"Secular bias" in mediation
Oxfam, a formidable international humanitarian organization, recently released a report written in conjunction with Harvard's Religious Literacy Project, entitled Local Humanitarian Leadership and Religious Literacy: Engaging with Religion, Faith, and Faith Actors. This report marked the culmination of a partnership between these two forces, with the unified goal of increasing religious literacy within Oxfam, and engaging religious communities in Oxfam's humanitarian work.
As Tara Gingerich, a Senior Humanitarian Researcher with Oxfam, writes in a blog post about the project, many of her colleagues were originally dubious about adding the element of religion into their scope. In her words,
"Some Oxfam colleagues were excited and said how important—even overdue—they thought such work was, but I also received confused and skeptical reactions, followed by statements along the lines of 'I don’t understand. Oxfam is researching religion? Why? But we’re a secular organization.' Two colleagues—one from the US and a national staff colleague from an Oxfam field office—told me that our engaging on the issue of religion in any way made them uncomfortable. While it didn’t make me uncomfortable, I will admit that I entered into the research with skepticism about how much a secular organization like Oxfam should partner with local faith groups and fairly certain Oxfam did not need to have religious literacy (whatever that was)."
What Gingerich expresses here is, no doubt, a common reaction among organizations and conflict management professionals who place themselves squarely within the camp of "secular," when confronted with religion. But her description of Oxfam's transition from skeptical to "converted" is useful precisely because it highlights the value of 1) understanding "how religion and religious groups function" (i.e. religious literacy) and 2) engaging with "local leadership" as a means of resolving conflict in a sustainable manner-- even if that "local leadership" is from within a faith community.
Mediators have much to learn from the approach Oxfam has taken. As conflict management professionals, we can best serve our clients by understanding their "worlds" most clearly. Religion, whether embraced by the mediator her/himself or not, is a defining feature of many people's lives. How might a client's faith and ties to their religious community affect their BATNA, their negotiating power, or their vision for their future? And, equally as important, how might the mediator's own lack of understanding about religion affect their ability to ensure a balanced, informed, and productive mediation? Would background knowledge of the role of "local leadership" (i.e. religious leaders, significant members of religious communities, etc.) in clients' lives help the mediator understand power structures and influences more adeptly?
While religious illiteracy is a common problem among mediators and conflict management professionals, so too is what Gingerich refers to as a "secular bias". As she states,
"... I learned something else [from working with Harvard's Divinity School]: I had a secular bias. I associated the term 'secular' with neutrality, impartiality, and organizations that are primarily guided by human rights. Whereas I learned that the term “secular” is complicated. It is often used in a value-laden manner to convey the very associations I had, but it has its own biases. I definitely see that now."
As mediators, are we guilty of holding a secular bias? And how might this affect our choice of files, and our ability to best serve our clients? Gingerich's blog post is a worthy read, and it may help us improve our own practice by illuminating our hidden biases or gaps in knowledge.
Read Gingerich's post here.
Read the report produced by Oxfam and Harvard's Religious Literacy Project here.
[Hayley Glaholt Mediation offers religious literacy training for organizations and individuals. Please contact us to inquire.]