In the aftermath of the September 911 attacks, one of the first knee-jerk reactions amongst religious moderates was to "reach out" to Islam and its "radical" elements in the form of "interfaith dialogues".
As with all knee-jerk reactions, interfaith dialogue is a uniquely novel political gimmick: By addressing and renouncing "fundamentalist" ideals through the united voices of a mismatched interfaith group of religious leaders, the voices of unreasoning in the name of religion could be "drowned out" and ostracized by a largely sympathetic, religious public.
According to some moderate religious scholars and even politicians, the idea is that "interfaith dialogues" (The very allegory seems to indicate that different people of various faith can only talk about faith and pretty much nothing else) involving bishops, imams and various "luminaries" from all religious sects will help resolve any misunderstandings between various religious groups, thereby promoting some obscure form of religious harmony in the form of religious understanding and tolerance.
Such is the popularity and novelty of the "interfaith" game, that according to The Guardian, even the outgoing British Premier, Tony Blair, is dipping his hands into muddled waters: His 3.5 million pound home at Connaught Square may jolly well serve as his "headquarters" for a new interfaith dialogue movement. I guess Blair needs something corny to salvage his already-battered political image, mired by accusations caused by his unholy matrimony with Bush as his "unofficial poodle".
In this post, I will attempt to play the Devil's Advocate by presenting a case against such farcical officialdom: If anything else, Interfaith dialogues are almost always doomed to fail even before taking off and, as I shall present in my post, will constitute a new, unprecedented form of bigotry against the secular, freethinking world, if they were to somehow succeed in reconciling their polarizing differences.
A Question of Polemics?
Without question, all faiths share varying degrees of mutual exclusivity that defines them from one another.
Major religions from across the globe fall under three categories: Monotheism, Polytheism and Philosophical/Quasi-religious sects.
Of particular interest here is Monotheism, since it is the most exclusive and polemic of all three groups: The largest amongst them include Islam, Catholicism and Christianity, with Judaism having a profound influence in all three.
While these religions share the same Abrahamic forefather of Judaism, their differences are as polarizing as even the staunchest left-wing/right-wing divide: A Muslim, for example, will vehemently disagree with the Christian belief of a human super god dying on the Cross for Man's Original Sin, while the Christian would simply take note and disapprove of the Prophet Muhammad's obsession with marrying multiple wives (including a 9 yr old girl).
The internal strife within the Judaic sects across the sectarian board is all too evident throughout history.
Anti-semitism, an almost singular industry that arose from the supposed betrayal and death of Christians' beloved Messiah, Jesus by Jewish priests (Jesus, curiously, was a Jew), would escalate into one of history's worst racial genocide against any single race through the systematic annihilation of Jewry via Hitler's (Hitler was a Catholic who, until today, has never been excommunicated) infamous gulags of World War II, run by Gestapo and SS thugs armed with sufficient hatred & knowledge to kill and little else to go along with.
Today, almost two millennial since Jesus' supposed death, Jewish settlers in the Middle East are still constantly forced to defend for their lives against suicide bombers and Islamic fundamentalist nations, all armed to the teeth for an eventual ouster of Israel and the "accursed" Jews.
Given such irreconcilable differences and deep-seated enmity, the presumption that an interfaith dialogue could somehow erase 2000 years of religious strife is as bogus as George Bush going through a speech without stammering and tripping over his own words.
Monotheistic religions aside, polytheistic religions, such as Hinduism, are pretty much regarded as "pagan" and "heretic" by monotheistic religions. While polytheistic religions are quite obliging in accommodating their rather more assertive monotheistic hosts, one should not be expecting too much from the more dogmatic monotheistic counterparts.
Religions more aligned with philosophical teachings, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, formed the final portion of this religious trinity. While these quasi-religions generally promote peace and harmony, certain virtues attached to them, such as the role of the submissive women and overtly-emphasized piety, can be just as every bit stifling and archaic as their monotheistic counterparts.
For any multi-faith dialogue to be successful, there is always a herculean leap of faith that has to be surmounted. Religious differences of the kind that goes with "I believe in A, he believes in B, therefore we cannot co-exist" may seem trivial, until you realize that each person's beliefs are aligned with a God in the Sky. Throw in the fact that every religion has his or her own personal heaven and hell, you get a potential confrontation and mayhem that may erupt anytime during a typical "interfaith" session.
