Dissolving the secular–faith divide

In June this year the Elijah Interfaith Institute launched a project called Make Friends in which 31 faith leaders signed up to a joint statement which stated:

It’s no secret that disagreements over religion can lead to negativity, distrust, discrimination and violence, but the stewards of faith believe the antidote to these social ills is understanding, friendship, and building community.

The Institute has a mission to foster unity in diversity, creating a harmonious world, and its core message is that:

The world’s great religions radiate wisdom that can heal the world.

The project’s proclamation said:

We pray that the message and example of unity, shown by these leaders, will contribute to bridging divisions by inspiring you and your friends to start new conversations with people of different faiths.

and the website has tools and resources for the friend making and conversations required. We see a similar, although secular, approach in the visionary work of New Zealand’s Action Station in promoting conversations with friends and strangers over dinner to reimagine a fairer and flourishing New Zealand as it may be in 2040.

Any initiative whose aim is to promote greater understanding between people of different backgrounds must be applauded, and having people of faith engage in conversations with each other seems an ambitious approach, but perhaps not sufficiently so. Why does the Elijah Institute not extend its vision to include building bridges with the people of no faith?

Perhaps acknowledging that a significant proportion of the world’s rationalists and secularists are also internationalist in outlook, the Elijah Institute sees them as less in need of the friend making message. In the West, secularism is often embedded in much of the practice (UK, New Zealand) and even in the architecture of the state (France, USA).

But secular–religious tensions in India, as well as much of the Arab world’s recent coups, attempted coups, and wars have been between secular and Islamic versions of the state, as in Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Libya and Iraq. The disturbances are complex of course and sometimes driven by the proxies of interests outside the region but the impact has been to see rich secular traditions carried out in the Arab world by people whose faith background is Islam have been trounced by more religious conceptions of the state. That said, I don’t feel remotely qualified to suggest by whom secular Muslims of the Middle East could be represented.

In addition, there is an increasing number of places in the world where those professing no faith put themselves in great danger. Raif Badawi, a liberal Saudi Arabian accused of apostasy who tried to set up a human rights organisation and who is serving a seven-year prison sentence with an additional punishment of 1,000 lashes, is one example. In another instance, Bangladeshi atheists have been imprisoned, stabbed and murdered.

By focussing on people of different faiths, the project leaves out those parts of the world’s population who identify as having no religious faith. Figures of non-believers are hard to quantify and the definitions of having no faith differ across jurisdictions, but is variously estimated to be between half and three-quarters of a billion people. Other sources suggest that 14–16 percent of the world’s population are in this category.

In New Zealand, the 2013 census reported 41.9 percent of people profess no faith, having risen rapidly at the same time that identification with established Christianity has fallen. An earlier (2008) survey, using different criteria ‘indicated that 72% of the population believe in God or a higher power, 15% are agnostic, and 13% are atheist including, in both groups, large numbers of younger people.’ (Wikipedia references)

The situation is not straightforward, though. An old saying, attributed to GK Chesterton, is that ‘when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything’. The reality is quite a lot more confusing than that. Secularists have a range of ‘beliefs’ about the existence of God, and people of Christian beliefs differ both between branches of the faith and individuals in the same branch to a remarkable extent. Wikipedia again about the same NZ survey:

A 1985 survey showed that around one-quarter of those answering ‘no religion’ may believe in a god and that, conversely, between 7 percent and 36 percent of Christians (depending on their denomination) did not believe in the existence of deities.

So a valid question is: why would a body dedicated to ‘foster unity in diversity, creating a harmonious world’ leave out perhaps 15 percent or more of the world’s people simply because we do not profess a religious faith? Is there an ‘other’ that must be excluded to bind the ‘us’, an opposition without whom connection seems meaningless, or is it just an oversight? If the latter, who might be a fit and proper set of people to represent people without a faith, including atheists and agnostics? Perhaps the faith traditions are not aware of any specific secular figureheads to include, and that is understandable in the absence of quite such recognisable structures as have been built up around faith traditions. Could the Elijah Institute project perhaps seek out a panel of a half dozen secularists with a diversity of views for its next project?

Here are some thoughts: the UN is the premier worldwide organisation representing the people of the world, and it is guided by secularity and rationalism. Might the head of UNESCO perhaps be a good candidate, given that that organisation’s focus is on education and science? The leader is currently Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian whose family background was associated with the Soviet-era Communist Party and who was a candidate for the recent UN Secretary General vacancy. Perhaps Helen Clark, former leader of the United Nations Development Organisation, an avowed atheist and, like Bokova, a candidate for Secretary General in 2016. Perhaps Gro Harlem Bruntland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister and head of the World Health Organisation, and Deputy Chair of The Elders, an organisation of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights. Any of these would be a high profile, well qualified candidate.

