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Can Religious Differences Be Mediated?

by Donal O’Reardon
August 2010 Donal  O’Reardon

Differences between people that are understood to rest on religious motivations or outlooks are often viewed as intractable. The reasoning goes something like this: Since the actions of these people are grounded in different religious doctrines, that is, different maps of reality, to change the actions you must address the religious worldview. This task is beyond the scope of mediation and dispute resolution and more appropriate to theologians and those interested in the business of “interfaith dialogue”. Alternatively, some may take the view that, being fundamentally irrational, there is no way into a religious worldview, to challenge it or the actions that the believer holds must follow from it. This being the case, so long as no human rights or laws of the land are violated, there is little or no recourse when dealing with conflict people that seems to come from a different religious perspective on the world.

I want to argue that the above approaches present false alternatives. In what follows, I want to outline what I think a coherent framework for mediating religious differences might look like. I wish to emphasise here that I am not talking about differences on points of religious doctrine, or indeed of ritualised religious practice. I’m specifically referring to conflicts between people in their everyday lives that, upon investigation, are seen to rest on at least one individual’s interpretation of their religious beliefs. One does not have to look far to find these in media reports: An employer informs female Muslim employees that for Health and Safety reasons they cannot wear their religious clothing when working in the warehouse, a Christian Bed and Breakfast owner refuses to allow a homosexual couple to rent a room (or the Christian adoption agency that refuses to entertain homosexual couples looking to adopt), the Hindu daughter told she cannot marry her secular boyfriend. What would a constructive dispute resolution framework look like for cases like these where religion seems to lie at the heart of them?

Rule One: Separate Doctrine from Interpretation

The first rule when mediating religious differences is that there is no belief devoid of human interpretation. Even the most adamant believer has to concede that they, not being God, have no perfect knowledge of their God’s desires (the Abrahamic religions for example are particularly suspicious of anyone, outside of their founders, who would claim such knowledge). Indeed the more supreme the God believed in, the greater the distance between the believer’s knowledge and that of their God and so the more imperfect the believer’s take on things. On the other hand, the more “this-worldly” the God believed in (mother nature, cosmic spirit) the more in sympathy with human fallibility it would have to understand itself to be anyway. As a rule, I suggest that the more “earthbound” the God believed in, the more it is indulgent of human foibles, (the Greek God’s are just one spectacular examples of this). But the more removed the God believed in, the greater the possibility of human error in interpreting this God’s needs.

The point here is to suggest that a starting point for any dispute that has religious source is that the mediator can remain silent on the truth or otherwise of the doctrine (women must behave modestly, God only blesses unions composed of members of the opposite sex, one’ faith requires one to marry within it), while focusing on its particular interpretation and application (the veil must be worn, no gay couples here, you must marry a Hindu). In effect, one could think of this as separating the alleged metaphysical truth of the doctrine from the pragmatic interpretation of it. One can suggest, in short, that the doctrine may be true, but its application may need some fine-tuning.

Philosophers and theologians have offered different models for the relationship between religious belief and the wider world. Mediation has a responsibility to acquaint itself with some of these (for example John Rawls’ idea of “Public Reason” [1] , Jürgen Habermas’ notion of “Communicative Rationality” [2] or Charles Taylor’s understanding of how secular ideals have religious and theological “sources” [3] ). Doing so will enable them to arrive at a model that is theoretically honest but also practically helpful. However, the key point here is that belief and action are distinct and that the religious believer almost always understands the difference between the private doctrinal formulation and the public behavioural expression of that belief. I say “almost” because, I would argue, all religious traditions have a strain in which one’s faith is best understood in and through the actions one undertakes. What is the mediator to do with someone who suggests that there is no difference between their beliefs and their acts and that their actions are their faith?

Here the mediator might find to helpful to remember that all theoretical formulations have the illusion of perfection. Theory is, at heart, an abstraction that can “forget” the dirty world we inhabit in the name of some supposed clarity. Practice, on the other hand, is necessarily fallible and subject to the demands of the actual world. A person who states that their faith is known only through actions is, whether they know it or not, saying that their faith is expressed only imperfectly. As I understand it, in a situation like this, it is the mediator’s task to remind the religious believer that, if they think the only expression of their faith is practical and not theoretical, then such practicality is necessarily fractured, imperfect or, at least, partial. I want to continue by expressing the tension between these two poles, between theory and practice, as the tension between what I’ll call the “Christ Principle” and the “Caesar Principle”.

