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Hacking a Better Future for Interfaith Cooperation

By Rev. Bud Heckman


Daniel Sieberg – Photo: Religion Communicators Council

Daniel Sieberg – Photo: Religion Communicators Council

At the recent Religion Communicators Council convention in New York City, Daniel Sieberg of Google News Lab gave attendees a peek at some of the cool tools that Google has in its carousel. Most of us use the Google Search and Maps features regularly, but there is much more under Google’s hood. Several tools got me thinking about how we could significantly improve the enterprise of interfaith cooperation.

While there is much waterfront to explore, in this article I will focus on just two suggestions:

  • analysis of Google Trends meta search data on the terms we all use that could help lead us to discover better ways to publicly describe our work in interfaith cooperation, and
  • use of virtual reality to help us significantly advance exposure of many more people to the religious “other.”

Seeing Trends and Finding Terminology That Works

First, the Google Trends tool has long been used by media wonks to find what is “hot,” so they could write content that was more likely to be read. It also shows the rest of us how often any word or group of words are searched. Word use can be broken down by geography, timeframe, and other parameters and even correlated with other things. I examined Google Trends for traditional words in the field of interfaith cooperation.

It is not uncommon for people to begin using new terms to describe something when old terms are failing or get co-opted. When I was at Religions for Peace International, we had a partiality to saying “interreligious” versus “interfaith,” because it emphasized the engagement of religious leaders and their faith institutions in dialogue and action together. When speaking to insiders we said that RFP is “interreligious.” Yet, as a key development and communications officer, I argued that we had to use “interfaith” for web content and publications, because virtually no one except wonks in the field search for “interreligious.” It is simple SEO, or search engine optimization, and it works to grow web traffic and engagement with wider circles.

I now think “interfaith” is not only a problematic word (which I have written about elsewhere), but it is also a geographically limited and generally waning word in terms of its public use. Search trend data shows that. So we have to do better.

Google lets you look at search terms over time and to specify a country or to look globally. It also gives handy visual maps to show where the use of the particular term is more prevalent (or not). I used the twelve-year timeline which is automatic to the search tool. If you did your own tinkering and shared your finds in the comments section below, it would be appreciated.

Searches for “interfaith” show a marked decline in searches for the word over a decade.

Global patterns of search for “interfaith” show heavy use in the U.S. and a reasonable level of use in Canada, Pakistan, Australia, and United Kingdom, but in much of the rest of the world the term is scarcely used in searches, which is telling.

The same goes for the term “interreligious.”

Religion-Related Words Trending Down

Interspiritual, intrafaith, religious cooperation, multifaith, multireligious, ecumenical and many of the other terms we use in interfaith cooperation are equally declining in searches. Some word combinations have stayed at a consistent level, though, such as interfaith dialogue.

Not all the trends are downward or static, though. The words faith and religion are consistently high. Perhaps not surprisingly, the words Muslim and Islam are each trending higher and higher, assumedly for the wrong reasons. Terms for the other leading religions have all trended downwards, though some have leveled off in recent years. Interestingly, religion and violence as a combination of words has trended downwards, as well, while religion and conflict and religion and peace have each remained high.

View full report in Google Trends

View full report in Google Trends

What interfaith-related combinations are rising? There are some upward trends in searching for: “interfaith service” (+300%), “interfaith movement” (+250%), “interreligious dialogue” (+250%), and (humorously, tellingly, and ironically so) “what is interfaith” (+250%).

You might also look at other fields and play around to make some discoveries, so this all becomes better contextualized. Two quick examples are worth sharing to demonstrate.

Searches for environment have slowly waned (like interfaith), but climate change has spiked. Searches for homosexual have significantly waned, but LGBTQ and its variants have sharply risen. Other such contrasts can be found. Each in the same subject area, but they show how different emphases have now come into being.

Interestingly, Google has another feature which is a correlational tool for search terms. You can look over time and in certain countries or states to see what other search terms are trending with the same pattern as your term. For the sake of space, I will only offer that the term “interfaith” has patterns of decline that mirror declines of search terms in the U.S. like: “video camera rental” (correlation of 0.9535 in last 6 months), “food magazines” (correlation of 0.9378 in the past 6 years), and “vacation map” (correlation of .9775 in the past 12 years). You can also look at the specific areas of where people are searching for a term. Interfaith draws more interests on the two U.S. coasts and is searched most heavily on the index scale in: Vermont (state); Tucson, Arizona (metro area); and Marietta-Alderwood, Washington (city).

