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Why I Hate Interfaith Dialogue

December 12, 2009

  1. It only works when the rough edges of a particular religion are sanded off. Basically, it only works once religions are domesticated by liberal ways of thinking.
  2. However, it also only works when participants pretend like #1 is not happening. If interfaith dialogue-ers came out and said “we’ll accept you if and only if you agree to our working assumptions,” their condescension would be out there for all to see—in which case it would lose most of its appeal (i.e., it would lose the appearance of generosity).
  3. More importantly, it reflects the Protestant bias that focuses narrowly on belief. Why not inter-ritual dialogue?
  4. Connected with #3: cultures usually conflict when there is not a disparity in abstract beliefs but a disparity in the way things are done. People get pissy not when their neighbors “believe” in a different god but when their neighbors put up tacky decorations or build minarets or play church bells or whatever.
12 Comments leave one →
  1. doubtingmonk permalink
    December 12, 2009 7:44 pm

    A few thoughts and questions…
    – On points #1 and #2, are you saying that you prefer that religions don’t domesticate themselves or sand off the rough edges, or that you prefer that they are more explicit about these type of moves on their part? Another thought that comes up not uncommonly in these type of interfaith forums is the concept of intra-faith dialogue, which I think would sort of address one of your concerns in that these are just liberals talking to each other.
    – On point #3, I agree that Protestant bias may be focused on belief, but I ‘believe’ that ‘faith’ in this instance is just a stand-in for ‘religion’ i.e. it’s synonymous with ‘inter-religious dialogue’ (and religion would then include both belief or faith and ritual, etc).
    – On point #4, I think I see part of your point…but do you think that the differences in the way things are done is the main reason for conflict, or is it the different ways of doing things are a stark reminder of the differences in beliefs. For example, if two different communities had the same abstract beliefs, but they had different ways of expressing it…I could imagine that these communities could get along more than another pair of communities where the abstract beliefs were very different, but the outer expressions of religion were very similar (I realize this is obviously a non-existent example, but I wanted to clarify your thoughts on this point.) Thanks for the interesting post!

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 13, 2009 11:32 am

    doubtingmonk: thanks for your comment! Concerning your first question: I wish they were more up-front about where they draw lines in the sand rather than pretend they don’t do such things AND I have some real problems with liberal religious traditions (not that I prefer conservative ones). Most importantly, I think the implicit tendencies toward relativism and the tendency toward a “to each his own” way of thinking is wrong-headed because it tends to (indirectly) reproduce what I perceive to be injustices.

    You may be right about the second question—perhaps interfaith dialogue does concern other matters. However, when I hear talk about interfaith matters, I almost always hear about differing “beliefs”—it seems to remain very heady. But my experience may not be representative.

    Your last question: I think the opposite. I think two groups that had the same beliefs but different practices (note: I wouldn’t call practices “expressions” because most of the time practices do not “express” beliefs) would have a harder time getting along than the reverse. If you’re not a priest, go hang out with some Catholics while wearing a priest’s collar, and when they complain, insist that you “believe” the same things they do. I bet that won’t get you very far.

  3. December 13, 2009 12:40 pm

    On point 3: I wonder if the lack of attention to practices is not a neglect, but rather a conscious decision that different religions need not dialogue over shared or comparable ritual. It may be that practice, precisely because it is more central to religious life, is left each religion to its own in order to foster its own identity more fully. Insofar as dialogue is inherently a discursive activity, it may be that beliefs are perceived to be more amenable to dialogue simply because they are themselves established through dialogue (rather than through dance, or meditation, or eating, or pilgrimage). It doesn’t seem obvious that inter-religious dialogue needs to do everything, and perhaps certain things are simply out of its purview.

    This may also prevent us from attributing too much of the fact to Protestantism. The medieval Abrahamic religions dialogued mostly on the level of doctrine, and that was probably mostly attributable to the classical philosophical heritage they shared and actively built upon. On the other hand, syncretism of practice seems to do a fine job of crossing religious boundaries independent of “dialogue”.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 13, 2009 1:08 pm

    I imagine my difference from you on this comment is one of degree more than anything else.

    I do think that much of what we see in religious conflict is often simply tribalism or communalism—what’s wrong with THEM is simply that they’re not US, in which case looking at their beliefs probably won’t do much. It might do something: at the very least opening a conversation might allow participants to see that their opponents are, in fact, more human than they thought. But this will result from mere interaction, not a review of similarity or differences in beliefs.

