“Interfaith” blindness

There is a strange attitude towards religion in New Zealand. US President Obama can acknowledge that the pluralistic society includes people of various faiths and people with no faith (the non-religious). However our main political parties (National and Labour) seem unwilling to face that reality. At least, that’s how it appears in their interaction with the country’s “interfaith” movement.

Government spokesperson

Take the speech by Patsy Wong, National Minister of Ethnic Affairs, at the National Interfaith Forum in Auckland last month. First she gets her information wrong:

“The 2006 Census revealed that more than three million people in New Zealand – nearly three quarters of our population – identify themselves as being part of a religious group.”

But the actual figures show that only 2,237,682 identified themselves this way in the 2006 census. Perhaps Patsy Wong is interpreting the total number answering the religion question without objecting (about 3,490,00) as “being part of a religious group.” Despite the fact that 1,297,104 of these answered “no religion!”

Response

2006 NZ Census

Total Stated

3,743,652 (93% of total)

Object to answering

242,652 (6% of total)

No Religion

1,297,104 (32% of total)

Religion

2,237,682 (56% of total)

Perhaps she has just chosen to ignore the non-religious. Especially as she goes on to say:

“While some people would describe New Zealand as a secular society, it is important to remember that religion is an important part of the growing number of new migrants. This highlights the need for continuing dialogue among our country’s religious leaders.

Under the Human Rights Act, freedom of religion is written into law and the endurance of this Interfaith Forum is testament to the respect New Zealanders can show to all religions.”

In other words she ignores that fact that our legislation on freedom of religion covers the non-religious as well. And surely the non-religious are an important and “growing” part of our society. Surely they need to be included in the “continuing dialogue” she talks of.

Opposition spokesperson

Not to be outdone the Labour Party, the main opposition party, has appointed a spokesperson on” interfaith” affairs (see Labour launches interfaith portfolio ). This is Luamanuvao Winnie Laban who described her role as “about linking in with the interfaith movements around the country and internationally, to build greater understanding and peace.”

“I believe if we can get the many different religions in the same room and engage in dialogue that is of great benefit to both harmonious relations here and overseas.

“New Zealand has a diverse range of faiths and it will be my role to attend interfaith meetings, as I did on the weekend and listen to the concerns of the many different cultures and religions represented.

“During times of economic hardship many people turn to the church and faith communities to provide leadership, support and compassion and Labour recognises the significant role faith plays in many people’s lives.”

Again – where are the non-religious? Shouldn’t they be involved in any dialogue – national or international? And why exclude them from “leadership, support and compassion” during economic hardship?

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13 responses to ““Interfaith” blindness

  1. Interfaith Dialogue (applicable to NZ):

    “US President Obama can acknowledge that the pluralistic society includes people of various faiths and people with no faith (the non-religious). ” [Tangent before I start: Yah Obama – Seperation of Church and State via communication of beliefs. Anywho]

    This is such a common, I believe, mistake. I think a distinction needs to be made here: non-religious people (agnostics, atheists, etc.) are not people without faith.

    Plato described Knowledge as a subset of ‘Truth’ and ‘Belief’ – Truth being proof (i.e. empirical evidence). In that description we can easily derive the meaning of two more words. Delusion – a ‘Belief’ maintained despite contradictory ‘Truth.’ Faith – a ‘Belief’ maintained in the absence of ‘Truth.’

    By definition, Agnostics and Atheists have faith. e.g. Atheists have faith that there is no God. An Atheist may have an argument to justify his belief, but an argument is not physical, empirical proof.

    In practical terms, this definition of faith adds more weight to the position that the non-religious should be included in Interfaith Dialogue to promote tolerance and cooperation between faiths.

    Which brings me back to Obama. Such an Interfaith dialogue would, by necessity, have to be conducted in the manner suggested by Obama:

    [heavily paraphrased] “…The religiously-motivated (must) translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values… It requires that proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason… I have to explain (my position in a manner) that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those of no faith at all [we can understand his intent here]… In a pluralistic society we have… to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality… The best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason. So we have some work to do here.”

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  2. Hey Ken,

    Pssst mate……

    I’ve just seen the arrangements for the next Interfaith Forum (leaked to me, from one of my Atheist Liberation Army informant moles, placed inside The National Party, who masquerades as a Catholic to blend-in)

    SEATING ARRANGEMENTS

    The Jews are next to The Muslims
    The Ralians are to the right of The Scientologists
    The Baptists are sitting next to The Hindu’s
    The Catholics want to sit at the head of the table
    The Seventh Day Adventists are next door The Exclusive Brethren
    The Bahai Faith want to sit by everyone
    The Destiny Church is proving a problem
    The all want a say what’s on the lunch menu.

    FIRST-DAY TOPICS TO BE DISCUSSED

    0800-1000: Hell, who exactly ends-up there?
    1030-1230: My God is bigger than yours

    Break for lunch and first-aid.

