Do Atheists Belong in the Interfaith Movement?

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the organized atheist, humanist, skeptic and freethought movements about the potential benefits and drawbacks of interfaith work.

Over at Patheos, the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, recently made an excellent case that—while the terminology of “interfaith” may be problematic and there are several other important issues to grapple with—it is worth atheists’ while to get involved. At Friendly AtheistSecular Student Alliance Communications Director Jesse Galef offered a long list of reasons atheists might participate, and how their involvement might improve some of the problems within the interfaith movement. Despite Galef and Speckhardt’s serious concerns and reservations, they have been actively involved in intentionally interfaith efforts, and I suspect their participation has informed their conclusions about the idea.

However, those speaking out against atheist involvement in the interfaith movement are, at the moment, a bit more numerous (just a couple of examples, with several others to follow). As far as I can tell based on what many atheists opposed to interfaith involvement state in their writing, a large percentage of them seem to have kept their distance from interfaith work. I understand their hesitation given the criticisms they offer, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some disconnect when those who criticize the interfaith movement the most also seem to have had little to no actual experience with it. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if someone who had been involved in interfaith work would suggest, as prominent atheist blogger P.Z. Myers did, that it “cheerfully and indiscriminately embrace[s] every faith without regard for content.”

Present in almost every atheist blog I’ve read opposed to interfaith work are perhaps the most common critiques I hear from my fellow atheists regarding interfaith work, and they’re directly related: that interfaith leaves no room for religious criticism, and that it by default excludes atheists because atheism isn’t a “faith.” Most atheists I know who reject the idea of participating in interfaith work do so in part because they assume that, in order to participate, everyone must bite his or her tongue and play nice, and that participation in this kind of movement lends our implicit approval to “faith” as a concept and rallying point.

I’d like to explain why I think these concerns may be somewhat overblown; how they might be combated where they exist, and the reality that they actually don’t apply to most situations.

Isn’t interfaith just a pro-religion ‘kumbaya’ club?

A recent expression of these concerns was made in a blog by Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, an organization I have worked with a number of times (I recently accepted an invitation to join their Speakers Bureau) and whose “Living Without Religion” campaign I greatly admire. In his blog, Lindsay wrote that “it’s nice that some politicians are finally willing to acknowledge our existence, but are we so desperate for acceptance that we’ll allow others to condescendingly misdescribe us as adherents of a faith? Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can ‘pass.’” I’ll set aside my distaste for the bizarre (and far too common) parallel made between the atheist movement and the civil rights movement and address the meat of the argument: the fear that, in order to maintain the “kumbaya” status quo, atheists need to keep quiet about their beliefs about religion.

Lindsay continued:

“it is probably true that working together with religious groups in interfaith coalitions will result in some good will and more favorable opinions about atheists… But this benefit has to be weighed against the cost. The mission of secular organizations is, presumably, not just to get atheists to be liked. Among other things, it’s to promote critical reasoning; it’s to advance the view that faith is decidedly not a virtue. Calling our worldview a faith does not seem the best way to achieve these objectives.”

Unsurprisingly, the thought that interfaith work requires significant tongue-biting makes many atheists very uncomfortable; it was certainly a concern I had before I started working in the interfaith movement.

The irony of this worry is that the atheist and the interfaith movements actually share a common point of origin: they both started, in part, as a reaction to religious extremism. Much like the atheist movement, the interfaith movement seeks to build inter-group understanding, encourage critical thinking, and end religiously-based sociological and political exclusivism. The fundamental misunderstanding that many atheists have is that they imagine the interfaith movement as disinterested in combating religious totalitarianism and solely existing to maintain religious privilege—as an excuse to show that religion, in its many diverse forms, has a monopoly on morality—but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In my experience, interfaith work exists to bring diverse religious and nonreligious people into common work to build relationships that might deconstruct the kind of “us vs. them” thinking that contributes to exclusivistic religious hierarchy. It is a place to challenge and question, but to do so constructively.

The success of such challenges is contingent on whether invested relationships exist between the involved parties; otherwise, disagreements run the risk of degenerating into shouting matches in place of reasonable discourse. In “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” Robert Putnam wrote that diversity is important to build strong and sustainable communities. But, at least at first, people tend to “hunker down” with those very similar to themselves and gaze upon others with suspicion. For diversity to flower, individuals must meet and learn from one another.

