Liberal Education

Toward a Field of Interfaith Studies

There has been dramatic growth in interfaith activity over the past twenty years, no doubt linked to the increasing diversity many people are now experiencing and to the prevalence of high-profile religious extremism and conflict. A half century ago, few cities had any organized interfaith programs. Today, dozens have some sort of initiative, everything from interfaith councils to festivals of faith. Religious denominations have invited leaders from other religions to give keynotes at their gatherings, and local congregations have started interfaith exchange programs. Think tanks have commissioned task forces and issued reports. The United Nations has launched a major interfaith initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations. Muslim and Christian theologians have unveiled a document called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” Celebrated world religions author Karen Armstrong has used her TED prize to issue a “Charter of Compassion,” calling all religions to redefine themselves by that shared, core value. Princes, prime ministers, and presidents have all, in various ways, lent their support to the interfaith cause.

I’ve been involved in interfaith work for some fifteen years, most of that time as founder and president of an organization called Interfaith Youth Core, which partners with college campuses on interfaith programs. When I was just starting out in the late 1990s, and whenever I happened to mention the term “interfaith” to someone, I mostly got met with a blank stare. When I tell someone now that I run an interfaith organization, there’s a good chance that I’m met with a knowing look, followed by a dizzying range of responses, such as “It’s so great that you are working to support people’s spiritual journeys” or “I believe in all religions too” or “I’m glad someone is out there standing up for morality.” We’ve gone from no recognition of a term to a hundred different definitions, some of them contradictory.

Scholars from a range of fields have long taken an interest in how people who orient around religion differently interact with one another. Indeed, this phenomenon has been the subject of important works in political science (The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington), sociology (American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell) and religion and theology (No Other Name? by Paul Knitter). As the activity in this area increases, one crucial role for the academy is to give some definition to what is clearly an emerging field of research, study, and practice. Another role is to recognize the importance of training people who have the knowledge base and skill set needed to engage religious diversity in a way that promotes peace, stability, and cooperation—and to begin offering academic programs that certify such leaders. What follows is my attempt to define the contours of “interfaith studies” and to give it some shape by articulating what a course of study in this field might look like.

Interfaith studies

As an academic field, interfaith studies would examine the multiple dimensions of how individuals and groups who orient around religion differently interact with one another, along with the implications of this interactions for communities, civil society, and global politics. Clearly, it would be an interdisciplinary field. A psychologist might research how individuals who grow up in a religiously homogenous environment experience and cope with moving to religiously diverse surroundings. A political scientist could study why some nations have been more effective than others in absorbing religious minorities, or why politics is dominated by religion in some states and not in others (or perhaps the relationship between the two). A historian would draw parallels between the relatively tolerant empires of medieval Islam and contemporary North America. A sociologist might look at the role religious institutions play in assimilating immigrants. Philosophers might compare theories of pluralism, theologians would elucidate how to be Christian or Muslim or Jewish amongst “others,” professors of art and literature could choose to examine any of a thousand great works that have been created at the crossroads of religious imaginations.

Without a doubt, research projects such as these already exist in the academy. But they are disconnected—published in separate journals and discussed independently of one another at different conferences and in different departments. Academic fields are useful because they are formal spaces for a group of colleagues to engage in long-term data gathering, sustained reflection, and extended discussion. It is a question not only of collecting things, but of connecting them and cooperating together to decide what they might mean and how to apply key lessons. Consider similar areas that have become fields, gathering scholars from different disciplines to inquire, connect, and apply—urban studies, human and family studies, education, community development, social work.

One thing that unites the fields I’ve mentioned is a strong practitioner dimension. Scholars in these areas ask and pursue critical research questions, but they also create programs of study that shape leaders who “do” in their areas. Social work departments educate social workers, education departments train teachers, urban studies departments train city managers, and so on. A major part of what interfaith studies would be about is nurturing a cadre of professionals, a group that I’m calling interfaith leaders. I’m defining an interfaith leader as someone with the framework, knowledge base, and skill set needed to help individuals and communities who orient around religion differently in civil society and politics build mutual respect, positive relationships, and a commitment to the common good. Put simply, an effective interfaith leader is one who can work with diversity to build pluralism.

Like Harvard University Professor Diana Eck, I define diversity as simply the fact of people and groups with different identities living in close quarters. Pluralism, according to Eck, is an achievement—it is the proactive engagement of this diversity toward positive ends. My own definition of pluralism has three parts: respect for different identities, positive relationships between diverse communities, and a collective commitment to the common good. Diverse societies that achieve pluralism have a strong civic fabric—one that can withstand the provocations of extremists and haters—and bridge their social capital in ways that can take on some of their toughest social problems. But bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground; people build them. And the people who are on the vanguard of such work, we call leaders.

