Vagueness and interfaith

Vagueness and interfaith December 1, 2012

One of our readers, the humanist and interfaith activist Vanessa Brake, sent us an email yesterday to point us toward an article that has been circulating online. She directed us to the following quote: “Participants at a recent interfaith conference in the nation’s capital discussed how interreligious dialogue can play an important role in establishing peace and fighting secularization in America.”

The National Catholic Register goes on:

The secular response to religious diversity is to push all religious beliefs out of public life, Bishop Knestout warned. But while this approach has become prominent in the modern era, it is dangerous to all religious beliefs and fails to respect “the reality of the spiritual dimension of life.”

Interreligious dialogue that builds and maintains relationships among different faith traditions is therefore even more important in protecting the role of religion from the secularism that threatens it, he explained.

On behalf of my fellow writers at NonProphet Status I’d just like to say that we’ve had a good run. We thought we could hide it, but it looks like the secret’s out, the jig is up, and the cat’s out of the bag. Interfaith work is and always has been a front to secretly destroy secularism, and our involvement as atheists was simply an attempt to validate faith, make nice with the religious, and throw all the smart, strong, and righteous atheists under the bus. We hope our allegiance will grant us a shred of mercy in the brutal atheist culling that will follow the coming institution of a fundamentalist theocracy. I, for one, will welcome our new interfaith overlords.

But in all seriousness: interfaith is a tricky and very broad word, and a few things should maybe be cleared up before this example starts being held up as an indicator of the evils of interfaith.

Any gathering of believers from different religions is going to technically fall under the label of “interfaith.” It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call the push to get Proposition 8 passed an interfaith effort, because from a literal standpoint it’s just as much “interfaith” as Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core—even though they argue for religious pluralism, the separation of Church and State, and the inclusion of atheists in interfaith efforts.

It would be absurd, though, to confuse support for this latter kind of interfaith as an endorsement of the former kind. So we can talk about the benefits of interfaith without saying that any interfaith effort is necessarily good, just like we can support interracial relationships without approving of the degrading and exploitative practices of interracial pornography.

It gets important, then, to clarify what we mean by interfaith and what interfaith practices we specifically support. Partly to sidestep this—and partly because it’s a broader philosophy with less knee-jerk baggage than “interfaith”—I prefer to talk about pluralism. Though pluralism itself isn’t necessarily the clearest topic (look at all the different meanings of religious pluralism!), it’s almost always necessarily secular—at least in modern political contexts. I think it’s this kind of ecumenical pluralism that is at the heart of the interfaith that atheists should be involved in. After all, the strongest historic proponents of secularism and pluralism have been religious believers. When John Locke wasn’t busy being the father of classic liberalism and the separation of church and state, he was writing essays with titles like “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” It’s important to realize that these weren’t contradictory projects.

It might not seem it based on how a lot of atheists talk about the topic, but most religious thinkers and political philosophers don’t actually want to establish a theocracy or force their beliefs on others. Joe Biden demonstrated this brilliantly in the Vice Presidential Debate (see Michael De Dora at The Moral Perspective for a nuanced discussion about the debate, secularism, and pluralism more broadly). I’m sure God wouldn’t be too impressed with mandatory worship, anyway.

It’s also worth noting that “secularism” is getting to be a vague word, too, and the kind of secularism these faith leaders got together to fight—the kind that tries to “push all religious beliefs out of public life”—isn’t a kind of secularism we should be supporting, anyway. Secularism is a government’s neutrality on religion, not abstention from it. That is to say, the government can’t discriminate against religion in the public sphere. Thus, public schools have to fund both religious and secular student groups, the government can fund both religious and secular (and blasphemous) art, public parks can house both religious and secular displays, and so on. All secularism means is that the government can’t show a preference on religion or lack thereof.

So this all just goes to say that words are very vague, and its not only on us to clarify our values but on critics to be smart enough to realize that an endorsement of some aspect of a topic as broad as interfaith, pluralism, or secularism, isn’t necessarily an endorsement of anything that might go under the name.

P.S: I’m apparently somewhat late at addressing this article. Keith Favre at The Foreshadow wrote about it yesterday.

If anything, secularism should be the goal of interfaith, because in a secular world, everyone has freedom of and from religion; the freedom to practice or not practice any religion they want, so long as doing so does not harm anyone else. Both the atheists and the religious win in a secular world.

Check it out.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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