In this post I’m going to be a little bit personal (no not another post mentioning black metal) and talk about something close to what I actually do in some of my real life. For the past few months I’ve been involved (initially just for work experience reasons) with an interfaith organiation. One thing I’ve found as a generality in London is that there are a great amount of similar organisations which often focus around a geographical locus. For instance, for some reason, there are loads of thinktanks in Victoria; lots of the public sector is organised around the general area around Westminster (I suppose that’s for obvious reasons – no need to claim much on taxi fare); and for a reason unbenkownst to me, there are a lot of interfaith organisations and initiatives around Kentish Town.
This week closing was Interfaith week. Interfaith means a lot of things to me, even if I don’t really understand much about it (I mainly help by sorting out their information systems). I used to be involved with a lot of secularist and atheist-friendly campaigning, and to some extent we in Noumenal Realm still keep connections, and are quite passionate about the overlapping interests of the secularists and atheists with issues of science and pseudoscience, scientific method and the public role of the intellectual. Getting involved with an interfaith organisation back in May/June was an odd decision to say the least, especially because someone like me might be considered ‘the enemy’ or if they knew more about my past credentials I’d perhaps feel some hostility from them and possibly vice versa. A lot of this is about misunderstanding, and I suppose, the point of many of these interfaith organisations is to overcome such misunderstandings.
In an environment of Britain today where the ongoing narrative of what was once the ‘War on Terror’ and the so-called axist of evil led to difficulties with marginalising practicioners of Islam, and more distinctively, the ethnic groups that make up the main body of Muslim believers in the UK such as Pakistani and Arab-descent Britons; so-called ‘Islamophobia’ promted in no small part by negative media representation as well as the other issues general to immigrants of integration and prejudice. In such a difficult climate interfaith relations really makes its mark in the name of social cohesion.
During my incubation years with the Jesuits; I was thoroughly introduced to Catholic approaches to Christian issues and general ways of thinking about the world (there is for instance a distinctly ‘Catholic’ cultural sensibility, or a ‘Catholic’ philosophical way of thinking – perhaps a topic for another post). One of the ‘Catholic’ approaches that I learned about interfaith relations came from a certain University lecturer on I had on Kant and modern theology who was also an international expert on Catholicism and other religions. The Catholic difficulty of inter-religious dialogue was to accept the unique claim to their Christian truth while acknowledging other faiths. This kind of approach was well-meaning in some ways, but also far too intellectualised; involving only theologians and men of the collar. Dialogue between religions is not only a matter of ‘who claims spiritual truths’ and some John Hick-esque parable about an elephant being felt up by blind people; but a matter of real social and political significance.
The issue of religion affects people on the high street level and the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus (I hate that phrase, but since I actually live near Clapham I think I’m justified in using it). In recent years, the Islamic community has been a target by various groups who in turn have almost as radical and violent opponents. I find the phrase ‘anti-facist’ just as threatening as a ‘facist’ organisation, as either seem to inevitably lead to violence. So here we see two distinct kinds of approaches. One, intellectualised approach which is not relevant to anyone except people with PhD’s and ‘SJ’ after their name, which strives for understanding in a somewhat genuine level of philosophical and spiritual dialogue. On another, is a non-dialogue of violence which rather than highlights the issues clearly; aggrivates the fact that there is an urgent issue of social integration and a need for peaceful dialogue with those in faith communities and the secular world in general.
Enter the contemporary interfaith organisation. Inter-religious dialogue has moved on a bit since the days of John Hick and my aging lecturer who knew as much about Kant as he did about how to account for other cultural communities. See this article by Stephen Shashoua for a particular snapshot of contemporary activities. Interfaith organisations target a wider group than university educated priests and theologians who sometimes visit a Gurdwara or Mosque once in a while. Interfaith organisations target groups and geographical areas for which are very sensitive to the issue of cultural integration and social cohesion. Young people from primary schools to Universities are invited to discuss issues and are encouraged to discuss issues from misunderstandings about other religions to real social issues such as social mobility and drugs in a way that is relevant to them and also gives them a wider perspective on the world and how they fit into it, almost religious as it were (if I were a Hegelian I’d almost call such an apprehension to pertain to the geist).
I am writing this post because I find a certain amount of conflict with another public event that had occured this week. In Canada was a public debate between Christopher Hitchens who has been favourably tackled in previous posts by us, and Tony Blair, famous spokesman for Tesco and overpriced public speaker. The question of debate was ‘is religion a force for good in the world?’ After my experience with interfaith organisations, and a wider appreciation of the work they do, I feel unable to think as clearly on such a question as I once did. In a sense, it is a public-intellectual style discussion about ideology and appeal to spiritual beliefs which in a sense is not as helpful. On the other hand, what else is a religion but its beliefs and spiritual components? I suppose there’s a difference between the people and the beliefs.
I must admit that I’ve not seen or heard the debate except for snippets. If anyone reading this has any link to it I’d love to give it a look/hear it fully. There are a great many nuances to issues of how religions and their believers relate to geo-political disputes and difficulties, but this much seems certain to me: faiths can ‘from within’ make an effort to establish greater cohesion and relationships with other communities, and a debate on such issues should appeal more to a localised setting of the people for whom it is directly relevant rather than relying on second hand putative conceptions of religions and the ‘ivory tower’ approach to inter religious dialogue which involves only the intellectual believer. Also, you can be a secularist and support inter religious dialogue. Call me a contradiction if you may.