  5. haytham permalink
    December 14, 2009 9:51 am

    In many cases interfaith dialogue tries to offer a shy justification to why people can live together by emphasizing that “All religions are alike in essence. Hence they can coexist”.

    This approach obscures the fact that religions are strikingly different and that historically bloody massacres took place in order to force some particular belief onto others.

    In my opinion people should learn to coexist despite the fact that their religions are different. Why is it necessary to show that the other is “exactly like us” in order to be able to live with him. Second, where does that leave the secular and non-religious? Third, people should learn to interact with each other on the basis of their equal humanity and not because their religious leaders decided to (temporarily?) bury the hatchet. And notice that interfaith dialogue aims at the same time to strengthen the feeling of religious affiliation.

  6. fuzzytheory permalink
    December 14, 2009 5:55 pm

    Well, let’s take an example from South Asia. Jains and “Hindus” from Gujarat often share the same temple space. They do similar rituals, practices etc. And yet, they often have quite different ideology. Though, because of the history of practicing together for centuries, their ideologies tend to develop over time to adhere more closely to each other. This, I think, and I am not really getting into any detail of course, tends to confirm to me your proposition.

    On the other hand, one sees in North America how some people leave their church for another because they don’t accept the ideology of their former church. The practices are mostly similar in the churches. The doctrine is the determiner of identity in these cases (and practice does change somewhat in terms of where one is driving to on Sunday).

    What this tells me is that the cultural expectations of what religion is and is for is a significant aspect of whether one privilages orthopraxy or orthodoxy. I caution myself against essentializing that religion is more fundamentally one or the other. Rather, to make sense of this, I think a geneological, hermeneutic or Foucauldian approach might be more helpful in figuring it out.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 15, 2009 12:48 pm

    haytham, yes! “We’re all basically the same” is highly problematic.

    Duckrabbit, I’ve been slipping back and forth here, it seems, between suggesting that religion is inherently orthopraxical and suggesting that SOME are predominantly orthopraxical. I really only want to say the latter claim—the former gets into an essentialist mode that you rightly suggest is problematic.

    However, I might argue, on some days, that orthodoxy is an orthopraxy of sorts. That is, when we get down to details, sometimes (for instance) what really counts for evangelicals (who almost always insist on the centrality of beliefs) is, in practice, one’s behavior.

  8. December 15, 2009 5:13 pm

    A great observation. I read something similar from the fantastic Truth Saves website a few months back that talks about the same exact bumper sticker, basically getting across the point that one cannot profess to hold one of these exclusive club memberships (religion) but also promote that their club isn’t exclusive at all… or something a lot more eloquent. :)

    Here’s the link:

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 15, 2009 5:23 pm

    Hi Zack, yes, I agree that sometimes these religious traditions are, in fact, in pretty serious conflict with one another. However, I would caution that that website seems to assume that there is only one thing that is Judaism, Christianity, etc. That is, it seems to ignore the wide variety of forms each religious tradition takes. I know some Buddhist Christians—for them those identities are not mutually exclusive. Of course, some such identities ARE mutually exclusive (depending on what brand of Buddhism or Christianity one follows), but that’s not always the case. In sum, some brands of Christianity are exclusivist but some are not.

  10. December 15, 2009 5:32 pm

    Duly noted.

    I suppose when dealing with things as fast and sectarian as religious organizations you’re bound to speak in generalities if you’re going to use such a wide open term like “all xtians” etc.

    I guess one can more easily speak in such a way if explaining a main trend or a logical outcome of the particular sects’ desires (the big 3 monotheisms definitely) to “save souls” and do conversions. No?

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 15, 2009 5:37 pm

    Ach, that’s the sort of question I like to dodge! In brief, I’ll just say that I think what you suggest may be the dominant STATED goal of monotheist traditions, but if we look at the behavior of dominant sects, I think we might find something different …

    In general, I try to say “some,” as in “some Xns,” or “some Buddhists,” or whatever, but I fail probably about half the time. It’s tough to avoid making generalizations.

    Thanks for your comments; I appreciate it! Don’t hesitate to lob more volleys!

  12. December 15, 2009 11:11 pm

    “It’s tough to avoid making generalizations.”
    Very true.

    Well no problemo. Thanks for the great blog, you always have very insightful thoughts and things that make me think and think again. :)

    Keep it up!

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