culture is influencing them.
We can repeat the same process with just about every ethical, social, and political change in any religion we care to use. People don’t lose the courage of their convictions, the change what their convictions are. Today, “toleration” is numbered among those convictions — it’s a conviction acquired through modern culture, but of course believers typically justify and rationalize their acceptance of it through their religion, just as their ancestors justified and rationalized intolerance through the same religion.
At the same time, though, exclusive claims to knowledge of the truth are an impediment to values like tolerance of others — not to mention negotiation and compromise with others, important factors in liberal democracies today. Exclusive claims to knowledge and absolute truth can lead to serious problems and should be treated very critically.