Why Would An Agnostic Do Interfaith Work?

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:

  1. How can you do interFAITH work without a faith?
  2. Is it appropriate for you to do interfaith work as an Agnostic?
  3. 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.

Mesha Arant (Yale University)

MeshaPictureMesha received her B.A. in Religious Studies from Wofford College in 2012 and her Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 2015, where she studied Christian theology, ethics, and African-American religious traditions. During her undergrad she traveled to India to study art, music, and dance. While there, she lived with Benedictine monks who combined Christian doctrine with Hindu rituals—a trip that began her interest in inter-religious dialogue. Her current interests include African-American humanism and creating dialogue between humanists and theists. She now works as an assistant at Interfaith Youth Core and spends her free time working on her art and music. Follow her on twitter @meshaarant

9 responses to “Why Would An Agnostic Do Interfaith Work?

  1. I agree that you don’t need to be part of a specific religion to want interfaith dialogue and to work for positive things. Your efforts are really admirable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Rachael! Thank you for your comment! I’m glad that you agree with this–one of the most frustrating things is having good work being criticized because of how you identify religiously.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 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, i knew that there was more to life than what i was experiencing, for 47 years i didn’t attribute any of that to God, i was my own god, 5 years ago revelation showed me whose it all was.
    I agree all humans are equally capable of good and evil and you dont have to be a believer for goodness to be shown. I disagree that religion isn’t going anywhere I believe it is heading for destruction and death for it is man made and eating from the wrong tree. Yeshuah didnt come to start another religion but show us the way to the one who created it all. We are all humans, with the same equipment unfortunately it is programmed wrong by this world and our own belief systems based on our opinions and not on the truth of who we really are. It is to our hearts and who we are that we must turn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Ian! Thanks for your comment. Many people agree with you that religion is heading towards a state of non-existence. I however, don’t think that religion is going extinct–I think that it will just continue to change into new forms, into new belief systems.

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      • Hi Meshna, my thoughts are that religion will cease once this world does and the man Jesus returns , in the meantime it will continue in many forms based on the opinion of man, the interpretation of scripture to suit.
        Should my belief be wrong, then it will continue until we has humans destroy each other and the world we live.
        What I have found recently though has I have started following certain blogs, is the knitting together of my heart with the hearts of many others who I don’t have any idea who they are, but in a spiritual sense we have become one.
        We are going way beyond just a soulish encounter of the flesh that reaps nothing, but sharing heart to heart, spirit to spirit in order for lives to be authentically transformed so that we can live out our time while here has God intended.
        That is interfaith for me which occurs when religion becomes defunct.
        I sense in that, the kingdom of God coming on Earth has it is in heaven. No performance, no act, no feeling we have to earn something.
        History, Gods history is slowly moving towards its fulfillment.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well expressed! Your words are very hopeful and helpful. As a former minister and current freethinker, I try to bring the best of my experience as an interfaith chaplain into something I now call “secular chaplaincy” (see http://www.secularchaplain.wordpress.com). I can continue my work as a teacher, writer and manager, working alongside colleagues who have faith or no faith, and even try out a new form of inclusive gathering we call “Secular Sanctuary.” The shapes of the cooperative future are endless!

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