Religious diversity is a fact, and tolerance the conventional wisdom.
Tolerance is a great starting point, but it can easily lead to apathy or indifference. We “tolerate” things we don’t like. Things like back pain or toothaches. We “tolerate” things we want to go away.
Sir John Templeton thought we could do better. In fact, he believed that there’s vast, untapped potential to move beyond mere tolerance, yet also avoid a relativism that ignores real differences between religions.
Sir John wrote that
Tolerance may be a divine virtue, but it could also become a vehicle for apathy. Millions of people are thoroughly tolerant toward diverse religions, but rarely do such people go down in history as creators, benefactors, or leaders of progress. … Should we not desire to have our neighbour share insights and try to convey to us the brilliant light that has transformed his life—the fire in his soul? Why settle for a least-common-denominator type of religion based on tolerance alone? More than tolerance, we need constructive competition. (Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: The Humble Approach in Theology and Science, 122-123.)
Sir John envisioned a future of positive, practical, principled pluralism—what we are calling covenantal pluralism. Why label this kind of pluralism “covenantal”? The central virtue of the concept of “covenant” is that it holistically encompasses both rules and relationships. It requires both a framework of equal rights and responsibilities, and a supportive cultural context of respectful engagement, relationship, and reciprocity—even amidst stark differences in theologies, values, and lifestyles.
The philosophy of covenantal pluralism entails the responsibility to engage, respect, and protect one another, without necessarily regarding one anothers’ beliefs or behaviors as equally true or right. That’s why we’re seeking to identify, understand, and promote initiatives that contribute to constructive competition—that is, competition conducted in a certain spirit (loving and friendly) and under the right conditions (free and fair).
These enabling conditions can be grouped into at least three major categories.
1. The first is freedom of religion and belief, which includes (a) liberty of conscience to choose, change, share, or reject any belief, and (b) equal treatment of religions/worldviews under the rule of law. It is also the freedom to bring those beliefs into public discussions of the common good.
2. The second is a holistic form of religious literacy, which includes the skills (evaluation, negotiation & communication) to understand (a) one’s own belief system and what it says about (engaging) the other, (b) one’s neighbor’s belief system and what it says about (engaging) the other, and (c) the nature of specific cross-cultural, multi-faith contexts, and how one collaborates with neighbors of different beliefs to serve society.
3. And the third is the embodiment and expression of character virtues that encourage and enable a venue for the discussion of deep difference (in a manner mutually respectful of everyone’s inherent dignity)—virtues such as humility, empathy, patience, and courage.
In all these areas, the call is engagement. Religious freedom, religious literacy, and pluralist virtue cannot be fully discerned, much less sustained, in a theoretical vacuum. Real-world engagement across lines of differences helps us move beyond cliches of diversity and tolerance toward real, covenantal pluralism.
We’re inviting religious leaders and bridge builders, scholars and educators, practitioners, and policymakers from across the globe to help guide our efforts in Covenantal Pluralism. These passionate professionals are those who are doing the work and making an impact while regularly interacting and sharing resources with each other.
In July 2021, the cause of international religious freedom strengthened significantly as more than 1,000 leaders from 30 diverse belief traditions gathered with government leaders from throughout the world to participate in the first-ever International Religious Freedom Summit.