walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: November 28, 2012

Recently, on the same day, I came across two religious news items that made me think again about a topic which has long interested me: that of dialogue between religious traditions. The first item was a story in the British Catholic periodical The Tablet on November 10, 2012. It concerns a collaborative project of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. The plan is to issue a joint statement on the meaning of the Reformation in 2017, which will be the 500th anniversary of the historic event when (as every Protestant child learned in Sunday school) “Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the castle door of Wittenberg”. (Never mind that the actual event was quite undramatic—the door in question was the place to put up notices for an academic disputation, a common practice at universities at the time, which is what Luther was doing.)

The head of the Pontifical Council, the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, attended the annual synod of the Protestant Church in Germany (which includes Lutherans and Calvinists in one ecclesial body). He used the occasion to make a statement that must have grated on the ears of many in the audience. He said that the institution of Protestantism separate from Rome should not be seen as the success of the Reformation but rather as its failure, since the Reformers’ intent had been to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not to leave it. He added that the Reformation would only be successful if the separation was overcome (which, as the Protestant chairman of the synod pointed out, would require the highly unlikely submission of his flock to papal authority).

Needless to say, the announcement of the 2017 joint statement was full of expressions of mutual respect and affection. Cardinal Koch also hinted that Rome might make some compromises to entice Protestants (as the saying goes) to come “swim in the Tiber”, along the lines recently made for Anglicans—their clergy could remain married, they could continue to use some of their accustomed liturgical practices, and the like. These accommodations have indeed appealed to “high church” Anglo-Catholics, and they might appeal to some “high” Lutherans (some call themselves “Evangelical Catholics” and have argued that Protestantism was a reform movement within the Western church, a movement that has now achieved its goals and is therefore no longer necessary).

It is historically correct that the Reformation originally intended a reform of the Catholic Church, not the creation of a separate ecclesial body. However, in the meantime a lot of water has flown down the Tiber, the Rhine, the Thames, and some very diverse forms of the Christian faith have developed on the two sides of the divide. The average Catholic or the average Protestant would be very surprised if told by a committee of theologians that nothing significant now divides them.

The other news story was posted online by Reuters, the international news agency located in London, on November 21, 2012. The story was about the inauguration of the King Abdullah Centre for Interfaith and International Dialogue (KAICIID) in a baroque palace in Vienna. It is a very unusual institution, having been established by a treaty between the governments of Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, who appoint the governing board. The Saudi government has allocated 15 million euros to set up the Centre and promised 10 to 15 million euros annually for the first three years. This rather remarkable initiative is a continuation of other comparable efforts by King Abdullah (who is 89, and presumably in somewhat of a hurry). The stated intention is to (cautiously) improve Saudi relations with other faiths. Thus a meeting in Mecca in 2005 endorsed interfaith dialogue; in 2007 the King visited Pope Benedict XVI; in 2008 the King called together a multireligious conference in Madrid, where he met with Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders. He has also proposed a center in Riyadh, his capital, to promote dialogue between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, a particularly explosive topic right now. The new Vienna Centre, although its first director is Saudi, is overseen by a board consisting of three Muslims, three Christians, and one representative each of Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism (including an Israeli rabbi, who announced that he would quit at once if the Centre was found to propagate radical Islamism).

King Abdullah has faced strong resistance from the traditionalist Wahhabi establishment in his country. The Austrian media gave (in Reuters’ words) a “frosty welcome” to the new Centre: The Austrian government was criticized for co-sponsoring the Centre. Mention was made of the crass contradiction between the aim of dialogue and the domestic and foreign policies of the Saudi regime, such as the complete absence of religious freedom within the Kingdom and the support for Wahhabi-type Islam in Bosnia, Kosovo and many places in the Middle East.

