Beliefs are a difficult subject for people to bond over if they are coming from different belief systems. Where to begin? Never start with the divinity of Christ. Polytheism? Whether god(s) exist at all? Something easier. Transubstantiation. No? Life after death? Appropriate religious garments? Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday worship?
Finding Sameness and Difference
Interbelief dialogue, at least the majority of ones I have encountered, focus on one of two things — covering what is common among the participants’ beliefs or covering what is disparate.
In the first case, the idea is to find common beliefs or common outcomes of differing beliefs to bond over. In the second case, which is less common, the idea is to either debate the differences in belief or to actually discover that our differences are not that different. The kind of discussion of differences I would like to see more of are discussions that don’t aim at changing or comparing beliefs, but instead at learning about each other’s story and life experience.
Exploring commonality and difference is good. But finding commonality does not have to mean finding sameness. It can be about finding what is the same in our different experiences.
And anyway, our beliefs are not what make us different—as much as it may look like it on the surface. They do influence our choices about how we will spend our time on earth. Those choices do make us and our experiences significantly different. But there is also lots of common ground to be found among those differences.
Equally, our beliefs are not what make us the same—even among members of our own tradition, but especially among people of differing traditions. Fundamentally what makes us the same is our experience of humanity. In interbelief engagements, shared human experience can be even more binding than overlapping beliefs. Even when we are talking about groups constructed by different beliefs, overlapping beliefs are not the only things we have in common.
American Minority as a Common Ground
One common experience for many people in the United States, that often has nothing to do with belief, is the experience of being a minority. Of course the reason one is a minority is often one’s beliefs, but the experience of being a minority is not, at its core, about the specifics of one’s beliefs. In the United States, every ethical or religious tradition that is not Christianity is a minority group – although even some Christian groups are. It was not too long ago that Catholics were a widely disparaged minority and may still be. And many people still do not count Mormonism as a Christian denomination, some going so far as to call it a cult.
My experience as a minority has a lot in common with a Buddhist’s experience, a Sikh’s experience, or a Greek Orthodox’s experience. Granted the details are different. As a humanist woman, I do not have the immediate impact of my beliefs on every new encounter that a male Sikh does by virtue of his turban. My minority beliefs are easily ‘hidden’. But I do understand what it is like to live in a culture that assumes you are Christian until you give evidence that you are not. I am implicitly excluded from our money’s “in God we trust” as all people outside the Abrahamic spectrum are excluded by the Ten Commandments propped up in some government buildings. As is the case with many who practice Native American religions, I do not have the experience of having to prove, because they do not conform to Christian standards of sacred, that my holy spaces and practices are indeed holy as many who practice native religions do. But I do understand how one’s beliefs can be harmfully misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with them.
This is a place where dialogue can start, at least among minority groups – which ironically, united, is the majority. Unfortunately what happens all too often is a kind of competition over whose experience of oppression and prejudice is more extreme. Expending energy on trumping each other does nothing toward unity and impedes progress. Alternatively, but equally importantly, we must be careful not to bond over shared hatred. Vilification of the majority only makes the ultimate goal of equality harder to achieve.
Common experience as common ground is not only for the sake of relationships—a nonetheless positive effect—but for mutual support. One of the struggles of being a minority is that your voice is small compared to the majority. But when we minorities get together our collective voices are stronger. We can effect real change that moves us closer to real equality. Our mutual experience as minorities is an experience that can be the catalyst that brings us together. The mutual, though different experience, will help us humanize and relate to each other. It will strengthen our bonds and drive us to support each other.
Wendy Webber (Yale University) Wendy Webber is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she's traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog and State of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.