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T. Walsh: Religion and the Sustainable Development Goals

Address to a forum on
"The Relevance of Interreligious and Inter-Civilizational Dialogue to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals"
United Nations, New York, USA, March 27, 2015

The Universal Peace Federation, whose special consultative status with ECOSOC is based on its expertise in the area of interreligious dialogue, has consistently called for wider appreciation of interreligious dialogue as essential for peace and human development.

This affirmation is based on the following premises:

  1. Religion remains a vital force in the lives of the majority of the world’s population.
  2. While the process of modernization and secularization has been widespread over several centuries, it has not been as comprehensively embraced as was once predicted. In fact, by many accounts, religion has enjoyed a rather robust resurgence in many parts of the world.
  3. Religious ideas and beliefs are not merely having to do with otherworldly matters, but are directly linked to society and life in this world. As any sociologist or anthropologist will tell us, religious ideas and beliefs play a decisive role in the lives of individuals, families, societies and nations.
  4. Religion serves many positive worldly functions, not the least of which are: a) provide a framework of meaning; b) provide a foundation for ethics and practices such as patience, restraint, service to others, and non-violence; and c) encourage active giving and service to the needy, through philanthropy, education, health care, etc.
  5. Socially engaged religion is now commonplace and widely practiced by believers of all traditions.
  6. Religion has also its dark side, and in this respect it is similar to governments, nation states, and private sector corporations. Religion is too often complicit in forms of nationalism, ethnocentrism, extremism, sectarian division and strife, and violence, thus contributing to the instability of societies and nations. However, rather than shunning or ignoring religion or simply “judging” religion, we should:
    1. Offer constructive outlets for religion
    2. Bring religion into the public sphere where it is held accountable

Interreligious dialogue helps achieve these goals.

For each of these reasons, interreligious dialogue is important, though not as an end in itself. Interreligious dialogue has its own purposes and consequences, both intended and unintended.

First of all, dialogue is concerned with exchange between at least two speakers, what Martin Buber called an “I” and a “Thou.” We do not dialogue alone.

More importantly, authentic dialogue entails not only speaking, but listening. An attitude of sincere listening tends to give rise to understanding the other, and then eventually appreciation and respect, and finally to cooperation. The goal of dialogue is not syncretism or conversion.

For this reason, interreligious dialogue, generally speaking, promotes and often results in certain outcomes such as: increased trust, overcoming of barriers, increased familiarity, increased appreciation for the other, sometimes friendship, sometimes an awakening to new insights.

Such outcomes are beneficial for humanity, and contribute to peace and human development.

Let me suggest two ways in which religion, and interreligious dialogue, may contribute to the successful achievement of the Post-2015 SDGs:

First many religions already advocate and promote quite a few of the SDGs. I won’t go into detail.

Second, insofar as interreligious dialogue does help prevent or resolve some of the factors that contribute to conflict and instability within and between societies, it serves to positively impact the overall social, cultural, spiritual and ethical environment or infrastructure.

Third, religions are among the most powerful of social and historical forces at play in human affairs, and religions have direct access to the vast majority of the human population at the grassroots, community level.

Fourth, religions can be partners with the UN in helping to achieve the SDGs.

In conclusion, religions and interreligious dialogue should be included and integrated as full partners, along with governments, civil society, the private sector, in the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.


Thomas Walsh is the President of the Universal Peace Federation, an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and with chapters and programs in more than 100 nations. With academic training in the field of Religion and Ethics, he earned his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. He has been a teacher, author and editor, with specialization in areas of interfaith relations, religious studies, philosophy and social theory. He serves on the International Council of the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, and on the board of directors of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom and The Washington Times. He serves as Publisher of Dialogue and Alliance, a scholarly interfaith journal. He has contributed to and edited more than twenty books related to interfaith, peacebuilding and good governance. Among these volumes are Renewing the United Nations and Building a Culture of Peace and The Millennium Declaration of the United Nations: A Response from Civil Society.