The Association for the Sociology of Religion
1998 Annual Meeting
San Francisco

Session Title:

Searching for the ‘Holy Grail’: Assessing the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Paper Title:

Missing the Mark: An Assessment of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Michael York
Bath Spa University College



If sociology ‘cannot create ultimate values and standards within’, the same is no less true for the forum comprising inter-religious dialogue. The 1993 World Parliament of Religions was a failure in terms of its attempt to foster a sustainable, mutual and effective multicultural conversation as well as in responding to Gerald Barney’s ‘Global 2000 Revisited’ appeal to act now if the world is to avoid inevitable colossal famine by the year 2020. In what ways might the discipline of sociology be able to function as an ‘institution outside the borders’ of religion per se in order to promote a foundation for inter-religious cooperation? This question is discussed with regard to the next Parliament of the World’s Religions scheduled for Cape Town, South Africa in December, 1999.


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For anyone who attended the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, the Millennium Institute’s Dr. Gerald O. Barney’s ‘Global 2000 Revisited’ address remains a deeply unforgettable experience - especially as Dr. Barney, his voice now choking with emotion, declared in his concluding remarks that if we are to avoid certain and catastrophic famine on a global scale by the year 2020, we must all act concertedly and now.

We are here because we sense that earth and her people are in serious trouble, that is as threatening to life on earth as a nuclear war. The origin of the trouble, we feel is fundamentally spiritual, so we thank the Trustees of the Council of the Parliament of the World’s Religions for the opportunity to describe the critical issues of the Twenty-first Century and to hear your wisdom on our question: What shall we do? (Quoted in the Journal of Contemporary Religions 10.2; 1995:125)

More than five years since that time and with a world continually expanding populationally without simultaneously being able to expand its resource base, we have done neither. Barney’s talk presented graphic details and unquestionable logic regarding an impending and emerging dire future for our planet. Of all the many ramifications and competing experiences during the five-day venue, his plenary address remains the most poignant and memorable. It now stands like an open and untreated wound which, in its untreated and prolonged state, can only begin to fester.

Concurrent with the various plenaries, session talks, workshops and religious services, a select group of ‘religious leaders’ and dignitaries met privately to ratify Hans Küng’s draft for ‘The Declaration of a Global Ethic’. I did not attend these Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders sessions myself, but from everyone I have talked with who did they were volatile mixtures of anger, vehemence and tempestuous explosion. But for the visionary perseverance of Küng and the adroit political maneuverings of the Parliament organizers (David Ramage, Daniel Gómez-Ibáñez, Jim Kenny), the Global Ethic would not have succeeded in becoming the Parliament’s one significant achievement.

Nevertheless, and again from the vantage point of a half-decade’s elapse, we must ask - and we must ask seriously - has the Global Ethic become anything more than a series of hollow denunciations of ecosystem abuse, poverty, war, violence, anarchy and the disregard for justice? Has it in fact achieved anything? In its opening statements, the Declaration proclaims that "In particular we condemn aggression and hatred in the name of religion." Looking at the dissolution of Yugoslavia along Catholic, Orthodox and Moslem lines, the armed state of India’s religious center on the knife-edge of Hindu-Islamic communal eruption in Varanasi, the years of death and carnage between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland, and the on-going bloodshed between Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, have we been able to move even an iota closer to the ideals enshrined by the Declaration’s condemnations?

Another unforgettable moment in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions occurred during the now infamous ‘Voices of the Dispossessed’ plenary which was meant to give the often unheard marginalized religious communities an opportunity to air their respective grievances. If the complaint was being expressed by a Liberian refugee, it remained for the general assembly both neutral and tolerable. But the political accusations and tensions between Sikhs, Moslems and Hindus proved unbridgeable and almost lethally terminating. I will never be able to forget the looks of completely unexpected and absolute dumbfounded perplexity as the conference organizers stood in shock while the police had to intervene and clear the stage.

This unfortunate episode and major turning point of the Parliament’s duration produced one - no, two - positive moments for the Chicago gathering as a whole. The first was the spontaneous chanting of Martin Luther King’s "We shall overcome" which erupted from the conference floor. The second was the suspension of their own grievance talk on the part of the American Indian community and their spontaneous decision to hold a ‘healing dance’ to which they invited everyone who was willing to participate. At its culmination, the Elders asked that everyone embrace the person closest to themselves. This sensitive and skillfully performed ritual literally prevented the Parliament from dissolving on the spot.

Another Parliament highlight was also the contribution of the Native American community, namely, the invocation of the four directions which it conducted for the Parliament’s official opening. This was a stately, moving ceremony conducted with dignified simplicity and which set the tone for the spiritual foundation of the Parliament itself. But this being said, apart from these two major contributions, in the privacy of their own suite, the American Indians were debating their own ‘Declaration of War’. Native American grievances are many and understandably legitimate, but this kind of counteractivity was scarcely conducive to the ostensible purposes for which the Parliament was convened.