The two stories already indicate the great diversity of dialogue initiatives. Both share the qualities of mutual respect and voluntary participation already implied by the very term “dialogue”, thus excluding the quasi-debates into which Jews were coerced in the Christian Middle Ages, with the intention of humiliating and/or converting them. (This practice has been imprinted in Jewish collective memory, leading to an almost instinctive suspicion of the motives behind Christian invitations to discuss interfaith questions.) But the stories disclose a very basic difference between dialogues motivated by, respectively, theological and political interests. There are no obvious political interests involved in the dialogue about the Reformation. With the (hopefully waning) exception of Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have stopped killing each other long ago (and even in that exceptional case one may doubt whether the conflict is really about religion). They are driven to seek greater unity by facing European secularity, which affects them both and which has made Benedict XVI to call for the re-evangelization of what used to be Christendom.

By contrast, King Abdullah’s campaign to put a tolerant face on his regime occurs against the background of what the late Samuel Huntington called “the bloody frontiers of Islam”. I have no insight into the mind of the King. Perhaps he is genuinely motivated by a more tolerant understanding of Islam than has been held by the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia until now. But one may assume that there is a political motive as well. The Saudi regime is characterized by a very conservative version of the faith (which it propagates both domestically and abroad), by the oppression of women, by a barbaric system of criminal justice, and by the complete absence of religious freedom. Such a regime can survive for a considerable period of time, if equipped with sufficient means of repression and if it can strictly control all communications with the outside world. The Saudi economy is too much interlinked with the world for such isolation, and it is too much dependent on its de facto alliance with the United States due to the profound threat from Iran looming across the Persian Gulf. Therefore, quite apart from the King’s theological preferences, a mellowing of his regime may well be in the interest of its survival.

Peaceful dialogue between religions has happened before in history. The so-called conviviencia between Muslims, Christians and Jews was not always characteristic of Spain under Islamic rule, but there were periods when amicable religious and philosophical conversations between scholars of the three faiths did take place, with very positive consequences (such as the transmission of Aristotle to Christian Europe through Arabic and Latin translations). Frederick II (1194-1250), the Hohenstaufen ruler of Sicily, a skeptic and adversary of papal power, also encouraged dialogue between Christians and Muslims. And the Moghul Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) delighted in religious debates of Muslim scholars with Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and Portuguese Jesuits (Buddhists, alas, had been chased out of India by Akbar’s predecessors).

But there has been a veritable explosion of dialogue programs since the middle of the last century. The ecumenical movement of Christian churches had begun earlier, but it reached a certain climax with the founding in 1948 of the World Council of Churches, which has sponsored dialogue with any religious community that is willing. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Curia set up an array of agencies to engage in dialogue with other Christians, with non-Christian religions, with Jews (a special case not to be grouped with other non-Christians), and finally with non-believers.

The last of these, ponderously named Secretariatus Pro Non-Credentibus, had a serious problem: It was eager to have this dialogue, but it did not know with whom to have it. Unlike the other interlocutors, the non-credenti cannot be found in the phone book. In 1969 Cardinal Koenig, the Archbishop of Vienna, was head of the Secretariat. He had read some things I had written, and he asked me to help organize a conference in Rome with the purpose of identifying just who and where these people were. I was at the time a quite junior sociologist of religion. The invitation was flattering. The conference itself turned to be a fascinating experience.

This is not the place to go into the details of all the dialogues that have been going on: Catholic/Lutheran, Lutheran/Calvinist, Christian/Muslim, Christian/Jewish (much of this one, understandably, concerned with the Christian roots of anti-Semitism and with the question of how to prevent this ever recurring), Christian/ Hindu (a key figure in this was Raimundo Panikkar, a Catholic priest who lived some of the time like an Indian “holy man”), Christian/Buddhist (some of it highly sophisticated, as in the Kyoto School of Mahayana philosophy). But one can distinguish between five principal types:

1. Dialogue motivated by a desire to understand so as to convert the “the other”. One may call this the missiological type. It has widely come to be viewed negatively in Christian circles, except among Evangelicals.

2. Dialogue with the sole aim of enhancing scholarship.

3. Dialogue to facilitate humanitarian action (say, for coping with epidemics or natural disasters.

4. Dialogue to facilitate political action (say, to resist dictatorship).

5. Finally, dialogue to enrich one’s religious understanding or practice.

With the exception of the first type (with which I, for one, have great difficulty), most people will regard these as acceptable motivations for dialogue.

