Do atheists have a place in World Interfaith Harmony Week?

The first week of (the to the ) is World Interfaith Harmony Week, and you know what that means!

Yeah, me neither.

Okay, so World Interfaith Harmony Week is a United Nations resolution going back to . It was proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan, presented by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, and adopted unanimously, and it’s not hard to see why. (See the resolution in English, ou en français.) A week promoting interfaith dialogue and harmony? Yes, please. You don’t even need to be religious to want a week without inter-religious bickering and violence.

[Logo for World Interfaith Harmony Week]

So what actually happens in World Interfaith Harmony Week actually? Well, it’s really all about the local initiatives. The idea is that faith groups take interfaith harmony into their own hands, and create events that allow for dialogue and mutual understanding. Here in Canada, lots of faith groups have organized things like (prayer) breakfasts, and open house events at their places of worship. (See the event calendar if you’re interested.)

All of this is fine and dandy – if religions can get along, it would be good for all of us – but as is always the case when talk of “interfaith” events or initiatives comes up, atheists are left wondering… are we invited? If so, in what capacity?

If you just read the resolution, you can be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that atheists aren’t intended to be part of World Interfaith Harmony Week. However, you’d be wrong: it’s very subtle, but there is wording intended to include atheists. Let me quote paragraph 3 of the resolution:

Encourages all States to support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week, based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions;

Did you catch it?

Here, let me snip out the relevant section and highlight:

[….] based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions;

That weirdly-worded bit about love of the good is meant to be an olive branch to atheists. Ghazi explains this in his speech calling for the resolution to be adopted. After a fairly long, somewhat rambling explanation of why it’s so important to include the based on love of God bit (basically, because without it, religions won’t take the resolution seriously… apparently as important as interfaith harmony is, assuaging religious ego must always come first), he says:

Third, it will be noted that this language excludes no one, of any religion or of no faith at all: every person of good will, with or without faith can and should commit to Love of the Neighbour and Love of God or Love of the Neighbour and Love of the Good. Loving the neighbour and the good is after all the essence of good will. And referring to ‘the Good’ obviously does not necessarily imply belief in God or in a particular religion, even though for many believers ‘the Good’ is God precisely: Jesus Christ said: ‘No one is Good but God Alone’ [Mark, 10:18; Luke 18:19, and Matthew 19:17], and ‘the Good’ (‘Al-Barr’) is one of God’s Names in the Holy Qur’an [Al-Tur, 52:28]. Thus speaking of ‘the Good’ is a theologically-correct but inclusive formula in so far as it goes that unites all humanity and leaves out no one.

So, yeah, love of the good is a shout-out to atheists. A theologically-correct shout-out, but a shout-out nonetheless. Nice of them to think of us, I guess.

If my unenthused prose thus far hasn’t given my position away, then I might as well spell it out now. I am not opposed to World Interfaith Harmony Week, or interfaith harmony on principle. I am not even objecting should any atheists want to join in the festivities, such as they are. But I seriously question whether atheists should really feel welcomed in the event, despite the verbiage that is supposed to be including us. And I question whether we should take part if we’re not really being welcomed.

This whole week is pretty clearly and rather explicitly set up to be an ecumenical wankfest. And there’s nothing wrong with that: I’m the last person to be scorning a decent circle jerk – especially one involving people who so badly need some sexual release, and especially when it could actually lead to less real-world hate and violence.

It’s not that I reject the premise of interfaith harmony or World Interfaith Harmony Week. It’s just… when you’re clearly not wanted at a party – or, okay, let’s be as charitable as possible and say we’re not unwanted, we’re just an afterthought that will be tolerated so long as we behave by their rules – when you’re just the fifth wheel friend who’s only allowed to tag along so long as you conform to the clique’s style… is that really a party you want to go to?

I can even hear people chiding me for complaining about being an afterthought, and saying we should just be grateful as atheists to be invited at all. But… should we? Isn’t it betraying our own dignity, as atheists, to accept an “invitation” on these terms? I mean, if religious groups are worth enough to the UN that it’s willing to fellate them about their God to get them on board with interfaith harmony… couldn’t we at least get a mention that isn’t a tortuously-worded mess designed primarily to jibe with God-besotted language? I mean, we’re the third or fourth largest religious demographic in the world, depending on whether you’re counting all “religiously unaffiliated” or just nonbelievers. Can’t we get even a nod of acknowledgement that doesn’t also stroke the shafts of demographics #1 and #2?

There’s a bigger point here; this isn’t just about World Interfaith Harmony Week. “Interfaith” collaboration is supposed to be about cooperation and dialogue between different religions on a basis of mutual respect and equality. So if atheists are being invited – and let’s not forget that we are often excluded, sometimes explicitly – don’t we also deserve mutual respect and equality? And, if we are denied that – if we are treated like second-class citizens at the table – shouldn’t we object? Shouldn’t we expect, and demand, better?

It may be true that there are some interfaith discussions we don’t need to be part of. There’s probably no need for us to demand a place in a discussion about ending sectarian violence… because that just doesn’t apply to us. But a lot of interfaith dialogue involves things that very much do involve us. Interfaith committees set up to solve social problems – like poverty or youth violence – definitely involve us, and we deserve a seat at the table. Events with more nebulous goals, like fostering harmony between disparate groups – the goal of World Interfaith Harmony Week, if you’ll recall – often involve us, too. We deserve to be there; and we deserve to be there as equals… not as a handwavey afterthought.