Similarly, in Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Ashutosh Varshney theorized that the likelihood that inciting events would lead to widespread or long-term violence was significantly less in communities where civic ties across lines of religious identity were present. In populations where such ties were nonexistent, inciting incidents provoked extensive inter-group violence. And while atheists and the religious in the United States don’t regularly commit physical violence against one another, it is clear that invested relationships across lines of identity difference are essential for cooperation and constructive inter-group communication, whether those groups are religious or not.

Whether it is engaging Christians around my negative experiences as a former evangelical and a queer person, or challenging my religious peers to rationally explain their beliefs, I’ve found interfaith work to not only be a fruitful place for such conversations, but the ideal forum for it. I can fondly recall any number of incidents where I argued theology and philosophy with a religious colleague while doing interfaith work; and how, later, they told me that they actually took my perspective seriously because we had built a trusting relationship. It made all the difference that I treated them as intellectual equals—as people with respectable goals rather than just mindless adherents of some stupid religion. They had heard positions similar to mine in the past from other atheists, but they had been presented so disrespectfully that they had made no impact, and had closed them off from even entertaining such ideas in some cases.

This is precisely what interfaith work sets out to do: elicit civil dialogue to increase understanding, not stifle it for the sake of “playing nice.”

But atheism isn’t a ‘faith’…

As Lindsay articulated, there is a related concern that many atheists have about joining interfaith coalitions—that participating in interfaith work somehow bolsters religious privilege. And, all the more, that some will conflate atheists participating in interfaith work with the idea that atheism is “just another religion,” when some of the underlying values of a religious mindset are exactly what many atheists reject.

“In participating in interfaith coalitions, atheists are implicitly allowing atheism to be considered just another religion,” wrote Lindsay. I can only speak from my experience here, but I have been invited to address interfaith conferences and groups many times, and I often open with this line: “Let’s get one thing out of the way—atheism and humanism aren’t a religion.” Not once have I had anyone disagree with me.

To atheists concerned about being seen as “just another faith” and worried that interfaith isn’t an avenue for substantive discourse: I encourage you to give it a shot anyway, and be vocal about where you stand. I cannot begin to recount all of the times interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs—in fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the interfaith movement. All the more, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t.

I regularly hear from atheist students who are leading the charge for interfaith cooperation on their campuses, and their experiences echo mine. I’ve spoken on the topic of atheism and interfaith work at fourteen colleges and universities in the last two months, which gave me many opportunities to see it in action. Last month, Tufts’ Freethought Society hosted a panel on the role of atheists in interfaith efforts. I was fortunate enough to sit on the panel alongside experienced interfaith activists like Rabbi Or RoseValarie KaurJen Bailey, and Chris LaTondresse (with whom I later, over a beer, debated about the existence of Christ).

Eboo Patel, Founder and President of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), created a video to kick off the event, and in it he said: “Interfaith work in America and the world is incomplete without the presence, the participation, and the contributions of Secular Humanists.” It couldn’t be any clearer that our perspective, with all of the challenge it may present to the religious, is wanted in interfaith work.

The question, then, is: will we take up the call? Or will we sit on the sidelines listing off reasons why we don’t belong?

An atheist blogger I really admire, Blag Hag author Jen McCreight, recently wrote that she has a problem with “the interfaith people who say the debaters and the intellectuals need to shut up and just sing kumbaya with religion.” Those people may exist, but I haven’t met many – and the only way to ensure that there is a place for compassionate but challenging discourse in interfaith work is for those who hold it in esteem to actually show up.

In my experience, interfaith work doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door—it invites people to try to understand and humanize the other. It’s a worthy goal, and if the only thing keeping some atheists from participating is a semantic disagreement with the word “faith,” I think that is a missed opportunity.

Wondering if interfaith cooperation is more than just “kumbaya”? Try it out and let me know what you experience. Your conclusions about the importance of interfaith work very well might not match mine, but I’d love to get your feedback.

