Interfaith needs atheists
Dialogue events play a vital role in engaging children in debates about religion. It's time more atheists were involved, says Stephen Shashoua of the Three Faiths Forum
"Why is an atheist on a panel talking about religion?” asks a pupil at an East London school of an atheist presenter, one of many who go into schools on an almost daily basis with our London-based charity, Three Faiths Forum (3FF), to talk about their faiths and beliefs.
You may be asking yourself the same question. What is an atheist doing taking part in an interfaith workshop – and as a presenter to boot? And how did 3FF – an interfaith organisation set up 15 years ago by Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious and communal leaders – get to the point where we have brought non-believers into our work, and are actively seeking more?
The answer is simple, as expressed by our vision: we work towards a society where diversity can be expressed and embraced by all. As such, we work against all forms of stereotyping and champion people’s rights to be who they are and believe what they do without facing prejudice. These purposes are in no way the exclusive domain of religious communities.
Founded as a tri-lateral (Muslim-Christian-Jewish) organisation in 1997, we were always justifying ourselves as to “Why just the three?” Our answer at the time was that they are “a particular family” of faiths and that, partly for historical reasons, there is a specific need for dialogue between them. This, no doubt, is still true. But as the organisation grew, we realised that our work had to expand to include a wider range of views. There is still a need for more traditional interfaith dialogue, but to reflect and support the culture we live in we need a more inclusive dialogue – children in particular need to hear about all the ways in which people address spiritual issues.
But while Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian dialogue is going on, very few interfaith organisations work with people of non-religious beliefs.
We believe we should be working outside the narrow brackets of “interfaith”. Not only does the term exclude, it fails to encompass its positive effect on conflict, discrimination and integration. In fact our work is not primarily about faith at all; it is about building a more inclusive, accepting society, where people from different backgrounds with radically different opinions can learn to respect each other’s right to their own beliefs, while not trying to build false consensus – in a diverse society like ours it is inevitable, perhaps even vital, that we will not all agree.
In the first instance this work is about education. The ignorance or mis-education that 3FF encounters in schools every day about atheists, humanists and people of different faiths show that there is a need for people to learn through genuine encounters. Unfortunately, you cannot leave the educating to the usual “representatives” alone. Watching a speech by Richard Dawkins is unlikely to give religious conservatives a more nuanced, truthful understanding of what atheists really believe.
Teacher and writer Alom Shaha, who sometimes speaks at 3FF’s school workshops, was once asked by a young Catholic woman, “So you don’t believe in Heaven or Hell or anything after you die? So you believe in nothing at all?”
“I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell,” he replied. “I believe that when you’re dead, you’re dead. But I wouldn’t say I believe in nothing. I believe in lots of things, like justice, kindness and love, while we’re here in this life. I just don’t believe I need religion or an afterlife to believe in those things.”
I like this short exchange because it shows that even when we disagree about our fundamental beliefs, there are almost always ways for people to begin to connect and understand each other – provided we have those crucial opportunities to interact and learn. Possibly for the first time in her life, that young woman saw that atheists also have beliefs, and that they might actually share a lot of her values.
But education is only the start. The engagement between different communities must be sustained. And even then, difficult questions remain: Where do you get your knowledge about others? Where does discrimination exist within your community?
To get more people involved in addressing these issues, at 3FF we are now intent on making our programmes open to everyone. We have drawn criticism from some faith communities when we explain that we are an “a-religious, a-political” organisation which works at bringing communities together. But we believe that expanding our remit to better reflect the real diversity of society is the right way forward.
So we want more atheists, humanists and agnostics to get involved, to share their experiences, to help set the agenda and make this work even more inclusive. Because ultimately the only one who can represent you, is you.
Stephen Shashoua is director of the Three Faiths Forum. If you’re interested in getting involved, visit the Three Faiths Forum website