There is a poem by William Blake called All Religions are One. (you can read it here.) He makes the argument that all religions are the same, an idea that has continued to influence our culture since the enlightenment. My immediate response to Blake’s poem was he was trying hard to be inclusive, and was no doubt progressive for his time. Indeed, this is an improvement over colonialist attitudes. I’ve held this view myself, largely out of frustration about why people can’t seem to stop fighting each other for religious reasons. And my personal mystical experiences have given me an awareness of the connections we share with each other and with the universe. It is a hopeful viewpoint. It is also both inaccurate and not realistic. Religions are not the same, and attempts to be inclusive can gloss over critical differences. For example, calling religious groups ‘faith-based’ organizations assumes that faith is a necessary part of religious practice.
While we do share biology and the same equipment for having mystical experiences, how we interpret them varies a great deal. We all have different concerns about the meaning and purpose of human existence, and the solutions to the problems therein. One may or may not have sacred books, a concept of salvation, or a belief in the afterlife. One may or may not be free to argue about God(s), or even with God(s). Don Frew has a great essay about this in Patheos.
Paganism certainly has its own issues of debate. The concept of One versus Many is exemplified by the contrasts between the hard polytheists and the soft polytheists. I hang out with many followers of the Northern pantheons and most – but not all – are hard polytheists. But the first person I met who said she was a hard polytheist was Wiccan, her views were very alien to me at the time and I just shook my head and went about my business. As Pagans, we do seem to see the advantage of not being overly concerned with being Right about what we believe. Unless we choose to be solitary, Pagans have to figure out how to negotiate these polarities.
While there is a solid interfaith movement in this country, not all religious groups choose to participate. Some believe that associating with people who do not believe as they do is dangerous to their humanity and their immortal soul. And some think that everyone should follow their chosen creed, no exceptions. On the other end of the spectrum are those that refuse to make judgments about anyone’s behavior under the idea that this would be an example of intolerance. The former is certainly unpleasant to be around (although it should be said that there is entertainment to be had for the creative). But the latter can be equally so.
Humans are tribal by nature. That means that we care more about our ‘in’ group than we do about ‘those other people.’ This was a reasonable survival trait in our past. An unenhanced eco-system can support a certain number of life-forms, and being territorial and tribal meant humans go to continue eating and breeding. Our preferences and desires are informed by this biology, and its not going to go away. The best we can do is work with it and around it. While we cannot avoid how we feel and remain healthy, because we are human, we can choose how we act.
Tolerance isn’t about being comfortable emotionally, and to try and make it so is disingenuous. Tolerance is about treating people with good manners even if you don’t like them, and don’t agree at all about [insert any issue here]. Understanding more about the source of particular beliefs may help ease the emotional discomfort, but then again, it may not help at all, and that does not mean one is a bad human being.
What people believe about god or gods does not affect my person or well-being. If someone thinks I’m going to hell, that is fine and they are welcome to tell me so, and there is likely not much I can say that will affect their attitude. However, I do care what actions people take. For example, I will never think the female circumcision is ok, even if there is a religious reason for it, and I support the laws against it. It this judgmental and intolerant of me? Judgmental, yes. I’m making a judgment, expressing my opinion about something I think is wrong. Intolerant? Not at all.