To be truly inclusive, one would have to consider radical atheists in the Christopher Hitchins/Richard Dawkins mould, as the absolutism of their positions is a kind of faith in itself. However, the vehemence of their antipathy to religion suggests an unwillingness to build bridges. While it is indisputable that religions of all kinds have been harmful to both adherents and enemies alike, the ability of some rationalist atheists to create a cold, loveless and judgmental mirror image of conventional religion in its oppositional stance would not, at the outset at least, be likely to yield positive results.

There are others who might fit the bill, though. Last year Greta Vosper visited New Zealand. She is a minister of the Canadian Uniting Church whose self-description as a Christian post-theist was challenged when she heard of the Bangladeshi men mentioned above. She realised she had to adopt the term atheist for herself in a statement of solidarity. The Sunday gatherings she runs are a model of community wisdom and inclusivity, with believers and non-believers and an almost complete absence of liturgical content that mentions a god. Her book With or Without God: Why the way we live is more important than what we believe, outlines how people of belief and people of none might make community.

Another Canadian, writer Naomi Klein, might be a good advocate for secularism. While Klein is a secular person of Jewish heritage, her explanations in This Changes Everything and other books of how we need to live in and with nature and not in spite of nature speak to millions of a more compassionate world. She, in turn, tips her hat to Arundhati Roy – an Indian author and secular activist, who wrote: ‘The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination.’

Indigenous knowledge from formerly colonial countries does not appear to be represented in the group of religious leaders, and I argue that it should be there. In New Zealand, the white colonialists of Hobson’s Pledge have insultingly called Māori indigenous belief systems ‘animist’ and ‘primitive’. This view is not only racist, it is plain wrong. There should be a place at the table for world views which are ancient, subtle, and complete. The perspectives of indigenous worlds cannot neither be described as wholly secular nor as religious but need to be better understood on their own terms and not subject to mischievous and willful misunderstanding.

Other women writers, such as the American Alice Walker, plumb the heights, depths and wisdom of the human condition, and would be dignified candidates for a place with those who advocate ‘understanding, friendship, and building community’.

The mindfulness revolution has many adherents whose approach is based both in ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychology. Stephen Batchelor has been the foremost proponent of a secular Buddhism which has taken the core ideas and stripped them of their supernatural and mystical elements back down to the very basics found in early Buddhism, which are essentially a simple guiding philosophy for a well-lived, contemplative life.

Some philosophers might be just the ticket. For instance, Alain de Botton who is a Swiss-born British author who has dedicated his life to making philosophy – from the Greeks and Romans to contemporary philosophers – accessible, along with compassionate and clear thinking.

Who else, I wonder, might be a candidate for the next project if the Elijah Institute decided to broaden its remit beyond the shrinking world of religious believers?

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One Comment

  1. Derek LeDayn
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    You ask why a religious project by religious leaders, the Elijah Interfaith Institute, does not include people with no religious affiliation, and you discuss how those who are not religious could and should be included.

    As a secular atheist Buddhist I’d like to offer a contrary view.

    I’d say the obvious answer to your question is that the Elijah project is about interfaith religious dialogue, led by officials of large religious organisations. They have no mandate or standing with people who are not members of their religious organisations, and may have no idea how to talk to people who don’t ‘belong’. As their website says: “Elijah deepens understanding among religions.”

    For the next New Zealand census I’ll probably tick Buddhist, although I don’t consider the Buddhism I practice a religion, because I’d like to see Buddhists more visible in census results – a tiny contribution towards greater recognition of diversity.

    You suggest the Elijah project might help with secular–religious tensions in India, in the Arab world’s turn from secular to Islamic models of governance, apostates in Saudi Arabia, atheists in Bangladesh. I’m not convinced. These conflicts I think are more about politics, power, and control, than religious affiliations or a lack of them.

    I too admire some of the people you name as secular and atheist heroes, but I don’t want them to join a religious project as advocates for secular and atheist views.

    I applaud the aim of promoting greater understanding between people of different backgrounds. Secular and atheists and non-religious can find many ways of doing this without trying to join a religious project. There are many forums, often indifferent to religious affiliation or welcoming of religious and non-religious diversity – political parties, charities, NGOs, civil societies of many kinds – which further this aim. I encourage people to do volunteer work, such as teaching English to refugees and migrants, or any purpose they feel affinity towards, and which furthers the aim of greater understanding between people.

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