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Attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions for the First Time

By Megan Weiss


The Parliament of the World’s Religions held last month in Salt Lake City, Utah, was among the most inspiring experiences of my life. From the first day forward I was in awe. Never had I seen so many people passionate about both interfaith and their own faith gathered in one place. The inherent sense of community present among this group of more than 10,000, most of them strangers to one another, was amazing. Over and over I fell into conversation with people I happened to be standing next to – conversations that could last for thirty minutes!

During the Parliament songs and drums from around the world rang out from a dozen sites in the Salt Palace convention center, and in the early morning sacred chanting and singing was piped throughout the facility. – Photo: TIO

During the Parliament songs and drums from around the world rang out from a dozen sites in the Salt Palace convention center, and in the early morning sacred chanting and singing was piped throughout the facility. – Photo: TIO

The best word to describe this community – and the Parliament as a whole – is “love,” but not love in the sense many people think of the word when it comes to interfaith events. The October 15th edition of the Salt Lake Tribune front page declared “Interfaith lovefest ‘brings hearts and minds together.’” “Lovefest” conjures images of people standing in a circle singing kumbaya. But the love at the Parliament wasn’t static – it was love in action. Five plenaries focused on important global subjects, including climate change, income inequality, war, violence, hate speech, women, emerging leaders, and indigenous peoples. Attendees were asked to sign declarations on each of these issues, pledging their commitment to take action.

Learning about Peace and Respect

Individual sessions covered more than 800 topics related to interfaith, many unpacking an issue from one of the plenaries. Two workshops on peacebuilding I attended were particularly insightful. “Democracy and Religious Diversity” was presented by staff from United Religions Initiative (URI), Sustained Dialogue Institute, Interfaith Works, and Civic Mix. The chairs in the room were arranged in a circle in groups of eight to ten. A box with pictures of different religious and cultural images was placed in the center of each circle. In our groups we went around, each person describing what they saw. Not surprisingly, each description of the box was different. Only by compiling our responses did we understand what the box looked like as a whole.

This simple but provocative activity underlined the importance of listening to different perspectives. None of us alone understood the box in its entirety. A single perspective was too limited. Even perception of individual images differed among us. On one of the box’s sides was a picture of what I thought was a Menorah with a circle hovering above the center, while the person next to be described it as a chalice and the Eucharist.

We then applied the process to a socio-political issue faced by religion. My group chose exclusion from and within religion. Again each person’s response differed from others. It was enlightening to think about the issue in new ways. It enabled me to see it more holistically. So often we become polarized because we favor our own view. We divide things into absolutes –”right and wrong,” “true and false.” I learned that if we want to attain peace in the world, particularly peace among religions, we need to acknowledge that our truth is not the only truth and acknowledge the inherent value of traditions and beliefs which differ from our own. This does not mean we have to compromise our own beliefs and believe everything in other traditions is true – in fact, we should not. In the world of interfaith having roots is essential, it seems to me. Without people rooted in a particular religious tradition, it would be ‘monofaith,’ not interfaith, and we would lose the rich wisdom each tradition provides. We must, though, listen with the ears of our heart as we acknowledge the value of other perspectives. Only through these forms of love and respect can we achieve authentic pluralism and peace.

Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer – Photo: Rumiforum

Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer – Photo: Rumiforum

“Intensive Course on Interreligious Peacebuilding” was led by Dr. Mohammad Abu-Nimer, senior advisor to KAICIID, the large, two-year-old interfaith organization in Vienna. His incredible insights focused on a primary obstacle to establishing peace among the world’s religions: having a religiocentric rather than religiorelative point of view.

Religiocentrism can be expressed in four ways: denial of other truths, defense of one’s truth as the only truth, minimizing other traditions and asserting the superiority of your own, and reversal, leaving one’s own religion and going to another. In contrast, religiorelativism is characterized by accepting the existence of truth in other religions, respect for another religion’s different behaviors and traditions, respect for other religious values, adaptation (empathy and a pluralistic perspective), and integration (contextual marginalization and evaluation).

Abu-Nimer argued that peace is possible if we move from having a religiocentric to a religorelative perspective. He asserted that in order to do this, “We have to understand what happens inside of us when we see the ‘other.’” In the effort to establish peace and coexistence, one of the most difficult opponents to face is ourselves. The human mind is programmed to judge and evaluate. Additionally, ego predisposes us towards feelings of superiority, and we have an evolutionary fear of the unknown. Each of these corresponds to the religiocentric perspective. When we encounter another person or religious tradition we need to be aware of our initial reaction and ask ourselves what underlies it. What are our implicit biases? Is our reaction based on past experience or things we have been told?

“Democracy and Religious Diversity” reaffirmed for me that we need to open ourselves in love and respect to those whose religious beliefs and traditions differ from our own. Again, this does not mean we have to agree or change our own beliefs, what Abu-Nimer called reversal, as this keeps us in a religiocentric perspective. It means simply that we acknowledge the right of these traditions to exist and the wisdom inherent to them.


Langar at the Parliament in Salt Lake City            – Photo: Twitter

Langar at the Parliament in Salt Lake City            – Photo: Twitter

For me the most authentic expression of love at the Parliament was Langar, the free lunch served every day by the Sikh community. The tradition of Langar, started by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh Guru, is designed to maintain the principle of equality between all people, regardless of race, religion, age, gender, or social status. At the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, India – the holiest Sikh gurdwara (sanctuary) – over 100,000 people are freely fed every day. At the Parliament more than 5000 people were fed every day! Taking part was a glimpse into true altruism. Volunteers served with profound humility and kindness. What’s more, the Sikh community took what was left over at the end of the day and served it to the homeless in Salt Lake City, and donated the carpet they used and the wood from the shelves they made to hold people’s shoes (the tradition includes not wearing shoes) to a homeless shelter. Langar embodied true generosity and for me was a model of how I should serve others.

Where This Leads Me

I want to thank all the incredible people I met, including staff from KAISIID, URI, The International Shinto Foundation, Faith Seeker Kids, Scarboro Missions, NAIN, the UN, the State Department, and Wisdom Thinkers Network, along with the dozens of individuals I encountered at the Parliament. You are doing incredible work, an inspiration to me as I graduate from college this May and discern how best to pursue an interfaith career.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was a place where people came together in solidarity to address the crucial issues of our time. It was a place where people were not afraid to stand firm in their own roots while respecting other religious traditions. It was a place, not just of love, but of love in action.