Unitarian Universalism and Religious Pluralism: Do We Miss the Mark?

In a recent post about religious freedom, I wrote about rallies held by the conservative end of the Catholic church. These rallies protested regulations prohibiting the picking and choosing of health benefits offered by employers, all in the name of religious freedom. I celebrated my own Unitarian Universalism and its tradition of respect for religious freedom, offering a definition of religious freedom a bit different from the one proposed by protesting Catholics.

A commenter, Robin, begged to differ, not about my definition but about Unitarian Universalist commitment to respecting the free and responsible search for meaning of those of all faiths. Robin notes that within many UU congregations, real and virtual, there is a marked rift between the values of Unitarian Universalism and the practice of individual UUs, especially in the area of respect for the beliefs of others. Especially when those beliefs are theist (especially Christian), this commenter notes a palpable distaste for from the Humanist/Atheist wing of Unitarian Universalists.

Sadly, I’ve seen this in my own congregation. I’ve overheard heated rants about Christians and theism during coffee hour. It’s embarrassing, given the UU commitment to supporting free spiritual searches by all and to protecting the worth and dignity of all humans. I’ve called this behavior out in meetings, meetings where we discuss where we are as a congregation on our road to supporting interfaith movements in our community. Sure, we teach our children and ourselves about the religions of the world, but that’s not interfaith work.  And badmouthing any religion in a church committed to supporting religious freedom is downright contradictory to even beginning true interfaith work. But for years, I hadn’t put together the connection between our lack of interfaith work and a bias against theism all too common in UU circles.

Along comes the UUA Common Read, Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel. A few weeks back, I led a small group in a discussion on Acts of Faith, which is a mix of memoir and call for greater religious pluralism. Patel is a Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to serving the world while promoting religious pluralism and true interfaith dialogue. Patel quickly points out that he means real interfaith dialogue, not just the sort where religious leaders gather and talk about common beliefs and threads. He seeks instead a group of people working for what all faiths believe is important — service to others — while encouraging interfaith dialogue among those present.

I’d venture a guess that most UUs would support that goal. Committed to social justice and open to the idea that there are many paths up the mountain, working side by side with those of other faiths should be a UU norm. It’s where Patel goes next that likely causes unease in some. Patel does not advocate gatherings of the most liberal of the world’s religions. Instead, he calls for an Orthodox Jew to work with an Evangelical Christian while alongside a committed Atheist, and he calls for conversation. Conversation. Not conversion. Patel reassures the reader and the leaders of youth that he’s not desiring to dilute anyone’s faith tradition.  He states, citing a particular conversation with a Catholic leader,

By proclaiming our strong commitment to our respective faiths, even intimating that we believed what we each had was superior, we had cleared the way for an honest conversation. Neither of us was offended by the other’s faith tradition. to the contrary, it had created a common bond – two men of deep but different faiths talking about religious cooperation. (165)

Not conversion. Conversation and cooperation, while accepting the differences, as stark as they may be. This is a tall order for anyone of strong conviction. Most of us like to be right, meaning we tend to protect the view we have of the universe even at the cost of relationships with others. To join with others with beliefs as strong as our own yet radically different takes a willingness to sit with some discomfort. To work with others who believe their path is superior to yours takes humility and the ability to let go of the ego a bit more than may usually be comfortable.

It’s hard. Honestly, it’s that kind of frank conversation that I generally avoid with my friends whose religious views vary most sharply from mine, although I’m not sure we suffer for it. Our long-standing bilateral commitment to friendship tend to keep us focused on what we have in common, which varies depending on the friend. These relationships, while definite bridges between disparate faiths, are not interfaith work. Simply, the faith is left out. We don’t encourage each other on our respective spiritual journeys, although we don’t ignore the importance of these journeys either. (See an earlier post, Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion, for one example.)