Put simply, much of the time dialogue between religious traditions is a useful, sometimes a very useful activity. But I would suggest two caveats. First: One should not get lost in the details. Theologians who converse over a period of time can often find areas of agreement. Theologians tend to deal in doctrinal abstractions. An interesting case was the “religion conversation” between a number of high-profile leaders of the Protestant Reformation in 1529 at the newly founded University of Marburg. Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon came from Wittenberg, Ulrich Zwingli from Zurich, Martin Bucer from Strassburg. They did end up signing a joint statement, much of it concerned with the understanding of the eucharist. The main tension was between the Germans and the Swiss. Yet at one point of the conversation Luther exclaimed to Zwingli: “Out of you speaks a different spirit”. In other words, theologians might find the language to claim a unity about this or that doctrine, while ignoring that there may be a profound difference in the “spirit” over and beyond particular doctrinal formulations.

Second caveat: Not to forget that theologians are a small minority in any community of believers. Lay believers often intuit the “spirit” of a tradition better than theologians. A good example, I think, is the so-called filioque issue. In 1979 the World Council of Churches set up a study group to examine this issue. It consisted of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians. The issue is complex and has deep roots in history. The Nicene Creed, which all major Christian traditions regard as authoritative, declared that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father, and together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified”. There were some varying readings in both Greek and Latin versions, but beginning with the Third Council of Toledo in 589 the Latin version of the Creed inserted a word in the article, declaring that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (in Latin, filioque). The immediate motive was probably to distance the Visigothic church in Spain from the rather popular Arian heresy, which was perceived as having denigrated the divinity of Jesus.

Whatever the original motive, this amended Creed spread throughout Western Christendom, became normative in the Roman Catholic Church, and was taken over by the latter’s Protestant offspring. It was strongly opposed in the East, deemed to be profoundly heretical. It was defined as crucial by both West and East, and served to legitimate the final schism of 1054 when, in one of the most dramatic events in Christian history (this one, I think, was truly dramatic), papal legates marched into Hagia Sophia during the liturgy and deposited on the high altar the decree excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. (The latter then reciprocated by excommunicating the Pope.)

Were there genuine theological problems in this controversy? There were. The Eastern version enhanced the place of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity, the Western version enhanced the place of the Son. But it is very clear that the schism was driven by very mundane political interest of the rival regimes in the West and the East, respectively blessed  by Rome and Constantinople. But what happened some 900 years later? Two years after the filioque committee was established, it did reach a conclusion. Basically, it supported the Eastern position. In the so-called Klingenthal Memorandum (I believe it was named after a member of the committee) it recommended that all churches should eliminate the filioque from the Nicene Creed.

This recommendation had some concrete consequences. Anglicans agreed with it, in statements by a sequence of Lambeth Conferences (the periodic meetings of the world’s Anglican churches). In 1994 the Episcopal Church in the USA decided that the filioque should be dropped from the next edition of the Book of Common Prayer. An Orthodox/Roman Catholic consultation agreed in 2003 that the filioque issue should no longer be considered as justifying the schism between the two communities. Interesting, no doubt. (By the way, I am interested.) But how many non-theologians in Christian churches cared about this issue, or even were aware of it? As to the piety of the masses of believers, their assumption about the distinctiveness of their own tradition remains unshaken. They know that they are distinctive. Anyone who spends half an hour each in an Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant worship service will agree with them. A “different spirit” indeed!

Finally, a brief sociological question: Why is all this dialogue activity going on now?  I think that there is a clear answer: It is one of the results of an ever more pervasive pluralism in modern societies. The easiest and most commonly used definition of pluralism (or, if one prefers, plurality) is a situation where people with different social identities, worldviews and value systems coexist and interact peacefully. All the forces of modernity bring this situation about—through population growth, urbanization, migration, education, and all the media of pervasive communication. This means that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain or re-establish a religious or moral monopoly in a society. The pluralistic situation can indeed be reversed by the application of massive coercion, but with the result of enormous human and economic costs. Or a society can be torn apart by an ongoing, possibly intermittent civil war between the different ideological camps. To avoid these equally unappealing alternatives the camps—in this instance, the different religious communities—must try to understand and to collaborate with each other. Such dialogue is of course greatly facilitated if religious freedom has been institutionalized in the society. Quite apart from the intrinsic moral and philosophical value of religious freedom, it is one of the pillars of social order in a modern society.

