What Can Interfaith Mean to an Atheist?

September 3, 2010

Today’s guest post comes from Kelsey Sheridan, a student at Northwestern University. Kelsey has done amazing things, working with diverse groups ranging from Christian Ministries, multiple interfaith organizations, College Feminists, and Planned Parenthood. Today, she brings her skills as a bridge builder to an insightful exploration of interfaith from an atheist’s perspective:

open bibleFirst off, let me say that I’m really flattered to have been asked to do a guest post for NonProphet Status. As a way of introduction: I’m an atheist who lives in a campus ministry building and am a reader of NPS — so you can probably gather that I believe in interfaith.

People are always asking me, with varying levels of politeness, what role can atheists play in interfaith work? And why on earth would it interest us in the first place?

The answer to the first question is simple. I have found that atheists play the same role as any other person of any of other faith would in the interfaith process. We help out where needed, observe, learn, and share our opinions where appropriate.

The second question is a little more nuanced. Secularists have a wide spectrum of thoughts and experiences that bring us to the interfaith table. For me interfaith work is attractive mostly in the efficiency with which faith-based initiatives address social needs. Why would any secular person interested in helping others ignore the thorough frameworks already in place simply because they came from religious people? Social problems are looming and I see no reason to avoid a long-established, well-meaning systems.

But on a less practical note, I’m fascinated by the balance between abandoning and understanding my preconceptions. When I’m engaged in interfaith dialogue, I am continually aware of my preconceptions as well as constantly challenging them.

As an example I want to share the biblical passage I read last night. I randomly opened to Isaiah 25 and when I first read it, I have to admit that only the bolded words jumped out at me:

1 O LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you and praise your name,

for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

2 You have made the city a heap of rubble,
the fortified city a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
it will never be rebuilt

3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of
ruthless nations will fear you.

4 For you have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

5 the noise of the aliens like heat in a dry place,
You subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; The song of the
ruthless was stilled

6 On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;

8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
and the
disgrace of his people he will take away
from all the earth.
for he LORD has spoken.

9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so
that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

10 For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trampled down in a dung-pit.

11 They will spread out their hands in the midst of it,
as a swimmer spreads out their hands to swim.
their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands.

12 The high fortifications of his walls will be brought
down, laid low, cast to the ground, even to the dust

When I read this I saw only a harsh, exclusionist view of God… and I totally missed the point of the passage. I’m not trying to gloss over the fact that this passage uses harsh language or that it presents the Israelites’ enemies as toiling in a pile of shit. But what I’m trying to say is that this Old Testament passage also promises a haven for the poor and needy, safety and comfort for “all people.”

My alliance with people of faith comes from my desire to see the poor and needy living in comfort and safety, a desire that this passage articulates. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible’s stories, you can’t deny its power. In the face of problems that are so entrenched, it is comforting to know that something as big as the Bible is on my side. While justice and equality serve as abstract greater goals, I am aware of their near impossibility. In the meantime, I enjoy stepping out of the limitations of my head and into the wider interfaith community to benefit from its enrichment.

Kelsey SheridanKelsey Sheridan is a junior at Northwestern University where she majors in journalism and religious studies. Although originally from South Florida, she’s enjoying living in Chicago and working with the Interfaith Youth Core and University Christian Ministry.


18 Responses to “What Can Interfaith Mean to an Atheist?”

  1. Well, we should all seek to step outside our comfort zone and engage new ideas that may not be familiar or pleasant to us. Engaging in interfaith work strikes me as an extremely important effort and I wish more people would follow Ms Sheridan’s example in this. Meaningful dialogue can only come about when we abandon misleading stereotypes and are willing to open ourselves to new perspectives. Kudos to Ms Sheridan for seeking to do that.

    But when we step outside our comfort zone we mustn’t leave our brains behind. To exhort the passage quoted, which seems to sanction either slavery or genocide, and at the least promotes annihilation of the livelihood of another ethnic group, because it also suggests helping the poor and needy, strikes me as very fuzzy-headed.