But what about Eboo Patel’s call to action? What about his call to have the conversations that actually accentuate the differences and encourage individuals to identify strongly with and practice their own beliefs while working side by side for the common good?  His assertion that this step is necessary if we want to reduce hate between faiths and make a more peaceful world causes me to wonder about the religious tradition I espouse and practice.  Unitarian Universalist, at least in principle(s) seem to be in a unique position to facilitate this. And yet, we too often don’t.

I don’t have an answer, but I think I have a starting point. It’s time to speak out against language that is antireligion. It’s time to call out the conversations in coffee hour, online, and in the pulpit that work against the goal of building respect for those who choose a faith other than our own. It’s time to identify what makes us uncomfortable and work within ourselves and our congregations, as well as the UUA, to combat the bias against theism that creeps into our conversations and decisions. I’m not suggesting we become doormats for the religious zealots who spread hate for all those who don’t share their beliefs. I’m simply suggesting we don’t become like them by producing our own rhetoric and hate.

We are, after all, a religion based on respect for all people and dedicated to supporting justice, religious freedom, and the rights of conscious. We can be part of the solution to  the rifts religious division causes in this world. We can do this while first understanding then respecting the depths of beliefs held by others, even when these beliefs are quite different from our own. We don’t need to agree with others or try to convert them to our way of thought. Religious pluralism puts into action radical inclusivity, and that’s about as UU as it gets.  Eboo Patel says it like this:

We need all those people — the hymn singers and the sun saluters, the Qur’an reciters and the mandala makers, the speakers of Hebrew and the readers of Sanskrit, the hip-hop heads and the folk music fans — and more. We need a language that allows us to emphasize our unique inspirations and affirm our universal values. We need spaces where we can each state that we are proud of where we came from and all point to the place we are going to.

I fear the road is long. I rejoice that we travel together. (182)

Namaste. Amen. So be it. Peace.

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18 thoughts on “Unitarian Universalism and Religious Pluralism: Do We Miss the Mark?

  1. Eboo Patel may be changing with time, but his book is not accepting of Atheists. He respects faith positions, not atheistic ones. At one point in the book he even says that every civil rights leader he ever respected was a person of faith. I wonder if he is unaware of Bayard Rustin and many others of if he just doesn’t respect them because they were atheists. Atheist bigotry is visible in other places as well and there are no olive branches offered to the non-faith community that I could find. I don’t believe your quote above about wanting a committed atheist to work with others of faith is anywhere to be found in his book. But if it is, I will give him credit for that small step. As a soon to be ex-UU it amazes me that the love of all things inter-faith can blind people to the bigotry that hides within.

    • I found nothing in his book disrespectful to atheists. Down to the last page of the last chapter, he refers to people who are not believers with respect and inclusivity. Your accusation that the quotes are false are an affront. Please check the book before accusing me of lying (and I’ve cited the quotes clearly).

      Your anger about the issue is obvious, and it seems as an atheist you’ve felt disrespected. I do hope you extend the respect to others that you desire from them. Peace.

      • I am writing without anger. My post comes my feelings which I would describe as somewhat forlorn, but far from angry. Just because I disagree with you and see things differently, does not mean I am angry. I imagine you as a perfectly nice person, who I’d feel very warmly about if I knew you. In person I’d probably like you so much I wouldn’t want to bring this up and risk hurting your feelings. I’ve known many very kind loving people, who do not recognize the subtle forms of anti-atheist bigotry. (Most kinds of prejudice work that way, don’t they? We usually trust members of marginilzed groups when they point out the subtle ways we disrespect them. But with atheists, not so much.)

        It’s amazing and sad how polarized UU communities can get. I am sorry for the intolerance for theism you have seen in yours, as I am frustrated with the growing intolerance for non-theists in mine. Last week our congregation seemed to forget the historic UU support of separation of church and state as we celebrated the national day of prayer. Maybe that has me extra frustrated and I am sorry if you saw that as anger.

