Beliefwatch: Interfaith

Christian pastors do it with Muslim imams. High-school seniors do it with each other. Actors and authors do it, as do comedians and combat pilots. It's interfaith dialogue, and in the world of religion, it's very much in vogue.

In the modern times, "interfaith dialogue" has come to mean both negotiating the crisis in the Middle East and holding a Passover Seder at the local church, and since 9/11, such efforts have exploded. A Nexis search of the words "interfaith dialogue" in the headlines of major national newspapers and magazines came up with 173 entries since 1977; more than 100 were in the past five years alone. All of which may lead a skeptic to wonder, What good does all this well-intentioned talking do?

Well, a lot. It was interfaith dialogue that led Pope John Paul II to reach out to the world's Jewish population in 1987, to condemn the Holocaust and give his support to the state of Israel, saying "the Church experiences ever more deeply her common bond with the Jewish people and with their treasure of spiritual riches in the past and in the present." On a local level, if one Jewish child and one Muslim child become lifelong friends at summer camp, that's all to the good. If one sees the world's conflicts as religious in nature, then interfaith dialogue--a sincere, mutual effort by people of different faiths to see each other's point of view--is essential to world peace.

Based on the sheer volume of these efforts, however, it's reasonable to assume that the bulk of them, though sincere, are quixotic. For the past five years, Steve Worchel, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, has been studying the effects of interfaith camp programs on youth over time. "You go to these camps [in the Balkans or the Middle East] and afterward, everyone's hugging each other," he says. That glow quickly fades. "Many of these programs are one-shot deals, and these are attitudes that have grown up over generations ... You don't change deep-seated hatred in a week." More lasting, says Worchel, is a feeling of self-esteem. Kids who attend interfaith camp tend to think of themselves as part of the solution, but they need the long-term support of their community and political leaders to keep their minds open. And then Worchel says something really profound. Conflict, he says, is part of life and love; communities require enemies in order to cohere. Interfaith dialogue is not a magic bullet. The question is how to manage the human instinct for conflict into the future so it doesn't destroy the world.