One of the most important philosophical challenges we are facing today is that of intolerance, particularly religious intolerance. Last night’s atrocities in France remind us all of how far these intolerant lunatics are prepared to go.
One of the possible explanations of why believers react so violently when challenged, is a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance, a theory put forward by Leon Festinger.
Cognitive dissonance can be very briefly summarised as a deep conflict occurring in the brain caused by the presence of conflicting and/or incompatible ideas or beliefs. This can lead to incoherent and sometimes violent manifestations in the affected individual.
We have all had conflicting ideas or feelings that were so deeply rooted in our mind that we were not able to act normally. Have you ever had that feeling of having said or believed something and being ashamed or not daring to say that you might be wrong? I have…These inner conflicts are everywhere to be found, even on Facebook. I have had this experience very recently, being called “pathetic” by an online “philosopher”. So beware…
The most extreme example of this is that of suicide bombers and other religious terrorists whose actions and worship for their God, they say, lead to redemption in heaven, even at the expense of their own lives. They are so deeply rooted in these beliefs that, not only do they not accept that others dare to differ, but also feel that they must kill all opponents of their deep rooted beliefs, even within their own faith. Although today this evil is perpetrated in the name of the Muslim faith, we must bear in mind that, not so long ago, similar atrocities were also performed in the name of Christianity.
I deeply respect all religious believers, so long that their beliefs remain on a strict personal level. It is, for them, an essential component of their lives and source of comfort in trying times. But they must not tell me how I should live my life and must also respect the fact that I do not share their views. In 1763, the French enlightenment writer Voltaire published a “Treatise on Tolerance” following the trial of Jean Callas, falsely accused of murdering his son to prevent him from converting to the Church. Even today, in our so-called secular societies, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch member of parliament, had to flee The Netherlands, in order to be able to freely express her views and live her life the way she wants to, without the fear of being assassinated.
Although The Netherlands is a country that is more tolerant than most, even here we are seeing signs that tolerance may be a declining virtue. The problem is not only religious intolerance, but intolerance in all aspects of our daily lives. Look around you.