Based on my own work in the interfaith movement, I’m hopeful that other atheists will find themselves pleasantly surprised. As my mom always said when, as a child, I protested eating an unfamiliar food: “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”

(For a more in-depth exploration of why atheists might get involved in interfaith work, check out a series of posts I wrote for The New Humanism, or this excellent post by the Secular Student Alliance’s Director of Campus Organizing, Lyz Liddell.)

This post originally appeared at Religion Dispatches; check out this thorough response by ScienceBlogs’ Josh Rosenau.

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35 thoughts on “Do Atheists Belong in the Interfaith Movement?

    1. Shouldn’t we turn this discussion around and simply ask, how can believers and non believers work together ‘to save a planet in peril’? to use Edward O. Wilson’s way of looking at Earth’s critical situation. His book, ‘The Creation’ – An Appeal to save Life on Earth, (2006) is dedicated to this issue and I think that his request should be taken up wholeheartedly, leaving behind the question posed in this article.

      1. Makes some sense, Len. I’m currently reading Wilson’s Biophilia and The Diversity of Life. Both seem fitting in any discussion of the “bigger picture,” faith or no faith.

  1. “The irony of this worry is that the atheist and the interfaith movements actually share a common point of origin: they both started, in part, as a reaction to religious extremism. Much like the atheist movement, the interfaith movement seeks to build inter-group understanding, encourage critical thinking, and end religiously-based sociological and political exclusivism.”

    No. Not any atheist movement that I’m acquainted with, at least – I don’t “seek to build inter-group understanding” because I don’t think of people as carved up into groups and I don’t think “inter-group understanding” is a very useful term or way to think. I don’t like communalism, and along with not liking it, I think it’s very dangerous. The world is full of evidence of that.

    You think the way to deal with the dangers of communalism is to bring groups together and promote mutual understanding among them, as groups. I think the way to deal with those dangers is to treat people as people rather than as bits of groups. I think the more focus there is on groups or “communities,” and the more they are flattered as such (by being called communities, for instance), the more defensive of them people become. I think it’s better to try to dissipate their force.

    1. Ophelia – while Chris mentions “inter-group understanding” in the quote you selected, I read the overall thrust of his essay to mean exactly what you say – its best “to treat people as people.” For example, further down in the essay Chris writes that interfaith work “invites people to try to understand and humanize the other.”

      I don’t believe that communalism and inter-group dialogue, as you characterize them, can actually take place. I dont see how it is possible for Christianity to be in dialogue with Atheism, or for Judaism to be in dialogue with Islam. But individual Christians can talk with Jews about their particular experiences with their traditions. And Muslims can talk with Secular Humanists about the similarities – and differences – between their individual systems of meaning-making.

      Chris has argued for humanists and atheists to have a place at the interfaith conversation table, and he has showed how conversations between religious and non-religious have been mutually enriching. For what its worth, my experience has been the same – I have learned as much (if not more) about life, the world, and my religious tradition (Orthodox Christianity) from my humanist friends as from my Christian friends.

      Forgive me, Chris, if I have misrepresented your views. But I think we are all actually advocating for the same thing. People with differing points of view (whether from the same tradition, from differing traditions, or between those with formal beliefs and those without formal beliefs) ought to talk to each other to learn more about the other’s views and – in the process – learn more about their own.

    2. Yes, I agree with Oliver. I’m not sure this concern means much in the real world, when what you’re dealing with in practice are individual representatives of faith traditions. If anything my experience has been that the process breaks down communalist mindsets by showing the wide variety of individual experiences and beliefs within a faith tradition.

  2. Thank you for that contribution. I have been involved in aspects of interfaith relations for twenty years. In an essay for an interfaith gathering in India in 1993 Durwood Foster wrote an essay on The Quest for a Universal Ultimology. (Published in Visions of an Interfaith Future by the International Interfaith Centre.) Although he does not deal with the position of atheism, I think that he opens the door to all people who have a ‘faith’. I use the word because I believe faith covers all people who have a life view that they trust. I hope that you will accept being included in the circle. Also accepting the concept of Ultimology as an appropriate word for the study of all world views both religious and non-religious.