        I am not doubting anything you directly quoted. None of that seems to apply much to non-theists. Here is what you referenced, that I doubt is anywhere in the book: ” Instead, he calls for an Orthodox Jew to work with an Evangelical Christian while alongside a committed Atheist, and he calls for conversation.” If he used the word “committed Atheist” or the like in such a sentence or anywhere in a sentence that could be construed as positive, I did miss something and I will be more than willing to give it another chance. I read the book trying to like him, but he wants everyone to go home to their faiths, to ground their truths in that, not to break from faith.

        Eboo Patel is a highly educated guy who no doubt has heard of many atheists active in the civil rights movements. Do you really think his going out of the way to make a statement that the only leaders he respected were people of faith was not disrespectful? He could have said it a lot of different ways, that were not near so harsh. Can you admit that is at least somewhat disrespectful. What if I said, the only civil rights leaders I ever respected were atheists? (I can’t even imagine anyone of any credibility saying that. The Freedom From Religion Foundation does believe that most were, but they leave room to respect others. )

      • Thanks for continuing the conversation. I’m a Unitarian Universalist agnostic raising two children who at this point label themselves atheists, and I fully respect their choice of this path. My younger can be rather abrasive and often direct, and he’s prone to spout invectives about theists without much thought about his audience. He’s startled grandparents and likely raised eyebrows. I spend a good amount of time encouraging him to explore more of what he does hold as true rather than focusing on what he holds as untrue, emphasizing values he truly seems to hold (peace, equal rights, compassion, personal integrity, etc.). Honestly, what I hear from some at my UU church is no worse, although from adults theoretically committed to respecting the dignity and worth of others, I’d expect far better.

        I’ve seen the reverse as well. I have a number of conservative Christian and Catholic friends and acquaintances as well. As you know, since the norm in this country seems to assume everyone is a theist, I’m rarely asked by others about what it means to be UU much less what it means to be agnostic. I’ll admit I don’t volunteer the information about the agnosticism, although I write openly about it on this blog. Some of those acquaintances are terribly disdainful of any who don’t believe the way they do, and in my presence (I guess without a sign that I believe differently, I’m assumed to think exactly like them.) will spout all manner of faith-centric and downright hostile rhetoric. I’ve learned to avoid those circumstances, honestly, and prefer to write rather than talk, a sign of my introversion more than my reticence to have the conversation.

        Whether the disrespect is coming from the atheist/agnostic/secular humanist or the theist, the result is the same. I can’t abide by it on either side. Having grown up in a religiously diverse family that valued inclusion and free speech, I’ve experienced relatively little backlash about my belief/nonbelief over the years. I’ve perhaps missed some of the subtle forms of anti-atheist bigotry. I’d say after your comments, my radar for it will be sharpened.

        My take on his meaning about including to nonreligious is just that: my take. The following quote (and no, it doesn’t use the word atheism) is one I could find that supports my summary:

        “I’m not really religious,” a high school junior in Mercerburg, Pennsylvania, told me, “but I want to be a part of this.”
        “We need you,” I said. The question fo the faith line cannot be answered by drawing a line between the religious and the nonreligious. Pluralism — even religious pluralism — is everyondy’s business, for both the obvious pragmatic reasons and the more poetic ones. After all, there are many places where people hear the musci of transcendence. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, some folks find the beyond in the churc of their choice, some folks find it in a Wolldy Guthrie song. (p.182)

        Here’s a clip of Eboo Patel on the value of Secular Humanists to the Interfaith movement. He seems to value nontheists in the interfaith conversation as well as in the Interfaith Youth Core.

        As far as the civil rights comments, I don’t sense the disrespect you do. Context matters, and he writes that statement about a much earlier point in his life, where he very well may have only heard about religious civil rights leader. That says nothing about what he believes or knows now. This book is part memoir. Like most folks, Patel’s religious beliefs and general knowledge change over the lifespan. That line reflects what he knew then, and that’s all. The line is as follows: every leader I admired was deeply rooted in a different faith (72).” That’s a far cry from disrespectful — it’s merely a statement of what he felt at the time. I don’t think it would be offensive at all if you made the statement that the only civil rights leaders you admired with atheists. (Admired and respected are not synonyms.)

