When I was in high school, I basically dated my way through the world’s religions.
My first girlfriend was Wiccan. I dated a Buddhist. I was consistently invited to attend dances at the local stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I even went out with a Methodist!
Beyond my romantic relationships, my friends were Jewish and evangelical, Muslim and atheist, as well as many traditions between and beyond.
It was these relationships that motivated me — a Lutheran raised in a decidedly non-ecumenical denomination — to study religion and connect with people across deep differences.
You could say I was intrinsically motivated (ahem) to figure these relationships out.
Inspired, I became an ordained pastor and sought to lead congregations and communities in interreligious dialogue in New Zealand, South Africa, the U.S., and Europe.
What I came to realize along the way is many people simply weren’t as motivated as me. No matter my fancy degrees, slick PowerPoint slides, or authentic relationships with people of other faiths, many folks I invited to join me just didn’t care as much as I did.
This motivational divide is what I came to call the apathy gap.
Fearing some defect in my leadership ability or deficiency in my skill set, I asked other interreligious dialogue practitioners about their experiences. I discovered I was far from alone.
In various contexts and communities, leaders are struggling to bring people of different faiths together because most don’t care enough to do so. Those that make an appearance engage because of their life experiences and incentives. Those that don’t, couldn’t be convinced to come along no matter our efforts at extrinsic motivation, pithy publicity, or fervent summons.
"WHILE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS ARE ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT RELIGIOUS PLURALISM, MOST DON'T ACTUALLY ENGAGE IN DIALOGUE."
As one Muslim colleague put it, “our people may want understanding and peace between religions, but sometimes they just aren’t motivated enough to make it happen.”
This apathy gap was observed among college students in a 2020 study co-authored by Dr. Matthew Mayhew and Dr. Alyssa Rockenbach, conducted in partnership with Interfaith America. The Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) found that while university students are enthusiastic about religious pluralism, most don’t actually engage in interreligious dialogue.
Surveying 3,486 students across 116 institutions between 2015 and 2019, Mayhew and Rockenbach found that while 70% of fourth-year students expressed a high commitment to bridging religious divides, only 14% took part in on-campus interreligious dialogue initiatives or events. Furthermore, fewer than 50% spent time even trying to learn about other traditions.
In their analysis, Mayhew and Rockenbach both expressed surprise about the gap between values and action. Rockenbach said this gap was one that educators and dialogue leaders had to “really think about” if they wanted to help students bridge the divides they said they wanted to.
The apathy gap can be even more pronounced in politically conservative and/or evangelical contexts. Having worked with such communities for most of my career, I know the conflict of galvanizing people of these identities to get involved with interreligious dialogue efforts.
In fact, it’s the apathy that can prove more frustrating, and heartbreaking, than any antagonism. I can deal with open opposition. It’s the collective shrug of the shoulders that I really struggle with.
"IN THE END, INDIVIDUALS (AND INSTITUTIONS, FOR THAT MATTER), NEED TO WANT TO CONNECT WITH THOSE THEY BELIEVE ARE DIFFERENT."
Maybe you’ve encountered the same. Perhaps the apathy gap is also frustrating your sincere efforts at bringing people together across deep differences.
So what to do about it? How might we move the muddled middle from apathy to active engagement?
In The Problem with Interreligious Dialogue, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW) Dr. Muthuraj Swamy argues that most interreligious dialogue initiatives do not focus on the core causes of conflict or disagreements between people of varying religious commitments. Too often, leaders limit dialogue’s bandwidth to theological exchange or discourse about text and tradition. Dialogues of life, action, and experience are sadly lacking. Analysis of power and past and present injustices are frequently absent.
Noting how people are so much more than their religious identifiers, Swamy suggests leaders guide communities into dialogue over shared social, political, lingual, or cultural issues. By focusing on the wider, intricate, and interconnected lives of people from different traditions, Swami believes people will not only come together, but actively work alongside one another for the betterment of the world.
This will require leaders to apply challenging concepts like connection across deep differences to real-life scenarios and contexts. When adult learners’ everyday concerns and core values align with educational initiatives and they connect to calls on an emotional level, they are inspired and driven to learn.
Or, we might take a page from Catholic theologian Dr. Catherine Cornille’s The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. In this encouraging book, Cornille identifies reasons why some avoid interreligious dialogue.
For those who think their religion is already true or fear the change that comes with authentically encountering people from another tradition, Cornille suggests leaders first cultivate a set of postures in their people before attempting to lead them into interreligious dialogue.
In the end, individuals (and institutions, for that matter) need to want to connect with those they believe are different. Moreover, they need to want that connection so deeply, they are compelled to show up.
Beyond offering people cash incentives, forcing them to the table to arbitrate a real-world conflict, or hoping they all start dating people of other faiths like I did, leaders will most likely need to cultivate perspectives and postures among their people before inviting them to interreligious dialogue programs and events.
The encouraging news is that fostering values of humility, conviction, interconnection, empathy, and generosity before calling people to potentially destabilizing dialogue or difficult conversations not only inspires, but also prepares them for the process of interchange.
Ken Chitwood, Ph.D. is a religion scholar, news writer, and dialogue practitioner based in Germany.