The State of Interreligious Encounter in North America

Contemporary Challenges and Concerns for Interreligious Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue and encounter is currently alive and fast emerging in communities, institutions of Higher Education, and houses of faith across North America. The increase in religious diversity has naturally raised the likelihood of younger generations growing up alongside those with different religious identities than their own. As a college instructor at a large Catholic university in the U.S., I witness the religious diversity increase in my classroom with each passing year as the variety of religious identities represented grows. Further, students’ interest in religions other than their own increases with each passing year, regardless of their majors. In fact, I most often teach courses in interreligious dialogue and world religions, and ninety-nine percent of my students are non-religious studies majors. A few years ago U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry preached, “"if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today" (U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “Remarks at the Launch of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives,” Washington, D.C., August 7, 2013. Accessed September 20, 2016). Although I have not witnessed an uptick in religious studies majors, I have sensed a small increase in students’ awareness of the need for religious literacy as Stephen Prothero consistently remind us. He writes, "I am convinced that one needs to know something about the world's religions in order to be truly educated. …. The argument is that you need religious literacy in order to be an effective citizen" (Stephen R. Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't (New York, N.Y.: HarperOne, 2008), 11). These are indeed encouraging signs and ought to be praised. However, there always remains challenges and room for growth. In this article, I identify three areas of growth (among many) for contemporary interreligious encounter in 21st century North America. These three are by no means the only areas of growth and concern, nor are they even the most pressing. For instance, the rise of Islamophobia in the West is a major obstacle and concern for interreligious dialogue and deserves an article, or better yet a book (I recommend Todd Green’s recent publication, The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), devoted solely to it. The three concerns introduced in this brief article are the danger of over-simplifying the religious identities of others, the importance of intra-religious dialogue, and the need to become more welcoming to marginalized and polytheistic traditions.

Over-Simplifying the Religious Other
There remains an ever-present danger of over-simplifying the religious other stemming from the lack of basic religious literacy. I used to teach my course on interreligious dialogue with the assumption that students came to the class with a basic understanding of certainly their own religious tradition and that of the other major traditions. I quickly discovered that I was wrong. Moreover, this lack of basic religious literacy made the task of studying and engaging in interreligious learning rather difficult and, to some extent, impossible. Without some very basic grasp on one’s own tradition (or the one she was raised in) and that of the religious other, interreligious dialogue will prove to be difficult. At best, it will lead to genuine interreligious friendships, which ought to be praised. However, at worst it could lead to a steady diet of misinformation, misunderstanding, confusion, and the reinforcement of stereotypes and misconceptions. For all of these reasons and more, I’ve become convinced by scholars such as Diane L. Moore, Stephen Prothero, and others, that in order to promote constructive interreligious dialogue and encounter in the West, we need basic religious literacy taught in our public k-12 systems alongside, or within, history and civilizations requirements (Diane L. Moore is the director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard University, which is dedicated to enhancing and promoting the public understanding of religion. Stephen Prothero is a professor of religious studies at Boston University and author of the popular text Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn’t). Increasing the public understanding of religion, so goes the argument, will help to combat the over-simplification of the religious other (e.g., “All Muslims do X, all Jews believe Y, all Christians forbid Z, etc.), and thus increase the acceptance of the internal diversity of religions, and further promote the acceptance of our increasing religiously diverse neighbors. In short, the more we know about our neighbors and their traditions, the less mysterious and threatening they ought to seem to us.

