Pagan Studies

An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.

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Interfaith Dialogue in a Polarized World

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

At PantheaCon, I ran into someone with whom I'd had a disagreement online. This point of contention was a hot-button issue for me, and my reaction to it had been too quick and strident. When I met the person in question, our meeting was cordial, and I don't even think he recognized me. I left things alone, but when we crossed paths a second time, I confronted the situation directly and apologized for being too blunt. Because my "hot button" had been pressed - inadvertently - I had barreled ahead without finding out more about his take on the situation.

After a 10- or 15-minute conversation, we parted ways, having interacted cordially, but not having addressed the issue upon which we disagreed. He mentioned that we should do so at some point, and I agreed. In honesty, I doubt either of us will change the other's mind, but do we really need to? It's fine to be open to learning about another person's perspective without feeling obligated to embrace it as our own.


The rise of evangelical Christianity and the political polarization that has taken place in the United States over the past 30 years or so has made interfaith dialogue a greater challenge than ever before. Instead of sharing our perspective, many of us feel duty-bound (or ego-bound) to convince others that we're right, whether it be about political issues, spiritual doctrine or personal values.

The specialization of communications media, from tightly focused social networking groups to narrowly targeted talk shows and cable networks, has made it easier than ever to find messages that affirm our own ideals and less necessary. Objectivity may be an unattainable ideal, but many of us have stopped pursuing it altogether. Our reach no longer exceeds our grasp.

Instead, as people on opposite sides of various issues reinforce their beliefs, those beliefs become more rigid, and anything that might deviate from them becomes less tolerated. Often, we end up pigeonholing others and, to a certain extent, ourselves.

Insular Societies

Increasingly specialized belief systems create friction within umbrella groups. The Methodist church is on the verge of a potential schism over the issue of same-sex marriage. Within Paganism, polytheists and pantheists have been at odds on various elements of their beliefs, with tensions reaching a point of disengagement in some cases.

Yet I firmly belief that "digging in" to familiar trenches and creating more insular societies is the last thing we need. In fact, as such tensions rise in this increasingly fragmented atmosphere, interfaith dialogue is needed more than ever - even among people of similar paths who may find themselves divided over certain "hot button" issues.

Moreover, the skills needed to engage in constructive interfaith dialogue are necessary not only between broad umbrella groups, but within them.

Looking Within

One way to begin engaging in such dialogue is to focus inward. Each individual is a microcosm of the broader belief community. Each of us is, to some extent, eclectic, and no single adherent of any belief system (except, perhaps, its founder) can claim to define it perfectly. No matter how dedicated a person is to a particular definition or expression of orthodoxy, it will always be filtered through that person's interpretation, priorities and experiences.

Some people, of course, are more eclectic than others. I'm one of them. I was raised in a non-religious household by a mother whose background was in Christian Science and a father who once considered being a Methodist minister but came to describe himself as a "hopeful agnostic." During my teens, I spent time attending a charismatic Christian church, which lost its appeal over time as I investigated its teachings further. My interest in ancient mythology and history drew me to the Pagan community, as did that community's openness, embrace of personal freedom and reverence for nature. At the same time, I had difficulty, on philosophical grounds, accepting a theist model that pictured nature as subservient to an external deity.

That's my personal background, and I'm not writing this to promote or dissect any element of it. I mention it to illustrate the fact that I'm continually participating in an interfaith dialogue of sorts within my own head. The lessons I learned from my time as a Christian haven't been lost in my post-Christian experience, any more than I've discarded aspects of my path that are overtly Pagan or those that are non-theistic and I've continued on my path. The "me" that admires some (but not all) of the teachings attributed to Jesus doesn't rail against the "me" that recoils at the notion of a 6,000-year-old Earth or the "me" that feels intense joy and peace during a walk in the woods or beside the seashore. There's harmony within the diversity, because each perspective I hold respects the others. After all, they're all "me." 

Toward a Universal Dialogue

Similarly, on a larger scale, we're all human and, even more broadly, each of us is a part of this universe. That's a point of agreement and common experience.

If we start at a point of commonality, we can build respect on that basis and then begin to discuss points of diversity and even disagreement from that foundation. Too often, we tend to do one of two things. On the one hand, we may look for commonality and just stop there, never challenging ourselves to learn about the varied experiences beyond our own. On the other, we may look for the differences in order to magnify them and, essentially, create conflict so we can "prove" our path is superior to someone else's.

The path of empathy involves putting one's self in another's shoes and attempting to see things from that person's perspective. As we recognize that our own perspective is seldom singular and often quite diverse, perhaps we can begin to exercise that empathy by focusing outward, first to the smaller communities we share, and then to other communities beyond our immediate experience.

Once we're comfortable listening to our own internal dialogue, we can begin to listen and contribute to the broader interfaith dialogue that is so badly needed in the present age.

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Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."


  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Thursday, 27 February 2014

    Thanks for this helpful piece, Stifyn. Would you had been at the discussion in the CoG suite of "Wiccanate privilege" in interfaith. I think that Pagans, or those of any religion really, would benefit from reading this before they enter the interfaith arena.

    I'm firmly convinced that we are stronger together and that we need to foster solidarity amongst Pagans. This does not mean sacrificing the uniqueness of one's own religious expression. As I see it, we Pagans come in different colors, sizes, shapes, genders, ethnicities, religions, blends, ages, levels of education, and from different backgrounds. While it's important to recognize and respect these differences, and for those who desire boundaries concerning who is and who is not welcome in their smaller communities to establish those boundaries, we stand a better chance of thriving and surviving when, in matters of religious rights, we stand together.

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