    1. Many of us atheists and Humanists do not accept the “faith” label because of its connotations of epistemic irresponsibility. I’d further be concerned with the term “Ultimology” because it sounds like it might have something to do with “Ultimate” or “Transcendent” values, and Humanists have long critiqued such notions. Adherence to any particular terminology should not be a requirement to join the discussion, in my view.

      1. “Adherence to any particular terminology should not be a requirement to join the discussion, in my view.”

        Definitely agree. I think that mutually agreed upon terminology is important, but that it necessarily emerges through the struggle of dialogue rather than precedes it. This type of solidarity is an outcome rather than a precondition, so we can start by calling something ‘interfaith’ and maybe emerge later with a different description that is more inclusive. That being said, people of faith should be conscious that terms like ‘faith’ and ‘ultimology’ have a sort of built-in exclusion toward the non-religious, so that even when non-religious voices are included, there is an implicit power disadvantage embedded in the ‘definition of the situation’. I have always preferred the term ‘intercultural dialogue’ to interfaith, when the dialogue includes nonreligious voices (interfaith is of course a fine and accurate label when there are only people of faith present). But like James, I engage in dialogue with the religious and even reluctantly accept the label ‘interfaith’ for what I do, because I think it is much more important that non-religious voices be included in the discussion (even if we are disadvantaged by the label) than it is to bicker about terminology.

  3. I find the decisively right-wing turn in Ophelia’s discourse here very revealing. The denigration of ‘communalism’ (what exactly do you mean by this term?), the assumption that people do not exist in groups (revealing a political ontology of atomized individualism resonant with Thatcher’s famous utterance “there is no such thing as society, only individuals”) – all of this to me serves as clear evidence of the alignment of militant atheism and a radically libertarian ultra-capitalist ideology. I would argue that the divide that separates atheists is fundamentally political and rooted in a difference of class allegiance (of course, a conservative atomist would probably argue that classes don’t exist – it must be nice to be sheltered enough by privilege to hold such a belief!). Anyway, the divide among atheists has nothing to do with how pure we are in our disbelief; it is not primarily philosophical (or, more clearly, the philosophical differences cloak a deeper divergence in political allegiance). My forthcoming post on A.C. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities explores the class dimension of New Atheism and illustrates the convergence between this strain of atheism and an elitist, reactionary politics (probably best exemplified by the rabidly right-wing warmongerer Hitchens, although I do not discuss him in the article – the other Lefties have beaten that horse enough already!)

    1. This is a very unfair and unwarranted response to a reasonable question / critique Ophelia raised! You have to take a number of serious intellectual leaps from a distrust of treating people as representatives of groups to claiming that a whole segment of those who support a particular worldview are allied with a certain political and ideological framework you dislike.

      1. I didn’t intend to lump Ophelia in with anyone. I was merely commenting on a certain turn in the discourse, which to me revealed certain assumptions about social ontology (the ontological reality of individuals and groups) closely aligned with right-wing libertarian ideology. Individuals do act as representatives of groups, every time they interact, whether they want to or not. To denigrate the ontological reality of social groups is a characteristically right-wing move, and it serves explicit political interests. My second point is that there is a clear political agenda behind the New Atheist movement and its style of social exclusivism. It is not an apolitical worldview that can be detached from the class context it is associated with. To depoliticize the issue is again, to make a right-wing discursive maneuver. I think it is acceptable to call that out, without being seen as lumping people into ideological categories. I don’t know what Ophelia’s political affinities are, I was only commenting on what she said. Lastly, if you want to argue that Christopher Hitchens is not right-wing, good luck! That seems to me like quite a challenging task of apologetics given his rampant Islamophobia and flagrant endorsement of neocolonial foreign policy.

        1. If you didn’t intend to lump Ophelia in with a certain political perspective then it was extremely misleading to call what she said “clear evidence of the alignment of militant atheism and a radically libertarian ultra-capitalist ideology.” I respect the desire to frantically backpedal (or do I?), but I can read pretty well and there is a very clear implication that you thought her opinions fell into a particular political category.

          As for the rest, it seems to me there are a number of assumptions beneath your response as well that merit examination: that “To denigrate the ontological reality of social groups is a characteristically right-wing move”, when it has also been characteristic of anarchists, left-libertarians, classical liberals and others is one such, as is suggesting Hitchens displays “rampant Islamophobia and flagrant endorsement of neocolonial foreign policy.” I would suggest he does neither, depending, of course, on how we define those terms.