Intra-Religious Dialogue
Interreligious dialogue is enhanced by robust intra-religious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue often entails an implicit (sometimes explicit) attempt to categorize the religious other for the sake of comparison, conversation, and ease. For instance, in order to have Muslim-Christian dialogue, certain assumptions come into play in defining who the Muslims are and who the Christians are (even if those involved self-identify as such) – and who the Muslims and Christians are not, for that matter. Without these identifications, it would seem, labeling the dialogue as “Muslim-Christian” becomes difficult. This process, by its very nature, holds an element of exclusivity (in determining who is in and who is out). For this reason, Jeannine Hill Fletcher points out that this “logic of identity” (a phrase Hill Fletcher borrows from political scientist Iris Marion Young ) or "grouping of persons into the various categories of 'the religions' and the assumptions made on the basis of those groupings too easily erase[s] the diversity and difference within any one community" (Jeannine Hill Fletcher. “Shifting Identity: The Contribution of Feminist Thought to Theologies of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 19, no. 2 (2003), 14). This can too easily dilute the rich intrareligious diversity of a tradition by lumping together all Muslims (regardless of their identities as Sunni, Shia, etc.) and lumping together all Christians (regardless of denominational affiliation and creedal confession). In short, it often erases “the diversity and difference” (Jeannine Hill Fletcher. “Shifting Identity: The Contribution of Feminist Thought to Theologies of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 19, no. 2 (2003), 14) within the traditions and can reinforce the initial concern above: the over-simplification of the religious other. Perhaps a positive consequence of this is that it can sometimes bring together (or “forge solidarity” as Hill Fletcher phrases it) those with different identities within a religious group (e.g., Protestants with Roman Catholics with Eastern Orthodox, etc.). However, at the same time, a negative consequence which, in my opinion, outweighs the positive above, is that it can, for example, strip Muslims and Christians, of all the elements that make them different from one another for the sake of facile categorization. By ignoring the rich internal diversity of religions and their varied identities, this logic of identity replaces “Pakistani Urdu-speaking Sunni Muslim female – Norwegian-American English-speaking Lutheran male dialogue” with simply “Muslim-Christian dialogue.”

Going even further, this can lead to infighting over the strict parameters of a tradition’s internal identity. In other words, we get a lot of bickering over who is and is not “really” Christian, “really” Muslim, “really” Heathen (reconstructed Germanic/Norse Paganism; Jennifer Snook’s American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement addresses at length the internal battles that wage among American Heathens over who can authentically claim to be “really Heathen”), and so forth. This directly violates Leonard Swidler’s fifth rule of interreligious dialogue: “Each participant needs to describe her/himself. For example, only a Muslim can describe what it really means to be an authentic member of the Muslim community” (Leonard Swidler, “Dialogue Principles,” Dialogue Institute. Accessed September 20, 2016. Instead, it is more helpful to allow others to identify themselves and allow the robust internal diversity of religious traditions to surface (even the corrupt, violent, and oppressive elements of our traditions).

Cawo Abdi, in her recent article “Where is My Islam?” attempts to “reclaim Islam” from groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram without ever denouncing these groups’ claims to religiously identify as Muslim. Instead she remarks that the “groups executing these atrocities represent an extreme in their readings of Islam” (Cawo Abdi, “Where is my Islam? The identity crisis of 21st century Muslims,”, August 24, 2015. Accessed September 20, 2016. In so doing, she illustrates the power of Islam to rise above and foster beautiful religious identities beyond the oversimplified narratives presented in major media which are dominated by terror groups such as the two mentioned above. To say ISIS and Boko Haram are not “really” Muslim is akin to saying the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan are not “really” Christian or the 9/11 bombers were not “really” Muslim. But of course all of these groups claimed a religious identity. Perhaps it is better to acknowledge that they claim religious inspiration from their tradition so that we are ever aware of the destructive potential that lurks within the combination of the human person with religious zeal. Prothero argues that failing to recognize the religiosity of Nazis, terrorists, racists, hate-groups, and the like is “terrifying” since it allows those within those traditions to “absolve themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with the dark side of their tradition[s]” (Stephen R. Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2011), 10).

Religion has done a lot of harm and violence to people. Why not acknowledge this in our own traditions? It is no longer enough to simply say, “no, that is not my religion.” People don’t buy that. Why not acknowledge that Nazi theology draws on this ancient perversion in Christianity that blames Jews for killing Jesus? Label it a “perversion” or something like that if you must, but do not pretend that it is not a part of the history of Christianity. It is more helpful to clearly acknowledge that these hate groups are inspired by Christianity. Then Christians can set about to the hard work of providing a constructive counter narrative to them. Rabbi Shira Lander, professor of Jewish Studies at Southern Methodist University, is instructive at this point. She writes,

“Rather than dismissing the radical or fundamentalist wings of religion as ‘hijacking’ the faith and distancing ourselves from them by denying any relationship between our own version of religion and that of religious fanatics, we need to take full responsibility for the harmful elements within our traditions without fear that those who oppose us will use our words against us.” (Shira Lander, “The Role of the Religious Voice in the Twenty-First Century – A Jewish Perspective,” in Religious Identity and Renewal in the Twenty-first Century: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Explorations, ed. Simone Sinn and Michael Reid Trice (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2015), 88).