    In toto, what the passage suggests is that it is praiseworthy for God to lay waste to the city of a competing group in order to provide for God’s chosen people. This is a morally sickening message. Anyone with an ounce of care for human dignity should denounce it. That Ms Sheridan does not do so suggests to me that engaging in interfaith work might not be such a good idea. DDo you think, Ms Sheridan, that it would be possible to engage in honest and open discussion about those aspects of the passage which you find abhorrent as well as those which you find you can agree with, in an interfaith context?

    • We should remember that long established religious groups retain a form of organizational knowledge (intellectual capital by another jargon), dedicated to humanizing brutal literalism and making scripture palatable to modern sensibilities. The well-trained religious reader usually will not see the horrors which we may perceive. Though it can make debates annoying, on the whole this is a positive thing, as it’s part of the process by which religious institutions are made to serve human needs.

      More problematic is when the autodidact converts outside of an established group, and is without the benefit of these traditions.

      Anyway, should one wish to bring up these passages with religious friends, approaches along the lines of “don’t you see the horror here” often lead to confusion, because they genuinely do not see it, having been trained in an interpretation that smoothed the rough edges. “How do you interpret this” usually works.

  2. @James Croft: I’m no biblical scholar, but I disagree with your interpretation. Seems to me that the following passage is ultimately inclusive of all people (not just god’s chosen):
    ” On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

    7 And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations; ”

    Still, I could be totally wrong if we put it all in context, and this is part of the problem with getting meaning from scripture–one can derive various meanings from it all. This isn’t scripture’s fault, really; language is just this way (though we can try to be less metaphorical and/or more clear and the like, if we want). Some of the power that Kelsey is talking about comes from the poetic language; so does some of the ambiguity.

    • We cannot afford to give scripture a pass because it is poetic. It is possible to poetically yet unequivocally state humanistic values. This text manifestly does not. Note that your own interpretation relies on ignoring much of the rest of the text, and focussing only on the “good bits”. What this text does NOT say, which it COULD HAVE said, is “And God shall create a space in which all people will be prosperous and happy, in which their religious and cultural freedoms will be respected, including those of the Moabites, and where all human beings will be treated equally under a law established by themselves through democratic processes.”

      Because there are some things in scripture we can get on board with is not a reason to get on board with scripture.

      • Perhaps I wasn’t clear: While I disagree (still) with your interpretation of the passage, I agree completely that we can’t give scripture a pass because it is poetic, or metaphorical. This is why I said “…and this is part of the problem with getting meaning from scripture–one can derive various meanings from it all.” I was attempting to put forward that both the “power” of the words and the problematic ambiguity come from the metaphoric and poetic language, so much so that one can walk away with various “powerful” interpretations.

        Arguing about what scripture means seems to me just like arguing about what a poet meant in a particular poem–there may be interpretations that are more wrong than others, but there isn’t a “right” interpretation.

      • Ah, I’m glad we agree – I was responding to your statement “This isn’t scripture’s fault”, which seemed to me to be letting scripture off the hook for its clear inadequacies. If that was not your intention, fantastic.

  3. @Kelsey:

    Thanks for the great post. Chris has really lined up some fantastic people to write here. I would like to take a shot at what you probably meant to me a purely rhetorical question:
    “Why would any secular person interested in helping others ignore the thorough frameworks already in place simply because they came from religious people? Social problems are looming and I see no reason to avoid a long-established, well-meaning systems.”

    I think I see your point, but I can think of some good possible reasons one might want to avoid the systems in place. For instance, if one thinks the system in place eventually does more harm than good–Mother Theresa has done fantastic work, but part of that “system” was to preach (in places where HIV is running rampant) abstinence when supporting condom use (or even handing them out!) would have saved many more lives. There’s a fairly good system of Catholic charities that is set up, but I don’t want to support them, even implicitly, because of the harm that they do–their ideology, the religious beliefs themselves, make that system do harm.

    Of course, there are all sorts of well-intentioned religious folks who do only good work, but I would have to take things on a case-by-case basis regarding whether or not I, as an atheist, want to work within their system.

  4. Hitch said

    I appreciate the topic but it is indeed a very difficult topic. I try very hard not to impose my reading of scripture as it is not my claim that matters.

    Ultimately the discussion for me begins when I am presented with claims and explanations. So why do you reject gay marriage. Then this leads to scripture and my interpretation does not actually matter. It the interpretation of the one who took a position in the first place.

