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How to Survive Well with Religious Diversity

Written by Rita M. Gross
March 27, 2015

by Rita M. Gross
This article was originally published on June 15, 2012 by The Interfaith Observer.
As Much as Possible, Do No Harm
Despite popular slogans, we do not dwell in a world characterized by unprecedented diversity, whether religious diversity or other kinds of diversity. There has always been a great deal of religious diversity on the planet, perhaps even more in the past than at present. Many smaller indigenous religious have been swallowed up by the so-called “great world religions.” But we do live in a world in which knowledge about such diversity cannot be avoided, both because many societies are now more religiously diverse than was usual in the past and because modern methods of communication make such knowledge unavoidable.
Unfortunately, knowledge about religious diversity often makes people, especially some people who consider themselves very religious, intensely uncomfortable. For reasons that are unfathomable to me, such people are obsessed with thinking that everyone needs to be identical to themselves concerning religious beliefs and practices – a goal that is extremely short-sighted and unrealistic.
In nature, diversity is necessary. Among plants, monocultures, such as lawns, are unnatural and therefore fragile, requiring extensive artificial care. Among animals, genetic diversity is necessary to produce healthy offspring. People come in many sizes, shapes, heights, and skin colors, and have created an infinite rainbow of cultures that are constantly changing. Given the omnipresence of diversity in every facet of nature and culture, how could anyone come to believe that religious uniformity is good, or even possible?
Perhaps nothing has caused more human suffering throughout history than the flawed and inevitably unsuccessful goal of pursuing religious uniformity. Given that all religions claim to seek and promote human well-being, those religious people who believe that religious uniformity is necessary, good, or achievable should be deeply disturbed by the suffering caused by one of their religious beliefs. They should also be disturbed by the way in which that one belief contradicts deeper values of their religion.
Trying to Have it Both Ways
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot claim that you value human well-being and abhor human suffering at the same time as you claim that all other people should or must give up their core beliefs and adopt yours. Imagine the suffering it would cause you if I insisted that you needed to give up your religious beliefs and adopt mine instead, especially if I had the power to curtail your well-being economically or socially unless you adopted my outlook! That happens when the views or values of one religious group are made into public policy to which all members of a society, including those who do not share the religious beliefs or practices in question, must adhere.
This simple thought experiment, which places you on the receiving end of such religious ideology, should convince you that religious uniformity obtained by insisting that everyone adopt your religion is motivated by egocentrism and chauvinism, not by compassion and concern for others. It would certainly feel intolerable to you if I insisted that you had to adopt my religion, even if I claimed that my only motivation was concern for your well-being and eternal salvation. You would see through that claim and reject it immediately. What could possibly make it different if you are claiming that I need to adopt your religion and that you are motivated by compassion for me? Is there anything more egotistical and self-centered in the world than insisting that everyone else should adopt one’s own beliefs and practices, especially deeply personal religious beliefs?
Often people think that the best way to end conflict over religious diversity is to find some abstract lowest common denominator upon which people of all faiths or no faith could agree. Many such abstract principles have been suggested by many thinkers. Yet, in terms especially of beliefs – theologies and philosophies – no such abstract principle that can be agreed upon universally has been found. Theologically speaking, religions are very different and make very different claims. To try to reduce them to some underlying abstract principle robs most of them of their specific color and flavor, something to which adherents of the various religions rightly object. As a Buddhist, I know how far off the mark most attempts to find a religious lowest common denominator are.
Why do we have to agree upon anything theologically or philosophically to live together in peace and harmony? Are we not basing our desire for peace and harmony among diverse groups on the wrong foundation when we look for something we can all agree upon? I want to live in peace and harmony even if there is nothing about which we can agree theologically or philosophically.
There is more consonance among religions regarding ethics than regarding theology or worldview. If agreement is necessary before people with different views can live together in peace and harmony, ethics is a much more promising place to look for such agreement than theology or philosophy. At least regarding some broad generalizations, religions can agree that certain things, such as killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct are to be avoided and that love and compassion are to be pursued. Therefore, on at least some projects, people with different religious views can work together to support common goals.
Nevertheless, as soon as we try to define these ethical generalizations more specifically, disagreement ensues. All religions oppose killing, but some religions allow what they call “just war,” which obviously involves killing. The same pertains to any other ethical norm when it is examined more minutely, in more detail. We are left with the same question. Do we have to agree with one another to live together in peace and harmony?
Before Making Agreements
Why do we put so much emphasis on agreement? Do we not have the courage and the strength of mind to let others be who they are, without being upset by their differences from us? All religions do have the potential to transform their adherents from being more aggressive and intolerant to be less aggressive and intolerant. What is needed now is for all religions to emphasize to their adherents that living together in peace and harmony is more important than uniformity regarding religion, or the lack thereof.
If there is a minimal guideline promoting our willingness to live with diversity, if we must have some underlying principle to guide our ability to tolerate and flourish with diversity, I would suggest the guideline: “As much as possible, do no harm.” We all know that we do not want to be harmed and it should be no great leap of logic to understand that, therefore, we cannot harm others by imposing our values and beliefs upon them, even if we think they would be better off if they were more like us. As for those who insist on harming others by seeking to impose their beliefs and values on them, they must be stopped. You can be as different from me as you want to be, so long as you do not seek to make me identical with you or make me live by your ethics and values. But nothing gives you the right to harm me by trying to get me to be more like you, no matter how important your beliefs and values are to you.
The only view or ethic that is really problematic or dangerous is a view that cannot tolerate its own uniqueness and difference, seeking uniformity at all costs, a view that finds difference itself unacceptable. Such a view will never prevail, but in the meanwhile, it can cause immense harm and suffering. Fear of difference is truly dangerous and the only solution to the fact of diversity, religious and otherwise, is to learn to live comfortably with differences, whatever it takes. No other solution will ever work.
Published with the author’s permission.