    1330-1530: How to work together, to come across like we are a unified embattled sector under-fire from a evil sectarian society bent on our destruction.
    1600-1800: Tax, who needs it?

    More ‘good oil’ to come, mate.

    Keep this to yourself.

    Paul.

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  3. Stephen – one can argue about whether the “faith” of the non-religious is different to the faith of the religious. That’s a separate issue as this is really a human rights matter.

    The problem is the interpretation of words like “faith” and religion” is very often opportunist. On the one hand a religious apologist often says that the atheist has “faith” or is “religious” and they mean that in a derogatory way.

    But on the other hand when it comes to tax exemptions, participation in “interfaith” activity etc, and often human rights details, the religious person suddenly has a restricted “supernatural” interpretation of these words. They use this to exclude the non-religious.

    For this reason I think it is a trap to advocate for non-religious inclusion by making them honorary :people of faith” (like the honorary whites in South African apartheid). Better to advocate for replacing “interfaith” concepts with something more in line with human rights. Such as an umbrella “life stance”, ethical, etc., grouping.

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  4. Stephen,

    My understanding is that ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ are not a collective proper nouns as ‘Christian’ is, they are general collective nouns and should not be capitalised. Ditto for ‘Truth’. (Some types of religious people do try capitalise words in this manner, presumably for ideological reasons, but this isn’t the generally accepted use of the words.)

    Your statement:

    By definition, [a]gnostics and [a]theists have faith. e.g. Atheists have faith that there is no G-d.

    doesn’t reflect this atheist’s position! My own approach doesn’t involve ‘faith’ in the way that you describe.

    If I start with there being no evidence for something, it’s sensibly to say “no evidence, therefore no reason to assume it exists”. If someone later claims the thing exists, but provides no evidence, their empty claim leaves me still at “no evidence, therefore no reason to assume it exists”.

    I would aim to only consider those things that can be demonstrated to be real and leave aside those that cannot. Empty claims are left aside as an irrelevance, a red herring, a distraction, what-have-you.

    If I claimed there existed pink unicorns, you’re not going to say that they don’t exist, you’re going to say that my empty claim is an irrelevance.

    ” An [a]theist may have an argument to justify his belief, but an argument is not physical, empirical proof.” can be applied both ways, and so is in effect is moot. You could also write A theist may have an argument to justify his belief, but an argument is not physical, empirical proof. This line of reasoning doesn’t distinguish an atheist from a theist as far as I can see. (It also doesn’t read as true to me, but that’s another matter, and not really relevant.)

    As a final thought, personally I’d be careful with the word ‘proof’. For some people (most people?), like myself, proofs are properly limited to mathematics, etc.

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  5. Ken – I wasn’t arguing wether the nature of the faith of the religious and non-religious is different – which of course it is for they believe in different things (a theistic faith vs an agnostic faith vs an atheistic faith). I was acknowledging that both groups of people, by definition, have faith (their unproven beliefs). There is nothing that requires an honorary since both groups are people of faith.

    This is critical in that Interfaith Dialogue requires the participation of the non-religious to truly represent the diversity of New Zealand faith; given that, if I remember correctly, the non-religious form the second largest group after Christianity (and the fastest growing group).

    Non-religious people should be advocating our inclusion in forums of inter-faith dialogue. It is the best way to force society to recognise and acknowledge the sizable existence of non-religious beliefs. Only if we are at the table can we foster a change in the communication of concerns, to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality, to promote the elimination of religious and non-religious prejudice, thereby foster mutual respect, and erase institutional religious bias by adopting more inclusive formalities.

    Non-religious inclusion, I think, would also be more likely to make inter-faith dialogue more human rights-focused; as it prevents a religiocentrist perspective on issues where there is potential for collaboration.

    Progress isn’t achieved by allowing religious society to dominate, and accepting being ignored.

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  6. Heraclides,

    I apologise for my incorrect usage of capitalisation – it is not intended to purvey any ideology, merely an emphasis on what I was defining at the time.

    “‘By definition, agnostics and atheists have faith. e.g. Atheists have faith that there is no G-d.’ … My own approach doesn’t involve ‘faith’ in the way that you describe.”

    I’ll debate that. By definition, as an atheist, you have faith that God doesn’t exist. Faith in that you believe that to be the case, but you do not have proof. I understand that there’s “no evidence, therefore no reason to assume it exists.” Such scepticism is of course the only rational, initial response to any claim. I have faith that Dragons don’t exist – I don’t have proof of the negative (non-existence) but there’s no evidence of the positive (existence), therefore no reason to assume it exists. If someone were to claim otherwise, the onus of proof would fall on them.

    However, this means that we can only have knowledge (belief + truth/proof of the positive) of what is demonstratably real. We have faith that those things for which there is no evidence do not exist (belief in the absence of truth/proof of the negative or proof of the positive). And we are deluded if we continue to believe in something that is demonstratably false (belief + truth/proof to the contrary of the belief). This is what I mean by knowledge, faith, and delusion.

