When I was doing my graduate research in England, I shared a terraced house with two undergrads, one of whom I will call Phil. It was rather unheard of to see Phil before noon, but one morning he emerged from his room, made a cup of tea, and returned, exchanging cordial salutations.
Finishing my coffee, I set off to start my day. Passing Phil’s room, I noticed him sitting on his bed reading a thick, yellow book.
‘What’s that?’ I asked, leaning against the jamb.
‘Oh, it’s great!’ he replied, enthusiastically. He turned the cover to show me God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, adding, ‘[Christopher] Hitchens is a genius. You really should read this.’
Phil knew I am a Quaker, and, looking back, I do not think he meant any affront to my beliefs. Jokingly, however, I responded: ‘Are you proselytizing me?’
This one, inimical witticism began a nine month litany of theological debates, anthropological arguments, and all-out philosophic warfare. Phil set out to disassemble any tenuous theist beliefs I held; I set out to convince him of the religious nature with which he was reading/ingesting the New Atheist belief structure. He would argue that religiousness caused all sorts of ugly, hideous injustices; I would retort with an anthropological definition of religion (which, of course, included his philosophical tradition).
In retrospect, we were like two toddlers playing in a sand pit. One of us was playing house; the other, cops-and-robbers. Whilst we were playing in the same space, we were not playing together.
I will not excuse Phil from blame; he, in fact, openly stated (paraphrasing Hitchens, no less): ‘I enjoy being pernicious – when it is with due cause. I need to take the gloves off when dealing with religion and religious people.’
Just to spite Phil, I took his copy of God is Not Great, and devoured it. I read his side to understand his side. What’s more? I loved it. Logical. Comprehensive. Concise. Hitchens is a great writer. He is not without faults. He claims religion causes perniciousness, yet he is, ironically, the most pernicious voice on the matter; the text is chock full of ad hominems. And – the greatest paradox of all – Hitchens is religiously anti-religious.
But Hitchens was brilliant, I love his writings, and he will be missed – if only with a sour note. He greatly formed my foundation for secular humanist ethics. He challenged, and thereby strengthened, my convictions of faith.
I offer my story about Phil knowing that it is not a pretty one. In fact, our relationship is precisely an example of when interfaith dialogue does not work out. I offer it not because I am proud of how I handled the situation (it is, with regret, that we fell out of communication, and I have yet to have an offer to apologize to him). I offer it, instead, to share that through even the roughest of interactions, good can come, and further hinderances can be avoided.
What I can say I have learned, years removed now from my exchanges with Phil, are many valuable lessons. The most banal, yet often most heatedly debated, is that atheism holds the potential to be a religion (or at least practiced/held religiously) – once the definition of religion has been liberalized. The second is that atheists can, and should, be included in interfaith dialogue. The third is that when we are not ready for what may upset us, our knee-jerk emotional reactions can quickly betray us down a path of playing alongside, but not together with, those of different faiths.
In the coming months, I will be sharing posts based on these three lessons. I will do so through sharing alternate examples of an interfaith friendship I have formed with an equally devout-as-Phil atheist, whom I will call Henry.
As an introduction to the aforementioned forthcoming pieces, I suggest that each of us invested in interfaith/inter-religious thought, dialogue, or work does so with bias. Each of us hold to the traditions we were enculturated with: either by upbringing, or by later choice. This goes without saying. I offer that we also have a bias in which areas of interfaith dialogue we find our passion. Islamic-Judaic relations. Sikhophobia, Islamophobia and other acts of misappropriated violence. I have yet to meet an interfaith group whose members are not deeply passionate about particular areas of interfaith work.
As I mentioned in my first piece here on SoF, I was raised in an – unconventionally construed – interfaith household. My upbringing straddled me between theist and atheist perspectives. Without the above interactions with Phil, however, I would not be so self-aware as to recognize this. It is for the very reason that I own my concept of Self to it, that I am passionate about interfaith work, especially considering atheist/theist interactions.