Why the Interfaith Approach is Important

Posted on March 31, 2020 By

by Rachel MacNair

This February in 2020 I went on a trip to Israel and Palestine with a group called In the Steps of Our Ancestors: an Interfaith Peace Pilgrimage. In addition to seeing the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i, we spoke with several groups promoting peace in different ways.

(I went just in time – Israel stopped everyone from coming into the country just two weeks after I got home because of the Covid-19 crisis. While we heard of cases, nothing was closed until days after we had visited).

One major point that needs to be understood about the interfaith movement is that it’s most emphatically not asking people to water down their own religions by adding other religions. To the contrary, it helps you reflect more deeply on your own faith tradition and find more insights into it.

Rachel adds a stone to the growing peace mosaic on the Gaza Strip wall, which can be seen at one spot by the people stuck inside. Since they know each stone was placed by a different person, this communicates widespread concern for their plight.

Peace and Social Justice Goals

When people of different religions have violent conflicts, being in greater harmony over religious matters is crucial.

Of course, religion is often actually a stand-in for ethnic conflicts, or used as an excuse for what’s really a leadership struggle or territory grab. This is because people engaged in violence like to think of themselves as virtuous rather than thinking of themselves as people engaged in violence.

Nevertheless, there’s often religious content to brutal conflicts, which turns off onlookers who don’t share the religious views. That’s one reason an interfaith approach helps with conflict resolution or transformation.

Another reason is that social justice movements wanting to convince as large a number of people as possible to support their specific goals do well to have respect for religious traditions. They can use persuasion that takes those different traditions into account.

Expressions and Essentials

One of the basic concepts of the interfaith approach is to make a distinction between what’s essential, and what would be just different expressions. In philosophy they call the different expressions “accidentals,” but since people don’t regard their beliefs system as accidental, it’s probably better to just use the word expression.

Some people pray by bowing their head and folding their hands and closing their eyes. Other people lift their arms up and look to the heavens. Some people bow on a prayer rug with specified motions, some use prayer beads, or prayer wheels, or elaborate set-ups that take 15 minutes to arrange. Others say quick prayers quietly inside their heads. All of these things are different expressions. The essential: prayer.

The things that religions most have in common are the essentials. Many of the differing expressions can be celebrated as a matter of diversity, when people are able to look at their own religion with what’s most important in mind. And we can be entirely pleased with how different people express it differently. Disagreements on specifics remain, but a focus on the essential enriches even those disagreements.


Top: Rachel takes a selfie at Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Islam

Bottom: Rachel at House of Justice in Haifa, Baha’i

Applied to Abortion

As is common in peace groups, on this pilgrimage I felt free to bring up my position on all issues except for the one on feticide. The one time it came up was when one of the tour guides explained that Sister Kelly, our guide at the Magdala museum, had commented to him about what a problem abortion is. He complained that she didn’t know how he felt about it. A member of our group vigorously agreed with him that Sister Kelly hadn’t ought to have brought it up.

In one way, that was rather odd, inasmuch as a devout nun expressing that opinion was clearly practicing her own religion. And we had a custom that people were to be free to express their own religions, with other people being accepting of it rather than being critical. On the other hand, they were treating the issue as a political one, rather than a religious one, which of course is exactly what we want. But I stayed silent for the sake of harmony. As did everyone else.

But the interfaith movement is beneficial to the pro-life movement in the same way that it benefits other social justice movements: we need to make the case to people in terms that they understand.

So, for example, many years ago I was talking to a pro-life woman who was speaking of the importance of the Judeo-Christian ethic. I said to her “you know, every Buddhist that’s a friend of mine is pro-life on abortion.” I could see the wheels going on in her head, and she finally said “Oh, OK. It’s bad karma to kill a baby.” And I said “yes, that’s right.” So she said that she didn’t mean to put down other religions, she just thought that it was a struggle against secular humanism.

Yet the secular case against abortion is also quite important. The National Right to Life Committee recently had a full workshop at its national conference with Kelsey Hazzard of our member group Secular Prolife. We need to be able to make the case everywhere.

But another reason why I think this is important is that too many people think opposition to abortion is nothing more than a religious expression – some kind of rigid rule, which some religions have and others don’t have. If their religion doesn’t have this rule, why are people from other religions trying to impose their rule on them? We need to get across instead that our opposition is an essential value having to do with compassion to all human beings, a value shared across religions and ethical atheism.

I remember years ago when I was speaking to a college group and they asked me about contraception. I gave them this answer: “If you’re fertile, and have genital contact intercourse with a fertile member of the opposite gender, you might make a baby. If you use contraception, you cut your chances. But you don’t cut them out, you only cut them down. If you make a baby, you’re a parent. Conduct your sex life accordingly.” The students later said they were pleased I hadn’t lectured them on morality. I found that interesting, since I kind of thought that I actually had. But of course it wasn’t expressing a religious rule. It was laying out the obvious principles – that is to say, the essential.

Concluding from Religious Sources

Taken from a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a)

A gentile said he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Rabbi Shammai, who was insulted by this ridiculous request and chased him off with a stick. The man then went to Rabbi Hillel, who accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary – go and study!”


Qur’an 49:13 – English translation

[God speaking] People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the best in conduct. God is All-knowing and All-aware.

At the Church of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee where the Sermon on the Mount was supposed to have happened




For our posts with differing religious perspectives, see:


The Vital Need for Diversity / Sarah Terzo


The Consistent Life Consensus in Ancient Christianity  / Rob Arner

The Early Christian Tradition / Rob Arner


Abortion and War are the Karma for Killing Animals / Vasu Murti


Breaking Stereotypes in Fearful Times / John Whitehead


Ancient Roots of the Consistent Life Ethic: Greece / Mary Krane Derr



  1. As a Christian myself, I love telling people that some of the most passionate and dedicated pro-life activists I know are atheists. And it’s true. Like Rachel says, they are needed.

  2. Laura Fortmeyer says:

    Very useful commentary- thanks!

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