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Post Does Interfaith Dialogue Have Room for Agnostics and Atheists?
Created by John Eipper on 06/30/14 3:43 AM

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Does Interfaith Dialogue Have Room for Agnostics and Atheists? (Vincent Littrell, USA, 06/30/14 3:43 am)

As a follow-on question to my post of 22 June, John Eipper asked, "does interfaith dialogue leave room for the voices of agnostics and atheists?"

In my opinion, the answer is "yes."

At least some religious representatives in interfaith dialogue have struggled with the issue of secularist participation in the high-profile dialogues. However, I think the inclusion of secular humanist participants in these events will become the norm. One high-profile interreligous ecumenical event where secular humanists were included was the Assisi Gathering of 2011, convened by Pope Benedict XVI. (For a good discussion of this see Jason Welle, "The Evolution of the Assisi Gathering: To Humanism and Beyond," Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 2013, p. 377-390.) For this event Benedict invited over 300 religious leaders to include four prominent secular humanists. These four humanists were Mexican Philosopher Guillermo Hurtado, Italian Philosopher Remo Bodei, Austrian economist Walter Baier, and the Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva.

Benedict's comments regarding the inclusion of the humanists at the Assisi Gathering is as follows:

"In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: "There is no God." They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are "pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace." They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God, and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible." (See: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2011/october/documents/hf_benxvi_spe_20111027_assisi_en.html )

Regarding Julia Kristeva, Jason Welle states, "In Assisi, Kristeva articulated foundations of humanism. One of these is the importance of 'dialogism' or intertexuality, which aims not to arrive at a finite point of understanding and definition but to strive toward harmony through a modality transformation. The norm in dialogism is a condition of constant rupture, with few moments of agreement or fixity; when these occur, they do not bring dialogue to a conclusion but always permit the possibility of shifts and changes in ideas." (Welle, JES, p. 385)

I present the above comment about Julia Kristeva to reflect the important contributions Humanist thought can play in the evolution of interreligious dialogue. I agree with Kristeva's point about dialogue not arriving at a fixed conclusion, and that re-engagement is a requirement in this regard.

I also wish to underscore Pope Benedict XVIth's comment about people's "inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God." Welle further quotes Benedict from a different speech:

"Agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of their sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is 'routine' and who regard the church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts. These words should make all of us stop and reflect, in fact they should disturb us." (Welle, JES, p. 382)

All religionists of deep faith and sincerity regarding the high spirituality and moral teachings of their respective religions wrestle with what Pope Benedict refers to, in that so many of their co-religionists, including those in high leadership, conduct themselves in ways at odds with the teachings of their own faiths. By establishing religious organizational processes and codifying or even sacralizing scriptural interpretations in ways that are not in concert with the intent of the original prophetic founders of those religions, they can turn truth-seeking peoples away.

Postscript: A digression: The above last paragraph ties into the Baha'i belief in the concept of Progressive Revelation. This concept holds that the appearances of Manifestations, Messengers, Prophets, and revealers of the Word of God at different places and periods of human history are purposed to turn people to the "face of God," to fulfill past prophecies and to break asunder obsolete traditions and creeds not necessary for mankind's continued spiritual and material advancement. Baha'is believe God will never leave mankind bereft of His Word. Therefore future revealers of the Word of God will appear to rejuvenate human spirituality and to give new impetus to civilizational advancement.

JE comments:  Benedict's words on the "usefulness" of agnostics are quite instructive, especially the Pope's claim that the sincere, inquisitive agnostic is closer to God than those whose religious practices take the form of outward appearance only.

Julia Kristeva is a major figure in Literary Criticism/Critical Theory.  In my graduate school days, she was always someone you could cite to make your paper sound smart.

But what about the atheists?  I would assume they are excluded from these high-profile fora, although their certainty of God's non-existence is a type of religion in itself.

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