Of course I am by no means attempting to suggest that the 1993 centenary celebration represents a total failure. Richard Roberts, University of Lancaster, has for one written an eloquent case for recognizing the event as "a paradigmatic example of emancipatory ‘globalised religion’" (Journal for Contemporary Religion 10.2; 1995:122). Seeing the event in the longer term, Roberts argues that "the Parliament successfully juxtaposed global values and universals ... with ... cultural particularities of the most diverse kind" (ibid.) In the wider implications for the study of contemporary religion and forms of religiosity, the Chicago venue makes a return to religion from the theoretical and cultural periphery to an intimate relation with current central concerns. In a threatened world, the Parliament reestablished religion as a global resource.

For Roberts, to the degree that the Parliament of the World’s Religions became a cohesive and successful event, it became illustrative of a universalist religious discourse and "a universally shared and rationally-articulated sense of the need to bring about a unified global response to the ecological crisis" (Journal for Contemporary Religion 10.2; 1995:124). Roberts also attributes success to three other factors: what he calls regular meditation and prayer as a universal necessity, the call to follow one’s religious option with an integrity that respects the differing followings of others, and the shared conviction for self-realization based on love and possible self-negation. Gerald Barney, on the other hand, argued in his Parliament talk that the unsatisfactory nature of many faith traditions "have become a very central part of the human problem" (quoted in the Journal for Contemporary Religion 9.2; 1994:18), and Roberts himself concludes that "there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest that [the ‘spiritual’ and the scientific] zones entered into closer intellectual integration on the macroscopic plenary level" (JCR 10.2; 1995:126) despite Barney’s urgings.

And despite Roberts’ assessment that the Parliament of the World’s Religions as a ‘symbolic collective act’ correlating with recent globalization theory is one which should not be underestimated, the very question concerning to what degree it becomes ‘an effective cultural capital’ remains. If we consider in addition the conspicuous boycott of the Parliament by many mainstream Protestant churches, the walkouts of the Greek Orthodox and certain Jewish delegations over the presence of pagans and Louis Farrakan respectively, or the refusal of Fundamentalists even to attend the Parliament past the entries to the Palmer House Hilton where they distributed anti-Satanic literature condemning the proceedings inside, it becomes less and less likely that the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions can be assessed in the long term as a success. In fact, its one tentative achievement in real terms might be the planned follow-up Parliament scheduled to occur in South Africa’s Cape Town near the end of 1999. Holding the prospect for a ‘second chance’, however remote, I want to ask in what ways might the Cape Town meeting succeed where the Chicago venue failed?

The general theme of this ASR gathering in San Francisco is to address the question regarding the possibilities in which religion as an external institution might serve sociology in the creation of its own ultimate values and standards. I want to suggest that this is a two-way or double-edged challenge and, in this instance, stand the question on its head. Consequently, if the Parliament of the World’s Religions forum comprising interreligious dialogue cannot create mutually acceptable values and standards from within and between its constituent participants, what possible role and contribution might sociology be able to provide in this respect as an ‘institution outside the borders’ of religion?

Interreligious conversation is and has always been hampered by the passionately held and often exclusivistic beliefs of adherents to their own faith. And however inclusivistic and pluralistic some of us may be, it is unreasonable and non-feasible to expect religions to alter and transform established and deeply held convictions. Religions are, at least in part, antagonistic by nature. But does this religious antagonism preclude the possibility of interreligious dialogue as attempted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions?

In 1977, Jeffrey Hadden (1977:308) rhetorically concluded that there is no reason why natives passionately committed to their own traditions cannot be trained to make good sociologists. In his analysis of human nature, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye (1970) posited two contradictory necessities for human identity: the ideal of passion and the ideal of detachment. Frye recognized that these virtues are simultaneously incompatible, that a kind of juggling dance is instead required between those occasions in which one might scrutinize with sceptical detachment and those other times in which one indulges fully and completely in subjective, human emotions. Does not then this internal conflict within the individual translate to one between religions and religion? In other words, must not the same kind of acrobatics required of the individual who wishes to live life in its fuller capacity apply also to individual religions and internally conversant religion?

When we wear our ‘sociological hats’ we suspend our personal beliefs and commitments and aim for a position of value neutrality as a means for acquiring objective, honest and unbiased knowledge. This is a goal or ideal more than it is an accomplished fact, but it nevertheless sets a vitally important direction without which the accumulation of factual information becomes doomed from the start. These dynamics are understood within the social sciences disciplines, and I suggest that these same dynamics might provide the only viable means for factions holding competing and contradictory passions to address global questions which affect everyone despite his or her differently held creeds and commitments. In Roberts’ terms (JCR 10.2; 1995:131), the "peculiar and distinctive ways in which religion represents the global condition acknowledges the relativity of all validity claims, yet it does not abandon them." But passionate commitment can be suspended when collectively confronting shared, global concerns. And for this kind of temporary suspension, sociology provides a viable model - perhaps the most viable model, perhaps the only model.