          I think one think hampering your analysis is a rather outdated set of political categories which do not reflect the realities of today’s world with its changed challenges and frameworks. But perhaps this is something to discuss on your NCH post?

          1. “when it has also been characteristic of anarchists, left-libertarians, classical liberals and others”

            what type of anarchists are you talking about? left-libertarians (I assume you are referring to libertarian socialism here) do not denigrate the notion of group or collective – for a good example, see the essay “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm” by Murray Bookchin (incidentally, the founder of ‘communalism’ as a particular variant of left-anarchism, which is what sparked my initial confusion). to make a statement like this indicates to me a lack of exposure to the different streams of political anarchism, which split along a left-right divide just as non-anarchist politics do. the source of this schism is always the issue of social ontology – the question of what is real in society.

            are social collectives real entities? any left anarchist, influenced by the Marxist tradition, would say definitively yes. is society merely comprised of atomized, rationally choosing individuals? only a right-wing anarchist (before i used the term ‘libertarian’ for this position), operating under classical liberal assumptions would affirm this kind of reductionist ontological position (‘no such thing as society, only individuals’). the latter seems to be the end of the spectrum you are leaning toward, correct me if i am wrong.

            outdated political categories…that is the typical neoliberal answer to anything that doesn’t affirm the atomized individual and the benevolence of the free market as the crowning achievements of civilization. you’ll have to forgive me for not taking that seriously, given the state of global economic turmoil and social alienation we find ourselves in.

            cheers, James.

            -Ian

          2. “what type of anarchists are you talking about?”

            There is a strong stream of anarchist thought which is basically one step more individualistic than libertarianism which does strongly criticize communalistic interpretations of human endeavor (I don’t use or endorse the term “denigrate” myself – I was merely quoting your use of it and interpreting it generously since I think it’s a mischaracterization of what Ophelia said in the first place). I also should clarify when I say “characteristic of anarchists” I do not mean “ALL anarchists”. There are clearly strains of extremely communalistic anarchist thought.

            I also think the idea of “social ontology” is misguided in itself, a hangover from materialistic understandings of how society works. I’d take a more epistemically pluralistic view to these questions, seeing various political philosophies as attempts to understand the extraordinarily complex dynamics of human communal life, rather than descriptions of “what is the case”.

            “outdated political categories…that is the typical neoliberal answer to anything that doesn’t affirm the atomized individual and the benevolence of the free market as the crowning achievements of civilization. you’ll have to forgive me for not taking that seriously, given the state of global economic turmoil and social alienation we find ourselves in.”

            This is simply a non-response to the point posed, and an ungenerous one at that. The configurations of our lives together do go through real changes and it would be foolish not to modify our political positions and frameworks to take these changes into account. I will not forgive you for not taking this elementary fact seriously.

            But this is an argument for elsewhere I think.

  4. Uh…wrong.

    If you don’t know what I mean by communalism, try looking it up. It’s certainly not a nice cuddly left thing! It’s a relic of the British empire in its dealings with India, one that India is still dealing with today.

    I made no assumption that people don’t exist in groups. My point is that people shouldn’t be treated as representatives of groups instead of as people. Here’s a news flash: most of those “communities” that pseudo-left journalists like to talk about are run by powerful men, who do all the talking and lay down all the rules. They’re not automatically progressive just because they wear the label “community.” If you’re going to sneer about privilege, you might pause to think about male privilege for a second. Most “communities” don’t allow women to share the power.

    The stuff about elitist reactionary politics is just bullshit. Been reading New Matilda have you?

  5. perhaps if you were referring to the much more particularized, and less common use of the term, you might have chosen the word ‘sectarianism’? i assume you are talking about the phenomenon in general, rather than just sectarianism in the Subcontinent, which is the only region that this particular variant of ‘communalism’ applies to. if you do not want to be misunderstood, you should choose your terms more carefully.

    1. You mean, if I don’t want to use a word that Ian Burzynski is unfamiliar with, I should choose my terms more carefully. I’ll make a note of it.

