Review: Interfaith Dialogue

Jeremy starting his talk

At our October meeting we were delighted to be joined by Jeremy Rodell, Dialogue Officer at HumanistsUK, to talk about Interfaith Dialogue. 

The slides from Jeremy’s fascinating presentation are here.
(Apologies – we’ve had to reduce the file size to share it on the website and some of the text is blurry as a consequence. If you wish to read the slides in more detail then please email us and we can send you the original file)

SELHuG treasurer Libby reviews the evening for us…

The British social attitudes survey tells us that over half the population of England and Wales have no religious affiliation. This still leaves 50% with some sense of belonging to a religion.

Overall there is a trend for an ever-decreasing affiliation to any organised religion in younger people. This could mean that the role of major religions is to diminish, so one might ask why does dialogue matter? Actually what research tells us is that formal religions are becoming more diverse and evangelical and that potentially the proportion of those retaining faith and religious affiliation are highly likely to be more devout.

In his talk Jeremy put forward a compelling case for true interfaith dialogue and how to go about it with those who follow a religion and those who do not.  Some of the interesting points he made were that any people who identify with a religion don’t share all its beliefs, organised religion includes many varied cultural and social practices, and belief/religious observance are not the same for every member. Conversely many who say they do not belong to a formal religion say they have some religious belief. It is not as simple as it may first appear,

The HumanistsUK strategy states: We want a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations.

Humanists need to be able to and prepared to converse with everyone: those of organised religion and none.  If we are really to promote a humanist viewpoint, explore how we may best let people know our philosophy, and find commonality between our values, we must engage in appropriate ways.

We can learn from some Christian ideas about dialogue developed by Rev Jenny Ramsden (Touchstone, Bradford) most notably:  Dialogue of Life (just doing things together), Dialogue of Social Action (joint activities e.g. helping with food banks) and Dialogue of Discussion & Exchange.

Dialogue of discussion and exchange is probably the kind of dialogue that most of us think of. It is important to note this is not really debate and argument. True dialogue has a focus on listening, inspiring curiosity and seeking understanding of different points of view. In true dialogue we can respect good people and the things important to them In dialogue that builds trust behaviour trumps belief.  A key tenet of good dialogue is not to equate ‘religion’ and ‘belief’.  Also to be aware of the difference between people of faith, a faith, and religious institutions (e.g. Catholics/Catholicism/Catholic Church). In the end personal relations can trump identity politics.

This most effective kind of approach is in keeping with the St. Ethelburga Good Disagreement model where ‘good disagreement’ opens contention up in way that enriches understanding and enhances relationships. In this approach black-and-white thinking and therefore polarisation/conflict are avoided. People with very differing views can gain understanding and build relationships.

So does dialogue work and what are the benefits? Some commentators say there a futility in ‘just’ talking and that talk achieves nothing. But talking can build relationships and therefore can achieve some very valuable things, including being able to tackle future divisive events in a more positive way. Talking is action if it improves trust. Talking can also help reveal common ground which may empower joint action.

In the wider context of global geopolitics the European liberal pluralist is under attack from all sides. With nationalism and authoritarian regimes in many powerful states across the globe, we need more talk and true dialogue to build understanding and strengthen the foundations of our liberal pluralist ethos.  As Winston Churchill said, “To Jaw Jaw is always better than to War War”

Further reading