We hear a lot about interfaith councils, about interfaith charities, and interfaith movements.
It is is possible the most intolerant word I think I have ever heard.
I have to be clear I am NOT attacking the good that interfaith groups do in the world - a great deal of very good charity and cross cultural communication gets done under their auspices, but the approach is flawed and in many ways biased.
I first realised this while talking to a methodist minister in the UK. We had spoken for an hour or so on issues of faith, I had interviewed him about his faith, where it began, how it had developed, it's values etc, and had consented to answer the same questions from him about my beliefs.
Near the end we were discussing other faiths and he mentioned that he was on the local interfaith council but that he thought it was a bit of a sham, I was surprised and asked him why...
"Because everyone on that council with the possible exception of the Buddhist monk thinks everyone else is going to hell."
I'll be honest his reply shocked me a little.
Over the past few years I've thought about what he said a great deal an while I think many members on interfaith councils are of more moderate views and probably expect the other members to get pretty good judgment because they were at least acting from good intentions, I do think that any movement, action or body labelled interfaith is a concern.
The reason is simple by identifying themselves as Interfaith they are citing the only or at least in their mind most important thing they have in common... their faith.
If I started a charity to feed starving children I would think a fundamental belief that children need to be fed would be more important than faith in a creator.
If I started a council to help different cultures integrate and get along I would think a respect for, and understanding of individual rights and heritages would be more important than faith in a creator.
But thats not what interfaith implies. Interfaith says "yes we want to work together to save the child, but only with other people who also believe in god"
Interfaith is NOT an inclusive term, it is an exclusive term. Like "Mens Tennis Club" is not considered inclusive because it means all men, it's considered exclusive because it specifically discounts those who are not men.
Anything that is interfaith by definition does not include nearly 1 in 5 Australians (18.7% as of 2006).
What I find most disconcerting is that interfaith groups hold contradictory views, they disagree on fundamental issues of human rights, laws, even separation of church and state. However, they are more willing to meet and seek common ground with someone who may have diametrically opposed political and civil ideas than they are to sit down with an atheist.
A secular movement by definition is one "separate to" any issues of faith. Anyone including people of faith can support a secular charity or join a secular debate on morals, laws, and rights. Because secular just means leave the dogma at the door it does not mean you must abandon your principles.
To use the example of a tennis club from above, a secular movement is the equivalent of a "Mixed Tennis Club" where gender is not checked, or filtered when you go onto the court. No-one thinks that you stop being boys and girls, you just dont assume that it is either a requirement or disqualification from playing tennis...
At this point some of you feel I am being unkind, you will be pointing out that interfaith councils are most often set up to help people of different faiths understand each other.
You're right thats the reason most interfaith councils are established.
And that the problem - Christians and Muslims are happy to meet and find out what other group believes and discover that they many many of the same values, but their understanding and tolerance often stops at other faiths.
Cultural inclusion as long as your culture meets our criteria.
Atheism itself is not a belief system, in the same way "off" is not a tv channel, but it does not mean that atheists or people of "no-faith" do not hold to one or more of the many non-faith philosophical systems; humanism, objectivism, altruism, confucianism, etc, etc. Definitely not faiths but philosophies excluded by words like "interfaith".
I have lost count of the times I have heard someone of faith claim that Atheists have no morals, or that we dont believe any anything at all. Claims actually perpetuated through their religion.
I think if christians want to learn and find out that Buddhists dont worship Buddha, and that Muslims done worship Mohammad (both claims I have heard made) they should also learn that scientists dont worship Darwin or Hawking and that Atheists dont worship satan (another claim I heave heard too often to be funny).
I believe in lots of things like family, love, shared human values, charity, human dignity and even religious freedom. I personally believe that I am responsible in this life for anything I do wrong and have only this life to make up for it.
But you wont here Atheist morality being discussed at an interfaith council.
Like holding a mens forum to discuss human rights... something/someone would be missing and the debates on abortion and body rights might not be as balanced as they could be.
Again I probably come across as a bit strident, but I have read the Qur'an (three translations of it anyway), I have read the bible (King James and new international), I have read a separate translation of the Torah, I have also read books on Buddhism and several Hindi faiths. I make a conscious effort to understand the way other people think and what is important to them.
But while "no-religion" is a larger slice of the demographic pie in this country than, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism combined (or any of the individual sects of christianity outside the catholics and Anglicans)... I dont see a proportional attempt to understand the values that make "no-religion" work.
Again I need to stress that I am NOT attacking any specific interfaith organisation, indeed most of the ones I know deal with cross cultural issues and strive to understand that not everyone is a person of faith, but they are - their world view is inherently biased towards values of faith and despite the best intentions in the world they cannot claim to be truly cross cultural as long as they do not represent a sizeable portion of the cultures in question.
The sad thing is that many people reading this article will think it just a semantic question and they would be right, so why are they not called "inter-cultural", "inter-society", "cross-philosophy", or "shared-value" councils instead?
Because they are formed by religious organisations within a religious perspective and operate from within a religious context, valuing religion and faith more than any other tenant of society. They can try to be understanding, they can try to think outside the book as it were, but until they actively try to include those people with really differing views they will be truly representative or any culture including their own.