In this article, you will read about: 

  • Best practices and steps to take to overcome hurdles in interfaith dialogue
  • What hinders productive conversations about religion, according to experts
  • Discussions at an international conference focusing on interfaith dialogue and intercultural learning.

Most of us are religiously illiterate and talk about our own faith (if we have one) without really knowing in-depth what it stands for” – this was one of the many challenging statements by Diane Moore, head of the Divinity School at Harvard University, who opened The Unspoken Sacred, an event organized by the Intercutura Foundation in Bari, Italy from 31 March to 2 April 2017.

The difficulty of dealing with religious differences in intercultural dialogue and training was at the center of this event. Over 250 conference participants concluded that fear of hurting other people’s feelings can prevent people from discussing different religious views or lack of religious views. And yet, religious traditions account for many differences in behaviours, worldviews and perceptions–avoiding to address these issues may lead to severe misunderstandings and even conflict.

photo by Fondazione Intercultura

Over 25 experts from universities around the world addressed this topic through different aspects of communication on religious matters. The discussions tackled:

  • the legal set-up and the official recognition that religions may or may not enjoy in a given country,
  • sociological differences attributed to various religious groups,
  • psychological perceptions of religious differences,
  • anthropological differences in perceiving life and death, love, friendship, respect, marriage, etc. in different religious traditions.

Many speakers emphasized that religions per se are neither positive nor negative. Religions can be more appropriately described as “powerful”, as they add strength to what they are associated with: be it war or peace, different lifestyles etc.

Valery Amiraux, from the University of Monreal identified a problem in the communication about religious matters. She stressed that we tend to have vague discussions based on what people heard or “gossiped” about a religion. Very little dialogue is based on hard facts and knowledge.

photo by Fondazione Intercultura

The plea that emerged from three days of sharing and discussions was to overcome the silence about religions (the unspoken sacred) and to “give voice” to what people believe, be it any faith or agnosticism or atheism. Having more open and informed discussions will help people understand the roots of our cultural behavious and mindsets. AFS also has a role to play in this regard. Our organization should consider these aspects when training counsellors or preparing students and host families for an intercultural experience.

At the end of the conference it was encouraging to hear many participants say that it had been a great learning experience on the personal level, since the topic was one that they had always considered too private to discuss with others and to explore in greater depth.

Every other year the Intercultura Foundation organises an international conference on topics related to intercultural learning. This year’s conference received the Medal of Honour of the President of Italy, for its relevance and for the high level of the program.

This article was written by Dr Roberto Ruffino, the Secretary General of Fondazione Intercultura, an organization that promotes research and experimentation in educational exchanges.