      1. my point was that you employed a less-common and more restrictive meaning of a term that is generally used to mean something else. also, since you were referring to sectarianism in a general sense, and not merely discussing the Subcontinent, it was a poor choice of wording. given the context of your original comment, the term was highly ambiguous, which is why i asked you to clarify what you meant by it. simple enough, right?

        there’s no need to get nasty, sarcastic, or defensive about it (although i realize from previous exposure to your writing that this is your preferred, and perhaps only, style of discourse)

        1. Dude, take a look at your own “style of discourse” about me. You expected hugs after that?

          And you are extrapolating from your misunderstanding of a word that is in fact not all that arcane, and concluding that I used the word carelessly. I could have just said it’s not that I’m careless, it’s that your vocabulary is impoverished. I decided to be more tactful than that.

        2. Yes, this is astonishing – you lump Ophelia in with “elitist, reactionary politics” and ” the rabidly right-wing warmongerer Hitchens” (a mis-description if ever there was one) and then complain about nastiness.

          That’s just not cricket!

  6. Ian-

    I just thought I would point out that atheists and other “secular” people generally vote Democrat or Independent in the United States. Hitchens departs from the general body of atheists, and their respective voting patters, and is probably the closest thing you will get to a conservative atheist. Put simply: atheism is generally a politically and socially liberal project.

    See “Religion in a Free Market” by Kosmin and Keysar.

    Best,

    1. Kile,

      I don’t view the Democratic party in the United States as a left-leaning party in any sense. The foreign and domestic policies advocated by most Democratic legislators, as well as Mr. Obama, are center-right policies at best, and flagrantly pro-corporate at worst. These policies have contributed to the systematic impoverishment of the poor and middle class, as well as intensified imperialism overseas. While I don’t wish to conflate Democrats with the far right, we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that they have pursued an agenda that is largely a watered down version of the Republican party, and that the parameters of U.S. politics are being clearly dictated by the right, with passive acquiescence from the Democratic party. It is also a fact that the majority of lower middle class and working class people, the same demographics being crippled by policies from both sides of the aisle, hold some sort of religious affiliation (this holds true not just in the US, but across the globe), and that the majority of atheists and other secular people in the United States are from a white, affluent background. So, what I am trying to highlight is that there is a clear class dimension behind a lot of these seemingly apolitical debates over religion, and that by voting Democrat, an atheist is not therefore automatically a leftist or ‘liberal’ (the latter being a term I try not to employ, as it means something very different in political theory than it does in pop politics). As an atheist myself, I wonder how much sympathy the American atheist community would have for a genuinely working class political party (which, if it were accurately reflecting the views of its constituents, would most likely have some sort of religious flavor to it). This for me would be the acid test of where the political (read: class) sympathies of the American atheist movement lie.

      Thanks for your comment,

      Ian

      1. You’ve raised a very interesting question here, Ian – I can’t wait for the NCH article. I blogged about that myself (http://goo.gl/qRqcs) and can’t wait to see what you think – I imagine our positions will be very different!

        Perhaps you should expand on the points you’re making here there also, and we can continue this discussion. I’ve been thinking a lot about the political responsibilities Humanists have recently, and this discussion has helped somewhat.

  7. I’m not the moderator of this forum, but as someone deeply invested in preserving a place for constructive and civil dialogue, I am concerned that the personal attacks taking place in this thread are not only off topic but are de-railing the conversation.

    By all means, we should feel free to disagree with and challenge the viewpoints of other commentators. But I would like to respectfully request that we not resort to personal insults in a public forum – if that kind of tone is going to be used, it should take place in private correspondence.

  8. I think this is a good article which goes some way toward addressing the concerns that many seem to have regarding interfaith work. A good example of this (I may blog about it) was the Interfaith Service I spoke at on Saturday before the Pride March.

    In it there were events which counteract both of the concerns mentioned here. First, a Rabbi roundly denounced the Archdiocese of Boston for its forced cancellation of an “All Are Welcome” Mass targeted at the LGBTQ community – it was fiery stuff, definitely not Kumbaya-ish, and very powerful, receiving an ovation from many present.