    It would be nice if we could read the bible in the most positive way. I think that would be helpful. In my experience this is not a very real thing. My points of misunderstanding with believers is not over my reading of scripture to begin with and the problem is that the believer chose an unfriendly reading of the bible and we have to deal with that.

    Sadly I do not really know good ways to handle that. But perhaps proposing alternative readings is indeed one. But I am simply in no position to propose those alternatives. There is just resistance to that, and quite understandably so.

    So that makes me rather excluded from that approach, even if I wanted to be included.

    • @Hitch

      I wanted to note this on another post you commented on, but I’ll take this opportunity, in the hopes it’s not too much of a derail: It might be my imagination, but I’ve noticed a definite change in the tone of your comments, Hitch; you are still putting your points forth with vigor, but there’s something that has shifted that makes it seem more like a conversation that may have disagreements and agreements, rather than an argument. Again, I might be imagining things, but I wanted to point it out in any case, because, if there has been a conscious change, I think it should be recognized.

      • Hitch said

        I want dialogue, but if people stand accused and I think it was unfair I have not much of a choice. The argument/judgments has been set up and the type of responses that are left are more limited.

        Less judgments about others, less need to weed through judgments to begin with.

        I think you are right that there is a chance. I overall quite like the sequence of guest posts so far. I wish I could take credit but I think that would no be correct.

        But yes, this is kind of a derail, so sorry for taking the space to respond.

      • Hitch said

        Eeks, typos from hell… chance->change, no->not.

  5. Kelsey said

    Thanks for the thoughts guys!

    @James, I’m not sure it’s productive to say what scripture is saying, should’ve or could’ve said… I just meant that there are lots of things going on at once in any passage. And as for only paying attention to the “good bits,” I think the fact that I bolded all the “bad bits” shows otherwise.
    Yeah, I know what you mean. I guess the way I see it is that there are certain things that some organizations do well and certain things they don’t… and while I’m all for a all-in-one-go-to organization, it just doesn’t exist. For example, Planned Parenthood for example is good at preventing the spread of HIV (and unwanted pregnancies) but not so good with leper colonies.

    • Kelsey, I think you misread me somewhat. When talking about the danger of picking out the “good bits” I was responding to another poster.

      As for whether it is productive or not to discuss what scripture could have said, it seems to me eminently worthwhile. posing counterfactuals – how else could this have been written so as to be more clear, more morally praiseworthy? – is a useful practice because it highlights the deficiencies of scripture as a tool to guide human action. Why do you think it’s unproductive?

  6. @Kelsey

    I appreciate your point, but the Planned Parenthood analogy doesn’t work. PP isn’t helping any people with leprosy, but they’re not harming any people with leprosy either. Mother Theresa and the Catholic Church did and do work in places where they actively proselytize against condom use, causing more harm (i.e. more HIV) than if they said nothing at all.

    Still, I get your point–I just wonder if it isn’t worth some time and money to build alternate structures to help people, in the way some secular folks are doing. (Of course, we can do both, to some degree!)

  7. Geoff Boulton said

    However you choose to read or interpret the text, the very fact that there needs to be an interfaith movement speaks volumes about the divisiveness of religions. Only groups who despise and hate each other need to spend time healing the wounds and trying to make an active attempt to work together.

    • Oh, not at all! Many groups engage in forms of dialogue very similar to interfaith work without despising or hating each other. I was conducting such dialogue between experts in different academic disciplines recently, for example. No hatred or even much division there – only different languages and ways of understanding.

      • Geoff Boulton said

        There is a fundamental difference between diverse disciplines or nationalities working together to bridge language barriers and exchange information and groups which, by definition, must believe that their belief system is the only valid one, that they are the chosen people of their particular deity, that all other beliefs are heretical and will result in damnation to {insert appropriate punishment here} and, in some cases, that conversion or annihilation of other beliefs is mandated or desirable.

      • I entirely agree. I was merely responding to your assertion that “Only groups who despise and hate each other need to spend time healing the wounds and trying to make an active attempt to work together.” Many groups which do not despise and hate each other need to spend time healing wounds and making active attempts to work together – the academics I was discussing with are such an example. I agree that the nature of religious groups makes this more difficult.

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