I love interfaith dialogue. It’s amazing. You have the opportunity to learn about other people, religions and philosophies, cultures, and various ways in which people worship or don’t worship. Those who are engaged in interfaith dialogue truly care about inter-religious understanding and unity but we all come to the table with our preconceived notions about other faiths and philosophies that are not always true, are generalizations and stereotypes. And then there are those who come to the table to purely make things difficult. These are the haters who are not interested in learning about other faiths and are only there to bait others. Don’t bite on their bait and ignore them. They’ll eventually leave.
But for those who want to invest their time in interfaith dialogue, well, some guidelines need to be laid down. Guidelines are important in interfaith dialogue because you don’t always know who will be coming to the table. Further the conversation needs to stay civil and respectful so that people will not feel as if they are being attacked. After all the goal is to create a safe space where people can talk about faith and non-faith without fear of being proselytized or told that what they believe is not valid. Also remember that people are there as individuals and what an individual says may no always represent the official doctrine of a faith or non-faith.
Of all the guidelines for interfaith dialogue this one is the most important. Treat all people and all faiths or non-faiths with respect even if you don’t agree with them. This means not making intentional hurtful comments or personal attacks because this can break down dialogue. You’re there to learn about faiths and non-faiths and to gain greater understanding.
2. Don’t Proselytize!
Interfaith dialogue is not the time to proselytize! So leave the proselytizing at home. It’s also not the time to tell others that their faith or non-faith is not valid or that your faith or non-faith is the only valid one. All faiths and non-faiths are valid.
3. Come with an open mind
Coming with an open mind is much to ask of people because we all have generalizations and stereotypes of other faiths and non-faiths that are hard to shake. To be clear you can generalizations and stereotypes of faiths and philosophies while at the some time having an open mind. Having an open mind means that you are willing to change you own opinions and be receptive to learning about religions and philosophies.
4. Use inclusive language
A variety of people come to interfaith dialogue, both the religious and non-religious, those who are still seeking, those who want learn more about faith and non-faith, those from different cultural backgrounds, political affiliations and those falling into a wide range of sexual orientation. Keep the dialogue inclusive by allowing others to ask questions and by not using exclusive language. I like to start off every discussion by going around the circle and having members state their name, religious or non-religious affiliation, if they are spiritually seeking (still searching for their place in the religious or non-religious world), their preferred pronouns, and any other information they would like to share regarding themselves that will deepen the conversation. People should not be afraid to tell the group who they are but if they are but don’t force them to give information they are not comfortable divulging. They will come around to it if the group is inclusive.
5. Use “I” statements
In interfaith dialogue avoiding generalizations is key. The best way to do this is by asking questions with “I” statements. Instead of asking a question like, “Why are all Christians so conservative, obsessed with sin, and dogmatic?”, it would better to ask the question like this, “The only Christians I have interacted with have the tendency to be very conservative, are obsessed with sin, and are dogmatic. Is this found across Christianity?” Asking a question in this way avoids generalizations and also brings into account the askers personal experience with Christians and Christianity. After all every belief and non-belief system has it’s radicals, crazies, discriminators, and haters but not everyone who is religious or non-religious fall into those categories. In fact most religious and non-religious are not radicals, crazies, discriminators, or haters.
6. Dialogue, not debate
Just like with proselytizing, interfaith dialogue is not the time to debate. You are not there to prove that one religion is wrong and another is right or that a generalization or stereotype is true across the board for a specific religion or non-religion or for religions or non-religions in general. So leave the debating at home.
7. Step up/step back
This one is important to leading a discussion where all participants feel they have an opportunity to speak and to give an equal ground to everyone. The essence of step up, step back is knowing whether you or one person is speaking too much and not allowing space for others to speak, and when you or a person are not speaking up. It is also about allowing a person from a particular religious or non-religious group to voice their opinions when a question or event that personally affects them or their community comes up in dialogue. It is also about standing up for those from a certain community that are not there to voice their opinions. The mediator should read the situation carefully and to encourage those who speak too much to cut back and to encourage those who are voicing or not voicing their opinions to speak up (this could take time depending on the person). It is also about encouraging those from a specific religious or non-religious group to speak up on issues involving their community.
8. Assume good intentions
Some might be offended at what someone else says while engaged in interfaith dialogue. It helps to assume that the person means well and doesn’t have it out for anyone. After all, if their present in their free time and on their own will, mostly likely their there to learn and don’t have a death wish for anyone.
9. Own your intentions and impact
While people should assume good intentions it doesn’t mean that we can disregard what someone says will have an impact on someone else. So own the good intention and the impact it will have on others.
Even though the guidelines for interfaith dialogue are meant to prevent people from being hurt, well, it’s bound to happen. When it does people should feel free to comment that a statement has hurt them and the other party should have the opportunity to clarify their meaning.
11. Agree to disagree
Agree to disagree. Not everyone is going to agree with what someone has to say and the best way to handle this is with controversy with civility. When this is done participants are agreeing that they don’t see eye to eye but are willing to move beyond the moment. This means that opposing view points can be respectfully engaged as a way to learning from each other.
12. Offer reminders during moments of challenge
Tensions will get high at some point and when the conversation is taking a turn the best action to take is to remind the participants of the guidelines agreed upon. By telling people to hit the pause button the group is allowed to take a deep breath, regroup, and forge ahead with sensitivity.
13. Challenge by choice
This allows participants to choose if and to what extent they will participate in any given activity. With that said it shouldn’t go unnoticed why someone is not participating. Use the moment to ask yourself why you are not participating in the conversation and how you can learn from the moment.