    Second, I was there to read a Humanist poem and call for people to give to the charity of the day (PFLAG), and before my poem I said a few words about what Humanism is and is not. I was therefore able to say very clearly that Humanism involves no supernatural beliefs, and doesn’t believe in an afterlife or God. From the emails and Facebook messages I have received I can only assume this was considered a perfectly respectable and positive thing to do. Indeed I would not have participated in that capacity on any other basis.

    It seems to me that’s a win for Humanism – we get our message out there, we don’t have to compromise our beliefs, and we are seen as constructive members of a broader community, which exists whether we turn up or not.

    It seems to me that what some of the critics miss is that there isn’t a choice between doing interfaith work and no interfaith work existing, but rather a choice between interfaith work dominated exclusively by people of faith and interfaith work in which our values are clearly represented.

    1. “It seems to me that what some of the critics miss is that there isn’t a choice between doing interfaith work and no interfaith work existing, but rather a choice between interfaith work dominated exclusively by people of faith and interfaith work in which our values are clearly represented.”

      Yes, another astute point, James. And I think also, beyond merely representing those values clearly, there must be an openness to the potential refinement/transformation of those values (which is not to say a change in beliefs, as I think of values more as lived practices than as mental conceptions). This transformation comes through the recognition that we might not be living among and engaging with one another as well as we could be. I like to always think of the dialogue process as a kind of material, alchemical transformation (excuse the airy Jungian reference here) of the people involved, something much deeper than simply articulating our respective views clearly. When we come to see the other’s view more clearly, our view of ourselves shifts concomitantly. I think this change is frightening at times, and contributes to a lot of the willful misunderstanding that prevents the process of dialogue from even beginning. Part of us unconsciously militates in favor of disrupting the process so that we can remain unchanged. What do you think?

  9. Ian-

    Good points. I tend to agree. It would be nice to see an American atheism that is more informed by postcolonial studies. It would be nice if it was not simply another tool of Empire.

    Best,

    1. “It would be nice to see an American atheism that is more informed by postcolonial studies. It would be nice if it was not simply another tool of Empire.”

      Do you really see “American atheism” as “simply another tool of Empire”? If so, why?

  10. Surely what is needed is Peace movement by people who want and understand the need for peace in the world.. regardless of anyone’s belief. Cannot Theists and Atheists not stop preaching at one another and acknowledge a common desire.

  11. This is well said and well reasoned. As a theist (ordained minister) active in interfaith circles I spent years building inter-religious boards and implementing effective “compassion ministry.” Now, as a non-theist, I still maintain some of those collegial friendships and continue to find ways of working together on common concerns because, as one evangelical pastor friend put it, it is the right thing to do. Yes, some might argue it is because their god told them to do something, but the overall work is (can be) quite effective, depending of course on just how inclusive those involved choose to be. I agree with the author, those who criticize the loudest seem to have little or no experience with innovative action that can, no matter how uncomfortable at times, really do some good things– theist alongside non-theist.

  12. A-theists are the same sort of theists that z-theists are, and the religious of all of the letters “inbetween” help fill in the circle, which, by any means, is unbroken and continuous.

    Perhaps an analogy would be to “think of all the sexualities” from a-Z, where percentages range from “zero” sexuality to 100% sexuality (from the totally uninterested, to the wholly consumed).

    Of these people, approximately one half of them are “women”, but they are still “people” who can have zero tolerance or interest in heterosexual couplings to 100% interest in same-sex loving.

    The same can be said of “men”, and those who fall into the androgynous or intersex categories etc.

    In any case, every person is uniquely created: “All people are created equal members of one human family.”

    When we “recognize” this fact (the long and the short, the thin and the fat, the black and the white, the sexual and the a-sexual, the religious and the non-religious etc etc….) we will start to appreciate “every-one” else, whether they are “talented”, or not.

    I have been a “theist” and an “atheist” as I’ve moved around the circle; and I can say “without the shadow of a doubt” that neither of these states has made me a “better” person than the one I started with:

    Each and every day, I must make my own decisions, for “good”, or ill – and I though I may “hope and pray” to make the “right decisions” for the world-community in which I live, like any one else, I must “trust” that I will accept what comes my way.

    For what “comes my way” will, “sooner or later” come your way too.

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