Monday, November 25, 2013

Jeremy Rodell, Chair of the West London Humanists Talks about COMMON GROUND

Jeremy Rodell is Chair of South West London Humanists and sits on two local interfaith forums as
well as being a speaker for 3FF, an interfaith charity which, among other things, provide panels of speakers from different religion and belief backgrounds to schools in London and elsewhere.  He is writing here in a personal capacity and was one the participants in the Common Ground Conference.

As a humanist living in London, it was a bit of a surprise to get an email from the British Humanist Association asking if I would like to attend a conference in Scotland organised by Catholic missionaries. I’m glad I said “yes”.

This was a bold initiative by the Xaverian Missionaries to find “Common Ground” across one of the most important fault-lines of western society, especially here in the UK. I did not need convincing of the value interfaith dialogue involving humanists – I was already involved in it. But I left the conference convinced both that more could be done and that what we’re doing today could be done better.

The conference itself was, of course, an example of dialogue in action. I had never met a missionary before and, if I’d thought about it at all, would probably have come up with the caricature of a Bible-bashing neo-colonialist. What I found were thoughtful people who had made major practical contributions to the lives of people in the countries where they’d lived – in one case helping to end a devastating civil war.  That doesn’t make me more comfortable about Christian proselytization, but it certainly provides a more nuanced perspective. Equally, I don’t think many of the religious people present had met a humanist before. There were a lot of fascinating and enlightening conversations.  

My main “takeaway” was that, at its core, this is all about human relationships. If people from different backgrounds know each other and have listened carefully enough to understand where the other person is coming from - and perhaps have worked together for a common cause - then it becomes almost impossible to demonise “The Other”. That doesn’t mean they will agree on everything. What Chris Stedman referred to as “Kumbaya” interfaith, where everyone loves one another and genuine differences are suppressed, has limited potential. But we were able to demonstrate at the end of the conference that, once trust has been established, it is possible to articulate conflicting views on controversial issues while maintaining mutual respect.

However, we shouldn’t be na├»ve. There are people within almost all religion and belief communities who have no interest in dialogue – they know they’re right and at best want either to isolate themselves, or to argue, and at worst to impose their views by force. They’re just not interested in listening and understanding people they consider to be “the enemy”. On the other hand, there are people in these same communities who understand that we live in a plural world in which mutual understanding is essential for peace, and where it is often possible to find common ground with those with whom we disagree. We learned from Chris Stedman that Eboo Patel, the US-based founder of the Inter Faith Youth Corps, refers to the divide between these two types of people as the “Faith Line”.

Those who organise and turn up to a conference on dialogue between believers and the non-religious are, by definition, on the liberal side of the Faith Line. But the fact that we don’t directly reach the hard liners doesn’t invalidate the exercise. They can only be reached, or perhaps faced down, by more open-minded people from their own belief backgrounds – people on “our side” of the line. It is by dialogue that we can all become better informed and feel better supported in advocating the interfaith approach within our own communities.
So what does that mean in practice?

Firstly, we need to get past some of the issues of language. Humanists don’t really like the term “interfaith”, or “interfaith dialogue”, which sound excluding, as Humanism isn’t a faith. But we need a term for dialogue between people with differing religious and non-religious beliefs, and “interfaith” is very widely used. Humanists should not be afraid to use it too. But we need the help of religious people to ensure that it’s understood to cover “faith and belief” not just religion.

More significantly, the conference demonstrated a misunderstanding over the meaning of “secularism”. I understand it to mean a level playing field, in which people are free to follow their religious and non-religious beliefs and practices – provided they do not erode the freedom and rights of others – with no particular group or organisation having privileges over others. In a secular society, freedom of religion and belief is protected. Like most humanists, I think that’s a good idea. Unfortunately, too often the term has been used to mean “anti-religious”, not helped by the fact that there are some atheists who, as well as advocating secularism, would also like to see the end of religion. The result was that many of our religious colleagues at the conference thought that, when humanists say we want a secular society, we mean one in which there is no religion. It was something of an “ah-ha” moment when everyone realised that was not the case.

