2013 – CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 6, by Lauren R. Kerby

Pluralism versus Tolerance: Turning Principles into Action in Interfaith Organizations

Lauren R. Kerby

In contemporary discussions of how societies manage religious diversity, two strategies are often juxtaposed: pluralism and tolerance. Both are attitudes that shape the kind of interaction between different religious groups in such a way that peace and social order are maintained. However, among liberals in the West, “pluralism” has a distinctly different valence from “tolerance.” Whereas pluralism is viewed positively, as the pinnacle of achievement for a religiously diverse society, tolerance is viewed negatively, as the bare minimum of what is required to maintain peace in such a society. In this view, tolerance is only a stepping-stone on the way to the ultimate goal, pluralism. Despite this popular understanding that pluralism is the superior option, the distinctions between the two terms are not always clear. But the differences are well worth our attention if we hope to understand the very different ways in which tolerance and pluralism operate in the world.

This paper articulates the difference between pluralism and tolerance through an analysis of two nonprofit organizations dedicated to creating and maintaining peace in a religiously diverse world. The first, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), takes an approach to religion and religious differences based on pluralism. The second, CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion,[1] bases its approach on tolerance. A comparison of the organizations’ methods and outcomes demonstrates that we are not talking about an abstract philosophical distinction whose effects are confined solely to mission statements and annual reports. On the contrary: the basis in pluralism or tolerance, respectively, profoundly shapes the methods and, therefore, the outcomes of each organization’s projects. By comparing pluralism and tolerance in this way—“in action,” so to speak—we can better see the benefits and limitations of each. The key distinction between pluralism and tolerance is the value assigned to difference, which directly impacts the degree to which differences are hidden or revealed within an interfaith program. I argue that because difference is essential to the construction and maintenance of identity, a successful interfaith program will be one that values differences over commonalities, thereby offering the maximum amount of protection for identity in a religiously diverse society. The pluralist approach ultimately privileges commonalities, while the tolerant approach privileges difference and protects identity. Thus, despite its negative connotations in the contemporary West, tolerance is a viable strategy for living with religious difference.

Difference, Identity, and Threat

Before turning to concrete interfaith approaches to managing religious difference, a brief discussion of why difference is so important is in order. In short, difference plays an essential role in constructing and maintaining identity. The identity of any group is circumscribed by its boundaries, which are by their nature exclusive; boundaries indicate that what is on one side of the boundary differs from what is on the other side. Boundaries separate Group A from Group B, Group B from Group C, and so on. Without the presence of difference, the boundaries are meaningless, and the distinct identities of each group merge into indistinct homogeneity because there is nothing left to separate them. No group can define its identity without saying how it is different from the surrounding groups. The construction of a group’s identity requires the articulation of both what they are and what they are not. For a religious group, this may mean a first attempt at differentiating orthodoxy from heresy. For instance, the first Christian creeds and canons emerged not out of a spontaneous desire for group identity, but out of a need to systematize Christian doctrines as a means of guarding against the heresies of Arius or the Docetics. Defining orthodoxy was simultaneously a process of defining heresy. Drawing the boundary around early Christian identity required the presence of religious difference in order for early Christian leaders to say both who they were and who they were not.

This need for difference (or deviance) is the point Durkheim makes when he argues that crime is both normal and necessary to social life.[2] Society requires the presence of “deviants” who violate social norms, because by articulating what it means to violate those norms, it articulates the norms themselves.[3] Kai Erikson adds that group members must know something of what exists beyond the boundaries of the group if they are to understand what it means to be within those boundaries.[4] By confronting and punishing deviance, the group “is making a statement about the nature and placement of its boundaries. It is declaring how much variability and diversity can be tolerated within the group before it begins to lose its distinctive shape, its unique identity.”[5] Deviance within the group and difference outside of it are both essential to maintaining group identity. For this reason, identity is threatened when difference is trivialized, ignored, or even erased, as is the case in a pluralist approach to religious diversity.