    If you claimed there existed pink unicorns, I would, by default, assume that they don’t exist unless supplied with evidence to the contrary (this is an example, not a rule – if someone whom I trust claims there’s chocolate in the next room, I’m likely to assume, on the basis of trust and probability, that there exists chocolate in the next room + I really feel like a chocolate bar atm =P ).

    The reasoning – that “an a/theist may have an argument to justify his belief, but an argument is not physical, empirical proof” – was not meant to distinguish an atheist from a theist. It was meant to distinguish between what I consider proof (necessary for knowledge); and justification for faith (you can’t justify a delusion and you don’t need to justify demonstratable knowledge). Evidence that proves a belief to be true is proof; thus rendering it knowledge. Arguments (which can use reasoning and inferences based on evidence) for faith, can be justifications for faith. In the absence of truth, we must evaluate the arguments to see whether that faith is truly justified.

    Perhaps that clarifies things.

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  7. By definition, as an atheist, you have faith that God doesn’t exist.

    I explained that I didn’t. You are making out that I go past what is real, but I never said I did that 😉 I stopped at the pointed that given no evidence, there there is no reason to assume something exists. That’s it. No more. Stop. Your reply makes me that I go past this; I didn’t.

    You see, at that point the question of if the thing exists or not becomes an irrelevance: there is no need to take it further and make assumptions, etc.

    (Your approach also leaves out any sense of nuance, e.g. taking positions based on likelihood rather than absolute stances, but that’s different issue. Your approach also assumes that only definition of an atheist is a strict absolutist one. Bear in mind that the are agnostic atheists and that stances don’t have to be by absolutes, but can be “the best, given what is known”.)

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  8. I feel as if I am writing way too much, but this has been sitting here… so I’ll drop it in, then try shut my big fat gob for a bit 🙂

    Bit more on-topic (!):

    I don’t see how the second two statements in this paragraph are interconnected:

    [1] While some people would describe New Zealand as a secular society, [2] it is important to remember that religion is an important part of the growing number of new migrants. [3] This highlights the need for continuing dialogue among our country’s religious leaders.

    Why is [3] needed because of [2]?

    Perhaps the group needs to be renamed? “Inter-faith” implies that they are trying to sort out issues between them (the different religions) in a “closed circle”. If this group is really “about” issues of immigrants living in NZ, then make it some sort of (recent) immigrants support group? This would be a secular solution: any religious beliefs would fall within this context, and not determine the context.

    I don’t see much evidence of inter-faith confrontations in NZ by the religious myself, with a few rare exceptions. (Not that I would be especially aware them, mind you.)

    Most serious (physical) confrontations seem to be from youths, and more about race or culture than religions per se, so wouldn’t this be a (youth) education issue? It’s a issue, but not an inter-faith one as far as I can see.

    (Just in fun: Then there are also those religious folk “confronting” non-religious people in various ways. Some pushy evangelistic types… some of the anti-evolution activities… and then there is the D.C…)

    One possible place for the non-religious in this, might be to educate the new religious arrivals as to what is appropriate and not, what to expect/accept and not, etc., but isn’t this already done as part of the standard immigration program already?

    I have more thoughts, but I waffle on enough already, eh?

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  9. I probably don’t need to throw any more thoughts on this already lengthy discussion except to say that I enjoyed reading it!

    As an American currently living and studying religion in the UK, I have been surprised that the UK has a thriving interfaith initiative–which, like NZ, is also composed largely of people “of faith” as opposed to non-religious participants of various identifications. The US, in contrast, generally identifies itself along more religious lines in nearly all spheres, but has very limited interfaith initiatives.

    I wonder if increasing secularity in a nation has any correlation with the creation of interfaith alliances? Perhaps there is more of a sense of needing to connect with people of (any) faith? I do find this very interesting and haven’t really come up with an explanation for it.

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  10. Welovetea –

    “I wonder if increasing secularity in a nation has any correlation with the creation of interfaith alliances? Perhaps there is more of a sense of needing to connect with people of (any) faith?”

    I think you might have a point there. The public justification for “interfaith” activity is to increase understanding and overcome inter-beleif conflict – this would imply a willingness to include non-religious who form a very large part of the community.

    However, in practice I think the motivation is mostly getting together with like minded people (supernaturalists) because of the feeling of being under pressure from secular society. This manifests itself in the unwillingness to include the non-religious. Even to acknowledge their existence at times.

    Like a lot of groups and communities humans organise themselves into – the real emotional reasons are very often not the public declared motives.

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  11. Nz is a christian country
    I would never fight for a country that wanted no faith

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  12. Samuel, NZ is NOT a Christian country. A country doesn’t have beliefs, faiths or religions – individual people do.

    The number of nominal Christians in NZ was down to 49.5% in the last census.

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  13. Agreed Ken.

    Samuel, people are free to have faith, but also free not to.

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