Stephen Shashoua has an article in the current New Humanist about the need for non-religious people to engage in programmes of dialogue with religious people. His organisation – 3FF – has done really good work recently in including humanist speakers on panels with religious people in schools so that pupils learn about non-religious as well as religious approaches to life and he is absolutely right to include humanists in his work, and to face down criticism from religious people for doing so. He’s also right to encourage the non-religious to get involved to help to dispel the misconceptions that many religious people may have about us.
We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the non-religious – in spite of the barriers often erected against us – are already involved in this type of positive work to increase mutual understanding.
The British Humanist Association is involved in bodies like the Religious Education Council and National Council of Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education where it works alongside religious groups towards shared aims, and played a part in founding groups like the Cutting Edge Consortium, where religious and non-religious people work together for progress on equality and human rights. Locally, at least 75% of local committees on Religious Education have non-religious participation in them and many local humanist groups have some sort of relationship with their local ‘interfaith’ body, though experiences of this differ wildly from place to place. The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies – although formally excluded from national initiatives by the NUS – produced its own guide on ‘interfaith’ for its member societies in different campuses, and some of its members have been pioneers in this sort of dialogue. The Warwick University group set up the Warwick Interfaith Forum, the Southampton group set up their university’s Religious Societies Union, the Oxford group organised ‘Interfaith Football’, the Leeds group run an interfaith course, where each week a member of a different religion will come and talk to the society about their beliefs and practices. AFAN [originally ‘All Faiths and None’], an important project building mutual understanding in Further Education, had humanist involvement from its very start and still includes the non-religious as active participants.
Nonetheless, we need to acknowledge that, while mutual understanding is clearly better than lack of understanding, ‘interfaith’ activity does have problems inherent in it, both generally and specifically in relation to non-religious participation.
Two sorts of ‘interfaith’ work
There are two sorts of work that conventionally fall under the banner of ‘interfaith’. The first consists of people of different beliefs coming together for exchanges and dialogues aimed at furthering mutual understanding. The second sees people of different beliefs coming together to take common action – anything from starting a football team or feeding the homeless to lobbying for progressive change in the law on gay marriage.
The first type is the least likely to be problematic in principle, although many argue it doesn’t really reach the people we most need to reach: by definition, participants are those that are already interested in dialogue anyway. At national and local levels, such initiatives also run the risk of reaching only people ‘at the top’ of organisations, reinforcing existing hierarchies and not going deeper. In educational settings, like those in which Stephen runs his panels, this is less of a risk, but it is bound to inhabit the involvement of the non-religious in other initiatives.
The second type of ‘interfaith’ work is vulnerable to more significant objections that the first. Every day there are non-religious people working alongside religious people and people from different religions working alongside each other for the common good in secular charities or voluntary associations, in neighbourhoods, workplaces and local communities across the country. ‘Why do we need to make belief the criterion of such involvement?’ is a natural question in light of this fact. There is something artificial about it which many feel runs the risk of accentuating difference and fuelling unhelpful communitarian approaches, especially when even many religious people don’t see their religion as the most important part of their identity.
Inclusion of the non-religious has to have consequences – it shouldn’t be called ‘interfaith’
In practice there are occasions on which dialogue and exchanges structured according to beliefs is useful and appropriate and where it is, it should certainly include the non-religious. If it does, though, I can’t see that it should be called ‘interfaith’. The justification is that it is hard to find alternative phrases but there are in fact many good examples of inclusive language being used. The BBC’s religious advisory committee is now a conference on ‘religion and belief’; national guidance on RE uses the phrase ‘religions or beliefs’ to include non-religious perspectives; the Council of Europe speaks of ‘inter-convictional’ dialogue and the ‘Religion and Belief Consultative Group’ brought together religious and non-religious people. In one local interfaith group, the joining of a Buddhist meant that the reference to god in their common statement was removed – I don’t see why similar accommodations couldn’t be made if we are serious about including non-religious people too.
People of different beliefs working together can help to build bridges and break down barriers within communities which lead to conflict, but they need to feel welcome in doing so. Stephen’s efforts are a good start, but we have a long way to go.