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Best Practices For Interfaith Work

Christopher Stedman

And Cautionary Considerations.

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by Christopher Stedman

This is the second part of a two part series. The first part makes a case for nonreligious participation in interfaith cooperation efforts. This resource aims to address potential problems that could come up for nonreligious individuals engaging in interfaith work, offer some best practices, lay out some special recommendations for nonreligious interfaith practitioners, and provide some examples of nonreligious interfaith work.

Possible Problems

There are some specific issues that nonreligious persons should consider before participating in interfaith work.

The "Religion Isn't True" Issue

Many nonreligious individuals who engage in interfaith work will continue to struggle with their personal belief that the religious stories they encounter are false and the feeling that they must articulate this conviction. They will likely ask themselves, as Atheist author Salman Rushdie wrote in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" However, we would do well to recognize that we aren't the only ones in the room with conflicting feelings. Evangelical Christians involved in interfaith must reconcile their participation with the importance their tradition puts on evangelizing. Interfaith cooperation requires that we both acknowledge these very real contradictions and be bigger than them.

The "We're The Odd Ones Out" Issue

Related to the issue above, the nonreligious must be careful not to overestimate our particularity in interfaith work. Religious folks have exclusive truth claims, just as we believe that our understanding of the world is the most accurate. For example, many Christians doing interfaith work believe that every other faith represented in the interfaith movement is a false understanding of the world. Additionally, the nonreligious will often find other non-theists in the room, including Buddhists, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, secular Jews, secular Muslims, secular Christians, and so on. By reminding ourselves that we aren't so unusual, we can remain humble and open-minded in our interfaith efforts.

The "Interfaith? We're Not a Faith" Issue

Even for those interested in such work, there remain complaints about the very term "interfaith," which some call exclusionary. My feeling is that we have bigger concerns to address than this problem of terminology; after all, within our own community we utilize many different identification markers—atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, skeptic and bright are just a few. Language is imperfect, but the sooner we stop arguing over semantics, the sooner we can get to the important work of building coalitions and acting in unity.

Best Practices

The best practices below are adapted with permission from the Interfaith Youth Core's (IFYC) Interfaith Leader's Toolkit.

Interfaith Leadership requires three things:

  • Framework: Interfaith leaders see the world through the lens of interfaith cooperation rather than viewing religions as inherently in conflict.

  • Knowledge base: Interfaith leaders know how different traditions speak to shared values like mercy, compassion, and hospitality and know the stories of interfaith cooperation in their own tradition and others'.

  • Skill-set: Interfaith leaders have the skills to make the idea of interfaith cooperation a concrete reality in the communities they influence. These skill-sets are: storytelling, inspiring and recruiting others, facilitating relationships, mobilizing common action for the common good, building sustainability, and telling the world.

There are some fundamental ways to put these into practice:

1. Start with Stories

Why do we begin with stories? Stories have the power to transform because they are able to do several things effectively:

Frame Our Thoughts: Telling a story is a great way to put a larger idea into a more specific context. This makes communicating easier for the storyteller and understanding easier for the listener.

Empower the Storyteller: You do not have to be a scholar of your religious or philosophical perspective to participate in interfaith work. Every participant is already inherently a "scholar of their own experience." It is okay if you do not know all the details of your religious or philosophical tradition. That is not the expertise from which you are sharing. Rather, you are the expert of your own experience, how you draw meaning from that experience, and how you tell the story of that experience.

Enable Mutually Appreciative Encounters: In interfaith dialogue, it is far too easy to discuss topics that may put us at odds with our conversation partners. If we begin an interfaith dialogue by focusing on political or theological tenants, we may find that the conversation does not go very far before we start arguing about who is "right" and who is "wrong." If, however, we encourage participants to begin with a story from their own lived experience, it is often less threatening for listeners. While they may not have lived the same experience as the storyteller, it is unlikely that they will challenge the veracity of his or her story. Instead, the storyteller is inviting the listeners to share in a piece of his or her experience, even if it is grounded in different beliefs and values. The dialogue is therefore inclusive rather than exclusive and allows for a mutually appreciative encounter. Stories are a crucial tool for enabling people with different identities to interact positively.

