The Global Congress World's Religions Proceedings 1980-1982 Edited by Henry O. Thompson

III. Stages in the Development of Inter-religious Attitudes by Archie J. Bahm

Reprinted, with permission of the author, from:

Indian Philosophy and Culture
Institute of Oriental Philosophy Vindraban, UP, India
Vol. XVI, No. 4, December, 1971

The attitudes of each person as he becomes acquainted with other religions often change. The attitudes of people grouped as adherents to one religion often change as they become acquainted with other religions. The fact of such changes, psychologically and historically, is well known. But that changes tend to progress through several typical stages is not so well known. The purpose of this article is to present the hypothesis that inter-religious attitudes do tend to change in certain typical ways and that at least twelve different stages can be distinguished in a typical evolutionary process if it is carried to completion. The stages are:

1. Ignorance. People in some religions have been, and doubtless are, unaware of the existence of other religions. These are not now warring, of course, but, if our hypothesis is correct, and if they are of a kind which will go through all of its proposed typical stages, their troubles are still ahead of them, and the total process for mankind as a whole may be slowed by their starting late.

2. Curiosity. When a person discovers the existence of one or more other religions, he is at first surprised. He tends to react to the discovery with wonder and curiosity. How much curiosity one will have or how long he will remain merely curious is something difficult to generalize about. If the person making observations about another religion feels sure about and secure in his own views, he may dismiss such differences as insignificant, thereby regarding the other religion as insignificant. But if such person is, or becomes, uncertain about his views, awareness of differences may appear as a threat to his assurance. Then his curiosity may not last very long.

3. Intolerance. To a person at home in a particular ideology, any challenge to such ideology appears as a threat to his home and to his self. When he has come to believe that the tenets of his religion are true, those who disagree with such truth tend to be thought of as more inimical than those who fall short in practice. The infidel is often judged to be worse than the sinner. When this is so, the dutiful religious person seeks to protect his religion from attack. His first response, that of fear, may lead him to attack, and to try to eliminate, the other religion. Often such elimination is not possible, and attack causes the other to defend and to counterattack. As fear grows, an attitude of intolerance increases. We cannot review here the long history of kinds of religious intolerance, but surely its many forms and degrees are well known. Death, exile, torture, persecution, restriction, slavery, discrimination, taxation, and boycott have all been used. Sometimes different beliefs are tolerated but not public practice or teaching.

4. Accommodation. When two people of different religions are forced to live together, where they interact by using the same streets, markets, factories, government, and even houses, each tends to accept, somewhat unwillingly, the fact that the other's religion does exist and will probably continue to exist. Each regards the views of the other as false or inferior, even when granting him the right to live and practice his own beliefs provided he does not interfere with the rights of others. Neither studies the views of the other. Neither believes he has anything of significance to learn from the other. Each ignores the other as much as he can and tends to keep to himself when practicing and expounding his own doctrines.

5. Encounter. After a person lives side by side with a person having another religion for a long time, he gradually tends to recognize that the other religion has a kind of substantiality about it, not just in the sense that it persists but in the sense that it persists because it serves needs. That is, each recognizes that the other religion has value, even though he regards it as inferior. "Encounter" signifies recognition of coexistence, co-continuance, and competition, at least for peripheral membership and support. "Encounter" does not imply enmity necessarily, though enmity in some degree seems normal. But it does imply awareness both of obstinate otherness and of competition of a sort which, sooner or later, needs to be met. Encounter, as awareness of substantial competitiveness, may or may not be accompanied by inquiry.

6. Inquiry. Then comes a second kind of curiosity. This is not merely about the existence of something different and of what the differences are, but a curiosity about how the other religion serves the needs of its members and why it appeals to its members and continues to do so in a substantial way. What are its doctrines? What are its values to its members? A certain amount of open-mindedness is needed in order to try to understand the other religion. But such inquiry does not pre-suppose a willingness on the part of the inquirer to change his own views. One may study the other religion in order to discover its deficiencies, weaknesses, shortcomings, so as to defeat it, or win it over, or demonstrate its inferiority. When this is the case, inquiry is really an extension of the encounter, and one in which it is believed that understanding the other religion will improve one's chances of competing with it.

7. Softening. Inquiry, especially if it be open-minded, usually results in awareness of some good features in the other religion, even though they may be regarded as incidental, inferior, accidental, or even with an attitude of wonder how it is possible for an inferior religion to be so good. This stage, called "softening" for want of a better term, involves the beginnings of appreciation of the good points in the other religion. Such appreciation may or may not be accompanied by a criticism of the inquirer's religion. But inquiry is likely to involve comparisons, and when one begins to appreciate another religion, he almost automatically begins a reexamination of his own. Softening is, of course, a matter of degree and is a process which may go on for a long time. Inquiry and softening may or may not involve dialogue which, I suggest, is the next typical stage.