        I lead the book discussion with a roomful of atheists, not one who shared the concerns you had and not one who felt excluded by his call for interfaith work. I realize that’s a small slice of life, and it’s interesting to hear your take on the issue. Personally, I don’t mind if “everyone goes home to their faiths, to ground their truths in that, not to break from faith.” That’s a freedom this country grants, and I’m not out to convert those of other beliefs to mine. Yes, the creep of religion into politics and civil life deeply disturbs me, but that’s a different issue.

        I’m sorry you’ve felt marginalized in your own church, a church that claims to support a responsible search for truth and meaning while respecting the dignity and worth of every human being. I’m sorry it’s happening in mine, albeit in the direction that doesn’t make me the marginalized one. I’d like my children to grow up confident that they’ll be respected regardless on their religious choices and raise them to respect the choices of others. I think interfaith work that includes the devout theists and atheists is an important path to that end, and a critical step to peace.

  2. Thanks for the very nice note. I watched the video and I do think Eboo Patel is changing with time. My generous side will say he’s growing and my cynical side will say he’s been forced to. I’ll try to go with my generous side.

    I personally have strong interested in bridging the faith divide, and I think that the interfaith approaches don’t help the gap there at all. Your comment about an abrasive atheist youngster resonates with my concerns. (But let me be clear, I feel we atheists have the right to speak out, even though others find our words harsh. The deck is just kind of stacked against us.) I see children of more spiritual families being more abrasive and I think it’s because they don’t have good role models. That and because atheists are marginalized and not allowed to present our views with the same wonder and respect, do tend to get a little cranky about it. I have three atheist children and they are much nicer about it then me. They don’t have to be defensive about their views and they have been in environments where they are respected.

    There are a bit on the web about the challenges that Inter-faith activities in general and Eboo Patel in particular present to atheists. I think some of the Secular College Associations have the right idea with their Transfaith approach. I recently did a service comparing Transfaith and Interfaith approaches. If you like I could share it.

    As Francis David said, “We don’t have to think alike, to love alike.” Thanks for your modeling of that approach.

  3. Please excuse my typo ridden previous note. I was excited to send your kind note and I was pleased to see Eboo Patel saying something nice about Secular Humanists. I was rushed but wanted to respond.

    Later something hit me about the video that kind of cuts to the core of my problem with the practice of “Interfaith” today. You don’t have to agree, but it might help you understand why many non-theists are not embracing the movement.

    Before getting into that let me explain that I have nothing to say about the “Interdenominational Movement”. It tries to bring together people from different denominations within Christianity. While they might describe themselves as welcoming to all, they are not going to be open to Catholic, Pagan or Muslim perspectives. Certainly you are welcome to attend, but the expectation is that you will defer to what’s agreed on within the denominational community. They are what they are and although I have no interest in participating, they are fine by me. If they pretended to be more broadly inclusive but in practice steered things back to the narrow spectrum that is denominational Christianity, I would have something to say.

    In the video you linked to, Eboo Patel said some nice things about particular Secular Humanists. John Dewey, Walt Whitman and James Baldwin may be great, but they aren’t at the core of inspiration for most Secular Humanists today. Admiring them is fine, but he went on to say, “That’s the tradition you are a part of, that you’re living up to, that I hope you write the next chapter in.”

    Most Secular Humanists today, come from different places. If interfaith is an inclusive movement, it’s not really his place to tell others what their tradition is. It’s at least a subtle rebuke of others within the secular movement including people moved by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and Harris. To me that is ok, as long as you are not pretend to be broadly inclusive
    .
    Would the interfaith movement have non-Christians tell Calvinists their tradition lies in Augustine? Would it show a preference for Sunni or Shiite? Druid on Norse? Reform or Conservative? (To the extent they might, that’s a bigger problem.) For us, the problem is they have expectations for “good” secular humanists, which leave out most of our community. Those who join under such conditions end up looking like tokens and sellouts to the rest of the community. (Certainly Stedman is viewed that way by most in the visible atheist community today.)

