The United States of America is arguably one of the most religiously diverse countries in the history of the world. All the major living religions – from the largest to the smallest – have a presence in this country. And even some of the “dead” religions – those that died out as cultures and empires changed over the course of history – have come back alive in the United States. Hello worshipers of Thor and Odin up there in Northern California!
The vast religious diversity in this country means that, more than likely, we citizens will encounter the faithful of several different religions while at work, at school, while shopping, and at home in our neighborhoods. Maybe you are Christian and your colleague on a major project is Muslim. Or your kid’s best friend at school is Sikh. Or your new neighbors are Jewish and put up a big menorah in their window about the same time as you were hanging your Christmas lights. Maybe your Christian son is marrying a Hindu and they are planning a big Indian-style wedding.
These types of scenarios, and many more, play themselves out every day in this country. And this presents a challenge to all of us in our various “locations” of life: home, school, work, or wherever. That challenge is to practice tolerance. Tolerance is a problematic word for lots of people. For some, tolerance is a form of relativism that demands that we respect other religions as much as we respect our own. For others, tolerance falls short of the full acceptance and celebration of diversity that they champion.
Both of these criticisms miss the larger point of what our country’s founders had in mind when they harped on religious tolerance in their writings about freedom. Tolerance is a paramount civic virtue in any country that places a high premium on freedom of any kind, especially religious freedom. Freedom means diversity, because free people will live in all kinds of ways. And amidst radical diversity, we must practice tolerance – we must allow, “put up with”, not interfere with – all sorts of religious expression (or lack of it) even if we find that expression confusing, weird, or wrong. In a country that allows individual freedom of thought, belief, practice and expression as much as the USA, it logically follows that we will live, work, study and play alongside people who believe very differently than us, who pray to different gods than we do (if they pray at all), and whose deepest values are organized around and through a different religious belief system than ours.
And that’s okay.
Tolerance means building up within ourselves the capacity to peacefully coexist with others whose religious beliefs are significantly different from ours. Tolerance means respecting other people’s rights to think and believe in ways that seem right to them even if their actual beliefs seem problematic to us. It means respecting people and their right to their beliefs, even if we don’t respect the beliefs themselves.
We will never all be the same, but I believe we can find a way to live together peacefully. Religious diversity training is about helping us to create a culture of peaceful co-existence among people of all faiths and no faith, wherever we are. In the end, our destiny is to share this planet and to live together. Whatever we can do to live together peacefully, in my view, is very much worth doing.