Shepherd Book – Serenity:
Why when I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?
Interfaith dialogues and worship services spread across the nation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, … But now, some Christian leaders are reacting publicly against acceptance of Muslims and even other Christian faith traditions.
Dwayne Mercer, the newly elected president of the Florida Baptist Convention, … would not attend an interfaith meeting. Mercer … feared that his church members might think he believes “that all these faiths are legitimate.” …
James Fortinberry, executive director of the Greater Orlando Baptist Association, said praying with people of other faiths “might be misunderstood.”
Meanwhile in Missouri, formal charges were lodged against the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for his participation in an interfaith gathering after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, …
Opposition to interfaith meetings results from a fear of religious pluralism.
Pluralism has become a watchword in many conservative circles for what is wrong in America. Within very conservative Christian camps, any interfaith activity gives credence to the notion that all religions are equal and afford adherents multiple paths to salvation. …
In the emerging age of popular pluralism, the move toward tolerance and dialogue will leave fundamentalism increasingly out of step with American culture, a position which fundamentalists savor at some points.
That second quotation is a bit long for an epigram, but it sets the stage nicely for a discussion of Chris Stedman’s defense of interfaith outreach by atheists. Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, and so is not just theoretically supportive of that sort of outreach.
He writes that “those speaking out against atheist involvement in the interfaith movement are, at the moment, a bit more numerous,” though it should be noted that the number of vocal advocates of a position need not correlate with the actual level of support for that position. Given that resistance, though, Stedman offers a defense against two major lines of opposition.
First, atheists don’t think of themselves as a “faith,” so find it a contradiction in terms to participate in “interfaith” dialog. I think the Serenity quote above is a good reply: faith needn’t be about god. I have faith in democracy, even when it puts George Bush in the White House. I have faith in my Cubbies, even if they haven’t won a World Series in 103 years. I have faith in the inherent goodness of freedom of speech, even when it is twisted to malicious purposes by the Phelpses, or Illinois Nazis. Saying that atheism isn’t a faith is a form of “dictionary atheism,” an argument that atheism means simply the lack of belief in god(s) (or maybe the belief that god(s) don’t exist). But clearly atheism means more than that if you’re going to build a movement around it. And there is a movement, which suggests that there’s something more than just lack of belief going on. There are shared values, values which are not themselves empirically testable, but which that movement agrees on. This is a different way of thinking about the word “atheism” than the one implied by “dictionary atheism,” but may be more valuable in many cases.
And the values shared by this sort of atheism are often shared by the sort of groups that take part in interfaith efforts. Many of the things fundamentalists distrust about interfaith groups involve the sorts of liberal, progressive, pluralist values that also unite atheists. I don’t doubt that atheists have something to offer to the participants in interfaith dialogs, and I think there’s a lot of value in having atheists at that table. If nothing else, by being at the table they challenge the other groups in exactly the way Shepherd Book challenges Malcolm Reynolds: challenging them to examine all the things they have faith in, not just their theistic faith.
Stedman also addresses the concern of anti-interfaith atheists that interfaith actions would prevent them from being able to criticize religion. “The thought that interfaith work requires significant tongue-biting makes many atheists very uncomfortable,” he writes. “[I]t was certainly a concern I had before I started working in the interfaith movement.” In time, he saw it differently:
The fundamental misunderstanding that many atheists have is that they imagine the interfaith movement as disinterested in combating religious totalitarianism and solely existing to maintain religious privilege—as an excuse to show that religion, in its many diverse forms, has a monopoly on morality—but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In my experience, interfaith work exists to bring diverse religious and nonreligious people into common work to build relationships that might deconstruct the kind of “us vs. them” thinking that contributes to exclusivistic religious hierarchy. It is a place to challenge and question, but to do so constructively.…
This is precisely what interfaith work sets out to do: elicit civil dialogue to increase understanding, not stifle it for the sake of “playing nice.”
Given that too few people know that they know an atheist, and that so many people have negative views of what atheism entails, this sort of outreach has a lot of potential to do good. And Stedman has seen it happen in his own life:
I’ve found interfaith work to not only be a fruitful place for such conversations, but the ideal forum for it. I can fondly recall any number of incidents where I argued theology and philosophy with a religious colleague while doing interfaith work; and how, later, they told me that they actually took my perspective seriously because we had built a trusting relationship. It made all the difference that I treated them as intellectual equals—as people with respectable goals rather than just mindless adherents of some stupid religion. They had heard positions similar to mine in the past from other atheists, but they had been presented so disrespectfully that they had made no impact, and had closed them off from even entertaining such ideas in some cases.
Indeed, this is what fundamentalists fear most about interfaith exercises, as illustrated in the news item above. They, like some atheists, fear that participating in interfaith exercises will validate other voices, without considering how the dialog would also validate their own view in the eyes of other participants. (The fundamentalists probably simply don’t care about validating their views in the eyes of others, but I think atheists generally do care, and should.)
