For as long as I can remember, I have felt that there was something in the universe that was greater and more magnificent than I could ever be as an individual. As a child, and as a Christian, I called this essence God. Now, as an Agnostic and Humanist, I recognize that the connection I felt as a child may have been an unexplainable awe or some kind of appreciation for the mystery and vastness of the universe. Regardless of what I felt then and what I feel now, the main point is that I have always had a great appreciation for spirituality and organized religion, so much so that I studied it in undergrad and in grad school.
This is, in part, why I am always shocked when people question my desire to do interfaith work. More often than not, when someone learns that I want to do interfaith work, and work at Interfaith Youth Core—a nonprofit that focuses on making interfaith cooperation a social norm—the following questions inevitably arise:
- How can you do interFAITH work without a faith?
- Is it appropriate for you to do interfaith work as an Agnostic?
- Are you sure you just aren’t trying to get people to leave their religion?
Without going into how I actually do consider myself to be a person full of FAITH, my answer usually consists of something like, “do you have to be black in order to see the oppression of African-Americans and fight for racial equality? Or LGTBQ to fight for marriage equality? Why, then, must I be religious in order to see a need for interfaith dialogue?”
As a humanist, my emphasis is on humanity’s ability to do good in the world, to determine their own actions, and to flourish without a belief in a deity or other “supernatural” elements. What I have realized, however, is that for some people the motivation to do good in the world and the ability to flourish comes from a belief in a higher power. My ultimate concern is how our beliefs from various traditions lead to actions that benefit humanity.
My job is not to indoctrinate others, to change the beliefs of others, or to make others feel as though their religious beliefs are not valid. I see my role as a humanist as empowering individuals to improve the world through their own actions and while I might see their actions as purely self-determined, some people do not see it that way. I find that to be quite beautiful. I do not care where the motivation behind this action comes from, I care that we are working together in order to make life better for each other. My job is to create a space where people of different religious backgrounds, and people who are not religious at all, can work towards common goals without giving up their individual worldviews. While this is difficult, it is necessary and rewarding work.
The world is becoming more religiously divided, whether because of the conflict between theists and non-theists or the conflict between adherents of different religious groups. Therefore, more than ever, it is important that there are people who are willing to create environments of peace and pluralism.
Why is it so important for atheists, agnostics, and humanists to be apart of this movement? At least in my opinion, we continually create spaces where we allow our non-theism to be anti-theism; this only creates a harsh and intolerable environment for ourselves and for others. It allows us the ability to categorize theists as irrational and impractical because we do not have the context or understanding to make educated statements on the process of social constructions, the need for certain worldviews, and perhaps, the simple beauty of believing in a being higher than yourself. We need to be a part of this movement. Only then may we see that working with religious peoples exposes the error of our own assumptions and how we hurt others with our preconceived notions.
When my sister and I stand and look at the night sky and get emotional over the beauty of the stars, I thank the universe for carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, the process of nuclear fusion and fission. I bask in the ability of my mind to perceive what I am seeing and to make meaning from it. My sister thanks Yahweh, Jehovah, and the Great “I am” and she looks to the Bible for how she creates meaning. We have created a space where we share in experiences, interpret them differently, and attribute its cause to very different sources but we also have mutual respect for each other’s beliefs.
This is what I want to do for others, to create a space where we can come together regardless of our faith, or non-faith, and appreciate meaning without compromising our individual beliefs. This is not to say that there is not a time and space to engage bigotry, but instead that we must create a space where we can begin to have these kinds of conversations in general. I believe that this is something that all humanists should strive to do because religion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and we can choose to be a part of the dialogue or exclude ourselves from the conversation.