You’ll have to read me over there, but while writing the entry, I realized I’ve yet to say anything about interfaith dialogue on this blog, although I’ve had quite a few posts on atheism and religion. So I’d like to add a personal side-note to what’s up at Secular Progressive.
When I admitted my atheism to myself as a first-year at Dartmouth, this acceptance was spurred by some negative experiences regarding religion during my orientation, regarding a poorly timed prayer and an appeal to Christ by our student body president (which caused a few Jewish students to walk out of the welcoming). So it’s perhaps not surprising that my hostility toward religion was then at an all-time high.
For me today, the jury is out as to whether religion has the potential to be a primarily positive force, and whether we’d be better off with a world of atheism or one that included liberal, tolerant religions. Regardless, religion probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so interfaith work can at least impact how it impacts society. As an activist coming from an atheist/secular humanist viewpoint, I believe in the importance of explaining and defending those beliefs to people who have misconceptions about what it means to not believe in God. But I also believe that interfaith dialogue is suited to my goals of improving tolerance and countering conservative, fundamentalist religious elements.
Two things inform my current perspective: first, friendships and conversations with liberal, tolerant people of religious faith whittled away at my hostility (essentially proving my belief in the positive influence of interfaith dialogue in improving understanding). A Catholic friend suggested that if we end up ever living in the same city, she’ll join the local Catholic Church and I can join an atheist/humanist organization, and we can sponsor events between the two groups. She also went from believing atheists were immoral to referring to herself as an “atheist ally” over the course of our friendship and discussions about personal beliefs.
Second, I finally met a nihilist atheist–what many religious people seem to assume is the perspective of all of us who don’t believe a god exists. As a committed activist and humanist, my beliefs share greater common ground with liberal religion than his perspective. So I realized that atheism itself is not the answer to how I want to see the world evolve, but rather certain values that, for me, are rooted in my atheism, my sense that we must make the most of this life and help others, because we’re all each other have.
Intolerance is perhaps easier than tolerance. Scapegoating is easy; offensive rhetoric can rouse supporters. It’s simpler for atheists to demonize religion, complicated when we consider the nuances of the situation. The smooth path isn’t necessarily the best route.
There’s plenty to criticize in religion, especially in fundamentalist groups on the right, without alienating possible allies by lumping liberal religious constituents in with the rest. Hey, I don’t want to be lumped in with nihilistic atheists either.