Secular Dominance and the Endpoints of Interfaith Dialogue
What’s the purpose of interfaith dialogue? More precisely, what’s the expected, likely, or ideal result of dialogue between religions or sects?
Here are three possibilities.
Dialogue as Covert Warfare
First, one effect would be to establish the supremacy of some extant religion. The dialogue would be a weeding-out process, a highlighting of the strengths and weaknesses of each religion which would entail that some religions are better than others and that perhaps one is best.
Alternatively, the dialogue might be designed as a cover for converting members of one religion to another.
Finally, the comparison and implicit evaluation of religions might show that some religions reduce to another one, that some theologies are subsets of an older or more encompassing one.
Indeed, the name “interfaith dialogue” falls into this first possible purpose since the name presupposes the Western religious insistence on the crucialness of faith, whereas Eastern religions are focussed more on practice than on commitment to creeds.
We can imagine, for example, a dialogue held between Christians and Hindus, with the explicit purpose being the anodyne one of opening the channels of communication or of enhancing understanding of the alternative perspective. But the Christians who arrange for this “dialogue” would have the ulterior motive of highlighting some perceived deficiencies of Hinduism, and of directing the dialogue towards a subtextual evaluation of the two religions, using criteria preferred by the Western audience.
The question would be whether all religious people could equally benefit from learning more about the alternative religions. Perhaps some religious populations already have an adequate grasp of the nature of religion and of how the world’s religions stand to each other. In practice, as a covert attempt at conversion or at ranking religions, interfaith dialogue might indicate mainly the naivety of the religionists who are most interested in establishing this kind of exchange. Ironically, the more evangelical and combative religions might be the ones most in need of broadening their practitioners’ perspective with a genuine dialogue or religious education.
Dialogue and Syncretism
The second possibility assumes a less duplicitous agenda. Perhaps the dialogue would deepen religionists’ understanding and broaden their perspective to the point of showing the weaknesses of all existing religions, entailing the need to formulate a new religion that builds on these comparisons.
This was in fact the original purpose of ancient Manicheism, a Gnostic, highly syncretistic religion that briefly flourished as a rival to Christianity. And it was the Jungian approach taken by Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology, which was meant to imply the superiority of Jung’s psychological perspective on religions or else the need for a new myth that matches the late modern zeitgeist. This yearning for syncretism would be in line, too, with Friedrich Nietzsche’s call for a naturalistic religion befitting an elevated, transhuman mentality.
Theosophists following Helena Blavatsky likewise thought they were uncovering ancient insights with their theological syntheses and overviews. More generally, New Thought and paranormal conspiracy theories are often meant to modernize ancient ways of talking, combining religious and pseudoscientific conceptions, or substituting an overarching political worldview for a theological one. Whether this ends up being more than repackaging of old wine in new skins is another matter.
In any case, the point of religious dialogue would be to recognize the deficiencies of each religion as dictated by the strengths of the others, which would compel all religionists to work together to flesh out new religious conceptions that would discard the weaknesses of the older religions.
Dialogue as Secularization
Finally, there’s the possibility that interfaith dialogue has an ulterior motive, as in the first option, but a secular rather than a religious one. The purpose would be to increase understanding of opposing viewpoints mainly for the sake of reducing religious violence and for enhancing tolerance.
This is to say the dialogue would presuppose the values of liberal secular humanism, which would be in this context the one unquestionable culture. The idea would be that the question of which religion is true or best would be less important than the secular issue of keeping the peace. The former question is what matters to the religionists, while the latter question is what matters to all of us in our secular capacity, assuming we’re not fundamentalists and we recognize the need to compromise on our religious principles to adapt to the larger world.
Interfaith dialogue, then, would make for a covert intrusion of secular values which would hide behind the presumption that more knowledge is always progressive. The aim here would be the secularization, modernization, or watering down of premodern religious teachings and policies. The ultimate winner from these exchanges would be secularism. The dialogue’s purpose would implicitly belittle the religions, and the presumption would be that neoliberalism, individualism, materialism, consumerism and so forth don’t amount to an alternative, atheistic religion that ought to enter interreligious dialogue not as a judge but as a fellow contender.
Irreligious Modernity: The Elephant in the Room
I suspect that all three of these agendas are at work at different levels or among different participants of interfaith dialogues.
But before I return to them, there’s a prior question about the nature of religion so that there could be any such dialogue. Religion is about a way of living in a right relationship with ultimate reality. In many cases, that reality is personified so that the problem is socializing well with the universe’s creator. Or perhaps the personal aspects of ultimate reality are superficial, but some ways of taking that ultimacy into account may be enlightened while others are naïve or perverse.
Evidently, societies have had different interpretations of all of that, which wasn’t a problem when civilizations either didn’t meet each other or when a larger society absorbed the smaller ones by imperial means and snuffed out their cultures. Only in a multicultural, relativistic, globalized environment in which each religious perspective is just a few mouse-clicks away and you can peruse alternative scriptures at your leisure, when the internet surpasses the fabled Library of Alexandria ten thousand times over — only then does the issue of how religions should relate to each other become especially pressing.
But that means the question of the nature of religion should be reposed: What are religions in this late-modern, increasingly cosmopolitan context, when we don’t confront ultimate reality so much as the tamed, artificial substitutes for wildlife that spoil us?
In ancient times religions were the default orientations towards the world, and skepticism, humanism, and atheism were sidenotes at best. In the twenty-first century the situation is reversed, and most religions are private affairs and relatively powerless. The public space of global interactions is secular or at least not dominated by any of the ancient religions. The non-modernized countries that are still theocratic are themselves sidelined in world affairs and are sometimes explicitly chided by the United Nations. At any rate, the secular forces of science, capitalism, and democracy are the late-modern sources of human empowerment.
Again, what is religion under those conditions of global reverence for personal liberties? Evidently, religions should stand against that secularization or should be disposed of as obsolete burdens. That means the primary “interfaith” dialogue should be between all religions together and the predominant materialistic culture of neoliberalism, consumerism, and technological progressivism.
When all the premodern religions are being threatened with irrelevance, their preoccupation with understanding the intricacies of each others’ archaic theologies or with jockeying for elevated status in the eyes of their dwindling audiences is as absurd as the proverbial task of rearranging deckchairs on the sinking Titanic.
Theistic religions once served as civilizational brands, which populations wore proudly as they fought and enslaved each other for their gods’ glory. Quasi-religious philosophies like Confucianism and Buddhism were pragmatic and protoscientific about improving their practitioners’ earthly quality of life. But now religious brands are clichéd compared to those of transnational companies, and the ancient myths aren’t as captivating as the stream of corporate advertisements. Moreover, real, full-fledged sciences have superseded the forerunners.
What should be holding religious people’s attention isn’t the prospect of stopping their internecine squabbles, since those conflicts are only unspeakable embarrassments in the shadow of late-modern secularism.
Instead, the chief question before Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, Wiccans, and the like is whether there’s any brake on the runaway train of secular “progress.” Is there a worthy culture to oppose consumerism when the latter acts as a cheerleader for the institutions of our earthly dominion? Can religious myths compete with Hollywood, gurus with the free market, churches with shopping malls, and God with money, sex, or celebrities?
You see, then, the relevance of those three possible endpoints of interfaith dialogue. The first one is about the foolish interreligious conflicts that are dwarfed by the one between all the old religions and modernity. The third endpoint is secularism’s impact even on the dialogues that are supposed to be internal to religions. And the second holds out the hope of a new religion to compete with the modern one that has no name, given that the old faiths and rituals are evidently falling by the wayside.