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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    To Dr. Berger’s comments might be added that often the state has an interest in such ecumenical religious proceedings. Leading up to the Council of Nicaea in 325 a.d. it is reported that in Eastern Roman Empire that in nearly all cities and villages the theological relationship of God and Christ was a hot topic of conservation much like modern day Americans discuss Presidential elections. Families reportedly divided on the issue and riots broke out in the streets. As Christians brawled over the divinity of Christ, pagans made jokes about them in theaters. No doubt something as contentious as this had an economic component as well as an ideational one. Probably the political economy of the time was at stake just as it is in American elections. However, this is not to reduce such conflicts to merely the economic dimension. The emperor Constantine intervened and called a council to arbitrate the dispute.

    The emperor summoned outlying Bishops. Constantine greeted the martyrs and presided over the proceedings. In the book “The Heretics: Heresy Through the Ages,” Walter Nigg states: “Even in those days genuine Christianity was rather with Anthony in the desert, not those with those who entered the emperor’s palace in silks and brocades.”

    Once the Council began all religious decorum broke loose and it deteriorated into a shouting match. This was because the concern wasn’t Christian understanding and dialogue but which faction – the God faction or the Christ faction – was going to gain power and position. This was in contrast to the spirit of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “glorify Christ.” According to one account a bishop called the participants a bunch of blockheads, using modern slang. The Arians relied on strategy and the Athanasius adherents on verbal intimidation. A middle faction offered a compromise: “Christ was one in essence with the Father.” This was more Gnostic and non-Biblical in its origin. The dominant Christ faction added some put downs of Arianism and Constantine adopted it as most politicians would be prone to do. In legal lingo, the proverbial baby wasn’t cut in two but rather emanated from his Father’s genetics.

    Constantine banished all Bishops who refused to sign the Nicene Creed. It was a different era. Religious monopoly prevailed, not the pluralism of today. Can you imagine President Obama sticking his political neck out by intervening in a theological dispute today? Reportedly, not a single bishop would risk opposing s statement adopted by the Emperor. The Council condemned Arius however who did refuse to sign the declaration that was an attack on him. Arius was banished to exile, his writings confiscated and censored, But official repression spread Arian’s so-called heresy rather than squashed it. Arius was a popular songwriter of his day and that helped him re-ingratiate himself to the Emperor. Arius was eventually recalled by the Emperor in 330 a.d. and offered to rejoin the priesthood but Bishop Athanasius denied it. Arianism thrived with oppression and eventually the tables were turned and Arianism became ascendant and Athanasium was banished. However, Arius mysteriously and suddenly died by supposedly and probably fictitiously falling from a toilet into the sewer pit. The Anathasius faction rejoiced over Arius’s death. Arius’s resurrection from the sewer has apparently not yet materialized except in some modern day Episcopalians such as Rowan Williams and some academic theologians (see the papers compiled from the 1983 Patristics Conference “Arianism: Historical and Theological Reassessments” WIPF Publishers, 1985).

    The Council of Ephesus in 449 a.d. was even more tumultuous. Delegates clubbed one another until one side won. Fanatical bands of monks became the “brownshirts” of their day and mugged the Bishops from Rome. Leo the Great dubbed it “The Robber Council.” Bibles were used as missiles at ensuring conferences.

    Flashing forward to today, the conservative Gatestone Institute in New York, has condemned the proposal for an Islamic center in Vienna as “Saudi Propaganda” (see “Saudi Propaganda Center Opens in Vienna” on the Gatestone Institute website). Vienna was the site of the Islamic Siege of Vienna in 1529 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Saudi Arabia may not yet be religiously pluralistic but neither is King Abdullah dispatching a contingent of Arab troops to Vienna. I gather that what this may signal is that if religious pluralism can’t be tolerated inside the Saudi Kingdom that at least a satellite of pluralism can be established outside the Royal Kingdom on old battlegrounds. Nobody is throwing Bibles or Korans (yet). May Christ and Allah be praised.