A curriculum for developing interfaith leaders

What kind of academic program could educate and train interfaith leaders? For the purposes of this discussion, I’m imagining a concentration in an undergraduate program—a course sequence a student might take as part of a major in religion, political science, or international relations. The foundational course would be called “Religious Diversity, Civil Society, and World Politics,” and the first text that would be taught is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The first assignment would to be to read Huntington alongside a weeks’ worth of the New York Times and come to class prepared to argue against his thesis. If it is a typically bloody week, there will be far more that seems to illustrate Huntington’s ideas than disprove them.

This discussion would hopefully raise a series of questions that the rest of the coursework would attempt to answer. The first question is about religious trends. Huntington was one of the first prominent academics to say that the secularization theory was bunk, that religious identity was deeply ingrained in the human condition, and that most of humanity was likely to identify most closely with their faith for the foreseeable future. So twenty years after the Clash of Civilizations, what do we know about trends in religious identification? That is, what do we know not simply about the number of adherents of different religions across the globe, but also about diversity within cities, nations, and regions and about how people’s religious orientations shape their attitudes toward everything from polio vaccines to the separation of church and state to girls’ schooling? How devout and how diverse is our chosen area of interest, and how much is that likely to matter for issues of peace and stability?

The second question the Huntington conversation would be likely to raise is whether conflict between communities that orient around religion differently is in fact inevitable, as Huntington suggests. The third question is related to the second: if religious violence is not inevitable, then in what situations have diverse communities coexisted and even cooperated? This question is best answered through the literature of three disciplines. One is history—simply reading about the instances where diversity has become coexistence or cooperation. Some of my favorites include Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World about medieval Andalusia and Zachary Karabell’s Peace Be upon You.

A second discipline that helps answer this question is political science. I think political theory raises the hardest and most important question when it comes to religious diversity, namely, under what political and social conditions can communities who have very different ideas of what is good and lawful on Earth, based on a set of cosmic convictions, live together in the same society? To give just one example, many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains believe that all of life—including all animals and some vegetables—is holy and should be unharmed. They live together in India with about 140 million Muslims who believe that slaughtering goats on certain days is holy and that eating meat on most other days a very good idea. How can these groups with such basic differences anchored in cosmic convictions be expected to share a society together? These are the kinds of questions that the political theorists Michael Walzer, Alfred Stepan, and John Courtney Murray have explored.

Finally, sociology. What do we know from people doing empirical work, both ethnographic and quantitative, about how communities who orient differently around religion might get along? Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace asks how America, as a nation that is both religiously diverse and religiously devout, has remained largely tolerant, even during times of religious tension and conflict elsewhere. Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac’s Pax Ethnica takes an ethnographic look at a range of highly diverse cities around the world and asks what makes places like Flushing or Marseille largely cooperative? Brown University Professor Ashutosh Varshney has a hugely important study of India called Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life in which he asks why some cities in India remain calm during times of communal tension and others erupt in violent conflict. The answer is surprisingly simple: the single biggest difference between stability and violence seems to be attributable to whether or not civic networks (Rotary Clubs and the like) exist within a city and bring people from different backgrounds together on a regular basis. That answer, incidentally, highlights why I am calling this a program in interfaith leadership. Civic networks that bring diverse people together don’t fall from the sky; they are built and maintained by leaders.

A second course would be “Case Studies in Religious Violence and Interfaith Peacebuilding.” This course would present actual instances of religious diversity becoming either conflict or cooperation and analyzing the role that leaders played in either fanning the flames of conflict or building the bridges of cooperation. Texts would include the multi-volume Fundamentalism Project by Scott Appleby and Martin Marty, David Smock’s Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding, and interfaith case studies developed by Harvard University’s Pluralism Project. Key leadership texts by scholars like Ronald Heifetz and Howard Gardner would also be employed.

Case studies would include everything from how Osama bin Laden mobilized a set of Muslims to build a religious extremist organization to how Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized racially and religiously diverse people to build the civil rights movement. Some cases would come right off the front pages of the New York Times, and students would be asked questions like the following: if you were in Grand Island, Nebraska, when Latino and African American Christians staged a walkout of a factory because the Somali Muslims workers had recently won a schedule change to accommodate Ramadan hours, how would you lead? That question—how would you lead?—would be at the heart of all the discussions in this class. Akin to the Harvard Business School case-study model, which presents students with real-life situations faced by companies and asks them what they would do if they were in charge, this course would constantly be asking the students how they would strengthen interfaith cooperation in particular situations when diversity seems to be tending toward conflict.

A third course I would require is something along the lines of “Perspectives in Religion.” In some ways, this would be like the typical course offered in most religious studies departments on the nature of religion, with readings by Jose Casanova, Talal Assad, Clifford Geertz, Mircea Eliade, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Marshall Hodgson, Peter Berger, Rudolph Otto, Paul Tillich, Huston Smith, Stephen Prothero, and the classics—Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Students would examine various theories of religion. Students would be asked to consider Otto’s notion that at the center of religion is an experience that is wholly other, something he called “the numinous,” and Tillich’s view that religion is about ultimate concerns. They’d consider Cantwell Smith’s view that religion is best understood as cumulative historical traditions, that the term “faith” is best defined as the relationship that individuals and communities have with various dimensions of that tradition, as well as Berger’s emphasis on institutions as the “plausibility structures” that create patterns of activity in human life and his key insight that modernity pluralizes—moving personal identity from fate to choice, making the internal life of human beings far more complex now than in premodern times. Students would put scholars like Huston Smith and Stephen Prothero into dialogue with each other, exploring whether religions are actually quite similar (as Smith suggests) or really very different (as Prothero writes) from one another. This course would widen perspectives and debunk common myths, like the idea that sacred scripture somehow gets up and walks around by itself, with no assistance from human interpreters.

