Last week I attended the North American Interfaith Network’s annual conference in Detroit, MI. After four days of panels, community excursions, and intensive networking I returned home exhausted but inspired, with a renewed sense of commitment to promoting interreligious education in the United States.
While the conference was a predominantly positive experience, I was frustrated by one thing over and over again: in language, attendance, and format, it was very clear that secular interfaith partners were not being welcomed. It was evident that when inviting speakers, reaching out to organizations, and designing the general experience of the conference, leadership had actively sought out members of minority religious groups, representatives of intra-religious difference as well as inter-religious difference, and cultivated a plurality of voices with unique experiences and expertise. However, there was not a single mention of the possibility, let alone the importance, of including secular individuals and organizations.
I was not surprised to see so few secular humanists in attendance (there were two of us), but I was surprised that the very idea of including secularists didn’t occur to most attendees or represented organizations. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to bring atheist and other non-religious communities into interfaith efforts. That is no excuse, though, because there are so many of us who do want to be included, and who are creating our own spaces for inter-belief engagement when we aren’t included in the existing paradigm. Hospitality requires two willing parties: one to invite, and one to accept an invitation. I left NAIN this year exasperated that so few were reaching out to those of us who were standing there, knocking at the door to be let in.
Many folks are nervous about intentionally including secular humanist, atheist, and non-religious community leaders. I’ve been told this is in part because they fear that such inclusion will require them to downplay the importance of their own faith tradition or beliefs. This touches on a major critique of interfaith work, which is that “interfaith” is too often misdirected to finding the lowest common denominator of religious experience (I will dig into this more in another upcoming post). One gentleman told me he didn’t want interfaith dialogue to become discussions of life experiences where he can bring his religious identity into it only minimally, because it felt condescending, as though religion was an afterthought or a minor detail, when to him it is the central point. He spoke about his community being dominated by secularists, and about interfaith as an opportunity for people of faith to come together to celebrate their faith traditions without being hampered by the non-religious.
Interfaith work comes down to hospitality and community building. Including the secular in interfaith work does not necessitate a radical shift in how we approach the sharing of traditions, beliefs, and goals. It begins with minor differences in language. We welcome the secular when instead of saying “Every person of faith has something to teach us” we say “Every person has something to teach us”. We can talk about everyone in our community coming together for social justice, for cultural and religious literacy, and to learn from and about one another, instead of talking about communities of faith coming together to form one diverse community of faith. It’s only been in the last couple decades that interfaith collaboration in the United States has sought to include non-Abrahamic faiths, minority traditions, and spiritualism. My hope is that when secular humanists are intentionally invited into that space, I have the awareness to leave the door open behind me, ready to welcome the next group to be invited in. How can we be effective if we aren’t inclusive?
After spending more time with my fellow “young adult” interfaith leaders, it became clear that the intentional inclusion of secular interfaith partners is a generational difference. Thanks in part to campus-based interfaith organizations like Interfaith Youth Core that make a point of including Secular Student Associations and other non-religous or atheist student groups, the emerging generation of interfaith activists are cultivating an understanding of our multireligious world that views and respects secular humanists and other non-religious folk as valuable contributors to interfaith dialogue and collaborative efforts. This transforms my frustration into hope for the future of this work.
There is a dangerous misconception in the United States that religious folks need to band together against the secular hoards, because faith is on trial or under attack. Religiously motivated paranoia that stems from the likes of Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly has somehow confused the fact that non-religious people in the United States are a minority, and not even the largest or fastest growing minority. Atheists are the victims of vicious stereotyping and exclusion, just as ignorant people have been stereotyping people of other religions throughout human history. Combating that ignorance is exactly why interfaith work is so important – we need to learn about one another, from one another, because we share this world and this life together. We need to reorient our understanding of the relationship between the religious and the secular towards community building and shared goals, and do away with the ridiculous idea that they are inherently antagonistic. As an secular humanist, I have about as many shared beliefs with a Muslim as a Buddhist does with an Orthodox Christian, and yet for some reason the differences of a secular humanist are far too often seen as a barrier to inclusion. This is an outdated way of thinking, and it’s time to move forward.
I was excited to hear from so many young adult interfaith activists that secular humanists, atheists, and other secularists are active members of their interreligious work and communities. I challenge more members of my secular community to reach out to be included – bang down the door if you have to. If we can work on this from both sides, maybe next year secularists will have better representation. On both sides, we need more of us stand up to work together.