Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work
"Many segments of the interfaith movement already explicitly welcome and highlight secular participation.
If we embrace the values of religious pluralism, our diversity will be a rich resource, rather than a source of division.
Greg Epstein, Don't Exclude Humanists, Atheists from Melting Pot
We start with our stories.
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 on several episodes where I neglected to engage the religious identities of people I otherwise respected and admired, I realized that I had been so busy talking that I wasn't listening. I was treating "religion" as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives. And when I started listening, something interesting happened. I realized that my approach to religion was lazy and distorted: I'd been thinking of the texts, not the practices; the stereotypes, not the people. 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.
But if we are to participate in interfaith endeavors, there are some important things we must account for.
State of Affairs: Potential Problems and Unpacking Pluralism
Looking at the shouting match in our culture, between the forces of aggressive atheism (The End of Faith, God is not Great) and the armies of belligerent belief (James Dobson, Pat Robertson), it looks like the widest part of the faith divide is between religion and secularism.
Eboo Patel, Secularism Good for the Soul
Before considering why the nonreligious might engage in interfaith work or how we may approach such endeavors, it is important to take the temperature of the community on this issue and explore the idea of religious pluralism.
A Community Divided
Most self-declared nonreligious people have little in common, save one thing–that we do not believe in God. There is, however, a growing population of nonreligious individuals united by another belief: that religion is the root of all evil. By positioning themselves in stark opposition to religion and the religious, the so-called New Atheists have managed to dominate the public discourse on nonreligiosity. They have succeeded in making atheism more publicly known, but at what cost? Nonreligious identity remains hugely unpopular, with recent polls showing we are the least electable group in America, behind lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, Muslims and African Americans.
Contemporarily, narratives of secular identity are being popularly defined as anti-religious. This isn't necessarily problematic; an integral aspect of secular identity is understandably rooted in the idea that "we are not religious." But in recent years secular identity has taken this a step further in the form of "New Atheists" who have been quite successful in marking nonreligiosity as being equivalent to anti-theism.
When the majority of prominent secular thought leaders name the end of faith as one of the movement's top priorities, the idea of participating in organized interfaith efforts can seem contradictory. Even Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist and author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, has expressed conflicted feelings on the subject, saying that though he believes religious-secular coalitions are possible in certain cases, he feels torn on how to approach such projects. Writes Mehta: "I don't want to just 'let our differences slide' or 'agree to disagree.' I want to persuade religious people that they are mistaken when it comes to their mythology… I want people to lose their faith just as much as the New Atheists do."
It is clear when reading contemporary secular writing on religion, then, that engagement with the religious in interfaith work is a highly contentious issue for many in our community. But a new brand of nonreligiosity is growing: one that prioritizes interfaith collaboration over inflammatory rhetoric. This has understandably created some division among Humanists, with labels of "Angry Atheist" and "Accomodationist" bandied between camps.
A Community in Transition
What all of this suggests is that nonreligiosity is undergoing a sizable transformation and is experiencing some accompanying growing pains in which we are asking how to expand our community and engage with the world.
Indeed, there are some who now argue that there is no such thing as secularism—that "religious" and "secular" represent a false dichotomy. The claim that atheism is a religion unto itself is now quite popular, and even has a good deal of legal precedence. While perhaps an issue of semantics, this shift is also an indication that nonreligiosity is moving toward a more affirming framework.
This may be the result of a growing recognition that the defensive positioning of nonreligious identity as directly opposed to religious narratives is unsustainable, and that Humanism ought to establish independent moralistic narratives of its own.
In Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James Fowler argues for the necessity of religious narratives but offers a caveat: "The fact that one images the ultimate conditions of existence as impersonal, indifferent, hostile or randomly chaotic, rather than as coherent and structured, does not disqualify his or her image as an operative image of faith. The opposite of faith, as we consider it here, is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is nihilism, the inability to image any transcendent environment and despair about the possibility of even negative meaning."
Humanism represents a radical move away from nihilism, and Fowler's model emphasizes this distinction. Thus, in its attempts to narrate nonreligiosity, Humanism employs a close cousin of religious narrative pattering.
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.
In Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein writes of the growing nonreligiosity identity marker Humanism: "It's the melding of a comprehensive philosophy with a world tradition and deeply practical ethical and social commitment." In this sense, it is a bridge between traditional religious narratives of steadfastness to tradition and modernity's melding model of pluralism.
A Community Pluralized
Pluralism, according to the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), is "neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus, but the conviction that people who believe in different creeds can learn to live together with, in the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 'mutual trust and mutual loyalty.' It surpasses mere tolerance of diversity and requires that people of different religions affirm their distinct beliefs while making commitments to one another and the world we share. Three components which hold true for a pluralist society are respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good."
