Following up on Fabrizio’s atheism post.
Worth looking at the numbers.
Here is Pew’s assessment of religious affiliation in the United States.
The unaffiliated make for a large number–over 16%, or 10 times the number of Jews or Muslims and over 20 times the number of Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus.
Most of the unaffiliated are casually so. Only 1.6% describe themselves as atheist and 2.4% as agnostic, with the balance (12.1%) “nothing in particular”, with this split almost evenly between “secular unaffiliated” and “religious unaffiliated.” So Bill Maher probably goes too far in making his claims about the large number of actual non-believers, since a lot of these folks are not so much active non-believers as they are just indifferent. But these are still big enough numbers. There are still way more actual self-described agnostics and atheists than Jews or Muslims or Mormons or Buddhists. And it seems likely that some number of the casually unaffiliated are objectively atheists or agnostics, but just don’t want to use the words to describe themselves.
As The Economist recently pointed out, those of little or no express faith have not had an easy time of it in the public square, given the tendency to distrust non-believers. That does not condone obnoxious behavior on the part of organized atheists, like the Times Square billboard this Christmas season.
But I still generally agree with Maher that non-belief needs more respect. Whether this is the way to do it is another question.
Some of this relative exclusion of the other is just human nature. Believers tend to reach out first to other believers. Further, believers of somewhat like minds will reach out to one another before they reach out to others whose faiths are further afield. Interfaith dialogue in this country is by and large an Abrahamic religion kind of thing.
After the Newtown shooting, Morning Joe hosted an interfaith discussion including a bishop, a rabbi and an imam. That’s a pretty common format, expressing the desire to be ecumenical at least among one’s extended religious family. And that three-way dialogue seems to be the most common format overall–a Google search reveals three-way Abrahamic conclaves here, here, and here.
What’s interesting about this given the Pew numbers is the relative absence in interfaith dialogues not only of non-believers but also adherents to other, non-Abrahamic faiths. According to Pew, there are more Buddhists than Muslims in the United States, and Hinduism is not far behind. Why not at least include them, and continue to stiff the non-believers?
Perhaps we just have not yet mastered the doubletalk required for interfaith discussions to include religions that come from an entirely different space? Maybe, but we could probably stretch the doubletalk if we needed to. But do we need to? Maybe not. It seems to me more likely that the relative absence of Buddhists and Hindus reflects the fact that conflicts on those religious borders have not yet risen to the point that they need to be managed.
And isn’t that what interfaith dialogue really is: an effort to manage potential conflict? After all, interfaith dialogues are not the most intuitive thing. If you believe x and someone else believes y, the simplest and most direct course is for you to defend x and question y. Yes, you can try to find least common denominator similarities among different religions, but it is hard to truly reconcile them.
It’s like the push for multiculturalism: as long as you have two cultures bristling up against one another, there will be a felt need to tamp down inevitable conflicts via beliefs and habits that are strongly counterintutive. But perhaps necessary and useful. That’s why I gave one cheer to multiculturalism on 2Blowhards some years back. Ideas don’t have to be logical or consistent for them to be useful or helpful in fixing vexing social conundrums.
Here is a rabbi on HuffPost telling it like it is. C’mon, let’s face facts, he argues–interfaith dialogue mostly doesn’t work.
(M)ost of we time we are satisfied with mouthing a few noble, often-repeated sentiments. Thus, we affirm the importance of mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue; we assert that all human beings are created in the image of God; we proclaim that despite our differences, all of our traditions preach love of humankind and service to humanity. Nothing is wrong with these sentiments, of course; in conceptual terms, I believe in them all. But if we don’t dig beneath the surface and focus on substance rather than rhetoric, they mean very little. . . interreligious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions.
But does this make the exercise useless? That depends on what its true function is. Participants may expect revelation and synthesis, having based their participation on such hopes. If so they will be disappointed. It is probably more correct to say that we engage in these things to stop us from following the internal logic of our faiths, and in turn causing social harm. In that sense interfaith dialogue can be said to work even if it doesn’t feel too good.