Interfaith(less) dialogue

There are two types of people who sometimes object to participating in interfaith ceremonies: religious and irreligious. First the religious. … Continued

There are two types of people who sometimes object to participating in interfaith ceremonies: religious and irreligious.

First the religious. After the horrible shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the local clergy sponsored an ecumenical prayer service. While I don’t believe there is a deity who listens to prayers, I do understand the value of a community coming together publicly to mourn such a tragedy. One victim was a little girl who had recently joined Christ the King Lutheran Church. Its pastor, Robert Morris, gave the benediction. President Barack Obama and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy attended.

Shannon Hicks


In this January 2012 photo provided by the Newtown Bee, the Rev. Rob Morris sits in his office at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod denomination is reprimanding Rev. Morris for participating in an interfaith vigil on Dec. 16, 2012, after the Sandy Hook massacre. The denomination bars joint worship because it doesn’t want to appear to mix its beliefs with those of other faiths.

Pastor Morris had made it clear that participants at the service did not necessarily endorse one another’s theological views. Nonetheless, up the Lutheran authority chain Pastor Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, reprimanded Morris for participating. Pastor Harrison said he feared such ecumenical activities might give the impression that it doesn’t matter who God is, how to worship Jesus, and what we need to do to get to heaven.

After the rebuke raised a public outcry, I was hoping to hear an apology, and there was one. Unfortunately, the apology did not come from President Harrison for having criticized Pastor Morris’s attempt to comfort grieving people who might have had different beliefs about an afterlife. The apology came from Pastor Morris, who humbly acknowledged that his participation was offensive to his church. He also promised never again to take part in such ecumenical activities.

I’ve noticed that religious believers tend to fall into two categories: those who place behavior above belief, and find in their holy books an obligation to advocate for social justice; and those who place belief above behavior, and think of this life as preparation for an afterlife. I certainly prefer the former view. I was sorry to learn that Pastor Morris felt he needed to apologize for the “sin” of putting behavior above belief.

Many irreligious people also object to participating in interfaith ceremonies. The word “interfaith” is meant to be inclusive, and to some degree it is. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other minority religions can comfortably participate with Christians in interfaith activities. While such inclusive intentions may be honorable, a lot of atheists and humanists feel uncomfortable with the term “interfaith” because we have no faith in deities. A name change would be ideal: Inter-worldview? Interbelief? Faith and values? A better phrase?

Regardless, most of us non-religious do like collaboration with religious people to achieve our common goals. An added bonus is that negative stereotypes might change when religious people and atheists get to know each other in this way.

As an open atheist, I’ve participated in a number of interfaith dialogues, mostly with progressive religionists who are comfortable working with people of other faiths and none. They can more easily collaborate with us on good works than with conservative religionists, whose primary interest in those outside their narrow belief system is to proselytize. I’ve even heard a scriptural basis for their not working with us, from II Cor. 6:14. “Believers must not commune with unbelievers. What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, light with darkness, believers with infidels?”

I think it’s terrific when inter-faith groups invite atheists to participate. Even if the gatherings start and end with a prayer, I feel everyone benefits and everyone matters in addressing the common cause. Some of those praying know we are there despite what we view as meaningless prayers, and they often try to accommodate us in other ways. Sometimes they acknowledge in their prayers that there are good atheists working alongside them. Occasionally, they might even invite one of us to give a humanist invocation.

Representatives of the Secular Coalition for America were pleased to meet in 2009 with Joshua DuBois, then-director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It was a step forward for atheists and humanists to get this small place at the political table. We had a frank dialogue with DuBois, who seemed to understand our disappointment that President Obama has continued President Bush’s faith based programs. DuBois recently left his position, and we haven’t seen any substantive changes in the issues we addressed. Nevertheless, I hope atheists and all others who support separation of church and state will have many opportunities to express our concerns to whoever replaces DuBois.

It’s a lot easier to change what we don’t like from the inside than from the outside.

Proposals to mix faith and government need input from citizens who rely on reason as well as the faithful. Just like communities that come together during times of crisis to grieve.

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Herb Silverman
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  • inreasonitrust

    If different religions and denomination’s Gods differ from each other, then only one God is right and the rest are wrong.
    Now the question is to find “The Right God”.
    Since all the people differ in whose God is the right one, I don’t know why that “The Right God” who supposedly is also very powerful does not interfere and put this 4000-5000-year lingering issue to res!
    The truth of the matter is, there is no God.

  • inreasonitrust

    I resist to be called non-believer.
    I was debating with a pastor last month.
    Here is what happened:
    Pastor asked me if I am a believer.
    I replied “yes.”
    Pastor asked me what I believe in.
    I replied: “I believe there is no god.”
    Pastor said: So you are not a believer.
    I replied: I am a believer, but you are not a believer.
    Pastor asked: How I am not a believer?
    I said: You are not a believer, because, you don’t believe that there is no god.
    I am a believer, because, I believe there is no god.

