Perhaps one of the most fiercely debated arguments with the atheist movement is the topic of interfaith outreach and what role if any the unbelievers have in the conversations that up until now have been dominated by people of faith. Some atheists have seen the arena of interfaith outreach as something to eschew, even put down. But like it or not, atheists and theists have common interests. For example, one of the few things theists and atheists alike can agree on is that religious extremists must be kept from gaining too much clout within the political system. But it’s unclear as to whether theists and atheists can or even should team up for the sake of combating religious extremism.
It may be possible for the irreligious to join the interfaith dialogue by acknowledging a shared search for reverence. I would define reverence as a longing for meaning and a need to gain understanding into how the world works. However a balancing act would be necessary. The faithless must not resent the reverence seekers who wish to examine the direct and ongoing inspiration from God with traditional (albeit sometimes irrational, barbaric) practices. Nor must the religious shy away from conversation with others who pursue a secular discourse and a scientific approach (albeit sometimes with hostility or condemnation). If atheists, agnostics, and the otherwise faithless are to join the interfaith dialogue that goes on between denominations of religions, the term “interfaith” needs to change to reflect the involvement of the irreligious. To start with, the term “interfaith dialogue” is wholly inadequate and has to change if one is to include the irreligious outside any organized faith into the conversation. I can offer no help in this department. I call upon someone else to come up with a more accurate term.
Both sides seem to face challenges. Some theists tend to squirm when their religion is examined under the tools of critical inquiry. Either they scoff at the notion of a reductionist science’s efficacy to take apart a supernatural deity or are repulsed at the thought of the profane breaking the spell of their most sacred institutions. On the other hand, some atheists are wholly uninterested in joining the conversation because they see debates over the truth claims of different equally invalid religions as a waste of time. Otherwise, they fear the goals of the freethought movement, if it can be called that, would be muted or even co-opted if they joined a coalition of unlike-minded theists.
One curious article that I came across on Wikipedia hinted at how the religious and the irreligious could constructively work together. In the past, The Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers have embraced the fact that many within the Society lack a belief in God. Rather than ostracize them for unorthodoxy, these nontheist Friends are welcomed in the Quaker community for their “outsider” perspective, and both the theists and nontheists seem to recognize that people have different religious experiences (or none at all!), but that the Quaker values of peace, simplicity, integrity, community, equality, love, joy, and social justice are transcendent over the theological divide.
Similarly, there is an organization in Great Britain called the Sea of Faith network that promotes a humanist agenda, recognizing the universalist idea that all faiths are equally valid paths to God. SoF further expounds the idea that all religion is a product of the human imagination, but also also religion can serve as a positive force in the world, as long as it recognizes that religion is just a way for people to make sense of the world and their meaning in it. It seems that the only belief that unites members of the SoF is the danger posed by literalist, fundamentalist thinking, which leads to the objectification of a supernatural God. While the SoF denies the existence of the supernatural realm, members still celebrate the idea of the supernatural, and believe it to be a powerful concept that can fill us with awe nonetheless.
So can we take the lessons of the Quakers and the Sea of Faith and apply them to the interfaith dialogue going on between the various faiths of the world and the members of the freethought movement? It’s hard to imagine that atheists and theists could bridge the chasm between secular and sectarian values. The nontheist Friends couldn’t endure, however; eventually they joined American Humanist Association to become part of wider and much more coalition. The only motivation I can see for atheists to work with theists to reconcile like the Quakers seem to have done is for the sake of keeping the peace is if the threat of religious fundamentalism gets out of control. Until then, I don’t think that it’s likely the two sides are willing to sit peacefully together at the same breakfast table, nonetheless a round table discussion on religious matters.