Rule Two: Separate Christ from Caesar

I do not expect that the above approach will meet with immediate success. However, the main point is that all actions which proceed from religious convictions have to take place in an imperfect world. In addition, these actions are themselves interpretations. That is, they flow from a particular understanding of the religious teaching. In making this argument the mediator may find the religious believer pauses to explore whether another interpretation, one that does not cause so much conflict, might be used to honour their convictions. To facilitate this happening, it might be helpful to point out that all religious traditions from time immemorial have had to deal with the difficult tension between their beliefs and their relationship with the broader social world, with its different demands and its inconvenient quotient of people who do not share the believer’s faith.

Many religious believers look to a time, a kind of endpoint in history, where all people are convinced of the truth of that individual’s faith. While this may be more accurate a description of traditional faiths and religious outlooks of the past, at the heart of much religious belief is the assertion that, ultimately and in some way, what is good for the believer is also good for the rest of the world. In this respect, the relationship between the person’s faith (what I’m calling the “Christ Principle”) and their existence in the actual world (what I’m calling the “Caesar Principle”) is that Christ gets to influence and shape Caesar. This state of affairs is however, at best, aspirational. In reality, most people who have religious faith and live in a progressive democracy (and for the sake of the argument we’ll say this includes the US and Canada), accept, even grudgingly, that the public expression of their faith is subject to some restrictions. These restrictions are centred on the principles of autonomy and self-determination and this is reflected in law. Put at its most stark, in such political orders it is no longer against the law to miss church, mosque or synagogue. Nor is it legal to force others to attend.

The mediator would do well to reflect on the fact that mediation as it is known and understood in academic discourse on ADR is itself a product of a particular political order, that is, of a certain arrangement between individuals’ private convictions on the one hand and the broader world on the other. As such, two guiding values of mediation are also autonomy and self-determination. This means that they are values, without which, the whole enterprise of mediation is indistinguishable from say, bullying, or at the very least, pseudo-consultative direction. With these two values at its heart then, it is not easy to see how a practising mediator could put themselves in the service of a conflict where either party, in some fashion at least, finds themselves unable to endorse these values. However, this can be expressed in a positive fashion too. By soliciting the services of a mediator, both parties, irrespective of their religious and cultural baggage, recognise the value of a process premised on these principles.

And it is in this very recognition that there are grounds for conflict resolution. This is because the parties have (tacitly at least) understood that they are able to respect the meaning-supplying and inspirational role of their religious tradition one the one hand and, at the same time, acknowledge that they exist in a particular social world with others (what the American philosopher John Rawls called the “fact of reasonable pluralism”). In other words, they can separate their faith (the Christ principle) from their social and political reality (the Caesar principle). Unless they can do that, they cannot recognise the value of a conflict resolution process based on autonomy and self-determination. But, having done that, they have separated Christ and Caesar and therefore acknowledged that their faith is lived out in a particular political climate or context. This being the case, the principles of autonomy and self-determination for all is the framework within which their own faith practice is allowed to exist and does not have to fear extinction from religious or political tyranny. As such, and contrary to how things have developed in the past, the Caesar Principle for such religious believers also influences the Christ Principle. That is, the political order they live in influences their interpretation of their religious faith and the tools they use to express it in the public realm. (The debate about the influence of faith on society or, how the Christ Principle influences the Caesar Principle is a rich and interesting one but beyond the scope of this piece. For the record though, I take it that the argument that faith is a purely private matter with no political import is wrongheaded and naive).

In practical terms, accepting mediation for a conflict with religious roots, means accepting particular relationship to one’s religious faith. The consequence is that one allows the dominant ideas of autonomy and so on to be the tools for how your faith expresses itself to non-believers. Indeed not to accept this means that the religious believer is in the grip of what Habermas describes as a “preformative contradiction”. In other words, one cannot engage in dialogue, the guiding precepts of which are mutual esteem and autonomy, if your arguments deny these very values. To try to do so would mean that the believer is relying on tools whose validity they deny. Put another way, acceptance of the mediation context implies agreement with its ethos.

