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Unprecedented times: why humanists engage in interfaith dialogue


By Jeremy Rodell


Jeremy is Dialogue Officer at Humanists UK and Chair of South West London Humanists. In this article he argues that as the religious landscape shifts towards a growing non-religious majority and a diverse religious minority, effective dialogue becomes crucial for social harmony. The aim of interfaith dialogue is to move beyond uninformed generalisations and build mutual understanding by focusing on our shared humanity. But there are significant remaining challenges to reconcile liberal values with fundamentalist beliefs.



Recognising diversity is one of the points we emphasise in Humanists UK’s Introduction to Dialogue training sessions. If someone says they’re a Catholic, you can’t assume, for example, that you know what they think about homosexuality: a survey of British Catholics showed that only 30% of them think “Engaging in homosexual behaviour” is a sin. Equally, if you ask a group of humanists to rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with a statement such as “Religion is the root of all evil” you’ll get a range of answers. And, being humanists, they’ll probably start arguing about the “all”. Yet there are plenty of religious people out there who are sure that we really do all think “religion is the root of all evil”. After all, we’re all anti-theists like Richard Dawkins aren’t we?

“...build mutual understanding, identify common ground and, where it makes sense, engage in shared action.”

A key purpose of dialogue between people of different faiths and of no faith is to get past these ill-informed generalisations. Essentially, it's a humanising activity which aims to reach the shared humanity beneath the labels and, as we say on our website,“build mutual understanding, identify common ground and, where it makes sense, engage in shared action”. That doesn’t mean avoiding disagreement, but aiming for good disagreement, where both sides recognise complexity and understand where the other is coming from. And it definitely doesn’t mean trying to convert the other person.


So why do we need it? Maybe because we’re in an unprecedented situation in the religion and belief area, as in many others. The data are really clear: we will have a future with a growing non-religious majority, and a religious minority. The non-religious majority is, and will be, overwhelmingly white – though certainly not exclusively, as Faith to Faithless and the Association of Black Humanists will tell you – and mainly “very or extremely” non-religious. The non-religious majority is also very diverse. About half have a broadly humanist worldview, regardless of whether they call themselves humanists, or even know that’s the name for what they think. The remaining non-religious have all sorts of views, usually with supernatural features. Meanwhile, the religious minority will still be mainly Christian, though not mainly Anglican. Muslims of many varieties will make up perhaps a quarter of the religious by 2050, with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and many others completing the picture. The cultural Anglicanism of the past is literally dying out. The people who retain a religious identity are, on average, more serious about it. And there’s diversity in almost every category.


This is not a recipe for social harmony and understanding. No previous society has had to cope with anything like it. Although modern Britain may, essentially, be liberal and tolerant, the potential for incomprehension, segregation and hostility is obvious, especially when international events spill over into our towns and cities. This means that we need to talk to each other, and know each other personally. The talking can take many different forms, not only traditional “interfaith” forums, public events and organised small group dialogues, but also panels in schools, or simply informal conversations with colleagues. Quite a few of the people who have done our dialogue training are humanist school speakers, pastoral support volunteers or celebrants. Many others are simply interested in dialogue for its own sake.


Jo Cox MP, who was attacked and murdered by an extremist in 2016

Humanists UK decided to approach dialogue in a more organised way a few years ago, with the aim not only to help humanists make a positive contribution to social cohesion – and enjoy doing it – but also to foster better understanding of humanism among religious people. The training includes the basic skills you need to make dialogue effective. Despite the development of online tools, dialogue is mainly a local activity – it’s essentially about people interacting face-to-face with other people. There are now over 120 people in the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, spread all over the country.


But it has its challenges. A particular issue for humanists has been that organised dialogue has historically been referred to as “interfaith dialogue”, and still is. While we can put up with the dodgy labelling provided the activity is constructive, and sometimes get the name changed to something more inclusive, there are still occasional cases where someone says: “This is interfaith. You’re not a faith. So you can’t come in.” In practice, once people realise humanists can be valuable contributors, these problems tend to fade. But despite half the country being non-religious, and humanism addressing the same big ethical questions as the religions, we’re still often seen as outsiders.

“What’s being respected when it comes to dialogue is not beliefs, but people.”

Another objection that sometimes comes from fellow humanists, mainly those on the more anti-theist end of the spectrum, as well as from some religious people, is about respect. “I can’t respect beliefs I think are wrong, or even malign.” It’s difficult, for example, for a deeply religious person to respect the humanist view that the god which is so central to their life is just a human creation. Likewise, most humanists don’t respect the belief that they’re destined for eternal damnation. But that criticism is aiming at the wrong target. What’s being respected when it comes to dialogue is not beliefs, but people. We can, and should, respect decent people as fellow humans, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs. We can also respect the importance of those beliefs to them. We don’t need to respect the beliefs themselves.


There’s also another issue here. Underlying these encounters are fundamental differences in truth claims. While respectful challenge and disagreement is healthy, an unwritten “rule” is that dialogue is an exchange of equals, and proselytisation is not on. Fortunately, we no longer expect the Spanish Inquisition, and would tell them where to go if they turned up. But history casts a long shadow. According to Rabbi Jackie Tabick: “For some Jews, interfaith dialogue is seen as dangerous. On too many occasions in the past, so-called dialogue has been used as an excuse to attempt to convert us Jews to the dominant religion.” Still today, the drive to proselytise is a significant feature of evangelical Christianity, and some types of Islam. Some evangelicals see it as a moral duty to seek to "save" others by bringing them to their faith, which is perhaps one reason why they tend not to participate in dialogue. Another issue is that some mistakenly think it’s about ironing out or downplaying differences, instead of learning to live with them. Humanists are, of course, not unknown to want to persuade religious people of the error of their ways. At the very least, proselytisation is an inhibiting factor for dialogue.

“OK. But you only get to talk to the liberals. What about the rest?”

But there’s probably a more serious objection: “OK. But you only get to talk to the liberals. What about the rest?” In the late 2000s, the Ismaili (Muslim) American writer on dialogue and faith, Eboo Patel hypothesised that: “The twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on Earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together.”


Is it possible to have dialogue with someone like Dilly Hussain? Tweet, 25 November 2023.

Reality is a bit more nuanced than that, but it highlights a fundamental point. Good dialogue rests on a set of broadly liberal values (in the philosophical, not party-political, sense). It can only happen where there is freedom of belief and expression, limited institutional religious power, and a culture where respect and tolerance of difference, and acceptance of pluralism, are seen as virtues. The totalitarians may want a peaceful society, but one based on their illiberal worldview. They might engage, but only to help pursue that goal. Dialogue with totalitarians can still achieve mutual understanding, and establish personal relationships. But we should not be naïve. There is little point in trying to have a genuine dialogue with someone like Dilly Hussain, who – like most Islamists, but unlike many other British Muslims – deplores liberal democracy on principle.

“Some of the most difficult interactions are between pluralists and totalitarians from the same worldview.”

Most people who identify with a religious – or a non-religious – worldview are not totalitarians. But there are totalitarians in virtually every religion, and a few among atheists too. Some of the most difficult interactions are not between people from entirely different worldviews, but between pluralists and totalitarians from the same worldview, who may consider their opponents not to be “true” to the faith.


So there’s some truth in the “you only get to talk to the liberals” objection. But that doesn’t invalidate dialogue. Engagement bolsters the position and motivation of liberals against the more extreme voices in their own communities. And their interactions within their communities can also help improve wider understanding. Perfection is not available, but doing something is definitely better than doing nothing.


Contact

If you’re interested in knowing more, just go to “Humanists UK dialogue with others”, or email dialogue-officer@humanists.uk

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