Secondly, “doing interfaith” needs to be more than sitting on a committee, useful though that may be. It needs to involve more people from different backgrounds getting to know each other, maybe in informal settings, through social media or – ideally - through shared community activity. That doesn’t necessarily mean creating a new organisation or activity, but rather finding something that is fun, stimulating and has a doable objective.
At the risk of gender stereotyping, it’s useful to be aware that men and women may come at interfaith, and especially the involvement of the non-religious, from different angles. Callum Brown’s academic analysis suggests that changes in women’s lives have been the main driver of the significant move away from religion in the UK since the 1960s. But he says that arguments about science and rationality have not played the key role here – “community” factors have been much more important.  The implication for interfaith work is that the more cerebral type of interfaith dialogue about ideas may, on average, be more appealing to men than women, who may be more attracted by practical community activity. Both have a role to play.

Coming from the south of England, it was interesting to find that Scotland – which is probably less religiously diverse than London – seems to be way ahead in terms of official recognition of the importance of interfaith dialogue and inclusion of the non-religious, as well as providing practical help on how to make it work. “Belief in Dialogue” is an official publication by The Scottish Government providing a “good practice guide to religion and belief relations in Scotland”. Its introduction is written by Sister Isabel Smyth, Chair of the Scottish Working Group on Religion and Belief Relations, who was among the conference attendees. In it she links the need for dialogue back to the values of wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion which we saw inscribed on the Scottish Mace when the conference visited the Parliament in Edinburgh. These are shared human values – no humanist would disagree with them. “Belief in Dialogue” is clear about the involvement of the non-religious: “The need to recognise the equal legitimacy of every community to exist in Scotland is enshrined as a human right, and by this we need to think about community in the broadest sense of the word. While most religious communities have established formal structures, non-religious communities and groups have considerably fewer formal structures but still need to be seen as communities in the sense that those who advocate such beliefs are bound by the beliefs they share.” It goes on to provide practical ways of building interfaith relationships which anyone can use. You can download it free from The Scottish Government website. The rest of us would do well to steal its thinking.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Atheists and believers seek common ground in Scotland

Isabel Smythe of the Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, Rory Fenton of the British Humanist Association, and Chris Stedman of the Yale and Harvard Humanist communities discuss shared values and ethics at Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Nov. 9, 2013. Photo by Brian Pellot

On November 8-10, 2013 the Xaverian Missionaries organized a conference of dialogue among peoples of different faiths and humanists/atheists at our conference center, Conforti Institute in Coatbridge, Scotland. The conference was entitled: COMMON GROUND: A CONVERSATION AMONG RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS AND HUMANISTS ON ETHICS AND VALUES. We are grateful to Brian Pellot of Religious News Services for his work on reporting the event. Video-casts will be available soon here on some interviews Mr. Pellot had during the course of the conference.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Final Phase of Dialogue Conference: Scottish House of Parliament - Where we go from here

Participants of the dialogue conference in the Chambers of the House
of Parliament of Scotland. Mrs. Elayne Smith, the member of Parliament
who sponsored our event is dressed in red in the center front.
The final phase of our dialogue conference included a panel discussion at the Scottish House of Parliament on Saturday evening and Sunday morning was a time to reflect on what has been done and to see where this dialogue should lead us all.

Chris Stedman acted as our ambassador of the conference as we attempted to expand the audience of the dialogue with other guests and to place the dialogue of believers of faith and atheists in the public eye. Chris recounted the work of the participants and in his view the meaning of bringing peoples of differing faiths and viewpoints in order to build a better world. The panel, led by Fr. Carl Chudy (Xaverian Missionary), offered their own points of
views. The panel included Sr. Isabel Smythe, Secretary of the Interfaith Committee of the Scottish Catholic Bishops, Rory Fenton, of the humanist community, Fr. John Silavon, Maryknoll Missioner and Prerna Abbi of the Interfaith Youth Corp.