    Asking our group to be “good atheists” is historically what people always do to marginalized groups. “We support gays, but we like the don’t ask don’t’ tell kind. Not those who want to have parades, get married and adopt kids.”, “Some of my best friends are black. My problem is with the troublemakers who are pushing too fast and are critical of what we have built.” “I’m all for women, but not the bra burning radical feminists.” Every marginalized group should have the right to pick their own heroes and their own issues, not have them prescribed by those in the majority power structures.

    So I say good luck with Interfaith. If you want to pull people together who find that Faith generally does good things and who want to advance that agenda, more power to you. If you want an inclusive program for all people of good will, do it that way instead. If you want to be a group that is largely critical of secular perspectives, you can do that as well. But please don’t pretend to be inclusive while redefining secular humanism as a narrow band that fits into the interfaith mold but cast the majority of us aside.

    Some background on Transfaith – a different way.
    http://atheistsermons.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/transfaith-and-interfaith/

    • “What gives us a better chance of making a more peaceful world: Convincing everyone that deep down we are the same with only trivial differences, or learning how to better get along despite known deep visible disagreements?” (Transfaith and Interfaith from AtheistSermons. We’re talking about the same thing. And, I’d argue, so is Eboo Patel, who clearly is looking for the latter, rejecting as insufficient the Interfaith work that involves only church leaders looking for what we have in common. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and many other faith traditions have clear key figures who shaped, either intentionally or unintentionally, the movement that followed them. Atheists, secular humanists, and agnostics do not, and I’d guess that one could ask a thousand of those latter three and come up with at least a thousand sources of inspiration. Any list he’d have created would have been flawed.

      By nature I am an optimistic and hopeful person. I tend to assume the best of people. After combing the IYC website (and finding a good number of positive words about atheists, secular humanists, and other philosophical beliefs outside of traditional religions), I’m fairly certain the ideals of Eboo Patel are ones that mesh with mine. It is true that Interfaith means something different to different people. While I’m generally all over a semantic detail, I’m not convinced calling it Transfaith would make any difference. Again, I think we’re largely on the same page here, with me having a somewhat more optimistic view than you in this case. I’m all for speaking out (and quite good at it, may I add). I’m all for my children speaking out (and my younger follows in his mother’s footsteps there), but I hold tightly to the value of respect for others when doing so. After all, when the insults start to fly (and I’ve had my share flung my way), all learning ceases. After they’ve flown my way, I’d rather be remembered as the peaceful humanist/agnostic/not Christian who held her ground and spoke for and not against. I have to believe that leaves a better mark on the world.

      Thanks for all you’ve shared. You’ve provided plenty for me to think about and mull over. Today’s sermon at my UU church is about atheist fundamentalism, “Just the Right Temperature: Atheism and Our Principles of Inclusion” by our (atheist) intern minister. That should add a bit more for consideration.

      Here’s a fine blog from a strong voice in the humanist and atheist interfaith movement: NonProphet Status. He’s certainly someone to watch and from whom to learn how to have these difficult conversations.

      Peace.

    • Born into and raised Baptist in Ma in 1936. My children led me to UU at the time of Jesus Christ Superstar.Our minister tells me I do not need to abandon my “first faith” I’m grateful I found my way to U.U. rather than being born into it! I respect every different belief in my Bradenton, Fl Fellowshsip.

  4. Thanks for the dialogue and for reading my Transfaith & Interfaith service. I worry that Interfaith doesn’t give fair consideration to people who speak out against unjust religious practices on their own time, but I’ll hope you are right about Eboo Patel and IFYC. They have resources and clout and could accomplish good things. If they accept us and our shortcomings on the same terms as they accept others and their shortcomings, I’ll support them.

    I read NonProphet Status for a few months. I liked it ok, but I was reading to many of them. I’ll go back to checking it. I like Friendly Atheist as a middle ground between the softer and more aggressive bloggers.

    If they post that sermon, I’d appreciate a link. It sounds interesting. Not a lot of that out there. I found your blog Googling Atheist and UU.

