8 Ways to Build Interfaith Bridges

Last week, I wrote on a talk that I attended at school about the bible and homosexuality. It turns out that that was the first of many talks that I’d be sitting through. This week was a “focus week” of sorts in which my college would have one or two talks per day, and this year’s theme was loving your neighbor. Of course, they were Christian-themed presentations, but some of the ones I went to were surprisingly good. Although they used the bible as a basis instead of common sense and human empathy, they focused on loving and being respectful to your neighbor, which are universal themes that everyone should practice despite their religion or lack thereof. In addition to the talks, I also read an article for a class on “interfaith dialogue”. I was immediately reminded of many of the interfaith—or mostly faith-nonfaith—conversations that occur right here on my blog, in my comments sections and in my email. The different ideas proposed by the speakers and by the author inspired me to compile a list of the best bits of wisdom I gained this week, as well as my own advice. Enjoy!

1. Focus on common ground

Usually, if you have a friend with different beliefs than you, chances are you have something in common, such as if you met through a class or a common interest. This automatically gives you something to bond about other than religion. For example, one of my friend groups at school formulated within our years together in the marching band. So even though they’re all Christian (and they don’t know I’m an atheist anyways), we can focus on our communal love for music instead of our beliefs that divide us.

2. Know when you should just avoid the topic

I’ve seen with nearly everyone I’ve come out to in person that even though they know I’m an atheist, mentioning it draws attention to our differences, intentionally or not. I’ve always perceived conversations about faith differences to be beneficial by allowing the other to see our side, but in practice it usually turns out to be awkward. When I told my mom, I thought it would open up a dialogue, but it instead caused her to try to convert me and see my justifications for nonbelief as insults to her. In these cases, it’s often best to just avoid the topic of religion altogether and focus on more unifying things like wedding plans!3. Understand where they’re coming from

3. Understand where they’re coming from

Knowing the basis for why someone believes what they do is so important. Most of us who have actually thought it through generally have reasons behind even the silliest-sounding beliefs. I feel like I know a lot of Christians who have probably never met an atheist in their lives. That kind of separation can cause them to be unable to comprehend why someone would possibly not believe in God whenever they do meet an atheist later on (as was the case with my mom). The best way, in my opinion, to understand why someone believes what they do is to have open conversations with them (when you can) and learn their story as well as how their beliefs and values affect real lives.

4. Know your audience

This might sound silly, but it’s something that I don’t think many people are very good at. At my college, there are surely more atheists than just me, but speakers, teachers, students, and administration always make the assumption that everyone is Christian. Even at church, you can’t assume that every single person there is secure in their faith or is even a Christian (a lot of people go to church against their will, you know). Addressing possible outliers in your audience is a sign of respect in just acknowledging that they exist.

5. Be open-minded

It’s not hard to find atheists and Christians accusing each other of being close-minded but not seeing it in themselves. If someone says something to you that you’ve heard a thousand times, keep in mind that they don’t know that you’re already heard it. And if you have, then hear them out anyways, because you never know if they might add on a point that you haven’t heard before. I feel like it is so rude when, for example, someone says “I recommend that you take a look at this book that explains my point of view” and the other person replies, “I already know what I believe, and that’s wrong, so I won’t read it.” How arrogant is that? It can’t hurt to just read it, or at the very least to thank them for their recommendation and say you’ll look into it.

6. Respect people despite their beliefs

It’s a common theme in atheist communities that although we have to respect people, we don’t have to respect their beliefs. I think this is fair enough: I don’t really respect religious doctrine or beliefs such as wives being expected to submit to their husbands or that praying without action is productive. That doesn’t mean, however, that I should see those who do believe that as less than me. I don’t see all beliefs as equal or even equally likely to be true. But if someone believes something ridiculous, I’m not better than them, and I don’t deserve more respect than they do. I think the only way to be justified in not respecting someone is if they don’t earn it or if their beliefs lead to harmful actions.

7. Set an example

If you are like me and you’re, for example, the only atheist in an entire community of Christians, then it’s likely that you are the only atheist that anyone knows. Or suppose it’s just the opposite: if you’re representing all Christians on your own in a sea of nonbelievers, then you’re giving them their first impression of what all Christians are like. To them, you’re the face of Christianity, so you must represent it well. If you don’t, then they might see all Christians as hateful even when they’re not. But if you do, then you’re responsible for being one brick in the interreligious bridge that is slowly but surely being built.

8. Step outside of your comfort zone

In order to do #7, you first have to be in a situation where you’re the only one among people who are different from you. For some of us, we’re thrown in the situation by default, such as atheists at Christian colleges or in Lutheran families. The rest of the students at my school, however, have mostly never left their Christian bubble or had a chance to interact with those with other beliefs. In order to do this, they must consciously leave their comfort zone by going somewhere that Christianity isn’t so popular. And in this case, it isn’t to evangelize but to set that example and make a connection between otherwise polarized groups.

These have been my eight practices for maintaining respectful relationships across different religions. How many of these do you use, and how do they play out in your interfaith relationships?

18 thoughts on “8 Ways to Build Interfaith Bridges

  • Very good article, very good points. If we would all accept this way of thought we would certainly get along better. I agree that we should respect one another and be kind to each other. Being open-minded does not mean you give up your personal beliefs but that you can discuss them and accept others who see things differently. Thanks for posting this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Here are some responses to your points:

    (1) I am fortunate to go to a mental health day program where, even though there are few other atheists, some agnostics, and more non-religious believers, most are religious to varying degrees, we all share a common bond, which is rather strong, living with mental illness.

