Anyone who has embarked upon the study of religion immediately runs into a debate of the meaning of the very word religion. Definitions abound and debates rage about whether a general definition of religion should highlight the social, behavioral, ideological or cognitive aspects of the phenomenon, how to account for dimensions like worldview, ritual, and values—and what exactly about religion is essentially “religious.” Many argue that the category of “religion” is inherently Western, given that in the Western world the distinction between “secular and religious” is more palatable than in non-Western contexts, where the-phenomena-we-mean-by-“religion” looks less like our familiar Western theisms, and can be virtually impossible to separate from government, family relationships, commerce and language.
Here are some examples of how tricky it can be to address social contexts strictly in terms of religion–for example, my two fieldwork regions, Rome and Israel/Palestine.
As I wrote about before, it’s not easy to find clear examples of “interreligious conflict” in Rome, where I do research on interreligious dialogue. Rome’s prevalent social conflict is economic and class-based. Typical Italians don’t care enough about religion to make it a focal point of their thinking and behavior toward “others.” And yet, conflicted social groups in Rome can be broadly grouped according to different religions: generally Catholic Italians, and generally Muslim and Eastern Orthodox immigrants. When I ask my research subjects whether there is interreligious conflict in Rome, I learned a new word: “ni.” Si—and no. There is social conflict, and the groups in conflict belong to different religions, but the conflict itself is not per se “religious.”
The extent to which the Arab-Israeli conflict is an “interreligious conflict” is also subject to debate. As in Rome, it is easy enough to see that the conflicting parties are divisible along religious lines—Israeli Zionists are largely Jews and Palestinians are largely Muslim (except for the small percentage who are Christians). But most people will tell you the conflict is nationalistic and identity-based.
The process of labeling the source of any social conflict demonstrates the difficulty of separating the labels of religion, culture, identity, nation, and politics.
If religion is so tricky to define and identify, then it is also tricky to think about the role of “religion” in interreligious dialogue. “Dialogue” is a construct that is so frequently invoked as a methodology for bridging social divides that it is useful to compare radically different dialogue contexts in order to understand what aspects of “dialogue” are conditional to the context, and which are essential to “dialogue” itself. But, since “interreligious” dialogue is touted as a method for bridging social divides, we should ask—what is religious about interreligious dialogue? How is it different, for example, from intercultural dialogue?
As an anthropologist, I try to use the labels and identifications that my study subjects use to define themselves and their environments. If a person deems themselves or their dialogue to be cultural or religious, then that is how it is catalogued. In order to deem whether a dialogue is religious or non-religious–especially in the absence of clear signifiers–one has to listen to how the participants describe it.
By definition, a consistent quality of the construct of “interfaith dialogue” is the obvious or implicit presence of religion. Interfaith or interreligious dialogue is a community-level encounter between affiliates of different religions and faith claims who gather with the pro-social intent to strengthen community ties and bridge social divides. According to the methodology of the interfaith encounter, different interfaith dialogue groups leverage “religion” in very different ways, and religion can either be quite central to the dialogue discourse, or it might never be mentioned, being present only in the declared identities of participants.
Notwithstanding the debatability about the active role of “religion” in social conflicts in both Rome and Israel/Palestine, many activists in both places have intentionally chosen to use religion as a tool that can help bridge conflicts. Using religion as a common ground can start valuable conversations about spirituality, values, families, hope, history, and commitment. These dialoguers see that religion is a useful theme on which to base dialogue, as religion implies both diversity and ideals, and because religions tend to offer a toolbox for discussions about reconciliation, peace, and justice. Since it is so easy to find examples of destructive religious engagement, differently religious people might find that uplifting the constructive aspects of religion can provide redemptive balance to the “name” of religion in the world, or to their sense of integrity in their own practice.
Boston University Psychologist of Religion Steve Sandage writes in his article Religion, Spirituality, and Intercultural Development that:
“the dynamics of culture and spirituality or religion are interactive for many clients…and can influence ideals of human functioning…. Numerous authors in the area of psychotherapy have recognized the logical connections between multicultural or intercultural competence and awareness of religious and spiritual dynamics…. Researchers in the positive psychology of virtue are increasingly recognizing that understandings of virtue or the ‘‘good life’’ are influenced by cultural and religious traditions…. Gratitude and forgiveness have been considered virtues across many religious and spiritual traditions….”
Altogether religious ethical philosophies and social structures are found to offer many tools for the development of pro-social behavior and intercultural bridge-building.
Given the elastic nature of the term “religion,” the dialogue and projects that are offered in the interfaith ambit can be social, humanitarian, academic, theological, contemplative, or artistic. What makes these dialogues “religious” and not simply intercultural is that religion is advanced as a platform central to the identities of participants or the activity embarked upon. People are showing up as religious people and putting their religious identity forward and usually intentionally engaging it in conversation. Even when secular or atheist people participate in interfaith dialogue, they do so with the acknowledgement that religion is a ubiquitous social force that can be constructively instrumentalized, and they agree to do so in their dialogues. Therefore, one consistent quality of the construct of “interfaith dialogue” is the presence—even the nearly invisible and silent presence—of themes and people deemed religious.
It is possible to embark on interreligious engagement that never overtly involves religious conversations or symbols. This would happen in the form of “dialogue” that involves humanitarian collaborations—Bahai and Christians operating a soup kitchen together, or Sikhs and Hindus planning an Indian cultural festival, or Jews and Muslims working together to ensure safe healthcare provisions for circumcisions. These humanitarian projects often prioritize the cooperative project over the religious discourse. But participants are attending on the basis of their social ties and identities, and along the way they may—within their own group or with the other—discuss the values or textual sources that undergird their contributions and collaborations.
I asked one of my research subjects in Rome, a director of an interfaith magazine, what he thought the difference was. He said he thought interreligious dialogue groups are comprised by faithful religious people, and intercultural dialogue is a broader activity, “for example, on the secular European level, where people don’t want to discuss religion or don’t participate or find the discussion too narrow.” I said, do you think interreligious dialogues are more likely to discuss values? He replied, “Yes, it is more likely there, but values are also present in intercultural conversation, like in discussions of marriage or human rights. The difference in intercultural dialogue is that they are expressed in secular terms.”
I’ve found that the word “dialogue” is active in many realms–intercultural, interdisciplinary, interpersonal/therapeutic, civil society, community dispute management, conflict resolution, etc. Most of these realms engage similar mechanisms of deepening understanding and facilitating more personal appreciation of “the other.” Interfaith/religious dialogue concerns religion because religion has been identified as a useful bridge by which to connect or an important social category to attend to, and it is religious because those participating have something to say about religion. Religious language is invoked, and permitted to be invoked. In my fieldwork I have not experienced a radical difference in terms of methodology or objective–only in context and language use–between interfaith dialogue and intercultural or inter-national dialogue (engaged for integration efforts with immigrants). It is the presence of the religious people and their declaration of religion as a centerpiece of their interbelonging–whether or not religion is explicitly invoked–that make it interreligious dialogue specifically.
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