    Best to you.

  5. Sarah and Hudson, thanks for the very interesting dialogue. It proves there really can be a dialogue between the polar opposites of agnostics and non-theists! 😉

    An aspect of religious pluralism that interests me is: what difference does it make what someone believes or doesn’t believe? As urgently as people need to insist/feel they are right (a fear-based need, in my opinion), aren’t faith/non-faith beliefs beyond the realm of what needs to be agreed upon socially?

    Theism and non-theism are both ultimately nothing more than ways of thinking about something that is inherently abstract. So, as I have no business with your sex life, much less should I have any stake in your belief life. What is the value of me persuading you, or vice versa?

    What does indeed matter, in my opinion, is how people treat each other, i.e. with justice and compassion. Justice and compassion can be related to one’s religious belief, or atheist belief, or no belief at all. Ethics and morality are independent of what you believe is behind the universe (if anything).

    I think that the common stridency of atheists/non-theists in this age is the result of being marginalized, especially in the U.S. So of course there is going to be indignant push-back (Hitchens, Harris). That’s natural and in my opinion a correction of an imbalance. But the same indignation could be claimed by faith traditions, too.

    What’s often funny to me about atheists is this: on one hand, atheists will say things like, “Why can’t people understand this stuff in the Bible is symbolic and poetic?” And yet, when confronted with people who talk with a religious vocabulary, they cannot accept such talk because the atheist takes the vocabulary literally. True, some people have literal beliefs about things that don’t seem likely to be literally true. But if the person’s actions are congruent with justice and compassion, who cares what vocabulary they use? What difference does it make?

    When actions involve subjugation, cruelty or injustice (which we all naturally understand as problematic), only then should an opposition be mounted. But even then, why do we care how people explain the inexplicable aspects of the universe, or choose not to need an explanation? I say: Believe what you want, just act ethically. The Golden Rule isn’t complicated, and you can justify it any way you want.

    I think the “need for interfaith dialogue” is really not much more than the need for people to have manners and respect free speech.

    • Thanks for joining the conversation! I think your argument for “manners and respect(ing) free speech” resonates with many non-theists, agnostics, and those of liberal theistic beliefs. It falls apart when the more conservative of religious beliefs enter the conversation.

      I think two things happen. First, conservative theists often hold that their religion is the only way to truth. In Patel’s IYC addresses this by encouraging dialogue paired with respect and work for common goals (no faith says don’t feed the hungry). For too many (fundamentalist atheists included) the level of intolerance for those of a different belief sends all the “stranger danger” warning bells off. Manners go down the drain in defense of what is “right”.

      Second, there is the very real challenge that differing sets of morals and ethics represent. The abortion issue is one where each side is talking to a different end of the compassion and respect for life issue. Simply put, the ethics of the sides seem to be at odds, or at least the interpretation of the base ethic is differing. (Here’s a recent post of mine on recent faith-based conflict on abortion.)

      Justice and compassion are root values, as, I’d add, is love. Our interpretations of these are colored by faith beliefs, however, and this is where our differences can cause us struggles. I think having the conversations while acknowledging and trying to understand these differences is essential. Good manners and respect for freedom of speech are essential pieces, but, in my opinion, they’re likely not sufficient.

  6. Thanks JGWhitener. You made some good points, most I really agree with. I do think it’s the marginalization that gets people prickly. As an advocate for atheism, I think sometimes we’re just trying to say our position is reasonable. There seems to be so much opposition to that at times, so we feel prompted to me more forceful and state what we think more directly. I don’t think we’re free anywhere as much to bring up non-god as people bring up god. Plus people aren’t use to atheist speaking out but are used to the religious doing so. As a result we sound harsher and are judged more harshly. Has Hitchens , Dawkins, Harris or Dennent ever said anything as severe as the Pope’s statement that godless humanism is inhuman? We put up a simple billboard that says “Don’t believe in God, Your not alone” and state Governors and others go on record with how offensive that is. I’ve yet to hear nice UU types who refer to fundamentalist atheist attach such a slur so easily to any other group.

