“Good news for the interfaith people!” JT Eberhard trumpets sarcastically in a post about an interfaith conference recently held in Washington, D.C. The focus of Eberhard’s post is the understandably alarming sentiment expressed at the “Generations of Faith” conference, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on November 10 and heralded in the National Catholic Register yesterday:
Participants at a recent interfaith conference in the nation’s capital discussed how interreligious dialogue can play an important role in establishing peace and fighting secularization in America.
“Oh how I hope more atheist groups get on board with interfaith, as though we should be eager to slide ourselves under the banner of ‘faith’,” Eberhard quips with obvious sarcasm, but as it turns out, his sarcastic suggestion is actually what needs to happen.
As David Niose argues in his book Nonbeliever Nation, the Religious Right doesn’t marginalize Secular Americans by disproving their claims, but by marking them as the enemy and keeping them out of the conversation entirely. The double standard is painfully apparent in a statement made by Father John Crossin, executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB:
[Dialogue] requires a willingness to be silent and truly listen to what others are saying rather than simply responding with our own views.
Apparently Secular Americans are excluded from this principle, as Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout of the Archdiocese of Washington responds to the “problem” of secularism with his own views:
The secular response to religious diversity is to push all religious beliefs out of public life, Bishop Knestout warned. But while this approach has become prominent in the modern era, it is dangerous to all religious beliefs and fails to respect “the reality of the spiritual dimension of life.”
Eberhard rightly condemns this hypocrisy, saying:
They’re big about talking up respecting others as a prime virtue, but seem to have no problem painting secularism as the villain and saying that atheists can’t listen. I guess only people from incompatible faiths, most of which believe each other will be roasting in hell for all eternity, merit their respect. Incidentally, when people who believe each other are damned for all time unite against a common enemy, in this case secularism, that should reveal just how little they think of atheists.
He also anticipates the response from “Chris Stedman and his ilk”:
Some atheists will trip over each other trying to align themselves with interfaith groups like this, presumably to tell them how wrong they are from within. Seems to me we can do that just fine without lending them the endorsement of our presence. Personally, I can’t say “fuck these people” loud enough. They are not allies to secularism or to atheists, though they’ll happily accept our help undermining both.
As I say of many things, just because a system can be abused doesn’t mean that it should be thrown out. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, in other words. The sentiments of these bishops decrying the “evils” of secularism demonstrate quite effectively why interfaith needs atheists. If anything, secularism should be the goal of interfaith, because in a secular world, everyone has freedom of and from religion; the freedom to practice or not practice any religion they want, so long as doing so does not harm anyone else. Both the atheists and the religious win in a secular world. Without atheists to speak for the secular non-“faith tradition”, attempts at interfaith dialogue run the risk of turning out like this, locking sights on secularism as a common enemy. The ultimate goal of interfaith dialogue should be to promote understanding among people of all faiths and no faith, and without atheist voices, that can’t happen. Quite simply, if interfaith dialogue is promoting prejudices instead of challenging them, they’re doing it wrong. Just as more liberal religious people should not be presumed to condone religiously-justified hate by fundamentalists who claim the same tradition, atheists in interfaith should not be presumed to condone behavior like this in the name of interfaith.