Drawing on her own Jewish tradition, Lander encourages “rather than dismissing and condemning thee folks as lunatics and radicals, my own tradition requires that I sit down and begin a conversation with them, or at least their allies and supporters, articulated as ‘seeking peace and pursue it’ (Ps 34:15: bakkesh shalom v’rodfehu)” (Shira Lander, “The Role of the Religious Voice in the Twenty-First Century – A Jewish Perspective,” in Religious Identity and Renewal in the Twenty-first Century: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Explorations, ed. Simone Sinn and Michael Reid Trice (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2015), 88). Maybe it is not reasonable to sit down and begin a conversation with ISIS or the Nazi party, but it might be reasonable to do so with their non-violent supporters and sympathizers.

Welcoming the Marginalized
Despite an ever-widening door to the growing interreligious tent, there remains work to do: specifically opening the door wider to marginalized traditions that include polytheists, contemporary Pagans, and those who identify with reconstructed pre-Christian European traditions (see appendix below). Interreligious studies in the academy, as well as the interfaith movement in the wider community, has rapidly blossomed over the last few decades in the West as the forces of globalization and migrations bring people of vastly different religious, cultural, and spiritual identities into closer quarters in neighborhoods, communities, and places of work. The world is indeed rapidly growing more religiously diverse, raising new opportunities and challenges for living in a plural society. What was once often a conversation exclusively between and among the so-called Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), interreligious studies and dialogue has broadened to include the major non-Abrahamic, or so-called Eastern, traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. More and more, Sikhs, Baha’i, LDS Christians, and those who identify with their indigenous traditions are participating in and leading interreligious initiatives.

It is becoming more common for those who identify as atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs), and “the nones” to be present at the table of constructive interreligious engagement and dialogue. Groups are still missing (and perhaps there will always be room for more inclusion): namely, Western non-indigenous polytheists and contemporary Pagan (mono-, heno-, and poly-theist alike) traditions (e.g., Druidry, Heathenry, Wicca, etc.) and, to a certain extent, Native indigenous traditions. Their absence at the interfaith table may be due, in part, simply to their incredibly low numbers in the West to begin with. However, it may also be due to the reluctance of those already at the interfaith table to take them seriously and/or to invite them to join and lead. There may be several reservations harbored by those already active in interfaith circles: the perceived threat of polytheistic worldviews (i.e., failure of monotheists to take seriously the view that there may be a plurality of Gods/deities), the inability to take seriously new religious movements (NRMs) as legitimate religious options (i.e., failure of those in the major traditions to take seriously newly created spiritual identities such as Wicca or reconstructed once-dormant traditions such as Druidry or Ásatrú). Even though Native indigenous traditions are often not at the table, there seems to be great openness to having them join (E.g., the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, UT showcased an “Indigenous Peoples Program” as central to the gathering. I attended this Parliament and though there were sessions on contemporary Pagan religious expressions, the session I attended, “Staving off Ragnarök: a Heathen Response to Climate Change,” attracted a small audience of perhaps 15-20 people while the Parliament had over 9,800 participants total). It seems, however, that the general attitude toward contemporary Pagan groups is different, or at the very least more cautious and skeptical. Sometimes (perhaps more often than I am aware of) there is a knee-jerk reaction of confusion or rejection when these traditions are brought up. People express confusion as to whether these groups ought to be a part of interfaith discourse in the West.
Eboo Patel has popularized the current trendy definition of interfaith encounter as “interaction between people who orient around religion differently” (Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2016), 39), and the American Academy of Religion’s Interreligious and Interfaith Studies group defines the study of such encounters as “critical interdisciplinary engagement with interfaith and interreligious studies, which examines the many modes of response to the reality of religious pluralism (theological, philosophical, historical, scriptural, ethical, praxological, and institutional)” (“Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group: Statement of Purpose,” American Academy of Religion. Accessed October 6, 2016, Taking these two quotes seriously raises the question of be how big and wide is, or should be, the interfaith tent? Certainly all people orient around religion in some sense regardless of whether or not they self-identify as religious (i.e., devout, observant, confessional, etc.). In this manner, we all have “religious identities” even if they are articulated in the negative such as to say, “Religion? Yeah, that’s not for me. That is how I orient around religion.” This statement then can become one’s religious identity as such. The challenge to those in the West that tend to own the interfaith table (i.e., majority Abrahamic monotheistic traditions) is to welcome marginalized traditions, and this includes polytheistic reconstructed pre-Christian European traditions (and other contemporary Paganisms), to the table as equals, leaders, and teachers. Page DuBois suggests that “Beyond condescending to polytheists, beyond tolerating polytheists, the so-called monotheists, the ‘Christian nations,’ the U.S. and the U.K., have a great deal to learn from them” (Page DuBois, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 166). After all, interreligious encounter is not primarily about agreeing to and obsessing over commonalities and similarities among religions and religious identities. Rather, it is about learning about the differences and distinctions as well. It is about being challenged to rethink our views in the face of others. Above all, it is about learning while being open to growth and change.