    (2) The only time I discuss my beliefs other than with Bette, I ask does this profit any of us? If it just leads to tit for tat and/or arguing past one another, it usually will not.

    (3) There was a woman at the above program who told me (quite excitably) that she had met her first atheist the other day. I came to find out this person never even told her, but she was so sure of his atheism despite this. It is a wonder to me that she never recognized that I am one. She surely should have heard me mention it in a group or two, if she was paying any attention. I guess my atheism is not worn on my sleeve that much. I only mention it if I feel it is pertinent, and rarely discuss it further.

    (4) People can go to church for other reasons than belief, and they gain something other than spiritual substance thereby. Also, there are actually atheist ministers that stay in the pulpit for various reasons, such as financial need, or it was were they spent there whole life. There is a book – Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind buy Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola with a foreword by Richard Dawkins – which presents case histories and contains generalized comments.

    (5) I cannot honestly say I will read any book suggested by anyone, believer or not. Life is too short to read everything. So, my reason is not so much that I have heard it before; although, at the risk of sounding arrogant, this is often the case.

    (6) You make a great point here.

    (7) I let my behaviors speak most of the time. People see I am an alright guy, and they are a lot more accepting of my beliefs if I choose to share them. I rarely tell people I do not know (at least in person) that I am an atheist before they get to know me as a person.

    (8) I have nothing to say on this point.

    Excellent post with many good ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  • This is really good. As a member of the Christian community I feel like we do a terrible job at listening to people of other faiths without an agenda attached. I do believe that we can build some interfaith bridges when we focus on caring for one another as we are instead of discrediting someone because of their faith. I’ve enjoyed reading your perspectives. I look forward to dialoguing with you more n the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  • On no. 3, I think it is really good to try and understand people generally. It’s good manners. However, I fear that after listening to someone’s story, I may not be able to validate them. Then they might be offended by me. Like “I prayed to God to heal my mom of cancer and he did.”

    Liked by 1 person

  • It’s easy to be an atheist when we have Christ that’s formed our worldview. When we usurp Christ’s defenition of love and apply that as a human trait, we miss the point of why he had to come show us how it was done. “If Christians…..” blah blah blah would only act more like Christ – duh, of course. If we all acted more like Christ calls us to act, we wouldn’t have any of the issues we have. The fact that we have the issues we have is just another arrow pointing to how far away from Christ, and Christ like behavior we are. It is far more comfortable to blame God than it is to live like He calls us to.
    I ran from God for many years until I realized God wasn’t the problem.
    Your points are solid and we all ought to practice them – it’s the key to reconciliation (vs. the shallowness and arrogance of “tolerance”).


      • We claim love as ours, humankind’s, when it’s not from us. Love is not confined to a supernatural being, He’s given us the gift, so love is in us as well as Him. His love though is pure. We’ll all know the answer for sure when we die. Until then, we discuss things we have faith in because we can’t prove.


  • The problem I have encountered most with evangelical Christians is their position that since they “love” you, they can say whatever they want because it’s not love to lie to you about your salvation. But I firmly believe that you cannot honestly love someone if you don’t accept them for whom they are unconditionally. It really pisses me off when they say they love and respect someone, yet want them to change (sexuality, religion, etc).

    Liked by 4 people

    • Sounds like you would like evangelicals to listen to you while you don’t care to listen to them. When we have a fundamentally different worldview, different moral foundations, there’s going to be different thoughts about what’s wrong and what’s right.
      It is possible to love and try to point out where someone is going wrong (and get them to change their ways). It happened all the time as a parent as I raised my kids. Maybe you didn’t see that when you were growing up.


  • Love this whole post. Number 2 is especially difficult when you’re a recent convert/deconvert, but it’s so important. You can alienate people so fast, and break down relationships. I had a few relationships fall apart and I’m realizing now that some of it was my own fault (though some was natural drifting apart, realizing religion was the main thing I shared with certain friends, and without that, we didn’t have anything in common).

    Liked by 2 people

  • [3] —Knowing the basis for why someone believes what they do is so important. —

    Well said, closet atheist! I am the only nonbeliever surrounded by observant Christians (my wife is Catholic), and there is not much conversation about it. Only a few of them regret my insufficient efforts to find God, and nobody has ever asked my motives for not searching anymore. It is clear to me that we will never meet and, since I cannot start my life over again, I’m trying hard to accept that as a fact, as gracefully as I can.

    Liked by 1 person

  • really really good thoughts here, CA; I agree with Neil, trying to argue with people of faith (or vice versa) is usually an exercise in wordplay, and not much else. About all you can do is agree to disagree and never bring it up again.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Very insightful and well thought out. I especially liked your point number 6. It can be very easy to judge others based on a belief they hold so thank you for bringing up how we can respect someone as a person while still disagreeing with a belief of theirs.

    Liked by 2 people

  • “they focused on loving and being respectful to your neighbor”

    If Christians could get back to that, it would make for a better world. And it would be good for Christianity, too.

    “Know when you should just avoid the topic”

    Yes, this is important.

    Nobody is going to be persuaded out of their religion on my sayso. That’s a decision that they have to make for themselves. So I usually avoid the topic. I’m happy to have a sincere discussion with people. But arguing for the sake of arguing is a waste of time.

    “have open conversations with them”

    Yes. Conversations, not arguments.

    “Respect people despite their beliefs”

    Yes, this is important.

    “Set an example”

    This should be central. “By their fruits ye shall know them” used to be an important Christian theme. But Christianity seems to have forgotten that. They are setting bad examples. So let’s outdo them on the example thing.

    Liked by 4 people

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