  • fhay26

    Since all religious faiths are based on fantasy (there uis nothing that can be called EVIDENCE), then what can be gained by engaging in debate over (A) whether or not there is a God, (B) which “God” is the true one? People of faith (fantasy) can not be reasoned with because fantasy is not subject to reason. Debate only increases the divide between believers and non-believers. Dialogue on the subject of religious faith is not productive unless someone is aware that they are uncertain and want discussion in order to stimulate their analytical thinking. This does not happen very often.

  • humanistmel

    This article raises an important issue regarding “interfaith” councils and their acceptance of atheists. I am an atheist and a board member of my local interfaith council. Whether I am merely being “tolerated” as a show of the council’s ecumenism, or if I am sincerely accepted as a contributing voice of another viewpoint, was a question that had been the elephant in the room during past board meetings. I believe my colleagues on the board have sincerely accepted me and really want to learn more about the lifestance of atheists, but it is an issue that is in need of more open discussion. Herb, I will be forwarding your article to other members of our interfaith council.

  • ThomasBaum

    Where is your “evidence” that it is “fantasy”?

    Merely your opinion, your reasoned opinion, but your opinion, nevertheless.

    I suppose that when I believed in God, one could say that I was “uncertain” if by uncertain, it was meant that I did not “know”.

    However, since I met God, I am certain since I “know” that God Is and that God is a Trinity and a Being of Love as in Love not being an attribute of God but God’s Very Being.

    Not only would I say that this is hard to conceive but I would say that it is impossible for us humans to conceive or reason out that Love could be and is a Being.

  • smitisan

    Dialogue on any subject is impossible when one side is absolutely certain of its position. Some faiths are a lot more reasonable than the certainty of absolutists will ever be. There is a common ground, however: doubt. You just have to be willing to admit it.

  • smitisan

    Or maybe they’re all part of God. Who knows? For sure we’ll never figure it out by saying everybody’s wrong.

  • Emma Gray

    As a religious studies student, I completely respect atheism, humanism, agnosticism, etc. as valid versions of “belief.” I totally agree that dialogue is needed, and, in order for this to happen, a warm and welcoming atmosphere must be created. I also agree that sometimes members of faith groups hinder this environment, however, I couldn’t help but wonder about your line “I think it’s terrific when inter-faith groups invite atheists to participate. Even if the gatherings start and end with a prayer, I feel everyone benefits and everyone matters in addressing the common cause.” I think this sounds wonderful, but I know many people of non-faith that I’ve met would be very turned off, maybe even disrespectful of the act of prayer in their presence. I am NOT trying to say that this applies broadly. I am aware that I have only come into contact with a minuscule percentage of non-faith-professing people.
    I only wish to highlight that respect has to go both ways.

  • MyraRubinstein

    It is easy to be in a community of like minded people. The challenge (and the joy) is in celebrating, grieving and problem solving with those who are of different minds.

    I don’t have a problem with a gathering beginning or ending with prayer if it is not sponsored by the government or a government organization. However, because of the wall of separation of church and state, government sponsored meetings or gatherings should never begin or end with prayer or any other religious activity.

  • scottsteaux63

    I might have known he was Missouri Synod; unlike the other clergy who participated he made several pointed references to Christ and said other things that would not be said at an ecumenical gathering. I was born and raised ELCA Lutheran and even when I was a kid back in the Sixties they were calling us “liberals.” ELCA participates in ecumenical services such as the Newtown memorial all the time. Shame on the LCMS; Christianity is not supposed to be arrogant, stiff-necked, self-righteous, smug, and exclusive, and in reprimanding this pastor they were all of those things.

  • BusinessProf1

    It’s nice that you resspect atheism, etc as “valid versions of belief,” except that atheism is NOT a belief. Not believing in god is no different from not believing in unicorns. I don’t even bother to wonder whether a unicorn exists, as I know (other than genetic mutations of some horned animals) they are mythical. The same is true of god, especially since there are so many conceptions of god that they can’t all be correct. It doesn’t take faith to NOT believe in something for which there is NO empirical evidence. Faith is the reserved for belief.

  • BusinessProf1

    @ThomasBaum – How can one have evidence that something is fantasy? The evidence is required by those that claim something is true, not those that don’t believe in that thing for which there is NO evidence. You claim to have “met” god, but in what way? Did he walk up to you and introduce himself? No, God is a fantasy because there is NO possibility of proving or disproving his existence. Anything that has no possibility of testing its veracity cannot be considered factual, but is at best conjecture.

  • BusinessProf1

    That is bad logic and leads the religious to claim that atheism is a religion. Believing that there is no god in light of the lack of evidence to his existence is not the same as believing in something for which there is no evidence.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “No, God is a fantasy because there is NO possibility of proving or disproving his existence.”