Yet the role of difference is paradoxical: at the same time that difference is necessary for the articulation of identity, the presence of difference can also be deeply threatening. When Group A and Group B live adjacent to each other but do not intermingle, difference remains an abstract concept. The people on the other side of the boundary are said to have different practices or beliefs, but they are not immediately visible to the members of the other group. In contrast, when members of Group A and Group B are neighbors, living side by side in the same space, the constant, visible presence of difference can be destabilizing. Members of both groups are forced to confront the fact that their way of life is not the only way of life; others may have different rules, practices, values, or beliefs. This can be incredibly destabilizing—at the very least, it is uncomfortable—but modern society is composed largely of such intermingling of groups, and with this shift comes a significant threat to identity. How a given group deals with this threat is the central challenge faced by organizations seeking to mitigate the conflicts caused by the presence of religious diversity.

Backgrounds of IFYC and CEDAR

Both IFYC and CEDAR were founded at the turn of the 21st century, as consciousness of religious diversity grew in America and around the world. They share the goal of meeting the challenges posed by religious diversity with programs based on social scientific theories that teach participants how to deal with the threat a diverse community poses to their own identity.  However, because their underlying principles—pluralism in the case of IFYC, tolerance in the case of CEDAR— differ, beyond these initial similarities their strategies and outcomes bear little resemblance to each other. Both give their participants tools to address the discomfort caused by the presence of religious difference, but they do so in ways fundamentally shaped by their respective philosophical basis in pluralism or tolerance.

IFYC was first imagined by its founders—Eboo Patel, Jeff Pinzino, and Anastasia White—in 1998 during an interfaith conference at Stanford. The three young people realized a need for interfaith outreach that specifically targeted the rising generation of college undergraduates. With support from three leading interreligious organizations, they slowly began to build their organizational infrastructure. In 2002, with the aid of a $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the organization was incorporated as Interfaith Youth Core, with headquarters in Chicago. Over the next few years the group’s work gained national and international attention.[6] In 2005 IFYC partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative, a group dedicated to turning ideas into action. As a result of that partnership, IFYC worked with Queen Rania of Jordan to establish an exchange program for Jordanian and American students. IFYC also partnered with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in 2007 to train religious leaders as ambassadors for the United Nations Millennium Development goals, particularly the eradication of malaria. Most recently, in 2012, IFYC partnered with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to challenge over 270 college campuses to increase interfaith community service.[7] To date, IFYC has operated on five continents to train thousands of young interfaith leaders, including those on over 200 college campuses in the United States.[8] In addition, Eboo Patel’s memoir, Acts of Faith, which details the founding and philosophy of IFYC, has been required reading for freshmen at over a dozen colleges.

The main focus of IFYC in 2013 remains the training of undergraduate students to lead interfaith activities on their home campuses. Several times a year, students, faculty, and administrators from colleges across the nation gather in major American cities for Interfaith Leadership Institutes (ILIs). Students are trained to “build relationships across identities, tell powerful stories to bridge divides, and mobilize their campuses through interfaith projects.” Faculty and administrators “network, share best practices, and partner with their students to learn how to transform their campuses.”[9] Both students and faculty learn about IFYC’s “Better Together” movement and how they can implement it at their own colleges or universities. “Better Together” is a flexible slogan that can be applied to nearly any campus event that fits three requirements: students are encouraged to “voice their religious/non-religious values, identities, and experiences; engage in conversations about those values, etc., across lines of difference; and act together based on the values they share to improve their campus and their community.”[10] These activities range from food drives to concerts, fast-a-thons to interreligious speed talking. At the ILIs, students are trained to be grassroots organizers of the interfaith movement and given the skills they need to coordinate Better Together activities on their campuses. They also learn about the other religious and nonreligious perspectives of their peers at the ILI and on campus.

The underlying philosophy of IFYC is pluralism, a concept that informs both its mission and its methodology. IFYC, following Harvard scholar Diana Eck, defines pluralism as a positive attitude toward religious diversity that requires “the active engagement of diversity toward a common end.” Whereas “diversity” merely describes a fact of modern life, “pluralism” indicates a particular orientation toward that diversity.[11] A religiously plural world, according to IFYC, is one characterized by “respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities”; “mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds”; and “common action for the common good.”[12] All of the activities and campaigns of IFYC are designed to foster this pluralist attitude in students, so that they come to understand diversity not just as a fact but as a good. The problem of discomfort caused by religious diversity is resolved by teaching students to understand diversity as positive. IFYC leaders Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer dismiss tolerance, in contrast, as merely “superficial,” a tool that “may or may not be able to stand the challenge of real tension.”[13] Like many activists in the world of interreligious dialogue, they see tolerance as a weak alternative to pluralism, and they refuse to settle for this lesser option. Everything IFYC does is designed to foster attitudes and behaviors that treat difference as a positive thing, a fact of life that is to be embraced, not avoided.

