Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

(Why) should atheists engage with religious people?

I responded to a blog post this week & I’d be interested in your comments.

Should inter faith and multifaith activities involve people who do not identify themselves as religious?

Are the two terms inter faith and multifaith adequate?  If not, what words should we use?

The current issue of New Humanist carries an article by Stephen Shashoua of the Three Faiths Forum entitled Interfaith Needs Atheists.

Andrew Copson, the CEO of the British Humanist Association, responded to Stephen’s piece on his personal blog.

My response is below & I look forward to comments on any of the issues raised.

Last weekend I was asked by a Jewish study group whether religious people should engage with atheists. It rather depends on what you’re trying to do. Is there a case for vegans, vegetarians and carnivores getting together and talking about their different diets and why they follow them? Maybe, but the main reason (other than curiosity) for this kind of activity is because there are difficulties: misunderstanding, hostility, conflict, discrimination, bullying, violence.
The two sorts of activity you mention are often described as inter faith (face to face – talking about similarities and differences) and multifaith (side by side – doing things together). The latter, although I see where you’re coming from on singling out religion and belief as primary identifiers unless there is a problem-solving element, is more likely to include atheists and humanists, not least because it generally involves practitioners and lay people rather than leaders.
As you rightly say, people with different beliefs commonly work together to make the world, or their neighbourhood, a better place. It’s the intentionality of coming together because we disagree which differentiates ‘inter faith’ activity from eg supporting the local food bank.
The purpose of face to face activity is to learn, to understand and to ‘disagree better’; the purpose of side by side activity is to join forces to do something which will benefit the wider community. In my experience, side by side action often results in face to face activity – people learning more about each other. Including a wide range of difference in both is usually important, although good, detailed, work is also done by bilateral groups such as the Christian Muslim Forum and of course by Stephen’s Three Faiths Forum.
Three examples are the newly launched European Network on Religion and Belief which ‘seeks to work with others to develop a long-term network, within the framework of EU policies on equalities and fundamental rights, to combat discrimination and promote mutual understanding in the field of religion and belief’ and the London Boroughs Faiths Network, which I convene, which has amongst its members local multifaith organisations which include non-religious community groups. The London Peace Network, led by LBFN, is also a broad coalition.
Neither face to face nor side by side activities flourish if the people involved are there to promote their own world view above others – it’s about sharing, not winning.
My own feeling is that the public conversation around this is becoming more nuanced and interesting: the recent Westminster Faith Debates included panelist Richard Dawkins and resulted in a thoughtful exchange of views (which is where I had the pleasure of meeting you) and the filmed conversation between Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year is another example.
Public conversations almost inevitably involve leaders, as you point out, and this often means that women are under represented. But the skills and structures for negotiating difference at local level are also becoming more commonly used – for example, Conversations of the Soul, which St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace has been offering recently, and the co-production of public services pioneered by Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network.
Terms.  Religion and Belief, adopted by the government and the EU to describe both religious and philosophical/non-religious/atheist/humanist approaches to life has become accepted although I’m not sure ‘belief’ quite catches it. Faith doesn’t work, either (your Buddhist example being one reason), so inter faith and multifaith may be on the way out unless restricted to faith-based groups (my twitter name is @multifaith and I’m wondering what to change it to). Inter-convictional smacks of jail and inter-cultural is too wide. Let’s see what emerges.
We all have values, whether we are religious or not, and when there are difficulties it is on that basis that we need both to act together for the common good and to try to understand each other better.
Would you be interested in speaking to a meeting of LBFN on this topic? [to which Andrew replied “By all means!”]


This entry was posted on 21 July 2012 by in UK and tagged , , , , .
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