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Should the non-religious support interfaith work?

In Better Together, Faith, Interfaith on September 27, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Mr Christopher Stedman, of Nonprophet Status, has an acute piece up on The New Humanism about his (non-religously-grounded) reasons for being an active advocate of interfaith cooperation. Stedman poses the question “How might secular individuals participate in a movement encouraging engaged religious pluralism that is rooted in particular religious identity? And why should we?”

The full piece can be found here, but below are some excerpts I see as key and my own thoughts on the matter.

My name is Chris Stedman. I have an indiscriminate love of tattoos, a couple degrees in religious studies, and don’t believe in God. I am also an ardent advocate of interfaith cooperation.

The idea that interfaith cooperation is necessary to advance social progress was not a conclusion I came to overnight. In fact, after I stopped believing in God, I spent some time walking about decrying the “evils of religion” to anyone who would listen. I wanted nothing to do with the religious, and was sure they wanted nothing to do with me.

After reflecting…[I realized] I was treating “religion” as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives…It was only once I observed the actual practices of religious communities—and, more importantly, engaged with religious people and their stories—that I was able to see the benefits of collaborating across lines of ideology and identity differences.

Now I see interfaith cooperation as the key to resolving the world’s great religious problems. All the more, I want my secular community to join me, to share their stories and learn from those of the religious. And, more importantly, I want us to join with the religious in working to resolve the problems that afflict our world. Together, we will accomplish so much more.

Stedman goes on to explore the atheist community, writing of the many points of view in the non-religious community (in this section Stedman quotes Hemant Mehta, who spoke at Elmhurst  several years ago).

Most self-declared nonreligious people have little in common, save one thing–that we do not believe in God.

It is clear when reading contemporary secular writing on religion…that engagement with the religious in interfaith work is a highly contentious issue for many in our community…This has understandably created some division among Humanists, with labels of “Angry Atheist” and “Accomodationist” bandied between camps.

On the topic of a secular community in transition, Stedman writes:

There will continue to be disagreement about the benefits and limitations of both the “Angry Atheist” and “Accomodationist” approaches, but in a time of transition among those who do not identify with traditional religious identities, Humanism provides an alternative identity marker for those who wish to define nonreligious ethics. It may also be an especially fertile ground for those who wish to prioritize pragmatic approaches to interfaith engagement instead of confrontation.

on pluralism

…engaged religious pluralism will make some people very uncomfortable…Greg Epstein acknowledges that secular expression “can make some theists feel that their humanity…is called into question.” The growing secular narratives understandably make some religious individuals uncomfortable—and this has been used by “New Atheist” narratives to advantage their claims that the nonreligious are the lepers of a primarily religious society. But by asserting our own Humanist ethics and narratives, we will find ourselves well equipped to engage in interfaith efforts. The best way to assert these ethics and narratives is by embodying them.

He lays out reasons secularists should be engaged in interfaith pluralism:

  • “Like Humanism, religious pluralism widens and opens the canon of acceptable ideas to suggest that what is authoritative for one may not be for another.”
  • “One common goal shared by the interfaith cooperation movement and the secular movement is a proactive aim to end religious extremism.”
  • “In allying our efforts to combat religious extremism with like-minded campaigns occurring within religious communities, our efforts will be more effective.”
  • “…many religions are whistleblowers to injustice and we will benefit if we pay attention. Many of history’s greatest advocates for the disenfranchised—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Msr. Oscar Romero, and many others—cited their religious convictions as the primary impetus for their social justice work and launched their efforts in interfaith coalitions. And though many secular individuals cast religion as an inherently bad thing, it is not difficult to make a case that aspects of religion are a force for good in the world.”
  • “…all people’s rights must be protected. Through relationships, we learn that another has value, worth, and the right to dignity.”
  • “We will also have an easier time defending our own rights if we align ourselves with other maligned communities. We have already done this with the queer community, and can do this with other religious minority communities.”

On why religious communities should welcome secularists to the table for interfaith cooperation:

we exist, they want to end religious extremism and other forms of oppression and suffering, we have a lot to teach, and we’re a religious minority that experiences discrimination.

As America is indeed becoming more secularly-rooted, narratives of pluralism will allow secular-minded individuals to establish relationships that do not dismiss the religious stories of their peers outright. A more empathic articulation of nonreligiosity can consolidate the encounter between religious and secular narratives and hold the two in a tension that does not elicit anxiety but allows them to cohabitate a shared space. One that the religious might even term a “sacred space,” if we’ll allow it.

I fully encourage you to read the whole article. It contains many significant points and examples that I was unable to summarize in this short piece. Stedman successfully supports but full-on secularism and the non-need for religion/faith and the need for religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation. He supports pluralism and cooperation without condoning religion, something many atheists I have spoken with feel strongly about.

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