The moment I have worked for for for years has occurred: apparently I am a “Spiritual Leader”. It says so right on the program, and the envelope I’m given to thank me for coming says “Spiritual Leader James Croft” on it:
I’m speaking at the 29th annual Forum on Tolerance, an event held at North Shore Community College in Lynn, MA, and I’ve been asked to represent the Humanist perspective. I’m on the “Panel of Spiritual Leaders”, alongside a Protestant Reverend, a Zen Buddhist Priest, a Rabbi, and Muslim and Catholic Chaplains. We begin the day with a spot of Hare Krishna chanting, there’s a hymn choir later on, and the whole thing is filled with references to God and the “Universal Spirit”. Many speakers spoke with very little understanding that there were non-religious people in the room.
On the face of it, this is exactly the sort of thing atheists who object to interfaith work are afraid of. They don’t want atheism/Humanism to be seen as a “faith” of a “religion”. They don’t want to participate in spaces or events which seem to promote “faith” as a good idea. They do NOT want to sing religious songs. They don’t want to be considered “religious/spiritual leaders”. They want to ensure that inclusive language The general air of religiosity sticks in the craw.
I’ve written at length on why I think these arguments are unconvincing reasons not to participate in interfaith endeavors. Here I want to reiterate that I think, despite the drawbacks, it is extremely important for Humanists to attend such events. Why? Because we destabilize the narrative. When I spoke on the panel I started with two simple statements: that Humanism is not a religion and it is not a faith. And when we were asked what the biggest misconceptions about your tradition are, I was able to give a full response to the idea you can’t be a good person without believing in God, and to raise the problem of discrimination against atheists in American society. Finally, when asked how we can foster positive relationships between people of different religions and none, I spoke of the importance of honesty: recognizing that not all faiths agree on fundamental questions, and that these disagreements are real and, sometimes, unbridgeable. Some positions are false.
Although it didn’t affect every speaker, my presence on the panel ensured that, throughout the rest of the day, a number of the other presenters had to change their language – and thereby their thinking – about religion and its relationship to community, values, and the good life. More than once participants caught themselves making statements which were exclusive of non-religious people, and had to rapidly correct themselves. This is good for us. It makes people think twice about the cosy “everyone is religious in some way” story which is so often told at these events, and once people start thinking about that narrative, they begin to question it.
My favorite example: the keynote presentation on “The Art of Dialogue” was given by Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a Jewish leader who has become fast buddies with the Dalai Lama. In other words, a seriously religious dude. During his talk he has a bit about reaching out with your hands. And he said:
“God has given you two hands…” Then he stops, looks right at me, and continues “or, or however you got them. By evolution, however. But you’ve got them.”
Now, I’m willing to bet he never put in that bit about evolution before. I think it very likely that he’s always told that story unproblematically, saying God gave us two hands. But there’s me, a scrappy atheist at the God-party, and he sees me there and has heard me speak, and he feels he has to acknowledge that not everybody believes in God. And name-check this little theory called “evolution”. In his keynote speech.
I think that’s a win. I think it’s a lot better than staying at home. I think my presence on the panel was does more for the view of atheists in America than if I had declined and allowed the space to be taken by a Hindu. So, until I find a good reason not to, I’m going to keep attending these events, Kirtan chanting, hymn singing, and “Spiritual Leader” nonsense be damned.