Like IFYC, CEDAR recognizes the inevitable fact of religious diversity and offers strategies for dealing with it, though its attitude to the inherent value of difference itself is far more ambivalent. The idea for CEDAR was first conceived in 2001 as an international summer school, when a group of friends met in a restaurant in Sarajevo and discussed how religion might be an asset in “building a more tolerant and pluralistic world.” The inaugural summer school was held in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 2003, focusing on the role of religion in the conflicts of former Yugoslavia.[14] In subsequent years the school was held in a variety of other locations around the world—including Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Indonesia—on a wide range of topics, from the “Muslim question” in Europe to religious syncretism in traditional Bulgarian societies.[15] After 10 years of summer schools using this model, CEDAR’s mission expanded to the point where organizational changes became necessary. In addition to adopting its new name,[16] it moved from holding a single annual summer school in changing locations to establishing several more permanent programs in various countries with CEDAR support. These include the Balkan Summer School on Religion and Public Life in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; the Connaught Summer Institute on Islamic Studies in Toronto, Canada; the Equator Peace Academy in the Great Lakes Region of Africa; and future programs planned for southern Africa and central Asia. Each of these programs utilizes the pedagogic principles developed by CEDAR to help participants engage with various forms of difference and develop tolerant behaviors and attitudes.

The primary model CEDAR uses is a two-week summer school—hosted by a local collaborating partner, usually a university—that draws participants (fellows) and lecturers from around the world representing a broad range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Over the course of the two weeks, fellows participate in an intensive combination of lectures, site visits, and discussions, as well as meals, films, and informal recreational activities. Through these activities, fellows learn not only cognitively, but also experientially and affectively. These three dimensions of new knowledge help to overturn fellows’ assumptions about self, other, and the interactions between the two.[17] The liminal space of the summer school functions as a sort of laboratory in which to practice living with difference, and fellows learn to do so during their informal, quotidian interactions as much as in formal lectures or discussions. In recent years, the school has expanded its focus from solely religious differences; it now includes differences in ethnicity, culture, sexuality, and gender, since these, too, are essential aspects of many people’s group identities. All of these differences emerge in one way or another during the summer school, and fellows must improvise solutions for how they will live together in spite of them. Fellows are not required in any way to accept, validate, or otherwise support the differences of their peers. What they must do, though, is learn how to live with those differences for the duration of the school.[18]

“Living with difference,” CEDAR’s catchphrase, in effect indicates the premise on which the entire enterprise is based: tolerance. Unlike IFYC, with its ambitious goal of teaching people to value diversity, CEDAR’s more modest goal is simply to teach people that they can—and in many cases, must—live together differently. In CEDAR’s view tolerance is not “superficial” and insufficient, but profoundly difficult yet essential to life in a religiously diverse society. Many interfaith organizations, including IFYC, ultimately focus most of their attention on commonalities between religious groups while paying lip service to the differences that divide them. In contrast, CEDAR begins with the understanding that differences are essential and inevitable: “Our focus is on difference and seeks not to trivialize, privatize, or otherwise ‘overcome’ difference, but rather to accept the constitutive differences among human individuals and groups and from that baseline begin the hard work of learning to live with such differences and build a modicum of trust and solidarity despite these differences and all they imply.”[19] Fellows are not encouraged to see diversity as a good or bad thing, but rather as an unavoidable fact of life. They may be made to feel uncomfortable as a result of this difference, but they learn—cognitively, experientially, and affectively—that they can live with this discomfort. In fact, they may not be able to avoid discomfort without giving up fundamental religious commitments to exclusive truth claims. IFYC’s pluralism demands that diversity be viewed in a positive light; CEDAR demands only that the discomfort that accompanies diversity be tolerated.

