In 1893, during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, thousands gathered over 17 days in September to witness a “World’s Parliament of Religions.” For many Americans, it was their first encounter with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and other people of non-Christian faith. The meeting had an air of expectation. According to the organizers, the Parliament would “bring about a real fraternity of nations, and unite the enlightened peoples of the whole earth in a general cooperation for the attainment of the great ends for which human society is organized.” They would “unite all religion against all irreligion” and secure “the coming unity of mankind in the service of God and man.”
This year, on the 125th anniversary of the original meeting, thousands of people gathered in Toronto, Canada, over seven days in November, to continue the work of building religious fraternity. Although the organizers set their sights somewhat lower, they were nonetheless “bringing our spiritual communities together to work toward a common goal: the pursuit of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.” The Toronto Parliament offers a snapshot of the accomplishments of the interfaith movement and serious challenges it faces. In the past 125 years, religious pluralism has become much more widely accepted, at least in the United States and Canada, but religious unity remains an elusive goal. At a moment when religious conservatives make headlines, it is worth paying attention to what happened at the 2018 Parliament. Despite the Parliament’s limits—many groups chose not to attend and those that do sometimes don’t get along—it is the closest thing we have to a progressive international interfaith movement.
In Toronto, the thousands of attendees (nearly 10,000, according to the organizers) were a mixture of the world’s religions. The mostly North American visitors mingled with many different spiritual communities and faith leaders. The breadth of traditions was impressive, from the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto and the American Sikh Council to the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry and the Interfaith Vegan Coalition. The only groups that were conspicuously absent were politically or theologically conservative ones.
The Parliament has been a regular event since it was revived in 1993 and renamed “The Parliament of the World’s Religions” on the 100th anniversary of the original meeting. It met in Chicago in 1993 but soon went abroad to Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), and back to the United States in Salt Lake City (2015) before this year’s meeting in Toronto. Although the meeting is expensive ($495 USD per person), it attracts religious leaders, activists, and some everyday folks interested in the interfaith movement.
As the diverse crowd streamed through the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, it encountered a forest of posters and installations. Around one corner were placards narrating the history of the residential school system in Canada and its effect on Indigenous peoples. Around the next corner was an art installation of ribbons that asked passersby to reflect on what climate change means to them. A prayer wall invited participants to write out their hopes for the future and put them on display. Some prayed for “world peace” while others prayed “for the children of Yemen,” “prisoners of conscience,” or “a Democratic House & Senate in midterm U.S. elections.”
Climate change was a central focus of the Toronto Parliament. “It’s the same sun that makes whatever grows in Europe grow. Something happened in the history that caused superficial ways to deter people from seeing and relating to universal truths,” said Tom Porter, an elder from the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, in an interview with the CBC. “The only way we’re going to be able to see that is if we peel all of those Christmas decorations off so we can see the real tree again instead of the artificial shiny objects.”
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author most famous for writing The Handmaid’s Tale, spoke on the theme of “Climate Change and Women.” She pointed out that women are especially vulnerable to the social instability that climate change is already creating. “Unless people of faith get behind fixing the planet, it won’t happen,” she said in a conversation with Dr. Lucy Cummings. Cummings, who is the executive director of Faith and the Common Good, an organization that supports religious communities in sustainable practices, pointed out that “Indigenous women are on the front lines” of climate change, especially in protests against oil pipelines across North America.
The First Nations of Canada had a central role in the conference, including welcoming the participants at the opening ceremony. “We hope you have a good visit but remember—it’s only a visit,” joked Stacey LaForme, the elected chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, during the opening ceremony. “We made that mistake before.” The Parliament was opened with Indigenous dances and songs, and the first day’s events focused on Indigenous issues.
It was a fitting counterpoint to the original 1893 Parliament, which was held as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The liberal Protestants that had dominated the 1893 proceedings were in the background in Toronto. And whereas the 1893 gathering was a nearly all-male affair, the Toronto Parliament had gender parity. This year’s meeting was also racially diverse, unlike the largely white audiences in 1893.
