Last weekend I gave a speech to the Connecticut Assembly for Reason and Ethics called: “Atheism & Interfaith: Building Bridges with Honesty, Integrity and Compassion.” I argued that, regardless of some people’s reservations, atheists must be involved in America’s interfaith movement. Below is a condensed version of the speech.
In 2011, Ron Lindsay, the president of the Center for Inquiry, wrote an essay for his blog, in which he argued the following:
“Atheist and humanist groups should participate in ‘interfaith’ coalitions only in exceptional circumstances.”
He went on to say that while he strongly supports cooperation between people of differing beliefs, “agreeing to work under the banner of faith constitutes an unacceptable compromise” and grows out of a desperate need for acceptance.
We are, he said, allowing the faithful to describe us as adherents of faith because we want so badly to be invited to the table — a table that has excluded us for too long.
“Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can ‘pass.'”
Now, this was five years ago. It’s very possible that Lindsay no longer feels this way. (I myself have written some blog posts I’ve come to regret — plenty of them!) Regardless, this point of view — that we need to participate in interfaith coalitions only in exceptional circumstances — does exist. And its flat-out wrong.
Atheists must take part in interfaith discussions and dialogues and action groups. If we don’t, we are cultivating the us-versus-them mentality that continues to be, in my opinion, one of humanity’s greatest failings.
Now, let’s get one thing out of the way first, and that is the semantics debate over the word interfaith. Lindsay is right that “interfaith” is a somewhat archaic and maybe even misleading term; atheism, agnosticism, humanism — these are not faiths. And that’s especially frustrating because it’s not an urban legend that Inuits have 50 words for snow — they literally have 50 words for snow — and we have yet to come up with ONE that encompasses faith and non-faith together. At least none that have taken hold.
But, let’s remember this: The term “interfaith” was never intended to specifically exclude secularists. It’s just that secularism probably wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the 1920s, when the word was coined. And, in fact, the “common understanding” of Interfaith is expanding with the times. Even Wikipedia defines Interfaith dialogue as:
“cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs at both the individual and institutional levels.”
So let’s, for the purpose of this discussion, not focus on the literalness of the word but on the word’s happily expanding definition.
Now, one last thing on Lindsay and then I’ll leave the poor guy alone. In listing reasons for why secularists should not take part in interfaith dialogue, Lindsay said part of the mission of secular organizations was to:
“… promote critical reasoning [and] advance the view that faith is decidedly not a virtue.”
Now, I agree with the first part, but take issue the second. I don’t know about you, but my mission is not to advance the view that faith is not virtue. Why would it be? Faith is not a virtue, just like non-faith is not a virtue. Religion is not a virtue, just like atheism is not a virtue. Whether you believe in a higher power is neither virtuous nor vile. It is where those beliefs lead you, and what you do with those beliefs, that reveal your character.
But when I think about it, I realize that this is the crux of the interfaith debate. The reason some non-believers do not wish to take part in interfaith discussions is because they see no merit in religion itself — in fact, they see a lot of pain and suffering caused by faith, and they worry that coming together with believers in a spirit of mushy-gushy harmony requires them to relinquish their honesty and integrity.
That is not the case.
There is no question that religion causes pain and suffering — it does. A lot more than it should. But we have to get over this idea that interfaith dialogue requires us to relinquish our honesty or integrity. Because the only thing interfaith dialogue requires us to relinquish is close-mindedness, condescension and antagonism.
And if, in order to stay true to your core principles or values, you must exercise a close-minded, condescending or antagonist view of all religious faith, then I would posit there is something wrong with your core principles or values.
Now, I’m not going to say there is no room for Richard Dawkins or Bill Mahr or the New Atheist movement in the world. I would never! (That would be like atheist sacrilege, and I come in a spirit of unity.)
But New Atheism is like the Bad Cop to Interfaith’s Good Cop.
