Still, she believes that even groups that engage in softer forms of dialogue, such as a group of Muslim and Jewish women in Georgia that gathers together to bake family recipes, serve a purpose.

"If that group makes someone more learned and more committed to a world that embraces pluralism, that's great."

Differing approaches

Interfaith dialogue can appear threatening to some believers, who fear it leads participants to compromise their convictions. Yet several people who take part in such discussions say it can cause them to grow stronger in their faith by helping them to better define it.

Judith Rivin, who regularly meets with a group of Muslim and Jewish women called the West Los Angeles Cousins Club, said her involvement has encouraged her to think deeply about her religious experiences and to describe them in ways that she normally doesn't with fellow Jews.

"Listening to others describe their experiences and having others listen to me has deepened my faith because it's helped me to discern what's really true for me - what nurtures my soul," she said.

Others say that traditional religious practices can change in a multi-faith setting, even if that is not the intention. Roger Eaton, a Culver City resident who has coordinated online dialogue sessions between Jews and Muslims through special software that he has created, said he has attended events in which people of various creeds pray together while avoiding specific terms about God. At times, participants verge on creating a homogenous faith to avoid offending each other, although Eaton added that most interfaith participants "don't want to go down that road."

At the other end of the spectrum is a form of hyper-pluralism. Noor-Malika Chishti, a Muslim from the mystical Sufi tradition and a member of the West Los Angeles Cousins Club, has participated in worship services that contain sacred music and prayers from various faith traditions.

"It's not to mesh everything into one religion," she said. "It's to say, ‘These are some of the ways that God speaks to us.' ... To me this is pure Qur'an - not to hold one prophet over another. "

Plenty of Muslims disagree with that interpretation, and people from various faith traditions can be uncomfortable with such universalistic practices. Still, that does not mean that religious conservatives are not found in interfaith circles.

Loskota recalled a time in 2003 when a Christian participant in a USC-sponsored interfaith event hoped to lead fellow attendees to become Christians. Loskota encouraged him to be upfront with the group about his intentions, and he did so with trepidation. While the student expected that members would feel offended, one Muslim participant actually expressed gratitude that the Christian student cared that she not end up in hell.           

"It really moved me," Loskota said. "I thought everyone would be insulted."

It's an illustration of how there is no cookie-cutter model for a successful interfaith encounter, although some formats tend to work better than others. Leonard Swidler, a professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University, has listed a set of typical dialogue "ground rules" in his writings on interfaith discussion. For instance, he advocates that groups avoid syncretism -- or merging together aspects of different faiths to create an entirely new faith -- to ensure the integrity of the religions that are involved. He also says people involved in interfaith dialogue should not think of other participating religions as inferior. The goal is to listen to "the other" and to avoid a lopsided relationship, he said.