The Toronto Parliament was also far less acrimonious than the 1993 meeting, where Jewish groups protested a speech by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam with a long history of anti-Semitic remarks. At the same meeting, a Sikh speaker accused the Indian government of repression, which led to shouting and shoving in the audience. The Toronto Parliament was largely free of this kind of acrimony.
In fact, there were some moving displays of humanity. The National Council of Canadian Muslims had organized “rings of peace” around synagogues in Toronto in a show of solidarity with Jews in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, which had occurred just five days before the start of the Parliament. Muslims formed human chains around several Toronto synagogues, sometimes holding hands and carrying signs of support for the Jewish community. It was a symbolic gesture meant to create a feeling of safety and solidarity. Toronto’s Muslim community was following the example set by Jews and Christians last year, who formed protective rings around mosques following a deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
In the dozens of panels and talks offered at the Parliament, the ethical message was largely the same: We are diverse but united. Rabbi Yael Splansky, speaking about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, encouraged the audience to find strength in both “religious particularism and human universalism.” Gobinder Singh Randhawa, chairman of the Ontario Sikh and Gurdwara Council, said we worship “the same God” and “we are sisters and brothers.” When talking across religious boundaries, people at the Parliament often appealed to a shared sense of humanity, which binds us across religious boundaries. Reminding the visitors that this is no easy task, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell said in an address that “humanity is a work in progress.”
The quest for a universal humanitarian ethic, one that spans the dozens of faiths represented at the Parliament, is at least as old as the original meeting of the Parliament in 1893. But the original goal of combating secularism—“unite all religion against all irreligion”—has largely been forgotten. Humanists were a welcome presence at Toronto, for example. If anything, the main concern today is to salvage the reputation of religion as a progressive force by repudiating the Religious Right. Over and over, speakers criticized religious fundamentalism and divisive rhetoric as inauthentic. When Margaret Atwood was asked whether she was against religion, she quipped that she is against religion that “is misused in the service of some form of totalitarianism.”
In 1993, organizers of the centenary Parliament in Chicago—the first to be held since the original 100 years earlier—distilled the shared ethical commitments of all religious groups in the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.” There is a “set of core values” at the heart of all religions and “this truth is already known but yet to be lived in heart and action,” the declaration announced. These values include interdependence, the golden rule, individual responsibility, seeing humanity as a family, and a commitment to non-violence.
These ethical and political commitments seemed to resonate with the self-selected crowd in Toronto, which often repeated these tropes in Q&A sessions and in hallway conversations. But the universalist values don’t quite capture the many religious traditions who value the particularity of their faiths and seek to guard their boundaries. The Southern Baptists, for example, had declined an invitation to the 1993 Parliament and have stayed away ever since. Several speakers noted the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who has been in jail for eight years awaiting execution for blasphemy. Her recent acquittal resulted in violent protests in Pakistan, an outcome which contradicts the universalist rhetoric of the Parliament. In the same vein, speakers in Toronto often lamented the American evangelical support for Donald Trump. Jaideep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Religion News Service that he blamed “numerous Christian supremacist politicians” and “unprincipled white Christian religious leaders and media figures” for stoking a fear of Islam and other religious minorities in the United States.
The Parliament can come off as an echo chamber of progressive faith traditions. Given the many religious tensions across the world, the real challenges of interfaith dialogue, and the self-selected crowd at Toronto, the universalist rhetoric could sound a little hollow. But as Geoffrey Cameron, the director of the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’i Community of Canada, told me, “it’s in the small spaces that some of the most important conversations happen” at the Parliament.
Since the original Parliament 125 years ago, the interfaith movement has changed in important ways. Its leadership is much more diverse and inclusive. Its politics is attentive to Indigenous issues, women’s rights, and climate change. Many old challenges remain, not least of which is that many religious communities continue to stay away. And whether the groups who do attend can overcome divisions in pursuit of common goals remains to be seen. But it’s worth watching.
Gene Zubovich is a visiting fellow at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @genezubovich.