The Difference Between Religious Diversity and Religious Pluralism

In a previous article I explored how “choice and safety” are the key ingredients in converting de facto religious diversity into religious pluralism, an environment more conducive to transformative encounter with difference. Here I will look more closely at how religious diversity and religious pluralism represent different modes of contact that present very different potentials for civic interaction.

Religious diversity is the coexistence of two or more religious communities in a specific geopolitical setting. The term itself suggests only the presence of religious difference, for example typical urban diversity, and infers nothing about equal representation in the context.

Religious pluralism is a value, a cultural or religious ideology which positively welcomes the encounter of religions. It is often characterized as an attitude of openness between affiliates of different religions. Religious pluralism presupposes religious diversity but religious diversity does not guarantee religious pluralism. Interreligious dialogue and interfaith programs are examples of religious pluralism intentionally enacted by individuals and organizations who claim its usefulness in processes of conflict resolution, civic engagement, and community integration.

Religious diversity does not automatically create interreligious tolerance (religious pluralism). In fact, as demonstrated in 2007 by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, it can create “hunkered down” ethnic enclaves. “Interfaith dialogue” does not just happen in tandem with diversity. Diversity alone may directly contravene the goals of religious pluralism. 

Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport (1959) acknowledges the reality of Robert Putnam’s term “hunkering down” as a basic response to urban diversity, but differentiates between modes of contact, namely casual contact and meaningful contact, showing that encounters with diverse religious others may confirm negative stereotypes and lead to “hunkering down,” or they may lead to meaningful engagement. Thus religious diversity alone does not automatically create meaning that serves to open minds and create attitudes of receptiveness. The quality of change depends on the mode of contact. Casual contact evades real connection and engagement and allows for stereotypes and conceptions to continue. People interact with their ideas about each other, mutually projecting personalities and cultures, interacting only with themselves and their own constructs. The religious other never emerges as a relatable individual. “Others” remain “It” to each other and they do not automatically become “You,” to update the terms of Martin Buber (1958).

On the other side of casual contact is meaningful contact–a friendship, an extended moment of learning with the other, a moment of mutual present-mindedness. Meaningful contact such as friendship, shared experience, or intentional dialogue serve to disconfirm negative stereotypes and replace them with new information, prosocial information, about the now familiar “religious other.” A “meaningful contact” methodology of storytelling is seen by some proponents of religious pluralism as an effective way to facilitate the transgression of boundaries in communities (Illman 2012; Patel 2010; Abu-Nimer 2007; O’Neill 2007; Cornille 2008; Hill Fletcher 2013) and increase human connection. Mohammed Abu-Nimer discusses rehumanization in Israeli-Palestinian pluralism efforts, depicting meaningful personal encounters that emphasize collective humanity. Methodologically speaking, narrative analysis is a revealing way to study the functioning of boundaries in religious pluralism (Ammerman 2013; McGuire 2008).

In meaningful contact the religious “other” is not an It but a You. In this embodied field, ideas and projections about each other are disrupted and dissolved by the vividness of engagement. Here parties do not ignore differences but rather acknowledge that interreligious differences are substantive and significant. These moments are critical to meaningful investment, enabling parties to acknowledge, confront, and grow through differences. In meaningful contact the realities of each party disrupt habitually projected images and preconceptions. Where there once was a vacuum of one-dimensional objectifications, I and You become unpredictable, mysterious, and present to each other. Assertions of difference are tempered by the intentionality of pluralism, a mutual commitment to explore differences without harm, neither party subjugated nor victimized, neither renouncing personalities nor particularities.

While casual contact is a central consequence of religious diversity, meaningful contact is a central goal of religious pluralism. The pluralism found in meaningful contact does not, then, dissolve differences or eradicate boundaries. Rather, boundaries are rendered permeable in a way that allows encounter, borrowing, and exchange. Meaningful contact carries transformative potential and is the closest that religious pluralism comes to actualization.

If we want people to “just get along,” we have to find a way to deliver cultural education and to create meaningful contact opportunities.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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