A Toolkit for Religious Pluralism
by Nick Hainsworth (ICRD Intern – Spring 2018)
June 18, 2018

In the United States, religious diversity is a fact of life. In many parts of our country, the homogenous Anglo-Protestant culture is diminishing and being replaced by a community with multiple religious identities. But ignorance regarding other faith traditions can stir increased societal tensions, leading to prejudice, hatred, and violence. To combat these possible outcomes, we need to reinforce a social embrace of religious pluralism. Religious diversity alone is not sufficient for or synonymous with true religious pluralism; pluralism implies a more active, two-way engagement across identity divisions. This kind of engagement is not intuitive, and therefore both religious leaders and secular institutions, like schools and community centers, must be encouraged to draw upon their particular capacities to provide people with a toolkit of practical skills to engage with religious diversity.

Religious leaders have the unique responsibility to teach scriptural literacy to their followers, as well as the complementary opportunity to encourage their followers to turn a critical eye toward their own religion in order to fully understand it. Perhaps a less employed capability of religious leaders is the opportunity that they have to encourage their followers to engage in learning about other faith traditions and to develop cross-cultural religious literacy. Religious leaders have the potential to instruct their members on the commonalities of other religions’ beliefs, similarities in practices and moral codes, as well as key differences. This knowledge can rid people of their stereotypes or misunderstandings of other faiths, potentially opening the way to fruitful cooperation.

It is very important to state that this does not require the denial of the unique features of one’s own faith. As Diana Eck has argued, “Pluralism is the process of creating a society through critical and self-critical encounters with one another, acknowledging, rather than hiding, our deepest differences.” Teaching religious literacy of one’s own tradition should not lead to a feeling of religious superiority or religious prejudice. Likewise, teaching cross-cultural religious literacy should not lead to the watering down of one’s own religious convictions. Instead, these skills should empower religious adherents to actively live their faith and engage with members of other faiths in collaborative efforts toward shared goals, like community building and societal harmony. Our society is richest not when we ignore our differences, but when we thrive and cooperate across them.

While the role of religious leaders in building a society that embraces pluralism is vital and necessary, it is not the full solution. An increasing number of youth in the United States are identifying as non-religious and are thus more likely to be out of the reach of traditionally recognized religious leaders. However, given the growing inevitability of diverse communities, both religious and secular youth need the skills to create a pluralistic society and can be taught such in secular educational institutions. I am not suggesting a particular religion be taught in schools as a basis of morality; I am however, suggesting that a non-religious approach to religious literacy is possible and necessary to combat religious prejudice. A program teaching religious pluralism, including secular traditions, could be taught alongside or integrated into existing diversity, inclusion, or anti-bullying programs. If religious diversity is indeed a fact, then wrestling with the challenges of encountering the religious other is an invaluable life skill.

Ultimately, religious pluralism is not simply an ideal; it is a necessity for today’s society to function productively. These skills must be taught so that our current and future leaders may engage all members of their communities, from the most prominent to the least represented. In the words of Diana Eck, these skills need to be utilized “in neighborhoods and community organizations, schools and colleges, legislatures and courts, zoning boards and planning commissions, interfaith councils and coalitions, chaplaincies and hospitals,” because it is in all these places that we will encounter adherents of other faiths.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).