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Understanding people of other faiths: Tools to help

Insights Into Religion has compiled these resources to help faith communities understand one another and reach across cultural, racial, ethnic and faith divides, with an emphasis on the Muslim-Christian dynamic.

The relationship between Christians and Muslims is of increasing importance. Questions are also raised about the range of faiths practiced in the United States. Here is a list of resources with which to gain perspective, deepen your understanding, and share ministry with other faiths.

1. Gain Perspective on Christians & Muslims

A 2010 national survey of American faith communities conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Project, a consortium of more than two dozen faith communities and religion scholars, showed that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there's been an increase in interfaith activities — interfaith worship events have doubled and interfaith service projects have tripled. It also appears that Christian interfaith activity is anchored in the theological outlook of the involved churches, according to the "Interfaith Findings" report, posted on the partnership’s Faith Communities Today (FACT) website.

As encouraging as the 2010 study is, a FACT study from 2000 offered a more troubling picture. It appears that while all religions express a commitment to peace in the human family, each group maintains truth claims that can make dialogue difficult. However, contrary to common perception, many in the American Muslim community are working against extremist messages by offering their young a nonviolent vision of Islam that remains true to core tenets of the faith, according to a Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly 2010 video, "Muslims Combating Extremism".

Anti-extremist perspectives and movements are also vital overseas, as demonstrated by a Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly video story, "Pakistani Humanitarian," that detailed the work of 84-year old Abdul Sattar Edhi of Karachi, who challenges his warring fellow Muslims with a question and reminder. “Why have we lost touch with our humanity?” he asks. “God doesn’t love just Muslims. He loves human beings.”

Meanwhile, the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, located near Falls Church, Va., opened its nightly iftar – the traditional feast to break each day of fasting during Ramadan – to anyone who needed a meal. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the center’s director of outreach, noted, “The Qur’an says that the food of the Muslim is lawful for the Jews and the Christians and that food of the Christians and Jews are lawful to Muslims. This way we can all sit at the same table to break bread from the same God who has provided for all of us.” This short Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly video, "Ramadan Iftar," can be used as a conversation-starter or sermon illustration.

Finding interfaith concord in the United States might be easier than in other countries. For example, while both French and American cultures have a strong sense of the importance of separating church and state, French history – filled with episodes of religion-inspired war – causes most French citizens to think a person cannot be both French and a believer; for them, being religious means losing personal freedom and rationality. As a consequence, energetic Muslim faith is far more alien to French culture than to U.S., and creates a different kind of tension. The recent clampdown on the public expression of Islam has raised the ire of observant Muslims, as reported in a news video, "French Secularism," on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. In a supplemental interview, French political scientist Jocelyne Cesari, who specializes in Islamic studies, explains the origins of the French regulation of religion and offers extended commentary on the tension between religion and secularism in France.

Religious diversity extends beyond Islam, of course, and there are popular misconceptions about many of the religious movements found in the U.S. To help clear the air, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research collected key articles by respected sociologists of religion and vetted websites for accurate, scholarly information. And in an interesting turn-about, the Rev. Jim Papile, rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston, Va., wondered what it would be like to experience other faiths as a pilgrim. A Lilly Endowment sabbatical grant let him travel to India, Turkey and Greece to see how people of other faiths and cultures seek God and to experience his faith from a minority perspective. His recollections, housed on the Resources for American Christianity website, offer a powerful testimony to the universal human quest for God that is so similar in essence and so variant in form.

Documenting the inverse of Papile’s experience, Jose Casanova, professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, discovered that many immigrants to the U.S. practice their religion more devoutly here than they did back home, and he offers some explanations in an interview archived on Calvin College’s Inner Compass broadcast page for Season 7 (2006-07). Scroll down to interview number 710, “Immigration’s Effect on American Religion.”

2. Deepen Your Understanding of Other Faiths

As American society becomes more diverse, it is important to understand the various faith practices found in any neighborhood. A set of mapping tools on The Association of Religion Data Archives website permits the creation of maps that visually display the social, economic, demographic and religious landscape of neighborhoods, cities and states; the creation of localized reports reflecting a variety of factors; and a tutorial that guides novices on how to complete a demographic, social and religious profile of a community. The ARDA also offers profiles of faith traditions in the United States; a section of archives, indexes, research and data, that connect to additional information about the diverse faiths practiced in the United States and around the world; and an online dictionary of religious terms that links to The ARDA’s store of nearly 500 sets of survey data.

The Religion Newswriters Association developed the Religion Stylebook, an easy-to-use, authoritative reference to inform journalists on religious beliefs, traditions, organizations and terms. Extensive research and consultation with experts assures accuracy, currency and credibility. 

American Muslims discuss the meaning and practices of Ramadan in a short news video, "Ramadan is Here," prepared for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly that can be comfortably used as a sermon illustration to introduce Ramadan's physical and spiritual practices, or as a conversation starter in classrooms or religious study groups.

3. Share Your Ministry With Others

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey's "What makes us special: The magic balance," reports that congregations with the greatest sense of connectedness to their surrounding community are also places where worshippers feel a strong sense of belonging and feel empowered to become leaders.

For additional suggestions on ways to engage with others in community improvement, see the links to parachurch organizations and research and information sites collected by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Further insight and guidance can be found on our site through the search window. Type in “interfaith” for a broad selection, or use more focused terms like “interfaith dialogue,” “interfaith work” and “interfaith ministry,” among others.



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