By Dr. Eboo Patel, President & Founder, Interfaith Youth Core, and Cassie Meyer, Director of Content, Interfaith Youth Core
In response to Joseph Knippenberg’s recent post, “Diversity and Toleration”, we would like to take a moment both to thank Professor Knippenberg for his thoughtful critique and to clarify the work and methodology of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).
In our work and writings, some of which Professor Knippenberg excerpts in his post, we do not mean to suggest that religion and race should be equated, which would dismiss the legitimacy of challenging or disagreeing with one another’s religious beliefs. We also do not mean to imply that religious disagreement is the same thing as racial or religious bigotry.
Instead, we suggest that in the same way that race was one of the great dividers of the twentieth century, religious difference is one of the great dividers of this century. Examples of the potency and the challenge of religious diversity both globally and in the U.S. abound: consider Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel and Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace, or the way religion was covered in the midterm elections. Comparing religious diversity to the problems of racial division and bigotry is not to suggest that the latter problems have been “solved” and that we can now move on to the next problem. Rather, we mean to draw attention to the ways that religious diversity is increasingly playing a divisive role in many aspects of society, particularly in public and political discourse, but also in relationships at the community level.
Here we are not concerned with honest and civil disagreement. Instead, we are referring to the demonization of entire religious groups based on the actions of a few. We also do not mean to suggest that to answer the challenge of religious diversity we must “submerge, privatize, and ultimately trivilize [sic] our ‘distinctives,’” as Professor Knippenberg concludes. We acknowledge the reality and significance of religious disagreement, and know that many of the young people we work with and IFYC staff hold exclusive truth claims. This must be recognized if we hope to constructively engage religious diversity as well as confront real religious bigotry.
At the same time that religious diversity can lead to division, we also believe it has the potential for tremendous amounts of what Putnam calls social capital. While for Professor Knippenberg, “the point of pluralism is not to efface difference, but to accommodate it,” IFYC defines pluralism as an opportunity to actively engage religious diversity toward a common end (our definition here draws from Diana Eck and Michael Walzer). Putnam and Campbell identify how working together on a common activity can lead to positive, appreciative relationships, even if one enters into that activity with suspicion about the other. With pluralism, disagreements do not dissipate, but there is the possibility for mere accommodation to move toward appreciation, as respect, positive relationships and a shared commitment to the common good also emerge.
Our methodology is to engage young people of different faiths—and of no faith—to harness that social capital and yes, accommodate those with whom they disagree, but also to ask how, in spite of those disagreements, they can work with those who are different from them. This is the work we were doing in Washington, DC in late October as part of the Interfaith Leadership Institute that Professor Knippenberg mentions. Over the course of five days, we trained students and staff from 136 campuses around the country, asking them how they might be living out their faith commitments by working with one another on their campuses and in their communities; and in the process, also building a more genuinely pluralistic society.
We believe that our work serves a civic goal of building social capital, social cohesion and civility as young people of diverse faiths seek to find a common good together. What that common good looks like may not always be clear, and we should not demonize those willing to engage in thoughtful disagreement about it. We also want to take seriously those whose faithful convictions see interfaith work as problematic, but who nonetheless are willing to accommodate those who do not share their beliefs.