Interfaith Dialogue Is NOT as Pointless as We Like to Think

With one sweeping generality, it’s easy (albeit unconstructive) to dismiss or invalidate an entire community’s ideas. And try as we might to take our minds off autopilot in challenging our assumptions and ideas about others, there are still polarizations that we have a difficult time getting past: Democrat versus Republican, the “uneducated” versus the college-educated, theists versus nontheists.

But I am optimistic enough to contend that a good majority of us believe no grand chasm could possibly dissolve the linkage we share as Homo sapiens existing together on Earth in the year 2015, experiencing similar joy, suffering, and the burdens of living. With this confidence, the American Humanist Association and Xaverian Missionaries* have teamed up to host the Common Ground 2015 Conference on October 8, 2015, at Rutgers University to prove just that: it is possible, and valuable, to bring people of religious and secular backgrounds together to share worldviews and collaborate for social action.

Though we’ve received a surprising amount of pushback from those on both sides who consider even engaging each other in dialogue a breach of integrity, I am continually optimistic—realistically optimistic, as a former skeptic of this initiative myself. Before I became part of the planning committee for Common Ground, the idea that atheists like myself could collaborate with those of religious perspectives was a platitude—something I accepted as sounding “true” but would probably never try myself.

In other words, how could we agree on anything with an elephant in the room? By revealing it and disempowering it.

I don’t believe in a god. I don’t believe that “God” or any deity itself has any impact on the world (only we do and as a direct consequence of our beliefs)—so god-belief/lack-thereof as a debate is irrelevant to me. What worries me is when theism encourages discriminatory thoughts or behaviors. What worries me is when god-belief doesn’t allow focus on community-building and making the world a better place but perverts its own mission with negativity or exclusiveness. On the other hand, I do care that one percent of the world’s population owns more than half of the world’s wealth. I also care that mothers without access to healthcare are dying from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. I care that there are more social justice issues that are challenging, daunting, widespread, and persistent than I can possibly list here. And so do “they”—the wonderful people of all religious/irreligious backgrounds who I get to work with in organizing Common Ground.

Fr. Carl Chudy of Xaverian Missionaries cites French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the value of true, uncompromised discourse:

He says when estranged groups go beyond superficial dialogue, their rivalrous relationship dissolves. Even more: true dialogue reveals what the rivalry covers up, a state of mutual need and responsibility. For him, authentic dialogue partners relate as healers of each other’s hurts and inadequacies. But fear and ignorance of each other makes us resist such vulnerability. The solution is simple: take the risk.

We aim to create a safe space where we can take courage in honesty and find strength in vulnerability. We aim to build together a culture of empathy, a space where we can transcend stereotypes to channel our best selves into social action. That’s why we’ve inviting panelists of all professional and faith backgrounds to talk earnestly about how we each find meaning in life and where we get our values and ethics. It’s also why participants will be given a good amount of time to work together intimately on controversial social issues like reproductive rights, religion in political elections, hate crimes against nonbelievers, and more.

As Chris Stedman, executive director of the Yale Humanist Community, author of Faitheist, and an upcoming Common Ground panelist told the Interfaith Youth Core:

The humanist case for interfaith cooperation is found at the center of my worldview: in the position that it’s unlikely that any divine or supernatural forces will intervene in human affairs to solve our problems. If this is so, it is ultimately up to human beings to address human problems. Thus, we have to work together: atheist and theist, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Jew, humanist and Hindu.

But the humanist case for cooperation goes beyond mere necessity. As a humanist, I believe that human beings have things to teach one another—that we can learn from people who have different experiences and beliefs. Interfaith cooperation not only humanizes our differences and lessens suspicion between communities—it teaches us that we are better together.

If you remain unconvinced, that’s okay. Those who will be attracted to the goals of Common Ground won’t be representative of all views, and there will still be those who do think the religious and nonreligious are at an impasse. I am not suggesting that the Duggars and Ted Cruzes of the world will come around. But even from a nontheistic point of view, if we want to be the change we want to see in the world, we must broker that change together.

I invite you to register for and come to Common Ground, holding your skepticism at bay and approaching each other with a compassionate, humanistically informed frame of mind.

*with help from the Rutgers University Department of Off-Campus Housing and Community Partnerships (Student Affairs), American Ethical Union, and the Rutgers Humanist Community

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