Should interfaith include atheists?

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

Over the years in my professional work in counseling with people who suffer from Religious Trauma Syndrome, I have seen many people of faith go through a process of deconversion and become atheists. It’s no secret that any person who has been traumatized by religion is likely to become its biggest critic. Some atheists become quite hostile and combative in their contempt for religion. Though I am often vehemently opposing fundamentalist religion, I personally know people who embrace moderate religious views that promote peace, compassion, justice and human solidarity. In my view, it's more useful to critique religion without belittling believers. We should oppose the abuses and atrocities of religious fundamentalism but be careful of categorically blaming religion for all the world's evils.

I am a Humanist Chaplain. I embrace a philosophy of life anchored in the belief that the resiliency of the human spirit, the capacity, skills and virtues forged through the evolutionary journey of being human, and owning our responsibility for building a world of less suffering and more flourishing is the proper path forward.

Our common humanity is reason enough for all people to coexist peacefully, and operate with justice, equity and compassion in our human relations. I believe in a Homo sapien solidarity where all humans cooperate and collaborate together to reduce suffering and increase flourishing. In my view, whatever your religious, spiritual, secular or philosophical beliefs are, you are responsible for vigorously scrutinizing them and dismissing what doesn't promote a common good.

According to the research done by Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years. Globally, the world’s newest major religion is no religion. Already in many countries throughout the world, atheists outnumber believers. Even the Pope recently said that being an atheist is far better than being a bad Christian.

I support interfaith dialogue and action, and have witnessed its benefits firsthand in my city. Lately I've been pondering the value of non-religious people participating in these efforts. Admittedly, the term "interFAITH" by definition rules out atheist participation since atheism isn't a religion or "faith." Perhaps we could find a better term that is more inclusive of both religion and secular philosophies such as atheism, humanism and agnosticism. InterUnFaith?

Motivating and galvanizing people of different beliefs to get along and work together for a common good may be the best hope we have. As the context of our times shifts with atheists steadily rising in number, the pressing question may not be whether Jews, Christians and Muslims can get along and work together, but can the religious and non-religious, believers and non-believers reach across their differences to embrace their common humanity and work together toward a common good. In other words, can religious people and atheists get along and work together?

Being honest, the proposition on the surface doesn’t seem promising. One doesn't have to look much further than Twitter to see the hatred often spewed between believers and atheists. In some parts of the world you can be killed for being a Christian, in other parts for being an atheist. I typically call out and confront the religious when they are doing stupid things, being divisive and destructive, rationalizing behavior that doesn’t line up with the Golden Rule or violating the spirit of compassion and love. But neither does it help nurture harmony, cooperation and good will when atheists call religion a mental illness and religious people, idiots.

Too many religious people have false ideas about atheists and atheism. Atheism makes a critical contribution to humankind’s conversation about what is profoundly significant and meaningful about the universe and our lives as human beings. I recent read a brilliant book by biologist E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, in which Wilson explores answers to life’s greatest existential questions, based on science. I was recently a guest on a talk-radio show and the topic I chose to discuss was “what religious people can learn from atheists.”

I recently read the “10 Non-Commandments of Atheism,” which are:

1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence. 2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true. 3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world 4. Every person has the right to control of their body. 5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life. 6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them. 7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective. 8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations. 9. There is no one right way to live. 10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

But I have also learned that there are militants, fanatics, and fundamentalists in virtually all religions, belief-systems and philosophies, including atheism. However, it would be unfair, as it would be with religion, to judge or stereotype the many based on a few. People like French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville provide hope. He writes, “I appreciate people who practice respectful dialogue and honors differences, and doesn't demand a "right" vs "wrong" context. My intention is not to convert people to atheism. It is merely to explain my position and the arguments in its favour, motivated more by love of philosophy than by the hatred of religion. There are free spirits on both sides, and it is to them that my words are addressed. The others, whether believers or atheists, can be left to their certainties.”

On the question of whether Christians and atheists can work together, the Religious News Service ran an interesting piece that is an interview with Harvard’s Chris Stedman, who is an interfaith activist but atheist, and author of the book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.

Here are five beliefs that I believe could change our global discourse, sentiments, and actions about the power of religious, spiritual, and philosophical diversity for good.

1. Every person can fully embrace and follow their religious tradition, spiritual interests, or philosophical views without creating division, destruction, hostility, or hatred. ​

2. Every person can find a rationale and motivation within their religious tradition, spiritual interests, or philosophical views to be an instrument of goodness, peace, love, and compassion in the world, and affirm the inherent, equal, and unconditional worth of every human being.​

3. Every person has the right to follow their own inner guidance in choosing their own religious, spiritual, or philosophical views and practices. ​

4. Every person can participate in a process of personal growth, self-actualization, and fulfillment of one’s highest beliefs and aspirations, and encourage the same for others. ​

5. Every person benefits when each of us follows our own unique inspiration for building a world that works for everyone.

Whatever one believes about God, we are all 100% human. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we all roughly want the same things: the necessities for safety, security and survival; the need for belonging, esteem, love and relationship; to reach our full individual and collective potential. We all suffer loss, have our fears, encounter suffering and endure difficulties. Religion is not going away, neither is atheism. And whether we like or not, we all are in this together. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish as fools.”

©  2019 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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