New York, NY—Speaking before an 670 attendees at the National Association of Episcopal School’s Biennial Conference 2010 this past November 18–20 in San Antonio, Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, captivated the crowd with his keynote address exploring religious pluralism in American life and the need for "interfaith literacy" and collaboration. At the end of his 45-minute address, Patel received a standing ovation of a length not generally seen at Biennial Conferences.
An American Muslim, Patel is a leading speaker, writer, and thinker on American religious pluralism. His keynote address highlighted Biennial Conference 2010, the theme of which was “From Every Family, Language, People, and Nation" (Revelation 5:9). Over the course of two-and-a-half days, attendees participated in sixty-six workshops and poster sessions and numerous opportunities for worship and fellowship, welcomed Les Petits Chateurs, the boy choir from L’École de la Ste. Trinité in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and celebrated the pluralism and diversity within and among Episcopal schools and the communities in which these schools collectively educate more than 125,000 students.
Eboo Patel on "Interfaith Literacy"
Patel began his address by describing the United States today as the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world, with the most religiously observant citizenry among industrialized nations. He described this unprecedented religious pluralism as one of the most important and yet least understood facets of “diversity” in America. The United States, he noted, is in the midst of a great experiment for which there is no precedent and no operating manual.
Patel went on to outline the complexities of such a diverse religious landscape. The existence of multiple religious groups in one country often does not bode well for religious tolerance and mutual respect. In fact, religion and religious difference can be among the most incendiary and divisive forces in any society, ones that exacerbate rather than reduce prejudice, intolerance, and religious violence. The events and controversies surrounding the place of Islam in the United States in the summer of 2010, he noted, vividly illustrate how easily the American principle of e pluribus unum can unravel.
There is, Patel suggested, an alternative. The religious pluralism of today’s United States is a rich and as yet untapped source of social capital that can strengthen democracy, build community, bring people of many faiths together for the common good, and advance the American principle of freedom of religion. Patel asserted that the social fabric is strengthened and religious understanding is advanced when people of different faiths identify shared values within and among their faith traditions; work together towards a common goal as an expression of their religious faith; and develop a positive image or experience of those of another faith. Such “interfaith literacy” and collaboration reduces religious intolerance and the violence it can engender. This is the new American opportunity.
How can schools promote “interfaith literacy?” Here are some of his suggestions:
Know and study your faith’s scriptures and stories that illustrate a theology of inter-faith hospitality. What does your faith teach you about welcoming or aiding the stranger or about being a neighbor? How does your faith act out its responsibilities to others? What stories and heroes illustrate these principles?
The dominant images of interfaith relations and religious difference focus on conflict, war, and death. The most common message is: “people of different faiths kill each other.” What examples counter this lopsided view? Can you locate people, times, and places when people of faith engaged in interfaith cooperation to advance the common good?
Identify shared, positive values, and common religious practices between and among people of different faiths and then speak to those shared values and practices. For instance, Patel noted that each of the world’s great religions includes a theology of hospitality, advocates care for all of creation, and calls upon the faithful to act on behalf of the common good. Schools can organize religion courses or units of study around common themes such as prayer, compassion, service, or forgiveness.
Create positive, meaningful encounters between people of different religions. We only come to know one another through relationship with one another. Positive encounters with people different faiths can better immunize us from misinformed religious stereotypes and destructive religious prejudice.
Patel concluded his address by asserting that the religious diversity of the United States is an enormous asset that can strengthen and enrich the social, economic, intellectual, artistic, political, and cultural fabric of American society. Episcopal schools have an enormous opportunity to lead the way.
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam