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“Who isn’t at the table?”


Father Gerry O’Rourke“Who isn’t at the table?” Father Gerry’s Irish brogue pressed the question so often that it became a kind of mantra for the leaders of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in its formative years. “Who isn’t here yet?” P. Gerard O’Rourke has given more than half a century to grassroots and global interfaith relationships. His everyday passion for inclusivity helped inspire the Interfaith Center to invite an atheist to its board ten years ago. Henry Baer accepted that invitation and proved to be a leader whose interfaith passion and generosity enrich the cause in the San Francisco Bay area.

At the time it seemed natural. Henry was co-founder and president of Ahimsa, a peace-seeking group of Hindus, Buddhists, scientists, and peace activists. He loves nothing better than a robust conversation about issues like truth, belief, and faith. Back then, to be sure, people who heard that an interfaith center had invited an atheist to participate were incredulous. How could someone with no ‘faith’ be part of ‘interfaith’?

Dr. Henry BaerVery easily, it turned out, after we conceded that interfaith is an inadequate descriptor but the best we have right now for the kind of inclusive community we want to be. In spite of their philosophical/religious differences, theists and atheists enjoy all sorts of common ground. Once you agree that human beings are more important than explanations, even theological explanations; once you agree that the quest for peace and the need for healing the planet are paramount, trumping our disagreements; once you agree that the whole human family deserves care, dignity, and opportunity – then taking hands with humanists and atheists becomes a valuable asset for the cause, not a problem. The huge issues facing us collectively mean we need everyone on board to do what needs to be done for humankind to survive, much less endure and thrive.

Inclusivity is much more than a simple notion. Building cultural bridges and relationships with ‘the other’ is a long-term strategy, more like growing a garden than problem-solving. In spite of what remains to be done, we are well on our way in an evolution of liberation. Racism has not been overcome, yet huge achievements are being made. The same can be said about ethnic bigotry, with ethnic restaurants playing a starring role in generating mutual respect and friendship!

Sexism endures in countries everywhere, but the issue has been raised high and women daily demonstrate how foolish it has been for men to deny their equality. Prejudice against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people has been virulent, and it is a blessing to finally start turning the corner on the matter, at least in the West. Islamophobia is the latest expression of the religious bigotry which in previous American generations was visited on Quakers and Mormons, Catholics and Jews, among others. A host of activities are in high gear to abate religious prejudice in all its forms.

Now, finally, we are beginning to open the door of friendship and respect to secularists, whatever their world view, particularly when their concerns, values, and hopes for the future intersect with the concerns, values, and hopes of people of faith and practice. TIO this month is a shout-out welcoming the non-theist community that has been a bugaboo for most religious folk, an easy scapegoat, rarely acknowledged, much less welcomed, into the larger religious community.

Many atheists in recent years, it can be said, have assumed a fundamentalist kind of critique of religion, branding it all bad. Other atheists, though, decry this mean, broadsided simplification. (Ironically, significantly, this rift mirrors the conflicted factions in most religious traditions.) Angry atheistic coming-out rhetoric, though, pales beside the ridicule, hatred, and physical violence that have been visited on the non-religious. Clearly, a time for healing is at hand. The remarkable contributions to TIO this month offer dramatic examples of how that healing has begun.<p>

Paul Chaffee, Editor