Eboo Patel argues that colleges and universities should begin paying attention to religious diversity. I want to agree with him, but the fine print makes it almost impossible.

What if campuses took religious diversity as seriously as they took race? What if recruiting a religiously diverse student body, creating a welcoming environment for people of different faith and philosophical identities, and offering classes in interfaith studies and co-curricular opportunities in interfaith leadership became the norm? What if university presidents expected their graduates to acquire interfaith literacy, build interfaith relationships, and have opportunities to run interfaith programs during their four years on campus? What impact might a critical mass of interfaith leaders have on America over the course of the next generation?

So far, so good, pretty much. I agree with him in favoring a healthy pluralism, where people who hold different beliefs encounter one another in the public square, learning to disagree civilly and to get along where they can. But the nicest way of reading this statement is to attribute to him the assumption that colleges don’t need to help people explore and come to grips with their own faith traditions, that those can get by quite well on their own, thank you very much. I’ve seen plenty of evidence to suggest that that’s not true, that our acquaintance with the learning and traditions that inform our faith is becoming more and more attenuated.

For Patel, this may well be a good thing.

Robert Putnam, who teaches American politics at Harvard, emphasizes that faith communities are the single largest repository of social capital in America, but that they operate mainly within their own restrictive networks. Certainly faith groups can continue to work in isolation. The tension among religions in America can grow, faith can become a weapon, and we can move directly into the open conflict we see in other religiously diverse societies.

In his view, cultivating one’s own religious garden seems to be a bad thing, as it leads to intolerance and conflict. Better, he seems to think, to rub the hard edges off our different beliefs and just learn to get along. In his America, the ” chief characteristical mark ” of religion would be toleration.

And true religion would be gone.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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