By Lyz Liddell, Director of Campus Organizing, Secular Student Alliance
Lori Fazzino, a non-religious friend of mine and sociology professor, shared this article in a package for secular students going back to college this fall. It has all kinds of possibilities for us in interfaith dialogue, from the perspective of the nonreligious.
“Interfaith” has become a major priority on many campuses. Organizations are springing up to promote it, colleges and universities are embracing it, even the White House is reaching out to get involved. But there’s still plenty of confusion out there as to what interfaith is, and even more confusion from the nontheistic perspective.
In October 2010, I attended an Interfaith Leadership Institute hosted by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) as a “campus ally.” This opportunity to participate in a two-day interfaith program helped me to understand exactly what this movement is and how we, as people with secular worldviews, fit into it.
Interfaith is a rising trend, particularly on college campuses. It brings together individuals of differing worldviews (not just religious or theistic) to set aside
their differences in order to accomplish shared goals. In many ways, the interfaith movement is tapping into people’s religious traditions to get them involved in activities that look a lot like real, secular pluralism. There are a lot of misconceptions about what interfaith programs are and are not. In the experiences I’ve had, interfaith is often an effort toward pluralism, setting aside our differences and trying to understand one another. It’s an effort to bring people together for social action or service projects.
We can also make a list of what interfaith is not. Interfaith is absolutely not an opportunity for anyone to proselytize one another - from one religion to
another, religious to nonreligious, or nonreligious to religious. And while we may set aside our differences, interfaith isn’t trying to pretend that we don’t have differences. It is not an effort to give religion a special place in society or on campus, nor is it an effort to make everyone the same. As nonbelievers, getting involved in interfaith has some awesome features. It’s a great opportunity for large-scale service projects, and it can help make nontheists more visible. It’s a chance to demonstrate that we can be “good without God.” On campus, interfaith programs can mean opportunities for representation or access to special funding or facilities. Last but not least, participation in interfaith programs can build relationships that help facilitate times when conflict does arise.
But as with anything, there are some downsides. It can be hard for a brazen nontheist to set aside the need to question and challenge religion. Because of the
name “interfaith,” outsiders might think that atheism is just another religion. Some interfaith programs aren’t as welcoming to nontheists as others, and sometimes they may require limiting or uncomfortable “mutual respect” agreements. Sometimes these are challenges to overcome and opportunities to educate our communities about nontheism; other times, there may be reasons to decline participation in an interfaith program. Every nontheist and every group is different and will have to decide based on their own circumstances whether interfaith participation is right for them. Despite these drawbacks, I still encourage nontheists to participate in interfaith programs.
Be prepared, though, because certain situations are very likely to come up. Language is the biggest area to be prepared for. Interfaith programs are still figuring out that “people of all religions” doesn’t cover everyone, and sometimes you’ll hear people using words like “spirituality.” Generally speaking, take it in the spirit it was meant most of the time, language like this is a result of people and programs working to establish new ways of discussing a variety of worldviews and identities, and it is not meant to exclude or insult anyone.
Likewise, it’s very common to encounter misconceptions and stereotypes about nonbelievers. Sometimes a group may face outright discrimination from an interfaith program. These situations can be handled through preparation and patience - and admittedly these problems aren’t limited to the realm of interfaith. With theists and nontheists both working to reach out to one another, we can’t help but make a difference in the world. And that’s something to get excited about!
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