Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Secular Approaches to Interfaith Part One: Interfaith and Honesty

As a secular Humanist, with an interest in political activism, I recognize the value of working with leaders and members of various faith groups whose values align with my own around certain issues. The recent passage of marriage equality in Rhode Island is a particularly strong example. My little group, the Humanists of Rhode Island, though working hard and advocating fiercely for the right of all people, regardless of sexual preference, to marry who they love, would have made no impact with out the efforts of hundreds of other groups, both faith and non-faith. We were one drop in an ocean of advocacy.

I also recognize that it's not realistic to believe that groups with widely divergent philosophies, world views and objectives will suddenly organize around an issue if there are no pre-existing relationships to build upon. Leaders and members of different groups, who have never communicated or interacted, will never truly know what issues they agree and disagree on, and are likely to approach each other with fear and suspicion, rather than with egalitarian friendship. Thus, I believe that secular groups need to be involved in interfaith communication and establish real relationships with religious groups, if they actually hope to accomplish anything in the real world.

That being said, what would interfaith look like if those of non-faith traditions not only participate, but take part in the initial construction of the group itself? What if interfaith could be redesigned from the ground up to include people of faith and non-faith traditions from the get go, rather than the usual model, in which an established interfaith group makes room for those of non-faith traditions out of general bonhomie and some minor changes to the wording of their mission statements and bylaws? In this and some upcoming posts, I will attempt to explore this idea.

Let me put aside the obvious, like the popular misconception that somehow the word "interfaith" is going away in this context. Personally, I doubt it will. The word "interfaith" has a long and established history with liberal faith traditions, and has proven itself an effective tool for social action. Whatever "interfaith" originally meant, it has come to mean something more, and I would suggest that the definition of "interfaith" has expanded beyond its original meaning and now encompasses not only interactions between faith groups, but all interactions that include faith groups, even if some or most of the groups involved are secular in nature.

More tricky is the issue of including faith groups that are not liberal in their traditions. Certain religious groups are more conservative. Ethnic, orthodox and conservative church leaders and their congregants look askance at interfaith work because they are fully aware of the liberalizing influence getting to know people who are different has upon their beliefs. There is much discussion in interfaith circles concerning how to reach out to these more conservative groups who, in some cases, hold the view that "social justice" is against the will of God.

The pressure to broaden the appeal of interfaith work to those of a more conservative worldview is based on the erroneous idea that faith, in and of itself, is a good thing. I would suggest that not all faith and non-faith groups are created equal, and that groups that lack tolerance, or merely espouse tolerance without real commitment to what the value demands, are not likely candidates for this kind of outreach.

Those with more liberal or centrist faith inclinations see reflections of what is best about their beliefs in their more conservative brothers and sisters, thinking that if only they could get to talking about their differences, the other side would see their values reflected back at them as well. I believe this view to be naive, given what we know about the way values help to shape the perceptions of liberal versus conservative thinkers.

Knowing that mission statement with wording around concepts like "social justice" and "interfaith action" will be potentially off-putting to conservative, ethnic and orthodox faith traditions, new interfaith groups searching for maximum inclusivity might be tempted to leave such wording out of their mission statements. Further, there may be pressure to intentionally construct interfaith statements with wording that is very broad and evocative, with the intention of attracting conservative, orthodox and ethnic believers. This, I believe, is a mistake.

Broad, evocative and metaphorical language is the classic tool of the minister and the diplomat. Such language is designed to cast a wide net, and capture many minds and hearts. When attempting to charm and evangelize, this language may have uses. When attempting to engage people on real issues of real concern, such language can become disingenuous and deceitful.

The idea behind the use of broad and evocative language as opposed to a bold and unambiguous declaration of inclusive values is to not scare away the orthodox and the catholic. The idea is to get people through the door. Once the person is inside they might suddenly find themselves sitting with a Muslim, atheist or LGBTQ person, and then it's too late. Bam! Interfaith happens. Classic bait and switch.

This is not likely to be the way it goes down. More likely the person lured in this fashion will leave such a meeting now convinced that not only are those of more liberal faith and non-faith traditions deeply wrong on matters of faith and social justice, they are also liars, or at best, lack the conviction of their beliefs.

These people are not stupid, and they should not be insulted. A better strategy, in my view, is to be upfront about the interfaith group's identity, mission, values and goals. Include wording about social justice but also include wording about outreach to those groups that might not be easy fits. Establish an interfaith group willing to engage with anyone of any belief, but one that also holds fast and honestly to it's own core values and beliefs. This has the advantage of at least earning the grudging respect of those who appreciate honesty, integrity and loyalty, even if they disagree on everything else.

A second aspect of this debate is also worth exploring: Might there be certain kinds of faith and non-faith traditions that an interfaith group might want to exclude? It's not likely to happen, but what if a racist or Aryan church wanted to participate in a local interfaith effort? Certainly the mission statement and bylaws would exclude such participation, but if the wording is overly broad and evocative, what limits would be placed upon participation and membership that would be enforceable? I'll consider this more fully in a later piece.

No comments:

Post a Comment