So what does all of this mean? It seems to show a U.S.-centric interest in “interfaith” and some declining public interest in the traditional terminology of the interfaith cooperation movement.

Global interfaith organizations clearly need to look at how the terminology plays in the countries they work in. Organizations like KAICIID and the Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group in the American Academy of Religion have already gone for the “both/and” approach in incorporating in their names some combination of “interfaith,” “intercultural,” or “interreligious.”

In my work, as in the start of this article, I often speak about “interfaith cooperation” and “religious cooperation,” but, to be honest, they seem to fall flat based on search data volume. I have struggled to find the right shorthand way to say the same thing differently and limit confusion. I often say that I “help people of different faiths and even no faith to work cooperatively together,” but that is a full phrase, not a succinct word or two.

Speaking about doing interfaith service, supporting an interfaith movement, and engaging in interreligious dialogue all seem to be trending upward, though. Let’s see if the winds continue to fill those sails. They are each promising.

The thing we all have to determine is what will be the new way to talk about “interfaith cooperation” that will be more inviting to the ears and attention of more people so that the “interfaith movement” might advance in the general public’s interest and acceptance. From my perspective, we as a movement remain in search of an answer as we evolve. 

Fostering Virtual Empathy

A 2013 developer version of Oculus Rift from Oculus VR, a company Facebook acquired in 2014 for $2 billion – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A 2013 developer version of Oculus Rift from Oculus VR, a company Facebook acquired in 2014 for $2 billion – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A second promising tool is virtual reality (VR) technology, in which Google has been an innovator. New gadgets tied to smartphone ubiquity are popping up all over the place, fueling the emergence of VR as the next big thing in electronics. One of the things that Daniel showcased in his presentation was the use of VR to create environments that expose us to things we could or might not otherwise experience. These virtual reality immersions help build empathy.

Daniel highlighted one particularly jarring experience he had with VR, feeling what it is like to be in solitary confinement. He put the headset on and had the experience of being in 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He said he had to remove the headset after just a couple of minutes because the experience “was too intense.”

To experience this new technology for yourself, you can buy inexpensively or even build your own headset out of cardboard. It works with your smartphone and videos already on YouTube and the like. Here is one easy way to make your own. Then see this article on the solitary confinement project at the University of California, Santa Cruz, including a link to try this VR experience yourself. This made me wonder how this technology could be used for the good, to build empathy and understanding across lines of faith.

Daanish Masood                  – Photo: Linkedin

Daanish Masood                  – Photo: Linkedin

In fact, some people are already ahead of us here. Daanish Masood at the United Nations and others have experimenting with this technology already for a few years. The collective that he is involved in, called Be Another Lab, is literally trying to “hack” solutions to prejudice. CNBC did a nice story on their work last year and their public try-on experience at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In the United States, according to Pew research data, only 38% of Americans actually know a Muslim and less than 10% have regular, meaningful interaction with a Muslim (at least, as far as they are aware). It is, unfortunately, easy for people to dislike or even hate what they are unfamiliar with, because they fill the void with stereotypes, misinformation, and misunderstanding that are sadly afloat in our public space.

What we do know, however, is that negative dispositions towards Muslims can melt away once people become exposed to and come to earnestly know real Muslims. The same is true for all instances of “the religious other.” Programs like the Tea Time project in Norway or the Faith and Culture Center’s A Seat at the Table in Tennessee expose people to the religious other and breakdown prejudices quickly, but they are only one approach and are challenging at times to bring to scale.

VR has the potential to reach a lot more people much more quickly, and those of us in the business of breaking down the barriers of difference and building community need to invest in it and creatively use what is emerging. Now that the price point for a good 3D camera is below $400 USD, the capacity for more people to imaginatively create experiences in VR is more accessible. Imagine a short video experience that would allow you to have some of the common experiences of someone of another faith, especially those discriminated against.

But you don’t even have to make it VR, per se, because there are associated technologies that are even more approachable, like what the activist collective called “I Am Your Protector” recently did on the streets of major cities just using voluntary contributions, or even what Coca-Cola did to bring together people from India and Pakistan by installing beverage dispensers that created visual and emotional connections between people in the two countries. The three-minute video on the right tells the story.

I look forward to hearing your ideas about the creative application of these new technologies in the comment section below.