Morality, motivation discussed at Interfaith Dialogue

Read any comment feed on any religious news article and you'll see all belief and non-belief systems unite in a common spirit of disrespect and abominable spelling.

Junior Kimberly Hall, co-president of Secular Student Alliance, said that comment wars were one reason the SSA organized Tuesday's interfaith dialogue. "We got kind of bored with that format," Hall said, explaining that online forums often lead to antagonism instead of shared understanding.

Representatives from SSA, Geneseo Muslim Students and Friends Association, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Hillel and The Newman Group comprised a panel that facilitated open discussion with one another and with audience members in an effort to find common moral and ethical principles on which everyone could agree. Steve Derne of the sociology department moderated the discussion.

The first proposed topic was malice and cruelty: Could everyone agree they are morally wrong? It quickly became clear that this discussion would not follow a conventional, bullet-pointed outline. The panel members and the audience were engaged, and their interactions led to a ferreting out of the nuances found within higher principles.

Can we agree to value life? What defines life? Are we talking about human life only? What does Judaism, Islam, Christianity and basic humanity say about this? These were a few of the questions brought to the floor. Eventually, it was proposed that humans should not cause pain solely for the sake of causing pain.

Obvious? Maybe not.

Derne shared an experience from his childhood when friends stoned a lizard in half and roasted it alive. Murmurs rose from the audience of ants fried with magnifying glasses. There were thoughts of bullfrogs massacred with BB guns. The realization dawned that there is significant potential for evil among humans.

It was then proposed that the group focus on an affirmative: What should we do as humans? Empathy was mentioned. An SSA representative discussed Thomas Hobbes' notion of helping the homeless after seeing himself in their pitiable states.

A Christian representative broached the topic of motivation by offering the parable of two men praying – one in sincerity and one only to be heard by fellow worshippers.  Do we help the homeless person because we want to feel good about ourselves, or because they need help?

In this way, the attempt to list defined rules was abandoned in favor of establishing emotion-based principles. Derne said the evolution was encouraging. "When you're faced with these situations, applying these emotions might work better . . . [than] bringing up abstract rules," he said.

But a more rational train of thought soon intersected the emotional territory. Hypotheticals began cropping up. One audience member asked if it would be moral to secure eternal well being for all humanity through the eternal damnation of the self.

Sophomore Talal Ahmad, a representative for GMSFA, denounced this line of thinking as unconstructive. He compared it to the equation 1/(x-1): instead of focusing on the many things x could be to make the equation work, we focus on the single number that x cannot be, the one that will make the equation fail.

"It's not that the world can't [find common ground] but it's just that people choose to ask the wrong questions." Ahmad said.

Fortunately, the majority of the evening seemed to be spent discussing the right questions. Junior Marie-Jo Nassar, SSA's secretary, captured the spirit of the event when she said: "Morality is a positive attribute and it fosters a sense of community, regardless of where it comes from."