For a professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University and a former religion reporter for the New York Times, Gustav Niebuhr spends an awful lot of time quoting his favorite atheist, the French existential philosopher Albert Camus. Camus, Niebuhr emphasizes in his conversation with senior editor Elizabeth Debold, understood the importance of dialogue and its capacity to foster commonality rather than division among peoples with diverse religious beliefs. Camus’ belief that “words are stronger than bullets” is shared by Niebuhr, whose recent book Beyond Tolerance is a national survey of the predominantly American phenomenon of interfaith exchange, which Niebuhr believes is not getting the attention that it deserves in the press.
Niebuhr explains the significance of Buddhists talking to Catholics, for example, or Jews speaking with Muslims, as important models for the rest of the world at a time when religious intolerance and acts of aggression are threatening our global future. Niebuhr also acknowledges newer religions that have emerged in the past hundred fifty years—like Mormonism and the Baha’i faith—as significant contributors to the interreligious conversation.