This article was written by Chris Stedman, a prominent figure in the national interfaith movement. He is the Managing Director, ‘State of Formation,’ The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Follow his blog NonProphetStatus and keep up with him on Twitter.
In my work as an interfaith activist, I’ve fought to bring an end to religious division. Lately this has increasingly meant speaking out against the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence sweeping America. As a member of the Common Ground Campaign, I’m actively working to oppose those who wish to disenfranchise the American Muslim community.
Advocating for religious people has often put me at odds with my own community. As an atheist I hear a lot of anti-religious talk from other nonreligious people, and speaking out against it has made me somewhat of an unpopular figure among some atheists. Yet it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.
Why? For one, without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn’t be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution. Not that long ago, I could not have been a public, vocal atheist at all.
Still, this expanded freedom shouldn’t suggest that everything is coming up roses for atheists in America. Earlier this year, Concordia College in Moorhead, MN forbade the formation of a secular student group, claiming that the group’s mission was in direct opposition with the school’s identity as an institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Concordia, which currently recognizes a Catholic student group, has so far refused to reconsider their decision. As a graduate of Augsburg College, another Minnesota school affiliated with the ELCA, I was alarmed by this news. Concordia’s decision received little attention and it seems that few came to the secular students’ defense. Imagine if the school had declined to recognize a Muslim or Jewish student group: would others have spoken up? It seems likely that there would have been a larger response.
Atheists’ identities are regularly belittled or dismissed; we often hear that there are “no atheists in the foxhole,” that “atheists are parasites,” and the reality remains that we still aren’t eligible to hold public office in several parts of this country. Even in places where atheists can hold office, studies have shown that we are the least electable group in America. Nearly half of American parents don’t want us marrying their kids. Glenn Beck constantly targets atheists, blaming us for America’s problems and saying we have no substance. Yet few people outside of our community come to our defense in the face of such blatant prejudice.
That is changing, however. When Pope Benedict XVI condemned atheists and compared them to the Nazi regime during his recent trip to the United Kingdom, Universal Society of Hinduism President Rajan Zed issued a statement encouraging the Pope to be more inclusive and tolerant of the nonreligious. Though Benedict was likely responding to a forceful atheist-led campaign against his visit, his comments were disappointing, and Zed was right to critique him. His call for tolerance of atheists was encouraging, and one we should hear more often.
More and more, as I do interfaith work, I encounter religious people who are willing to speak up on our behalf. Wanting to include a nonreligious perspective, the organizers of Duquesne University’s upcoming symposium on Muslim-Christian dialogue recently invited me to discuss my work for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD) and the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR). What I plan to say to them is what I’d like to say to you now:
Muslim-Christian dialogue is an extraordinary start, but it should be just that: a beginning. Interfaith proponents must build upon successful dialogues like the one Duquesne will soon host, and expand their efforts to include people of other faiths — Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc. — and those who fall outside traditional religious paradigms, including the nonreligious. Secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the like must be an integral part of such conversations.
Earlier this month I wrote a series of articles for The New Humanism on whether the nonreligious should join in interfaith efforts. My answer to this question was a resounding “yes,” but as I acknowledged in my assessment of the issue, the atheist community is very divided on the subject. Much of this division stems from the fact that many atheists see themselves as “deconversion missionaries” opposed to any efforts that would promote religious identities. But I also wonder if there isn’t at least a small bit of legitimate resentment over the lack of invitation atheists have sometimes received from interfaith communities.
Any discomfort religious people experience over engaging with the nonreligious must be set aside for the sake of truly inclusive interfaith collaboration. This isn’t to say that such hesitancy is entirely unmerited; just as there are Christians who seem to have the sole mission of converting others to their religion, there are many atheists who only engage with people of faith in hopes of convincing them to abandon their tenets. But there are also atheists who are content to listen and to share, to dialogue instead of debate. They are part of a growing population of people who don’t believe in God but still want the same things everyone else wants: meaning, community, and a better world.
Atheists interested in collaboration instead of confrontation deserve to be included. We bring a unique set of experiences and insights to conversations on religion and ethics. Don’t leave us out.
A Christian man once asked me why I do interfaith work. We ended up discussing a whole range of topics, and at one point he posited the question: “Okay, but tell me this, Mr. Atheist: where did we come from? How did all of this get here?”
I answered: “I’m not a scientist, but I can perhaps best describe it as some incredible series of random events. But to be honest, that question doesn’t really matter to me. I couldn’t care less how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?”
He clutched his chest, hugged me and grinned, nodding his solid agreement.
What will we do? I hope we will defend tolerance for all and engage one another’s deepest questions and convictions with respect and compassion, whether we are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Sikh — or atheist.