I’ve written about why I don’t consider myself a secular activist. I do consider myself an interfaith activist, among other things, and I think it’s important to explain why.
First, let me preface with some background: As an ex-fundamentalist, my interactions with Christianity have been overwhelmingly negative. I found peace outside the confines of the church. Interfaith activism isn’t a natural fit for me, but I value it because I think it has the potential to thwart fundamentalism. Fundamentalists avoid other points of view. They have to, because different perspectives–even different interpretations of the same religion–are considered blasphemous. It’s sin by association. You’re supposed to be in the world, not of it.
I think that atheism is often subject to the same problems. If blasphemy’s defined as a violation of certain established standards, then the evangelistic approach to atheism that I’ve criticized in previous posts is just as limited as its religious counterpart. It’s just as sectarian, and for this reason, I think it ought to be avoided.
So I see interfaith activism is a potential antidote to sectarianism, and in this post, I’m going to break down what I see as the positives and negatives of participation in this field. Full disclosure: I interned with the Three Faiths Forum (3FF) in London, England as an open atheist, so my perspective on the subject is influenced by 3FF’s approach to interfaith work.
Fellow atheists, I know you love to cite the Pew study showing that we’re more religiously literate than the religious themselves. But keep in mind that this study measured religious literacy by a limited standard. Religious literacy is more than understanding the facts of a religious system; it should encompass an understanding of a believer’s emotional connection to the faith. What does faith really mean? How does it influence a person’s daily life? The answers to these questions won’t be found in encyclopedia entries, but in dialogue. I think it’s impossible to truly understand what faith means to the believer simply from reading about it. It’s necessary to see it in action.
Conversely, the same applies to non-theism. What does humanism mean to an individual humanist? That answer is going to vary from person to person, and unless a believer is exposed that variance, it’s easy for them to reduce humanism, or atheism, or any other non-theist perspective to a monolithic entity. We want to move past stereotypes and stigma. Interfaith activism is a way to do that.
Neither side of the culture war is free from extremism. It’s certainly true that in the United States, religious extremists have thus far proven themselves more prone to physical violence. As a counterpoint, though, I’d like to remind everyone that certain elements within atheism have no problem making regular death and rape threats to those they believe are corrupting the movement. I don’t know if that trend will escalate into physical violence. I would be surprised if it didn’t. And although I can’t reasonably speculate as to when or why it would happen, I think the problem should be noted.
Extremists are ideological purists, and ideological purists can be dangerous. Interfaith work is a threat to ideological purity. It’s messy, challenging activism. You’ll be forced to confront your stereotypes of the Other, and so will your fellow activists. The point is to develop a more nuanced, more realistic perspective on how other people practice belief or non-belief. And while I don’t think that interfaith activism alone is capable of eliminating extremism, I think it helps.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a feminist. Gender equality is a non-negotiable issue to me. If your belief system does not make equal space for women, I don’t think it deserves my respect, and the same is true for traditions that are anti-gay. I also don’t think it’s my responsibility to educate the privileged about marginalization.
Ideally, interfaith settings should establish clear parameters for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. A Christian fundamentalist shouldn’t show up and demand I quit my job and content myself with housework, and I don’t think that an evangelistic atheist should show up and demand religious people deconvert. There can be some use to confronting bigoted beliefs directly, but you should do this if, and only if, you feel you have the emotional energy to do it. There have to be limits on the accommodations afforded to any one belief system, and those accommodations should never come at the cost of dehumanizing someone who doesn’t share those beliefs.
On a final note: I value interfaith activism because I live in an interfaith world. My parents are Christians. I have Christian friends and Muslim friends, Buddhist friends and Pagan friends. And I like that. That’s the sort of world my upbringing denied. I’m a better person for regularly interacting with different beliefs and perspectives. That interaction continually forces me to interrogate my own beliefs, and after twenty-one years in fundamentalism, that’s a welcome change. I do not ever want to feel that complacent again. And I want to conduct my life in a way that makes space for experiences that are different from my own.