Eboo Patel on Plurality 2.0

This piece is part of an on-going blog series called Plurality 2.0 (watch video here). Full schedule of guest authors throughout April and May is available here.

Eboo Patel is founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international non-profit building a movement of young people committed to religious pluralism. Recently appointed to President Obama’s White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, he writes The Faith Divide, a Washington Post blog, and is author of Acts of Faith.

Diversity and its Discontent

Eboo PatelThe first thing my wife and I comment on when we go to a restaurant or a park is the diversity. We generally want more. We’re part of a generation of Americans raised on the “celebrate diversity” mantra. Our elementary school books were illustrated with pictures of kids of different colors. We read Toni Morrison and Richard Wright in college.

So reading Robert Putnam’s study on the downsides of diversity is disconcerting. Putnam put the term “social capital” on the map in his book, Bowling Alone. Civic engagement, he believes, is crucial to America, and it is seriously in decline. He also released a publication stating that something essential to America is bad for civic engagement – diversity.

“Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us,” he writes.

He explains further that people in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

I frequently cite Diana Eck’s work, and I think it is absolutely central to thinking about this topic. Eck makes a crucial distinction between diversity and pluralism. Diversity is simply the fact of people from different backgrounds living in close quarters. Pluralism is the “energetic engagement” of those differences with the purpose of creating not only positive bonds but also active social capital. Diana’s work with the Pluralism Project exhibits where this is happening in America with respect to religious diversity, and where it’s not. It was Diana’s work that I relied on most heavily when founding the Interfaith Youth Core.

In other words, it’s not about whether diversity is good or bad. Diversity is a fact, and in America it’s not going away. The question is how to best engage the fact of diversity in a way that builds social capital and increases civic engagement. And when the pluralists don’t engage diversity by building positive social bonds, then we leave a vacuum that is often filled by extremists or bigots.

The truth is there is no turning back from American diversity. The only question is what we do with it. We need to invest – funding, time, energy, intellect – in institutions that actually work to engage diversity and turn it into pluralism.

Excerpted from The Faith Divide, March 30, 2008. For complete posting click here.


  1. says

    Thanks for the piece. As a member of the ‘Diversity Generation’ I appreciate the nod you give to those of us who have intuitively grasped the benefits and liabilities of cultural diversity by having been born into it. I also like the separation of the issue of diversity from the issue of pluralism. I think the way you read (or misread) diversity will also determine how you read (or misread) the pluralist enterprise. As for the purposes of pluralism, I’m intrigued by Diana Eck’s term “energetic engagement.” How does she define it? How do you define it?

    From my vantage point, in defining pluralism we get too easily tripped up on making sure everyone has the same end goals and motivation. This is an impossible task because, if we do embrace diversity at all, we tend to do so for a multitude of reasons. Some of us want to see society transformed, others just want to help an individual in need. There are those that want to change peoples beliefs, or at least the way they treat one another. If energetic engagement is about getting all those people to agree, whew! That’s alot of energy expelled.

    On the other hand, if it’s more about means than ends, it seems no less challenging, but perhaps more humble. By focusing on means, it would free us to creatively set new goals that alone we could not previously imagine. It would free us to do that risky work of transforming one another. Instead of the vision being set for us by whoever holds the most power, it allows us to set the vision of pluralism together on equal footing. Instead of trying to change the goal of the game, lets just change the way we play. Maybe we can start with basics: Debate vigorously without doing one another violence. Or how about not coercing anyone by witholding material help from them. That may not seem like a big deal, but in some places around the world, yes even in the US, its a good start.

  2. says

    The First Christians lived in the most diverse and pluralistic society on earth in the Roman empire, yet they insisted on being exclusive and died for being Christians. Being a diversified generation is not new and was rejected centuries ago, which is why Paul writes in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, master or slave.

    You’re reverting back to empirical diversity and global grandeurism which the Romans built their Pax Romana upon. I pity your generation for you’re being led away from Christ to an altar of alternativism which ends up in oblivion.

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