Interfaith dialogue, atheists and christians

Temple & mosque

Last post I reviewed the book Faitheist by Chris Steadman, in which he tells how he works to encourage interfaith dialogue, even though he is an atheist.

What should we christians think about dialogue with other faiths, and with atheists? Is it a compromise of what we believe?

Tolerance is the new black?

We live in a diverse world. In the west, tolerance is one of the most admired virtues, at least in theory. People should be free to live as they choose, as long as they harm no-one else. We will be tolerant of almost anything except intolerance.

Of course not everyone agrees. In religion, politics and at football games, the true believers know they are right and everyone else is not. The more enthusiastic will try to convert others to their view. And so religion, especially fundamentalism, is often seen as the enemy. Even militant atheists can become intolerant fundamentalists.

Interfaith dialogue

Some religious communities have worked for many years to promote dialogue and understanding between the different religions. In the US, Odyssey has promoted interfaith dialogue for over 20 years; in Australia, the Uniting Church seeks to do the same.

The interesting new development is some atheists wanting to join in. Chris Steadman’s NonProphet Status has attracted quite a following among secular humanists “to catalyze a movement in which religious and secular folks not only co-exist peacefully but collaborate around shared values.”

Types of interfaith dialogue

It seems to me that interfaith dialogue and harmony can proceed on several different bases:

  1. People of different beliefs get together to talk about and act on things they have in common (e.g. a commitment to end extreme poverty globally, or to increase religious harmony in society), without ever talking about their differences in belief.
  2. The differences in belief are recognised and discussed. The participants may or may not wish to convert the other participants, but discussion would be sensitive and courteous.
  3. Believers of the different religions endorse the idea that all religions lead to the same God.
  4. Religion is a way to see the world that has cultural and personal value that can be studied sociologically and neurologically, but has no objective reality.

A christian view of interfaith dialogue?

How much we welcome, or avoid, interfaith dialogue, may depend on which of these approaches we are considering.

Talking and listening

It is difficult to see how anyone could object to talking and listening to people of other beliefs, in a friendly environment. It is an opportunity to break down barriers, correct misunderstandings about christianity and gain new understanding of others’ beliefs. Christians should enter such discussions having prayed about their attitude and the receptivity of their fellow participants.

Common cause

Some christians are wary of making common cause with atheists or people of other beliefs, but most of us do it all the time – at work, with our family and neighbours, in politics and in community organisations. Working together in a common cause brings people closer together, and creates opportunities for sharing of beliefs and values.

Promoting harmony

For a christian, discourteous arguments are contrary to New Testament teaching (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-16 & Titus 3:2 – for more, see Atheist vs christian internet wars). We all have an incentive to have harmony in our culture. Learning to deal with differences with respect and sensitivity are worthwhile for peaceful living.

Dialogue vs evangelism

Does dialogue happen at the expense of evangelism?

It all depends on us. The two are not mutually exclusive, though there may be few who see the value in both. It seems to me that anything that allows christians to mix with non-christians in a friendly environment must have some value. We need to take such opportunities and pray for the work of the Holy Spirit. Friendship, harmony and understanding are good, sharing faith when it is appropriate is good too.

Where I draw the line

But I cannot feel right about blurring the differences so much that we treat all beliefs as valid – as seems to be the danger for example in this Australian conference. It wouldn’t be honest for me – I don’t believe all beliefs are equally valid (I believe Jesus reveals God in ways no other person ever has), nor that they lead to the same result in a person’s life. And in the end it is an insult the beliefs of the other person.

Atheists make it clearer

The inclusion of atheists make these issues clearer (to me, at any rate). Atheists cannot think that all religions are equally true – they are more likely to think they are all equally false! So there is little prospect of confusion here. Dialogue and cooperation can only occur on the understanding that there are large differences between us, but we can cooperate and talk and be friends.

So what’s a good christian boy, or girl, to do?

I strongly believe we need to get out of our christian ghettos and rejoin the world – and show by our lives that Jesus makes a difference. We need to learn to be more sensitive to others, more willing to meet people halfway – without compromising what we believe to be true. If this includes interfaith dialogue, then so be it – and in all things let’s stay faithful to Jesus.

Let us learn to live out the good news, speak it sensitively, and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).

What do you think?

Photos: MorgueFile – temple and mosque

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15 thoughts on “Interfaith dialogue, atheists and christians

  1. thefarking says:

    Working and generally co-existing is no problem…most of the time. But when religion and certain religious cultural practices infringe/impinge in the communal space then problems invariably arise.

    Religious dialogue is fruitless and you have identified that the only truly honest one would be the atheist – all religions are equally false.

    What is the ultimate goal of Christianity and Islam? A world under one religion…”their” religion, and those that do not toe the line – hell.

    What is the inevitable/eventual outcome?
    Logic suggests the alternatives are:

    1.Conflict (already happening, but such wars/religious conflict never solved anything)
    2.Supernatural revelation that identifies which is the true religion -if any. ( Wont happen. The Abrahamic religions have already passed their sell-by dates any sort of second coming: an invented dogma in the first place )
    3 Eventual ( probably medium to long term) demise of religions.

