Could interreligious dialogue be an unexpected antidote to eschatological anxiety?

One of the challenges for facilitating interfaith dialogue is the unique existential outgroup anxiety among religious believers. In this article, Cameron Howes applies research on cognitive processes and behavioural psychology to the question of how we can best provide an ethical counterbalance to ingroup favouritism and the extension of outgroup anxiety into eternity.

What came first, the category or the identification? This is the chicken and egg dilemma that lies at the heart of popular psychological theories of mind and social behaviour. But this has always been an unhelpful essentialist question obsessed with finding ‘a first cause’. The meaning that we ascribe to changeable categories and our fluid place within them are the result of a tangled web of socio-cultural (high-level) and biological (low-level) cognitive processes.

In their chapter Us and Them, from their upcoming publication What makes us social, professors Chris and Uta Frith provide a comprehensive review of the empirical evidence that supports our understanding of some of the low-level processes that may have a significant impact on the way human beings construct in and out groups. The Friths make the case that two unconscious processes, homophily and over-imitation, account for general behaviours that can generate positive ingroup preferences and negative outgroup perceptions.

Homophily, the preference for similar others, is rooted in our developmental process. As we begin to make sense of our sensory environment, we come to recognise kin as familiar, and expect kin to look and sound similar to each other and ourselves. One of our first cognitive activities is learning to recognise and differentiate between hereditary facial characteristics, and this is likely to underpin social categories of race. Though the boundary between our racial in-out classifications has been demonstrated to be blurry, we have been shown to exhibit significantly lower empathy (as measured by fMRI brain scans) for racial-outgroups experiencing pain.

Over-imitation is our cognitive solution to our affiliation anxiety rooted in our evolutionary fear of group expulsion. It is when we insert and preserve unnecessary steps within a process, altering our orientation in task observation and implementation from the question ‘how do we do this?’, to the statement ‘this is how we do this’. Not only is this a likely generator of cultural artefacts, but it exhibits in an early developmental stage as a preference to receive information from in-group members and to deliberately differentiate behaviour from out-groups.

It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to observe how these low-level processes that produce strong ingroup preferences and high outgroup differentiation, in conditions of resource scarcity and competition, can produce intense and persistent negative outgroup perceptions rooted in existential threat. So, the question that faces anyone interested in social flourishing in a rapidly globalising world is: what are the high-level cognitive processes that we can discover, learn, and habituate that provide an ethical counterbalance to our ingroup favouritism and outgroup derogation?

This is a particularly challenging question for the special case of religious in-out groups. Whilst many of our contemporary social categories could be classed as culturally meaningful but existentially arbitrary, religious identity is intrinsically existential, premised on finding one’s place within the divine order of things. For religious traditions that conceive of a blissful afterlife with entry requirements defined by orthodoxy or orthopraxy, group ostracisation takes on a deeper meaning, that of damnation.

In my own experimental research with Christian groups, I have explored the phenomenon I term eschatological anxiety – the extent to which individuals are apprehensive about their own prospects, and those of their loved ones, at the moment of final judgment. My findings linked this phenomenon with another low-level cognitive process termed “need for cognitive closure” (NFC), the desire for a definitive answer on a particular issue instead of confusion and ambiguity. Individuals with high NFC often exhibit ‘seizing’ and ‘freezing’ tendencies. They are more likely to grasp at easy to access information, and form more rigid worldviews that tend to invalidate and reject confounding information.

A high dispositional NFC has been linked with ingroup centred behaviour and an intolerance of outgroup diversity. My experimental research has indicated a general, moderate, but highly significant causal link between eschatological anxiety and need for cognitive closure, suggesting that interventions that reduce eschatological anxiety might in turn reduce NFC and its negative implications for intergroup dynamics.

But what kind of intervention could reduce eschatological anxiety? Counter-intuitively, it might be found in sustained interreligious dialogue, if properly framed and facilitated. At the LSE Faith Centre we run a student leadership programme that has four learning priorities: expanding religious imagination, developing resilient perspectives, exploring identity formation, and building diverse relationships. We have found that together, these four pillars create a space that builds the positional confidence of our participants.

In particular, our approach to religious and cultural literacy hinges on modelling deep conviction alongside rich appreciation. Our students aren’t asked to come to false accommodation, nor are they simply exposed to different views. Instead they encounter religious scholars and clerics who themselves critically affirm and lovingly reject aspects of each other’s contributions, in a shared exploration of important existential questions. We then encourage our students to do likewise.

It is through this modelling that our students come to see that conviction and doubt are not opposites, but mutually generative aspects of faithful inquiry. It is our doubt that forms the foundation for deeper conviction. It is when and where we learn to ask ourselves more profound questions, and it is often through the eyes of the religious other, that we come to identify new and better questions which we would never have thought to ask ourselves.

This is a radical form of perspective taking. It places a near salvific quality on dialogue with the religious other. It implies a bold article of trust, that one might come to a deeper realisation of one’s place within the divine order through developed encounter and interaction with those who believe differently.

When viewed this way, no longer is the religious other the destabilising doctrinal competitor that leads us off the righteous path, but the welcome stranger, whom we entertain willingly in order to glimpse fresh aspects of the divine. In other words, interfaith dialogue with the religious other becomes a valuable method of reassuring and preparing the self for judgement, building our positional confidence, and reducing our eschatological anxiety.

Coming full circle, we rely on our ingroups to make sense of the world and to survive, and we understandably fear rejection and its potentially deadly consequences. Religious individuals feel this anxiety even more deeply through the lens of damnation. Our low-level processes are well designed to keep us in favour with our ingroup, but at the expense of our outgroup interactions. But there are high-level counterbalances we can employ.

To close their chapter, professors Chris and Uta Frith suggest that encouraging perspective-taking through imagining outgroup mental states is one mechanism to increase pro-social behaviour towards them. In the special case of religious in-outgroups, perspective-taking for its own sake is unlikely to reduce eschatological anxiety and improve pro-social outgroup orientation, if anything it might have the opposite effect. However, framing perspective-taking within an experiential theory of dialogical encounter that leads to faithful inquiry, mutual discovery, and greater positional confidence might be one high-level organising principle and practice that successfully counterbalances our low-level reflexes to produce a more positive outgroup orientation.

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