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Religious Pluralities, Inclusive Modernities, and Sustainable Development

  • Katherine Marshall
  • June 15, 2023

Not so long ago I was advised, in preparing a conference address, to “steer away from the mention of plural/pluralism.” The reason? Wide differences in the way the term is used and understood and its increasing politicization. Yet diverse (yes, plural) societies are a critical feature of modern life. Probing further, various terms we hear often today beg for reflection insofar as they convey related ideals and strategies for an equitable and inclusive modern life that “leaves no one behind.” My basket of such terms includes shared prosperity, inclusive citizenship, positive peace, “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” and sustainable development.

Several key questions, embedded in notions of inclusion and diversity, raise both hopes and hackles. How does inclusion relate to multiple identities, notably ethnic, religious, and gender? To achieve social cohesion, how far must such varied identities find a framing within a shared, common, clearly understood set of norms and rules? Can a human rights commitment or national identity serve the ends of inclusion or do they intrinsically tend to exclude some? If diversity is valued and accepted as a social quality, a spice of life, how can different communities live and work together in meaningful, constructive, and dynamic ways? Each of these questions require careful reflection and consensus-building on equitable standards and goals, civic and citizenship values, and the role of peacebuilding in contexts of deep religious/worldview difference. Covenantal pluralism, as advocated by W. Christopher Stewart, Chris Seiple, and Dennis Hoover, highlights in the term “covenantal” the vital importance of approaching these challenges with explicit and purposeful commitment.

Context matters, of course, and the contexts of diverse societies vary widely. They range from countries that were once relatively homogeneous that are now perturbed by refugees from very different societies, to countries founded on principles reflecting a core pride in their diversity. A common feature of modern societies, however, is a new economic and social dynamic that roils even relatively isolated countries like Bhutan: movements of populations and constant exposure to different perspectives. Aspirations framed as “universal” human rights notwithstanding, business, missionary efforts, humanitarian work, migration, and academic links all challenge seemingly accepted common and traditional norms as different communities impinge on one another.

Modernity and what we term “development” means, at its core, change. And as this change disrupts and changes traditional social patterns, dealing with differences takes on new importance and a new tempo. Among the practical issues involved are notions of authority and governance, family and sexuality, as well as norms underlying policies towards social protection and economic opportunity. These play out with particular force where minority religious communities are involved or where values within religious communities are contested. The COVID-19 crisis, with lockdown disruptions and frayed welfare and social service provision, has both accentuated tensions in many societies and put longstanding inequities and differences in approach into stark relief.

Different societies thus face challenges as they seek to harmonize shared legal and cultural norms with the realities of different communities. This has particular importance when they are set against a history of tension or persecution of specific groups, but also arise as population movements and new ideas challenge traditional “ways of doing things.” To take an example, “pluralism” can raise hackles when some link it to LBGTQ advocacy and even efforts to curb domestic violence, child marriage, and supporting orphans. More fundamentally, fully equal rights for women means social change that in many places is more honored in the breach than in reality.

The thrust of ideals linked to inclusion is both to recognize the issues around diversity more explicitly and with respect, and to pursue a dialogue that works to design and implement ways to honor common, shared ideals in systems that “include” and engage with differences. This aspired balance is reflected in goals that focus both on national and global citizenship, with both rights and responsibilities, for individuals and communities.

In practice, these challenges play out in myriad ways. For development strategists, spatial development policies can raise thorny issues when some geographic regions receive more resources than others. Historic disparities in Nigeria between northern and southern states, for example, are an aggravating factor in religious and ethnic strife. Political leanings that favor specific groups or that fuel or rekindle ancient grudges are another (Balkan history comes to mind). An important factor, less appreciated to date in development and humanitarian work, is the failure to understand and engage religious roles and histories. Analyses of current conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar are laced with missed signals and opportunities, many with religious factors embedded in ancient and modern grudges and vastly different understandings of just paths towards change. My chapter in a recent Routledge publication on religious literacy explores how sustainable development challenges were significantly reshaped for me as I changed institutional hats and worked with religious actors, thus gaining a heightened appreciation of the complex religious landscape.

Human fraternity, positive peace, and covenantal pluralism are linked in the spirit of addressing realities of difference in hopeful, constructive, and honest ways. The ideals of the shared religious and secular “Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) highlights brotherhood (and sisterhood) and common humanity but also the historic and contemporary reality of clash, pain, and tension. The COVID-19 reality of widely different access to basic services and ever-present fear and hatred are a call to action. Using creative, purposeful approaches to the goals of inclusion, curiosity, and openness about others, being able to differ with respect, and working together for the common good, offer the most obvious and constructive paths forward.

At this polarized, tense moment in history, disrupted by the COVID-19 emergency and by geopolitical tensions, the ideals of inclusive modernity need intentional, creative approaches. Education, the ready and essential first path toward inclusive and sustainable development, needs to make far better use of intercultural and interreligious understanding as integral parts of education goals and curricula. The positive potential of modernities include a blossoming and enjoyment of culture, longer and more decent lives for all people, and active measures to link care for the planet with equity and inclusion for all people. But achieving the ideal of inclusiveness across such diverse modernities demands a sharper attention to pluralism and the challenges and opportunities that come with deep religious/ethnic/worldview difference.

Note: This essay was originally published at the London School of Economics' “Religion & Global Society” blog, and is republished here by permission of the LSE Faith Centre.

About Katherine Marshall

Katherine Marshall has worked on international development for some five decades. A senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Professor of the Practice of Development, Religion, and Conflict in the School of Foreign Service, she also directs the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), whose mission is to bridge gulfs separating the worlds of development and religion. A long career at the World Bank was as an operational manager.

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