Approaches to Difference

As a result of their respective foundations in pluralism and tolerance, IFYC and CEDAR’s strategies for engaging difference (or not) through their programs stand in stark contrast to each other. IFYC makes a point of acknowledging that religious differences do exist, unlike many other interfaith programs, which emphasize that differences are merely superficial distortions of core commonalities. However,  its programs are designed to hide religious differences in subtle ways so as to make it easier in the end to subordinate them to a shared liberal, pluralist worldview. CEDAR, on the other hand, makes religious (and other forms of) differences the focal point of its program; if commonalities are ever acknowledged, it is only implicitly or privately, in conversations among the fellows. These divergent approaches to difference shape every aspect of the two programs: the selection of participants, the discussion or reflection topics, the design of activities and choice of spaces in which they take place, and the rules that govern participants’ behavior.

A first important point of comparison between the two programs is what kind of community each builds. In the case of IFYC, the communities involved in various Better Together and other campaigns are for the most part pre-existing. Because IFYC focuses on college students, the community is already there: the college campus. Many smaller communities may come together from across campus to participate in a Better Together event, but all the participants share a significant marker as students at the same college. Moreover, despite colleges’ efforts to increase diversity, students have several important things in common. They have the financial means to attend college; they share the same level of education; and, most important, they already live together, sharing academic and social facilities and other components of college life. They may differ in many important ways, but their similarities are what brought them together in the first place and remain what structures their lives together. They are already a community with a shared social world that easily subordinates difference to what they have in common, at least on the surface.

The CEDAR community, in contrast, is temporary, existing for the first time on the first day of the program. Some participants may be acquainted with each other prior to their arrival, but most are not. Some may share native languages, but rarely with more than one other person. Since the summer school provides a limited number of scholarships and travel assistance for fellows, they may not have similar financial means. And they do not share religious commitments, since they represent a wide range of religious and nonreligious affiliations. What they do share, typically, are two things: a college-level or higher education and a sufficiently strong interest in religion and public life to travel across the globe to study it. From this base, a community of approximately 25 fellows is built. For two weeks they must live together, eat every meal together, and attend all summer school activities together. By virtue of this structure, their similarities and differences are initially given equal weight; there is no overarching shared community to mask differences.

Once the respective programs have started, both IFYC and CEDAR have the opportunity to highlight either sameness or difference through discussions, reflections, and stories that participants tell one another. Both choose to highlight difference, though to different degrees. For IFYC, one of the core requirements for a Better Together event is that students articulate their religious or nonreligious identities and values; presumably, this is where differences along religious lines would first arise, temporarily disrupting the sense of homogeneity among a group of students from the same college.[20] However, articulating these different identities is only the starting point. Subsequent activities and conversations work to smooth over this disruption, reinstating the sense of sameness in spite of expressed differences. Suggested questions and topics for interfaith discussions include the following: “What values do you think you share with people of other religious and non-religious identities? Share an experience where you saw these shared values in action. How does the civil rights movement exemplify interfaith co­operation? How do you think interfaith cooperation affected the impact of the civil rights movement? How does it connect to our work today?”[21] Students are expected to discuss their different identities, beliefs, experiences, and values; but the implicit norm is eventually to find points of commonality amidst the differences. This is a necessity in a group dedicated to taking common action for the common good. Religious differences can be expressed, but they are expected not to diverge too far from values upon which all students can agree and therefore act. The discomfort that arises from articulating differences is quickly alleviated by a return to homogeneity: everyone can agree on raising money for a soup kitchen or building a house for a homeless family. Differences may be expressed, but they are subordinated to commonalities.

CEDAR has no such normative approach toward common values and experiences. If anything, its norm is to bring difference to the surface and keep it there, despite the discomfort it typically causes for everyone involved. When fellows first meet, their natural inclination is to focus on things they have in common in their introductory conversations. Rarely do people meet a stranger and immediately begin listing the ways in which they are different. However, all of the discussions, lectures, and facilitations of the summer school are designed to disrupt any complacent sense of sameness that may develop. When I participated in the Balkan Summer School in 2013, not once were we asked to reflect on something we shared with the other fellows or other communities; every topic was designed to highlight differences and to force fellows to live with the discomfort that comes with being conscious of differences. Nor was this awareness of difference limited to our structured events: even in our informal activities—including meals, swimming, and conversations over drinks—we became more conscious of how religious differences manifest themselves in everyday life. Many fellows were fascinated by kosher laws, and mealtime conversation frequently involved this topic. Swimming breaks also highlighted our differences, perhaps unexpectedly, when one Muslim woman was unable to participate because of modesty requirements. Points of difference that might previously have gone unnoticed became inescapable, both because we were taught to look for them and because we were living together and sharing all of our daily activities.

