I am an atheist, and an angry one. An anti-theist, if you like. A firebrand.
Not only do I doubt a god exists, I think belief in one, and religion in general, is bad for our planet – inherently. In my writing and my day-to-day life, I’m actively engaged in trying to talk people out of it.
I like to call myself bad without God, and I’m happy to be labelled a reverse evangelist. If you want to say I’m strident, intolerant or shrill, I don’t really mind. I’ve no interest in respecting believers’ views – I hate religion, and want it gone.
As such, I have a dark and terrible secret. In my spare time, I am an interfaith worker.
I know what you’re thinking – I’m certainly no Chris Stedman. In fact, as interfaith projects are commonly pursued, I’m a huge critic of them for typical reasons.
I think that, frequently, they’re masturbatory in nature, staging vague discussions of ill-defined souls and spirit-realms to no real end. I think that, frequently, they’re over-ecumenical, making the most diverse belief sets, like Judaism and Hinduism, sound obviously compatible, when the world would look very different if that were obvious. I think they frequently enforce the idea any faith is better than none; I think since they tend to attract moderate believers, religion’s everyday results on planet Earth are often viewed with rose-tinted glasses and not faced head on – and I think by gathering in the name of faith, they often fail to acknowledge critiques of religion in general which skeptics would call obvious.
But my experience of interfaith has been positive, because – and here’s the point of this post – the group I’m in has never been conventional. I want to talk about that, and why interfaith can and should be something atheists do, provided it’s done right. In fact, my group has never been called an ‘interfaith’ one officially. What we’ve built, and what I think skeptics can build with believers, might be better labelled InterView.
Eighteen months back, when I was a second year running an atheist society, I got a Facebook message. The core text read as follows:
I am a first year D.Phil student here at Oxford. I found your Facebook account off the [society] fan page.
A couple colleagues and I had the idea of setting up an informal weekly gathering where people of all faiths (Atheist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc) could come to “civilly engage with one another’s worldviews”. We thought of meeting at a pub (neutral public space), probably later in the evening, where we could, with all eagerness and respect, engage on the issues which matter most to us all. This would be open to undergrads and postgrads alike.
Please let me know what you think of this idea. If you or anyone you know would be interested, please feel free to contact me, as we plan out the details (location, time, day of the week, etc).
I had reservations – the same I always have when believers get in touch wanting to meet – but I was interested, for the same reason my blog has a Contact page. Some people are, I think, very wrong about the nature of the cosmos in consequential ways, and since they think I’m wrong about it in consequential ways, it makes sense that we talk. Whilst talking to believers, I’ve always tried to take my cues from The Atheist Experience – forthright and no-nonsense while good-natured and polite – and as Matt Dillahunty sometimes says, one of us is actually right.
The person who sent the message is now a good friend, and the Oxford Open Forum, which we then set up together, is still going. Every Wednesday, a range of people sit together in a local café, and talk about a pre-arranged topic: sometimes a personal story is told, as my deconversion was in the second meeting; sometimes one person lays out their religious views; sometimes a topical issue or contentious debate is the theme. Having just come back from my linguist’s year abroad and re-joined, I’ve been asked to pick next week’s, so I’ve been thinking about common problems with interfaith groups, and what I’ve always liked about the OpFo.
I like, first of all, than when something’s been set out like the topics above, it gets dissected. More to the point, I like that unlike many interfaith groups, ours is characterised by disagreement – instead of Trying To Find Common Ground or consensus, we actively play chess with our beliefs, attempting to checkmate each other and expose bad thinking.
I like, in other words, that when people are trying to change each other’s minds or be persuasive, we don’t hide that. Believers there, I’ve always found, like this too – because when religious discussions are often subject to unspoken social rules of etiquette, we’ve got a forum where everyone consents to civilised wrangling.
I like that, as a result, I have a go-to group when I’m not sure about something. If I’ve heard Sam Harris speak on The Moral Landscape, and I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m unconvinced, I have people’s brains to pick. If I want to refine my view on free will, or how to use secularism for religious freedom, I’ve got a sounding board. When they need critique, so have they. At a lot of similar groups, without skeptics present, other believers might not ask the difficult questions, because most of them apply equally to all religions. If religious members want scrutiny, and they often do, they have me.
I like that we sometimes go meta, and talk about how belief groups – atheists and believers, and believers of different sorts – communicate, including what’s wrong with how this takes place. The time I explained why I hate the word ‘spiritual’ was great, because I felt like people left with a better sense of what not to say. I’m actively engaged in trying to change minds, and so are many of them; our aims might be opposite, but helping each other speak one another’s language helps all of us to be persuasive.
Also, I like that we talk about practical things – not just what Heaven looks like (it doesn’t) or whether the Bible condones human sacrifice (it does), but how to treat relatives who’ve left/found/switched religion, when evangelising of any kind is and is not okay, or what it’s like to live as an atheist/a Muslim/a Mormon. I like that we can talk about what pisses us off, not just in each other’s communities but in our own.
So often, interfaith means believers patting one another’s backs, agreeing much more than their religions at large have ever done, avoiding hard questions and actually saying very little. This is more like InterView: add in a skeptic who’ll be tough when needs be, and the discourse gets much better: it becomes about the way beliefs play out in the real world, and which of them are the right ones.
That’s the kind of dialogue that, as an active atheist, I want. And I think it’s firebrands like me that interfaith needs.