There was quite an incredible meeting at the White House last week, a summit of sorts of representatives from all the major religions that came together to talk about religious pluralism and launch the Know Your Neighbor project. This project encourages Americans to get to know people of other faiths, and of no faith. My friend Michael De Dora was there to represent the Center for Inquiry and the broader atheist/humanist community. The Catholic News Agency has a well-done report on the event:
Who is your neighbor? A new interreligious project seeks to get as many Americans as possible to answer that question.
“We are a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, non-religious people, and more – we live and work together and we need to have faith in each other,” stated Gurwin Singh Ahuja, a Sikh and co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign. Ahuja started the Know Your Neighbor project, unveiled at the White House on Thursday.
As a Sikh, Ahuja fears bigotry over his religion and is aiming to combat that by promoting simple dialogue between neighbors of different religious backgrounds.
The project was launched at a White House event, “Celebrating and Protecting America’s Tradition of Religious Pluralism.”
Its purpose is for Americans of various religious backgrounds to publicly share their beliefs and learn about and respect the beliefs of others. The project’s website features testimonies and stories of encounters between persons of different religions.
And here is why this is important:
Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, was present at the White House event and explained the importance of the project.
“Americans generally believe that minority religions are an important part of their communities,” he said. “Most critically, familiarity breeds tolerance and even acceptance. Negative attitudes tend to decline as people interact more with members of lesser-known religions.”
This has always been the key to overcoming bigotry and discrimination. It’s so much easier to hate people when they are viewed as distant abstractions rather than as your neighbors, co-workers, friends and acquaintances. This has been the driving force behind the enormous shift in public opinion about LGBT equality and it is also why acceptance of atheists, agnostics and other secular-minded people is increasing. Human interaction, getting to know people and recognizing your common humanity, is the only thing that has ever really been successful in promoting equality and peaceful coexistence.
I fully support this project. And no, it does not mean that we can’t criticize someone else’s religious beliefs and even mock them. What it does mean is that we should recognize and support their right to practice their religion so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others, and that we should stand united in our opposition to every instance of hatred, oppression and violence against anyone for their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This, I believe, is one of the core principles of humanism.