Inspire Others: When storytellers are genuinely excited about their story, they can inspire their listeners who can sense that emotion and energy. Listeners are often drawn further into the story by this energy and are better able to understand its universal message. The listeners are also reminded that they, too, have a story to tell.

Catalyze Movements: Some stories are so inspirational that they motivate large groups of individuals to action and catalyze movements.

Shape Identity: The philosopher Paul Ricoeur once asked the question, "When you look at a picture of yourself as a baby and then you look at yourself in the mirror, how do you account for the fact that two beings who look so different are really the same person?" Ricoeur's answer was story. By stringing together a narrative—by telling a set of stories—you are able to connect the baby in the picture to the person in the mirror. Just as stories connect us to our past, they also play an important role in guiding both our current actions and shaping our identity in the future. According to Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, "We find that… narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future." In other words, our brains seem to be naturally hardwired to think about ourselves and our identity through stories. Religious pluralism is all about the interaction of multiple identities, respecting the diversity of others' identities, and forming relationships across them. Perhaps more importantly, though, to be a pluralist is itself an identity that you must actively choose, certainly not in place of your own religious or philosophical identity, but alongside it. Thus, because religious pluralism is about identity and identity is all about stories, knowing and being able to tell stories of religious pluralism is crucially important to being a good interfaith leader.

2. Listen!

As important as it is to start with your own story, it is equally essential to be a good listener. Storytelling is not just about sharing your own story repeatedly; it is about an exchange of stories between people. Listening is a critical skill that can all too often be taken for granted. There are many techniques designed to enhance our ability to listen effectively. We are unlikely to employ them, however, unless we recognize how complicated listening is and understand that flawed assumptions are often based on inaccurate or incomplete interpretations of what other people say. We most often assume that what we think we heard is what was said, though frequently this is not the case. People communicate not only information, but emotion and intent too, and we must actively listen for these as well. In particular, good interfaith leaders are able to listen to other people's stories and help them to see the connections that exist between them.

3. Establish a "Safe Space" and Facilitate Relationships

"Safe space" is the emotional and psychological space necessary for the formation of interfaith relationships through interfaith dialogue and common action for the common good. Safe space exists when a group of people come together and agree to have interactions in which identity is respected, their experiences will be genuinely listened to by others, and people are collaboratively committed to serving the common good. Safe space is, by definition, not a concrete thing; it is a sense that you want participants in your interfaith work to feel. It requires setting a positive tone for interaction and then defending that tone against anything that might disrupt it. One safe space is established, you can easily move into developing relationships that engender mutual care and concern. This is generally accomplished by sharing stories and listening, as points one and two detail.

4. Mobilize Common Action for the Common Good and Build Sustainability

Once these relationships are in place, you can move into the final goal of interfaith work: mobilizing common action for the common good. When you come together with people from different perspectives and work on common action for the common good, you are putting your inspiration and values into concrete action to create positive change and making a real connection with others across lines of difference. Too often communities believe that the weight of addressing the world's many ills falls on their shoulders alone. By participating in common action for the common good, you are helping to demonstrate that some of our best partners in building the world-as-it-might-be are people who, unlike us, express their aspirations through prayer, but nonetheless share our hope for society. In this way, you are building and strengthening relationships by sharing a common experience of action. Then, ensure that such action isn't just a one-time event by building in sustainability measures.

Special Recommendations for the Nonreligious

Below are some specific suggestions for nonreligious individuals who want to engage in interfaith work, adapted from a resource I originally produced for the IFYC:

  1. Define what interfaith means for your worldview as a humanist, atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious person. Some proponents of religious pluralism say that an interfaith coalition is incomplete without those who do not identify with any religious tradition. As an individual who is an agnostic, atheist, humanist, or nonreligious, what does it mean for you to move into a religiously pluralistic perspective? What does it mean to live in a religiously diverse world if you are not religious? Why is it important to you to interact with people who do identify with a religious tradition even if you do not?

