Challenges for dialogue between faiths and convictions
Remarks by David Pollock, EHF President, at EU conference on “Intercultural Dialogue – A Challenge for Faiths and Convictions?” organised within the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 by EU Directorate General for Education and Culture and held in the Berlaymont Building, Brussels, 11 November 2008
In the limited time available, I want to make just three points.
- Dialogue between groups defined by religion or belief must include the non-religious.
- Separation of religion and belief from politics does not mean that religion and belief have no place in the public sphere.
- But this means that, after initial confidence-building, dialogue must be more than warm words and mutual appreciation: it implies critical engagement and/or practical cooperation.
Intercultural dialogue is widely interpreted to mean just inter-religious dialogue – such as the recent Vatican meeting with Muslims.
But even if we forget all aspects of culture other than religion and belief, it is vital that the dialogue includes those with non-religious beliefs.
Human rights treaties and laws all refer to ‘religion or belief’ and it has long been established that ‘belief’ – as for example in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights – includes not just non-religious beliefs such as Humanism but also the simple absence of religious belief.
Article 9, as the European Court of Human Rights said in Kokkinakis v Greece1, is “a precious asset for atheists, sceptics and the unconcerned”.
In Europe the non-religious are a large proportion of the population – maybe one-third to one-half. They certainly outnumber by far all the adherents to non-Christian religions put together. And most of them are far from ‘unconcerned’ – they are engaged with their communities, active in causes, devoted to the general welfare.
Humanists had their own – initially very promising – dialogue with the Vatican between 1966 and 1972 – though the growing conservatism of the Church brought the encounters to a close.
About the same time, British humanists took the initiative in creating a joint body with people of several religions – the Social Morality Council. It provides a useful lesson: it was successful and productive when pursuing its primary role of seeking agreed solutions to practical issues of social ethics and standards.
But when we took time out once a year to look at our basic beliefs, we discovered a mutual lack of understanding: we were talking different languages.
More recently, the EHF was for years involved – sometimes in the chair – with the original (not the present) EU project called A Soul for Europe.
We are currently involved with a number of religious organisations in a group we call the 3 “I”s – that is, “I” for International, Intercultural and Inter-convictional.
This group ran a successful conference in October last year on “Social Cohesion in a Multicultural Europe – the Role and Impact of Philosophies and Religions” – the proceedings are available on the Council of Europe website .
Earlier this year we took part in the latest Council of Europe conference on “The Religious Dimension in Intercultural Dialogue”, providing a speaker on the conference theme of teaching the facts relating to religions and beliefs.
Having mentioned education, I must recommend the OSCE’s “Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools” – these guidelines are inclusive of all religions and beliefs, and point the way to the sort of objective, fair and balanced education that is vital for mutual understanding.
These are just some of the examples of how humanists and other non-religious people are ready for dialogue and practical cooperation and merit inclusion, quite apart from any considerations of non-discrimination.
My second point is that, while there must be strict separation of religion and belief from politics, this does not mean that religion and belief have no place in the public sphere.
The virtue of secularism – separation of religion and politics – is plain. In fact, secularism was in its origin a demand from the churches that the state should not interfere in ecclesiastical matters. Now the demand is the other way round.
Secularism is the principle for the organisation of a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life.
It requires that the communal institutions that we share (and jointly pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms.
Secularism is the opposite of theocracy and rejects the establishment of a state religion, legal or administrative privileges for religion, and the justification of policies and laws on the basis of religious doctrine.
Religious spokesmen are apt to complain that this means that the religious voice is excluded from the public sphere. Far from it! And it is not just that freedom of speech in an open society guarantees that religious voices can be heard.
Rather, they have important contributions to make – unsurprisingly, because throughout history religion has been the vehicle for so much of the best of human thought on how one should live.
But the contribution to public debate inspired by religion needs to be cast in terms that can be understood outside a specific religious frame of reference.
Urging a policy or attitude on the basis of a religious doctrine may work from the pulpit, but in the public square it will be met by many with incomprehension. If you tell me to do something “because Jesus died for my sins” I will hear the words but be totally unmoved.
That way lies the dialogue of the deaf.
If in a public debate – on abortion, for example – you insist on a policy on the basis of purely religious reasons despite the incomprehension of all but your co-religionists, you will if successful be imposing your views on the rest of us only by superior power.
That is not debate. Instead, public debate requires a common language that we all share – and decisions based on respect for each other, not on any intemperate wish to force those with whom we disagree to act contrary to their consciences.
Religion and belief belong in public arena – but if they enter that arena they have to accept that their claims will be subject to examination and criticism.
For that is how the public arena works: by debate leading either to persuasion or to the discarding of unconvincing ideas, or to practical compromises based on partial agreement.
I return to intercultural dialogue and come to my last point.
This is that, after initial confidence-building, dialogue must be more than warm words and mutual admiration.
The purpose of dialogue is not persuasion or conversion.
Rather, it is a process within a social context and its purpose is mutual understanding as a means towards living harmoniously together.
As Winston Churchill said, “Jaw jaw is better than war, war”.
Mutual understanding should lead to mutual respect. It may sometimes as a bonus lead to friendship – but that is not the purpose.
However, the notion of respect needs examination.
Respect is for people and the contribution they make. It is not for their beliefs. You recognise a fellow human being and understand that she feels the same about her beliefs as you do about your own – and you acknowledge that she has the human right to adopt and within limits practise her own religion or belief, whatever it is.
But some of those beliefs may be doubtful or even despicable: you will never persuade me to respect a belief that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man.
I will, however, respect a person’s right to her belief, because respect is not about how you feel – it’s about how you behave. It is a matter of not behaving disrespectfully.
So, respect in dialogue is about behaviour, not feelings.
It is also about engagement,
- not just about book learning about other beliefs,
- not just about passive acceptance,
- not just about warm words.
Engaging in dialogue does not imply that all beliefs are acceptable once you understand them.
Similarly, respect for other believers does not mean refraining from criticism of their beliefs.
Rather, it means taking them seriously – and if I take something seriously, I engage with it critically.
Dialogue between religions and non-religious beliefs implies critical engagement.
Carl von Clausewitz said “War is diplomacy continued by other means.”
We might well say that dialogue is a means of continuing our ancient and troubled conflicts over fundamental beliefs by other, more productive means.
It is engagement, better (as with the British example of the Social Morality Council) directed towards the practical questions found in the public arena, but based on respect for the rights of others to disagree profoundly and incomprehensibly with us.
When we engage in it honestly, we often find that for practical purposes we share wide agreement.
Lastly, in a brief coda, let me refer to the need for dialogue within communities of faith and conviction – and let me acknowledge that the humanist and secularist movement is not unanimous in taking all the views that I have expressed today.
We need internal dialogue – as, I suggest, do religious communities – to overcome the exaggerated fears of some of our followers that dialogue implies betrayal.
Dialogue is hard work, not least in re-examining our own comfortable attitudes, but it is required if we are to take seriously not just other people’s beliefs but also our own.
1. “As enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, sceptics and the unconcerned.” – Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397, para 31 [Back]