    I’m fine if people keep their own beliefs if they don’t pick my pocket or punch my nose over them. (But when you see that 88% of the non-religious support gay marriage as opposed to less than half of those identified as religious…) I kind of enjoy people who have huge differences but are live and let live types.

    I don’t think atheists so much ask people to think of the bible as symbolic or poetic. Really we’re horrified by a lot of it and we recommend reading it so you’ll see our point. But most probably do agree symbolic is a lot better then literal, even if you don’t know what it is symbolic of. I feel that when we use “reverence” language it gets turned on us. Einstein, a clear atheist, used a little poetry and people are always taking about God and Einstein. I claimed to be “reverent’ as a Boy Scout and then they used that language as a reason to kick out atheists.

    I think “manners” certainly have their advantages in many places. But sometimes an insistence on manners is how the privileged keep the others from speaking out.

    • Thanks for your responses. I think we’re all almost entirely on the same side. I’d like to point out that my first comment was directed at least as much, if not more, toward religious believers. So, it’s manners on their side as much as anyone’s that I’m calling for.

      Believe me, I’m fully aware of the unacceptance of atheism. (Try getting elected!) I think a lot of the problem here is based on the belief (no pun intended) that ethics/morality and religion are inextricable from one another. They’re independent however. Let’s hope so. I’d hate to have to start stoning my disrespectful children and following all those rules about how to treat my slaves. Put that out there, and even believers start to separate things real quick.

      When you separate morality, justice, and compassion (and love) from which books you were brought up with, people can find they agree on almost everything. Killing issues (abortion, death penalty, war) are legitimate debates. But for 99% of our lives, I think people can agree on what’s right. As long as we/they don’t demand others share their (non)faith about the abstract inexplicables that may influence our actions, but aren’t the same as our actions.

  7. Thanks for that response. I do think many of us split by differences are on the same side. With that understanding I’ll try to make my original point more clearly. (note-I’m not experienced here and I see my name has shifted from Hudson to atheistsermons). We are looking for a common ground and a center. A lot of people think Eboo Patel might be at that center. I don’t think they are looking closely enough. He is a smart guy and carefully chooses his words which I don’t find particularly embracing of us. i’m fine with him being who he is and where he is at, but he’s not the center.

    Here’s an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Humanist magazine where he is reaching out and could have given a clear answer:

    The Humanist: Some commentators on your blog feel that secular humanists and other nontheists don’t have a place in interfaith groups or discussions. I know of some humanists being excluded outright from their local interfaith groups. What is your perspective on the involvement of secular humanists in the interfaith movement?

    Patel: My friend Greg Epstein is the secular humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and a huge supporter of interfaith. We welcome humanists as advocates and allies in the interfaith movement, and believe that there is a place for all. Last fall on my Washington Post blog I wrote a call to include the nonreligious in our work.

    That does sound welcoming. It’s among the most welcoming things I’ve seen him say. But let’s see a very similar question answered the same way.

    Feminist Daily: Some commentators on your blog feel that females and other non-hetero’s don’t have a place in the Augusta National Golf Club. I know of women (particularly the CEO of IBM) being excluded outright from membership. What is your perspective on the involvement of women in the Augusta National Golf Club?

    Head of Membership: My friend Joan Smith is female sports announcer at ESPN, and a huge supporter of Augusta National Golf Club. We welcome women as advocates and allies in advancing the sport of golf and the mission of Augusta National Golf Club, and believe that there is a place for all. Last fall on my Washington Post blog I wrote a call to include women in our work.

    Key point is, it does’t recognize that women can’t be members, even if they are the head of IBM. No I don’t have a problem with Eboo Patels interfaith movement mainly being for people of faith. I wish he was more honest and direct about it. (Just as a direct honest answer from the August Golf Club would be more respectful than the drivel I wrote above.) I get concerned when people see that as the “middle ground” and assume we all should be enchanted with it. I’ll agree he is a glass with some water, some of us want to aspire to a glass that is more full.