IFYC’s and CEDAR’s approaches to difference shape more than just overt discussions about religion; they also shape the activities undertaken by participants, beginning with the type of space in which communal activities take place. Generally speaking, both groups conduct activities in two types of space: public space and private space. Public space is the overlapping space shared by all religious communities (or other communities of difference). It may include dining halls, city parks, arenas, classrooms, and so on. Private space, in contrast, is the space reserved for the use of a particular group separately from other groups. Most important, private space includes sacred space, the space in which religious rituals occur. The degree to which an interreligious group conducts its activities in private or sacred space is indicative of its attitude toward difference. Entering another group’s sacred space is a palpable experience of difference. Everything, from the architecture to the symbols to the rituals, is a reminder that this group is not one’s own. If sacred spaces feature frequently in an interfaith program, the participants experience difference as a focal point of the program. If most of the spaces used in an interfaith program are public, with only occasional entry into sacred spaces, the program is more interested in what it can accomplish in public, shared space than in addressing the discomfort that comes with unfamiliar sacred space.

Both IFYC and CEDAR use both types of space: public and private/sacred. However, CEDAR uses a higher percentage of sacred space than IFYC does. During the two weeks of the summer school, CEDAR fellows visit some form of religious site nearly every day; the experience of different sacred spaces is an integral part of CEDAR’s strategy of pushing fellows to confront difference. By this repeated exposure to a variety of differences, fellows learn not to erase their discomfort, but to live with it. For IFYC participants, sacred space is also important, but campus-wide events are rarely held in a sacred space. Small groups may visit a variety of houses of worship and be encouraged to appreciate the differences they observe, but different religious spaces are not usually the focal point of Better Together events. Rather, these events are typically held in public spaces that can hold more people and are less disconcertingly different. They accomplish many things, such as building relationships between people of different faiths and supporting a variety of social justice causes; but the focus is not on difference itself. Space is a key factor in determining to what degree difference will be experienced and how it will be evaluated.

The tendency toward using public rather than private/sacred space, or vice versa, also impacts the types of activities that comprise the interfaith program and the lessons participants learn about difference. IFYC activities that occur in public space may be ordinary activities like meals, but more often they are extraordinary actions such as fasts, house building, concerts, and so on. These actions are usually one-time (or perhaps annual) events that bring students of many different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together for a brief time and then send them on their way. Being together despite differences is an exceptional occurrence. Ideally, students’ awareness of religious differences is raised, but there is no compulsion for students to continue to engage difference as they go through their daily lives. The exception to this may be the leaders of any IFYC-affiliated group on campus. Student leaders planning and executing events will have much more sustained contact with one another than regular participants, and IFYC encourages groups to have a diverse student leadership. The main effect, however, is that students who participate in a Better Together event experience difference temporarily in an out-of-the-ordinary way; while they may take away an improved cognitive understanding of difference, their actual experience of difference is limited to a brief, extraordinary moment.

CEDAR’s preference for private/sacred space has the opposite effect on fellows’ experience of difference. Far from being out of the ordinary, the experience of difference is the norm, and fellows encounter it in all aspects of everyday life during the summer school. This includes experiencing difference within sacred spaces. Fellows are required to attend all summer school activities, including visits to religious sites that are not their own. Instead of participating in extraordinary activities like building a house, summer school fellows observe one another’s daily rituals, both religious and nonreligious. Unlike IFYC participants, CEDAR fellows experience difference in a way not limited to discrete events once or twice in a semester; theirs is a sustained encounter for the duration of the summer school. These two ways of experiencing difference, the extraordinary and the ordinary, have profoundly different implications for how participants expect/view difference in their subsequent lives. Students in IFYC programs may view difference as something that can be temporarily engaged toward a positive end, while CEDAR fellows are more likely to see it as an everyday fact with which they must live constantly and permanently.

