When I was in college, every year the atheist student group would invite other religious groups together for a friendly panel debate/discussion on religion, ethics, morality, and philosophy. By other religious groups I mean Christian and Muslim groups, and by friendly panel discussion I mean the Christians and Muslims facing a hostile panel and audience. Once they invited the Buddhist group as a token measure, and twice our pagan group was invited, but they never responded to us after that, and we never actually participated.
I tend to distrust interfaith panels. They tend to consist of factions within one religious family (Christians talking to different Christians) or similar religions trying to convert or defend from conversions (Christians, Jews, and Muslims).
So this intrigues me, and I am hopeful.
Imagine for a moment, Pagans of all kinds having a heartfelt conversation with Muslims about the nuances between Shia and Sunni Islam on the one hand and between Reconstructionist Polytheism and Naturalistic Pantheism on the other. Or a similar conversation Mormons. Or with Evangelical Christians.
Imagine now that these conversations are not about finding common ground. Let me repeat that — imagine these conversations are not about finding common ground. Instead, imagine that the conversation aims at understanding of difference.
And now imagine that these conversations are respectful, constructive, and dialectical.
This is the goal of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD), which promotes conversation between adherents of different religions that focuses on points of contention, but does so in a civil and respectful fashion, in order to foster understanding — not identification, but understanding of difference. Ideally, the parties to such a conversation would recognize that a person’s deeply held beliefs are not likely to change through argumentation. But they would also realize that we gain little by watering down our respective faiths to find some tenuous common ground. By passionately, but responsibly, sharing our respective irreconcilable truths, we might avoid the destructive conflict between religious communities that arises when we making uneducated assumptions about one another.
Part of the problem I’ve seen with interfaith panels is that they tend to focus on similarities and common ground, which leads to a kind of “if you agree with me here, why not go along with this as well?” mindset. Knowing that yielding 2,54 centimeters results in losing 1.6 kilometers, I try to avoid such exchanges.
But I like this idea of not looking for points of agreement, but just listening to and respecting the differences. Sure, I suppose there’s the chance that the evil Xtians will use a better understanding of paganism to improve conversion efforts. But it would be good to know what really does make us stand apart, and to clear up rumors and misconceptions, and to understand that despite those differences we can still get along.