Choice and Safety: Required Ingredients for Interfaith Progress

Classic “contact theory” predicts that diverse societies automatically bring about tolerance. I argued against this idea here when I discussed how proximity generally exacerbates the anxiety of difference, and fails to disconfirm negative stereotypes when people see—but do not understand—their differences. If your goal is increasing tolerance and civic cooperation, it is not enough just to put people together into a diverse urban environment. Instead, as demonstrated in 2007 by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, it can create “hunkered down” ethnic enclaves. He writes, “immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” A high concentration of social diversity does not necessarily lead to tolerance, nor function to automatically humanize religious “others” through daily contact. Rather, many communities turn inward and raise their boundaries in order to protect and preserve their particularities.

The point is, “interfaith dialogue” does not just happen in tandem with diversity.

Diversity, if it is not encountered intentionally, can be threatening. It can be scary. When we see behaviors or fashions we do not understand, we are likely to judge or feel suspicious of them. This is a natural response. In contexts of socioeconomic crisis or political instability, the presence of difference can even signify crisis.

In my ethnographic interviews in Rome and in Palestine, people talk consistently about how crisis impacts encounters with diversity. Stressful social, economic conditions affect the subjective sense of existential security, and capacities for interpersonal connection and security. Crisis compromises alterity, the capacity for openness to diverse others. This subjective sense of “security”–existential, psychological, physical–drastically affects the outcome of social mixing.

In the poorer peripheral areas of Rome, the areas that tend to suffer crisis in terms of fewer and worse city services and resources, there is more intergroup conflict. The lack of basic quotidian security destabilizes conditions for openness, education, and connecting with “outgroup” members. It increases vulnerability to political rhetoric that blames civic woes on the migratory flux. The instability is so well-established that it invites corruption, so easy to hide in the bel casino of a bad neighborhood. It increases the likelihood that citizens will blame others—usually gypsies or immigrants—for challenging conditions. It decreases the likelihood that citizens will have a strong enough ego structure to withstand the guilt or negative self-impressions evoked when taking responsibility for negative life circumstances. This data reinforces Robert Putnam’s proposal that conditions of diversity lead not to natural collaboration but rather to “hunkering down.” Unchosen, defacto social diversity creates stress and feelings of exposure that reduce personal capacities for secure exploration of this diversity. It is not likely to be a crucible for social change on its own.

There are several elements that qualify a context to become a meaningful  “crucible of change” and some to not be. Some encounters with difference are “dialogue” and some are not. My inkling is that the difference is the presence or absence of intention, agency, self-definition or declaration: participants must say “this is dialogue” when they are self-consciously ready to undertake the stresses of putting themselves in the other’s place with an eye toward personal transformation. Therefore, in order to create difference, the presence of choice is required: people must intentionally define and circumscribe the space of intercultural engagement, converting it from mere religious diversity into religious pluralism. Participants must be aware of the purpose for which they are gathering and, either explicitly or implicitly, buy into the goal of the undertaking.

Not everyone wants to do interfaith dialogue. In my interviews I find many are not opposed, but simply are not interested or do not have the time. Of course, many people and communities in the world are explicitly opposed to dialogue. It would be wholly unproductive to “force them” to dialogue, as without mutual, consensual participation the necessary elements of dialogue remain absent: intention, vulnerability, safe haven, empathy.

What gives people the will to participate in interfaith activity? This often boils down to factors that are very hard to measure or track, such as upbringing and temperament. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s concepts of “seeking and dwelling” express states of resting in a familiar space (dwelling) and states of exploration and encounter with difference (seeking.) In my research, when I ask how people become inclined to participate in interfaith engagement, many subjects describe their personal paradigmatic shifts from dwelling to seeking, or they say they started from a seeking temperament. Many describe how the need for dialogue and/or their involvement is motivated by a crisis on a social or personal level. The therapeutic intervention of the interfaith dialogue hopes to provide healing from the crises that motivate the decision to change personally and/or to help heal the world.

Intentional, consensual interfaith settings—as opposed to de-facto urban religious diversity—provide structures offering adequate security in order to explore new terrain, make new connections, and tolerate the anxiety of difference. Interfaith work is a category of therapeutic crisis intervention that increases conditions of stability through nonviolent contexts of personal encounter and narrative exchange. It provides temporary alleviation from the isolation of “hunkering down” and assures individuals, through repetitive personal experiences of security, safe haven, and secure base for exploration, that they can safely withstand the perceived threats of religious others. These conditions are required in order to secure the potential for reconciliatory activity, to lower preoccupations about security, and to set the stage for moments of clear mutual recognition. In this way, interfaith engagement helps “re-write” negative emotional associations with diversity.

Diversity can become “interfaith engagement” when it is an intentionally declared, consensual, cooperative activity with a defined beginning and end. The intentionality of interfaith dialogue creates a “third” option between homogeneity, and hunkered-down heterogeneity: it allows for pluralistic enclaves. All of these specifications distinguish it from de facto religious diversity.

Image taken by the author at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia.

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