The Parliament of the World´s Religions is wrapping up in Chicago today. I have admired this event from afar since I was in my early twenties, after reading a speech given by Swami Vivekananda at the inaugural event in 1893. Since then, I have believed that the human race should aspire to improve relations between people of different beliefs. However, some people still fear interfaith relations.
Discovering Fear of Interfaith
From 2016 to 2017, I attended seminary and was ordained as an interfaith minister. I attended various interfaith events in and around Austin during my studies and for several years afterward (until Covid hit). During that time, I found many people of goodwill dedicated to forging stronger bonds between different faith communities.
Because I experienced so much joy, I became confused when I realized that several of the more conservative religious sects—across faiths—resisted and feared those same events. Out of curiosity, I decided to reach out to a few congregations to find out why they were resisting. Across the board, I heard one reason repeated over and over again. They feared dilution, in essence, that others would ask them to modify their beliefs.
I pondered this for several months and found two primary reasons that explained their resistance. The first reason was their openly expressed fear of dilution. The second reason was a lack of spiritual confidence. Let’s take a closer look at both.
1. Fear of Dilution
I have never feared that my beliefs will be diluted, which is why I had to ask myself if their fear of diluting beliefs was valid. And my honest answer was a qualified yes. While people don’t need to change their fundamental belief system, most interfaith participants need to adapt in two ways.
a) From “The Only Truth” to “My Truth”
Firstly, those who participate probably need to acknowledge that their religion is true for them rather than claim that theirs is the only true religion. Changing from “the only truth” to “my truth” can be a difficult leap, but it is preferred in interfaith settings. It’s hard to start an honest conversation if you think everyone else is deluded because of their beliefs.
b) Curbing Judgment
Secondly, interfaith participants should make an effort to curb their judgment of others. Previously, I have written about the attraction-repulsion axiom, which implies that love for one thing can transform into dislike, repulsion, or even hatred for the opposite—if one is not careful. This trait is deeply ingrained in all belief systems. For instance, someone can adore being a vegan but detest the opposite; another can appreciate traditional family structures but look down on other lifestyles; yet another can enjoy praying but believe that everyone who does not pray is going to hell. The list can be endless. In interfaith settings, the key is to emphasize what one is drawn to and restrain the expression of what one dislikes.
Some Pluralists Go Further
In recent years, I believe that some pluralists in the interfaith movement have gone too far in asking people to dilute or change their beliefs. Interfaith events have started to include politically liberal causes, which have turned away otherwise well-meaning people. The primary goal of interfaith efforts should be to keep lines of communication open between people, despite their different beliefs, rather than trying to get everyone to align with the same political agenda.
2. Lack of Spiritual Confidence
None of this matters if you have spiritual confidence. External influences will not shake your core principles and beliefs if you are comfortable with them. Dilution becomes irrelevant. Therefore, I’ve concluded that some of those who fear interfaith interactions lack spiritual confidence. Or, if they are leaders, maybe they don’t trust their congregants to have enough of it. Come to think of it, people who get most of their spiritual wisdom from the outside are more easily swayed than those who cultivate their inner garden and are well-established in personal beliefs and practices. For instance, you would never think that a meeting between Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama would cause either to change their core beliefs, yet both are committed to improved interfaith relations.
We Need More People at the Table
Today, more people are leading siloed lives than ever before. Collectively, we are growing resistant to being exposed to ideas and beliefs that differ from our own, whether due to religious sects or tribal social media behavior. Yet, the truth is that we already live in a pluralistic society—even though some resist that reality—and need to have more interfaith events and keep the door open to as many people as possible.
What is the Solution?
Two sides of the same coin offer a valuable starting point for discussions on why people fear interfaith relations. Organizers can start by asking what they can do to lessen the fear of dilution and get more people involved. Congregations can ask how they can help congregants increase spiritual confidence, which should be sprinkled with humility to avoid turning into arrogance.
Starting the conversation is key, and we must see where it leads. I believe in the power of dialogue. We need multiple miniature Parliaments of the World’s Religions to pop up worldwide so that we can learn to lessen fear of “the other.”
Amazon Author Profile
Relevant books by GB:
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)