Of course, engaged religious pluralism will make some people very uncomfortable. Similarly, Greg Epstein acknowledges that secular expression "can make some theists feel that their humanity—tethered as it is to belief that they are God's children—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.
A Community of Stories
Religious pluralism is realized primarily through the personal stories of its practitioners. The Interfaith Leader's Toolkit declares that storytelling aids dialogue because it is non-threatening, because it prompts a mutual exchange of stories that help people bond, and because it allows people talk about their identities in a way that feels safe. By grounding dialogue in individual experience, the listener is less likely to be offended by that which is alien to her or his own experience. Their understanding of storytelling also underscores story's capacity to engender community and its ability to establish individual and communal empowerment, suggesting it would be useful for the transitioning nonreligious community.
The IFYC also proposes a method for dialogue that addresses the question of what happens when narratives themselves come into an act of encounter. Instead of clashing or reacting against one another, the IFYC suggests that they can result in mutually-inspiring relationships and common action:
In interfaith dialogue, it is far too easy to discuss topics that may put as at odds with our conversation partners... 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 own story. Instead, the storyteller is inviting the listeners to share in a piece of his or her own experience, even if it is grounded in different beliefs or values. The dialogue is therefore inclusive rather than exclusive and allows for a mutually appreciative encounter.
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. At this point it would be tempting to suggest that religious pluralism represents a disintegration of particular religious identity. However, as the above selection from the IFYC toolkit indicates, before one can become an active agent of engaging religious pluralism, the individual needs to be grounded in her or his own particular identity. To return to the toolkit: "Identity is important because religious pluralism is all about the interaction of multiple identities, respecting the diversity of others' identities, and forming relationships across them."
This presents an intriguing question: How might secular individuals participate in a movement encouraging engaged religious pluralism that is rooted in particular religious identity? And why should we?
Why We Should Join Them
The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.
Carl Sagan, "Wonder and Skepticism"
There are four primary reasons that engaging in interfaith work will benefit the nonreligious, which I will expand on below: we're outnumbered; we want to end religious extremism and other forms of oppression and suffering; we have a lot to learn; and we have a bad reputation and are discriminated against.
1. We're Outnumbered
Whether we wish to or not, we are forced by proximity to engage with the religious—it seems implausible that any nonreligious person in America has strictly secular relationships. We're outnumbered; though Americans who do not identify with any religion now make up fifteen percent of the population—making us the third largest cohort behind Catholics and Baptists—we are still a minority perspective. More interestingly, American religious communities are undergoing some radical shifts that, try as some secular thinkers might, make it impossible for us to approach them as a monolithic and inert community that is strictly problematic.
Data from the most recent Pew report on Millenials reflects previous findings about the dynamic, changing face of religiosity in America, echoing a study by Harvard University's Robert Putnam that came out last year and declared that "young Americans [are] losing their religion." That study reported that young Americans are significantly less likely to claim religious membership or attend a religious service regularly than older generations.
Yet, though religious identification is changing, the numbers in the Pew report demonstrate that religion isn't going away anytime soon. While the report found that people aged 18-29 are "increasingly open-minded" and "considerably less religious than older Americans" (one in four Millenials "are unaffiliated with any particular faith") and that more religious Millenials believe that there is more than one way to interpret their own religion, there are also indications that young religious people are moving in some key ways toward greater religiosity. Pew found that not only is "the intensity of [religious Millenials'] religious affiliation… as strong today as among previous generations when they were young," but that "levels of certainty of belief in God have increased." And while there are more religious people who believe that any religion can lead to eternal life than those who don't overall, religious Millenials are "more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life."
These numbers are both encouraging and demonstrate that we still have a lot of work to do in convincing the American public that nonreligiosity is a legitimate and viable life stance. In light of these statistics, we must enthusiastically endeavor to stake our claim in the American religious milieu and make a concerted effort to come together as a community so that our perspective is not ignored in an increasingly fundamentalist society. And if America is indeed moving toward its next great "burst of religious innovation" as Putnam suggests, shouldn't we at least be involved, if not near the forefront of such efforts?
How we might do that is an important question, and I think that this data affirms that respectful and engaged dialogue with people of faith is one such way for us to advance the discourse on American religion. Many young people distrust established religious narratives, but with engaged pluralism's moves toward a more empathic set of narrative interchanges, they are also less inclined to subscribe to radically anti-religious narratives. In this window, the nonreligious may find interfaith dialogue with the religious majority rewarding.
If the religious are to be our neighbors, we ought to know them and their motivations. In capitalizing on the increasing open-mindedness of Millenials and giving them an opportunity to get to know us and the stories of our experiences as nonreligious persons—and, perhaps more importantly, not forgetting to reciprocally tap into our own open-mindedness in listening to theirs—we will begin to erode some of the divisions between the secular and the religious. By doing so, we are likely, as the IFYC suggests, to identify some shared values upon which we can act in interfaith solidarity.
