Time for atheists, secularists and humanists to engage in interfaith dialogue?

IMG_01591Last month, I attended an event organised by Xaverian Missionaries in the US and UK.  The event was titled “A Conversation Between Religious Believers and Humanists on Values and Ethics”.

I must admit to be being very sceptical about the idea of being involved in ‘interfaith’ dialogue.  As an atheist I do not identify myself as holding a ‘faith’ position. I was therefore very wary about the whole idea.

(Picture(l-r): Myself, Sister Isabel Smyth & Elaine Smith MSP)

I sensed some slight trepidation on the part of the hosts, there were a few emails exchanged, and a phone call, during which it was made clear the the event was not going to be a confrontational debate, but looking at notes of agreement between theists and atheists.  I assured the organisers that I was capable of, if not agreement, then civility perhaps.

IMG_0145The event was held in the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge.  Upon arrival I was greeted by a man called Hugh, a very pleasant and helpful guy, who seemed genuinely glad to see me.  I was, after a quick registration, ushered into a large lounge where I met Rory Fenton of the British Humanist Association.

Shortly after we were shown into a large dining room for dinner.  There were no placements, and no attempt by our hosts to engineer the seating arrangement so as to ensure a balance.  This struck me as odd, and slightly off-putting.  However, after a few minutes of introductions at the table, I felt very at ease.  At my table were Rory Fenton (Vice-president of British Humanist Association & President of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student societies in the UK), Prerna Abbi (Interfaith Youth Corps), Chris Stedman (Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University), John Catt (Treasurer of Leicester Secular Society & member of BHA) & Mary Atkay  (St. Francis Xavier Mission Society).  We had a lovely dinner, and despite our table being heavily weighted to the non-religious, Mary was charming and seemed genuinely interested to hear about all of our opinions.

I also noticed many people whom I recognised, in particular Rev Sally Fulton-Foster (Convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council), Prof. Callum Brown (Glasgow University) and a few others.

The residential nature of the conference fostered a very informal and friendly environment, with individuals from various religious institutions, academics, secularists and humanists mixing freely.

I struggled at first to find the point of the conference, sure it was nice to chat with people of different groups and different opinions, but I tend to do that anyway – despite what people think.  I was not really sure why I was there.

It was during a conversation with Fr. John Silavon that I realised how much we had in common (hence the title of the conference).  I was able to laugh and joke with John, and share my thoughts quite openly.  I could see that John was certainly not motivated by anything other than care and compassion, something which he gets from his faith.  Whilst I’ll always struggle to understand why this care and compassion needs a metaphysical connotation, I realised that it would simply not be a good use of time and resources to argue about it.

During some discussions, I was keen to point out that whilst religious people and non-religious people share many common values, justice, compassion and love – we may differ on how best to enact these values.

Many of the religious people at the conference seemed to have a genuine belief that the term ‘religious privilege’ is simply another way of atheists asserting their disgust at religion.  I saw it as a good opportunity to explain that when atheists talk of ‘religious privilege’, they are actually talking about things like anti-atheist employment discrimination in denominational schools, unelected religious education representatives and lack of sex education in Catholic schools – not trying in any way to undermine any persons own faith.

I was very keen to hear the other side of course, I find it strange to understand how anyone (religious or not) could not agree with the secular agenda.  What I heard was a lot of fear and worry.  The religious people that I spoke to all said that they felt persecuted and as though their most important belief was being attacked.  Whilst I still don’t agree, I could see that these people were genuine.  I still think about that a lot, and I think it will help to guide my campaigning in the future – I don’t want to scare people, nor make them feel scared to be religious.

This is the difficult dichotomy of interfaith dialogue.  As secular humanists, we must not waiver from our responsibility to expose injustice and collusion, yet at the same time, seek to promote a positive and friendly dialogue of compassion and understanding.  This is possible, in my opinion, however it takes a great deal of work and commitment to continue the dialogue, even if we hear things that make us uncomfortable, in fact – especially if we hear those things!

There were many issues on which all of the delegates agreed, was the need to promote and engage more people in politics and public discourse.

So, all-in-all I must admit that I was convinced by my experiences at that conference, that atheists, humanists & secularists do have a place in this interfaith dialogue.  Chris Stedman, an openly gay atheist humanist chaplain at Harvard was selected as the ambassador for the conference (an achievement in itself).
He argues 5 reasons why humanists should engage in interfaith work:
1) humanists are outnumbered, 2) they want to end extremism and oppression, 3) they want to overcome negative stereotypes and discrimination against non-believers, 4) they can learn from interfaith groups, and 5) such dialogue is consistent with their humanist values (from article by Brian Pellot).

So, I am delighted that in my role as Education Officer with the Humanist Society Scotland, I will be working to organise an interfaith conference in the New Year, on the theme of education.  This event will seek to bring together partners from government, statutory and voluntary sectors, a range of skeptics, atheists, humanists and secularists from across Scotland, as well as a range of religious people.

Also, as a result of the conference, I have been asked by The Scottish Parliament to contribute to the ‘Time for Reflection’ slot at the opening of Parliament (a welcome alternative to the UK Parliament’s practise of Christian only prayers).

I’d like to take this opportunity again to thank the organisers.  Attending the conference did not change any of my fundamental beliefs, it did make me consider how best I strive to meet them.


3 thoughts on “Time for atheists, secularists and humanists to engage in interfaith dialogue?

  1. This is a good thing for both sides. As a non-believer who lives a very closed life at this point in time, I can sometimes be overly harsh towards people of faith. Having some contact with people of differing views must surely help us see the humanity in each other, reduce stereotypes, and learn that we have more in common than we thought.

  2. The only way to uncover common positions, and to allay fears, is to talk. And even if neither of those is achieved, nothing is lost.
    And I’m of the view that when most religious people, when they hear that what we are arguing for is a level playing field, will find that they agree with us…or at least that they don’t disagree. Because to disagree with the principle of equality is to a) look foolish, and b) argue against the supposed core ethics of most religions (if not the core practices).

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