by James Carroll
Scandal at the Air Force Academy used to mean cheating or sexual harassment. Now the uproar is about the academy's religious ''climate," in the word used by an investigative task force. Christian cadets have been pressuring peers who believe differently, or who do not believe. Jewish cadets, in particular, have been targeted, charged with the murder of Christ.
Academy faculty and chaplain's staff are reported to have joined in the pressuring. The Pentagon is investigating. Reports of US guards denigrating the Koran in order to pressure Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay sparked violent protests in Afghanistan. People died. Newsweek now says the report may not be true, but the storm it caused grew out of a general sense in the Islamic world that Muslims as Muslims are mistreated at Guantanamo Bay, and that America's war, despite Washington's denials, is against Islam itself.
Whatever the outcome of investigations into these controversies, they point to a disturbing new ''climate" of intolerance.What happens when religious zeal is joined to absolute certitude? What happens when power is invoked to reinforce preaching? What happens when those who disagree with prevailing answers to life's great questions are, for that reason, defined as lesser beings?
Not so long ago, it seemed that these were settled issues. In America, and increasingly across the globe, the democratic ideal had established a new consensus. Pluralism had come into its own as a value, and diversity became a note of celebration.
Today, ''everyone is the next-door neighbor and spiritual neighbor of everyone else in the world," as the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner put it. Neighborliness means that absolute claims for oneself and one's beliefs are necessarily mitigated by an absolute respect for the right of others to hold very different beliefs.
But what happens when such neighborliness is repudiated? In 1999, an astounding Vatican document declared that ''Pluralism has taken the place of Marxism in cultural dominance." An enlightened philosophical system based on respect for the other was suddenly labeled as a kind of nihilism, but this reactionary view was a throw-back to the defensive Catholicism of another era.
What happens, though, when the Vatican figure most associated with such resurgent theological triumphalism is elected pope? It is a Catholic asking.
Pope Benedict XVI would never countenance the physical denigration of the Koran or the harassment of Jews for being Christ-killers, but his warnings about the ''dictatorship of relativism," and his robust assertions of Vatican-centered Catholicism's exclusive possession of the fullness of truth are signs of changing weather.
The election as pope of such a figure has dark significance for the future of Catholic liberalism, but it may go far beyond the boundaries of the church, pointing to the arrival of a global cold front, the coming of a new climate of radical intolerance.
Is doubt part and parcel of rational inquiry, or not? Is ambiguity essential to human knowing, or not? If the ground on which one stands while thinking, and the time within which one pursues a thought to its conclusion are both in flux, as suggested by the insights of Albert Einstein, why is ''relativity" to be taken as wicked?
If the human species is evolving, how can perceptions of the truth not be evolving as well? Or is evolution to be trashed after all? Is science itself the sacrilege? Is the heart of religion dogma, or is it mystery? Do such subtleties inevitably condemn inquiring minds to skepticism? Or is elusiveness essential to experience? Does the idea of the greatness of God require the humiliation of the person? Is that why God's self-anointed missionaries, however well-intentioned, so often use humiliation as a mode of argument?
Thinking of Christianity in particular, one must ask a hard question of those who reassert the triumphalist claims of the past: Do you not know the history of such absolutism? How theological denigration of others so often led to bloodshed? How, in particular, those labeled ''Christ-killers" were themselves killed? How the religion of Muslims was itself understood as a capital crime? How the very idea of democratic liberalism was forged in the crucible of religious wars, Christians slaughtering each other in good conscience for the sake of the ''one way" of Jesus Christ?
In the era of global warming, the link between human assumptions and climate is clear. The threat to the Earth of unintended climate change is a metaphor for the less tangible but equally grave threat arising from reasserted assumptions of religious superiority, polluting the human climate with intolerance, perhaps spawning winds of violence.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."