This past week, I moderated an “interfaith panel” organized by our campus’s Secular Students group. The scare quotes are because it turned out not to be a conventional panel, where there are a few designated panelists fielding questions from the audience. Instead everyone sat around in a circle and passed me questions on index cards, which I was supposed to then select and toss out for anyone in the room to respond to. I ran with that, but I also ran a tight ship–moved on to a new question as soon as the discussion has shrunk down to an interchange between two or three people; chose only open-ended questions to pose to the group, not the kinds of questions that serve as pointed challenges. At one point I told an evangelical and a Jew that their increasingly impassioned interchange was predictably scripted, and if they wanted to finish performing that particular timeworn debate, they should take it outside.
The participants were overwhelmingly secularists–since their group had sponsored the event–with conservative evangelicals being the second largest group (though none of them identified as the e-word; they were mostly “Reformed Christians,” plus a campus minister who was simply a “follower of Jesus”). There was also a stray Catholic, a Reform Jew who heads up our campus’s Chabad group (yep, I had the same reaction), and a “Hindu agnostic.” Naturally, the conversation was mostly secularists and evangelicals justifying themselves to one another, which may not be far off as an accurate microcosm as that generation’s religious demographics.
As the evening ended, I told the group that interfaith dialogue interests me, as an object of study, because of what goes on under the surface of the conventional explanations for why people come together to engage in this activity–to promote better understanding, to reduce interreligious friction, etc. Inevitably, there’s more than that going on whenever people get together for interfaith dialogue. For instance, I said, some Christian participants had used this opportunity to do some witnessing; and I was holding a stack of index cards which included some questions that looked like secularists trying to poke holes in theism. I wasn’t judging that, I added, but it did mean that there was something more complicated going on this evening than simply people coming to understand one another better. So, I asked: What do you all think happened here tonight? Why were you willing to dedicate the past hour and a half to this activity?
Their answers were disappointing to me–a series of conventional little pluralist testimonials about how much they appreciated being able to sit down and gain a better understanding of people who were different from them. I don’t recall that anyone commented on how much they appreciated being able to articulate their own beliefs to people who they feel frequently misunderstand them. Nor did anyone say they valued this event as a chance to raise the profile of their group on a campus where they feel invisible and marginalized.
A student then turned the tables: What did I think of what had happened here? “It was . . . interesting,” I said, and then paused to figure out how to explain why I felt so tepid about it. I’m fundamentally skeptical about the value of these kinds of events, I said. You came together, you had some kind of “experience,” you get to feel noble about what you did here–and now you’ll walk out and go on living your lives just as you did before. The student who appeared to be in charge of the Secular Students club nodded and said, “Yeah”–like that had been precisely what they set out to do.