Societies that promote freedom of religion can bring together diverse groups of people or tear them apart, and Martin E. Marty hopes to prove tonight that such freedom is, in fact, a good thing.

Marty, a visiting scholar and former professor at the University of Chicago, will speak in Corwin Pavilion from 4 to 6 p.m., relating the philosophy of religious pluralism and its various interpretations to current world affairs in a lecture entitled “Awash in a Sea of Pluralism.”

“Pluralism is part of what makes America strong – what makes America interesting,” he said. “Diversity is a good.”

In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, national interest in Islam has risen, and Marty said people can choose to learn about the religion or try to group all Muslims as enemies “with ties to people overseas who we don’t trust.”

“Over the long run, this crisis will enlarge understanding, which is good for both the Muslim population and other minority religious groups,” he said.

Marty uses the analogy of a tennis game to describe pluralism based on four major points. First, anyone can play. Second, many people do. Third, there must be rules (for pluralism, the First Amendment defines these). Finally, people develop game etiquette.

“You can’t play tennis with football rules,” Marty said. “And you can’t play tennis at all without a net and lines on the court.”

Tonight’s lecture is a tribute to the late Robert Michaelsen, a former UCSB vice chancellor and a co-founder of the UCSB Religious Studies Dept., which he eventually chaired. When Michaelsen passed away last November, his family established an endowment to bring scholars to UCSB to expose faculty and students to various religious viewpoints. Marty’s speech, which will be preceded by a memorial, is the inaugural lecture in the Michaelsen Endowed Visiting Scholar Program.

“Michaelsen was a well known scholar, administrator in the university, and a delightful human being,” Religious Studies Dept. Chair Wade Roof said.

Marty, who taught at the University of Chicago for 35 years, has focused on writing and public speaking since his retirement three years ago.

As part of his three-day visit, which began Monday, Marty is also advocating the creation of a Center on Religion and American Public Life at UCSB. The center would be named after Walter Capps, who also helped co-found the Religious Studies Dept. and taught at UCSB before his death in 1997.

While several universities on the East Coast have similar centers, including one at the University of Chicago that was named after Marty, the West Coast has no such center.

Marty also spoke to the class of religious studies professor Catherine Albanese, met with graduate students, and will host a faculty luncheon to discuss his books. Albanese, a former student of Marty’s who completed her Ph.D. under his guidance, said Marty was a rare and special professor.

“He was able to get you out of any state of trouble,” she said. “He was a great adviser.”

Although she described Marty as a “liberal Lutheran,” Albanese said that he had friends from all different religious backgrounds, and called him “Mr. Pluralism.”

“He loves people and gets along great with different groups of people,” she said. “He’s a promoter of dialogue and understanding.”