The Missing Link: Humanists at the Parliament of World Religions

Reporter Rory Fenton wrote on The Guardian in 2011 that “There is a gaping, atheist-shaped hole in the interfaith movement.”

As a humanist attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions for the first time, I was both thrilled and slightly apprehensive. Wearing my American Humanist Association-issued “Keep Church and State Separate” button didn’t garner as much attention as I had thought that it would. I outed myself in several sessions saying, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister AND (insert dramatic pause) I’m an atheist.” The most notable reaction came from a panel of celebrities—the young Bahá’í Hollywood actor responded to my confession with “that’s so awesome.” (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out exactly what he meant by that!) Shawn King, wife of Larry King, and I had a nice moment when she disclosed how she is a devout Mormon and Larry is a staunch atheist. I was later thanked by the panel’s moderator for sharing with the panel.

Attendees at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, UT.
On more than one occasion I mentioned to my fellow humanists, panel colleagues, and a few others of varying religious persuasions that “Humanists are the missing link here at the Parliament.” Intentionally including humanists in interfaith dialogue and progressive social justice activism is what I call the next level in religious/nonreligious understanding. I am well aware that there are some who cringe at the word interfaith, so perhaps a new term can be used. Regardless of the verbiage, it is the respectful dialogue and impassioned activism that is needed. Sarah Jones, communications associate for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has said with regard to the term interfaith, “…whatever you choose to call it, the practice of building relationships with members of different belief traditions has clear benefits for everyone involved.” The Parliament was an incredibly rich experience. It was a feast of music, art, and intellectual stimulation.  As the theme of this year’s Parliament was “Reclaiming the Heart of Humanity,” the five-day gathering focused on common values held by humanist and religious believers alike. We came together to address women’s dignity and human rights, income inequality, war, violence and hate speech, and climate change. The richness included a generosity of hospitality and respect found throughout the vendor hall, art exhibit, plenary sessions, spiritual practice rooms, and in the hallways. For me, the biggest lesson in generosity came from the Sikh community as each day they offered a free meal (a practice known as Langar) to all who wished to partake. I’ll admit I was a bit out of my comfort zone as I removed my shoes, covered my head, and sat on the floor with complete strangers to be served a meal by even more strangers. And yet, the sincerity with which the Sikh hosts greeted me, and the expression of thanks they offered me as I left the meal, filled me with appreciation for the experience. As an added bonus, the vegetarian meal was delicious, and the conversations I had with those seated near me gifted me with new friendships. This experience was respectful generosity at its best. Seeing the American Humanist Association (AHA) booth, with former AHA president Mel Lipman engaging with passersby was a proud moment. I must confess that I knew Mel would be there as we were working together with another atheist, a Catholic priest, and a Muslim activist, on a presentation at the Parliament. Our panel at the Parliament spoke about the significance of engaging dialogue between humanists and religious believers—dialogue that can lead to cooperative activism. I had attended something slightly similar a week earlier at Rutgers University called Common Ground, where AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt participated, along with AHA board member, Dr. Anthony Pinn, and a host of other humanists and religious folks. As the facilitator of the Parliament panel, I explained that I call myself a “spiritual atheist," which I defined as being good without a god and cognizant of the interconnectedness of all life. Each of the panelists spoke from their own perspective on why they thought dialogue between humanists and religious believers was important and how we could move beyond dialogue to activism. The conversations that ensued outside the room after the panel discussion were full of gratitude and excitement from those who knew they were humanists as well as those who just found a new name for themselves. I understood that excitement. I wasn’t always an atheist. In fact, having grown up in a Southern Baptist household, and now as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I’m comfortable being around differing theologies and rather enjoy the personal challenge of hearing religious language and thought. The hard truth is that my aforementioned apprehension stemmed not from what I thought other Parliament attendees might say about my presence but rather what I thought other humanists might say; reading some of the negative comments on AHA’s Facebook post announcing their presence at the Parliament gave me pause. Humanists have a history of participating in interfaith events and collaborating with religious believers on social justice issues. During the Civil Rights Movement, a number of religious and nonreligious leaders joined forces to promote racial equality. A. Philip Randolph was an atheist known for his leadership in the American civil rights and labor union movement. Randolph was named Humanist of the Year in 1970 and was a signer of Humanist Manifesto II. Humanism is the missing link in multi-belief, interpath, transbelief, and interfaith dialogue. Our voices are needed and our cooperation is necessary. My hope is that more humanists will consider the examples of generosity and respect set forth by Roy Speckhardt, Mel Lipman, A. Philip Randolph, and the Sikhs.Tags: ,