The Problem of Proselytism

While all of the programming choices made by IFYC and CEDAR reflect their respective commitments to pluralism and tolerance, the impact of these choices is subtle. They implicitly shape how participants encounter difference during the interfaith program, but they are rarely, if ever, stated explicitly during the program. There is, however, one area in which pluralist or tolerant philosophies are forced to the surface: the rules governing dialogue or exchanges between participants. Both programs acknowledge that participants’ religious identities may center on exclusive truth claims that put those identities at odds with others. If those identities are to be expressed in a constructive way, the interfaith program must have clear guidelines for how this should be done. Creating those guidelines requires an explicit articulation of the program’s philosophy regarding religious difference, the degree to which it can be expressed, and to what end it can be engaged.

During interfaith dialogues in IFYC, participants are encouraged to “bring their full identities to the table.”[22] For those whose religious identities are sufficiently liberal that they do not feel challenged by the presence of others with diametrically opposed identities, this is relatively easy. For those on the more conservative end of their tradition’s spectrum, though, this sort of encounter can be extremely difficult. Some interfaith organizations ask their participants to deny their exclusive truth claims during dialogues, to assert that their own religion is not the only way. Patel rightly criticizes this approach for attracting only the most liberal members of most religions and effectively excluding the more conservative members from the conversation altogether.[23] To avoid this problem, IFYC emphasizes that one component of Eck’s definition of pluralism—“respect for individual religious or non-religious identity”—requires that participants be “allowed to believe that they are right and others are wrong.”[24] More important, they are allowed to express their “full identity,” meaning an identity with its exclusive truth claims intact. IFYC repeatedly states in its literature that interfaith dialogue “should not deny the real differences and disagreements that exist between religious and non-religious perspectives, nor should it diminish the reality that exclusive truths play in many religious differences.”[25] However, what happens once that exclusivist identity is expressed is key to understanding IFYC’s pluralist approach.

As Patel and Meyer put it, when dealing with exclusive truth claims in interfaith dialogue, “there need to be rules for how this conversation can play out.”[26] Simply put, the rule is that proselytism is prohibited: “Although proselytizing is an important part of many religious traditions, [interfaith dialogue] is not the space for it.”[27] Participants are asked to “acknowledge that others’ religious or non-religious perspectives are as precious to them as yours is to you” and thus to refrain from attempting to convert their dialogue partners. Instead, after this expression of participants’ “full identities,” the conversation is channeled away from proselytism and toward common values. This dialogue structure both reveals difference and subsequently hides it, for there is a clear limit to the amount of difference that can be expressed, and even at its most extreme, difference is still subordinated to commonality. This is the epitome of the pluralist approach: difference is positive, but only insofar as it can be made to serve a common purpose. When difference is expressed to such a degree that it threatens to be divisive—for example, proselytism—it must be suppressed.

CEDAR also has rules governing participants’ conversations, but they do not include a prohibition against proselytism. The summer school has only two absolute requirements: (1) fellows must attend every event, and (2) they cannot claim for their own community a monopoly on human suffering. In other words, everyone is expected to be a present and participating member of the summer school community, and to allow space for their peers to express their own experiences without denying the legitimacy or significance of those experiences. However, nowhere is proselytism expressly prohibited. To be sure, the implicit norm of the summer school was to avoid overt proselytism; as in most interfaith programs, proselytism is considered at the very least impolite. But to attempt to convert another fellow would not be against the rules. If anything, such an event would draw attention to how significant our religious differences are and how profoundly destabilizing it is to realize that we do not agree about what is true. CEDAR does not cut off the expression of difference when it threatens to be divisive, even when it veers into proselytism. Recognizing that extreme degree of difference and yet continuing to live together is the core project of the summer school. If the community of fellows can do that and then still sit down and eat together despite their profound disagreement, they have learned to exercise the sort of tolerance that makes it possible to live in a religiously diverse world, even without necessarily valuing diversity as a good thing.

