How do we include the non-religious in interfaith dialogue?

I’m more likely to have an epiphany about my faith during frank conversations with non-religious people than with any other group. This might seem bizarre, but it pushes me to explore the logic behind my convictions and confront contradictions that are all too easy to brush under the carpet when enclosed within the comfort of my own faith bubble.

This summer, several secular Humanists contributed to my inclusive blog project Interfaith Ramadan, challenging myself and readers alike. Their alternative perspectives on the pitfalls of naming children with religiously-inspired names and why secularism is an ally to people of faith inspired me. It made me wonder about how we overcome the barriers that prevent effective dialogue between religious and non-religious individuals.

Firstly, there are many distinct, but occasionally over-lapping, labels used by non-religious people. Atheism and Humanism are the most recognisable terms. The former is, simply put, dismisses belief in God(s). Humanism, on the other hand, is a non-religious philosophical and ethical stance that emphasises the value and agency of human beings, valuing reason above doctrine or faith.

A non-religious person may also be a secularist, advocating the political separation of state and religion or self-identify as a former member of a religious group (e.g. ex-Muslim). These terms are more complex than these definitions provide but it demonstrate that non-religious labels are not interchangeable. A secularist is not necessarily an atheist, an atheist is not automatically a humanist, and so on.

Positive engagement with non-religious people challenges the religious to re-evaluate what it means to be interfaith and truly inclusive to different beliefs. Falling back on faith as a common glue is not possible or appropriate. Writer and activist Wendy Webber states her “biggest frustration with interfaith dialogues is when someone says something along the lines of, ‘we all believe in God’ and that becomes the centre of co-operation and unity between parties.” Whether intentional or not, Webber believes that such statements convey a sense that non-theists are lesser.

Faith/non-faith dialogue requires people of faith to confront negative attitudes they may hold towards the non-religious. It could include the all too common assumption that atheism is the ‘enemy’ religious people should unite against and the misconception that secularists (in particular) seek to destroy religion.

“Secularism is often misunderstood,” claims political campaigner and human rights activist Peter Tatchell. “It is not against any religion. All that secularism argues is that there should be a separation between religion and the state. In other words, the state should not favour any one faith, nor give one particular religion any special access or privileges. That ensures all faiths and none are equal in law and equally protected against discrimination.”

According to Tatchell, it is not only the non-religious who suffer when religious and state power merge: “Wherever religion is enshrined in the state it tends to persecute other minority faiths,” he explains. “Iran is a Shia Muslim dominated state. It persecutes Sunni, Ahmadiyya, and Sufi Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam is dominant, and there, Shia Muslims are persecuted. So by having the state neutral in religion, it’s in the interest of people of faith.”

Just as people of faith may have to overcome negative attitudes towards the non-religious, there are potential barriers preventing the non-religious from engaging with interfaith dialogue.

When non-religious people encounter interfaith dialogue and events for the first time, Webber explains that the term ‘interfaith’ is a potential hindrance “because interfaith linguistically excludes my community from the work.” She believes terms like ‘interbelief’ are more effective because “belief is not exclusive to faith traditions.”

Webber and Tatchell both admit that the main problem is more likely to be a lack of interest in interfaith as a concept rather than linguistics. In fact, Vlad Chituc, a writer and atheist suggests the interfaith community is “more eager to include atheists than most atheists are to be included.”

Webber concurs: “The biggest obstacle I find in the atheist community is complete disinterest in engaging faith communities. Many people have had very painful experience either within their ex-religious community or in leaving that community, and I can’t blame them for wanting to make a clean break but it makes building bridges difficult”.

For Chituc, interfaith is the next logical step after developing a “more accurate and dynamic view of what religion is, [realising] that religion isn’t a monolithic and universally evil thing that poisons everything.”

He believes that “once you move past a simplistic view of religion, it doesn’t make sense to draw the borders of your team along religious lines, with atheists on one side and believers on the other. I don’t think religion is the enemy, I think dogmatism and prejudice is. There are believers who are pluralistic and open minded, and there are atheists who are dogmatic and intolerant. I’d rather have the former on my team than the latter.”

Tatchell agrees, as a humanist and activist, he has engaged with religious groups and leaders throughout his life. Although there were initial concerns over his decision to become a patron of Tell Mama UK, he was greatly encouraged by the support he received from secularists, atheists, and humanists who “saw it as a positive move to promote dialogue and solidarity with Muslim victims of hate crime” and a way to oppose discrimination and prejudice in all its forms.

Challenging as it may be, some faith/non-faith events and projects are already taking place. Recent examples include ‘Common Ground: How can Humanists and Muslims work together in 21st Century London?’ an interactive evening of discussion in November and the Secular Conference held in London this October. In both cases, people of faith (and none) served as speakers and audience members, which provided opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

When we approach interfaith dialogue, Chituc says: “It is important to stress shared values and our positive goals, while making it clear that atheists are welcome.” For example, Webber points out that “Humanists believe in the inherent equality of all people,” which can easily serve as a common starting point for both dialogue and activism. Webber also suggests that inclusive language can be a small, but significant step in making the non-religious feel welcome.

Switching to the phrase “people of all faiths and none” can lead to greater unity. But linguistic changes also need to reflect our actions. This, Webber says, means going out of our way to find “ways to bring our communities together – to humanise each other so we are not afraid of each other.”

Despite concerns to the contrary, there is much shared ground to explore between religious and non-religious individuals. When connected on a human level, we advance our shared vision of social cohesion, inclusion, and justice despite any theological differences we may encounter along the way.

Sarah Ager is an English teacher and writer living in Italy. She runs Interfaith Ramadan, an interfaith blog project bringing together writers and contributors from different faiths and none during the month of Ramadan. She can be found on twitter at @saritaagerman or on her blog A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.