  8. Hudson, thanks for that reply. Very well explained, it really does clarify things for me. I love the Augusta Golf Club parallel!

    I should say that I haven’t read Patel’s book nor have I followed his activities before this conversation. I agree whole-heartedly that he appears to be appealing to nonbelievers while not accepting them. Both the Humanist magazine excerpt and the Tuft’s video that MacLeod linked show him to be very complimentary of secular humanists, but also very careful in his words to keep them graciously excluded.

    I think I put all of that aside in the first place, due to the very terms themselves of “interfaith” and “religious pluralism.” That fairly clearly announces that it only applies to people of faith or religion. So I’d say at least Patel seems consistent, but there is a disappointing duplicity about his comments about secular humanists.

    It’s very easy take that further. There’s hypocrisy in it. A review of “Acts of Faith” quotes his book thus:

    “I am an American Muslim from India. My adolescence was a series of rejections, one after another, of the various dimensions of my heritage in the belief that America, India, and Islam could not co-exist within the same being.”

    (Read review: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Islam/2008/03/This-Is-What-Muslims-Do.aspx#ixzz1urFAkf8H )

    This seems to indicate he was motivated to overcome the racism and religious intolerance he experienced. That’s great — as far as it goes, which apparently isn’t as far as including non-believers.

    This strikes me as another example of someone preaching a higher path than the discrimination they themselves suffered, a path of inclusiveness and understanding, but only up to a point.

    At the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington (in Farmington Hills, Mich.), I’m so happy that our motto is “Unconditional Love; Radical Inclusivity.” And we talk about this actively. Because we’re all human, hypocrisy does persist in the inclusivity of others’ non/beliefs. Some of us in church are not quite ready to be *that* radical. I’d say most people in life generally are nowhere close to radical inclusivity. But it’s a direction to move in.

    I’d rather have a person just say, “No, I don’t accept that thinking,” than to play both sides as Patel does, being very complimentary but ultimately, when you closely parse his words, non-accepting of nontheists into his circle. That is his choice. But, it would be more honest if he were more straightforward about it.

    I’ll just throw this in here as a famous example of someone who preached love, forgiveness and inclusivity, but who had to confront his own bigotry:

    A woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

    He said to her, “Allow the children to be satisfied first, because it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” [children = Israelites; dogs = non-Israelites]

    “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

    Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

    [Mark 7:24-30]

    I hope I didn’t freak you out with a little scripture! 😉 Don’t get hung up on the supernatural element. The beauty of this story is that even Jesus (who, I argue, even atheists should admire as a person) had the knee-jerk reaction that outsiders were excluded from his mission. The woman points out, in effect, that if what he’s offering is really true and good, even an outsider will swallow it. Jesus is impressed and convinced, and I can’t help but believe he started thinking differently from that day forward.

    There’s another aspect of this story that applies to the current conversation. Jesus fears that if he gives his bread to the dogs, there won’t be enough left for his own people. You see this scarcity mentality all the time and it applies to Patel. The analog is that Patel’s exclusion of nonbelievers may be based on a fear that bringing nonbelievers into the tent will weaken the interfaith process for the faithful people. I’d argue such a fear is understandable. But is it justified? (That’s an interesting question of the fragility of the interfaith process.)

    One more apt element: the woman implies that, “Hey, face it, Jesus: There’s plenty of people in the ol’ house of Israel who aren’t eating the bread you’re trying to serve; they’re throwing it on the floor. How about a little respect for the dogs under the table who know good food when they see it?”

    Again in Patel’s case, I think the fear of strident, aggressive atheists derailing the dialogue is given more weight than the fear of strident, aggressive believers who are at least as antagonistic to religious pluralism. In every group — atheists, agnostics, believers of all kinds — there are those who are ready and willing to eat your bread with you if it is good (i.e. it has truth, justice, compassion, and healing in it). They may even bring some of their own good bread to the party! That’s why it’s disappointing Patel holds nonbelievers at a distance.

  9. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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