There are two types of people who sometimes object to participating in interfaith ceremonies: religious and irreligious.
First the religious. After the horrible shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the local clergy sponsored an ecumenical prayer service. While I don’t believe there is a deity who listens to prayers, I do understand the value of a community coming together publicly to mourn such a tragedy. One victim was a little girl who had recently joined Christ the King Lutheran Church. Its pastor, Robert Morris, gave the benediction. President Barack Obama and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy attended.
Pastor Morris had made it clear that participants at the service did not necessarily endorse one another’s theological views. Nonetheless, up the Lutheran authority chain Pastor Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, reprimanded Morris for participating. Pastor Harrison said he feared such ecumenical activities might give the impression that it doesn’t matter who God is, how to worship Jesus, and what we need to do to get to heaven.
After the rebuke raised a public outcry, I was hoping to hear an apology, and there was one. Unfortunately, the apology did not come from President Harrison for having criticized Pastor Morris’s attempt to comfort grieving people who might have had different beliefs about an afterlife. The apology came from Pastor Morris, who humbly acknowledged that his participation was offensive to his church. He also promised never again to take part in such ecumenical activities.
I’ve noticed that religious believers tend to fall into two categories: those who place behavior above belief, and find in their holy books an obligation to advocate for social justice; and those who place belief above behavior, and think of this life as preparation for an afterlife. I certainly prefer the former view. I was sorry to learn that Pastor Morris felt he needed to apologize for the “sin” of putting behavior above belief.
Many irreligious people also object to participating in interfaith ceremonies. The word “interfaith” is meant to be inclusive, and to some degree it is. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other minority religions can comfortably participate with Christians in interfaith activities. While such inclusive intentions may be honorable, a lot of atheists and humanists feel uncomfortable with the term “interfaith” because we have no faith in deities. A name change would be ideal: Inter-worldview? Interbelief? Faith and values? A better phrase?
Regardless, most of us non-religious do like collaboration with religious people to achieve our common goals. An added bonus is that negative stereotypes might change when religious people and atheists get to know each other in this way.
As an open atheist, I’ve participated in a number of interfaith dialogues, mostly with progressive religionists who are comfortable working with people of other faiths and none. They can more easily collaborate with us on good works than with conservative religionists, whose primary interest in those outside their narrow belief system is to proselytize. I’ve even heard a scriptural basis for their not working with us, from II Cor. 6:14. “Believers must not commune with unbelievers. What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, light with darkness, believers with infidels?”
I think it’s terrific when inter-faith groups invite atheists to participate. Even if the gatherings start and end with a prayer, I feel everyone benefits and everyone matters in addressing the common cause. Some of those praying know we are there despite what we view as meaningless prayers, and they often try to accommodate us in other ways. Sometimes they acknowledge in their prayers that there are good atheists working alongside them. Occasionally, they might even invite one of us to give a humanist invocation.
Representatives of the Secular Coalition for America were pleased to meet in 2009 with Joshua DuBois, then-director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It was a step forward for atheists and humanists to get this small place at the political table. We had a frank dialogue with DuBois, who seemed to understand our disappointment that President Obama has continued President Bush’s faith based programs. DuBois recently left his position, and we haven’t seen any substantive changes in the issues we addressed. Nevertheless, I hope atheists and all others who support separation of church and state will have many opportunities to express our concerns to whoever replaces DuBois.
It’s a lot easier to change what we don’t like from the inside than from the outside.
Proposals to mix faith and government need input from citizens who rely on reason as well as the faithful. Just like communities that come together during times of crisis to grieve.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.