Defining religious tolerance was the central topic for the first public event hosted by Rice’s Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance since the institute was established in May.
Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium was filled to the last row Nov. 4 as students, faculty and other guests turned out to hear Scott Appleby, one of America’s leading peace studies scholars, discuss “Religion and Violent Conflict: Beyond Tolerance, Toward Peacebuilding.” Appleby, the professor of history and the John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, pressed the audience to think beyond standard dictionary definitions of tolerance when considering it within the context of religion.
Appleby specializes in the study of modern religions and their capacity for both violence and peacebuilding. He warned against a weak and low-risk “soft” tolerance approach, which will not achieve long-lasting and sustainable peace. “The social contract underlying this soft form of tolerance seems to be this: You believe what you believe; I respect your right to believe and practice as you choose as long as you respect mine,” Appleby said. “This is a kind of utilitarianism. That is, you can be free as long as your exercise of freedom doesn’t get in the way of my exercise of freedom.”
Appleby argued for employing a form of honest and full “hard” tolerance when working toward peace among religions. His version requires risk and deep engagement: “I will be hardheaded in my explanation and defense of my own beliefs, convictions and so on, and will be rigorously demanding of you to give reasons for your own. … If we can build trust among ourselves over time, at some point, I will take the risk of hospitality — that is, welcoming you as a guest into my abode, literally and metaphorically. I will be open, however begrudgingly, not only to the risk of hospitality but the risk of transformation.”
Appleby said peacebuilding is the mode of transforming conflict that strives to cover the long history of a conflict as opposed to conflict resolution, which is focused on solving the immediate problem. He likened conflict resolution to treating a medical symptom and peacebuilding to studying a deeply rooted disease. “Peacebuilding is long term, and this is why it can be very frustrating to policy people who want the solution in six weeks or in six months, at best,” he said.
The Boniuk Institute was established in May through a $28.5 million gift from Houston philanthropists Dr. Milton and Laurie Boniuk to conduct research, educate and do outreach in Houston, nationally and globally. The institute’s mission is to foster multidisciplinary research that leads to innovative ways to study, understand and achieve religious tolerance.
In his welcoming remarks for Appleby’s talk, Rice President David Leebron underscored the increasing importance of religious tolerance as a field of study and an area where universities can play a leading role. “If someone had said to me 30 years ago this (religious tolerance) was going to be one of the foremost problems of the world that needed all of the effort and attention that universities and others can bring to it, I frankly would have doubted that would have been the case,” Leebron said. “And yet, undoubtedly, that is the case, and universities do have something to contribute to the intellectual understanding, to fostering understanding among our students and encouraging them to go out into the world and make a difference in these areas, to bringing in people from our various communities, with the hope … that our communities here will set an example for the rest of the world how communities of very different religious perspectives and backgrounds can get along with each other.”
The Boniuk Institute’s directors, Don Morrison and Elaine Howard Ecklund, said Appleby was a fitting speaker to give the institute’s first public lecture. While at Rice, he also met separately with Houston community leaders, students and faculty.
“No institute or center in the world, so far as we’ve been able to determine, duplicates exactly the Boniuk Institute’s mission, but a number of centers have missions that overlap with ours,” said Morrison, a professor of philosophy and classical studies. “One of the institute’s goals this year is to reach out and build relationships with other major, related institutions. When we thought about putting together a program for the year, the Kroc Institute was the first on my list.”
Ecklund highlighted Appleby’s talk as an opportunity for reflection, an important activity when studying the conditions upon which religion leads to peace and when it leads to violence, she said. “In its worst form, the academy is often rightly criticized as being in an ivory tower, with no central importance to help solve societal problems,” said Ecklund, the Autrey Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program. “But in its best form, and we’re seeing a piece of that here tonight, the academy can provide society significant space to stop and reflect, to listen to scholars and for scholars to listen to practitioners and community members in very intentional and significant ways to understand how research can inform greater effectiveness of efforts.”