Openness to marginalized traditions, especially contemporary Paganisms, is beginning to happen in pockets of the U.S., but there remains work to do. For the remainder of this section, I focus on one tradition in particular: Heathenry in the U.S. Jennifer Snook, professor of sociology of religion at Grinnell College who specializes in Heathen identity in the U.S., and Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried, president of an organization called Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago, provide a sense of the Heathen experience in the context of interreligious encounter. Both Snook and Seigfried self-identify as Heathens, and both cite positive and negative experiences with interreligious encounter and dialogue. Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried is a writer a teacher of Norse mythology and religion. He teaches courses on mythology, religion, J.R.R. Tolkien and Richard Wagner for Newberry Library's Seminar Program. He has taught Norse mythology at Loyola University Chicago and Norse religion at Carthage College. In addition to currently serving as the president of Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago, he is also the contact person for the Ásatrú Student Network. His website, The Norse Mythology Blog (, was named the world's Best Religion Weblog in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and is the first religion blog to enter the Weblog Awards Hall of Fame. In 2013, Seigfried conducted the Worldwide Heathen Census, which was the first attempt to estimate current numbers of adherents of the modern iteration of Norse religion. Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago is a Registered Student Organization that the University of Chicago Office of Spiritual Life asked Dr. Seigfried to revive. The organization had been dormant for several years, and Seigfried’s “goal is to build it up into a force on campus and beyond that will actively work to create a new model of truly inclusive interfaith dialogue, as opposed to the largely inter-denominational or inter-Abrahamic model we see in the United States today” (Karl Seigfried, email message to author, October 5, 2016).

Often kinship is found between and among those from other marginalized traditions. Seigfried reports, “At the University of Chicago, the individuals who have been most interested in engaging with truly diverse interfaith dialogue have been undergraduate and graduate students from embattled or marginalized minority faith backgrounds such as Hinduism, Judaism, Mormonism, and Unitarianism” (Karl Seigfried, email message to author, October 5, 2016). Snooks’ home institution has been remarkably welcoming. She reports that she was “was immediately welcomed by the Chaplain [and] invited to participate in organizing a Pagan discussion group for students” (Jennifer Snook, email message to author, October 5, 2016). Grinnell College approved her new course Witches, Druids and Heathens: Exploring Paganisms in the United States, which “was the highest enrolled course for the semester and has received a lot of positive attention on campus” (Jennifer Snook, email message to author, October 5, 2016). Further, the college continues to support her tradition by funding the travel of “Heathen speakers to campus for talks and rituals, and a field trip for students to attend a Heathen event” (Jennifer Snook, email message to author, October 5, 2016). One Christian minister from the wider community even invited her to a clergy gathering despite her not being clergy (Snook reports that “this never actually happened, however” presumably to say that either the initial invitation was never formally extended, the gathering never took place, or Snook did not attend; Jennifer Snook, email message to author, October 5, 2016).
Prior to living in Iowa and teaching at Grinnell College, Snook resided in Mississippi for a decade, a region Snook recognizes as being deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and demanding participation. She reports a rather different environment in which she was often met with confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance, and stereotyping.

