Welcoming Humanists In Interfaith Cooperation
From the Shared Love of Justice and Humanity
by Kathleen A. Green
Three years ago I shared my idea for a doctorate of ministry dissertation – bringing humanists and religious adherents together in interfaith engagement – and received some blank stares, a few shaking heads, and even a couple of flat out discouraging declarations, such as “What’s the point? There’s really no need for that kind of research.” And yet I persisted because I have witnessed the power of people from different religious backgrounds coming together and am witnessing on a nearly daily basis the urgent need to bring people together as the world seems to swirl in chaos and division.
Humanism uses science and reason to make sense of the world, puts human beings at the center of one’s moral outlook, and champions human rights for everyone. There is no monolithic Humanism just as there is no monolithic Christianity or Islam. Some Humanists are agnostics and some identify as atheists, while others may consider themselves religious Humanists. Many if not most religious believers do not know what Humanism is or know that there are Humanists who would be willing to collaborate with members of interfaith groups. Conversely, many Humanists do not know that there are religious adherents willing to collaborate with them. In my experience as a Unitarian Universalist minister, and currently in working as executive director of the Yale Humanist Community, awareness is the foremost challenge in bringing Humanists to the interfaith table.
One startling demonstration of this lack of awareness was at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, in Salt Lake City, Utah. The five-day event teemed with nearly 10,000 attendees from more than 100 countries and nearly as many faith traditions represented. What struck me was the stunning lack of Humanist voices in plenary sessions, workshops, and key presentations. The philosophical tradition of Humanism is too often a missing voice in interfaith engagement. Continuing to ignore this reality will only further deepen the dangerous divide between people of religious and secular beliefs as well as forfeit the positive impact that secular-religious collaboration can have on urgent social justice issues.
Sharing the Pursuit of Justice
Social justice is not something most people associate with Humanism, yet social issues have always been a part of Humanist philosophy. The call to champion flourishing human rights for all is a call for justice, regardless of religious affiliation. This shared value of justice is what can bring Humanists and religious adherents together. Our deepest values are revealed by how we actually live our lives, providing insight and guiding our decision-making. This was manifest in September, 2017 during hurricane relief efforts in Texas. Not only was on-the-ground assistance coming from religious organizations like the Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse. It also came from Humanists of Houston, South Texas Atheists for Reason, Beaumont Humanist Society, and Foundation Beyond Belief.
Social justice work is not limited to advocacy – marches, petition-signing, and displays of overt political action. Social justice is also demonstrations of compassion and service that affirm the worth and dignity of all humanity. It is where shared values might bring us together. If Humanists and religious adherents can agree that human beings are more important than theological explanations; if we can agree that the need for healing the planet overrides our disagreements; if we can agree that all human beings deserve dignity, care, and opportunity – then joining together becomes a valuable asset for social justice.
As I persisted with my dissertation topic, I found an unlikely ally and champion of the collaboration I feel so passionate about. Father Carl Chudy is a Catholic priest with the Xaverian Missionaries, an international religious missionary congregation that sees exchanges between believers and non-believers as vital to the 21st century mission of the global Church.
They began a dialogue and engagement project called Common Ground in 2012. Out of that project, in collaboration with Interfaith Scotland, the British Humanist Association, and the Scottish Humanist Association, came a conference between Humanists and religious adherents in 2013. The first international conference of its kind, it was followed two years later by a second gathering at Rutgers University in New Jersey, sponsored in collaboration with the American Humanist Association. Part of the reasoning given by Father’s Carl’s group for organizing the Common Ground Project is that the gap between people of faith and the secular culture is not a new issue for the church, but one that calls for encounter and study, “in the spirit of dialogue, love, and bridge building.”
Father Carl spoke at one Humanist gathering about seeking common ground through shared values, not beliefs. He expressed his view that in order to find meaningful connections among people who “view the world either through a religious or a non-religious prism,” we have to be honest about our differences and similarities and clear as to why we seek common ground. Both the Humanists and religious adherents in attendance found Father Carl’s perspective enlightening and encouraging. His message and the response it generated demonstrated that the relationship between Humanists and religious adherents in interfaith engagement is a growing aspiration for people who are focused on values and who value humanity over beliefs.
My dissertation is complete: The Humanity Coalition - bringing Humanists and religious adherents together in interfaith engagement for the 21st century. The degree has been conferred and I am forever changed by the experiences I had along the way. People change and so do traditions, both religious and philosophical. They change over time because change is how they survive. To acknowledge the changing nature of such traditions is to understand history. By understanding history, we are able to move forward in creating the future we desire. Fruitful and transformative interfaith engagement evolves with the changing needs of humanity and is made of the work we all do together, Humanists and religious adherents alike.
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