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Douglas Johnston

Talking about religion isn't so taboo anymore, and may actually be the solution to otherwise unsolvable global problems, two authorities said this month.

Krista Tippett, host of "Speaking of Faith," which airs on NPR, spoke at the Salt Lake City Library Nov. 10 about the increasing popularity of religious conversations.

And Douglas Johnston, president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, spoke at Brigham Young University last week about how those religious conversations are often the answer to identity-based conflicts, such as ethnic disputes, religious hostilities and tribal warfare around the world.

"The very complexity of our age is driving people back to the enduring repositories of ethical and spiritual thinking," Tippett said.

Often, the important questions, such as finding meaning in life and death or understanding good and evil can't be addressed by law, politics or economics. Religion, Tippett said, teaches mankind "what matters in life and in death, how to love and how to give service to one another."

Johnston's service focuses on conflicted countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The International Center, a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, believes that only by involving religious leaders in political discussions can there be long-term, peaceful solutions. Visit www.icrd.org for more information. Johnston is also the author of "Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft."

"Whatever political settlement emerges, if you want it to be lasting in nature, religious leaders must feel some ownership in that," said Johnston, who has an extensive military and government background. "They have unrivaled influence at the grass-roots level. They can make you or break you."

In the Middle East, the center conducts "faith-based reconciliation seminars" with American evangelicals, Muslim clerics and civic leaders. Individuals are asked to think deeply about their own religious views and their negative attitudes toward others.

"I've yet to see one of these seminars not end with people in tears, embracing," Johnston said. "And I'm talking about people who were pretty tough adversaries before."

Following the Salt Lake lecture, one woman wearing a burqa asked Tippett if there was a way to avoid being grouped with radicals of her faith.

Tippett told her that as a woman of piety she would need to stand out and speak up about her beliefs, even though "people leading lives of dignity are not the ones who typically stand out."

However, sometimes the best religious conversations may not even need words.

"The Mormon way of life that has been so magnetic to so many people around the world is precisely that, a way of life," Tippett said. "(It's) a way of family, a culture underpinned by strong beliefs but much more complex and three-dimensional than a mere set of convictions."

She encourages people of all faiths and ages to speak out about what they believe to keep traditions alive and to satisfy the human need to understand the mysteries and questions of life. Tippett has hosted a weekly program about "religion, meaning, ethics and ideas" on public radio since 2001, according to her Web site at speakingoffaith.publicradio.org. She is an award-winning journalist who tries to tie theology and the human experience to religion in real life.

Muriel Schmid, director of religious studies at the University of Utah, said she is seeing more students embrace religious study and conversation.

Such dialogue increases tolerance and understanding of world religions, including those within the students' own communities.

"There is a very interesting population here in Utah," Schmid said. Students often join her program with an already established religious identity but a healthy curiosity to learn more "for the sake of learning."

On the other side of the globe, students in Pakistan's madrassas, or religious schools, now learn about human rights, especially women's rights, and religious tolerance, thanks to expanded curriculum and training programs provided by the International Center.

The center has taught forgiveness and love to more than 2,200 leaders from 1,500 madrassas, including some schools known to have produced terrorists.

All the curriculum changes are done with the help of local authorities and in accordance with Islamic principles.

"So they can feel that as they're effecting this change, they're becoming better Muslims in the process," Johnston said. "And they are."

After one workshop, a madrassa leader came up to Johnston and told him that because of their workshop, he had saved a life.

In his village, a young woman was caught talking on her cell phone at 2 a.m. with a boy in another village.

The elders felt such action violated their honor code, so the girl was to die and the boy was to lose his nose and ears, Johnston explained.

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"This leader said, 'This happens all the time,' but I felt led, because of our discussion, to go back and confront this on religious grounds," Johnston said.

He did, explaining to the elders that nothing in the Quran prohibits a woman from talking with a man. In the end, no one was harmed.

"This was a situation where religion trumped tribalism in a context where not even most Muslims can tell you where one ends and another begins," Johnston said. "Hopefully that can serve as a precedent in that village and perhaps others in the years to come."

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