The Words of the Kaufmann Family
All religion is a personal or individual choice to the extent the person in question is capable of personal decisions A minority of people in the world consciously and deliberately chose their religion, but most people adhere to and follow religion to some greater or lesser extent because they are born into it From among the very few who consciously choose their own religion, most choose the religion into which they are born.
From the already small minority of people who consciously choose their religion, an even tinier number choose a religion different from their own original roots. This last, smallest group are known as converts.
In the era prior to the 1700s there was no such category as "secular" or "non-religious." Everyone was of some religion or another simply by dint of where they were born. The only choice people made was to secretly disbelieve, and occasionally, publicly "not practice."
In what is called the "modern period," or the post enlightenment period, secularism arose as a public way of life, in which people can have as their professed identity "non-religious." Once again, like religious people, only a minority actually "choose" their non-religious lifestyle. Most secular people are found in what are called "developed" countries, and most simply muddle through, not reflecting on the presence or absence of moral and transcendent qualities in their lives and decisions.
Due to this rise of "secularism" in modern societies, "converts" now consist of two types. 1. A person who has changed from one religion to another, or 2. A person who has decided to embrace a religious way of life and leave a secular one.
Conversion is a paired thing. It consists of the individual who is crossing over from one thing to another, and the community into which the person seeks entry (or into which the person has been drawn). For the individual, namely the convert, the matter is simple, someone or something wakes the person up from a spiritually unfulfilling path, and that person seeks to begin a spiritually meaningful life on some new path.
But so far as the community into which the person is drawn or seeks to go, there are several postures. 1. The religion is what is known as a "proselytizing" religion, (namely it actively seeks converts), 2. It is a non-proselytizing religion, but is willing to accept converts, and 3. Finally there are religions that do not seek converts, and in fact make it very difficult for someone to convert.
Among proselytizing religions there are two sorts, those that feel comfortable with seeking converts from a "non-religious" or "secular" way of life, and those who are willing even to "convert" people who already are members of other religions. In intra-Christian terms this is known as sheep stealing.
The problem of course with being willing to proselytize, but limit one's outreach only to "non-religious" people, is that you never know who you are talking to. You might find yourself in the process of converting someone who already is in a religion. Doing so is very disruptive to the family, extended family, and religious community of that person, and naturally arouses hostility in many cases. This is a problem often faced by "new religions," which almost by definition, consist almost entirely of converts.
Converts can often be aggressive and bothersome. Examples include newly born non-smokers, newly born vegetarians, believers in some product or some MLM, dieters, exercisers and so forth.
Thus one clear area of potential religious conflict has to do with the extent to which a religion seeks or allows conversion. The two most aggressively proselytizing religions in the world today are Christianity and Islam (the commission to convert "non-believers" is scriptural for both communities. As a result however, most of the religious problems in the world today involve one or both of these religions. Yet not all impulses to proselytize are bad. If you really honestly believe that a certain way of life will end a person up in hell, how can you sit idly by and not try to save them?
Interfaith has a very important role to play in resolving these questions, but rarely do interfaith gatherings and conversations tackle this very central question head on.
The second major cause of what is called "religious" conflict in the world today, comes from clashes in circumstances which are called "religious" but the elements of the clash deal with concerns that are not purely religious in nature.
In these cases, identity becomes intertwined and entangled with sources of conflict that in fact have very little to do with religion per se. They are in fact conflicts over money, power, and ethnic hatreds and rivalries. These conflicts have "religious" names, but in truth they are cultural, political, and military in nature. They have "religious" names because religious, cultural, and ethnic identity are blended into one.
This is common in many places in the world, especially in pre-modern social structures, and in developing areas in the world. Interfaith activists are fond of saying about such conflicts, "this is not really about religion," but I view this as a cop-out. Though true in some ways, it lacks a sufficiently deep and broad enough grasp of the mission of interfaith. If people are in destructive conflict, and part of how they justify their harmful and dysfunctional actions includes a religious justification, then it is the responsibility of the religion named to correct the person, community, or nation acting in its name. It does not suffice simply to say, "Oh that is not true religion." Indeed one must say that, but the responsibility of interfaith activists, or religious peacemakers does not end with this simple observation.
Even this fleeting overview shows that genuine interfaith of the type that can make a difference, is complex and difficult. There are forms of interfaith that are pleasant, and while challenging, easier to carry out. One is what might be called "discovery" interfaith. "Discovery" interfaith involves people suspending their biases and ignorance, and trying sincerely to learn about another religion directly from a sincere believer. This is very important and helpful, and should be happening all the time.
Greater complexity arises however, for those who want to integrate interfaith into the task and work designed to dissolve intense and active conflict and social disorder.
This is very hard to find in the world. The predecessors of UPF once operated with this degree of seriousness, but now most UPF interfaith ranges from symbolic interfaith (or what I call Halloween Interfaith - namely wearing costumes and taking pictures) to "discovery" interfaith, namely meeting, listening, and learning.
Interfaith that is directly and genuinely devoted to conflict dissolution and fixing serious social issues is far more difficult and complex. It requires theoretical rigor, and greater personal risk, including if necessary personal danger. To conclusion I will touch upon the essence of this latter, more difficult type of interfaith, but only by way of introduction. The crux of the matter is the asymmetry between religion, and the non-religious things people fight over: Wars and other forms of social disorder are about power and resources (including human resources) even when the name of religion is used. People these days tend to think of boundaries between what's mine and what's yours in political terms. But the deeper, truer, and more pervasive boundaries across which people fight are ethnic and cultural.
The thing about ethnic and cultural spheres is that they have a natural material process by which they can expand. For example, move a million Puerto Ricans to New York, and have 3 million Puerto Rican babies, and before long you have both Puerto Rican culture, and Puerto Rican political power. Now say for example, the vast majority of these Puerto Ricans are Catholic. And say for example an aggressive, intrusive mayor decides it's forbidden to wear crosses on necklaces in public schools. What have you got? Is this a political issue? Is it a Puerto Rican issue? Is it a religious issue? You see the complexity in the question. Can interfaith alone address this very serious problem?
Surely religion must weigh in on the question, but the truth is that being Catholic, and being Puerto Rican are two very distinct things. They may be related, but they are not one and the same. One big difference is that there is a natural mechanism for producing more Puerto Ricans, but there is not a natural mechanism for producing more Catholics.
There is not natural part of earth's daily affairs by which to expand and grow the true love of God in people for whom only peace, love, and compassion are possible.
It is this difference that religion must acknowledge and address. So far, religion does not have a mechanism to expand naturally, whereas ethnicity, culture, and other arenas of conflict do. Until this imbalance is addressed and resolved, interfaith will always be treated as a minor player in the real game of trying to fix human reality on the ground.