This is a guest post by Greg Epstein. Greg is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.
Some background: Greg’s piece is a response to Illini Secular Student Alliance leader Ed Clint‘s recent talk about “Transfaith” at the 2011 Secular Student Alliance conference. You can watch video of that talk below. — Hemant
At John Figdor’s prompting (ok, prodding) I watched and enjoyed Ed Clint‘s talk from the Secular Student Alliance conference last month — it is really worth watching. A few things:
- It should be very clear if you read my book but, to re-state, I agree with Ed that a positive approach to pluralism and sincere, passionate criticism of some religious ideas can go hand in hand. We need not shut up about what we disagree with in order to be generally positive people. My only issue would be if/when our actions and speech mainly reflect criticism of religion without significant effort to acknowledge common humanity, find some value in and some degree of mutual loyalty with religious people and institutions, and work together with them for common good.
- I have nothing against Ed’s renaming of “Interfaith” as “Transfaith” but I can’t say I’m for that; I think everything he advocates can be done wholeheartedly under the banner of Interfaith. I’d be delighted if the concept of “Transfaith” brings some people in who, for whatever reason, may feel turned off to Interfaith, but I hope that those strongly interested in this issue will consider that there may not be much (if anything at all) separating what is signified by the one term from the other.
- I still think that it was not a particularly good idea to put the Muhammad chalkings on the ground where they had to be stepped on — there is a taboo in Muslim culture against placing important things under foot that I feel it would be better for us to honor, even if one also feels a moral or creative need to draw Muhammad. But I think everyone knows everyone’s position on that issue by now and the most important thing is to move forward constructively, which Ed and his group seem to clearly have done.
So, congratulations to the Illini Secular Student Alliance. Hopefully, we can all learn from what they’ve done well! In particular, I hope there will be an increase in boundary-breaking service work where in the past there has mainly been debate; and as for Harvard, I think it would be great if we could see a continued surge in Interfaith service while also running debate (& discussion!) oriented programs a little more often than in the past.
P.S.: I’ve recently returned from the wonderful International Humanist & Ethical Union conference in Oslo, Norway, where I helped facilitate a workshop on International Humanism and Interfaith Work. Humanists in Europe are often working from a much stronger starting position, socially speaking, than we are in the U.S. From that strong position, almost all of the major European Humanist Associations and secular groups do some significant form of Interfaith work. But they, too, have trouble with the terminology. Alternative terms/phrases that came up there included: “Dialogue for Religious and Lifestance Communities;” “Inter-Worldview;” spiritual/existential, religion and belief, religious and secular lifestances, etc.
What we all agreed is that we need to keep doing the work of engaging constructively with a pluralistic world, though for now there may not be a perfect word for it. I hope we could all give one another a “rAmen” to that.