  2. Identify your role in the interfaith movement. Do you feel comfortable in a leadership role? If you do not, in what role would you feel most comfortable? What would you need to feel more comfortable in a leadership position? If you are comfortable in a leadership role, what does it mean to say, "I am not religious, but respecting the religious identities and positive or neutral religious practices of others matters to me"? What would you say to someone who asks where you find authority to work with religious people?

  3. Engage or Enrage? In Religulous, a popular documentary film released in 2008, an agnostic (comedian Bill Maher) tackles the issue of religious diversity by confronting religion in a broad stroke as nearly universally problematic and deserving of ridicule. Do you see yourself working for or against something? As someone who is "not religious," does this approach work for you? Think of people you love or respect that are religious. What do you lose when you dismiss someone who identifies with a religious tradition, or the religious convictions and motivations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and many others? Where do your preconceived notions about religious people impact how you approach interfaith dialogue? How does it make you feel when people have assumptions or stereotypes about what it means to be nonreligious?

  4. Explore the history and current state of your philosophical worldview. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and the nonreligious have as wide a diversity of contemporary opinion and as varied and rich a history as those who identify with a religious tradition. These can inform your perspective on doing interfaith work.

  5. Act! Establish dialogue with religious people and groups in a way that is open, honest and respectful. Join an interfaith group if you have not already, and share your nonreligious story of religious pluralism with them. Consider what you have in common with people who are religious, even while acknowledging differences.

Other Resources

There are some excellent case study examples of nonreligious participation in interfaith work. As the webmaster of NonProphet Status, I've solicited a large number of reflections from nonreligious individuals that can serve as very helpful guideposts for nonreligious people considering interfaith engagement. Stanford's Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics President Lewis Marshall reports on how his student group came to participate in the campus interfaith network and offers some excellent insight for secular students who wish to do the same in How Atheism Became a Religion at Stanford. In Bridging the Divide in the Big Easy—Secular Reflections on Interfaith Cooperation, Nate Mauger of the Secular Student Alliance reflects on his experience as a member of a secular campus group that partnered with a campus Christian group to do interfaith service work in New Orleans. Jessica Kelley, a nonreligious seminary student, reflects on a secular group she is a member of and their partnership with a group of Muslims to do a joint free speech advocacy event in A Reminder of Relationality: Reflections on Respect and Free Speech. In Speaking of Secular Humanism: A Reflection on Public Secularism, Miranda Hovemeyer, another nonreligious seminarian, writes on articulating her vocally secular identity in an interfaith context. In Working With Religion: Lessons From Northern Ireland, a young Secular Humanist named Rory Fenton reflects on founding an interfaith organization in Ireland. Kelsey Sheridan, an IFYC Fellow, reflects on why she does interfaith work in What Can Interfaith Mean to an Atheist? In Knowing Religion, and Why It Matters, Josh Oxley, a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago who is the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, argues for the necessity of respectful rhetoric when discussing religion in our community. In A Call to (Open) Arms, co-founder of the University of Oregon's Alliance of Happy Atheists Lucy Gubbins makes a case for supporting religion-tolerant nonreligious individuals and articulates that reaching out to religious communities is essential for making the world a more secular-friendly place.

These are just a few examples of young nonreligious leaders participating in interfaith work, and each is an invaluable resource for those who wish to follow in their footsteps. The IFYC also has a good resource worth checking out called "Secularism Good for the Soul" Discussion Guide (download).

Comments (now closed)

Deanna Hollas

25 Sep 2010 · 10:12 EST

Near the beginning of the article you put out the question "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" as a question non-religious struggle with in regard to religious text. I think you answer this question in your proposed solutions...."Stories have the power to transform" This may be why the texts have continued to be used by so many folks for so many years. I am a seminary student and most Biblical scholars emphasize the story nature of the Biblical text and warn of the dangers of using them as historical narrative. I was in a discussion with a fellow student this week on this very topic so know it is not only the non-religious that are struggling. There is an effort with in Christianity to understand many Biblical text as story and to understand the transformative nature of story.