8. Dialogue. By "dialogue" I do not here mean angry disputation which may occur at the second, third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth stages. By "dialogue" I mean conversation in which one, at least, and preferably both persons, is seeking to learn something of value from the other. "Dialogue" involves a willingness to change one's views, even though he may not in fact change them during or as a result of such conversation. One of the purposes of dialogue is possible increase in appreciation as well as understanding of the other religion. A dialogue may fail in its purposes. One may, as a result, come to depreciate rather than appreciate, and to misunderstand rather than understand, as a result of dialogue. But dialogue has a tendency to improve both understanding and appreciation by both participants.

9. Modification. As appreciation of the values of the other religion grows, one tends to modify his attitude toward the other religion. Such modification may include a willingness to approve some ideas, or some practices, or both, without a willingness to adopt them, though it may also lead to adoption of some of them. Modification is, also, a matter of degree. Since we are thinking in terms of evolutionary stages, this stage may be seen as one within which much development may take place, or in which development may occur over a long period of time. Although these stages are being described primarily from the point of view of one religion, ecumenism can hardly be achieved without mutual modification at least part of the time. It may be that one religion is actually so superior that modification is all in one direction. But my own experience with existing religions is that they all have values and that each has something to gain from the others. Hence, mutual modification, i.e., where each of two religions borrows something that is appreciated from the other, may be regarded as representing a more advanced stage than one-way modification.

10. Cooperation. By "cooperation" is meant acting willingly in the pursuit of common ends. Cooperation of unwilling sorts may occur at earlier stages, and willing cooperation of minor sorts may also occur. Some minimum of cooperation is needed in order to carry on dialogue. The present stage is characterized by a mutual recognition of worthiness, and of a sharing of some common goals and of the worthwhileness of acting together to achieve those goals. Cooperation may involve very little modification, but it requires enough modification by each so that it changes from having a noncooperative attitude to having a cooperative attitude. Cooperation may be either of the sort where both seek some value external to both of them or of the sort where values are exchanged. This stage, too, may be prolonged and may progress from cooperating in few things to cooperating in many, and from remaining only a little modified to becoming greatly modified.

11. Partial emergence. Sometimes two religions appreciate each other, modify themselves mutually and cooperate so much that they sometimes serve each other's members equally; that is, some members receive as much benefit from the one as from the other. When this happens, emergence, ranging from partial to complete, may occur. This represents inter-religious ecumenism in its final stage, so far as the two religions are concerned.

12. Progressive synthesis. Two religions might merge in such a way that they share common enemies and are thereby enabled to intensify their opposition to other religions. Partial inter-religious ecumenism of this sort may have a retarding effect upon long-range multireligious ecumenism. But once adherents of one religion begin to appreciate the values of another religion, there is a tendency for some of them to look to still other religions, either step-wise through all our stages or more directly and deliberately, especially when their own evolution is far along. When people become aware that all religions are world religions, i.e., desire what is best for all people in the world, then they tend to become more open to inquiry, dialogue, softening, modification and cooperation with many others. Religions whose presuppositions differ more widely, and, perhaps, whose spatial locations separate them more widely, may be more difficult to synthesize. Some abhor the idea of such completion. Yet, from the viewpoint of world peace, some way of reducing, if not eliminating, the kinds of differences between religions which produce conflicts will continue to be needed. In any case, such a completion of progressive synthesis is primarily a speculative ideal at this point.

13. World religion? By "world religion" I here mean, not merely a doctrine which advocates that everybody believe it and profit by it, but a doctrine to which all those who regard themselves as religious do, in fact, assent -- partially at least -- and practice in some way, at least some of the time. Whether there will ever be such a world religion seems quite uncertain at this time. Some despise the idea as unworthy even as an ideal. I include it here as an ideal stage which may or may not be realized, but which does, as an ideal, serve as a logical, and psychological, terminus of the evolutionary series outlined here. It represents a kind of wishful thinking which not everybody shares. Yet, those idealizing world peace may feel fortified in their idealism if they feel supported by an ideal of religion without religions. For religion unites, but religions divide.

The foregoing hypothesis has been stated succinctly and without illustration. Although, doubtless, each reader has recalled from his own experience examples of some of the stages, the following illustrations should serve as suggestive of kinds of developments which surely exist in abundance.

