Interfaith dialogue to fight against human rights

I have usually argued in favour of interfaith dialogue – but with the proviso that the dialogue should also include the non-religious. What is the point of discussing issues like human rights, terrorism, etc., without including representatives of all ethical beliefs?

In fact, interfaith dialogue which specifically excludes the non-relgious could have dangerous consequences.

This possibility is raised by the appeal of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for “a dialogue among monotheistic religions.” He sees this dialogue as having the purpose “… to come up with ways to safeguard humanity.”

This sounds all well and good – until you discover what he wants to safeguard humanity from: “the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world – a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish.”

According to the King this “is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”

“Disintegration of the family” are codewords in some religious traditions for the extension of human rights to women.

So we have an appeal for interfaith dialogue with the express purpose of removing the human rights of women and the non-religious – or preventing establishment of these and similar rights in many countries.

Religious leaders rush to support intolerance

Abdullah said he has support of his country’s top clerics to pursue this dialogue. It is also likely to get a positive response from international Christianity which will see some possible advantages for their own agenda. The Vatican is currently negotiating for permission to build its first Church in Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah’s appeal has been welcomed by the US President, Israel’s Chief Rabbi (Yona Metzger), the head of inter-religious relations at the American Jewish Committee and a former chief rabbi of Ireland (Rabbi David Rosen), and the Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (Michael Cromartie).

All these people seem quite happy to sacrifice true human rights for the sake of “interfaith dialogue.” Perhaps there is something like oil involved here.

Interfaith dialogue in New Zealand

Closer to home I have expressed concern about the exclusive nature of interfaith activities in New Zealand (see Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect). The issue of exclusion of non-religious ethical beliefs from interfaith activity in New Zealand has frequently been raised. While organisers of these activities generally persist with a non-inclusive approach, there is evidence that some participants are concerned. For example the statement from the Inaugural Aotearoa New Zealand National Youth Interfaith Forum 2008 states: “It is crucial to engage in interfaith dialogue with secular society “ & “‘Interfaith’ may also be considered as ‘inter-worldview'”.

This is a sensible approach. But I suspect some “interfaith” participants in New Zealand would prefer to dialogue with King Abdullah and perhaps would agree with his assessment that human rights for atheists and women threaten humanity.

See also:
So tolerance is ganging up on atheists?
This is tolerance?
Saudi King wants monotheisms to unite to defeat atheism
Religious leaders welcome Saudi king’s proposal for interfaith dialogue, but some want details
Bridge for Sale: Saudi king calls for interfaith dialogue

Related Articles:
Freedom of expression and offence – religious or otherwise
Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect
Secular alternatives to religious communities
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality
Human rights for the non-religious

13 responses to “Interfaith dialogue to fight against human rights

  1. I’m with you on most of that Ken, but found this extremely and utterly insulting and offensive:

    “Disintegration of the family” are codewords in many religious traditions for the extension of human rights to women.

    I would gladly talk about the disintegration of the family, but it is in no way some sort of code language that actually diminishes woman!

    I can’t fathom what sort of ignorance that comment was born from and would ask you to recant or rephrase it.

    I come from a broken family where an alcoholic father walked out on my mother and myself when I was a few months old. My mother struggled to raise me and my sister (born to another man in a following relationship that was also ended… by that man). My story is no longer unusual as countless children are growing up in broken homes. That is the “disintegration of the family” and as a “religious” person who knows MANY “religious” people – and I don’t think I am being over confident when I say, more than you probably know – I can say that your assumption about what we mean by that phrase is quite simply wrong. You need to pick your phrases more carefully. If you’re talking about radical muslims then say so, your use of the phrase “many religious traditions” is utterly misleading and paints a painfully wrong picture.


  2. Perhaps that could be changed from “many religious traditions” to “many, but not all, religious traditions.” (I have changed the many to some).

    However, Servant, considering the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, and many Muslim countries, I think we can see what Abdullah might mean by this. I certainly don’t think he had the plight of your family, or mine, in mind.

    It’s very concerning that enthusiasm for “interfaith” dialogue, religious tolerance and multicultural sensitivity often actually ignores this extreme human rights problems. Why do we criticise newspapers for publishing “insensitive” cartoons and remain silent about the “honour” killings, genital mutilation and other violations of basic human rights?

    I think even western Christian use of this term can (but not always) cover a multitude of sins. Frankly I wish my original family had “disintegrated” or been “broken.” My dream, as a child, was to be rescued from the situation my family was in. I am still convinced that would have been a more healthy outcome for me. Yet, quite a few fundamentalist sects and the Catholic church would not have recognised my (and my siblings) plight. They would only have been concerned if the family had “disintegrated” or been “broken.” They would have been judgmentally critical then – but I and my siblings would have had better lives.

    No tradition has a monopoly on correct behaviour. I don’t think King Abdullah was concerned about the plight of women & children when he used this phrase. Similarly, I think some New Zealand Christians use this terms more in a judgemental and moralistic tone than out of real compassion.


  3. Servant:

    In support of Ken’s comment before, I came from a background with an emotionally and physically abusive father. My mother eventually picked up the courage to take me and my brother and leave him. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.

    In a community where ‘family values’ was enforced as strictly as in some religious communities this could have been resisted, most likely with violence.

    Sometimes families need to be allowed to break apart. It’s sad, but sometimes it really is the best option. A totalitarian stance on family values – is what Ken is suggesting that at least some of these religious leaders believe in – would prevent families in situations such as mine from protecting themselves from abuse as they should do.

