Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Should People of Different Faiths Talk to Each Other?

Later this month I will be leaving to attend the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, Australia. I'm starting to get excited. This will be my fourth time as an attendee of one of these global Parliaments. ( I missed the first one in 1893.) The idea of the Parliament is to gather people from all over the planet, representing most of the world's religious traditions, and spend a week talking to each other, looking for ways to cooperate to address our common concerns.

It's going to be a great trip, and it will be fun to visit Australia, but how productive is it likely to be? Does it really do any good to engage in interfaith dialogue beyond a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling and the appearance, or perhaps illusion, of progress?

Sam Harris, in his bestseller The End of Faith, argues that we do damage to the world when we give respect to other faiths that may actually be trying to kill us. I agree with Harris that religious fundamentalism is a danger to our planet, particularly when combined with militaristic nationalism. It may actually be the case that fundamentalism itself is not the real problem, but rather this combination of fundamentalist religion with political power.

However, I think Harris misunderstands how religious views can change. My experience is that religious dialogue tends to disarm harsh fundamentalist stances. This is one of the reasons why fundamentalists do not generally attend such interfaith events. To be in dialogue is to let go of rigidity and to acknowledge the value of other positions. Fundamentalists know this and therefore avoid such engagement. Lack of respect, on the other hand, leads to rage and often violence. This is why "dissing" in gang culture can get one killed.

So I am arguing that religious dialogue in a respectful environment creates a counterbalance to rigid beliefs and fundamentalist-inspired nationalistic politics. The more dialogue, the more respect and the less rigidity. The more respect, the more ability to work out problems without resort to armed conflict. The more dialogue, the greater the chances for peace. And peace is something we deeply need. For this reason I devote a portion of my energy and resources to interfaith dialogue. So what do you think? Is interfaith dialogue dangerous or the path to peace?


  1. I do not agree that “Harris misunderstands how religious views can change”. I think his concept is that they can change through reason and realities. This assumes a respectful dialogue. He also argues that for Islam to become less violent the transition must come from within the Muslim community brought about by moderate Muslims. Christianity has moderated over the last 600 years and the incidence of violence in the guise of religion has been reduced significantly. We can hope that Islam will come out of the dark ages and moderate in a similar way. In that regard, the extraordinary effort you give personally to the interfaith dialogue is a significant contribution to peace. I’m sure Sam Harris would wholeheartedly agree.

  2. Ron,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. My concern about Sam Harris centers around his intense criticism of religious moderates who he believes are giving cover for fundamentalist extremists. I see moderation in religion as a good thing, a step in a healthy direction. We need to hope that the moderates win out in Islam as well as in other religions as well (including Christianity). And I agree it must happen within Islam itself. I also think that the criticisms of Harris about religion in general are mostly accurate. But I don't think we can with consistency hope moderates will win out while saying that moderation is wrong. That's my concern.
    Thanks for reading and responding. I'd be glad to hear more of your thoughts.