  • Robert F

    You forgot to mention that it was the same emperor Constantine who first banished Arius and then banished Athanasius, in fact officially promulgating Arianism for many years before Athanasius and his view were reestablished. So much for the constancy of the state, or its interest in pure doctrine.

  • John Barker

    Where I live “New Age” churches, meditation fellowships, and other unorthodox assemblies of spiritualist and mystical leanings attract many young people who often find in their seeking a benevolent, atmospheric presence who defies name and definition.

  • R.C.

    Um, I was under the impression that the Eastern position with respect to the filioque was not accepted instead of the Western view, but that it was rather held that a particular interpretation of the Western view which was held by some Westerners and (in an attitude of suspicion) by all Easterners was held to be (as the Easterners had rightly pointed out) incorrect, but that this particular interpretation had never been intended by those promulgating the Western view, and addressed a question the West had been silent on.

    In that case the reality would not be that the West said to the East, “You were right, we were wrong” but rather, “You were right, and we always agreed with you, except for some folks among us to whom we failed to adequately clarify the matter, who as a consequence adopted a misunderstanding, which you rightly criticized.”

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  • mannning

    If, as you stated, the Vienna Mosque is to be a “satellite of pluralism”, rather than a strict focal point for Islamic worship and promulgation of the Islamic faith, is there any serious written confirmation of this intent, with specifics about the operation of the mosque to include infidels?

  • Darrell Powell

    The Gnostics will have fun with this one.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Manning

    The following can be found online. Since posting links and the name of the source website is not good protocol, I will leave judgment up to you as to whether the Islamic Center will promote pluralism or propaganda.

    The King Abdullah Center — which will host seminars, conferences, dialogues and other events bringing together people of different backgrounds and faiths — will have a governing body composed of 12 representatives from the world’s five largest religions.
    The governing board of directors is to be staffed by two Muslims (Sunni and Shiite), three Christians (Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Jew. The organization will also have a consulting body with 100 representatives from the five world religions plus other faiths as well as academics and members of civil society.
    The Vatican said in a statement that it had accepted an invitation to participate in the center as a “founding observer” and it sent a high-level delegation to attend the inauguration ceremony.
    Rabbi David Rosen, the Jewish member of the King Abdullah Center’s board of directors, said in an interview that the project presents a unique opportunity. “This is the first multifaith initiative from a Muslim source, and not just any source, but from the very hardcore heartland of Islam,” said Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “It is an essential stage in King Abdullah’s efforts to change Saudi Arabia itself.”
    The Austrian Initiative of Liberal Muslims (ILMÖ) said “this dubious Wahhabist center in Vienna” will “only serve Saudi Arabia’s political and religious interests abroad, under the guise of dialogue” and that its sole aim was to make Riyadh “respectable.”
    In case there was any doubt, the official Saudi Press Agency confirmed that dialogue is not a two-way street. The most important goal of dialogue, the agency says, is “to introduce Islam” and to “correct the erroneous slanders raised against Islam.”

