My Introduction to UN “Interfaith” Diplomacy

[Editor’s note: The views discussed in this article belong to the author and do not represent any official position taken or agreed to by the American Humanist Association.]

On Thursday, September 17, I had the good fortune to attend the United Nations event, “The Intersection between Women’s Rights and International Religious Freedom,” sponsored by Religions for Peace. The American Humanist Association, along with other non-governmental organization (NGO) delegates and activists, attended the program hosted by luminaries in the interfaith community, including both Ambassador David Saperstein (of the US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom) and Dr. William Vendley (Secretary General of the World Conference of Religions for Peace).

During the program I kept thinking about the biblical rule “an eye for an eye” (which actually dates back further than the bible and is found in Babylonian law where King Hammurabi’s code legislated socioeconomic vengeance between people and clans).

The issue I continue to have with the interfaith dialogue, and really most interfaith gatherings, isn’t that this group doesn’t abhor interreligious violence—they do. It’s the overwhelming viewpoint that the best way to cure this form of social glaucoma is to render the patient fully blind.

I’m not suggesting that the doctors, diplomats, attorneys, clergy, politicians, and lay activists in attendance don’t have good intentions or that they are blind to the religious and ethnic violence against women. But I do conclude that they are blindsided by their almost singular belief that it is through interreligious dialogue that the problem of religious violence can be stopped and solved. In no way can cancer cure cancer, so when Jon Stewart said, Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion,” his description of religious violence and the reaction to its aftermath isn’t very far off.

We know that human rights laws and secular liberties that ensure civil society do not come as a gift from a divine super-father. Rule of law, indeed democracy itself, has been developed over thousands of years by our fellow humans. And it’s been particularly refined over the last 200 years through secular constitutional democracy. In fact, there would be no significant human rights, religious rights, women’s rights, or children’s rights until the human invention of secular constitutional democracy took its place over social and cultural norms, allowing other political and religious systems to reframe and respond.

Because of secularism’s short life but long positive history, I kept asking myself why nonbelievers and humanists are frequently left out (at worst) or sidelined (at best) in UN interfaith dialogue within the human rights community. Isn’t “faith” in humanity enough? Is this formal lack of inclusion by the UN towards secular humanism blindness in itself?

My sister passed away in 2012 from complications related to diabetes. Like many people who are chronically ill, those stricken will sometimes anthropomorphize their illness: talk to it, bargain with it, and attempt to appease it. But Gail’s diabetes could not be bargained with. First it was her toes, then foot, then leg, then other leg, and then her kidneys. Eventually it was her heart that gave out, and she lost her battle with this dreadful disease.

At this meeting, I got that same sense of appeasement and a focus on cultural relativity that smacks of almost pleading with those who will take away our democracy and our secular rights in pieces until secularism don’t exist at all. The group seemed to say that a “win” should be defined as, “well, they killed or raped fewer women based on their political and religious culture,” even though everyone in the room agreed that the taking or harming of any innocent life, for any reason, is itself a moral and ethical evil. Here it seems to imply that interreligious dialogue can lead to the abolition of individual or cultural sin caused in the name of religion if those perpetrators would just slow down their ruthless actions to make the activists feel like they’ve done something positive.

So how do these very bright people, these lettered men and women who have spent decades trying to heal the world be so closed to their own blind spot views of the “value” religion and the role religious dialogue plays in the 21st century?

Many of the invitees talked about how, as gender, ethnic, or religious minorities, they are legally or socially made into outcasts because (frequently all-male) religious majorities keep them economically and politically oppressed. Those on the dais offered platitudes rather than real solutions for change. Even the subjective labeling of what is a “normal” versus “radical” religion wasn’t enough to bring closure to the heartfelt pain, histories, and memories of those who have personally witnessed religious violence in their local communities and nations.

I wasn’t called on during the meeting. I know I was competing with others to speak and in the end I gave my place to several women to go before me. But I did write down my question:

Women are tragically and disproportionately seen as the other. In many societies, they are raped or gang-raped, forced to be veiled or excessively clothed, made to shave their heads, aren’t equally educated, cannot work outside the home, cannot dress as they wish, cannot share a simple public embrace without fear of being honored killed, but can be bought and sold as slaves or sex slaves—all in the name of religion. How can this body suggest that peace can come through the very religions that demand women be subjugated in these and so many other ways?

I do not doubt that when interreligious dialogue becomes religious action that those needing help are both served to defended in order to protect their human rights. But I conclude that such actions are perhaps breadcrumbs. In my mind, secular activism is the whole loaf. And such humanist action comes with the added benefit of zero proselytizing or the sending of zealots or missionaries to save souls, which historically has wrecked indigenous culture and language traditions.

In the end, there was one glimmer of hope when one dais member admitted towards the end of the program that secular law and secular activism does help to bring healing, if only in those societies and nations open to change.

It’s a good start but much more still needs to be done to protect the most vulnerable and historically harmed people on the planet—the people we call our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, nieces, aunts, and friends.