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Revitalizing Global Religious and Interfaith Networks

Leader: Katherine Marshall

Although the overwhelming majority of the world's population participates in religious communities, faith-based organizations and interfaith networks have had only a very modest impact on the global agenda. The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to take stock and explore how best to bring the resources of religious communities to bear on critical issues, including progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over the course of the 2021-2022 academic year the project will sponsor a series of events to consider how global religious and interfaith networks can better mobilize their strengths and partner more effectively with international organizations, NGOs, and governments in practice.

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare deep-seated flaws in national and international governance of health, social, economic, peacebuilding, and other issues. Religious and interfaith communities have filled some voids but most often in sub-optimal and unstrategic ways, rarely exploiting opportunities for proactive engagement. As a result, critical priorities like equitable vaccine distribution, concerted action on climate change, and long-term progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals have suffered. Religious communities have often played vital roles at local and national levels, but at the global level, even the G20 Interfaith Forum, the most high-profile joint effort, has had a limited impact. The world's leading religious traditions, representing three-quarters of humanity, have remained largely sidelined. 

There are many possible explanations for this state of affairs. The intergovernmental structure of global governance continues to favor states and a resurgent nationalism that crowds out religious and other voices from global civil society. Political and ideological polarization often divide religious communities internally and from one another. The potential and will of religious communities to engage is sapped by poor coordination and competitive dynamics. The rise of an individualist consumer culture has undercut the appeal of formal religious belonging, especially for young people, as have the obvious leadership failings of religious organizations. The clerical sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church is only the most prominent example of the latter.

Despite this dire picture, there are three reasons to think that revitalized global religious and interfaith networks can aspire to a strong positive impact on global agendas in the years ahead.

Religious traditions embrace global humanity as a common frame. That all human beings belong to one family and have obligations to one another is vital common ground as the world faces an increasing number of global challenges, from health to migration and climate change, impacting increasingly diverse and dynamic communities. 

Interreligious conflict is on the wane. Over the centuries, the competing truth claims of religious communities have often exacerbated political tensions and stoked violence. Some of those dynamics are still evident today, but the overall trend may be moving in the other direction. Over the past several decades prominent religious leaders have increasingly moderated exclusivist theological claims and more generously acknowledged the positive attributes of other traditions. 

Religious communities can transcend national and ideological divides. Most major religious traditions predate the formation of modern states and political ideologies; adherents often remain connected across borders and political divides. This cross-cutting positioning creates a potential, mostly unfulfilled, for religious communities to mobilize around vital transnational agendas. 

Over the course of the 2021-2022 academic year the project will sponsor a series of virtual and in-person events with religious leaders and scholars to address two core questions: 

  1. What explains the limited impact of global religious and interfaith networks in shaping the global agenda so far? 
  2. What can be done to revitalize and connect them in order to better advance the SDGs over the coming decade?

Insights from the events will serve as background for a strategy meeting of religious and interfaith leaders in the spring. The Revitalizing Global Religious and Interfaith Networks project is a collaboration with the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Church dome with cross in front of a mosque with a blue roof in Beirut, Lebanon

Project Leader

Katherine Marshall headshot

Katherine Marshall

Senior Fellow
Walsh School of Foreign Service, Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue

Events