Interfaith Dialogue: why, what and how – and is it time the concept was rebranded?

The term “interfaith dialogue” refers to cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e. “faiths”) and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion in that dialogue usually involves promoting understanding between different religions or beliefs to increase acceptance of others, rather than to synthesise new beliefs. Some advocates of/participants in interfaith dialogue have more recently adopted the name “interbelief dialogue”, while other proponents have proposed the term “interpath dialogue”, to avoid implicitly excluding atheists, agnostics, humanists and others with no religious faith but with ethical or philosophical beliefs, as well as to be more accurate concerning many religions that do not place the same emphasis on “faith” as do some religions of Middle Eastern origin (the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in particular). Similarly, pluralistic rationalist groups have arranged public reasoning dialogues to transcend all worldviews (whether religious, cultural or political), a process termed “transbelief dialogue”.

Throughout the world there are local, regional, national and international interfaith initiatives. Many such initiatives are formally or informally linked and constitute larger networks or federations. The famous statement that:

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions

was formulated by Dr. Hans Kung, a professor of ecumenical theology and president of the Global Ethic Foundation. All exercises in interfaith dialogue are motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by this telling insight into religious commitment and one of its most obvious consequences.

To some people the term “interreligious dialogue” has the same meaning as interfaith dialogue, but neither are the same as “non-denominational Christianity”. The World Council of Churches (WCC) distinguishes between “interfaith” and “interreligious”. To the WCC, “interreligious” refers to interaction between different Christian denominations and “interfaith” refers to interaction between different faith groups such as Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew or Buddhist and Sikh.

Let’s be honest: all too often, religious commitment has resulted in prejudice, hatred for those who appear to be different, forced conversion, pillage, rape, murder, massacre and even genocide (secular belief systems have resulted in the same things, of course, but, thankfully, they have been responsible for such crimes against humanity for only two hundred or so years). But religious commitment need not lead to the denial of individual rights or the perpetration of crimes against humanity. In fact, religion can be a driver for good in the world, provided interfaith dialogue is undertaken with conviction, and provided it does what it so rarely seems to do successfully, embrace ALL people who subscribe to a religion or secular belief system and not merely a select few. Think of this blog as an attempt, in part at least, to reach out to those people so often excluded (or excluding themselves) from interfaith dialogue.

The United States Institute of Peace has published works on interfaith dialogue and peace-building, including a “Special Report on Evaluating Interfaith Dialogue”. I would recommend the report just identified to everyone who works, or intends to work, in the field of interfaith dialogue. Type the title of the report into your search engine and the document appears, no problem. Its summary alone is invaluable and ought to shape all future endeavours in the interfaith field.

As a general rule, interfaith dialogue seeks to:

increase mutual understanding and good relations;

identify causes of tension in relations between people belonging to/subscribing to different worldviews;

build understanding and confidence to overcome or prevent tensions;

break down the barriers and stereotypes which lead to distrust, suspicion and bigotry.

Interfaith dialogue is not:

about taking away or brushing aside differences. It does not aim to create a common belief;

a way of converting someone from one worldview to another. In dialogue, each party remains true to their own worldview;

a space for arguing, attacking or disproving the beliefs of others. It is about increasing mutual understanding and trust.

Interfaith dialogue is about people of different faiths coming to a mutual understanding and respect that allows them to live and cooperate with each other in spite of their differences. The term refers to cooperative and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions at both the individual and institutional level. Each party remains true to their own beliefs while respecting the right of the other to practice their faith freely.

But, to be truly meaningful in the troubled contemporary era, interfaith dialogue will have to do more than what it primarily does for most of the time, which is simply increase mutual understanding and good relations (but it very rarely does even these things among ALL religious and belief groups in a given locality). Let’s face it: mutual understanding can be achieved very quickly by reading a few well-chosen books describing our neighbours’ beliefs and practices! Building good relations necessarily requires face-to-face encounters, but such encounters are truly worthwhile only if we come to the table already informed about our neighbours’ religions and beliefs. Once mutual understanding HAS been achieved and good relations HAVE developed through direct encounters, attention MUST turn to the more challenging aspects of interfaith dialogue, namely the “causes of tension in relations between people belonging to/subscribing to different worldviews, build(ing) understanding and confidence to overcome or prevent tensions, (and) break(ing) down the barriers and stereotypes which lead to distrust, suspicion and bigotry”.

To address the more challenging aspects of interfaith dialogue, participants in the process MUST address those beliefs and practices that are enshrined in different worldviews, religious or otherwise, which, for want of a better formula of words, conflict with the individual or collective rights of people as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; or conflict with widely held notions of how a civilised society ought to conduct itself; or deny to one group of people the rights and/or opportunities granted to another group of people. Put slightly differently, interfaith dialogue MUST challenge those aspects of belief or practice which discriminate against or disadvantage some groups of people while favouring others. It MUST combat injustice and inequality. It MUST challenge the denial of choice and opportunity. And, at the very least, it MUST conform with the maxim, “Do to others what we would expect others to do to us”. The Golden Rule rules, okay? If only!

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