Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Tentative Steps into Interfaith

The Rhode Island interfaith community is seeking to redefine itself. As part of that reorganization a series of "charettes" (a creative process akin to visual brainstorming that is used by design professionals to develop solutions to a design problem within a limited timeframe)  has been organized and a facilitator hired to guide the process of creating a new vision for what 21st Century interfaith will look like. I have been what my friend Christine Eldridge calls "interfaith curious" for a while now, especially in the wake of the wide ranging discussion in the atheist/Humanist blogosphere concerning Chris Stedman, accomodationism versus confrontationalism and the role interfaith work can play in supporting issues of concern to Humanists. I should also confess that I've been inspired to explore this by my friend Vanessa Gomez Brake, who does amazing interfaith work on the west coast.

Due to my relationship with various faith leaders in Rhode Island concerning issues such as marriage equality, the Cranston prayer banner, reproductive justice and poverty, I found myself invited to the first of these meetings.  I gave the idea a lot of thought, pondering the pros and cons of my attendance, and finally decided to attend out of curiosity. I have a hard time passing up new experiences.

I knew a few of the people at the meeting, either through personal interaction or by reputation. Some of the clergy in attendance had spoken out in favor of my niece, Jessica Ahlquist, when at the height of the hysteria over the Cranston prayer banner she was receiving religiously based death and rape threats. At that time some clerics in Rhode Island took a stand for separation of church and state and for freedom of conscience, and I appreciated their help in quelling the worst excesses of hate mongering my family was suffering at the time.

So I attended the three hour charette, delighted to find that food was being served (I love a free meal.) To help break the ice and get a sense of who each other was, a participant, Amy Greer, asked a series of questions that required us to raise our hands at various times. Questions such as, "Are you clergy?" "Are you currently a member of the religious tradition you were born into?" and surprisingly, "Are you a Humanist?" A bigger surprise: Mine was not the only hand to go up at that last question. (Although I suspect the definition of the word "Humanism" would vary among respondents, and more than a few confessed to me throughout the evening that they did not know what Humanism is.)

As the meeting got under way, I felt I had little to offer. The group was asked to propose ideas for discussion, which were written down for all to see and think about. After generating twenty such concepts, we were broken up into groups and the concepts that were most alike were assigned according to the interests of the sub-group participants. I had trouble knowing where I should sit, but was invited to be in the group that would discuss the organizational framework of the new group.

Here things got more interesting. Early in the discussion a woman at the table made the point that we all have faith in something, and it is our faith that unites us. I was not sure what to say, but my friend James Ford, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a Zen Buddhist, corrected the woman. (Who, by the way, meant no offense, and was perfectly pleasant and reasonable.)  At the invitation of the group I explained that in my view there are at least two meaning to the word faith. One, the more prosaic meaning, is the kind of faith we have in ordinary events, like the sun rising in the morning. The other, the more mystical version, concerns faith in things like God and other religious concepts.

I explained that conflating the two meanings leads to people drawing incorrect conclusions about the way I think: I don't have mystical faith, I have a pragmatic belief in the predictability of nature. On the other hand, conflating the two kinds of faith also reduces the mystical nature of religious faith to a more worldly, ordinary sense of the word, and I've yet to meet a member of the faithful willing to accept such a reduction in the meaning and importance of their concept of faith.

This aside, we briefly discussed whether using the term "faith" in the name of the group is a good idea. Of course, the inclusion of atheists, nontheists and Humanists in interfaith dialogue always leads to the search for a better term, and so far none have really taken off. Interworldview and Interlifestance aren't really snappy, roll off the tongue kinds of phrases.

One of the best parts of the meeting was getting to know Imam Farid Ansari, a Muslim cleric who I remembered speaking at the press conference in defense of my niece. In our conversation at that table, I was impressed with his ready acceptance of the concept of separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the secular framework for religious identity and freedom of conscience long ago pioneered by the founder of Rhode Island, the visionary Baptist minister Roger Williams. This should not be surprising: Our state's history of religious tolerance was very influential upon those who helped bring the United States into being. Roger Williams wanted freedom of conscience for all believers, even Jews, Muslims and atheists.

Still, I surprised Imam Ansari when I suggested that freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. He had never heard this before, but instantly compared it to a passage in the Koran that maintains that there should be no compulsion in religion.

