Dialogue with the religious

Stephen Shashoua has an article in the current New Humanist about the need for non-religious people to engage in programmes of dialogue with religious people. His organisation – 3FF – has done really good work recently in including humanist speakers on panels with religious people in schools so that pupils learn about non-religious as well as religious approaches to life and he is absolutely right to include humanists in his work, and to face down criticism from religious people for doing so. He’s also right to encourage the non-religious to get involved to help to dispel the misconceptions that many religious people may have about us.

We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the non-religious – in spite of the barriers often erected against us – are already involved in this type of positive work to increase mutual understanding.

The British Humanist Association is involved in bodies like the Religious Education Council and National Council of Faiths and Beliefs in Further Education where it works alongside religious groups towards shared aims, and played a part in founding groups like the Cutting Edge Consortium, where religious and non-religious people work together for progress on equality and human rights. Locally, at least 75% of local committees on Religious Education have non-religious participation in them and many local humanist groups have some sort of relationship with their local ‘interfaith’ body, though experiences of this differ wildly from place to place. The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies – although formally excluded from national initiatives by the NUS – produced its own guide on ‘interfaith’ for its member societies in different campuses, and some of its members have been pioneers in this sort of dialogue. The Warwick University group set up the Warwick Interfaith Forum, the Southampton group set up their university’s Religious Societies Union, the Oxford group organised ‘Interfaith Football’, the Leeds group run an interfaith course, where each week a member of a different religion will come and talk to the society about their beliefs and practices. AFAN [originally ‘All Faiths and None’], an important project building mutual understanding in Further Education, had humanist involvement from its very start and still includes the non-religious as active participants.

Nonetheless, we need to acknowledge that, while mutual understanding is clearly better than lack of understanding, ‘interfaith’ activity does have problems inherent in it, both generally and specifically in relation to non-religious participation.

Two sorts of ‘interfaith’ work

There are two sorts of work that conventionally fall under the banner of ‘interfaith’. The first consists of people of different beliefs coming together for exchanges and dialogues aimed at furthering mutual understanding. The second sees people of different beliefs coming together to take common action – anything from starting a football team or feeding the homeless to lobbying for progressive change in the law on gay marriage.

The first type is the least likely to be problematic in principle, although many argue it doesn’t really reach the people we most need to reach: by definition, participants are those that are already interested in dialogue anyway. At national and local levels, such initiatives also run the risk of reaching only people ‘at the top’ of organisations, reinforcing existing hierarchies and not going deeper. In educational settings, like those in which Stephen runs his panels, this is less of a risk, but it is bound to inhabit the involvement of the non-religious in other initiatives.

The second type of ‘interfaith’ work is vulnerable to more significant objections that the first. Every day there are non-religious people working alongside religious people and people from different religions working alongside each other for the common good in secular charities or voluntary associations, in neighbourhoods, workplaces and local communities across the country. ‘Why do we need to make belief the criterion of such involvement?’ is a natural question in light of this fact. There is something artificial about it which many feel runs the risk of accentuating difference and fuelling unhelpful communitarian approaches, especially when even many religious people don’t see their religion as the most important part of their identity.

Inclusion of the non-religious has to have consequences – it shouldn’t be called ‘interfaith’

In practice there are occasions on which dialogue and exchanges structured according to beliefs is useful and appropriate and where it is, it should certainly include the non-religious. If it does, though, I can’t see that it should be called ‘interfaith’. The justification is that it is hard to find alternative phrases but there are in fact many good examples of inclusive language being used. The BBC’s religious advisory committee is now a conference on ‘religion and belief’; national guidance on RE uses the phrase ‘religions or beliefs’ to include non-religious perspectives; the Council of Europe speaks of ‘inter-convictional’ dialogue and the ‘Religion and Belief Consultative Group’ brought together religious and non-religious people. In one local interfaith group, the joining of a Buddhist meant that the reference to god in their common statement was removed – I don’t see why similar accommodations couldn’t be made if we are serious about including non-religious people too.

People of different beliefs working together can help to build bridges and break down barriers within communities which lead to conflict, but they need to feel welcome in doing so. Stephen’s efforts are a good start, but we have a long way to go.



  1. Bob

    Re the first kind of interfaith (“exchanges and dialogues”) you mention the problem that it mainly involves people already open to dialogue. Another problem is that there is often an audience to these discussions, and the self-selected nature of the participants means the audience can get an unrepresentative view of the Real World.