2. We want to end religious extremism and other forms of oppression and suffering
One such common goal shared by the interfaith cooperation movement and the secular movement is a proactive aim to end religious extremism.
The religious pluralism movement is inherently rooted in an anti-fundamentalism framework. The IFYC founder Eboo Patel writes that "the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together."
We ought to see ourselves as having a lot in common with religious pluralists; likewise, they are likely to see themselves as having more in common with us than with the extremists who also claim their tradition. In allying our efforts to combat religious extremism with like-minded campaigns occurring within religious communities, our efforts will be more effective. A Muslim speaking out against religious extremism will be better received by Muslim communities than a Humanist; if we combine our resources, our reach will be greater.
This model is both reactive and proactive. In Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, political scientist Ashutosh Varshney theorized that the likelihood that inciting events would lead to widespread or long-term violence was significantly less in communities where civic ties across lines of identity differentiation were present. In populations where such ties were nonexistent, inciting incidents provoked extensive inter-identity violence. Thus, as interfaith cooperation asserts, invested relationships across lines of identity difference are essential for avoiding conflict.
One of the top priorities of organized secular communities is combating religiously-based oppression, and pluralistic religious communities can be among our strongest allies in this work. However, if we adopt a broadly negative approach to religion and religious communities, we will burn this bridge and lose the opportunity to count these communities as allies. We must be considered in our approach to religion rather than combative; in the words of Abraham Lincoln:
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho' your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho' you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
If we wish to convince more religious individuals of the justness of our cause and bring an end to conflict rooted in religious fundamentalism and anti-atheist discrimination, we must identify our religious pluralist peers, approach them with respect, and ensure that they are invested in our mutual best interests. Once this is done, we can move into identifying other shared interests to end oppression and suffering in the world.
3. We have a lot to learn
These mutual interests can never be identified if we fail to recognize that religious communities have a lot to teach us. In "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century," Putnam wrote that diversity is important to build strong and sustainable communities. But, at least at first, people tend to "hunker down" with those very similar to themselves and gaze upon newcomers with suspicion. For diversity to flower, individuals must meet and learn from one another. By using storytelling and dialogue, we can introduce secular narratives into this new stage of cultural evolution.
We can also pick from the best religion has to offer. Some nonreligious individuals engage in so-called "religious practices"—for example, the Harvard Humanist Contemplative Group runs well-attended meditation sessions. There are Humanist chaplains. We perform invocations. Some of us lift heavily from religious traditions, even if it is just looking to the best practices of successful religious communities. It will benefit our movement to shift our focus away from critiquing the non-intrusive elements of religious belief and refocus that energy toward advancing the discourse on our own ethical claims and establishing Humanist practices and communities.
All the more, 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. There is a storied history of religious social justice, and we would do well to learn from it; religious-based social justice continues in great force today, and we would do well to join with it. This will require humility and a willingness to learn from people, even if we think some of their beliefs are incorrect.
4. We have a bad reputation and are discriminated against
Another thing we will learn by cooperating with religious communities is that engaged diversity breeds the idea that all people's rights must be protected. Through relationships, we learn that another has value, worth, and the right to dignity. If we do not allow others to know us by intentionally engaging diversity, we lose an opportunity to ensure that our rights are protected. More generally, the respectful relationships we establish with religious communities will also help us reinforce a positive public image for Humanism.
A recent Gallup poll demonstrated something the queer community has known for some time: people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay. Similarly, a recent Time Magazine cover story featured revealing numbers that speak volumes about the correlation between positive relationships and civic support; per their survey, 46 percent of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths and 61 percent oppose Park51 (or the "Ground Zero Mosque"), but only 37 percent even know a Muslim American. Another survey, by Pew, reported that 55 percent of Americans know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam. The disconnect is clear—when only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American, and 55 percent claim to know very little or nothing about Islam, the negative stereotypes about the Muslim community go unchallenged. The same logic can be extended to nonreligious individuals—the fewer positive relationships we have with people of faith, the worse our image will be.
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. Such partnerships are civically important for the secular community. As we well know, surveys show that the nonreligious are among the most marginalized groups in this country. So too is Islamophobia all too common and increasingly potent in contemporary American culture as demonstrated by some of the violence and vitriol in response to Park51, violence that preceded it, and recent claims by the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee that he is not sure if the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to Muslims and his suggestion that it is a "cult." Though it is not Islamophobic to critique particular Islamic beliefs or practices, we ought to differentiate between legitimate criticisms and the widespread anti-Muslim fear-mongering occurring in America at this time. Such inflammatory rhetoric should sound very familiar to our community, which is often accused of being a cultish and immoral outlier in a religious nation.
