Accessibility Tools

Skip to main content

The Interfaith Movement: An Incomplete Assessment

March 25, 2015

by Dr. Kusumita P. Pedersen
This article was originally published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter 2004.
This essay presents a report on the current state of the interfaith movement, a variety of organized efforts throughout the world to create better understanding and cooperation between and among the world’s religious communities. It is sub-titled “an incomplete assessment,” since there is little systematically compiled data in this area. It gives both a level-by-level survey and a geographical summary and then analyzes important issues arising in interfaith programs. These issues include the goal of one global organization, the question of what it means to “represent” a religion, the inclusion-exclusion problem (including participation of new religious movements), the role of Christians in organizational life, the possibility of an “Abrahamic exclusivism,” and the search for “spirituality,” both as distinct from “religion” and across religious boundaries.
I. Introduction
This article aims to do two things. First, it presents a brief survey of interfaith work worldwide, as a sketch for a more detailed and complete inventory of the extent and types of activity now being carried on. Second, it offers an analysis of some of the most critical issues at present in the interfaith field. What follows is not one more theological statement on the relation of religions or a reflection on why interfaith understanding and cooperation are needed but, rather, a descriptive report followed by evaluative comments.
As this is a large agenda, this account is a preliminary one.
The interfaith movement is growing rapidly. New expansion was already occurring before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks of that day and ensuing events have greatly intensified awareness of the necessity to work toward better relations between religious communities. While the nature and goals of ongoing interfaith work have not in themselves changed, many have grasped in a new way what the stakes are in this undertaking and the price to be paid if it fails. Others have had dramatically confirmed their already existing conviction of its importance. The pace of interfaith activity seems to be accelerating. This is happening not only because of greater appreciation that it is needed, but also because those wishing to develop interfaith programs now have much precedent and know-how on which to draw. Over a century of interfaith activity has provided a reservoir of established methods, well-known organizational patterns, and acquaintance with the issues. The maturing of the movement and the course of events have intersected. As interfaith work today seems ready to become more mainstream than at any previous time, an assessment may be useful.
A. Motives for Interfaith Work
One may distinguish three main motives for interfaith work, which influence the creation of different kinds of programs: (1) to live together harmoniously, mitigate tensions, and resolve conflict; (2) to engage a “common task”; and (3) to search for truth and understanding in the context of religious plurality. These motives are not mutually exclusive and in practice are often found together. An outline of them will serve as a frame of reference for the descriptions to follow, as will a brief consideration of terminology.
The first motive is most familiar. Interfaith workers very often say that the purpose of what they do is to enable better relations among religious groups at all levels, from knowing one’s neighbors in the local community to reducing violence such as hate crimes or acts of terrorism, even to ending civil or international armed conflict and achieving post-conflict reconciliation. The operating premise is that direct personal encounter, more accurate knowledge of the other, and an exchange of views, stories, and experiences can lessen tensions, dispel misunderstanding, and build trust. As Diana Eck has put it, “Being judged as a group, not as an individual, erases the human face and is the first step toward dehumanization that gives rise to hate crimes.”[1] Conversely, the face-to-face meeting of unique individuals from different groups is a step in the opposite direction toward amicable relations. It is not naively supposed that mere contact will lead to better attitudes but that interaction organized according to certain requirements is needed. Research in social psychology supports testimony from the interfaith arena that, under specific conditions, face-to-face encounter can dispel stereotypes and foster harmony.[2]
It must be remembered, however, that much as religious divisions are a source of tensions, they are not the only fault lines along which conflicts occur. Factors other than religious ones may cause or contribute to conflict, and there is thus a significant overlap of the aims and methods of interfaith work as such and other work also concerned with inter-ethnic, “inter-group,” and inter-cultural relations, as well as various kinds of peacemaking, conflict resolution, and the reconciliation of groups with a history of violence.[3]
The second motive for interfaith work is recognition of a need to work in partnership for a common purpose. Since the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the idea has been advanced that the religions of the world should join together to promote the common good. As early as the attempt to establish the League of Nations, from 1920 to 1946, and continuing with the founding of the United Nations in 1945, both leaders in different fields and ordinary people have believed that an assembly of religions corresponding to the world body of states should exist. Today, religious leaders and communities are working together on a wide range of issues, including poverty, human rights, and the environment, as well as war and other forms of violence. International assemblies have been held periodically under different auspices for over a century to consider how all the religions might address all the issues through some form of structured cooperation.[4] Such global meetings can only be consultative, since there is as yet no agency that has the capacity to implement or compel compliance with their resolutions. Meanwhile, cooperation among religious communities at the local, subnational, and national levels has increased enormously and continues to do so.
Third, religious believers confronted by religious diversity may ask: Is it the same God to whom we pray? Is it the same ultimate reality on which we reflect in philosophy and theology and at times seek to know through contemplation? These questions often arise as a byproduct of work together on a common task, or they present themselves in other life situations. Apart from any instrumental usefulness their answers may have, these questions have a compelling force and urgency for some because of the intrinsic importance of their religious content.
[1] Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), pp. 303–304.
[2] The conditions for successful intercultural contact identified by Richard W. Breslin are the presence of a “superordinate goal” (here called a common task), stereotype-breaking contact, equal-status contact, intimate contact in the sense of communication that discloses the uniqueness of individuals and their lives, and the expertise of facilitators (Richard W. Breslin, “Intercultural Contact and Communication,” in Leonore Loeb Adler, Florence L. Denmark, and Uwe P. Gielen, eds., Cross-Cultural Topics in Psychology, 2nd ed. [Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001], pp. 213–227). Also see Yehuda Amir, “Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations,” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 71 (1969), pp. 319–342. Guidelines for dialogue are part of the method of interfaith programs. See, as examples, Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1979); Leonard Swidler, “The Dialogue Decalogue,” J.E.S. 20 (Winter, 1983): 1–4 (widely reprinted); C.B.C.I. Commission for Dialogue and Ecumenism, Guidelines for Inter-Religious Dialogue, 2nd rev. ed. (New Delhi: C.B.C.I. Centre, 1989); National Conference for Community and Justice, Communication Guidelines and Ground Rules for Useful Dialogue/Rights, Risks, and Responsibilities of Dialogue (New York: an internal document of the N.C.C.J., 2000); and Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs (London: Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom, n.d.).
[3] For useful studies in this area, see David R. Smock, ed., Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2002). See also the same author’s Faith-Based NGOs and International Peacebuilding, United States Institute of Peace Special Report 76 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2001).
[4] For a detailed historical account, see Marcus Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
Download full article:…