Am I wrong? Don’t we, as atheists, deserve to be part of interfaith initiatives (at least, those that make sense for us to be a part of)? And if so, don’t we deserve to be shown the same kind of respect as any faith group? Not special treatment, of course… but at least make it clear that we’re included by specifying something like “all religions and no religion” where relevant – don’t just leave it up to people to figure that something like “freedom of religion” includes “freedom from religion”, because we know from experience that a lot of people won’t make that leap without having it meticulously pointed out to them, and some will actively refuse to even after. That’s really all it would take. Just… acknowledge us. And not as a convoluted, theologically-laundered afterthought.

I suppose it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, so maybe we should take the initiative. Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to educate faith groups; to remind them that we exist, and we do deserve a seat at most interfaith discussions. Maybe we should even tell them how to include us; maybe we should educate them about including “and/or no religion/faith” when writing about interfaith stuff.

We have to remember that religion isn’t going away – certainly not anytime soon. We will need to work with religions on many social and cultural projects, not least of which is general peace and harmony. Interfaith should include us (usually). As an equal stakeholder. Not a vaguely tolerated afterthought.

If we want that to happen, it’s time to stop licking up the scraps that fall from the interfaith table. It’s time to take a seat, and insist on being accepted, and acknowledged as partners.

4 thoughts on “Do atheists have a place in World Interfaith Harmony Week?

  1. It seems counter productive to get together with the religious to solve a problem whose cause is their existence and work with them to resolve the problem of sectarian violence (presumably World Interfaith Harmony Week would not be needed if not for the existence of World Interfaith Violence), the only tenable solution being the dissolution of religion, at least to the extent that it no longer informs social policy.

    It’s not as if I wear an atheist hat when I engage in the discourse that is part of formulating social policy, what say the religious remove their various and sundry religious baseball caps (metaphorical of course) as well.

    This has the feeling of virtue signaling by the religious in an attempt to deflect attention from their barbaric practices and I for one am not inclined to help them in that endeavour.

    Humanists do not need to beg for a seat at the religious table in the hope of a few scrapes being tossed our way, the religious can go sit at the childrens table until they are ready to join the adults.

    • It seems counter productive to get together with the religious to solve a problem whose cause is their existence and work with them to resolve the problem of sectarian violence…

      World Interfaith Harmony Week is not about sectarian violence; it’s about interfaith harmony. There’s a big difference there. Sectarian disputes are one of the barriers to interfaith harmony, but far from the only one. Violence in any case is merely a symptom, not the cause of any problems.

      Even if it were about sectarian violence specifically, there is still very much good reason for us to be involved. When two religions are squabbling in some region, it’s not like the atheists can sit peacefully and unmolested on the sidelines and watch it all go down without any concerns. We have an obligation to make sure religions don’t just steamroll over us, whether it’s while they’re fighting each other, or while they’re building a peace.

      But as I said, it’s not about sectarian violence, it’s about interfaith harmony. If religions are setting about figuring out how to live together peacefully, why would’t we want to be part of that discussion? We have a vested interest in making sure that they don’t just coexist harmoniously with each other, but with us as well.

      Humanists do not need to beg for a seat at the religious table in the hope of a few scrapes being tossed our way, the religious can go sit at the childrens table until they are ready to join the adults.

      The problem with that “children’s table” analogy is that in the reality we live in, religion still has enormous power. Globally we’re around 5–10%… which ain’t bad, but it’s a little rich to think that we have enough weight to be looking down our noses at the 90–95%, and say we’re going to decide how to shape society without them.

      And let’s not forget that while we may be rockin’ a whole 10% globally, there are still many, many parts of the world where the religious dominate absolutely. There is nowhere in the world I can think of where atheists have absolute power.

      So what I see with your analogy is a group of ancient, well-established dynasties who still hold at least partial power everywhere and absolute power in some places sitting at one table, where they’re making the decisions that will almost certainly be at least partially adopted as real world policies, and have real impact… and then you, who has virtually no power by comparison, sitting over at a much, much smaller table, stubbornly insisting that this is where the big kids are sitting, and sooner or later everyone at the other group will eventually come to sit with you.

      In that scenario… I’m not sure the children’s table is the one you think it is.

  2. I’m not sure atheist belong at an interfaith meeting either. “A” theists however. Are Satanists and Raeliens invited? I agree discussions would be incomplete without us on some topics. At least in Canada this exercise could be diverse and not just an Abrahamic love in. Discussion might stop them killing each other. Hindus and Buddhists included. Perhaps atheists need to be their to make sure they don’t just gang up on us.

    • Making sure they don’t gang up on us is exactly my concern. Because, let’s face it, while it is not unheard of for religions to get along at least long enough to work together to form mutually-beneficial agreements, there has never been a case where a bunch of religions got together and said, “you know, we should also consider the opinions and the rights of the nonbelievers.”

      (Hell, we live in a perfect example of an interfaith initiative. Canada was (more-or-less) formed by a mutually-beneficial interfaith agreement between Protestants and Catholics. But did they give even a cursory thought to nonbelievers? It’s not like they were unaware of our existence. They just… didn’t give a fuck about us. That’s how it always goes. Imagine how different our constitution might look if atheists had been able to muscle into that interfaith initiative, and have our concerns heard.)

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