Confronting Religious Bigotry in America and Elsewhere

09/04/2012 01:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2012

The manifestation of religious bigotry in my Cross-Cultural Psychology class last Spring by a handful of students was the impetus for me to send an email message to all 456 students in that class. Of course, I did not anticipate the message going viral (on both Reddit and more recently [August 16th] the Huffington Post). As a result of that email posting, I have received hundreds of messages from people thanking me for my effort to educate and combat religious bigotry. However, some have told me there was nothing wrong with students "standing up for" their religious beliefs. A minority of individuals even have accused me of being the bigot.

As I attempted to explain to some of the individuals who wrote me, for several centuries in the United States, if a person were to proclaim his "race" was better than other races, society thought that was okay. But culturally, we have matured on the issue of race. Now, if someone openly proclaims his race to be superior to other races, people will invariably condemn that person as a "racial bigot." Stated differently, in today's America the assertion that one race is superior to another race would be met with strong social disapproval.

But, as a culture, we have not matured on the issue of religion. People in the U.S. can openly express that their God is an awesome God (which I interpret to imply that the other Gods are not so awesome). They can openly state that all other religions are "falsehoods" and that theirs is the only true way to a place called "heaven" (some Christian sects, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, go as far as asserting that most other Christians will end up in "hell."). In contemporary America, individuals can openly question if our President is Muslim and openly convey their concern that the current Republican presidential candidate belongs to a "cult." Few people will ever challenge such individuals as being religious bigots. Are those individuals saying that one has to belong to their religion or else one is not qualified to be President? How bigoted is that? And unlike most people, I am willing to point out to students and others who think in those terms that they are manifesting religious prejudice or bigotry.

Some who have written to me have indicated that it is logical that people think their religion is the most valid religion; after all, that is why they embrace their religion. I have tried to clarify that, it is one thing to state, "For me, my religion is the most valid. I'm not saying it is the only religion or the only valid religion in the world. It's just the most valid religion for me, which is why I embrace it." It's quite another thing to proclaim in absolute terms one's religion is the most valid and all the others are falsehoods. There is an appreciable difference in those two approaches to religion. The latter approach (an approach that is commonly manifested in our society--and in my classes I teach) reflects a form of prejudice that I call religious bigotry.

I'm acutely aware that individuals who call themselves Christians are not the only ones guilty of religious bigotry. Individuals worldwide who are affiliated with other religions also may be guilty of this form of arrogance and prejudice. We, in the United States, ought to model for the rest of the world our support of religious freedom and our ability to live in harmony with people of diverse faiths, including non-believers. I hope we mature on how we treat religiosity, and show some awareness that there are other equally valid religions in the world that meet the emotional needs of their followers. I just hope it doesn't take us several centuries to achieve such maturity as it took us with race (and even gender).