Is dialogue what we want?

Ikim Views
Fellow, Ikim

(The Star) – In multi-religious Malaysia there have been calls for inter-faith dialogues between people representing various religions. But will such dialogues resolve problems like the right to build temples, burial grounds and crematoriums, even apostasy, that are administrative rather than religious issues.


IN AN article recently published by The International Herald Tribune, the author (Adrian Pabst) bluntly remarked that a dialogue “will amount to little more than the polite platitudes of politicians and diplomats”.

This remark was made in his reaction to a proposal that a dialogue be held between Christianity and Islam.

What Christians and Muslims actually need today, he holds, is a real debate, not more dialogue.

He writes: “In the name of the shared commitment to truth and wisdom, Christians and Muslims should have a robust debate that are theologically informed and politically frank”.

In our multi-religious country we also hear calls from individuals and groups that we have ‘inter-faith dialogues’. What is that supposed to mean?

First, that dialogues be held between people representing various religions in Malaysia; and second, that faith is the subject matter of the dialogues.

So, if we have social activists representing various NGOs on one side, and officials representing government agencies and departments on the other while the problems being discussed may actually have nothing to do with faith, we cannot call the occasion an inter-faith dialogue.

Issues related to the right to build temples, burial grounds and crematoriums, even apostasy, for example, are administrative issues, not religious (of course, if we wish, we may always make them religious, racial, or political!).

Of course we can have dialogues on those issues, but to call them inter-faith dialogues is misleading.

Furthermore, what is expected from such a dialogue is a fair and practical solution to the problems, and what is needed from those involved is compromise.

Compromise, however, is not acceptable when it comes to religious faith (this is probably the principle underlying Pabst’s preference for debate over dialogue, though we can still argue that a proper dialogue could also mean a debate).

Faith has to be something fixed and established, because hope and a certain way of life are founded upon it.

To engage someone in a dialogue on matters of faith may involve challenging the plausibility of his or her position on those matters.

For those who share Socrates’ conviction that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’ there is nothing to fear. Such a dialogue, however, must be reserved for those committed to truth and wisdom; it is not for ‘diplomats’ and ‘politicians’.

The point is: dialogue is a very serious matter if the subject matter is faith and its foundation.

This kind of dialogue is only for those who want to be convinced, i.e. those who would not accept a belief simply because it is what their forefathers told them to believe in.

This kind of dialogue is for those who are searching for the truth, believing that there is such a thing called truth and that it can be known and verified.

It is not for those who do not believe that there is truth or those who hold that even if there is such a thing they believe that it cannot be known and verified. What they need then is a discourse on scepticism.

Is it possible to have this kind of dialogue in our country? In principle, why not? Unless truth does not matter to us Malaysians since we are constantly reminded and made to believe by our leaders that what matters most in this country is ‘peace’.

Everybody wants peace, even animals desire peace. But which one should be valued higher: peace, or truth?

Let us not limit our understanding of peace merely to the physical and social aspects of human existence.

Peace ultimately refers to the condition of the soul when it experiences calmness, tranquillity, and certainty.

The opposite condition is that of fear, which is the result of doubt and uncertainty. We experience all sorts of fear in our lives, but the greatest fear is the fear of death, not for death itself but because of the important question related to it, namely the question of destiny.

To be more precise, questions like: is there life after death? If there is, what is the nature of that life? Does our present life have any effect on our fate in the afterlife? How?

Death is certain, and will happen to everybody eventually. So questions related to death and human destiny are universal and fundamental questions.

And they are important questions. Whatever way of life one chooses, religious or otherwise, it ultimately boils down to what one accepts as answers to those questions. In other words, the way one lives one’s life reflects what one thinks of death.

Since death is something ‘certain’ can we accept ‘vague’ answers to questions related to it? We cannot simply hope that beyond the grave everything will just be fine.

(Muslims, in this regard, are not allowed to entertain empty hope. They have to be sure about all these, meaning they must have adequate knowledge about their identity and destiny, hence their duties and responsibilities.)

There can be no real peace without knowing the truth concerning these matters.

In this regard inter-faith dialogues can be an important platform where the views of various religions on the fundamental questions of life may be explained, discussed, compared and examined.

These dialogues, if conducted properly, would bring about positive effects on one’s lives as a whole.

However, it necessitates intelligence, sincerity, and courage. Intelligence, because one must be able to weigh arguments objectively; sincerity and courage, because upon discovering the truth, one should not hesitate to take sides.

In other words one must be willing to renounce one’s inherited beliefs if, after due consideration, they turn out to be false or unsatisfactory, and adopt what is correct and satisfactory.

Again, there is no compromise when it comes to truth. Either one is a believer or not, one cannot avoid ‘believing’ in something upon which one’s entire ethical life is premised.

As such, the issue is ‘in what’ one believes, and ‘what is’ the grounds for that belief. It is natural for one to question the basis of one’s own faith because no rational being would want to uphold wrong beliefs or false dogma knowingly.

If truth is what really matters dialogue can be the means towards uncovering it. The question now is: Are we prepared for it?