The Problems and Promises of Religious Pluralism



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By Chris Cantwell

From the moment authorities identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, the American media engaged in what has now become a decades-old process of typecasting terrorism. CNN infamously noted they couldn’t tell from photos whether these supposedly “dark skinned” brothers “are Americans or not Americans.” Meanwhile, nearly every other media outlet has engaged in a shallow debate on the degree to which the Tsarnaev brothers’ Islamic faith motivated the attack—as if the Tsarnaevs’ religion could somehow be divorced from their experiences as immigrants, refugees, or working-class youth living on state aid.

A scene from the Boston Interfaith Service
While the media’s approach to the bombing has been predictable, however, the broader discussion about religion’s relationship to the tragedy has been anything but uniform. In fact, the weeks after the tragedy have actually seen a surprisingly vigorous debate on religion’s role in mitigating and preventing acts of violence. Writing over at the Huffington Post, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel cogently argues that the only antidote to religious extremism is religious pluralism. If radicalism of any sort demands individuals understand their identities solely in relation to a single issue or cause, then the answer is to devise programs that create spaces where individuals are encouraged to see their own religious identity as one of many ways of being in the world. “When interfaith cooperation is done well,” Patel writes, “it creates space for the diverse identities within each of us to become mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive.”

Peace, harmony, and enrichment. Who could be against it? But as Lucia Hulsether notes over at Religion Dispatches, the suggestion that religious violence is a failure of, or an admonition toward, interfaith cooperation is claim loaded with normative assumptions about religion’s role in a liberal democracy. For Hulsether, the promotion of religious pluralism as a social ideal invites as many questions as it provides answers. Her list is well worth reading.

  • What other dynamics of power move out of focus when celebrations of “interfaith cooperation” are brought to the fore? Are questions of race, class, gender, state power, and social inequality obscured in the rush to emphasize common religious ground?
  • Does this appeal to interfaith cooperation recreate the same kind of “us vs. them” mentality that is said motivates extremists? Only now the “them” are those critical of a pluralist ideal?
  • Is interfaith cooperation implicit in a larger nation-building project?
  • What is the ultimate goal of this appeal to interfaith cooperation? Do I support it?
“Clearly,” Hulsether concludes, “we cannot draw one ‘conclusion’ about what ‘interfaith’ discourses ‘do.’” We can, however, think critically about their context and implications in order to avoid implicitly perpetuating ideologies of American exceptionalism that “undergird the systemic violence that continues to structure our world…”


I have been thinking a lot about religious pluralism as of late. Next month marks the final meeting of the “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America” project I direct at the Newberry Library, which will include a public lecture with Diana Eck, the founder of Harvard University’s longstanding Pluralism Project. As I’ve prepared the materials for the workshop, I find myself torn by Patel and Hulsether’s contrasting approaches to religious pluralism. Patel, the activist, promises. Hulsether, the academic, problematizes. And they are both in part right. Pluralism, of course, is not a descriptive term but a proscriptive one; an idea loaded with social, cultural, and political injunctions about community, belonging, and difference. At the same time, America’s founding documents, with their assurances of religious freedom and prohibitions upon state interference in religious life, are rooted in some kind of pluralist ideal. How, then, do we as educators and academics talk about religious pluralism? How do we approach the concept in a way that is both critical of its implicit objectives and respectful of its larger promises? Is teaching religious pluralism the same thing as advocating it?

These are still open questions for me, but in a recent response to Hulsether’s essay Patel, I think, offers a workable solution. Religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation, Patel rather movingly argues, is “primarily a question of civic space, not political ideology.” While communities throughout history have marshaled interfaith cooperation to buttress hegemonic regimes, this should by no means discourage any effort to create spaces where deeply divided religious communities can cohabitate as neighbors and citizens. As Patel concludes,

I think interfaith work is about building positive relationships between people whose diverse religious convictions shape their dramatically different politics. I believe that is both an end in itself, and a means to another useful end—expanding civic space, strengthening social cohesion and increasing social capital. How else do you have a thriving diverse democracy unless people who have deep disagreements on some issues are able to work together on other issues?

How else indeed. 

4 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: May 8, 2013 at 4:22 PM said...

I often wonder how "pluralism" is actually understood, as though it's synonymous with "diversity."

I submit that the former seeks the highest common denominator, whereas "diversity" seems little interested in common denominators atall--save for tolerance being the highest virtue, a "neutrality" that's no more than an end in itself, by its very nature entropic, not constructive.

Trevor Burrows at: May 9, 2013 at 8:24 AM said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Chris, and for drawing attention to the discussion between Patel and Hulsether. I agree that it is important to question interfaith discourse, especially in terms of power and exclusion. I am reminded of some of the essays included in A Nation of Religions (edited by Stephen Prothero) that discuss the problematic shift from a "Judeo-Christian" pluralistic framework to an "Abrahamic" descriptor that arose in the wake of 9/11. Several of the contributors to that volume noted the exclusionary aspect of such a shift (and detailed the responses from various non-Christian, non-Jewish, non-Muslim groups). Yet at the same time, the bulk of those essays paid little attention to the other questions that you and Hulsether bring up, questions of race/class/gender and other attributes that are bound up with religion in both personal identity and in one's social experience. The praising of interfaith cooperation as an unqualified good (and as a panacea for violence) can too easily draw attention away from these other factors; interfaith discourse can serve to essentialize others in terms of religious affiliation, even if that is what it tries to work against. This does not mean that interfaith discussions or efforts toward cooperation have no merit, but they certainly deserve a thoughtful critical eye, especially when called upon as a response to specific social problems.

As an aside, another article at Religious Dispatches discussed the exclusion of non-theists/atheists from the Boston interfaith service, which raises similar questions concerning the place and effect of religious pluralism when it is put to work in the public sphere. Quite a bit to think about!

Tom Van Dyke at: May 9, 2013 at 2:23 PM said...

Migod, man, that sounds more like a May Day rally. So it goes.

Christopher Cantwell at: May 10, 2013 at 3:13 PM said...

Thanks for the comments--as well as for the suggested other readings, Trevor. I was aware of the dust up over the lack of humanists at the Boston Interfaith Service. I probably should have mentioned it, but I didn't want the post to be too long and full of asides. But it does, as I think you're suggesting, underscore just how heavy handed and expected the impulse toward interfaith dialogue has become.

You're last sentence raises an important distinction we should perhaps keep in mind: 1) the benefits of interfaith cooperation, and 2) how and for what purposes that cooperation is marshaled. Is it possible to do the former without the latter? Perhaps the critical eye is reserved for the latter? Not sure.

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