Potential Pitfalls Of Interfaith Dialogue

pitfalls of interfaith dialogue

One of the main purposes of interfaith dialogue is to engage with people in a way that expands your heart and mind and provides insight and understanding into religious practices outside of your own. Inevitably, religions have different beliefs and values, and with those differences are potential pitfalls in interreligious engagement. Whether large or small, these pitfalls can affect the relationship between dialogue partners.  

It’s important to recognize these pitfalls to move forward with effective dialogue. Here are three to look out for: 

  • Stereotyping: One major pitfall is assuming that knowing one person of a particular faith means you know everyone who practices that faith. Assuming you already know everything about a group of people based on one acquaintance or a single encounter can lead to stereotypes and misconceptions, so it’s crucial to approach each person anew. Everyone has their own journey in life, so not everyone from the same religion experiences it the same way. Therefore, it will benefit you to continue learning about different faiths and different people within one faith.
  • Social Media: Another pitfall is social media, which is programmed to encourage differences and disagreements rather than empathy and agreement. If social media is focusing on just the divisions between religions, people will never see the positive interfaith conversations that are happening. There is a way, however, to use social media to your advantage. Prove those assumptions wrong and show the positive interfaith interactions you experience. If used correctly, social media can be a tool rather than a weapon.
  • Defensive positioning: The last pitfall is making assumptions and defending your position rather than listening and connecting with others. Interfaith dialogue is not about promoting your own religion but having a fair exchange of ideas. It’s critical to avoid formulating your response while someone else is speaking. 

Active Listening is Key for More Effective Interfaith Dialogue

Rori Picker Neiss, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, discussed the challenges of interreligious community building at a recent conference and expressed how imperative it was to listen actively:

“Oftentimes, we’re very good at talking, and we’re not very good at listening. Or we listen to hear the parts that we want to hear and don’t hear what the person is trying to say…I mean, it really is not a passive stance. To really listen to another person is a very active, very engaged process. And that’s probably one of the most fundamental skills that we could build in this field.” 

Neiss highlighted how we tend to be focused on ourselves rather than others. Listening plays a huge part in interfaith dialogue, she said, and although it sounds easy, it may be one of the toughest parts.

Understanding these pitfalls and building active listening skills are essential parts of the education provided at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. Students in our MA in Interreligious Studies program learn in an interreligious classroom with faculty of different faith traditions, offering many opportunities for building a broad array of interfaith relationships. 

Our MA in Chaplaincy also draws students of many faith traditions, as does our MA in International Peacebuilding. In all of these programs, active listening is key. And as with any skill, the opportunity to practice helps you avoid the pitfalls and become a more effective partner in interfaith dialogue.