A Paradox of American Religion: Diversity Brings Tolerance

The journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley marvels at how well people of different faiths get along in this country.

R.L. Hide / Flickr

How is it that people with deeply contradictory faiths get along so well?

This week, I’m sharing a variety of responses to the question, “What insight or idea has thrilled or excited you?” This installment comes courtesy of Naomi Schaefer Riley, a journalist who is participating this week in the Aspen Ideas Festival. The insight she shared concerns faith in America. Scholars of the subject alerted her to it:

Almost a decade ago, I heard Robert Putnam and Dave Campbell present the initial findings of their research that formed the basis for the book American Grace. They had found all sorts of interesting ways to measure how Americans of different faiths feel about each other. But at one point they offered what seems like the real paradox of American religion: the idea that America is simultaneously one of the most religious countries and one of the most tolerant ones on earth.

How is this possible? Aren’t true believers by definition intolerant of other views? And won’t associating and assimilating too much with people of other religions necessarily result in the dulling of your own views? What was it about the American civic landscape that made us different?

I think this is an idea that has far-reaching implications for our religious, cultural and political life. The causes and effects of this paradox can be felt everywhere.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue for a book I wrote on interfaith marriage. The inter religious mixing seems to be good for tolerance—through our extended families we get to know people who are truly different on a deeply personal level—but also bad for religious life because these matches tend to result in a watering down of the faith.

This idea is one I have returned to again and again in my own research but I credit Putnam and Campbell for putting the matter into such clear and interesting terms.  

Email conor@theatlantic.com to share an idea or insight that has thrilled or excited you.