It’s “Interfaith Week” on my campus. And every year the leaders seek my participation in the form of my own involvement and/or academic credit for religious studies students who participate. Our “campus ministries” office exists to nurture the religious lives of students and, as I see it, the role of the academic study of religion is to study religion rather than to encourage (or discourage) participation in it.
But there is another reason I am uncomfortable with interfaith efforts in general and it has to do with the way in which they fail to see the exclusivism embedded in their own efforts at pluralism.
We have a Turkish Cultural Center that plays an important role in Jacksonville and I have enjoyed many of their events. They hold an annual “Unity Dinner” that they had repeatedly asked me to attend. A couple of years ago I went and learned, through a film that was the culmination of the evening, what they meant by unity: we really all believe in one God. Rather than seeking to eliminate the religious barriers that divide us, the film sought to carve out a space for Muslims in American monotheism at the expense of Eastern religions and non-believers. We do not all believe in one God. And mainstream pluralistic Muslims, of all people, should understand why religious exclusivism is a bad idea.
But interfaith leaders really don’t seem to see the ways they do this. A recent local public radio show featured an “interfaith panel: a Methodist minister and Muslim leader. One caller tried to make the same point I am making by saying ‘agnostics don’t burn Qurans or fly planes into buildings because we don’t feel the need to argue over whose invisible friend is stronger. Yet people who don’t subscribe to a faith are beneath contempt…’” The obviously well-meaning Methodist minister responded with comments about the life and work of Jesus Christ, concluding that “all people are created by a loving God and worthy of the dignity”—as far as I could tell, completely missing the point.
When I interviewed the organizer of the interfaith event in opposition to the planned 9-11 Quran burning in Gainesville, he called on “all people of faith” to join. I asked why interfaith groups don’t seem to see that, in trying to erase the lines that divide us, too often make one of those lines darker: the one between people of faith and their non-believing natural allies. I asked, “if you really want to be inclusive why not be so. Why not include everyone who wants to foster respect among diverse people whether they are religious or not?”
His first answer was to suggest that the “Quran-burning antics would increase the tribe of non-believers.” (I wondered to myself if he realized that he was suggesting I should support Quran burning because it might help free us from our imaginary friends.) He continued reaching for an answer until I restated the question more directly: “I’m sure there are lots of non-believers there who agree with you that this is wrong. Why would you not want to enlist their support in opposing it?” He answered that he had never thought about it that way.
Let me be clear: I am support the efforts of interfaith groups to fight religious bigotry (both the bigotry of some groups and the bigotry against some groups). I want to help. But it violates my own sense of intellectual integrity to claim to be a “person of faith” in order to join in.