The central challenge posed by religious diversity emerges in this confrontation between exclusive truth claims and, through it, the primary difference between pluralism and tolerance when they are put into action. Both organizations acknowledge that religious differences exist— but what to do with them? IFYC’s pluralist approach encourages passive expressions of difference, but any action taken must be an expression of “common values for the common good.” Proselytism is off limits precisely because diversity is understood to be a positive thing. After all, if diversity is inherently good, there ought not to be an impulse to eliminate that diversity by converting others to a single Truth. Thus, students can express their own difference, but they cannot try to persuade others to join them. This  prevents any arguments over who is ultimately right, which may allow participants to build houses together; but it also has the effect of privatizing religious difference, of making it something off limits for debate. Respect becomes a code word for silence. Moreover, when these differences are constrained to allow commonalities to remain the focus of both attention and action, differences are trivialized. Lip service is paid to their importance as individuals express their own religious identities; but that which has real value for pluralists remains that which is held in common.

As an organization founded on the principle of tolerance, CEDAR has no such compunction to promote diversity as something to be protected by prohibiting anything that might threaten it, including proselytism. The summer school’s goal is to make fellows aware of their differences and the significance of those differences—and to give them space to learn how to live together anyway. They are taught to exercise not pluralism but tolerance, which by its very definition recognizes that diversity is not the preferred option. Tolerance allows religious identities to be expressed fully, even to the point of expressing discomfort with diversity. However, what the summer school also teaches is that diversity is an inescapable fact of life. Fellows must find their own strategies for dealing with their discomfort. Those strategies can include anything except avoiding the source of discomfort by failing to attend scheduled activities. Difference in this way is not trivialized, but rather understood to be concomitant with identity. It cannot be subordinated to commonality without compromising identity. From this point of view, difference is inherently neither good nor bad, only disconcerting; and its expression cannot be constrained by rules prohibiting any actions that threaten a positive valuation of difference.


From this comparison of pluralism and tolerance in action, we can draw the following conclusions. First, we learn that a core distinction between pluralism and tolerance is the decision to view religious diversity as a positive thing or as simply an inescapable fact. This distinction influences programming choices in interfaith organizations, determining how differences and commonalities are presented and valued in relation to each other. In a pluralist approach such as that of IFYC, difference is to some degree peripheral and privatized, while the real action occurs in shared space doing shared activities. Commonality is consistently emphasized over difference. In a tolerant approach such as that of CEDAR, the reverse is true. Difference is central, and it features prominently in the cognitive, experiential, and affective dimensions of learning. The things we have in common with other humans are as peripheral to the summer school experience as the 50 percent of our DNA that we share with a banana.[28] The construction of activities, the locations, and above all the rules governing participants’ behavior are all dependent on whether the program’s underlying philosophy is pluralism or tolerance.

This in turn shapes how participants in the interfaith program understand and engage with difference as they return to their daily lives. Do they see encounters with diversity as something out of the ordinary, something rare but with a positive impact? Or do they see diversity as an ordinary feature of everyday life, which can be engaged either positively or negatively but cannot be ignored? What value do participants assign to differences, as opposed to commonalities, when they encounter someone from another religion in their lives? Does difference or commonality take precedence? The goal of the programs is to give participants the tools to navigate the diversity of their own communities, and the pluralist toolbox looks quite different from the tolerance toolbox. Which one is more effective depends heavily on the context in which it is used. In an environment where religious differences can easily—and temporarily—be subordinated to commonalities, IFYC’s pluralist approach is viable. In an environment where religion is a defining feature of multiple groups’ identities, however, religious difference may not be so easily hidden away as valuable but ultimately irrelevant to public life. CEDAR’s tolerant approach allows fellows to recognize the significance of religious (and other forms of) differences in both public and private life, and to practice living with diversity even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Put simply, a college campus is not Bosnia; the strategies that work for students at the University of Illinois will not directly translate to a neighborhood in Sarajevo. The pluralist toolbox takes for granted that those involved value diversity as an inherent good, which may not always be the case. Yet when such a position is the case, tolerance alone may miss opportunities for constructive action across lines of difference that a pluralist approach would provide. Both approaches, in short, can be effective if they are implemented in the appropriate contexts. What the pluralist approach misses, though, is that diversity is rarely seen as an inherent good. In reality, diversity is more often seen as a threat, precisely because of the danger it poses to group identity.