So while we have the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the San Francisco initiative for a United Religions to parallel the United Nations, there is also a necessity to transcend these fori of religions for a forum of religion, a global religion per se which can exist, as recent Complexity Theory suggests, as something more than the mere sum of its parts, a global religion of functional interdialogue despite the conflicting particularities of its individual components. In a forum of religion as opposed to a forum of religions, would it not be possible to be a Christian or Moslem or Hindu or Buddhist or pagan or atheist and also a globalist at the same time? - a globalist who confronts and deals with planetary problems that face each and everyone of us? The suspension of particularity is the very suspension of belief or value-judgement that is required of the sociologist in the pursuit of his or her trade. Consequently, I am suggesting that sociology provides the very kind of dialectical acrobatics that might allow religions to achieve comprehensive values and ultimate standards that are applicable universally - ones which in addition might provide the means for actual mobilization of collective efforts toward reducing and/or eliminating all issues of human degradation.

In my own talk during the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, I attempted to address the negotiation of world peace through religion as a or the postmodern cause. My argument was essentially that religion, whatever else it is or may be, is an expression of culture and describes the ways different parts of humanity phrase their relationship to the universe. Most importantly, cultures are learned rather than a priori givens, and they constantly adopt, adapt and learn from others. Cultures change, and a culture only reaches stasis with its demise.

Today’s multiculturalism is an indication of an increased awareness of the other, of the possibility of exchange with it, and of cultural growth and flexibility per se. For religion, this diversity of options characterizes the emergence of religious pluralism. Social science, to the degree that it presents any particular belief-system as ‘one among many’ possibilities, suggests an implicit theology through its relativizing of all theologies whether traditional or new. In Wuthnow’s social-scientific meaning system (Wuthnow, 1976), through sociology, society and culture themselves become images of transcendence in which diversity is promoted over conformity.

But it is not this relativizing tendency by sociology which I am here suggesting might provide a basis for interreligious cooperation. Rather, it is the sociological methodology which I want to propose as a model for the temporary suspension of particular belief in order to address problems of mutual concern. As Ken Wilber (1996:320) phrases the situation, "ecological wisdom doesn’t consist in how to live in accord with nature, but how to get subjects to agree on how to live in accord with nature." It is this task that is the proper function of any Parliament of the World’s Religions.

In 1993, I stressed the necessity for the Parliament to continue on a more frequent, on-going basis. The scheduled Cape Town gathering is one step in this direction. But in addition to the Parliament becoming a continual project, it must find a voice or voices through which all human grievances and conflicts can speak and be granted admission to the forum of address. I argued that in the final anaysis, the proper task of religion in this postmodern era rests on the mutual respect all religions must learn to have for each other - a respect upon which negotiation bceomes a sacred expression in itself.

Consequently, the purpose of a Parliament is not to provide a platform for individual relgions to promote their particular theologies or positions. The Parliament is not to be an arena of competing soapboxes. The purpose is rather to find a common voice from between the world’s religions by which to address an effective and cogent solution to the world’s problems. If religions are themselves often the cause of global difficulties, the Parliament must become the forum where conflict can achieve legalistic resolutions and where progressive enactments of change are accomplished for the benefit of one and all.

In the long term, it is imperative that the Parliament become an example of the principle of self-organization primus inter pares. Modeling from sociology, the viability of this world forum depends on neither denying nor affirming the validity of religious truth-assertions but instead on its being founded on the assumption that these are not central issues of concern.

In his forward to Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology (1997), Frederick Turner (1997:xxv) argues that

"it is no solution to return to the sometimes mutually exclusive moral authorities of religion, which are almost as capable of horrifying violence as the historicist ideologies were. But if we treat religious moralities as various attempts to approximate values that are culturally universal, and if those values can be redescribed as the strange attractors of vast generative processes involving the whole species, and perhaps planetary life itself, we may begin to have at our disposal an instrument of moral judgment on history that is both real and at the same time superior to local anomalies and disruptions, as attractors are."

In complexity theory, the strange attractor is the fractal form which is found embedded in all nonlinear feedback processes. It is the task of the Parliament of the World’s Religions to find and/or create its own strange attractor of culturally universal value. Sociology may be able to assist in the necessary discovery or creation by providing not only a model by which exclusive divergences could be temporarily suspended on an ad hoc basis but also through social science’s own discovery of the application of nonlinear self-organizational principles to social behavior.





Raymond A. Eve, Sara Horsfall & Mary E. Lee (eds.)(1997), Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology: Myths, Models, and Theories, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Northrop Frye (1970), The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society, London & New York: Methuen.

Jeffrey K. Hadden, ed. (1977), "Review symposium: The New Religious Consciousness, edited by Charles Y. Glock & Robert N. Bellah," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 16.3:305-24.

Ken Wilber (1996), A Brief History of Everything, Boston: Shambhala.

Robert Wuthnow (1976), The Consciousness Reformation, Berkeley: University Of California Press.