Interfaith Dialogue Will Make You a Better Atheist

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

I spend a lot of time talking/writing/thinking/ranting about how interfaith work is good for the world, good for secularism, good for religious literacy, good for the public image of minority groups (like atheists), good for charities, good for politics, etc. Everybody should do it. But what I haven’t talked about as much is why getting involved in interfaith work will be good for you. So if you have yet to be convinced of the value of interfaith work, read on.

I recently had the joy of sitting down with a friend just to talk about religion. As Chris pointed out earlier, the blogathon timeline isn’t really conducive to getting the proper permissions to talk about people by name online, so I’m going to call my friend Tyler. I met Tyler through a quasi-interfaith project – an online summer book club run jointly by an Evangelical Christian student group and an atheist/agnostic student group. Tyler is a member of the Christian group, and he and I had many lengthy off-list email exchanges over the summer on a variety of religious/philosophical topics. I got to meet him in real life when he came back to campus in the fall, and just a couple of weeks ago, we met up for coffee to continue our discussions.

It was awesome. For one thing, Tyler is just a really cool and interesting person who is really fun to talk to. But this conversation also allowed me to indulge in one of my favorite aspects of interfaith work (one that I haven’t gotten to enjoy as much recently as I’ve transitioned to doing more of the behind-the-scenes logistical work for interfaith events): it teaches me about myself.

Explaining my beliefs to somebody who does not share them forces me to articulate them much more clearly and analyze them much more closely than I would have to if I only ever spoke about them with other atheists. Moreover, Tyler (or any other non-atheist) will often ask very different questions (about atheism and about the world) than it would occur to me to consider on my own, which pushes me to learn more and grow in my beliefs. And, of course, learning about Christianity (and other belief systems) exposes me to new ideas, stories, symbols, and values, many of which will resonate with me, inspiring me to find new and deeper secular sources of meaning and fulfillment.

All in all, breaking out of the echo chamber of shared belief can be a delightfully grounding experience.

My conversation with Tyler reminded me of my very first experience with interfaith work: an interfaith leadership institute run by the Interfaith Youth Core. (Speaking of which, I will be helping out at one in Atlanta next month, which will focus specifically on engaging nonreligious students in interfaith work. If you are a student or a campus ally interested in catalyzing interfaith work on your campus, register now!!) During our first workshop, two IFYC staff members – a Christian named Jen and a Muslim named Jenan – discussed the impact of their interfaith experiences on their personal faith. Each one had faced worries from within their religious communities that interfaith dialogue might require them to water down their own beliefs to some kind of lowest common denominator. But, on the contrary, Jen and Jenan felt that their interfaith work had only strengthened their religious identities. In fact, Jenan’s commitment to her daily prayers inspired Jen to deepen her own devotional practice, and Jenan was inspired in turn by Jen’s social justice theology. Each woman felt that their relationship had made her a better Christian or a better Muslim. And hearing their story, and the stories of the many wonderful and diverse people I met that weekend, made me a better Humanist.

When we try to silence people we disagree with, we betray our own values of truth and free inquiry. But we also miss out on an opportunity to grow ourselves. When we see people of other beliefs only as opponents instead of potential friends, mentors, allies, and teachers, we lose the benefit of their good ideas as well as an opportunity to learn about ourselves and to better articulate our own beliefs.

[Also, interfaith events always have really great vegetarian food, so that should seal the deal.]

Chelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

3 comments on “Interfaith Dialogue Will Make You a Better Atheist

  1. Pingback: Interfaith Dialogue Will Make You a Better Atheist | NonProphet Status

  2. Pingback: Blogathon 2012 Recap, or, A Supposedly Fun Thing We’ll Never Do Again | The Humanist Community Project

  3. Pingback: My Friend, the Zoroastrian | The Humanist Community Project

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