“Belief Holding” as an Intercultural Competence – Religious less motivated by compassion


Frequently and for many years I have cited Milton Rokeach’s The Open and Closed Mind when people ask me about intercultural competence. In this book he talks about the importance of holding beliefs tentatively and situationally instead of imposing them on or expecting them of others.

“A closed way of thinking could be associated with any ideology regardless of content. It includes an authoritarian outlook on life, an intolerance towards those with opposing beliefs, and a sufferance of those with similar beliefs.”

According to this line of thinking, open-minded people may hold their beliefs firmly and strongly, but they also respect others’ rights to believe something different. They believe their path is right for them, but they do not believe it is necessarily the one and only path for everyone on the planet. “It is not so much what you believe that counts, but how you believe,” Rokeach tells us.

In our current age of heightened religious and nationalistic fervor, “belief holding” or “permeability of beliefs” seems more important than ever. As do religious or spiritual beliefs as dimensions of culture and cross-cultural interaction.

In this context, today I read the headline, “Highly Religious Less Motivated by Compassion.” Oh dear. I read on to find out that it is the key finding of social psychologists at the University of California Berkeley, who have conducted three separate studies since 2004 on a largely US American sample.

“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help a person or not. The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

Perhaps it is time for all of us who coach, train, or educate on the topic of intercultural communication to remember this important competence, which was first published back in 1960.

7 thoughts on ““Belief Holding” as an Intercultural Competence – Religious less motivated by compassion

  1. Dianne, I am sadly aware of this study and have experienced some of this within my own family. At the same time, I also sense that the researchers did not distinguish between sub-groups within religions. For example, within the United Methodist Church of which I am a member, there are groups/persons who have a very legalistic, fundamentalist approach to faith [rule based, judgemental and exclusionary]. At the same time there are many, many groups/persons who are theologically open, flexible, welcoming and non-judgemental. Given that reality, it is no surprise that there are major tensions within different Christian denominations today especially in regards to homosexuality and often hostile to immigrants, legal and undocumented and easily tend toward islamaphobia. The place where I live — the San Francisco Bay area — is one of the most secular parts of the U.S. — at least among Protestants. Consequently, many people assume that Christianity is what they see with the televangelists [ judgemental, backward looking, rule-bound, prejudiced.]

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  2. Hi again, Dianne,
    I forgot to say that I strongly agree with you; Rokeach charts a path to intercultural competency that is “spot on.”. I also find him foundational. Using the concepts you quote from him would be an excellent starting place for small group discussions, especially ones grounded in persons’ lived context. It surely is a caution to us who facilitate groups to design approaches which, hopefully, would counter or mitigate these exclusionary tendencies. That is definitely an ongoing challenge to me in the work that I do. I really appreciate your posting this.

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  3. And I really appreciate your expert input and experience, Shan. Doing this kind of work in Divinity schools and with congregations and their leaders is such important work, particularly in this day and age. Thank you for adding this perspective.

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  4. Reminds me of the proverb–author unknown: “To be furiously religious is to be furiously irreligious.” and Ambrose Bierce’s definition of impiety: “Your irreverence for my deity.” and Lao-tzu’s reflection that “All things, including the grass and trees are soft and pliable in life, dry and brittle in death… A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.” joe lurie

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