How Diversity Affects Religious or Secular Beliefs

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The effects of religious diversity vary depending on how diversity develops. It can occur through conquest, immigration, refugee movements, or splintering of existing religious groups into a variety of sects. New value systems can be established by a charismatic leader, or may arise spontaneously in response to a significant event. Access to new information may transform the beliefs, practices and values of existing religions.

Community interaction
When there is little interaction between belief communities, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions can lead to conflict. The character of a belief community can also affect attitudes in other belief communities. Aggressive belief systems advocate dominance; they openly call for the subjugation or elimination of other beliefs and/or belief communities. Aggression is not limited to religious belief — a regime can be also aggressively secular and suppress religious belief.
Belief communities can coexist peacefully, influenced by a variety of factors; the prevailing level of tolerance and respect for diversity, perceived threats, historical experience, new events, quality of leadership and cultural custom. How groups relate to each other and secular society will deeply influence the flow of ideas and values between them.

Community values
As children, we soak up established, existing values from the surrounding culture, values so prevalent that they are rarely challenged or questioned. Exposure to additional ideas and beliefs can happen through indoctrination (where students are taught what to think), education (where students are taught how to think) or we can learn through our own curiosity and questions.

Religious diversity increases the range of values in the overall community and provides perspective on the prevailing values in each belief community. This broad range of belief and knowledge, religious and secular, becomes part of a marketplace of ideas.

Closed societies
In closed societies, a set of ideas and values are defined and imposed as Truth in a hierarchical, top-down and institutionally enforced process. This marketplace is monopolized, with dissent and competing ideas labeled as blasphemy and subject to harsh penalties.

In this environment, diversity exists only as an underground phenomenon and has little to no impact. Unorthodox ideas cannot coexist with a controlled, closed system. Either new ideas are suppressed, or the system is no longer completely closed.

Open societies
Diverse cultures can evaluate values from the bottom up on the basis of utility, on what works for each culture. Values that serve the culture well, religious or secular, tend to be conserved and passed on through generations, enforced by social custom and supported by the community. Successful values may become influential in other belief communities and be adopted or adapted to their culture.

In changing and challenging social, economic and physical environments, diverse cultures have a distinct advantage; they have a wider range of ideas, values and behaviors to draw from when faced with new problems. Counter-survival belief systems die out with their adherents. Effective belief systems survive. Diversity increases the likelihood that an effective set of values will be available when needed.