Neglecting "ignorance" and "curiosity" as too obvious, and "intolerance" as too well known (e.g., recall the Christian Crusades against the Moslems and the Muslim separation of Pakistan from India), we may observe that "accommodation" has characterized inter-religious life in the United States under a constitution guaranteeing religious liberty as well as "separation of church and state." Numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems and Jains have established themselves in the predominantly Christian United States, as have multitudes of Jews. My own experience of such accommodation began at about the age of six when my parents lived for a while on Goodwin Avenue in Detroit, where one end of the block was closed by the high and forbidding wall of a Roman Catholic monastery and the other end swarmed with Kosher meat markets and delicatessens.

More interesting, these days, is the growing prevalence of "encounter" and "inquiry" experiences. Now is a time of "encounter" for more Christians in many places in the world, partly because the rise of nationalism among former colonies of the declining British Empire has forced termination of Christian missionary activity and partly because Christianity itself has come under increasing attack at home by scientific developments. One example must suffice: while studying Buddhism in the University of Rangoon in 1955-56. I joined a weekly study group sponsored by the interdenominational Burma Christian Council to hear lectures by a Burmese Christian, U Pe Maung, Emeritus Professor of Pali and Abhidhamma (Theravada Buddhism). Most participants were Western missionaries who had been in Burma for some years without ever seriously studying Buddhist teachings. Converts had been few, and most were engaged in a holding operation. They were preparing to train Burmese, often children of parents absorbed into the Christian community by charitable or so-called "rice-Christian" methods, to take over the teaching and administrative posts since new laws barred further admission of foreign missionaries. But the prevailing spirit of inquiry in this group was not, "What can I learn from Buddhism which may be helpful to me religiously?" but, "What can I learn about Buddhism -- either some common beliefs wherewith to promote sympathy and initiate dialogue or some weakness whereby to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity -- so that I may discover some foothold for argumentation?"

American youth today express great curiosity about other religions; not only are college courses in comparative religions popular, but elementary and high school teachers increasingly assist their students in gaining insight into other religions. A willing Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim in Albuquerque could find invitations to tell about his religion in a different Sunday school class almost every Sunday in the year. More and more people are inquiring about how other religions serve the needs of their members. The Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions was established to invite prominent scholars representative of major religions to live together for a year so they could become acquainted with each other's virtues, reasons, and values. and perhaps gain some insights into how much people of such different religions can reconcile their doctrinal differences. Correspondence with my revered friend Masao Abe, of Kyoto, Professor of Philosophy at Nara College, who spent some time at the Harvard Center, revealed his interest in discovering whether the Christian idea that God created the world out of nothing could be related to the Sunyavada Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata, Voidness, which he translates as "Absolute Nothingness." My reply had to be that consistency would require that God, too, would have had to emerge out of such Absolute Nothingness, and this is something to which Christians could never agree. Whether or not Professor Abe's inquiries represent some transition beyond the "encounter" stage, those who support the Harvard Center are to be congratulated for their efforts in encouraging inter-religious ecumenism (see "How Can Buddhism Become a Universal Religion," The Eastern Buddhist. Vol. Ill, No. 1, June, 1970, pp. 147-149).

Softening is illustrated by left-wing Unitarianism which appropriates inspirational thoughts from all of the world's scriptures. Its open-minded methods have become so extensive that some claim that it is no longer properly called "Christian."

Dialogue occurs most often when lovers, planning marriage, earnestly inquire about each other's faiths, or when a person has become disillusioned about his own inherited doctrines and deliberately seeks to find a better alternative. One of the most famous examples of persistent inquirer, who studied with a willingness to change his views, was Sri Ramakrishna, who successively became an active devotee of several religions, thereby proving to himself that all were suitable ways to the same goal.

Modification may be illustrated (1) by Shin Buddhists in America adopting Christian methods such as organizing a Young Men's Buddhist Association and singing "Be Like Buddha, this my song," to Christian tunes, (2) by the Roman Catholic priest J.M. DeChanet, who, in his volume, Christian Yoga (Harpers, NY, 1960, tr. from French), explains how he adopted yogic postures and breathing exercises as means for improving his Christian prayers, and (3) by Sufis, Muslims whose mystical doctrines and practices seem at times indistinguishable from those of Hindu yogis.

Cooperation, exemplified by the efforts of the National Council of Christians and Jews, is well known. But I was pleasantly startled to discover that the "Gita Celebration," to which I was invited as a speaker, when I was in Benares in 1962-63 translating the Bhagavad Gita, was arranged in the Theosophical Society compound under the leadership of a Muslim.

Partial emergence is illustrated by "the three truths of China," where Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism often cooperate in serving different interests of the same family, and by Japanese acceptance of Confucian and Buddhist ideals and practices as supplementary to those of the native Shinto religion.

