ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
Ok, I admit it. I stole the title for this post (kind of) from my friend Chris Stedman’s book, Faitheist. But it has to do with faith. And atheism. And it’s such a catchy word.
Anyways. I’m here to tell you a story from the front lines of interfaith organizing, a little anecdote of an experience of mine a few years ago.
I was organizing an interfaith event. For reasons of confidentiality and so on, I am going to leave out some identifying details; suffice it to say that it was an event meant to celebrate the diversity and interreligious engagement of my community. We intentionally wanted to make sure that it was welcoming to all people—that it didn’t have that stuffy, overly pious feel that interfaith events can sometimes have. We didn’t want people to feel like they had to present their “religion” card before they could come in the door. So we put “No religion required” on our publicity. And we invited the secular humanists.
The event moved forward smoothly, with people ranging from Hindus to Christian Scientists to Baha’is to Muslims getting involved—as well as an exciting number of Christians. Then, a week before the event, I got an email from one of the Christian groups, telling me that their religious leader was withdrawing support from the event. I emailed this leader to follow up, and received a reply that basically told me the withdrawal was because atheists were invited.
Because involving atheists is an affront to the idea of “interfaith.” Because it was impossible for this leader to be part of an event that uses the word “faith” when those of no faith are present. That it was “a slap in the face.”
Now, I’d heard of plenty of other interfaith leaders having problems with trying to do interfaith work in their communities. And I had felt bad for them, because everything had been pretty smooth sailing on our community. Granted, we sometimes had difficulties getting evangelical groups to participate in events, but other than that, people were pretty gung-ho about it.
Which means I was unprepared for, to use a phrase from the email, this “slap in the face.”
I hadn’t been interfaith-rejected before. And then there, sitting in my inbox, was this message.
So this is what I want to talk about.
First off. Let’s discuss this word “interfaith.” That fateful email told me that having atheists present was “a mockery to the idea of interfaith.” Now, we within the interfaith movement acknowledge that “interfaith” is a problematic term. Using “faith” anywhere near religion is a dangerous thing, as the idea of “faith” is a very Christian (and Protestant) centric idea of having “faith” in God. There are plenty of religions that do not require faith, or even theism.
If my academic study of religion has taught me anything, it is that whenever you step into a religion class, you are reminded that we don’t really have a definition of religion. What kind of box can hold both Christianity and Confucianism, Baha’i and Buddhism, shamanism and Shintoism? As soon as you start putting strictures on what counts as “religion,” you run into trouble.
And so the interfaith movement is having a hard time with our terminology. Perhaps I should have called our event a “Multi-Worldview” event. Or, to use Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion, “The System-of-Symbols-Which-Acts-To-Establish-Powerful-Pervasive-and-Long-Lasting-Moods-And-Motivations-In-Men-By-Formulating-Conceptions-of-a-General-Order-of-Existence-and-Clothing-These-Conceptions-With-Such-an-Aura-of-Factuality-That-The-Moods-And-Motivations-Seem-Uniquely-Realistic” event.
But that just didn’t seem to have the same ring to it.
And so I called it “interfaith.” Because in the same way that “Kleenex” came to mean “facial tissue” and “BandAid” became the word for “adhesive bandages,” “interfaith” has come to take on the meaning of “multiple religious traditions and worldviews engaging together.”
Where are we going to draw the line for who is allowed inside the circle of engagement which that word signifies? People who are “spiritual but not religious”? Theistic believers? Abrahamic ones (and where then would the atheistic Jews be…)? Who is in, and who is out, when we are all human and have some way of seeing the world and gleaning meaning from it?
This religious leader wrote in the email that it was impossible to be at an event using the word “faith” with those of no faith.
It was a statement that, as a person of faith myself, hurt me. If one cannot be part of an event where there are nonbelievers, how are you supposed to function in our world? There are non-religious people all around you, from the sidewalk to the subway to the pew. No one could have missed the media kerfuffle over the recent Pew survey that found one in five Americans to be “nones” (people unaffiliated with any religious tradition).
In a pluralistic world, we have to realize that we must co-exist not only with people who adhere to a label that can be found in a World Religions textbook, but also those who fit no label. The group I invited to the interfaith event was the secular humanists. I know many secular humanists, and if we are looking for faith, these are people who have faith in the human spirit. They run the gamut in terms of their cosmology—some believe in a higher spirit, some are agnostic, some are just plain atheist. As a Unitarian Universalist, I know many humanist UUs. Does that mean that my religion is invalid for participating in “interfaith” work?
We have to push our boundaries of acceptance, and not be bound by semantics. After this email, I found myself tempted to change the name of the event entirely. “Interfaith” apparently just wasn’t enough. Yet I determined that I would keep it.
I was reading Forrest Church, one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist theologians, the other day. He wrote about why he chooses to use the word “God,” even though many UUs prefer to use terms like “the divine” or “Spirit of Life.” Church (yes, it’s a fitting last name, isn’t it?) says that instead of abandoning the word “God” as something too limited and fleeing to something more open like “the divine,” he chooses to use “God” as a way to expand the boundaries of what the word can mean. If people see God as an old guy in the sky, he wants to open the possibilities of how much bigger and more infinite “God” can be, and can mean.
I think the same needs to be done with the word “interfaith.” Yes, right now it’s problematic. And limiting. But that doesn’t mean we should run away and leave this word that has already helped to effect to so much change. No, we need to push the boundaries. Widen the tent. Accept the great and beautiful diversity of human experience and the way it creates meaning and community and structure in this world.
We need to have interfaith gatherings where every single person is welcome, and where they actually want to come. We need—perhaps—interfaitheism.