A few weeks ago, I attended a wedding together with one of my coworkers. At the wedding, we met some of his friends from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and a governmental unit for preventing terrorism. One of them was helping to organize the Interfaith Summit 2012 in Bali. This meeting eventually led to me being invited there as a speaker.
Thus, early Thursday morning my coworker and I left for Bali. The conference was great. People from all over the world coming to connect with each other across the lines of religious boundaries. Muslims, Christians, Hindus and so on. The biggest groups were from Indonesia, Malaysia and Uzbekistan. But we also had people from Russia, Norway, Bangladesh, India, and many other places. People working together for human rights and equal dignity for everyone, under the premise that God created us all and loves us all equally.
One early speaker put emphasis on the importance of secularism. Perhaps to the point that secularism is the only possible basis for human rights, but I didn’t ask for a transcript to analyze.
Another early speaker went very far in the other direction. This man, who I later was told is a Christian, put his emphasis squarely on the idea that God loves us all. His speech was very good at it’s main purpose, to promote understanding and tolerance between different religions. He seemed to have a good understanding of different religions and their potential for finding mutual ground.
On the other hand, he seemed to know nothing about how non-religious people think. He had this project of unifying all religions into one big family. One ”us”, one big in-group. But this project came at the price of excluding everyone who is not religious. Sadly, this is a common phenomenon: While to include everyone based on categories, there will always be people overlooked and left out. In this case, including all religions, but excluding the growing number of people who doesn’t have a religion.
He made it sound as if secular people cannot have morality and cannot understand human rights. He argued against the principle that ”if you don’t hurt anyone, you can do whatever you want”. He seemed to believe, or at least argue, that this is the one and only principle that all secular people follows. Ironically, the principle he objected to is not secular. Instead, it is one of the core faith principles in a religion called Wicca. Real secular moral philosophy is far more complicated and nuanced, as I have mentioned in a previous post.
His prejudice against non-religious people was a small part of his speech, but a part that would have been very damaging if it would have had stood unopposed. Thankfully, it got rebuffed quickly and firmly. As soon as there was time for questions, a young veiled Indonesian Muslim woman stood up and explained that she has many Atheist and Agnostic friends at her university. Friends who are just as good and moral people as any of her fellow Muslims. As she finished speaking, the entire audience cheered for her.
My message was that three kinds of morality are universal, but for us to use these kinds of morality we must understand that they apply equally to everyone. Empathy, respect and maximization of outcome is not only for oneself or for one’s own group, but for everyone.
I explained a bit about the tree kinds of morality and took some examples from religious and secular sources. How these three principles exist in all major religions and almost all small religious groups, as well as in all cultures and the bulk of secular philosophy.
Regarding respect, I talked a it about The Golden Rule in sources such as the Bible and also about the Kant’s Categorical Imperative. I claimed that these two principles are the same as long as you just use them for spiritual guidance, but that Kant’s version is far better at sealing the loopholes when you want to use it for logical arguments.
I explained about how racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, antimuslimism and so on are just different forms of Categorism. While prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and so on are different expressions of it. That when it comes to morality and human rights, we must overcome the habit of dividing people into categories. That we must consider all humans equal and part of the same big family, without losing this unity in divisions such as between different religions or between religious and secular.
So, how do we come to truly understand this most basic and most important fact? How does one reach the insight that he is not the center of the universe and that ”the others” are equally human and equally valid? I offered two options, one religious and one secular. The religious option was the one already offered: That God created us all and love us all equally. As the secular option, I claimed that it is enough to accept that reality exists and isn’t a conspiracy. You are not just imagining other people, and they are not just pretending to have thoughts and feelings: They are, in fact, just as real as you are.
On the last day we all took a trip to see a volcano and a beach with black (volcanic) sand. The nature along the way was beautiful, and the view over the volcano quite breathtaking. I had a fever during the entire weekend in Bali, but it was still awesome. In the evening, my coworker and I went to see the monument over the victims of the Bali bombing. Around it, life was going on as usual. We will honor the victims, and never let some fascists – religious or otherwise – run our lives for us.
Back in Jakarta, we visited a seminar held by CDCC, Center for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations. One of the speakers, the Norwegian bishop Gunnar Stalsett, claimed that while interfaith dialogue is very important, we are facing an even greater challenge: Intrafaith dialogue, dialogue within each faith. Because there is so much difference and variation within each religion. Within Christianity, within Islam, and so on. He has a very important point there, and I think the most important thing to remember here is that no religion is ever monolithic. It consists of religious individuals, each of them unique.
He also tried to solve the dilemma of how to include atheists and agnostics, by making a strong distinction between faith and belief. The concept of ”faith” may be reserved for religions, but everybody has beliefs in one way or another. One might argue the opposite, that Atheism is a faith but not a belief since it’s actually a disbelief. In any case, I do agree that talking about faith AND belief is a good starting point when it comes to issues of respecting beliefs. When it comes to respecting people, however, we shouldn’t divide them by faith or belief in the first place. When it comes to beliefs, faiths, worldview-identities or whatever you call it, they are not a valid ground for discrimination or other expressions of categorisms. This goes both ways. In one way, your religion does not give you a right to discriminate. Not against outsiders, and not against insiders – for example women and gay people within your own religious group. In the other way, you may not discriminate other people because you don’t like their religion. Not if you belong to another religion, or another subset within the same religion, and not if you are secular either. That is all. May we all share this planet together in peace.