Religious Violence & Terror Abetted By Moderates?
Because of the 911 incident and the subsequent spate of attacks in Britain and Madrid, there is a perceived need to "reach out", so to speak, to religious radicals of Islam, and the naive thinking that these terrorists are somehow "indoctrinated" by end-of-the-mill religious clerics and not mainstream ones seem to fuel the desire by moderates and interfaithers to reach out to them before the radicals do.
The real problem, however, is far more subtle. By relying on the perceived pluralism of religious moderates that somehow "tones down" the singular exclusivity of religion's tenets, moderates are ignoring the fact that religion is actually the core problem at hand.
While a religious moderate shuns violence, his adherence to beliefs that a supernatural being exists to fuss over his every need as well as people of his creed, and that everyone else who doesn't follow suit will find themselves becoming unwitting objects of everlasting torture in hell's eternal BBQ inferno, are so utterly egoistic and one-dimensional that his beliefs could have been very well-suited and subverted by radical fundamentalists, who simply reject the moderate portion of the benign moderate's beliefs and transform it into a dastardly recruitment tool for potential terrorists.
By constantly promoting the fundamental aspects of religion, moderates unwittingly provide fuel and heat for consistent propaganda, which, ironically, are used by radical religious teachers to spread and recruit more extremists.
In his article, The Problem With Religious Moderates, Sam Harris writes succinctly:
"While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. "
In sum, interfaith dialogues are completely useless in reaching the intended targets: No matter how concerted the attempt to feign religious solidarity amongst various religious sects, the real underlying cause of the problem still lies with religion. The idea that the various sects, particularly monotheistic ones, can speak of tolerance and understanding of other religions while brandying exclusivity to God's unique channel and grace, is, to put it mildly, too quaint for even the most "liberal" fundamentalist (kind of like arguing about the squareness of circles), although the words "religious and political hypocrisy" may seem more apt here.
A More Sinister Motive?
At this point, I would like to consider what I perceive to be my own conjuncture, at this time of writing, on my part. Assuming, then, that interfaith dialogues work, what then, would be the inevitable outcome?
Taking today's political model as a rough blueprint, religion is, and has always been a significantly powerful political and lobbying force, in religiously-dominated countries such as USA and Iran.Any political ideal, no matter how absurd, can transform into mainstream formality as long as you press the right political buttons. From spreading religiously-slanted doctrines into schools and eroding civil rights, religion has a way of buttressing the national consciences of many a nation, and herein lies a sinister undertone to this article.
In the face of what I perceive as another form of Renaissance by left-wing minority movements such as the Gay Movement and the more recent revival of the Atheist movement, religious fundamentalists, peeved with what they perceive as a form of rapid secularization of their respective countries, may find cause to unite with other like-minded creeds in order to combat these fledgling movements.
A Christian right-wing group, for example, could rally themselves with their Muslim counterparts under the banner of "Ban Abortion Now!", put aside their doctrinal differences, in order to strike a very powerful message of religious piety amongst the public. Such a move, if successful, could very well signal the first down-spiralling of human rights straight towards the nearest dumpsters.
Welcome to the world of burkhas and Creationist Museums.
Dialogues Need Not Be Interfaith
This kind of dialogue, however, should not be restricted and monopolized by religion. Interfaith dialogues tend to foster the kind of depraved imagination that religious moderates seems to be at home with: That only religious leaders of various sects can communicate under the umbrella of religion, and no other forms of engagement exist outside this perceived hegemony.
The idea that imams, priests & reverends (religious scumbags, mostly in the Falwell mould) can come together for high tea, with smirks on their religiously-etched faces as they nod their heads at each other's parsimonious jokes against gays, atheists and other infidels that they share a common hatred against, resembles a modern-day meeting of Al-Capone and his merry gang of trigger-happy mobsters.As an atheist, I find it infuriating and utterly ridiculous that atheists, agnostics and people with alternative or no faiths are somehow "non-existent" in the equation, despite the emergence of many a infidel in the mainstream circuit. In the minds of interfaith organizers, people like us cease to exist outside their sphere of self-imposed religious bigotry, which really is the main reason why I am so irked with interfaith dialogues.
Now that I am finished with this article, anyone care for a piece of halal-style smoked pork*???