Special Report

Religious Intolerance

Sometimes old ideas are the most dangerous, and few ideas are older than those that undergird religious intolerance. Lamentably, these ideas are acquiring new life. In 2002, Hindus in Gujarat, India, killed several hundred Muslims, with the collaboration of public officials and the police. Europe has recently seen a frightening rebirth of anti-Semitism, while the appeal of radical forms of Islam appears to be increasing in the Muslim world. Prejudice against Muslims and a tendency to equate Islam with terrorism are too prominent in the United States. On and on it goes. Intolerance breeds intolerance, as expressions of hatred fuel existing insecurities and permit people to see their own aggression as legitimate self-defense.

Two ideas typically foster religious intolerance and disrespect. The first is that one's own religion is the only true religion and that other religions are false or morally incorrect. But people possessed of this view can also believe that others deserve respect for their committed beliefs, so long as they do no harm. Much more dangerous is the second idea, that the state and private citizens should coerce people into adhering to the "correct" religious approach. It's an idea that is catching on, even in many modern democracies. France's reluctance to tolerate religious symbols in schools and the Hindu right wing's repeated claims that minorities in India must become part of Hindu culture are disturbing recent examples. The resurgence of this kind of thinking poses a profound threat to liberal societies, which are based on ideas of liberty and equality.

The appeal of religious intolerance is easy to understand. From an early age, humans are aware of helplessness toward things of the highest importance, such as food, love, and life itself. Religion helps people cope with loss and the fear of death; it teaches moral principles and motivates people to follow them. But precisely because religions are such powerful sources of morality and community, they all too easily become vehicles for the flight from helplessness, which so often manifests itself in oppression and the imposition of hierarchy. In today's accelerating world, people confront ethnic and religious differences in new and frightening ways. By clinging to a religion they believe to be the right one, surrounding themselves with co-religionists, and then subordinating others who do not accept that religion, people can forget for a time their weakness and mortality.

Good laws are not enough to combat this fundamentally emotional and social problem. Modern liberal societies have long understood the importance of legal and constitutional norms expressing a commitment to religious liberty and to the equality of citizens of different religions. But, though codification is essential, constitutions and laws do not implement themselves, and public norms are impotent without educational and cultural reinforcement.

We need, then, to think harder about how rhetoric (as well as poetry, music, and art) can support pluralism and toleration. The leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement understood the need for this kind of support; the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. illustrate how rhetoric can help people imagine equality and see difference as a source of richness rather than fear. During the recent electoral campaign in India, leaders of the Congress Party, especially Sonia Gandhi, effectively conveyed the image of an inherently pluralistic India. (The words of India's national anthem, written by pluralist poet Rabindranath Tagore, also celebrate India's regional and ethnic differences.) The current U.S. administration has made useful statements about the importance of not demonizing Islam, but the rhetoric of certain key officials has also highlighted Christian religion in ways that undermine tolerance. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, regularly asks his staff to sing Christian songs. And while he was a sitting U.S. senator, Ashcroft characterized America as "a culture that has no king but Jesus."

For centuries, liberal thinkers have focused on legal and constitutional avenues to tolerance, neglecting the public cultivation of emotion and imagination. But liberals ignore public rhetoric at their peril. All modern states and their leaders convey visions of religious equality or inequality through their choices of language and image. Writing to the Quaker community in 1789, then President George Washington said, "The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness." Such delicacy is now in short supply. If leaders do not think carefully about how to use public language to foster respect, human equality will remain vulnerable.

Special Report


For the last several decades, a strange liberation movement has grown within the developed world. Its crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gay-rights advocates. They want nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints. As "transhumanists" see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution's blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species.

It is tempting to dismiss transhumanists as some sort of odd cult, nothing more than science fiction taken too seriously: Witness their over-the-top Web sites and recent press releases ("Cyborg Thinkers to Address Humanity's Future," proclaims one). The plans of some transhumanists to freeze themselves cryogenically in hopes of being revived in a future age seem only to confirm the movement's place on the intellectual fringe.

But is the fundamental tenet of transhumanism -- that we will someday use biotechnology to make ourselves stronger, smarter, less prone to violence, and longer-lived -- really so outlandish? Transhumanism of a sort is implicit in much of the research agenda of contemporary biomedicine. The new procedures and technologies emerging from research laboratories and hospitals -- whether mood-altering drugs, substances to boost muscle mass or selectively erase memory, prenatal genetic screening, or gene therapy -- can as easily be used to "enhance" the species as to ease or ameliorate illness.

Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable, the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify. The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases, physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity's jealousies, violence, and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project begins to look downright reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn't we want to transcend our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology's tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.

The first victim of transhumanism might be equality. The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that "all men are created equal," and the most serious political fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.

Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world's poorest countries -- for whom biotechnology's marvels likely will be out of reach -- and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

Transhumanism's advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods? For all our obvious faults, we humans are miraculously complex products of a long evolutionary process -- products whose whole is much more than the sum of our parts. Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones: If we weren't violent and aggressive, we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves; if we didn't have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn't be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love. Even our mortality plays a critical function in allowing our species as a whole to survive and adapt (and transhumanists are just about the last group I'd like to see live forever). Modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome.

Nobody knows what technological possibilities will emerge for human self-modification. But we can already see the stirrings of Promethean desires in how we prescribe drugs to alter the behavior and personalities of our children. The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.