In October of 2015 we attended the Parliament of World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Parliament is the oldest, the largest, and the most inclusive gathering of people of faith and traditions. The first gathering was in 1893. The last Parliament focused on some particular themes we are all concerned with: global climate change, women, and issues of indigenous peoples.
The Underrepresentation of Humanism
The gathering was obviously overwhelmingly religious with about 10,000 people, representing around 50 faiths and associations, from 80 countries. It was a spectacular view of the extraordinary diversity of cultures and faiths and the myriad of ways for people to express their identity and convictions. As Christianity seemed to me to be underrepresented there, even more so was humanism and atheism.
The American Humanist Association had a table there, but their influence was almost completely absent in the workshops and programming. Except one. I organized a panel presentation with Rev. Kathleen Greene of the Unitarian Universalists, Nadia Hassan from the Islamic Society of North America, and Mel Lipman and Lori Fazzino of AHA.
As a religious person I found that the understated humanist and atheist presence (and christian) made the gathering poorer and weakened the opportunity bring the full spectrum of our values, ideas, world views and eager hands to heal to the table. In the mingle of the crowd, there were more atheists and humanists that found it easy to move through religious circles while holding on to who they are.
It Takes Two to Dance
One of my remarks in our panel presentation was that our religious dialogue and collaboration is inadequate without secular voices. Religious voices alone are not enough. It takes two to dance since it is both of our worldviews that makes up our global home.
One thing that gathering represented was the astonishing myriad of ways religious and secularists live alongside each other all over the world and how they move together in life. Those on the fundamental and extreme edges of both sides refuse to dance at all. Others do so hesitantly, with more resistance, and still others on the progressive side do much more, yielding and accommodating each other to some extent.
Here in the United States that dance occurs in our courts in the thorny issues of church and state separation, tax exemption, and significant social issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, gun control, and many others. The dance between secularists and theists also occur on line and in social media. It occurs too in our neighborhoods, school curriculums, politics, and even charitable and social institutions.
We Only Have Each Other
Secular societies have sought to privatize (and thus sideline) religion in the public sphere. A narrative that held sway through much of the twentieth century was that this privatization of religion would result eventually in religion’s disappearance altogether.
Today, however, it is generally accepted that the picture is more complex. First of all, societies become secular in very different kinds of ways. The most telling example is the difference between much of Europe and the United States. In Europe (especially in central and northern Europe) religion has dwindled in presence in societies.
In an equally “secular” United States, however, religion continues to be a vigorous presence. The polemics of this dialogical dance, tracing the contours of our differences and searching out common ground is at the heart of nation building in many fronts.
FR. CARL CHUDY is a Catholic priest and Provincial Superior of the Xaverian Missionaries in Wayne, New Jersey. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Catholic Theological Union with a cross-cultural specialization. Carl is currently involved in interfaith initiatives, including extensive work with the American Humanist Association.