Rule Three: Religious Positions Can’t be Mediated, Positions From Religion Can

So far, I’ve tried to emphasise that it is not the mediator’s role to address the theological content of the believer’s faith and that we are talking here about the actions that follow from that content. The issue becomes more refined when we examine the question of the difference between a religious interpretation and something interpreted religiously. In other words, it is beyond the remit of the mediator to explore the cognitive and intellectual content of a faith statement, it is not, however beyond their remit when the interpretative method used by the believer to relate to that faith statement is then deployed in another context.

Take the case of the believer who takes a literal interpretation of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. Accordingly they believe the world was made by God in six days. This is a religious statement, it is a religious interpretation of a sacred text. However, imagine that this then influences them to denounce and deny the validity of contemporary cosmology which has established the age of the earth to be about 6 billion years old and that it was gradually formed over billions of years prior to that. This would then be a case of interpreting scientific data religiously. It is here that the mediator can claim a role.

As long as the believer stays at the level of religious interpretation, they are making sense of religious statements which they are free to do in any number of ways. They may take it that the “days” were each of 24 hours in length or, as the famous courtroom scene in “Inherit the Wind” reminds us, each “day” could be millions of years in length. The matter is not directly relevant to the mediator as, at this stage, the believer is still operating (that is thinking and and making meaning) at the level of religious interpretation.

However, once this interpretation is applied to a context that is not (directly at least) religious, then we are in the area of interpreting something religiously. Put another way, we have moved from a religious position to establishing a position based on one’s religion. And here the repertoire of tools and devices available to the mediator in any other dispute resolution context are relevant here too. They include: Appeal to best practice, incontrovertible data, expertise from within the industry and so on. These appeals can be engaged in as robustly as in any other context. I take the view that if this method was applied in certain debates concerning creationism and the school curriculum, the outcome might be illuminating!

The difference between a religious interpretation and something interpreted religiously should not be understood by the mediator to be akin to a public / private distinction. They do not distinguish between spheres of existence as much as they distinguish between levels of our existence. The religious level aspires to explain the world as a unity and to give meaning to it. But the level at which data is interpreted religiously is, if you will, a practical-cognitive level whose priority is to get the facts straight. We are capable, of course, of multiple levels of thinking. Those who seek meaning in life attempt also to integrate these levels such that they don’t fundamentally contradict each other. This does not mean however that the level at which religious statements operate should be allowed to dictate to the other levels how they should do their business. Theology and religious thinking are valid intellectual pursuits alongside those of the natural and social sciences and so on. But theology is no longer the “Queen of the Sciences” dictating to other disciplines how they should do their thinking.

Conclusion: Don’t Fear the Reaper

My impression from talking to mediators and others involved in dispute resolution is that there is a general reluctance to take on religiously motivated conflict. It is seen as a sensitive area ripe for accusations of cultural intolerance and even racism. This of course would spell professional death. In addition, religion is often seen as a source of intolerance and irrationalism. This is unfortunate and I believe there is a way for mediation to engage with religiously motivated conflict in a safe and meaningful way. A Muslim client recently said to me in a community mediation context that your neighbour is your family and that there is nothing more important than good relations with them. To this, I would add that religious worldviews are part of the family of human experience and expression. Ignoring them does them an injustice. But it is an injustice as well to those of us in the field of dispute resolution and it denies us the experience of engaging in dispute resolution that speaks to people at the level of their fundamental beliefs and values.

End Notes

1 John Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.

2 Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 Vols. Translated by Thomas McCarthy, Boston Beacon Press 1984 & 1987.

3 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. 1989.


Originally from Ireland, Donal O'Reardon is a mediator, coach, author and founder of O’Reardon Consulting. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy and specialises in communication and conflict management skills with an emotional intelligence foundation. He is the author of “Introducing Philosophy: Questions and Readings” (Emond Montgomery, 2014) as well as a forthcoming book on best communication practice for professional and personal development.

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