Religion can divide or unify, it's up to us

This article originally appeared in The Shelbyville News--Nathan Wilson. Some describe the United States of America as the most religiously diverse country. Others depict the United States as the most religiously devout country, at least in the northern hemisphere.

Whether or not we are the "most" of either, it's safe to say that religion is a big deal for a bunch of people in the U.S.

The ongoing question is how we allow religion to shape us. Will religion be a source of conflict or community, a basis for clashing or cooperating? One place that this religious interaction is particularly pronounced is on college and university campuses. Because of this, colleges and universities are ideally positioned to help all of society determine effective ways to recognize religious diversity and promote cooperation.

Diversity, by itself, is not automatically socially constructive. History shows that when diversity -- whether it's racial, ethnic or religious -- is left unattended, it can lead to tensions, intolerance and even outright conflict.

History also shows that when diversity is positively engaged, it can build social cohesion and social capital.

Similarly, interfaith engagement has often meant interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue, while certainly important and needed, primarily impacts those involved in the dialogues, which is usually a small group of people.

What's needed now, alongside dialogue, is attention to broader scale interfaith cooperation. Interfaith cooperation is a civic imperative, not just a religious interest, and so it is no longer only for a small group of committed dialogists.

If colleges and universities engage religious diversity with the same hopes and resources that they dedicate to other identity and diversity issues, there is an opportunity for lasting impact.

What, specifically, could this impact be, you ask? Well, thanks for asking. For starters, maybe we could move closer to a world where there is mutual and ongoing respect among those who claim religious identity and those who don't.

I used to bristle in academic discussions when others would deride my religious convictions. Their attitude was that because I am a committed Christian, I can't possibly be as educated or thoughtful about literature or philosophy or science. Ridiculous!

But I'll be darned if I don't hear religious people commit the same sin of shortsightedness toward the nonreligious. These religious folks sometimes talk like the nonreligious are incapable of acting morally. Ridiculous!

Mutual and ongoing respect among those who claim religious identity and those who don't would move the United States and the world forward.

Here's another possible impact: Mutually inspiring relationships between people of different faiths and those of none.

Now, it's not helpful to dumb down religion to "I'm OK, you're OK" or to say that all religions are the same. They aren't. Many religions do have similar ethical expectations -- namely, treat others the way you want to be treated, and show hospitality to those unlike you -- but they have distinct doctrines, rituals, experiences and understandings of what is authoritative in life.

So, all religions are not one. Followers of different religions can have, and many of us do have, inspiring relationships with people of other faiths.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which Jews pray and discuss how to better honor God, family and friends, seek forgiveness and love neighbors, was meaningful to me. In response to that column, a Jewish friend brought me wonderful challah bread and kind words about the column. I appreciated the bread and especially the thoughtful words and see them both as indications of a deeper relationship.

There are more potential impacts to name at another time. For now, let's hope and look for ways that Americans, and others, can move forward not in spite of different religious languages and loyalties but exactly because of them.