Thursday, November 17, 2011

Challenges of Extending Inter-Faith Conversations

by Gary Berg-Cross

I generally like conversation and the free exchange of ideas. There is a pragmatics to it, as Albert Einstein noted, "the free, unhampered exchange of ideas and scientific conclusions is necessary for the sound development of science, as it is in all spheres of cultural life." Recognizing this conversation itself becomes a value to individuals and groups. It is not hard to believe that in the long run the public, as well as to group and personal interests, can, and generally are, well served by the free exchange of ideas.

But there are limits. Not all types of conversations are equally useful. There are some that are frustrating and maybe even counter-productive. I'm thinking of some forms of political, religious and sports "debates" that seem to do little good. These are the kind where cultural & factional prejudice are in control and serve narrow goals and interests.

Such contrasts of good versus poor conversations run through my mind when I hear about Interfaith dialogs between religious minded and freethinkers. Every now and then an Interfaith group reaches out to someone like Christopher Stedman, Interfaith & Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. (see also his Faitherst book site).

Stedman is a natural candidate for such dialogs but some of the questions in my mind are what topics of conversations can they be, what would we in the WASH community have to say in such dialogs?

For some parts of the interfaith community productive or potentially productive conversations seem possible at least for some topics. Discussion of topics like ethics are possible with "faithful" people who are not worried about definitions of religion or they are progressive thinkers engaging in interfaith work and see such conversations as a natural extension of religious pluralism. The assumption is that all sides will just welcome a conversation in the hope that each may profit from frank exchanges within open and searching dialogs. It's an appealing idea to launch such conversation in an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. These may be enhanced with the idea that we are all just human individuals forging our personal paths forward and than all sides can learn from others experience and thinking. This conversational spirit may appeal to some believers - ones who's value acceptance & dialog over the dogmatic creed & ritualistic parts of religion.

Creed and ritual are 2 of the 4 common characteristics of religions that Catherine Albanese discusses in her book America: Religions and Religion. Some of these may come up in Inter-faith-Freethinker discussion with varying expectations of acceptance.

Discussing creeds or explanations about the meaning or meanings of human life might raise some issues for both sides. On the religious side the discussion might focus on systematic theologies, but also oral traditions, narratives, and so forth. Secular Humanists have such explanations of human life although we might not call them creeds, We even have a bit of interesting history which standard religious groups may know little about and this might be something worth communicating. We would probably also want to talk about science as a method that promises to improve our understanding & explanations of the natural world.

A 2nd characteristic is Codes - rules that govern everyday behavior. Religious conversations can range from complex, formalized systems of laws to unwritten customs or to general ethical ideas. Secular Humanists may want to emphasize the rational aspects of ethics and demote customs frozen from ancient history. In the right environment a conversation seems possible here, although as with creed religious groups may feel they have much more to say and a freethinker may feel the basis of their codes are questionable and need to be challenged.

Number 3 is Cultuses - rituals that act out the understandings and insights of the creeds and codes. This is more problematic to me, since it builds on, and potentially amplifies, areas of disagreement from the earlier 2 topics. Of course they aren't necessarily discussed in sequence but are munged together and can be hard to untangle. Freethinkers are not partial to rituals, although we have,for example, developed cermonies for the big events of life - birth,marriage and death. Still religious rituals outnumber ours by a quite a bit. This point was well out by a Secular Humanist who said when discussing the topic of Secular Communion , "It's not like secular humanists have to swear allegiance to Homo sapiens sapiens and forgo all other concern for other life forms.

The last characteristic, and a frequent discussion topic between faiths is that of Community. These are groups of people who are bound together by the previous 3 characteristics - creed, code and cultus. People like to compare and contracts these which can take the form of ethnic or cultural groups or formal institutions such as churches, denominations, or a group like WASH.

We can probably agree that many aspects of 3C's are on informal and varied side with Freethinkers. We have our own Inter-Belief spectrum so communities may be as diverse as found within the entire Intefaith community. All of which suggests we might have more diverse representation within such discussions. How about a dialog that adds to the faith community atheists, skeptics, and secular humanists. Not something I see happening soon, but I'm open to discussing it.

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