Nothing so sharply divides, and yet so wholly unites, like religion. Faith brings together huge numbers of dissimilar people, tying them together with a singular purpose and passion. It also builds walls—many faiths involve doctrine which lays out a certain way of life, and any who live outside of this way are considered errant and lost. This is the challenge of interfaith dialogue. No one should be made to separate their beliefs from their person when they enter into the public sphere, nor should they be forced to assimilate into the “melting pot” of beliefs, where all faith identities are conflated. Dialogue shouldn’t be reduced to an effort to proselytize others. No—interfaith dialogue exists to aid in coexisting with others of differing beliefs, faiths, and religions, so that conflict can be avoided and progress achieved. According to Eboo Patel, author of “Interfaith Leadership,” interfaith work is “a gathering of people with diverging views on matters of ultimate concern.” The matters include subjects such as human suffering, civil rights abuses, technological advancement, environmental issues, crime, and disease—things which affect us all. When cultural walls come down, these issues can be dealt with in unison, rather than in isolation. Patel goes on to discuss the many ways of fostering dialogue between disparate faiths, eight of which stand out as particularly worthy.
One of the benefits of effective interfaith dialog is, as Patel writes, “Increasing understanding and reducing prejudice,” a goal with the ring of common sense, but one which is rarely achieved. Dialogue between devoted religious groups has the potential to devolve to proselytizing—attempts to convert others. When this happens, an impasse occurs, and two-way communication ceases. The pursuit of this goal fails.
How can this be avoided? In a word, empathy—the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of person who is absolutely convinced that their worldview is the correct one. Thankfully, empathy can be practiced. One of the best ways to develop and strengthen this trait is the reading of literature. Fiction places us in the shoes of others, enabling us to live the lives of protagonists, to make their mistakes with them, to feel their triumphs and experience their value systems—systems which may be very different from our own. Through literature, readers learn not only that people act, but why, and keeping this why in mind is essential to empathy.
Another great way to develop empathy is to practice active listening—a communication technique involving paraphrasing the other speaker’s statements. The simple act of showing that you’re listening by paraphrasing other speakers makes them feel valued and heard. It also demonstrates that you are willing to have a two-way conversation. Practice enough and it will begin to come naturally.
Finally, be willing to feel heartbreak for others. Rather than hardening your heart at the plight of those considered enemies, feel for them. Look upon their troubles, and visualize those same tragedies happening to you and your own people. Visualize the pain they must feel. This transforms them from an inhuman “Other” to a very human “Us”. A world that is comprised of us can accomplish so much more than a world that is composed of others.
Next, Patel writes of “Strengthening social cohesion and reducing the chances for identity-based conflict,” as another benefit of dialogue. He goes on to write that “Identity-based tensions and conflict are a significant problem in diverse societies.” How very true this is. If nothing else 9/11 taught us the cost of this kind of conflict. We cannot act quickly enough to deescalate these types of situations. But how—how do we defuse thousands of years of conflict?
Part of the answer lies in reframing the problem by figuring out the deep-seated emotions behind the conflict. Otherwise, the conflict at hand tends to repeat a cycle of discussion and antagonism. For example, someone may claim that they are angry at you because you did not observe a tenant of a certain religious holiday. But what are they truly angry about? The non-observation of the religious holiday by a stranger has no bearing on them. Think critically about this. Ask the person why they hold their position. Ask them what they need, and what they fear. At their core, are they afraid that you intend to eventually bar them from celebrating their religious holiday? Do they believe that you threaten them in some way? If so, reframe the problem in these terms and reassure this person of your actual intention. Take the problem out of its adversarial frame, and the situation is often diffused.
The next goal from Patel’s text is “Bridging social capital and addressing social problems”. Social capital—organized networks of people who work toward civic ends—often takes the form of religious organizations and communities. By building connections between disparate religious groups which already work toward the social good, how much more could be accomplished! Rather than thousands of hands working in tandem to care for the impoverished, there could be millions. Encouraging interfaith dialogue, especially in the area of interfaith leadership, enables us to work not as groups, but as the human race.
Like the goals we’ve mentioned already, this goal is attainable through empathy and the reframing of problems, but the main key to this issue is the encouragement and training of interfaith leaders—people who are prepared to gather together these warring tribes and help them to realize what—not who— the real enemies of man are.
“Fostering the continuity of identity community and reducing isolation” is another worthy result of pursuing interfaith dialogue. At its core, this is the simple act of treating diversity in a positive manner—of handling differences with dignity. Often, we label people and groups outside of our own group the “Other,” which has many negative connotations. “Others” are dehumanized, demonized, and inspire fear. Using the psychological tools we’ve discussed to turn that Other into Us helps us to focus on the positives of diversity, and allows us to see other groups as people rather than simply reducing them to opposing ideas that should be eradicated.
This positive treatment helps to alleviate isolation. When groups fear hostility and threats to what they see as the best way of living—their way— they often withdraw. They isolate themselves for protection. Every group is, of course, responsible for their own conduct, but we can create environments in which dialogue occurs more easily, and isolated faith groups can peek out of their shells, so to speak. If they are taken seriously, and seriously listened to, two-way communication can begin and tensions ease.
“Creating binding narratives for diverse societies” as Patel puts it, highlights that which binds us all together. For example, America is bound together by the overall narrative of the immigrant nation, and the place of opportunity. Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and atheists are all bound together under this overarching narrative, giving all a sense of unity. But this narrative doesn’t have to be a national one—it could be, for example, the simple desire to end human suffering. That’s a subject that all can agree on, and finding those broad subjects—often a commitment to the common good—that all can agree on is vitally important in establishing peace between traditionally opposing groups.
Pursuing the goal of dispelling the misconceptions surrounding interfaith activity is paramount to making it work. Encouraging it isn’t about subsuming all faiths and religions into one generic belief system, as many believe. It’s not about the eradication of religion, or the war against secular society, or the indoctrination of others into any certain faith. In fact, interfaith dialogue is less about faith, and more about communication across barriers, in general. It’s about togetherness in broad ideas concerning human welfare. When beginning the process of communication, it is important to lay down exactly what interfaith dialogue really means in order to create the proper communicative framework.
Humanity is a fractured thing, and it may seem an impossibility to repair it—emphasis on the word “seem”. This difficulty is no reason not to try and make all of our lives better through cooperation and the ceasing of hostilities. It is, in fact, possible to preserve each cultural and religious group without building walls around them, and to promote communication without compromising the beautiful details that make us all unique. All faiths and beliefs have something worthy to bring to the table of mankind—like all people, they have hearts and minds and hands with which to help and love others, and if we can accept that, joining hands with the man or woman beside us, our power will be limitless.