“Every time that I outed myself to students or others, the responses were always morbid curiosity, surprise, fear, and awe. Fear that I was not ‘saved,’ or that I was Satanic. One student asked me if Heathens perform human sacrifice and others asked if any or all Heathens worship Satan. Others congratulated me for coming ‘out’ and being ‘brave’— presumably because in this context, they understood the risk of ridicule and judgement, and had never met another Pagan” (Jennifer Snook, email message to author, October 5, 2016).  At the University of Chicago, Seigfried reports challenges as well. He states that “The group that has been consistently opposed to including minorities in the campus dialogue – both in-class and in the larger public space at the university – have been Christians in positions of authority as senior professors and administrators.” He cites instances of intimidation and silencing (Seigfried recounts disappointing instances of Christian faculty and administrators publically shutting down counter-narratives from minority-faith students to their assertions of religious history and the tearing down of posters for an officially approved lecture by a member of a minority religion (Karl Seigfried, email message to author, October 5, 2016), and rightly points this out as intolerable, especially on the campus of one of the most esteemed universities recognized for its inquiry into religious history, interpretation, and diversity.

In short, though there remain promising movements on the horizon there is still progress to be made. With Seigfried, I contend that those with power and privilege at the table of interreligious dialogue and “those of good conscience from majority religious traditions need to stand up and actively promote their colleagues who belong to smaller faiths” (Karl Seigfried, email message to author, October 5, 2016). Further, in the interest of constructive interreligious learning, and in light of those who have “suggested a direct relationship between radical monotheism and intolerant, oppressive attitudes toward other religious faiths” (David Penchansky references Regina Schwartz’s 1997 book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, pp. 33, 89-90, 114-17, in his own Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 91.), I support my colleague David Penchansky’s intuition that “perhaps a more open and complex view of divinity would promote a better understanding between religious faiths, particularly now, when we seem to be in each other’s faces so often” (David Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 92).
It should go without saying that all constructive and respectful interreligious dialogue need not, nor should not, condone or justify groups that promote direct and intentional hatred, violence, racism, and oppression toward others. Like many who have courageously recognized and articulated the troublesome tendencies within their religious traditions, Jennifer Snook, author of American Heathens and self-identified Heathen, does so about her tradition. She writes, “My inquiries into Heathenry as an ethnic folkway have forced me painfully through the muck of reality that illustrates that racism in American Heathenry is indeed a fact” (Snook, American Heathenry, 183). In recognizing the reality of racism within her tradition, she is by no means endorsing it. Rather it is a healthy recognition of a troubling tendency that needs to be countered and rooted out. This is nothing new to most living religions (see Prothero, section “Toxic and Tonic,” “Introduction,” God is Not One; also footnote 11 above). All religions have these tendencies, and some are better than others in eliminating them through internal dialogue and wrestling Unfortunately, American Heathens have often had to deal with this burden of actively disassociating themselves from minority factions that commit violent, hateful, and racist atrocities in the name of Heathenry. As we know, negative stories of religion play in the media more so than positive ones. Heather Greene, managing editor of The Wild Hunt, a daily online news journal reporting on all things “relating to modern Paganism, Heathenry, Polytheism, and other minority religions,” likens “the media and cultural problems faced by Heathens …. to [those] faced by Muslims.” She writes, “There are real factions of society who are claiming to be ‘true’ practitioners of the religion, and who commit atrocities in the name of that religion. Overall, these factions are minorities, but they are loud, and they are aggressive, and they are violent. Like many in the Muslim community, Heathens are looking for ways to solve this problem, and protect their religious practice from the inevitable backlash, trauma and bad press.” For instance, Greene cites an organization called Heathens Against Hate (HAH), whose mission is “to remove the unfair stigma of racism from the Heathen religious identities while undertaking efforts to combat the ignorance and fear that lead to racism and hate within our own communities.” HAH aims to engage in constructive interreligious outreach. In the wake of a 2015 event in which two men from Virginia associated with Heathenry were arrested for conspiracy to possess firearms after being discovered by the FBI to “burn and bomb Black Churches [and] Jewish synagogues” (among other crimes), HAH declared, “The people in the churches and synagogues are not our enemies. The enemies are those who bring shame to our communities through reprehensible actions. Heathens Against Hate is thankful that the FBI thwarted the efforts of these men and that no one was injured.” Greene’s report also reminds readers of major inclusive Heathenry groups such as The Troth and the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry, both of which actively participate in the Parliament of the World’s Religions (Heather Greene, “Heathens Respond to Media Reports on Foiled Plot in Virginia,” The Wild Hunt: Modern Pagan News and Commentary,” November, 13, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016,

Hans Gustafson,
University of St. Thomas | Saint John’s University