Traditionally, many Interfaith efforts have been situated around theories of religious pluralism that make the assumption that all worldviews include a god or a notion of the divine. Worse, that the notion of the divine which appears in these different religious systems is the same notion hidden under different packaging. As atheists have increasingly fought to have a seat at the Interfaith table, they have to struggle to overcome this barrier and to re-situate religious pluralism. However, the situation is not helped by the many theists who still refuse to acknowledge that godless people both exist and deserve to have their voices heard. Worse, Interfaith workers often see their efforts as being openly opposed to the forces of Secularization.
In a recent exchange between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama seems to have tried to bring this up, but Tutu had a response that deeply frustrated me (emphasis mine):
[The Dalai Lama] said to the archbishop [Tutu], “The problem is, if we involve religious faith, then there are many varieties and fundamental differences of views. So very complicated.
“That’s why in India”—he pointed a finger at Tutu for emphasis—“when they drafted the constitution they deliberately used secular approach. Too many religions there”—he counted them out one by one with his fingers—“Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism. So many. And there are godly religions and there are godless religions. Who decides who is right?”
Now that the Dalai Lama had his say, he put his orange visor back on his bald pate.
Tutu replied, “Let me just say that one of the things we need to establish is that”—long pause—“God is not a Christian.”
Tutu’s response is simply a rephrase of the tired and hackneyed “there are many paths to God”. The phrase ignores the obvious and diverse differences between religions, and it excludes the existence of both godless religions and of non-theistic worldviews. Instead of recognizing and embracing differences, it attempts to erase them — which can hardly be said to be indicative of an attempt at diversity. Proponents of that view often mean to be inclusive, but the overly simplistic way in which that phrase is stated actually excludes instead of includes. In the end, it is sadly just another example of privilege.
The Dalai Lama is not a theist, though he has his own supernatural beliefs. Nonetheless, it saddens me that he did not challenge Tutu on his statement.
Edit: My friend Zack suggested “There are many paths to Good” as a replacement of “There are many paths to God”. I like that idea a lot.