There is, then, an evangelistic component to the pluralist approach, the success of which directly impacts the effectiveness of any pluralist interfaith enterprise. Those involved must first be convinced that diversity is—or at least can be—a good thing. “Better Together” is not a descriptive statement, but an argument IFYC continually makes through its activities. In its literature, IFYC claims that its notion of pluralism is sociological, not theological; that is, diversity can be understood as socially positive even if it is still seen as theologically negative. In reality, the two are not so easily separated. The move to separate theological pluralism from sociological pluralism is akin to permitting the expression of difference but prohibiting any kind of proselytism: the result is that sincere theological reservations about difference are privatized, and a homogeneous “sociological” point of view regarding difference is imposed publicly. Tolerance does not make this sort of demand, and it is this feature of tolerance that makes it an option worth pursuing as a strategy for maintaining peace in religiously diverse communities. It is not a bad thing for pluralists to plead their case that diversity is positive, but they should never take it for granted that others will agree. Pluralism is the preferred option only if we truly believe that we can create a consensus that diversity is good. However, if we recognize that differences essential to identity and diversity have as much potential to be threatening as to be positive, we may be better off pursuing tolerance, accepting diversity as simply a fact of life that will elicit a wide range of responses. Demanding a positive evaluation of difference can be asking too much; simply recognizing that difference exists may enable us to live together.

Author Bio

Lauren R. Kerby, a 2013 BSSRPL Fellow, is a third-year PhD student at Boston University where she studies contemporary American religion and society.


CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion: www.cedarnetwork.org.

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Interfaith Youth Core: www.ifyc.org.

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Patel, Eboo, and Cassie Meyer. “Engaging Religious Diversity on Campus: The Role of Interfaith Leadership.” Journal of College & Character 10:7 (November 2009): 1–8.

Seligman, Adam. “Tolerance, Tradition, and Modernity.” Cardozo Law Review 24 (2002): 1645–1657.

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[1] CEDAR was originally established in 2003 as the International Summer School for Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) and operated under that name until 2013.

[2] Emile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method, ed. Steven Lukes (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1982), 97–104.

[3] And, in some cases, those norms can change as a result of deviance. See Durkheim, 101–02.

[4] Kai Erikson, Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance (Needham Heights, MA: Macmillan, 1966), 10.

[5] Erikson, 11.

[6] “Center Profile: Interfaith Youth Core,” The Pluralism Project, http://www.pluralism.org/profiles/view/75013.

[7] “IFYC Overview,” About Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/about-ifyc.

[8] “IFYC Overview.”

[9] “Interfaith Leadership Institutes,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/leadership-institutes.

[10] “Quick Start Toolkit,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/sites/default/files/u4/Quick%20start%20Toolkit%202013.pdf.

[11] Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation for Colleges and Universities,” Journal of College & Character 12:1 (February 2011): 2.

[12] “The Framework,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/about; see also Patel and Meyer, “Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2.

[13] Patel and Meyer, “Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation,” 2.

[14] “CEDAR: Our Story,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/about- us/our-story/.

[15] “CEDAR: Past Programs,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/programs/past-programs/.

[16] “The International Summer School on Religion and Public Life Changes Its Name,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging in Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/2013/07/28/the-international-summer-school-on-religion-and-public-life-changes-name.

[17] “Pedagogic Principles,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/about-us/pedagogic-principles/.

[18] “Pedagogic Principles.” In this paper, I also draw on my own experience as a fellow in the Balkan Summer School in 2013.

[19] “How We Work,” CEDAR—Communities Engaging Difference and Religion, http://www.cedarnetwork.org/about-us/how-we-work/.

[20] Information on IFYC’s programming is taken from a variety of resources available at www.ifyc.org/better-together, especially the “Quick Start Toolkit,” as well as from informal conversations with IFYC alumni.

[21] “Making It Interfaith,” Interfaith Youth Core, http://www.ifyc.org/teaching-interfaith.

[22] Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism: A Response to Professor Robert McKim,” Journal of College & Character 11:2 (May 2010): 2.

[23] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[24] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[25] “Making It Interfaith,” Interfaith Youth Core: Tools for Campus Impact, http://www.ifyc.org/teaching-interfaith.  See especially the footnote on pg. 5.

[26] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 2.

[27] Patel and Meyer, “Defining Religious Pluralism,” 1.

[28] Thanks to Adam Seligman of CEDAR for this striking metaphor.

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