04/11/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

The Impotence of Interfaith Dialogue

The United States is, and has been, one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world. But even the strongest have their moments of fatigue. With anti-Catholic "nativism" in the 19th century, rampant anti-Semitism in the 20th century, and most recently, anti-Muslim sentiment post-9/11, it seems as though religious intolerance is as much a part of American history as religious tolerance.

And as we would expect, there is a desire -- mostly by members of an affected group, but also by many unaffected do-gooders -- to increase tolerance. Today, often effectuated by interfaith organizations or advocacy groups, there is a concerted effort to confront the ignorance that fosters the intolerance. The hope is to dispel negative stereotypes, find common ground among religions, or simply educate the public. It could be a town hall meeting with a priest, rabbi, and imam, a religious student group tabling at a college campus, or an activist taking to the airwaves to debate a talking head. Irrespective of form, all of these attempts at increasing tolerance are grounded in the belief that if people were more informed and better educated about a particular religion, they would be less likely to have animosity toward its members.

But is this approach the most effective? Consider the type of individual who attends an interfaith event at his or her local community center. Do we really expect to find uneducated, ignorant individuals at these events? Of course not, in fact, we'd likely find individuals that are already open-minded and have a willingness to learn more.

Even if these methods were properly targeted, there are a host of issues and impediments to their success. If we're exposing misconceptions, pointing out half-truths, or educating in general, we're necessarily limited in terms of who can participate; we would have to rely on those well versed in, and knowledgeable of, the faith's tenets. Assuming we had a sufficient number of willing educators, think of the various schools of thought and interpretive disagreements that exist within each religion.

More troubling, however, is the fact that this is a rhetoric-based solution to a problem in action and attribution. For example, the attribution of immorality or perversion to the Catholic clergy on the basis of individual cases of child molestation by priests. Or the labeling of Islam as inherently violent because of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims. Any sort of rhetoric that attempts to suggest the contrary (that clergymen are not perverted, that Islam is not violent) will be measured against incidents that are consistent with that stereotype (cases of child molestation, terrorist attacks). And as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words, leaving us with little hope in the face of incidents that perpetuate stereotypes. So not only is the conventional interfaith approach improperly targeted, it's unclear whether it would even be effective at all.

Our problem is that a few bad apples can spoil the batch. The logical solution is to remove the bad apples, but of course, in the context of religion this is a difficult and monumental effort that any single person or organization could not undertake alone. On a smaller scale, however, there may be something that we can all do.

The conventional approach is focused on informing the public that they should not attribute the negative actions of a few individual members to the entire group. Instead of asking people to avoid this (natural) tendency, why not work on increasing positive action? What if the best way to break a stereotype isn't to tell people not to stereotype, but to show people that the stereotype is wrong? What if the most effective solution to this age-old problem is as simple as basic social interaction? Being a kind neighbor or a friendly coworker might do more to change the perception of the religion one belongs to than anything a press release or an interfaith group could say. These relationships have the potential to serve as a reference points. If the stereotype is inconsistent with the nature of the relationship, then the stereotype is weaker, maybe even broken. The beauty of this approach is that anyone can partake. Neither religious expertise, nor event planning is required.

As history has shown, there will always be individuals who are intolerant of others. But if there was a way to convince such people otherwise, it wouldn't be because some omniscient nonprofit told them they were wrong, it would be because they got to know someone of that faith and learned that their preconceived notions were off the mark.

In the end, it's still education. The only difference is that anyone can be a teacher, and the world is the classroom.