We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Limits of Dialogue?

In some religious circles, interfaith and intra-faith dialogue is considered to be a key way to mitigate the differences between people of different faiths and religions.  If only we listen to each other with open minds and hearts, so the thinking goes, we will break down the barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding between us.  The assumption subsuming this approach to religious reconciliation is that our differences arise out of mistrust and misunderstanding.

What, however, if our differences are at least partly genetic?  Recent research reported in a news posting entitled, "Twins study confirms genetic role in political belief," suggests that this may in fact be the case.  That study found that identical twins show a statistically significant congruence in political beliefs not shared by fraternal twins.  Given the close relationship between political and theological/religious views, it also suggests that our religious orientation as liberals, moderates, and conservatives may also be partly driven by our genetic heritage.  It has to be said that these findings are questioned by some other social scientists and nothing is nailed down or for surely certain.  The idea, based on earlier research, that political views are partly genetically driven was proposed some years previously and greeted with a good deal of criticism.  This latest study serves to reinforce the sense that those who think that genetics are part of politics may be on to something and a good deal more investigation is required.

The claim is not made our views on specific political issues are determined by our genetic heritage or even that our political philosophy is one hundred percent so determined.  Environment and personal experience play a role.  Conservative Hispanic voters, thus, may well vote for liberal Democrats because they represent views on the specific issue of immigration more nearly compatible with Hispanic concerns.  Still, the inclination is to be conservative, which inclination may have a genetic component.

If the same is true for our religious and theological views or inclinations, then our differences are not merely a matter of misunderstanding.  We are different.  Perhaps listening to each other in this case still has a purpose, but it may be a more limited one—still important, but less ambitious.  Instead of breaking down barriers, perhaps the role of dialogue is to put some windows in the walls between us so that we can better understand that the religious "other" is not insane, illogical, stupid, or devilish.  "I still don't see how you can think the way you do, but I do understand that you are not being perverse in how you think.  You have your reasons, as I do mine."  The goal of inter-religious dialogue, then, would not be mutual understanding so much as mutual respect.  That is still a worthy goal, just less ambitious—and maybe more realistic.