The real obstacle comes from a tension inherent in the New Atheist subset of the atheist community. On one hand, NAs want to make atheism more visible, more respectable, more popular, and so forth, and at the same time, they want to make religion less respectable, less influential, less popular, etc. These goals are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they do exist in tension because of how respected and popular and influential religion is right now. People hold religion in sufficient esteem, and in a sufficiently central part of their personal identity, that a speaker who attacks religion can discredit him- or herself in the eyes of a significant chunk of the population on that basis alone. One certainly can – and many atheists do – advocate for greater social acceptance of atheists without arguing against personal religious belief. Doing so might be more effective in some contexts, but it sacrifices one set of goals for the other, and some folks don’t want to make that tradeoff.
Interfaith dialog would set up that tension perfectly. On one hand, it gives atheists a voice and a socially respectable backdrop against which to discuss their views. On the other, it positions theirs as just one perspective among many equal perspectives.
Of course, every participant in interfaith dialog is doing the same thing. Catholics and Episcopalians and Methodists and Lutherans and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus all let themselves be seen as one among many when they do interfaith dialog, and accept that as a tradeoff for the opportunities such dialog presents. The idea of god(s) each of those religions advances is different, with Buddhism largely dropping the concept. Against that backdrop, what does an atheist’s presence validate? More importantly, what assumptions would an atheist’s presence further challenge?
Reading that part of Stedman’s piece reminded me of a story Reed Hundt tells about his effort, as chairman of the FCC under Bill Clinton, to establish a program which would provide Internet access to every school and library in the country. Thanks to this program, “The Internet has been the first technology made available to students in poorly funded schools at about the same time and in about the same way as to students in well funded schools.” It’s incredibly popular, with over 90% of teachers praising the program.
When Hundt was trying to line up legislative support for the program, he went to Bill Bennett, asking him to help line up Republican support:
since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education [under Reagan] I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.
I suspect some atheists would like interfaith efforts to fail so that religion can fail. Whether they want it to be replaced by some sort of nontheistic nonreligion, or to simply go unreplaced seems to vary. But I don’t think it’ll happen, and if it is to happen, atheist involvement in interfaith efforts could play a useful role in making it happen (just as, if Judaism is to become the dominant religion, interfaith efforts would have to play a role).
Jean Kazez wrote about some of these same issues a while back, in a blog post I’ve been meaning to cite for a while now. Asking “Can Atheists Be Pluralists?,” she replies to blogger James Croft’s feeling of exclusion when people use religious language in public speeches (interestingly, Croft is also associated with the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy):
what about standing outside “with face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold”? My reaction is–what’s the problem? Just go in.
I mean that quite literally. Just go in. …
In Jewish congregations it’s very easy to find atheists, and agnostics, even among the high and mighty and influential. … It is OK–really OK–to be a non-believer and be part of a religious congregation. … I don’t see why you can’t find the experience of being part of a church enriching, without believing in the basic tenets of the faith. … If you pick the right church, there will be nothing ethically problematic about the messages, nothing hostile to science. Nobody has to like this sort of thing, of course, but it’s not foreclosed as an option for non-believers.
Croft sees it as foreclosed perhaps because he’s troubled by a certain notion of pluralism. As he explains, the pluralist writer Diana Eck thinks pluralism means putting God-the-sun at the center of the universe, and seeing other religions as planets orbiting around him/her/it. Members of different religions all seek God, “through different trajectories and paths.” Croft says “there’s no room for atheists in this solar system.” I suppose, to him, crossing the threshold would mean joining a God-centered solar system, revolving around a non-existent sun. It wouldn’t make any sense.
But no–that’s not how you have to think about entering a church or synagogue. A believer might want to think about members of different religions, and even non-believers, as revolving around God, but obviously a skeptic won’t buy into that image. In fact, the image isn’t even compulsory for believers. Pluralism can be nothing but the notion that different religions (and non-religions) are wise in different ways. They all have their insights. This is something you can believe without taking any of the supernaturalism seriously.
Actually, that ought to be obvious. There is wisdom and beauty in the Iliad and the Odyssey, even if there’s no Zeus and Athena, and there never was a Trojan War, and some of the moral messages of the books are atrocious (like how Achilles and Agamemnon–heroes!–fight over who gets to rape (yes, rape) Briseis. There is wisdom and beauty in the bible, and the Talmud, and the writings of later sages, and the same goes for religious traditions I’m not a part of.
Can religious folk accept a pluralism along those lines, instead of presuming that their God is the center of everyone’s religious experience? They actually can. In fact, the rabbi at a friend’s synagogue gave a sermon last night about what we can learn from members of other faiths, including from atheists. There was no presumptuous stuff about how everyone else is really (without knowing it) revolving around our God. My son went, listened to this message, and I’m confident he got something positive out of it, even though he’s adamantly a non-believer.
So: no need for standing out in the cold.
And there’s even less reason to fear the pluralism of an interfaith dialog. Such dialogs aren’t usually about theology or religion, but about the broader community and how the different groups represented in the interfaith effort can do more for their neighbors. Atheists can and should be part of that.