    I partially agree with your statement “there is NO possibility of proving or disproving his existence” in that I believe that there is no way that we (humans) will ever be able to prove or disprove that God Is, I believe that only God can supply this “proof”.

    Even your saying that God Is a fantasy, I agree with partially considering that the definition of fantasy is:
    1. imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
    2. the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.
    3. a mental image, especially when unreal or fantastic; vision: a nightmare fantasy.
    4. Psychology . an imagined or conjured up sequence fulfilling a psychological need; daydream.
    5. a hallucination.

    since many people’s “conception” of God is fantasy and in many cases very cartoony especially the “conception” of God that at least some atheists have of God.

    However I think that presenting “because there is NO possibility of proving or disproving his existence” as evidence that “God is a fantasy” is absurd.

    If indeed God is beyond our human abilities to prove or disprove, it could lead one to believe there is no God or that God just might not be the puny god of our limited imagining’s.

  • ThomasBaum


    You asked, “You claim to have “met” god, but in what way? Did he walk up to you and introduce himself?”

    I met God the Father and the Holy Spirit however I did not physically see Dad or the Holy Spirit,.

    I say that God the Father came into my heart but it is more accurate to say that He was already in my heart and that He let Himself be known to me and in an instant, actually less, I knew that this was God the Father and that God’s Very Being is Love as opposed to Love being an attribute of God.

    The Holy Spirit came into my body from outside of my body and I just knew that it was the Holy Spirit and He revealed to me that the Catholic Eucharist is Jesus.

    I believed in the Trinity before I met the Trinity, even tho I did not exactly meet Jesus only that it was revealed to me that the Catholic Eucharist is Jesus, and I was taught that God is Love but I had no idea that the statement “God Is Love” is absolutely literal until I met Dad.

    I present these two personal revelations from God to me as simple statements of fact, their validity depends not on whether anyone believes them to be true, only on whether or not they are true.

  • efavorite

    I’d like a description of what it means to be “Disrespectful of the act of prayer.”

    Did they not bow their heads? did they keep their eyes open? If so, many “faithful” do the same, including clergy – I’ve spied on them while they were spying on the people praying.

    Or were the non-believers doing something openly disrespectful, like interrupting the prayer with talking or laughing?

  • edbyronadams

    You don’t have to move beyond the “On Faith” pages to find the virulent disrespect dished out by the non believers. One wonder how they even found their way here. What compulsion drives them?

  • edbyronadams

    “I’ve noticed that religious believers tend to fall into two categories: those who place behavior above belief, and find in their holy books an obligation to advocate for social justice; and those who place belief above behavior, and think of this life as preparation for an afterlife.”

    That is pretty simplistic. Most advocates for “social justice” don’t frame it in terms of personal action but in terms of what “they” or “we” must do. For me, faith provides guidance for behavior of my self and the essence of respect for others is the expectation that they can do it also.

  • edbyronadams

    “However, because of the wall of separation of church and state”

    There is no such wall. The anitestablishment clause merely states that there shall be no establishment of a state religion and since ecumenical gathering represent several sects, there is no establishment possible.

  • mmurray1957

    A religion that believes that non-believers will suffer torment for all eternity is not supposed to be exclusive ? Exactly how do you cherry pick the New Testament to get to that conclusion ?

  • mmurray1957

    @edbyronadams How do non-believers get here ? Well there is this thing called HTML. You can make links and click on them moves you from one page to another. It’s really neat.

  • mmurray1957

    He tried to settle it yesterday but he missed.

  • mmurray1957

    And not holding a belief in God is not even a belief.


    Atheists have a specific lifestyle now? I musta not have gotten the memo.

  • ThomasBaum

    Is grouping all atheists as one, so to speak, any different than grouping all theists as one?

  • ThomasBaum


    There is a lot of “virulent disrespect dished out” on some of these posts and it comes from both believers and non-believers, seems as if some are just two sides of the same coin irregardless of whether they believe that God Is or not.

    I don’t know if “virulent disrespect” would be the right term but as far as someone having a “holier than thou attitude”, there are both believers and non-believers that whole heartedly embrace this attitude, makes it seem that it is more of a human thing than a “belief” thing.

  • h5r2

    Silverman’s article makes a distinction between theists who are more concerned with pleasing real humans and theists who are more concerned with pleasing an imaginary god.

  • tidelandermdva

    Yes. How dare he criticize atheists’ participation in religious worship.

  • john reed davis

    I’m not an atheist. Hate in the name of God has always been perplexing. I think religion shows the arrogance of man. If God is who believe him to be why do people constantly hate and kill defend his honor?


    Dialogue will bring less of membership control as well as cases of change of membership. It all boils down to worship of the same God.