Joshua Stanton and Frank Fredericks, the founders of Religious Freedom USA, an initiative in defense of Park 51, said in an article announcing their initiative that "more extreme voices want [freedom of religion] to apply only to their own religious communities, and not to others. But when one group's freedoms are threatened, the religious freedom of all Americans is at stake… [We must protect] the civil rights assured to all Americans in the Constitution."
It is in our community's best interest to defend religious freedoms for all Americans. This is not merely a civil imperative: it is a moral one. Our Humanistic values call us to act on behalf of the oppressed. The first Humanist Manifesto states that Humanists should "endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow."
By forging alliances with similarly-maligned groups in interfaith solidarity, we will strengthen our critique that hierarchical religious dismissal by the majority is unfair and unethical. By building coalitions and letting ourselves be known by the religious, we will deconstruct the stereotypes imposed upon us and ensure our protection and respect from others.
Why They Should Welcome Us
"Those of us trying to bridge the faith divide would do well to welcome the nonreligious. Several of the most skilled practitioners of interfaith work that I know are not particularly religious."
Eboo Patel, Secularism Good for the Soul
The reasons the interfaith movement would be wise to invite Humanist participation echo the reasons secular individuals might engage in interfaith endeavors: 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.
The truth is that many segments of the interfaith movement already explicitly welcome and highlight secular participation. My personal experiences as a leader in the interfaith movement have shown me firsthand that leaders in the interfaith movement celebrate nonreligious participation.
Though they have been infrequent, I have experienced some episodes of resistance to my participation in interfaith communities. They usually come in the form of questions like, "Why would you want to do interfaith work if you're an atheist?" Some of this is likely a reaction to the actions of some of the more radical anti-religion atheists; some of it may be based in anti-atheist stereotypes. But I've found time and again that once these doubters have the chance to hear my story and learn about my Humanistic values, they celebrate my participation.
This concern—the still significant wariness among religious individuals in a culture that increasingly mocks religious piety—is one that we can work to disintegrate by engaging in interfaith efforts. Fr. John Shea, a Christian storyteller, frames the dilemma some religiously-minded individuals face in the context of an increasingly secular culture in the introduction to his Stories collection: "Despite the secular cast of my mind that comes unsolicited as a gift of American culture, I have never been able to shake the intuition that a spiritual dimension permeates who we are and what we do." Just as many Humanists see ourselves as a minority perspective in our larger culture, many religious people feel countercultural in their beliefs.
And Shea is right in one respect—contemporary America is undergoing a process of secularization even as it is also becoming more evangelical. And he is also correct about stories as a personal practice. But that he has cast these claims as two poles represents a false dichotomy that Humanism can reconcile. Humanism takes this so-called "spiritual" component of life—an innate human inclination toward imagination and moralism—and articulates it in a distinct way that is well-equipped to add richness and complexity to the interfaith movement. This new expression of nonreligiousness is not dismissive like the so-called "New Atheists;" and can take religious identities seriously without needing to agree with all of their beliefs.
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.
"The truth about stories is that that's all we are… Want a different ethic? Tell a different story."
Thomas King, The Truth About Stories
We end with our stories.
When I first started at the IFYC, I partnered with a group of young interfaith leaders to volunteer for a summer in a Chicago soup kitchen. All of us served together and followed each shift with a conversation on what motivates us to do interfaith work. I learned a good deal about Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant ethics, and got to share about my Humanist notions of giving back to the community.
As a Humanist, I want to work to bring an end to all oppression and suffering. That is an already demanding task, and it is rendered impossible if I endeavor to do it alone or only alongside like-minded peers. I know that tackling the world's many problems requires the broadest network of resources, so if that means I have to "accommodate" another's disagreeable religious belief at times, it is a worthy sacrifice.
More importantly, by engaging the rich calls to justice and empathy of my religious peers, my own social justice ethic has matured. I still have a lot to discover, but I have already learned so much from people with stories that radically differ from my own.
Sociologist Marshall Ganz writes that "stories are what enable us to communicate [our] values to one another." Psychologist Dan P. McAdams elaborates on this idea, suggesting that the values we exemplify through story move into action and vision: "Narrative guides behavior in every moment, and frames not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future."
What future will we imagine for ourselves and for the world? Is it a pessimistic narrative in which the religious and secular will continuously come into conflict? Where religion is nothing more than a problem to be eradicated? In the words of Patel: will we make of religion a "bomb of destruction, a barrier of division"; or will we make it "a bridge of cooperation"?
Perhaps we can, if we listen to more stories and act—together—on the shared values they communicate.
For additional resources on participating in interfaith work as a nonreligious individual, see Best Practices for Interfaith Work.