Overview Essay

Interreligious: Religious Diversity and Ecology

Sam Mickey, University of San Francisco


In the broadest sense of the word, “interreligious” describes any interactions between or across different religious traditions, communities, or individuals. That could include interactions that religions have with one another and with other ways of being and knowing that are not directly affiliated with a religion (e.g., secularism, humanism, and sciences).

Some terms that are somewhat synonymous with “interreligious” include “interfaith” and “interbelief,” which tend to be used more narrowly in reference to interactions within one group of religions, typically the Abrahamic religions, such that the word applies primarily or exclusively to relations between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is important to notice that the specific meanings of these terms vary considerably depending on the specific person or organization using them. For example, the word “interfaith” can be used in multiple ways. Most generally, like the word “interreligious,” “interfaith” can refer to relations between any religions. It can apply more narrowly to interactions within Abrahamic religions, and it can be used even more specifically to refer to connections between different sects or schools in one religion, such as Lutheran, Methodist, and Catholic branches of Christianity, or Soto and Rinzai sects of Buddhism, or the Shia and Sunni denominations of Islam.  

Interactions across religions are common in contemporary society, as human communities from around the world become increasingly interconnected through processes of globalization, including international trade, migration, urbanization, and the development of information and communication technologies. However, while interreligious phenomena are unique in the specific way they show up in globalized societies, they are not new. Throughout history, religious communities have had some engagement with people whose religious expressions (e.g., rituals, doctrines, narratives, politics, etc.) appear different, strange, or other, perhaps representing a different faction within a religion or even a different religion entirely. For example, encounters with Egyptian, Babylonian, and Roman religions were part of the development of Judaism before the Common Era. In China, so many sects, schools, and styles of life emerged between the sixth and third century BCE, including Daoism and Confucianism, they became known collectively as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Trade and migration connected various communities of indigenous peoples in the Americas during the pre-Columbian era. In short, all religions have an interreligious dimension.  


Every religion provides some ways of responding to difference and otherness, some ways of engaging in cooperative or competitive exchanges, and some ways of negotiating multiple and even apparently contradictory claims. Sometimes a religion is held up as the best (triumphalism) or as the only true path (exclusivism), and sometimes multiple and even all religions are considered as true paths (pluralism) or as different manifestations of an ideal truth (universalism). Sometimes elements from two or more religions coexist in hybrid forms, and sometimes they are integrated and synthesized into a new religion (syncretism). Responses to religious difference range from hostility and opposition to tolerance and hospitality. To be sure, interreligious contact is not always beneficial to the parties involved. Many individuals and institutions are working toward interreligious dialogue, cooperation, and peace, including sustainable and regenerative responses to environmental degradation and the climate emergency. However, interreligious dynamics often involve conflict, violence, and war. Alongside several factors, such as resource scarcity and political instability, religious narratives and affects can contribute to motivations or justifications for interreligious conflict. Interreligious interactions are matters of war and peace. They are matters of shared survival, and that survival cannot be fully understood without considering the material conditions of survival—the life, land, air, and water without which religious communities cannot exist, and indeed, without which humankind cannot exist.

Throughout history, there are several instances of interreligious cooperation, with political leaders or religious communities organizing around inclusivity and acceptance toward multiple religions, from at least as early as Ashoka the Great (the Indian emperor who, during his rule in the third century BCE, promoted Buddhism while also promoting nonviolence and attitudes of acceptance toward all religions) up to modern examples, like the Baha’i Faith, which emerged in the nineteenth century and is oriented around an acceptance of the truth of all religions. Increasingly, as environmental concerns have become more urgent and large-scale throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, scholars and practitioners of religion have become engaged with ecology and environmentalism, and so too have advocates of interreligious dialogue.

The development of the academic field of religious studies, beginning in the nineteenth century with historical and comparative analyses of religions, contributed scholarly support for events and organizations dedicated to interreligious dialogue, such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which began in 1893 as an event oriented toward interreligious dialogue. More recently, the field of religion and ecology and related areas of inquiry (e.g., spiritual ecology, religion and nature, eco-theology) have contributed scholarly support for interreligious engagements with environmental issues. Accordingly, as the Parliament of the World’s Religions continues to hold meetings, increasing attention is devoted to religious responses to environmental issues. This is indicated by the Parliament’s Climate Commitments Project. Interreligious perspectives inform numerous ecologically engaged projects that are currently active in local and international milieus, and several organizations have released interreligious statements that call for allied multicultural responses to the climate emergency and other environmental issues.

Interreligious cooperation is crucial for negotiating collective responses to environmental problems that impact people of different faiths. This is evident in transboundary environmental problems (e.g., acid rain, air pollution, and climate change), which move across regional and national boundaries and thus impact diverse religious groups. Cases like climate change and mass extinction require responses at a global scale and thus involve the religious diversity of the entire human population. At that scale, the very idea of “world’s religions” undergoes a profound transformation, shifting away from an emphasis on the most populous or most politically influential religions of the modern world, and shifting toward an understanding of the planetary context of religious diversity.



Cornille, Catherine, ed. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue (Oxford and Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Ingram, Paul O. You Have Been Told What Is Good: Interreligious Dialogue and Climate Change (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016).

Meister, Chad V., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, eds. Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology (New York: Routledge, 2017).


Header photo credit: Faith in Future Meeting, Bristol, UK; Courtesy of ARC, ©Katia Marsh