This past October, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work advocating for the rights of all children to education. Not only were their individual efforts laudable, the Nobel Committee was also impressed that Satyarthi, a Hindu, and Yousafzai, a Muslim, were able to come together in a common struggle for education and against extremism. Many interfaith scholars and advocates championed their recognition as an opportunity to once again highlight the benefits of working across differences, for a shared goal. However, far too often when people of different faiths come together the result is further conflict. There is a long history of religious strife when different groups must share resources compelling some to question the feasibility and importance of interfaith in today’s society and culture.
Faith was once considered to be a completely private experience, shared by one individual, his or her God, and possibly a small community of believers. However, in 2014 the growth of globalization, advances in technology, and shifting culture around issues of faith and expression, has made faith more salient in the private and public sphere,creating a greater need for interfaith work.
America has a long and rich religious history. Founded on principles of religious freedom and cultivated through an ebb and flow of immigrants from all over the world, America has become one of the most religiously diverse countries on the planet. Additionally, due to the increase in globalization, Americans are now spending more time in spaces that facilitate interactions between people of diverse backgrounds. While most of these interactions still happen in-person, many are now occurring in digital spaces. While the internet must still be approached with a critical eye, advances in technology have allowed once disparate groups to learn more about each other. Social media has also fostered and supported religious and spiritual communities by facilitating connections, which transcend physical location. Along with enhancing interconnectivity, the internet has also been an instrument in the shift in public expressions of faith and identity. Although institutions of business, education, and government have at times fervently debated the saliency of faith in the public sphere, it has long played a crucial role in a person’s sense of identity. Whether it is a like on Facebook, a tweet on Twitter, or leaving comments on articles, religious and spiritual activities and online expression are at an all-time high. The internet blurs the line between private expression and public discourse and mirrors the diversity of our world making it the epicenter for interfaith interactions.
Interfaith is often defined as “… operating, or occurring or between different religions or members of different religions, faith systems, or worldviews.” Based on this simple definition every professional meeting has the potential to be an interfaith meeting, every class, demographically, has the possibility to be an interfaith class, and every encounter could be a chance for interfaith dialogue. Interfaith is important to today’s society and culture not because of philosophical arguments – although these ideas are ardently debated – but rather because evidence tells us salient interfaith interactions are already occurring.
In his most recent book Towards a True Kinship of Faiths, The Dalai Lama confronts the question “Does the diversity of the world’s religions have to be a sources of division in human society?” His Holiness asserts that despite the historical impact of religious (interfaith) conflict nothing should stand in the way of living appropriately in our new global reality, which demands peaceful coexistence. Many interfaith scholars and advocates would encourage even more than mere peaceful coexistence, stressing that the goal of any diverse society is to find ways to engage multiple groups, leveraging the best of these communities while minimizing the negative effects of conflict. However, if conflicts arise due to genuine differences, these opportunities should not be avoided but rather embraced as the only means of developing meaningful and substantive communities that also sustain diversity.
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