    Interfaith panel discussions in schools is my main concern here. I did 3FF training too and they were laudably open non-religious and their advice very good. But repeated exposure to panels of people defined by their ‘convictional’ stance must give some school children a weird impression of adulthood; e.g. that adults tend to define themselves primarily by their religionism or humanism and live their lives accordingly.

    Maybe this sounds too anxious – after all most school-aged children are quite capable of spotting people who fall outside the bell-curve of normality, and people who sit on interfaith panels are obviously doing something quite different from what most people are doing on the average weekday morning.

    But the pupils most likely to get a skewed impression are exactly the ones most needing a right impression: pupils whose family life means they don’t meet or talk to many adults other than their teachers or close family, or pupils deeply involved in a religious community etc. Imagine a pupil exposed daily to very religious family and community of one religion, with little contact outside their familial and community circles. They are then faced with panels of more people talking about their convictions and defining by them. It will be easy for them to believe, wrongly, that everyone else lives in deeply ‘convicted’ communities analogous to their own.

    This doesn’t mean humanists shouldn’t be involved, nor that interfaith panel work in schools is a worthless idea. But when I’ve done it (especially in a ‘faith’ school context) I try to make the point, children, that of course we people sitting in front of you are not representative of the population at large. What you are seeing is not a good cross-section of society, most people in the UK today do not put their beliefs high up the list of labels that describe them, we on this panel are at best a skewed cross-section of a minority, and when you’re thinking about your own attitudes and views remember that emulating one of us is far from the only option!

  2. Last weekend I was asked by a Jewish study group whether religious people should engage with atheists. It rather depends on what you’re trying to do. Is there a case for vegans, vegetarians and carnivores getting together and talking about their different diets and why they follow them? Maybe, but the main reason (other than curiosity) for this kind of activity is because there are difficulties: misunderstanding, hostility, conflict, discrimination, bullying, violence.

    The two sorts of activity you mention are often described as inter faith (face to face – talking about similarities and differences) and multifaith (side by side – doing things together). The latter, although I see where you’re coming from on singling out religion and belief as primary identifiers unless there is a problem-solving element, is more likely to include atheists and humanists, not least because it generally involves practitioners and lay people rather than leaders.

    As you rightly say, people with different beliefs commonly work together to make the world, or their neighbourhood, a better place. It’s the intentionality of coming together because we disagree which differentiates ‘inter faith’ activity from eg supporting the local food bank.

    The purpose of face to face activity is to learn, to understand and to ‘disagree better’; the purpose of side by side activity is to join forces to do something which will benefit the wider community. In my experience, side by side action often results in face to face activity – people learning more about each other. Including a wide range of difference in both is usually important, although good, detailed, work is also done by bilateral groups such as the Christian Muslim Forum and of course by Stephen’s Three Faiths Forum.

    Three examples are the newly launched European Network on Religion and Belief which ‘seeks to work with others to develop a long-term network, within the framework of EU policies on equalities and fundamental rights, to combat discrimination and promote mutual understanding in the field of religion and belief’ and the London Boroughs Faiths Network, which I convene, which has amongst its members local multifaith organisations which include non-religious community groups. The London Peace Network, led by LBFN, is also a broad coalition.

    Neither face to face nor side by side activities flourish if the people involved are there to promote their own world view above others – it’s about sharing, not winning.

    My own feeling is that the public conversation around this is becoming more nuanced and interesting: the recent Westminster Faith Debates included panelist Richard Dawkins and resulted in a thoughtful exchange of views (which is where I had the pleasure of meeting you) and the filmed conversation between Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year is another example.

    Public conversations almost inevitably involve leaders, as you point out, and this often means that women are under represented. But the skills and structures for negotiating difference at local level are also becoming more commonly used – for example, Conversations of the Soul, which St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace has been offering recently, and the co-production of public services pioneered by Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network.

    Terms. Religion and Belief, adopted by the government and the EU to describe both religious and philosophical/non-religious/atheist/humanist approaches to life has become accepted although I’m not sure ‘belief’ quite catches it. Faith doesn’t work, either (your Buddhist example being one reason), so inter faith and multifaith may be on the way out unless restricted to faith-based groups (my twitter name is @multifaith and I’m wondering what to change it to). Inter-convictional smacks of jail and inter-cultural is too wide. Let’s see what emerges.

    We all have values, whether we are religious or not, and when there are difficulties it is on that basis that we need both to act together for the common good and to try to understand each other better.

    Would you be interested in speaking to a meeting of LBFN on this topic?

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