Recognizing Our Humanity: Foundations of Peacebuilding

By: Casey Hammond

November 27, 2017

Student Interfaith Reflections on Social Justice through Dialogue

Before the field of psychology was born, Hobbes keenly noted that human conceptions start with our senses: our senses collectively form a perception of what we are experiencing. Today’s psychologists would call this phenomenon bottom-up processing. However, we are not merely products of sensory information. Our conceptions and knowledge of the world around us—taught by our cultures, religions, nations, and so on—can influence our sensory information, and even inhibit it. This phenomenon is called top-down processing. Thus, if we expect something to happen, we will likely behave as such. For example, many people report having driven from one familiar location to another and not remembering portions of the drive; these people are still conscious during these instances, but their brains are using procedural memory about the habituated drive to guide their actions rather than the using the present sensory information. Taking these ideas into consideration, how might preconceived notions affect how we interact with peoples of different cultures, faiths, or creeds? Psychologists reason that top-down processing is also related to stereotypes through schemas and scripts. Schemas are how we think the world or particular things work. Scripts are our conception of the sequence of actions that usually occurs during a particular experience. Both schemas and scripts can influence how we interact with those who have a different gender, religious, or cultural identity.

With respect to interreligious dialogue, these psychological phenomena are critical. Dialogue cannot begin unless we penetrate marginalizing and exclusive preconceived notions and schemas. These preconceived notions impede—if not prevent—peaceful interaction and coexistence. Yoshiaki Iisaka writes a beautiful line in his essay “The Significance of Inter-Religious Dialogue for World Peace” that reads, “Even though religions cannot always speak a common language, the underlying common concern for peace and humanity may overcome this language barrier, because expressed language is only one means of communication among religions as well as among men of diverse racial, national, cultural and other backgrounds.” In the same way that our conceptions of the world are formed through language, our conceptions can change through the very same means. All religions are concerned with humanity; although they may have different practices or beliefs, they are mutually concerned with building a better world.

Now, it is important to understand that dialogues are different from discussions or debates. Whereas debates involve outwitting the opponent and discussions involve an exchange of intellectual ideas, dialogues are much more intimate. Dialogues involve reflecting on experiences, which illuminates our shared humanity. When we can open ourselves to another human and share who we are—our fears and passions—our preconceived conceptions are immediately challenged. We begin to recognize someone as a human and not as just an idea. Naturally, the premature conception cannot be aptly applied to this empirical experience, causing people to reanalyze their old conception in light of newfound information. 

From a personal example, having lived in Hamilton, Montana my whole life, I had little to no experience with people of color until my rising senior year of high school. I certainly did not believe the stereotypes that were attached, for instance, to black people and Muslims. However, because I had been habituated to these stereotypes that were never directly challenged, I experienced moments of apprehension when I attended the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Summer Institute at Princeton, University. At LEDA, I was a minority for the first time in my life; I was one of five white students amongst 95 other students of color from across the United States. It was here that I interacted with Muslim, Hispanic and Latinx, and black students in an intimate setting for the first time. Over the course of this seven-week program, we learned about our histories, cultures, fears, and passions. It was here that my schemas and preconceived notions were challenged and replaced with strong, personal relationships. We took the time to actively listen, engage interpersonally, and intellectually challenge each other. Now, our transformative experiences have shaped who we are and who we want to become. These experiences influence how we interact in our home communities, college communities, and workplaces and shape how we will engage with our future communities.

In application, I think interreligious dialogue projects are exceedingly helpful on college campuses and amongst youth leaders. First, college campuses are rich spaces for engaging in meaningful interreligious dialogue, since colleges and universities attract students from a plethora of religious and cultural backgrounds. These same individuals are also, most importantly, future leaders (if not already) of their communities, companies, and nations. Ample spaces for dialogue coupled with unimaginable potential is a recipe for building more peaceful relations. If upcoming generations can engage with each other in manners conducive for developing peaceful relationships that challenge stereotypes and misrepresented schemas, we can begin changing institutions and communities that perpetuate grossly misinformed preconceived notions. 

As Peter Berger remarks in his Many Altars of Modernity, “Every concept can be taken apart to show that it does not reflect the complex reality it is intended to delineate.” Interreligious dialogue can be thought of as a process that challenges our taken-for-granted conceptions and gives us the opportunity to learn. But if an endeavor such as interreligious dialogue is to be effective, it needs to be fostered in communities with the greatest potential, namely those communities where diversity is present like college campuses. Interreligious dialogue cannot take place in a vacuum, nor can it be expected to succeed in communities where the concept is utterly alien to the inhabitants. Interreligious dialogue is an arduous process that will be met difficulties—trial and error—but also progress if communities and participants take the time to listen and recognize each other. Ultimately, interreligious dialogue needs to galvanize dynamic communities and reverberate through these individuals into their respective communities.

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