How To Have An Interfaith Dialog

No, I’m not going to be giving lessons on how to have a productive interfaith dialog!

I want to hear from you. What tips and ideas do you have for how to make an interfaith dialog respectful and productive?

I’m here on Patheos where interfaith dialog is in the mission statement. I want to be able to have these discussions. Yet it is difficult to overcome defensiveness and unfortunately I have been subjected to enough slimy and underhanded attempts to discredit my religion in order to get me to join a different one that it’s also hard not to hear that in every question from someone of another faith.

So, help me out! Give me your thoughts :)


About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Seeker

    This is an excellent and very difficult question. When I think about the good interfaith dialogues I’ve had with others, there seem to be the following similarities:

    1. Honest curiousity about the other’s faith so there have been lots of questions.
    2. Asking for clarification on points but not bringing my own religion into it as a contrast.
    3. Not judging the other person’s beliefs by contrasting them to what I believe.

    Really hearing the other person and learning in depth about their religion is like looking into one of those geodes that have all the crystals inside; I keep looking at it from different angles and noticing new, interesting things. On the other side, if I just try to impose my beliefs on them, I never get to “crack the rock” and see the beauty.

    • Ambaa

      Not contrasting with mine is a great tip. I like that.

      I feel like I have had some wonderful interfaith discussions (mostly in person rather than online), but there are also times when you discover that the other person is only asking you questions and pretending to be your friend in order to find ammunition to use against you!

      I have to remember that while I love my religion and it makes me very happy, it isn’t something I need to convince other people to try. They will try it if they want to and if not, it’s nothing personal on me.

    • helen

      I think what Seeker says is excellent.
      It is very easy to start comparing and contrasting with your own religion, it´s hard not to. But great if you can talk without doing that.

  • Jash

    I think being charitable is very important to interfaith dialogue. Assume the integrity and wisdom of the religious path and the adherent. Don’t try to second guess what someone believes if they tell you, and don’t try to pick apart their belief system, as this will quickly shut down an open discussion about any topic whatsoever.

    Let people tell you what they believe, let them define their beliefs as they so choose, and ask for clarification if you don’t understand. And be friendly and polite :)

    Those would be my personal standards for an interfaith dialog.

  • Andrea

    Interfaith dialogue is different. We all have these amazing truths and we cannot help but want to share them.

    It’s even harder on the internet, and especially in forums, where the conch is figuratively held by one person at a time and there’s no body language to reinforce understanding. There’s no eye contact (or eye rolling!), nods, smiles, or blank stares to gauge whether someone else understands or not. You don’t even know how many people you are talking to.

    Also here on Patheos, comments only go I think five deep. I think that was intentional, to discourage people from intense debates and battles of rhetoric.

    The only policing we can really do in such a situation is self-policing. Here are some tips that have helped me:

    1. Please note the topic of the forum. If you are not here to learn more about the faith listed therein or understand it in a deeper way, please do not participate. If you are here to tell members of that faith that their faith is wrong, please do not participate. There are plenty of other places on the internet where religious debate is encouraged. This is a place for dialogue, not debate.

    2. If you can discern that a commenter’s intent is not to learn or understand more about the topic of the forum, ignore that comment.

    3. If a commenter makes you feel angry, defensive, or makes you want to correct all of their obviously wrong opinions, wait 24 hours before replying to that person.

    4. Careful and non-judgmental comparisons of different aspects of religions can help people learn because it gives them a point of reference; however, not all aspects of religions have an accurate one-to-one comparison. Try to see from the other person’s point of view in the context of their faith instead of simply trying to replace your concept with theirs in your worldview.

    5. Comparing two religions overall and judging whether one is “right” or “wrong” has no place in interfaith dialogue.

    • Caroline Reid

      I agree with what has been said here and would only add this: because online conversation misses the visual/auditory cues, it really pays to take extra care with choice of words, adding disclaimers and such. Emoticons can be very useful too.

      I am very grateful for the inter-faith dialogues I’ve been part of, for the enlarged view of my world, for the increased understanding of other faiths and for the sharpened insights into my own.

  • N. B.

    There are very interesting people from the past who have already built bridges to interfaith dialogue.
    The Roman Catholic Monk Thomas Merton in his meeting with the Hindu Monk Mahanambrata Brahmachari , the hindu changed his life. The book recommended to doubting Thomas was the imitation of Christ. Read the mystic experiences of Saint John the cross . Look at the gospel of Mary Magdeline dating back to the 2nd century if not the 1st yet not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century I believe and see why Saint Peter got angry with her.
    So bridges have been built and torn down since the beginning

    • N. B.
    • Maria P

      Some more recent bridges are being built by the Dali Lama, Eboo Patel, and many others. I am currently reading Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel about his experiences with interfaith dialogue. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in interfaith dialogue.

      • Ambaa

        Oh, thanks! I don’t know him, I’ll be very interested to check it out.

  • Drekfletch

    Specifically addressing Christian-Pagan interfaith, you might be interested in this article:

    • Andrea

      What a wonderful article, Drekfletch!

      “Dialogue must be honest and truthful. A dialogue that tries to pretend there are no differences, or that the differences don’t matter, will be a weak and fruitless one.”

      This is also a very important thing to keep in mind. There are some things you can just call by a different name, but in other ways the fundamental understanding of reality as put forth by each of these faiths is so drastically different that if you don’t take those differences into account, then you can’t even have the conversation.

  • Kenneth

    The only way to have a productive dialogue as far as I’ve seen over the years is to talk about those things that affect people of all faiths or none, the problems that affect us all. It helps to think of it as a pan-faith or trans-faith dialogue rather than interfaith. Discussions of the relative merits of each other’s religion simply have to be left off the table, as do the many historical grievances one religion has against another. I think participants can talk ABOUT their faith, if there is mutual respect and if the information is asked and given in a good faith curiosity ie “why is it you folks do this ritual at this time of year?”.

    I think one also has to forget about the concept of building bridges between religions or between theologies. Despite some interesting commonality and hopefully good will, our various religions are not the same. They are not all just different roads up the same mountain. Don’t even try to engage with people who come to bait you or proselytize. Don’t be afraid to ban those who show a pattern of disrespect and who contribute nothing to the dialogue or debate at hand. This is what I’ve learned over some years of informal interfaith work as a pagan. I used to despair of the very idea of interfaith work because there is so much extremism and an apparent universal imperative to convert others in some religions ie Christianity. I’ve found that there are always some reasonable people on every part of the spectrum. My hope is that the more we engage and unite reasonable people of all religions, the more we will collectively seize the debate and power from the extremists of all sides.

  • Ambaa

    You’ve all brought up wonderful points! Thank you for the thoughts; I really appreciate them!