Berger on four benefits of religious pluralism

In First Things, Peter Berger discusses the benefits of religious pluralism for religious faith:

“First benefit: It becomes more difficult to take a religious tradition for granted. Acts of decision become necessary”…

“Second benefit: Freedom is a great gift, and pluralism opens up new areas of freedom,” according to Berger…

“Third benefit: If pluralism is combined with religious freedom, all religious institutions become in fact voluntary associations”…

“Fourth benefit: Pluralism influences individual believers and religious communities to distinguish between the core of their faith and less central elements,” according to “The Good of Religious Pluralism.”

This would be a more specific version of two arguments made by sociologists of religion in recent years:

  1. Some have argued that religion, as a whole, has positive effects on society as religious people tend to vote more, participate in more religious and civic activities, and give to others. In this argument, religion itself is made better – such as agreeing to basics about the faith rather than fighting over less essential elements – and this would presumably then help the broader society by having religious groups that are softer around the edges.
  2. Competition between religious groups – made possible in the United States by freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state – actually enhances religious life as groups compete for adherents. Berger’s argument is specifically about a kind of pluralism where religious groups can peacefully interact and enhance each other. It would be interesting to then hear him discuss places where religion is pervasive but pluralism is either tenuous (competition still happens but it is violent or state-sponsored) or nonexistent.

Quick Review: The Island at the Center of the World

Russell Shorto argues the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam helped kickstart the American mindset and dream even though the city’s history before the English takeover is often ignored. Shorto bases his claims on research in recent decades that involves translating the old Dutch records and revealing the political and social history of the colony. In the end, Americans might see their origins largely in the English colonies but Shorto suggests “it helped set the whole thing [the American experiment] in motion…They reshuffled the categories by which people had long lived, created a society with more open spaces, in which the rungs of the ladder were reachable by nearly everyone.” (317)

Here is what the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam gifted to the United States:

1. Emphasis on trade. Even in its early decades, the city was a hub for shipping in the New World. The English colonies in New England and Virginia both worked through the Dutch port. The protected harbor was important as was its connections to the interior.

2. Giving rights to all the citizens. While the English colonies only had a limited number of freedmen, the Dutch had much broader citizenship rights and this social standing allowed people of all backgrounds to rise up the social ladder. This also involved quite the fight for control over the colony; Shorto describes the efforts of the lawyer Adriaen van der Donck to fight for citizen control rather than the autocratic rule of the Dutch West India Company and their charge Peter Stuyvesant. This did have an interesting side effect in the end. When the English ended up moving in from their colonies in Connecticut, the people of New Amsterdam wanted to be handed over peacefully to the English in order to continue the life of their city and the English largely granted them the continuation of their lives.

3. Religious tolerance. The Netherlands was open to people of different faiths – mainly different Christians – and this continued in their colony. Thus, a number of immigrants ended up in New Amsterdam rather than the much more restrictive English colonies. Other fun fact: those same Puritans who founded Plymouth and its more narrow restrictions had arrived from the Netherlands where the Dutch had offered them religious freedom.

4. Openness to immigrants. With the emphasis on trade, rights, and religious tolerance, New Amsterdam from the beginning was home to people of many backgrounds.

Another large factor in shaping New Amsterdam: the larger political and military conflicts between England and the Netherlands over this period. The two countries fought three wars and the colony’s fate was often caught in the middle.

Overall, an interesting summation of recent research on the early decades of New York City. The English weren’t the only Europeans to help found the United States and the Dutch played an important role in this influential global city.

A disconnect between being open to other religions vs. welcoming them

Robert Putnam and several other researchers discovered that there is a large gap between what Americans say about religious freedom and what they are actually willing to live near:

Three quarters of Americans said they would support a large Buddhist temple in their community, but only 15 percent would explicitly welcome one. Americans, in other words, supported the idea of a temple but weren’t so crazy about the bricks-and-mortar aspect of things.

Recent survey findings in the wake of the Ground Zero controversy reveal similar findings:

Polling last week from Quinnipiac University revealed exactly the same paradox. Seventy percent of Americans support the rights of Muslims to build the mosque, but 63 percent believe it would be inappropriate to actually build it.

It sounds like there is an ideal that Americans hold about freedom of religion: many different groups are welcome. But this ideal is difficult to put into action.