The New York Times has a story today about Eboo Patel, leader of the Interfaith Youth Core (IYC), an organization that encourages religious tolerance by uniting people of different faiths behind common philanthropic purposes, such as providing shelter to the homeless.
My first impression on reading about IYC was that the need for such an organization is an implicit admission that different religious traditions don’t naturally get along together. This is, of course, something that many people would readily agree on: history is littered with conflicts born, or sustained, by religious differences.
My next thought was that interfaith projects like the IYC are not really addressing the fundamental differences between religions, but instead putting them aside and focusing on issues that everyone can relate to, like feeding the hungry. In this sense, then, the IYC is not so much an interfaith organization as a humanistic one. Specific religious beliefs take a back seat to common human decency. What the IYC demonstrates, then, is not that different religious traditions can function well together, but that religious differences can be temporarily ignored in the name of humanistic causes.
That said, I am sure that people of different faiths who work together on common projects will learn to tolerate each other more, and for this reason I think something like the IYC is worthwhile. It may amount to a Band-Aid slapped on the problem of irreconcilable religious beliefs, but at least it promotes tolerance and understanding. Tackling the roots of religious differences is a much more difficult, long-term problem which must be solved using other approaches.
A final note on this story: Eboo Patel also heads up the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. If this challenge is – as it claims – directed at fostering tolerance among diverse religious traditions, then I think it is a worthwhile cause, and it probably escapes accusations of violating the First Amendment. I can’t say as much for certain other efforts of the Offices of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, but therein lies material for other posts.