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Introduction to dialogue between people of different faiths and beliefs

This page contains a brief introduction to themes and concepts in inter faith dialogue.

What is dialogue?

‘Dialogue’ is defined in many different ways. Perhaps at its simplest it is discussion in which there is a respectful and open exchange of views with the intention of greater cooperation and understanding.

Informal dialogue occurs day to day in the course of ordinary life, for example between classmates talking, co-workers sharing lunch, parents waiting to collect their children from school, a football team in training, or participants in a joint social action project. As people become friends with others of faiths and beliefs different to their own, this may lead to discussion about each other’s faith, how it is practised, and what it means in their lives.

Dialogues of a more formal kind, however, usually involve sustained and ongoing interaction through an organised process with some degree of structure.

This ‘dialogue’ may be of a conversational nature, a question and answer kind or could involve detailed discussion of relevant issues. It might be a one-off, or could involve a series of exchanges designed to facilitate members of particular faiths addressing specific subjects.

Dialogue between two faiths

Dialogue between people of different faiths often occurs between members of two particular faith communities, especially where there is a historic imperative or a current need. These are known as bilateral dialogues. There are many bilateral dialogues: Christian-Jewish, Hindu-Christian, Jewish-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim, Sikh-Muslim, Christian-Muslim and Buddhist Christian are just a few. A number of IFN’s member bodies focus on such bilateral relations between two faiths, and dialogue is an important part of their work. Their dialogue often looks at areas of commonality, opportunities for gaining knowledge and developing understanding as well as exploring significant differences. Bilateral dialogues may also be on an ‘intercultural’ basis, as well as between religious and non-religious groups.

Multi Faith Dialogue

When dialogue occurs between members of more than two faiths, it is known as multi faith dialogue. This might be as part of an organised meeting of members of a variety of faiths to discuss a particular issue or to address matters of common concern, such as community cohesion.

Many of IFN’s member bodies are involved in multi faith dialogue at a national, regional and local level. In local inter faith groups, which commonly link people of many different faiths from their area, dialogue is usually of a multi faith kind, and often focuses on questions linked to the local community. On a national level, IFN’s Faith Communities Forum is an example of more formal multi faith dialogue. Other national level dialogues are supported by Interfaith Scotland and the Inter Faith Council for Wales (along with the Faith Communities Forum within the Welsh Government).

Most of the UK’s faith communities are, from time to time, involved in institutional dialogue, whether through their own engagement in a particular dialogue or through inter religious bodies in which they play a role. This may be theological or historical dialogue or dialogue on matters of social concern. Some discussions focus on particular topics, such as responses to hate crime, the bases for faith groups encouraging organ donation, or faith communities’ stances on nuclear weapons.

Principles for engagement in dialogue

One of IFN’s earliest publications was its code: Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs. This was developed by a multi faith working group in consultation with all of IFN’s member bodies and is endorsed by all organisations that join IFN. It provides important principles for dialogue.

A number of national faith community bodies in membership of IFN have developed guidance on dialogue for their members. Useful resources are also available from some national inter faith bodies.

IFN’s Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs is clear that in our encounters with people of other faiths and beliefs we should ‘exercise good will’, speak ‘with sensitivity, honesty and straightforwardness’ and that our manner ‘be characterised by self-restraint and a concern for the other’s freedom and dignity’.

Further Resources

Those interested in becoming involved in dialogue may wish to explore the following options:

  • Become involved in a local inter faith group. Go to www.interfaith.org.uk//involved/groups to find out more
  • If belonging to a religious tradition, talk with someone at your local place of worship and/or contact the national body or bodies to find out what they are doing in the area of interreligious dialogue and find out how you might become involved. Many national faith communities have members of staff dedicated to interreligious dialogue who would be glad to help.
  • Explore opportunities in your workplace, place of study, school or local community for discussion or projects with people of other faiths.
  • Take a training course in dialogue skills. These are run by a number of IFN’s member bodies, including 3FF, the St. Philips Centre and St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.
  • Those interested in becoming involved in bilateral dialogues can find contact details for relevant member bodies in IFN’s National and Regional Inter Faith Organisation member section (www.interfaith.org.uk/nrifos). Among those that have local branches with individual membership are the Council of Christians and Jews and the Women’s Interfaith Network. Many have newsletters and ‘friends’ schemes.