I also mentioned that if this new interfaith group was really going to try to speak on moral issues affecting Rhode islanders, it would have to take into account those 44% of Rhode Islanders who, according to a recent Gallup poll, identify as non religious. Reaching out to these "nones" in a way that does not alienate them is an interesting problem, and not one every member of the group appreciated. One minister suggested that reaching out to the nones might allow members of the group the opportunity to bring them into the folds of the various faith communities on offer, in other words, convert them.

This scared me, a little. I confess to having some doubts about the value of interfaith work, even as I avail myself of the interfaith community when doing so can help meet my political ends. The idea that interfaith might be used to actively proselytize to those who have escaped from faith is frankly troubling to me. I mentioned that there are members of the atheist/Humanist/none community who have been hurt by their former religious affiliation. The anger the religious community see from the secular community is one too often based on a first hand understanding of the worst excesses of religion, such as:

Teens who have lost their parents because their parents had to choose between loving their gay child or embracing a God that does not truly exist, those who have suffered molestation at the hands of a trusted cleric, and those who have lost family members to cults, or who have been the victims of belief systems that tear families and psyches apart.

In my view, for interfaith to work a a concept, participants have to understand the importance of freedom from religion.

Further, for interfaith to be worth anything to anyone in the real world, it should have some sort of political agenda attached. Unfortunately, there are only a few social justice areas that interfaith can tackle, due to differences in the various theologies. Reproductive Justice and gay rights are off the table, for the most part. Peace is good, but some churches believe certain wars are just, and everybody supports our troops, whether they are sent off in the cause of moral battle or not. Can we hate the war but not the soldier? How does that work?

Poverty is often an issue that is brought up, and it's an important issue to me personally, but as a group is this new interfaith alliance prepared to talk about systemic inequality? Will it fight for progressive taxation and a larger governmental role in securing the social safety net? 

Bigotry was brought up, but what about voter ID laws and voter suppression? Can a group like the one proposed form a consensus on anything other than the idea of bigotry not being good??

I don't know.

At the meeting I heard a lot of talk that seemed to be just nonsensical or unhelpful. One person said, "Whether you believe in God or not there is still sacred space" to which another added, "and sacred time." Is the word sacred in this context supposed to be metaphorical, and if so a metaphor for what? Or am I to believe, or pretend to believe, that their are some locations and certain times that are definitionally sacred because God says so, like a church on Sunday morning.

This kind of talk does not offend me, it simply confuses me. If we come together to accomplish a certain goal, why confuse the issues with sect specific mythology of no immediate relevance?

I also worry a bit about the issue of clerical privilege. Ministers and clerics are given special status in our society, a status I was willing to use when it helped my family diminish the vituperative attacks leveled at my niece during the prayer banner nonsense, but in truth this special status, which I've identified as clerical privilege, is not a decent thing to be promoting in our secular society.

Too often I've been present at governmental functions wherein testimony is taken from the public with strict time limits being placed on those speaking so as to allow everyone a chance to speak their piece. And too often clerics are given extra time or a special license to ramble on well past their time limits. I've seen old men give up their front row seats for Catholic priests in crowded rooms, merely because of the priest's perceived stature. I have watched the diocesan lobbyist, Bernard Healey, walk the corridors of power at the RI State House, denied access to no door or hallway, granted a status ordinary, non-clerical lobbyists can only dream of.

But these are simply problems to be solved, in one sense. If I continue to pursue some sort of relationship with this new interfaith group, perhaps I can do so in the role of a secular conscience. Maybe I can act in such a way as to explain to the other members what it is I believe, and give some insights as to how people like me think and how we perceive the world.

Those interested in interfaith work on the religious side are usually liberals and progressives, very few are hard core conservatives, though many might harbor conservative or even reactionary political views. There is a self selection process at work here: Those interested in interfaith are interested in learning about other people and other ways of thinking. In that sense, I think these people are likely to be more accepting of me and my beliefs than I might be of them and their beliefs.

Perhaps there is much I can learn here, as well as teach. I'll let you know.


  1. Are reproductive justice and gay rights really off the table? I thought the Interfaith movement at large was about reigning in fundamentalism. Is this local group different?

  2. I applaud you for your efforts! Thank you Steve.

  3. Just read this, Steve, and found it a thoughtful look at some of this issues arising from interfaith work -- some of which I'd not thought about. I hope you will continue with the group and reporting what goes on there so we can continue to assess whether on-going work with this specific inter-faith group is going to work for HoRI. I too wonder what they meant by "sacred space and time", but can't help but wonder if your presence and participation was in itself not causing them to think about the right to be "free of religion."