Last year, I attended the Center for Inquiry Conference in New York state. During this conference, the question of whether atheists should participate in interfaith events was raised. Many people said yes, because we should put our differences aside and work toward a greater goal. A few said no, because as CFI intern Cody Hashman said, “We need to preserve our own resources and focus on building our own architecture.” Is this a yes or no question, though? I think not.
That is a false dichotomy. Many people, when presented with a problem and a set of solutions, think it’s one or the other.
Let’s look at the reasons atheists should not participate in interfaith events. For one, we don’t like the religious right, and they don’t like us. They’ve caused us a lot of trouble throughout history and continue to do so. They often reject what other people have to say—and sometimes kill them— when tried to be reasoned with. They want to impose their morality on us, and even though we give them every right to believe but argue that it is in everyone’s interest to establish a secular society, they refuse. Let’s face it, though; the religious right continues to do many great things, such as humanitarian work, blood drives and helping the poor. But is this an excuse for us to join forces and participate in these affairs? Don’t be fooled by how beautiful those things sound, as it might not be to our advantage.
Maybe, just maybe, the reason they’re so good at doing all these great things is that they join forces with their own huge circle of friends. They’ve got a lot of resources, organizations and people to back them up. They’re popular in contributing toward a better society. Here’s the problem: we’re not.
We don’t have as many resources, organizations and people backing us up, and the more we continue giving the religious right all we have, the more we’ll end up with the ability to do nothing. And who are we empowering: the same people who wish us dead, the same people who want to build churches on every corner of the street and the same people who want to impose their morality on us. Rather, let us focus on growing our own resources, getting more people on our side and building our
own architecture. In the end, we won’t be seen as the evil-doers by society anymore and will finally receive some recognition for all the work that the religious right takes credit for—while they ironically continue to destroy humanity at the same time.
So, are there any benefits to participating in interfaith events? I think so. Again, this isn’t a black or white issue. The best use of interfaith events are discussion and dialogue. Discussion excites the mind and brings about solutions, understanding and knowledge. Without discussion and engagement in thought provoking matters, viewing things from others’ perspectives and coming to the best conclusions, we would catch the dreaded disease of group-think. Group-think is when a group tries to reach a solution and consensus on a decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. There would be no movement, no development and stagnation of advancement would prevail. This is quite contrary to the mission of atheists, secularists and especially those who are still looking or confused about the answers, which is what secular/atheist organizations are perfect for.
So, what should we atheists do, you ask? I say we look at each event, each cause and each circumstance separately with a keen eye on our objective. If our objective is to arouse discussion and knowledge, I say go for it. But if the objective is something as simple as humanitarian relief, for example, I say let us stick to loading the ammunition of our own resources to the cause or event. Yet if it is for an urgent or necessary issue, such as recovering from an earthquake, I think it’s best to put aside our differences and work in harmony for our common good.