"preparation for more robust dialogue"

My previous post about Bryn Mawr College's new president only briefly addressed the subject of "interfaith dialogue" (very much in the news in light of the recent controversy involving the Archbishop of Canterbury.) In this respect, Jane Dammen McCauliffe considers education to be of primary importance:

....While many scholars and officials hone in on high-level discussions to address pressing issues, two women professors, one Christian and one Muslim, spoke last week about the education of young people as a key to establishing true dialogue and peace among cultures.

Jane McAuliffe, who has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the University of Toronto, is a Christian who has dedicated her career to the study of Islam.

"In my generation, there was very little in education that exposed us to other religious and cultural traditions," she said. "But I was deeply impressed by Muslim piety and by Muslim understandings of the divine, and began to learn about Islamic tradition."

Hmmm.... I'm hoping President McAuliffe thinks this exposure should be a two-way street, and that Muslims will also begin to learn about Christian tradition (to say nothing of Jewish tradition).

But even if it is a two way street, from where derives the idea that interfaith dialogue only means dialogue between Christians and Muslims? What about Jews, Buddhists, and polytheists? The latter group includes not only Hindus, but Wiccans, one of whom complains that that anti-Wiccan bias in the interfaith dialogue movement has forced her to keep her paganism in the closet:

....I have attended the last two international Parliaments of World Religions, as well as the Goldin Institute for International Partnership and Peace (Fall 2003). I am discrete about sharing my religious tradition in professional settings, as there is social stigma and misunderstanding about Wicca and I do not want that to hinder my work for the Project. During years in divinity school, I answered questions about my "denomination" by saying I practice a feminist earth-based spirituality. The presumption of Christianity in the question is unmistakable. Advice to not mention my own tradition so I won't be pigeonholed with that identity, publishers cutting materials on Paganism, the remaining materials undergoing disproportionate scrutiny in reviews, an advisor with vehemently anti-Pagan views, all these have suggested caution in speaking my truth. Eventually, participating in interfaith settings without bringing my own tradition to the table became too painful and I began to integrate my self and my participation. I work for religious freedom in the largest sense; I want to experience it personally so now I practice it more.
(I hope her effort works out, because Muslims who are willing to participate in interfaith dialogue that includes pagans are genuine moderates, and worthy of support.)

And what about people who don't believe in any god of any kind? Whether they're secularists, agnostics, or atheists (Newt Gingrich treats them as synonymous) there are a lot of them, and I'd be willing to bet that some of them are among the students and faculty at Bryn Mawr.

This is no idle question. A number of secularists have complained of being edited out of interfaith dialogue.

So, in the name of diversity and dialogue, dialogue for some, but not for all?

I'm confused. Suppose you're one of those awful secular atheists who think religion is ridiculous, or the opiate of the masses or something? Isn't that belief at least as entitled to respect (or at least as worthy of dialogue) as any other belief involving the unknown?

Isn't it likely that a number of students at Bryn Mawr might fall into the faithless category? By what standard should they be excluded from what is billed as "dialogue" and "outreach"? Is the idea that they should first get religion, and then enter into interfaith dialogue? Which religion?

Call me a bigot, but I've repeatedly advocated establishing dialogue between atheists and believers who at least share the Western cultural tradition, and now that I think about it, I think calling for "interfaith dialogue" between a few selected religious people in the West and the entire Islamic world is hardly consistent with the politics of inclusion.

Isn't inclusion supposed to be the whole idea?

Doesn't the very phrase "interfaith dialogue" have an exclusionary ring to it -- as if you have to be a member of some sort of "faith" in order to be part of it? If exclusion being practiced in the name of inclusion, I'd say the idea needs work.

Speaking of inclusion, suppose you were raised Muslim, but now you're an atheist. Why should you be shut out of the "dialogue"? This, also, is no idle question. We've all heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, and others.

Stefania Atzori is another ex-Muslim who has become a non-believer, and (in an essay titled "What interfaith dialogue?") she takes issue with the idea that only "people of the Book" should be included in "interfaith dialogue":

....They [Muslims] claim that the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a lot in common, and in Islam "the people of the book" are deeply respected. Of course in practice this is never the case, but what about polytheists or atheists? Aren't they human beings? Don't they deserve respect? Let us assume that once the Muslims increase in our midst they will honor their word and they will respect the rights and beliefs of the Jews and the Christians. Let us say they will not do with the people of book here what they did in their Islamic paradise. Now, what would happen to the atheists, agnostics and other infidels among us?

After the Crusades and the Holy Inquisition, Westerners have opened their minds and instead of following religious ideologies started to invest their energies in science and knowledge. Should we go back and give the religious people suzerainty over the non-religious people just to please the Muslims among us? Should we discriminate against those who don't believe in one God or in any God at all, just because some people with a totalitarian and theocratic vision of life have decided to immigrate to the West? Besides; what is the meaning of "people of the book"?

Muslims repeat often; "we deeply respect the people of the book". This specification is discriminatory in itself....

For a darker atheist conspiratorial viewpoint, read this ("religious fundamentalists, peeved with what they perceive as a form of rapid secularization of their respective countries, may find cause to unite with other like-minded creeds in order to combat these fledgling movements").

While I am not an atheist, I don't think it is unreasonable to ask whether secular students are being dragooned into the interfaith dialogue meme as if they're all Christians (or "people of the Book") by default.

I may be mistaken about this, but I suspect that because of her background, Dr. McAuliffe tends toward a dualistic view of religion as Christianity and Islam. She thinks it's part of her role as an educator to "push back against prejudices":

McAuliffe, who is the current dean of the college of arts and sciences at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said that in the space of a few decades the student population there has changed dramatically to one that is heterogeneous.

The professor of Islamic studies says that what was formerly a traditional Catholic campus is teeming with students from different faith traditions, including Islam.

"Interfaith conversations among students and faculty, in formal classroom settings and informally around campus, are preparation for more robust dialogue in the future," McAuliffe said.

The professor said that part of her role as an educator is "to push back against the prejudices that come into the lives of young people" through their upbringing, environment and the media.

Moreover, she said: "No single instance or experience of interreligious dialogue can be entirely satisfactory.

"Simple tolerance of another is not enough."

Instead, McAuliffe believes that exposure and learning, especially in universities, must touch a person at a deeper level: "One cannot remain untouched by contact with other religions."

That's easy to say, but what does it mean to touch a person at a deeper level? Exposure to and learning what? Islam only? Isn't there a huge assumption being made there?

Anyway, I'm with the preparation for more robust dialogue part!

Because dialogue can be, well, robust!

[From Ruth Gledhill, via Glenn Reynolds.]

When there's a clear conflict between tolerance and intolerance (as the above video suggests), I would agree that "Simple tolerance of another is not enough." I'd also agree that "One cannot remain untouched by contact with other religions."

Beyond that, I don't know. What are the limits of tolerance and inclusion? Is it possible to have dialogue with people who don't desire dialogue? And aren't the people who don't desire dialogue the ones who are creating so much trouble?

To end this on a less sour and more optimistic note, Tim Blair has demonstrated that interfaith dialogue is possible at least on the individual level -- provided you wear the right hat. (My hat's off to him, although I'm still not sure how to tell the difference between a Pope hat and an Archbishop hat. Aren't they in the same hat group category?)

posted by Eric on 02.11.08 at 10:48 AM


There is one sure thing about the unknown.

Nobody knows anything about it.

M. Simon   ·  February 11, 2008 7:01 PM

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