Preaching to the Choir: Exploring Limits of Interfaith Dialogue — Alisha Jones

In our meetings each week, various interfaith-related topics are discussed at length. To me, the work we do in this space regularly feels salient and thoughtful, but on occasion, small in scope. During our fellowship discussions, there are times when I find myself in awe of the situation we collectively helped to manufacture – one that not only allows but welcomes people from all different backgrounds in the sharing of religious experience and diversity. Nowhere else on the UW-Madison campus will you find a space quite like this. Then, there are other moments when our efforts do not feel as far-reaching as one would hope. I hope to explain better my thinking behind this thought in this blog post.

Since our fellowship is comprised of a beautiful group of open-minded individuals who, it is assumed at the start, value religious diversity, our weekly discussions go rather well. Unfortunately, we lack the presence of the people, in my opinion, who could benefit most from interfaith dialogue. Indeed, everyone could benefit from this kind of conversation, but I primarily refer to people who do not behave inclusively. This fellowship mainly focuses on training us to become better interfaith leaders. But, suppose another focus is also helping the broader issues with religious diversity (prejudices, stereotypes, systemic, or otherwise). In that case, we should look at what currently works and what doesn’t to strengthen our interfaith programming going forward.

For example, we try to reach the people aforementioned by creating a journal at the end of the year. I joined the journal committee to do just that – help build something appealing to the general public and extend what we have learned to our peers and our community. So, in attempting to translate our findings into publicly accessible information, the first question we had to ask ourselves was this: Why should people read our journal on religious diversity? Though there are many answers to this question, DEI initiatives state that understanding the richness of diversity can help dispel negative stereotypes and biases about different groups. This understanding, in turn, helps bolster the work done to increase inclusionary behavior toward the social groups still experiencing discrimination today.

Outside of my interfaith work, I also act as a research assistant in a lab on campus that works on DEI-related problems. The work I do in that role is primarily geared toward understanding the cognitive processes involved in maintaining racial stereotypes and prejudices. Though religious stereotypes and prejudices are not the focus, I think their findings can help us better understand religious DEI-related problems. I have learned that changing attitudes don’t necessarily correlate to a change in behavior. In other words, convincing someone of the importance of behaving inclusively does not mean they will. And, in the occasions where there is a positive behavior change, it usually only lasts short-term. So, suppose we want to help cultivate a more inclusive civil society through this journal we are creating. In that case, we must first understand that simply giving people information might not make a significant difference long-term for at least some people. This has been one of the crucial things I have been thinking through as we set our goals for what we wanted this journal to accomplish. We have placed a considerable emphasis on presenting our educational information in a way that will grab and keep the attention of the larger community, which is honestly the best we can do. Even though it will not be perfect, I think positively shifting people’s attitudes is noble work and can never hurt. In general, until inclusionary behavior becomes overwhelmingly normative, the need for educational events, trainings, documents, and the like will be there. I can wholeheartedly say I am both excited for the host of public events we have coming down the pipeline this semester and grateful to collaborate with other creative minds on the journal we are creating. By highlighting the (non)religious identities we have represented in our fellowship group in these ways, we will successfully reach people and share knowledge.

Going forward, the interfaith fellowship could benefit from researching the effectiveness of its approaches and interventions, minimally through a social-psychological lens. Further research could help uncover even more effective ways of increasing religious pluralism and inclusive behavior. Any activism conducive to holding our campus responsible for cultivating and maintaining a religiously inclusive environment is also essential, as religious diversity seems to be lacking in campus DEI work as a whole, especially at UW-Madison.

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