The Bad Cop, which I will admit, is almost always the more entertaining of the two, says: “Cut the bullshit, and things will be a lot better for both of us in the long run.” Interfaith says: “You and I are not so different. I’m your friend. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
In life, as in criminal investigations, there is room for both approaches — but one is a hell of a lot more pleasant than the other and is going to leave us feeling decidedly better about ourselves at the end of the day.
Bad Cop gets the satisfaction of the debate and maybe even the glory of the win. But Good Cop gets so much more.
Done right, interfaith:
… values diversity.
… tears down stereotypes.
… leads to friendship.
… encourages education.
… promotes religious literacy.
… reduces hate.
… builds confidence.
… creates new avenues by which to fight for social justice issues.
… acknowledges that none of us is morally or intellectual superior just because we believe a certain way. And:
… sets a great example for our children and grandchildren.
Also, interfaith is consistent with reality in that it acknowledges an important truth: Religion isn’t going anywhere in the next several generations. Furthermore, in my mind at least, interfaith removes some of the power of religion; when I’m not fighting your religion and instead am illustrating my own confidence in my lack of religion, I allow you no power. I’m not threatened by you.
But the best benefit I know is that interfaith makes people feel good. Interfaith benefits us. And, by benefitting us, it benefits others.
When I think of interfaith I think of building a bridge between the faithless and the faithful, and then stepping onto that bridge from my side at the same time that someone else is stepping on it from their side.
Interfaith is not about tip-toeing around your opinion in order to get along with others. It’s about getting along with others in order to make the world a better place.
In my opinion, there are a few things required of a person who wishes to improve relations between the faithful and the faithless.
- You must be willing to talk about your lack of faith. You have to shrug off the taboo about talking about religion in mixed company, and put yourself out there.
- You must be willing to exercise compassion. And that means scraping away the hardened judgments we all have and allowing ourselves to see that people can be flawed and still be good, that they can believe irrational things, and still be good, and they can be wrong and still be good. Compassion also means being willing to keep your innermost nasty thoughts to yourself. Not saying everything in your mind is not dishonestly; it’s discretion. And it is necessary. (Donald Trump doesn’t understand this, but we do.)
- You must understand the purpose — to exchange information, not to change minds. This is not about debate. It doesn’t matter what is right and what is wrong. What matters is that we both understand that we are good people worthy of life and happiness.
Interfaith is being able to hear someone out, gain a better understanding of where they are in the world, and take something away from them of value. At the same time, it’s being able to share your views in a way that is kind and respectful, so that others may take something of value from you.
Now, having said all that, here are my two caveats:
Number one: I’m not a religious apologetic. You don’t have to let religion get a free pass in order to engage in interfaith discussions. In fact, it’s the opposite. But you have to be willing to thoughtfully draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. And saying “Religion is never acceptable” or “Faith is child abuse” or “People who believe in God are irrational” are broad statements that are neither thoughtful nor true.
Number two: Interfaith is great, but it’s not always appropriate. First of all, it takes two to tango. You can build the bridge. You can point the bridge out to the Christian on the other side. You can even step on the bridge and start walking. But if the other party isn’t willing to step on the bridge with you, there is no discussion.
Also? Sometimes you’re not going to be in the mood to cross the goddamn bridge. You won’t feel up to it. Maybe you logged onto the Internet this morning and you saw a billion headlines about religious violence and religious sexism and religious hypocrisy and religious persecution and religious abuse. And maybe now you aren’t feeling the patience and kindness required of interfaith. That’s okay! It’s okay to let off steam. To show some righteous indignation. To throw some mother fuckin’ curse words around. Sometimes, it’s okay to be the Bad Cop.
So I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone for not being zen about religious differences all the time. Or to make anyone feel bad for being judgmental sometimes — either in writing or in person. Or for not being able sometimes to ignore some basic injustice or sickening truth in order to greet a stranger warmly and without personal judgment.
You are human.
But if I’m affording YOU the luxury of not always being your kindest, most compassionate, most open-minded self — then I’m also going to extend that luxury to religious people.
Because they are human, too.