Progressive synthesis may be illustrated (1) in the life of Raymond Pannikar, a Benares Hindu University professor, one of whose parents was a Catholic and one a Buddhist, who embodies both religions in his life, functioning at times as a Catholic priest, (2) in one group which has organized the Christian Yoga Church in California, and (3) in a new religion, Sikhism, resulting from emergence of Hindu and Muslim doctrines.

World religion, still a dream at present, is a "stage" only in the sense that it is something pointed to, hoped for, and idealized. Many have had their hopes aroused that "world religion" is in sight. Each major religion claims to aim at the good for all mankind, yet each still clings to some tenet which makes it unacceptable universally. One can be inspired by the common cry in India that "all religions are one," until he realizes that Vedanta is that one. Many, on first hearing about Bahai, say, as I did, "This is what I have been looking for," until they are called upon to revere its founders and to take sides on whether leadership succession is to be hereditary or elective. With the growth of science and rigorous scholarship, one now tends to look to experts for promise. An outstanding example is to be found in two works by P.T. Raju, The Concept of Man and An Introduction to Comparative Philosophy. After making detailed surveys of different cultural ideals, he summarizes what they all have in common. His conclusion: "Man." His answer is sound enough, but is also evidence that most of the work needed for effective ecumenism remains to be done.

Recently I joined the new Society for Oriental and Comparative Philosophy, but was disappointed when its March, 1969, meeting in Boston devoted its main panel to a merely linguistic problem: "Referring expressions." The quintennial East-West Philosophers' Conferences point in the right direction, but, like the World Parliament of Religions, have spent more time expounding different viewpoints than in seeking mutual understanding and in promoting common interests. The new Director of the fifth such conference, meeting during the summer of 1969, appears to have abandoned even East-West topics in favor of the currently pressing problem of "Alienation." I joined the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, but found its properly open-minded policy resulting in interesting accumulations of data which appear more useful for anthropological surveyors than for studies of the nature of religion which will yield insights about what is common to all religions and may then be drawn upon as bases for formulating a more general religious perspective in which all peoples can genuinely share. As a final "stage" world religion is still an ideal, but it remains an enduring ideal.

Doubtless several precautions about this hypothesis should be noted:

1. Although it has been long in developing, it can profit from further study. I may have omitted stages. I have not yet re-examined all of the religions in their various relations with others to see how adequate it is.

2. The order of the stages may be only normal rather than universal, for in some situations dialogue may begin before softening, and cooperation before modification. Furthermore, since different people in the same religion develop at different rates, many stages may all be exhibited in a single religion in the lives of different members.

3. The suggested evolution may proceed so gradually that any sharp differentiation of stages falsifies the picture. Even if one accepts all of the stages proposed, at least some, if not all, may shade into each other by such minute degrees that the process should be described as a continuum rather than in terms of remarkable stages.

4. Differentials in the rates of evolution in various religions may be such that some will be left behind increasingly, widening a gap that may never be closed. On the other hand, an evangelical ecumenical spirit in some religions may hasten the process so that other religions may be induced to skip several stages in order to bring peace and harmony more quickly.

5. My hypothesis may be too simple, for there may be many lines of progressive evolution rather than just one, and regressive stages may turn out to be typical also. Nothing has been said about the interrelations of religious evolution with other kinds of evolution, such as economic, political, linguistic, scientific, or technological, which may be more influential than inter-religious contacts in determining the actual course of events.

6. Some say that "secularism" is a common enemy of all religions, and that its development has become so powerful and rapid that most religions will succumb to it before they have developed through many stages.

Such a statement is more likely to be made by those whose conception of religion is such that it does not fuse with and serve well in everyday life. Living religions (by which I mean not those which are still merely alive but those which enter continuingly into the daily working lives of people to help them to be constantly enjoying the goal of life as they proceed along their way) do not need to fear extinction or even competition from "secularism." A religion which separates the religious from the secular is already partly dead, for wholesomeness rather than separation is both a primary aim and a primary function of religion. A religion which remembers only a sabbath day is already six-sevenths dead. A religion in which each member habitually "prays without ceasing," where the "prayed-for" enjoyment of life is habitually embodied unceasingly while one works, has been naturalized.

Knowledge explosion has been engulfing all aspects of life, and religions which ignore or hide from the new revelations may find themselves swept aside and left behind with less and less to offer their members. Some of them, refusing to incorporate new truths as they are discovered. become enemies of truth, and, thereby, tend to become anti-religious in spite of their good intentions. They have become divisive rather than unitive. Hence, science, "secularism," and the unadaptability of some religions may bring the mass of mankind to a newer, somewhat different, and more wholesome outlook, possibly a new world-religion outlook, in a way which by-passes some of the religions. 

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