Thursday, June 14, 2012

Getting past the religious divide

David Bornstein has an Opinionator piece in the New York Times about the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) whose mission is to foster greater meaningful interaction between those of different faiths (and those who do not profess a religious faith at all), with the ultimate goal of increasing mutual understanding.
“We can show in a quite rigorous way that when you become friends with someone of a different faith, it not only makes you more open-minded to people of that faith, it makes you more open-minded about people of all other faiths. It makes you more tolerant generally,” says Putnam. “That’s the fundamental premise of the Interfaith Youth Core’s work.”
While I find the premise immensely appealing, I also find it hard to be optimistic that IFYC's model is a workable one for society at large. IFYC operates among college students, who are among the better-educated members of our nation: they are, in short, part of the elite. Also, being young, they're more likely to be open to new ideas and new experiences. Now, while I think much of the dysfunction and polarization caused by religious sectarianism is fostered by elite members of society (specifically, media-savvy and ambitious religious leaders and politicians), these elites aren't generally uninformed: rather, they've made the conscious decision to foment sectarianism because it strengthens the influence they have over their followers. Even if you think I'm wrong, even if you think those leading the sectarian charge are sincere in their beliefs, getting them to back down from their often incendiary rhetoric toward The Other is a tough sell because they're only human, and being human, have a tendency to double down when their cherished beliefs are challenged. (You might even look on my skepticism of IFYC's work as evidence of that tendency, and you'd probably be right.)

But I think the real challenge for those who want to believe in the IFYC model is to consider those who aren't of the elite: those who can't attend college, or who won't, or who didn't and never will. How do you foster engagement with those of a different (or no professed) faith outside a college campus?

It's the same problem that makes racial animus so hard to eliminate. It's easy in this society, in which individualism is all but canonized as a sacred right, to create a fortress for yourself into which you admit only those who pass your tests for admission. Heck, I cherish individualism myself. I think the crucial question is how you view those outside your fortress: are they strangers, who simply are unknown to you, or enemies? The problem is that a lot of extremely faithful religious believers in this nation are acting as if the rest of us are enemies, not mere strangers. That may not be how these people actually think of us, but that's how they're coming off because of the rhetoric they choose to applaud (from the aforementioned religious and political elites).

For myself, by the way, I have no animus toward believers, though I can see how you might think otherwise if you've read much else on this blog. I'm more than willing to live and let live. The reason my dander is frequently up about religion is that I consider it an extremely private matter, and I vehemently object to attempts to export it into the public sphere. Thundering rhetoric proclaiming that "this is a Christian nation", for instance, is simply beyond the pale: it is exactly the kind of establishmentarianism that the sainted Pilgrims (forgive my sarcasm, but that is how they're portrayed) sought to escape in Europe. I will not stand for my identity as a non-believer being trampled by the misguided zeal of sectarians. I demand my right to exist and to a minimal degree of respect and dignity in the civil sphere. It is the same right you, as a believer, insist upon, and it is the same right we are both guaranteed by the non-sectarian Constitution.

In spite of my skepticism, I really, really, really, really hope that efforts like IFYC's succeed. A lot, after all, is at stake.

Americans celebrate diversity. But one of the mistaken beliefs about diversity is that it leads to greater tolerance. Putnam’s research indicates that, unless people make a concerted effort to build bridges, diversity leads to greater social fragmentation — with lower rates of trust, altruism and cooperation. “What ethnic diversity does is cause everybody to hunker down and avoid connection,” he explained. “It’s not just the presence of diversity in your neighborhood. You’ve got to actually be doing things with other people in which you have a personal attachment. Diversity is hard, not easy.”
If we are to renew our democracy — and is there anyone who thinks that's not necessary? — I think working hard at getting along, at understanding what our diversity actually means and why it's important, is a worthy goal to set for ourselves as a nation. It's not as sexy as winning World War II or putting a man on the moon, but it's at least as important. And libertarians, don't fret: unlike those efforts, we don't actually need government to show the way. This one can and probably should start at the bottom, with each of us.

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