Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Here is a sharing from Mary Aktay, Communications Director of the Xaverian Missionaries USA.

Three friends agreed to meet on a cold December afternoon in a diner in northern New Jersey. Their conversation was lively and warm in spite of the weather.

Carol Sorce, with whom I am honored to have been friends for forty years, introduced me to Marty Alboum, history lecturer at Rutgers and Bergen Community College and VP of the Humanists of North Jersey.  Carol thought Marty and their organization might like to hear about my recent experience in the outreach of a religious community to the secular community.  She began our conversation by having me describe my “spiritual identity” to Marty.  I answered, “I’m a Jewish Muslim Christian Humanist,” in homage to my family background and my devotion to inclusivity and equality and the advancement of humankind.  Marty told me of his participation in “Partners in Torah” with a rabbi despite his non-faith and humanist affiliation. I thought to myself that that sums up precisely what the Xaverian Missionaries were trying to achieve by their outreach to the humanist community, a ”partnership” in working for a better world.

I then explained who the Xaverian Missionaries are (how they were started, their specific efforts, etc.) and spoke of the recent Common Ground Conference: A Conversation among Religious Believers and Humanists on Values and Ethics.  Marty wondered why a “conversation” was needed. “If the two communities wanted to work together on a concrete goal, like serving in a soup kitchen, why not just do it?” I explained that the conference was a “first step:” an initial outreach in which the religious community had an opportunity to “listen” to the secular community in a cooperative rather than adversarial atmosphere.  Carol thought that secular community needed to hear that given the history of derision and inequality; and the emphasis on “values and ethics” would serve to focus attention away from doctrine and dogma on to shared vision.

The conversation then centered on the need for defining vocabulary and terms before dialogue could even begin.  I remarked how some humanists in Scotland did not want to use the word “faith” even for “faith in humanity” because they said they didn't have it in humanity either, given the state the world is in.  Carol and Marty agreed that “faith” was used for what was not experiential or verifiable. They could however have “hope” that things would get better based upon human capacity for change and improvement.

I recounted the conference speakers’ presentations noting that they first told of their own individual experiences (religious and non-religious) and then ‘dialogued ‘ with each other on shared values and vision. I reported on Callum Brown’s statistical findings on the decline of religious belief and the rise of the non-affiliated noting that the majority of the  latter still identified a ‘spiritual’ in some way. This led to a discussion of the individual interpretation of “spiritual” and its emotional underpinnings, to cultural attachments and then to the latest discoveries in Quantum Physics in the areas of String and Membrane Theories as unifying humanity and indeed the entire universe on a sub-atomic level.

I then asked about the difference between “belief” and “faith.” Marty responded that based upon his historical research of James Buchanan, Marty “believed” Mr. Buchanan to be one of America’s worst presidents. Marty’s belief was based on the facts as he understood them. If someone showed him otherwise, he might change his “belief.” Faith, in the other hand, was an acceptance of something as true and/or fact without any empirical evidence.

I asked my friends about the possibly of “continuing the conversation” on this side of the pond in the near future and asked if they would be interested in helping with the planning as it would be ideal to have humanist input from the “get-go.” They responded in the affirmative. Marty confirmed Carol’s suggestion that I speak at a NJ Humanist meeting on the ‘who, what, when, how and why’ of the Common Ground Conference. Saturday, March 8th was chosen as the date.

With all the divisions in this world, notably, but not confined to, the religious right in disparaging all those who do not share their rather limited perspective (apologies for sounded pejorative, but this is my perception) it is imperative that people of like minds and hearts, if not beliefs or non-beliefs, increase their dialogue and cooperation. Conferences are great for this, but diners are wonderful as well!

Mary Aktay 12/19/2013