June 27th, 2012 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Today’s guest post comes from Rod Bower, a retired engineer and project manager living in Melbourne, Australia who is a former Christian and current atheist/humanist/rationalist activist (see bio below). I met Rod when I was in Australia for a few weeks in April. Rod and I got to chat, and he told me about his experiences doing interfaith work as an atheist and how he wanted to encourage others to do the same. Recently, his interfaith experiences were profiled in a great newspaper article. Check out Rod’s reflection on those experiences below!
After attending the recent GAC 2012 fringe event featuring Chris Stedman, PZ Myers, and Leslie Cannold, “The Road Less Travelled: Can believers and atheists work together for the common good?”, I was asked by a few people to put down my own recent experience working with interfaith in Melbourne.
I have been concerned since I started playing in the social media, as an atheist, at how many atheists and religious people have a poor level of understanding of the others’ beliefs and point of view. Without improved dialogue and understanding I believe there will be a lot of unnecessary pain on all sides before the transformation I want to see (to a fully pluralistic, secular society) is complete. With this in mind I have been looking for ways to improve the understanding in both directions. Getting involved in interfaith came up as one of the options I should look at.
In early 2010 the (City of) Monash Interfaith Gathering (MIG) ran an “Inaugural Interfaith Forum” where the guest speaker was Professor Joseph Camilleri from the Latrobe University Centre for Dialogue. The talk included statistics on the religious demographics of Australia and worldwide, and the trends of change. However the talk on interfaith then completely ignored the 30% of our population who do not identify with a “faith community.” I subsequently approached MIG to see whether they would be interested in having an atheist join their group who could offer some insight into the missing 30% – in the interests of fulfilling their aims for a harmonious, respectful multicultural society. I attended a meeting as an “observer” first so I knew what I was getting into, and so they had a chance to assess me as a person before I put on my atheist “badge.” When I suggested joining the group, I pointed out that I had no mandate from any particular organisation and did not claim to represent all, or any, atheists other than myself. I also suggested we should both consider my involvement as an experiment and be prepared to say if it wasn’t working for us.
I was pleased when the group accepted the proposal and welcomed me on board. Over the next 18 months I was involved in committee meetings and decisions, attended events like Muslim Iftar dinners, interfaith prayer/reading breakfasts, and a state-wide gathering at the Melbourne Town Hall. Later, I was the volunteer bus driver (and a full participator) in group tours to multiple places of religious worship and learning in or near the City of Monash.
In 2011 the committee decided in my absence to dedicate part of the regular meeting time to talks given by invited members describing their faith background, their beliefs, worship places and patterns, and relationship to society. To my surprise and delight they had included in the proposed program a date for me to give a talk on this basis, as much as atheism would fit the framework. I had the advantage of watching a few other talks before mine (useful as I hadn’t done that sort of thing before). It was an exciting experience for me in several ways, and I was pleased when my slide presentation and talk was well received by the group (and by a few members of the public attracted by a newspaper invitation). The purpose of course was not to convince anyone of the “rightness” of atheism, but to have them see that, as an atheist, I was not someone to be afraid of, was not without morals, purpose or meaning in my life, and was open to respectful discussion and to learning about their values and understanding of life as well as further exploring my own. In that respect I think I was at least as successful as, for instance, a Muslim or a Hindu addressing a typical Interfaith audience.
I left MIG at the end of 2011 because I moved out of the municipality. I had made some friendships and contacts which I value and still hope to keep up with. I received many thanks for my participation, and was delighted when the chair advised another attendee (and cc’d me) that (my own) “departure is a loss to our group as he’s a clear thinker and knows how to get things done. In an interfaith group this is a real asset as he doesn’t have to worry about the politics of religion!” Perhaps even more telling was the way the group rewrote its own membership rules when forced to clarify them because of an impending formalisation of the relationship with local government. I was told by the committee that they had broadened the rules to ensure atheists (“your lot”) could be members without meeting the previous requirement to represent a “faith community”. Although some purist atheists might object to the use of “belief” where atheism is concerned, I was happy to see “various faiths” become “various faiths and beliefs” as a gesture of inclusiveness.
While I was more than satisfied with the mutual understandings that I believe came from my involvement, I don’t know whether this will change the world in any major way. The group I joined is still relatively new in interfaith terms, but is making good progress in deciding its role in the municipality and how it will operate. However at the very least I know there are now people involved with the City of Monash who can inform their own faith communities that not all atheists are either “militant religion haters” or “depressed purposeless failures,” and that in fact atheists can be interested (and hopefully interesting) people to talk to. They also know at least one person they can come to for more information, or to request support if they need to address a perceived problem with non-believers. I believe they would readily accept another atheist into the group given the chance.
I’m not sure if everyone felt the same way, but certainly there was never any difficulty at MIG. At a meeting I attended where several interfaith groups were exploring ways to work together, it did appear that MIG was the only one that had an atheist member, and one person from another group did express some concern at the idea.
From my own perspective, the interfaith experience has given me a better understanding of the beliefs and backgrounds of some of the religions in Australia that I’d had no contact with, and this has broadened my own outlook on what it means to promote and support pluralism and freedom in our society. And I have also gained contacts in those religions who I know I could go to with questions or concerns.
I would encourage any atheist who is interested in improving dialogue and understanding between atheists and believers in this way to have a go. I would also be glad to assist in getting them started.
Postscript: Since finishing at MIG I’m now also involved, among other things, in a nominally Christian men’s support group. I was invited along by a Christian friend who wanted me to give an atheist perspective on a question he was going to lead a discussion on. Again the reception has been great after initial uncertainty, and again I think this comes from my (and the other members’) willingness to share personal history, situation and world view openly, without needing to argue that others have got it wrong. This group is pretty well agreed that we are all in different places on a journey of growth and discovery, and should relate to one another as fellow travelers on the road. I’ve been told that having an openly atheist member in the group has made them discuss things in more depth rather than relying on the same old stock answers to questions.
Rod Bower is a retired engineer and project manager living in Melbourne, Australia. He grew up in a typical middle class, moderately religious family. As a committed Christian throughout his teens and twenties he ran church youth groups and became an elder. After a brief experience of evangelical fundamentalism, and a family trauma, he decided to try life as an atheist to see if that resolved the “cognitive dissonance” he was experiencing. After thirty years, what was to be a six month experiment in atheism is still running successfully. He sees a need for people to respect each other as fellow travellers on their own “spiritual” journey even though their beliefs may differ radically, and he tries to promote more open and civilised discussion, particularly between believers and non-believers. Rod is a member of several atheist/humanist/rationalist groups and has recently been involved in an Interfaith group and in a nominally Christian men’s support group as the “token atheist.” He doesn’t have his own blog yet, but has started posting a few public Notes on Facebook.