Re-situating Interfaith Work

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.


  • Jaime Wise
    January 7, 2013 - 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen some of this during my time in CFI. We fairly often encountered people from religious clubs who made weird assumptions about what CFI members believed or felt. It’s like they had an internal template for “non-theist”. It made things interesting when they found out my religious affiliation. Almost always, the basic reaction was confusion over why I was in CFI if I was religious. I think this shows a slanted view of what diversity means: that it consists of people remaining in their camps, and sending out occasional diplomats. I think the idea of actually living with people of different ideologies, and not simply interacting with them to try and change them, is something we’re still struggling to grasp as a society.

    • Dan Linford
      January 8, 2013 - 1:26 pm | Permalink

      I agree — many people do not understand what “diversity” really means.

      On a personal note, I’ve tried to become involved with some of the religious groups on my campus before, but I definitely didn’t feel very welcomed in many of them (interestingly enough, with the exception of the interfaith group). I think the most productive interaction between our Freethinkers group and a religious group was when we put together a pot luck with Cru. One of the problems that we face is that our Freethinkers group is oriented in a very different direction from the orientation of the religious groups on campus, so that when we try to invite religious groups to our events or to collaborate with them, they typically don’t want to work with us (or, worse, don’t even respond to our e-mails). Many of the religious groups on campus are organized around strengthening the religious convictions of students without challenging them; our Freethinkers group is devoted to directly challenging all ideas including our own. We definitely don’t work to affirm the beliefs which people already have.

      • Hedon
        January 8, 2013 - 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Unless you consider that methodology (basically socratic) to be part of your beliefs.

        • Dan Linford
          February 10, 2013 - 10:29 am | Permalink

          I don’t understand your statement….

  • Hedon
    January 8, 2013 - 10:36 am | Permalink

    I have been corrected by atheists when calling atheism a religion. If the “faith” is not united then perhaps that’s why interfaith councils have trouble including them. But rather than considering atheism a religion, which I find distasteful (why must everything be a religion?), perhaps we should just broaden the conditions for the people who can sit at interfaith Council. Really, I am not all that familiar with the purposes of interfaith Councils, except that they are to promote acceptance and tolerance of diversity, but then you have the issue of there being so many worldviews as the Dalai Lama was suggesting. And given the variety of worldviews it seems strange to have it limited to faith anyway. I guess my point is, why have an interfaith Council and not just a Council of ideas or something like that?

    • Dan Linford
      January 8, 2013 - 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Many people who identify as non-theists of one stripe or another would very much like to change the term “interfaith” to “transfaith” (meaning faith and *beyond* faith as opposed to between faiths) or to some other term (maybe a worldview council would be nice). Unfortunately, most interfaith groups are not willing to change their names, so a number of non-theistic organizations find themselves having to put up with the term “interfaith” if they wish to participate. The other concern is that sometimes people confuse atheism for a religion, and having atheist groups participate in interfaith groups might strengthen that confuse as opposed to preventing it.

  • Jaime Wise
    January 9, 2013 - 5:58 pm | Permalink

    “Trans-Faith” sounds like an excellent idea. How would one go about starting a group like that?

    • Dan Linford
      February 10, 2013 - 3:42 am | Permalink

      That’s an interesting question, but I honestly don’t know the answer. Many colleges and universities already have interfaith programs in existence, but atheist organizations have a variety of relationships (good and bad) with them.

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