    Based on current evidence , 3 is the only one with a win/win
    outcome.

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  2. jonnyscaramanga says:

    I agree. And, on a purely practical point, we have to have conversations like this. I think history shows us pretty clearly that we’re not all going to agree, and trying to force that to happen ends badly. We all have to live together and share countries and democracies and atmospheres and oil wells.

    Conversations (more in person than on the internet) are also a great way of breaking down enmity. When we think of people as humans, and not just carriers of beliefs we don’t share, things go a lot more smoothly.

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  3. unkleE says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    “When we think of people as humans, and not just carriers of beliefs we don’t share, things go a lot more smoothly.”

    I think this is crucial. If you demonise someone (think blacks in the US southern states a century ago, or Jews in Nazi Germany) it makes it easier to forget they are fellow humans and treat them like dirt. Christians and atheists do it to each other too – usually without such bad consequences, but sometimes …..

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  4. sacredstruggler says:

    I am having a faitheist conversation right now. I need a how to! Never been very good at these particular ones, always end up feeling like I am trying to be converted and trying not to be the converter.

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  5. Tré says:

    Great post! I think preparing for these conversations is crucial. As a new Christian, I struggle with wanting to share the good news but not being mature in my faith or knowing what scripture actually says. I think being prepared is important!

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  6. unkleE says:

    Hi SS, the only “how to” I know is to be honest and polite, stop if the other person gets nasty, and tell your story – it’s yours and no-one else can tell you different because they don’t know. I wish you well with it.

    Tre, again, I think telling our story and what we know or believe honestly is the best we can do, and that requires little preparation. But knowing scripture is important, and sometimes I think it is good to make notes as we learn things, so we can refer back. I read a lot of books from the library, and I buy quite a few, so I make notes of the things I find important, including good quotes, and keep them all in an exercise book – I am up to number 4.

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  7. sacredstruggler says:

    Yeah, thanks. I always try to and I am getting better, but when people get nasty I refuse to be treated like that. That’s when it no longer works. When I share my story, it’s proselytizing, when I don’t they attack and say I’m dodging. I don’t think that fundy anybody (including atheists) can have dialogue with people who are at all different. Both have to be willing to tolerate.

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  8. unkleE says:

    I really feel for what you’re saying, as I experience the same thing. I try to be careful not to insult anyone, I try to stick with simple facts, when I offer opinions I try to make it clear I understand other people have legitimate different opinions – and yet I still get insulted, impugned and misunderstood.

    I think that the internet encourages, or allows, people to behave much more badly than they would face-to-face. And I think many internet atheists are nowhere near as logical and clear-thinking as they think they are, and are just as biased and full of “faith” as any christian. (I’ll probably get a rocket for saying that, but I’ll say in advance that any comment will reveal something.)

    I think this sort of crap is what we have to expect on the internet. It is also unfortunately true that internet christians can be every bit as bad as internet atheists. So I think we have to decide whether (i) we will quit blogging and discussing on the internet, or (ii) learn to turn the other cheek and refuse to respond in like manner.

    Again, I wish you well in your efforts.

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  9. M. Rodriguez says:

    I think any typer of interfaith dialogue requires four characteristic elements for a person to have for interfaith dialogue for the communication to thrive.

    1. Respecting eachother
    2. Not judging eachother or criticizing eachother
    3. not riducling nor mocking eachother
    4. humanism…..People before Beliefs

    I also think that any interfaith diaglogue, you can’t be actively trying to convert or de-convert someone, cause if you/we are then we are not really respecting the person.

    Good post Unklee, you do a great job, of trying to bridge the gap of interfaith dialogue, (even with the roaring lions on both sides of the aisle)

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  10. unkleE says:

    Thanks very much, Marcus, I really appreciate your positive comments.

    I agree with your 4 points. I would have most difficulty with #2 – I find it difficult to criticise ideas, or even express alternative ideas, without sounding critical of the person.

    “you can’t be actively trying to convert or de-convert someone, cause if you/we are then we are not really respecting the person”

    This is an interesting and challenging thought. As a christian, I should want to share what I believe is good news with others, but commonsense, and the teachings of Jesus, suggest I should only do this with the implicit permission of the other person, and always respectfully. Whether that fits your definition, I don’t know.

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  11. Samuel Stuart Maynes says:

    If you are interested in some new ideas on interfaith dialogue and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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  12. unkleE says:

    Hi Samuel, thanks for sharing your ideas. I think you are not the first to try to synthesise religious beliefs in this way – I think Baha’u’llah and the Baha’is think similarly.

    My personal view is that it is a nice thought but I can’t think it is true. My belief is based strongly on the historical Jesus, and I can’t see how we can reduce him to “the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others” and still respect what the historians say about him.

    At the very least, I think we can ask which of all the revelations of God/Spirit are the closest to reality or give us the greatest amount of truth? If that is Jesus, why would I then do anything other than follow him and his teachings?

    But I appreciate that you are trying to bring people together, though how would you bring atheists into your fold? Thanks.

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