The final morning was an opportunity to take the most crucial issues and challenges that each of the participants felt arose within the conference and see concretely how we could both continue the dialogue, encourage others to participate and work together on a concrete issue that requires our collective efforts as atheists and religious believers. The Xaverian Missionaries, along with the Scottish Interfaith Council will see to having a yearly gathering of humanists, atheists and religious believers. All participants also pledged to return to their organizations and faith communities to also encourage this openness and dialogue. Finally, the Xaverian Missionaries of the UK and USA are looking to bring this dialogue between atheists and religious believers to the United States in the near future.

In a short period of time we became great friends and we hope to share the gift of dialogue across faith and perspective boundaries in all of our communities. We hope this dialogue leads us to collective efforts to heal the injustice and pain of our families and societies. Together so much more is possible.


Common Ground Conference: A Day of Dialogue, Insight and Friendship

(Left) Maureen Sehr of the Scottish Interfaith Council (Bahai) and (Right) Abbi Prerna of Interfaith
Youth Core-USA (Secular Hindu humanist) in dialogue at the conference.
The full day of the CG conference consisted of three important parts. The first was the sharing of Mr. Calum Brown, local professor and humanist, on his research on how people lose their
religion. Here are some interesting tidbits:
  • Since the late 1960's, there has been an enormous defection from formal religious practice. That trend continues, particularly from Christianity.
  • A sense of wonder at nature is replacing religion for many.
  • Agnostic, atheist, and humanist labels are used interchangeably. 
  • Many humanists express their values in political issues and in funerals where they have the opportunity to console others and to share their compassion.
The second part of the day was a fascinating dialogue between Maureen Sehr (Scottish Interfaith Council) and Abbi Prerna (Interfaith Youth Core-Chicago-Interfaith Youth Corp). Both are practitioners in interfaith dialogue, particularly with the humanist, atheist communties. Maureen, who is of the Bahai Faith and Prerna terms herself a Secular Hindu. For Prerna the Hinduism of her family partly shapes her sense of humanity and values. Maureen spoke of her work on the Interfaith Council of Scotland and her the motives of her own faith that sees the sacred in all faiths and perspectives.

Friday, November 8, 2013

First Night of the Conference: Humanists and Religious Believers Gather Together

We completed the first night of our dialogue between atheists and theists. Chris Stedman, humanist and writer, and Fr. John Sivalon from the Catholic tradition, shared an evening of insights, concerns and dialogue with each other and the participants.

Chris, from his humanist perspective, and John from a Christian view, explained how vital it is in our pluralistic world to come together in dialogue. Humanists and religious believers both have something to contribute to each other and to the betterment of our world. They both gave an impassioned appeal why in our fragmented communities we cannot merely stand in our sacral or secular isolation. 

  Please feel free to offer your own questions, concerns and insights in the comments section of these posts or on our twitter feed in the side bar. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Friday Evening We Begin: Atheists and Theists in Dialogue, Searching for Common Ground

Pictured are the planning committee of Common Ground. Fr. John Convery (UK), Mr. Hugh Foy (UK), Fr. Carl Chudy (USA), Mrs. Mary Aktay (USA), and Fr. Tom Welsh (UK). 

What do you think we need to focus on in our conference between religious believers and atheists? What are your concerns? Share your thoughts and ideas. What are the possibilities when we do find common ground? What do we do with it?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Where Do Atheists and Theists Find Common Ground?

On Friday, November 8th in Coatbridge Scotland, at Conforti Institute, atheists and theists will come together in a dialogue to find some common ground around ethics and values. For those who will attend, and those who cannot, we would like to hear from you on how you would like to see this dialogue go? What expectations would you have? What common ground do you see between theists and atheists and to what end? Please comment and tweet your concerns. We may read some of the dialogue on line in the conference.