The final course I would require is “Theologies of Interfaith Cooperation.” Students would read theologians and ethicists from a range of faiths—including secular humanism—who advance interpretations and narratives of their traditions that speak to building positive relationships with “the other.” This would include Khaled Abou El Fadl, Farid Esack, Umar Abd-Allah, Fazlur Rahman, and Ingrid Mattson out of Islam; Jonathan Sacks, Or Rose, Marc Gopin, and Abraham Joshua Heschel out of Judaism; Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda from Hinduism; Paul Knitter and Hans Kung from Catholicism; and Miroslav Volf and Brian McLaren from Protestant Evangelical Christianity. The course would focus on the key question of how theologians from a range of traditions have stitched together interpretations of scripture, stories, heroes, and historical moments from their key sources in order to articulate a coherent narrative of positive relationship with the religious other.

The course would also explore how theologians navigate challenging and complex questions. What do Jewish theologians do with the idea of “chosenness” in relating to “the religious other”? How do Evangelicals view the idea of Christ as the exclusive path to salvation in light of admiring the spiritual example of someone like the Dalai Lama or Gandhi? The core idea here is that positive relations between those who orient around religion differently do not require leaving religion aside. Some of the greatest interfaith leaders of the twentieth century—Gandhi and King to name two obvious ones—built bridges with people of other faiths precisely because of their respective Hindu and Christian faiths, not despite them. Interfaith leaders need to be fluent in the theology of interfaith cooperation of their own tradition, and literate in such theologies in other traditions.

After this four-course sequence, I would require two electives that could be chosen from a range of options. Some students might want to do a deeper dive into religion by taking courses in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Some might want to focus on a particular region, say South Asia or the Middle East. Students would also choose between two options for their capstone projects. The first option would be to design and implement a local interfaith project that puts into practice key theories and skills of interfaith leadership learned through coursework. The second option would be to write a program proposal for dealing with an interfaith challenge elsewhere in the country or the world. The key requirement in both cases would be that the students make use of interfaith leaders in civil society to build pluralism out of diversity.

The public dimension of religion

I think it is fair to say that most of the current interest in interfaith cooperation is rooted in the personal, the pastoral, and the spiritual. Questions about one’s own religious or spiritual identity in relation to others are always highly salient at interfaith gatherings and in much of the literature about interfaith work. The program of study I outline above begins from a different starting place, however. It is about the civic and political more than the personal. The emphasis is on the public dimension of religion—how its narratives promote conflict or cooperation, how its social capital can be mobilized toward violence or community building. I have no doubt that people who want to reflect upon their personal spiritual journeys would find much of interest in this program, but it leans toward preparation for leadership in a world of religious diversity. It would, I believe, be good training for a range of professional paths.

In her book The Mighty and the Almighty, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote, “When I was secretary of state, I had an entire bureau of economic experts I could turn to, and a cadre of experts on nonproliferation and arms control. . . . I did not have similar expertise available for integrating religious principles into our efforts at diplomacy” (2006, 75). It is an important reminder that, ultimately, it’s not paradigms that carry out foreign policy; it’s people. The State Department is one place that I think ought to be interested in hiring leaders trained in interfaith studies, but it’s far from the only place. Staff of international development organizations attempting to spread polio vaccines in South Asia or antimalarial bed nets in sub-Saharan Africa better be aware of the religious energies in those places. YMCA executive directors and school principals in inner city Minneapolis would do well to know something about the faith practices of the Somali Muslims, Hmong Shamanists, and Native Americans of the area. City officials in rapidly diversifying cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Birmingham should have some knowledge of the Hindu customs of their Indian populations. And it would be a double tragedy if the first time that journalists from Milwaukee news outlets visited the local Sikh temple was in the immediate aftermath of a white supremacist shooting six people there.


Albright, M. 2006. The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. New York: HarperCollins.

Huntington, S. P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Karabell, Z. 2008. Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation. New York: Vintage.

Knitter, P. F. 1985. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Marty, M. E., and R. S. Appleby, eds. 1993–2004. The Fundamentalism Project. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Menocal, M. R. 2002. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Meyer, K. E., and S. B. Brysac. 2012. Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds. New York: Public Affairs.

Putnam, R. D., and D. E. Campbell. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Smock, D. R., ed. 2002. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

Varshney, A. 2002. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core. This article was adapted from the author’s Coca Cola World Fund Talk, delivered at Yale University in January 2013.

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