My Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Talk

My Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Talk November 28, 2013

On Monday night I participated in an interfaith Thanksgiving service in Grand Rapids at Temple Emanuel, a Reformed Judaism synagogue. I was representing CFI – Michigan, on whose advisory board I sit. It was the 14th annual event of its kind and CFI has been involved for the last few years at the insistence of the religious leaders involved, who have gone out of their way to include us. I was very pleased to take part in it.

There were a pair of Muslims imams who spoke, one of whom recited a passage from the Quran in Arabic in that semi-musical chanting that they do. It was really very cool. And it occurred to me that Jews do a similar thing in Hebrew during their services, but Christians do not (they have Gregorian chants, but that’s a tiny part of the religion rather than a central part of their worship. There were a couple of hymns, which aren’t really my favorite thing, and a very nice Hindu woman did a traditional dance that was pretty neat. There was a children’s choir from a local Catholic school that sang a song in Spanish.

This is the text of the brief talk I gave. I began by joking that it was rather warm in the temple and I was sweating like the proverbial atheist in church, which got a good laugh.

A few weeks ago in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a soup kitchen run by a Christian organization refused to allow members of a local atheist group help prepare and serve meals. The head of the group said that she would resign before she would let an atheist into her kitchen. And just last week, a similar thing happened in Kansas City, where a group of atheists were told they could not help deliver meals on Thanksgiving to the needy as they had done for years. I think that is very unfortunate and is a symptom of how human beings tend to draw the lines in all the wrong places.

In America and around the world, we spend a lot of time drawing lines between our tribes on the basis of religion, but I believe that there is an important shared principle found in all the great religions and in secular humanism, which is my philosophy. It’s called karma in the Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh faiths. It’s called the Golden Rule in Christianity. It’s also found in the writings of Confucius and in the Hebrew scriptures. Philosophers sometimes call it the law of reciprocity. It is the basis of all moral reasoning, and it is one of the core precepts of humanism, which is the philosophy that I try to live by.

Service to others is one of the five pillars of Islam. In Buddhism, the idea of Dana or Daan is the cultivation of generosity. The Hebrew scriptures contain hundreds of verses about the importance of helping the poor and the needy. And my favorite passage in the New Testament is when Jesus tells his followers, “Whatever you do to the least of these, my brethren, you do unto me also.” Even as an atheist, I find that to be an incredibly powerful statement of human compassion.

We should treat others well because we wish to be treated well. We should seek justice for others because we want justice for ourselves. We should protect the rights of others because we want our own rights protected. Our shared humanity demands it. And I believe that we spend far too much of our time and energy dividing ourselves on the basis of religion rather than uniting around this basic idea that we should be able to agree on.

I am on the board of the Center for Inquiry of Michigan and we are very proud of our Secular Service Committee, which organizes projects and events to donate blood, clean up the environment, provide food and clothing for the less fortunate and much more. I am also on staff at the Foundation Beyond Belief, an international humanist non-profit organization that has raised and distributed more than a million dollars to charities doing vital work in education, the environment, human rights, and alleviating poverty. I’m very proud of that work. I’m sure all of your churches, synagogues, temples and mosques do the same and you should be proud of that as well.

And I would like to suggest to you that Grand Rapids can provide a counter example to what happened in Spartanburg and Kansas City. Instead of getting together once a year to say nice things to one another, I would like to see us work together all year long on concrete, tangible projects that alleviate human suffering and improve the lives of those in our community. Rather than letting our religious differences divide us, let us allow our shared values of compassion and service to others bring us together to make the world a better place.

The infrastructure is already in place with the committee that organizes this interfaith Thanksgiving service every year. With the lines of communication already open between people of all viewpoints on religion in the Grand Rapids area, let’s take the opportunity to turn annual words into regular action throughout the year.

The great tennis player Arthur Ashe once said that service to others is the rent we pay for the space we occupy on this planet. And as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I hope that we can all recognize that there are kind, caring and compassionate people in every religious and non-religious community and that the effectiveness of our work can only be magnified if we build bridges rather than walls between us.

The keynote talk was given by an abbot from a local Buddhist monastery, a guy who has spoken to CFI Michigan before, and he spoke on the same exact subject, though admittedly he was much more eloquent than I was. It was all well-received and many people of all faiths came up to me afterward and expressed their appreciation. Several people specifically said that they were happy to have atheists and humanists represented there as well.

I know there are some in the atheist/humanist community who don’t think we should take part in such events because we don’t have a faith and therefore shouldn’t take part in events that are “interfaith.” And that’s true but strikes me as entirely irrelevant. Are we really going to pass up the opportunity to reach out to other people of goodwill due to semantics? I don’t see why that would be any better than what those two Christian groups in Spartanburg and Kansas City did, refusing to work together for a good result due to religious differences.

As I said in my talk, I think we draw lines between each other in all the wrong places. I really don’t care if someone believes in God as long as they believe in kindness, compassion, justice and other important values. This was a diverse group of caring people who were coming together to embrace one another. And I’m very happy that I had the opportunity to be a part of it. I’m also happy that the response was very positive and I’ve received several emails since then about putting that idea into practice.

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