The Language of Disbelief

On March 30-April 1, Washington, DC’s Georgetown
University hosted the third annual “Building Bridges”
seminar between Christian and Islamic scholars. The seminars,
the creation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, are designed to
broaden understanding about the two religions.

The evening before the opening of this
year’s seminar, which focused on the “understanding of prophecy,”
the current Archbishop, Dr. Rowan Williams, presented a public
lecture titled “Analyzing Atheism: Unbelief and the World
of Faiths.” While Dr. Williams’ context was religion, his
main points also resonate in what most Westerners would regard
as the secular world of international relations.

At the risk of oversimplifying Dr. Williams’
message, he offered an alternative to the prevailing approach
to discussions between individuals or groups (and by extension,
nation states) whose belief systems place them in opposition.
Such dialogues traditionally seek to find points of agreement–common
ground–on which to build relationships that will withstand stresses
introduced when more divisive issues are introduced.

The weakness of the traditional method
lies in the fact that the points of initial agreement are never
core issues–which is precisely why agreement is possible. Moreover,
those involved may not fully understand the nuances of each other’s
position. Thus “agreement” will be based on an invalid
understanding of their opponent’s true beliefs and, as a consequence
of this failure, of an inappropriate reaction to the other’s

While the lowest common denominator allows
agreement, productive discussion is better served by identifying
exactly what it is that others don’t believe. This does three
things simultaneously: it forces each side to examine in detail
their own beliefs (sharpening their grasp of the nuances of their
positions); it illuminates the precise “disbeliefs”
in their own canon and values; and it requires a mutual understanding
of the terminology employed in the “language of disbelief.”

Similarly, the traditional world of political
and diplomatic intercourse is predicated on finding the often
vapid “lowest common denominator” that allows consensus
among the disputants. The assumption is that agreement on non-core
issues will build a reservoir of mutual confidence and trust
in the sincerity and commitment of participants. Clearly, this
has failed to advance the resolution of a number of decades-long
disputes such as India-Pakistan, Taiwan-China, Cyprus, and Israel-Palestine.

Protagonists using the traditional methods
often come to the table with erroneous and un-nuanced preconceptions
about the beliefs and objectives of other participants. Little
wonder that, with such a fallible basis, negotiations often are
unproductive. Coming at seemingly intractable disputes through
the language of disbelief actually would drive negotiations through
clarifying what is not at stake (and thus not fundamental) for
each side and require the parties to re-assess what, in each
new context, is not a fundamental of their systems. In short,
identifying precise points of reciprocal disbelief highlights
the nuances in beliefs that underlie policy formulation that,
in turn, drives programmatic action in the “real world.”

In its own way, clarifying underlying
disbeliefs builds mutual confidence. It opens a window to deeper
knowledge of other cultures and facilitates a better understanding
of a people’s mind-set. It is not an end but a beginning, one
that can move to an exploration of core issues before, during,
or after conflict.

Dr. William’s lecture came during the
40th year anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem
in Terris
(Peace on Earth). Yet after four decades of traditional
diplomacy, some 1.3 billion people–nearly one in five–still
reside in war zones. Clearly, the peaceful prevention–or at
least the early cessation–of warfare remains an urgent world
priority. It may be time to employ the language of disbelief.

Daniel Smith,
a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on
Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation,
a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: