Religious Pluralism, Global Peace, and Higher Education

Egypt and Syria are the latest catastrophes compelling higher education to create and promote religious pluralism. Most, if not all, wars include religious conflict, so we should not be surprised when prominent social critics urge us to eliminate religion: notably Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, and the late Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. However, the negative side of religion is barely half the story. While major world religions differ in many beliefs and on many issues, they all teach a version of the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." In their extensive writings on the history of religion, Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith have consistently documented that major religions attract and retain vast numbers of followers for the best of reasons: Their teachings respond to a universal human longing for global peace and social justice.

Charles Kimball in When Religion Becomes Evil concluded that people corrupt traditional religion by rigid exclusion. We can, however, overcome exclusion with inclusion -- the inclusion of religious pluralism. In Beyond Fundamentalism, Reza Aslan claimed that engaged religious pluralism, especially in local settings, could eliminate religious war. While religious diversity is necessary for religious pluralism, diversity alone does not guarantee pluralism. As Diana Eck of the Pluralism Project at Harvard states, religious pluralism is not a given -- it is a creation. Religious pluralism requires education, reflection, and inter-religious dialogue. It enables us to stand together respecting our profoundly held differences because we value each other's integrity.

Eboo Patel, in Acts of Faith, chronicles his life story: Raised a Muslim, he learned Mormonism in high school, Roman Catholicism in college, and Islam in graduate school. Each of his personal contacts with different religions eventually brought him to reclaim his spiritual identity as a Muslim. He drew important lessons from each religion he studied and experienced: for example, from Roman Catholicism, he learned how to bridge religion and social responsibility when, as a student at the University of Illinois, he was a community member of the St. Jude Catholic Worker house in Champaign.

As Patel discovered, religious pluralism requires religious literacy. Stephen Prothero wrote about the widespread religious illiteracy in the United States in his Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. Prothero, recognizing the complexity of religion, concluded that religion can be both the greatest force for good and the greatest force for evil. He pointed out that Americans, despite the fact that 80 percent claim to be religious, are woefully religiously illiterate not only about other religions, but about their own. For example, most American Christians cannot name one of the Gospels, and high school students typically think that Sodom and Gomorrah are husband and wife. In connecting inter-religious dialogue, religious pluralism, and religious literacy, Prothero pointed out that every major religion has struggled with the classic life, death, and after-life issues as well as incentives to reduce war and promote social justice.

Colleges and universities are major resources that could promote religious pluralism because they can teach religious literacy, a prerequisite for religious pluralism. To do so, colleges and universities ought to consider: developing more courses on religion and spirituality, integrating religious studies throughout the curriculum, creating formal and informal opportunities for inter-religious dialogue on campus and in their local communities, and increasing campus participation in community service.

Most importantly, higher education needs to get beyond its own discomfort zone regarding religion. Faith-based institutions need to be more open to teaching courses in religion other than their own. Whether or not one has a religion is not important. What is important is to recognize that the majority of people in the world do practice a religion -- and that their beliefs can be a force for good as well as evil. Also, very intelligent and well educated people are members of the world's religions: Religion is not simply the Marxian "opium of the masses."

Inclusion is the key. I was moved, as were many, by Pope Francis, who in his first public comments as head of the Catholic Church, sincerely welcomed the atheists in his press audience and expressed his warm respect for and gratitude to them. Education is the venue. An effective example: In response to recent anti-Muslim ads on San Francisco buses and trains, California Institute of Integral Studies hosted a workshop for local teachers to understand Islam and work with Muslim students. David Chiu, president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, inspired the teachers at the workshop as he acknowledged their capacity to change generations by teaching them inclusion and pluralism, religious and otherwise.

We have a long and complex journey ahead of us if we wish to educate our students, our communities, and ourselves in the world's major religions; teach a religious literacy that can support inclusive pluralism; and engage in the difficult conversation of inter-religious dialogue -- all with profound respect whether or not we are believers. Colleges and universities, here and abroad, can begin at home and then increase the ripple to reach communities all over the globe. To paraphrase the well-known Chinese proverb: the journey to peace starts with the first step.