November 9, 2012

Atheists and Interfaith Dialogue

FaitheistI'll be the first to admit that I don't have the most positive associations with interfaith coalitions. While I would not deny that a diverse coalition of various religious groups can accomplish some good, it seems that these coalitions often exclude atheists, humanists, and other secular groups from participating. I realize that these groups are not faith-based, but I wonder if their exclusion somewhat defeats the point of the coalition.

Moreover, I do not believe the U.S. government has any business funding or promoting interfaith work as the Obama administration has done. Doing so strikes me as an unacceptable violation of church-state separation. Our government has no business promoting any religiosity, and this includes interfaith organizations and coalitions.

Religion Dispatches posted an interesting interview with Chris Stedman about his new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. If you have heard of Stedman, you probably know that his is one of the few atheist voices calling for atheists to be more involved in interfaith work alongside religious believers.

In explaining what led him to write the book, Stedman writes,
I wrote Faitheist because, as I started doing interfaith work, I noticed that there was a paucity of nonreligious people involved. At the same time, I started to explore the atheist movement. I noticed that my colleagues in the interfaith movement were quite connected to their own communities, and I was studying religious communities as a graduate student, so I wanted to see how atheist communities functioned. Frankly, I was a bit astonished by what I found. I noticed right away that one of the only unifying characteristics among many people in attendance at atheist meetings was that many maintained a very strong disdain for religion—one that often carried over into a strong disdain for religious believers.
The description of atheists as being united by little more than their dislike of religion and negative attitudes toward religious believers does ring true, at least it does based on my very limited experience. That is not to suggest that all atheists are like this, but I'd have to agree that this description applies to many.

Stedman's argument in favor of atheist involvement in interfaith work, which continues to emerge throughout the interview, will probably not go over particularly well in the atheist community. I say that because one of his guiding assumptions seems to be that atheism should involve far more than it does. While I think he's correct to suggest that atheists doing interfaith charity work would benefit from understanding their efforts in the context of the larger atheist community, I do not see most atheists as being particularly interested in doing interfaith charity work. And while I agree that religious believers benefit from being connected to their local communities (which typically resemble them in terms of religious belief), I'm not so sure that most atheists feel at home in their local communities. How many really want to belong to a local community that has consistently rejected and demonized them? Stedman is right that community involvement might help atheists become more "civically engaged" and "participate in constructive dialogue with religious allies." I am just not sure that this is what most atheists are seeking.

What I do like about Stedman's argument is his emphasis on the benefits of atheists learning from and interacting with religious believers. I know this will be controversial for some, but I just don't think we can afford to isolate ourselves into a bubble of our own making and attempt to shut out the religious world. Some degree of dialogue is important, but I do not think that it needs to be in pursuit of any particular goals. That is, we do need to communicate with each other, but I see no reason why this must revolve around charitable work of some sort.

I'm glad Stedman decided to write the book. His goals sound worthwhile, and I think it will be helpful to have his contribution out there. Perhaps his brand of atheism will appeal to a different audience. And if nothing else, he is offering some important points that should be addressed by the larger atheist community.
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