    So while I think that in most cases the institution of family is a great one, when religious leaders push an absolute stance on ‘family values’ it worries me to my very core.


  4. Thanks for the adjustment Ken, I appreciate that. I really do 🙂

    Let me state that I am not advocating any sort of totalitarian enforcement of any perceived ‘family values’… a rather subjective term. My issue was with the way the generalised statement incriminating those who hold to a ‘religious’ framework could be misunderstood. That has been rectified.

    We are in agreement on pretty much everything that has been said, I just struggled with the way that one statement was worded.

    I’m also of the mind that it could possibly be seen as a positive step that one of the most stringent Islamic states is willing to talk to anyone at all… it’s not the complete answer, but it’s a step.


  5. Servant:

    “Let me state that I am not advocating any sort of totalitarian enforcement of any perceived ‘family values’… a rather subjective term.”

    Heh. Of course you weren’t. I didn’t mean to jump on you – looking back it does look like I was setting out to rip you a new one.

    I was just trying to point out that ‘family values’ does have its darker side when used by the wrong hands.


  6. Servant – “I’m also of the mind that it could possibly be seen as a positive step that one of the most stringent Islamic states is willing to talk to anyone at all” – how can you be so blind!
    Abdullah has clearly defined who/what he wants to attack with this alliance. “disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world – a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish.” And we have also seen recent comments like this from the leader of the Catholic church – so clearly there is scope for such a crusade!

    We know what he means by “disintegration of the family” – we have the evidence in front of us all the time – the way women are treated in his country.

    He couldn’t be more clear that he also want to organise against people like me – to “safeguard humanity!”

    Excuse me if I can’t take such a benign attitude to this dialogue – but then you aren’t being lined up as a target – I am!


  7. Ubiquitous,

    You’re very right, it certainly does have its darker side when used by the wrong hands… it is all too often used as a political football as well.


    …and I thought I had been confrontational and reactionary 😉

    I understand your concern, I really do… but let me assure you, as long as Christianity is in the discussion, nobody is going to hunt you down and torture and persecute you.

    Let me reiterate – it’s not the complete answer, it’s a step. Abdullah might be stating his terms, it doesn’t mean his terms are going to be the be all and end all of the discussion. Christianity and extreme factions of Islam differ quite differently in their approaches to atheism. For most of Christianity it’s a world-view ‘discussion’… for much of Islam, it’s a political and real world ‘fight’… wouldn’t you want the former to have a chance to moderate the latter… even if it isn’t the ideal? You’ve got to allow for the process towards the ideal which will mean small steps along the way. If you want them to change completely overnight and aren’t willing to accept the process, then I’m afraid you will get nowhere.

    It’s not nice being in the shoes of the persecuted (though I would say that you personally are a long way from being persecuted) is it? Almost all people groups endure it at some time for some reason. I’ve had contact with people in China imprisoned for following Jesus. Welcome to our world.


  8. … also, haven’t you advocated that religion shouldn’t be free from scrutiny? Indeed we have seen many books doing just that and I’m all for that process. We now have some of the most powerful ‘faith’ groups putting forward an organised approach to scrutinising atheism and you don’t like it. I’ll be right there with you in the times that scrutiny takes on the form of physical oppression, I’d walk into a jail cell with you if that happened, but let’s not scream and shout when religion philisophically pushes back against the scrutiny you so wonderfully advocate 🙂


  9. This sentence:

    “for much of Islam, it’s a political and real world ‘fight’”

    Should be:

    “for much of Islam, it’s a violently political and real world ‘fight’”


  10. Servant, I think it is fundamental that human rights are indivisible. When religions gang-up to discuss their own rights, and organise around a crusade against others, that is a “step” but a step on a very slippery slope we have been down before.

    I don’t accept the story of a benign Chrsitianity which can be trusted to look after the interests of the non-religious. We can clearly see that in New Zealand where the religious diversity discussions have effectively ignored the non-religious. I have been told that issues pertaining to the non-religious require the non-religious to organise and campaign themselves (hardly a positive step for a tolerant diverse society). And of course the resulting document ended up claiming certain human rights solely for the people of “faith.”

    Fortunately dialogue on these issues can occur at a secular level, between and within secular states. Our human rights legislation is far better, and more protective of all New Zealanders, than the National Religious Statement devised by “interfaith” dialogue. Similarly, on the international level there are Human Rights Treaties which cover both the religious and non-religious. We should support and protect these.

    Currently the principles of the Human Rights Declaration are under attack. In the UN Human Rights Council the Organisation fo the Islamic Conference has managed to push through restrictions on freedom of expression – with the support of China, Russia and Cuba. I don’t know what position international Christian organisations have taken on this, although their stand on rights to freedom of expression has been somewhat equivocal in the past. However, I have more faith that freedom of expression will receive more support from secular organisations.


  11. I am a little confused by the way in which the original statement is made, Disintegration of the family” are codewords in some religious traditions for the extension of human rights to women.
    Surely the argument is not against such? Or have I completly misread the statement?


  12. Yes, Graham, Abdullah is asking for a campaign against “the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world – a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish.”

    My point is that in his society he sees things like human rights for women, rights for homosexuals, etc., as “disintegration of the family.” Many of his co-religionists who are supporting this call for a dialogue must also think in a similar way.

    Of course, equally bad is his call for a crusade against “atheists.”


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