  • Gary Novak

    Berger’s discussion of dialogue between religious traditions mentions a number of the obstacles that hinder it: a (missionary) will to change the other, hidden (or not so hidden) political agendas, a pedantic or bureaucratic elevation of the letter over the spirit. Martin Buber gave a short address in 1953 (“Genuine Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace”) in which he likewise noted the difficulties of genuine dialogue during the Cold War. “The debates between statesmen which the radio conveys to us no longer have anything in common with a human conversation . . .. Even the congresses and conferences which convene in the name of mutual understanding lack the substance which alone can elevate the deliberations to genuine talk: candour and directness in address and answer.”
    Buber’s explanation of the futility of this “dialogue” still seems relevant: “The fact that it is so difficult for present-day man to pray (note well: not to hold it to be true that there is a God, but to address Him) and the fact that it is so difficult for him to carry on a genuine talk with his fellow-men are elements of a single set of facts. This lack of trust in Being, this incapacity for unreserved intercourse with the other, points to an innermost sickness of the sense of existence.” Many more people are able to “believe in God” than to say I-Thou. And if one cannot talk to God, how could one presume to adjust, update, negotiate, or interpret the Right Answers revealed once and for all in inerrant Scriptures? To negotiate God’s non-negotiable truths would seem to be to place one’s own salvation in jeopardy. No wonder dialogue between religious traditions has such a poor track record! (Of course, secularists who chuckle at fanatical defenders of the faith feel the jaws of hell open before them when they accidentally utter a politically incorrect truth.)
    Buber’s “religion” is centered in dialogue. (“By ‘religion’ Buber meant the tendency of every organized religion throughout history to promote and sanction a dualism that obscures the face of God and leaves our ordinary lives unhallowed and unhallowable.” – Maurice Friedman, “Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue.”) It requires no great sacrifice for Buberians to engage in interfaith dialogue, because genuine dialogue always involves risk. Holy insecurity on the narrow ridge IS the life of dialogue.
    In the chapter “Between Jerusalem and Benares” in “The Heretical Imperative,” Berger writes that “to enter into interreligious contestation is to be prepared to change one’s own view of reality” (p. 152). Berger’s inductive approach to religion makes it a perpetual work-in-progress. He is prepared to change his view of reality in contestation with other religions, because his own religion is a product of contestation between tradition and experience. For both Buber and Berger, interreligious contestation is a continuation of what they are already doing. It’s risky, but hey, that’s what they do.

  • mannning

    Thanks for the information, Wayne Lusvardi. My opinion would lean heavily for Islamic propaganda towards the pluralists, rather than the other way around.

    Why, may I ask, is posting a link to a source poor protocol? It is done all the time elsewhere.

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  • Elliott Abrams

    Is it not possible that the boom in inter-faith dialogue reflects the sense among the faithful that they are increasingly surrounded by hostile and sometimes aggressive secularist, anti-religious forces (including governments)? As to the Saudi inter-faith dialogue, why not suspend that until the Saudis allow one single church to be built in their country.

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  • Larry Snider

    In 2008 I put together the Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation to Israel/Palestine in partnership with Leah Green and her Compassionate Listening Project; The true beauty of our group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy and lay leaders was that we agreed to learn and utilize Compassionate Listening as a vehicle to better hear and understand both the people we agreed with and those we never would, (as we listened to politicians, peacemakers, religious and community leaders and victims). We also agreed to return home and share all we hear with multiple audiences, which became more than 150 presentations. As importantly, we really took two trips one to educate ourselves on the Middle East conflict and a second to better understand and work with each other. Today we’ve formed the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace and hold regular programs inviting the public to participate in facilitated Interfaith Conversations at different houses of worship among our other educational programs. For more information you are welcome to write to Larry Snider, President at

  • garry Umphress

    Before different religious communities can understand or collaborate one another logic dictates that each should before engaging should examine and understand that each of the three Monotheistic religions have foundational issues in their texts.

    The Hebrew alphabet has been altered and modernized since it’s original was first recorded. The Koran was later printed in part from this morphed alphabet. The Christian Bibles were also published from the morphed Hebrew alphabet.

    All three while recording their version were under a form of political influence, either at the origin or later across time as the alphabet continued to morph.

    After all- “Kings do what Kings do.” Pluralism and propaganda serves only man and his kingdoms.

    Until the three blind (monotheistic) tribes can accuratly visualize the three sides of the elephant in the room, it is an exercise of futility( Monotheisitc academia aerobics)

    No matter how many greatly facilitated dialogues take place, the idealogical camps of the three blind tribes will continue to war for religious freedom as the nations rage.

  • Seth Kaplan

    Is there any dialogue between religious groups to find common ground in the fight against secularism? I don’t see this mentioned in any of your categories, but can easily imagine it being of great interest to people of faith no matter what particular religion they subscribe to.

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