What Can Interfaith Mean to an Atheist?

September 3rd, 2010 | Posted by:

Today’s guest post comes from Kelsey Sheridan, a student at Northwestern University. Kelsey has done amazing things, working with diverse groups ranging from Christian Ministries, multiple interfaith organizations, College Feminists, and Planned Parenthood. Today, she brings her skills as a bridge builder to an insightful exploration of interfaith from an atheist’s perspective:

open bibleFirst off, let me say that I’m really flattered to have been asked to do a guest post for NonProphet Status. As a way of introduction: I’m an atheist who lives in a campus ministry building and am a reader of NPS — so you can probably gather that I believe in interfaith.

People are always asking me, with varying levels of politeness, what role can atheists play in interfaith work? And why on earth would it interest us in the first place?

The answer to the first question is simple. I have found that atheists play the same role as any other person of any of other faith would in the interfaith process. We help out where needed, observe, learn, and share our opinions where appropriate.

The second question is a little more nuanced. Secularists have a wide spectrum of thoughts and experiences that bring us to the interfaith table. For me interfaith work is attractive mostly in the efficiency with which faith-based initiatives address social needs. Why would any secular person interested in helping others ignore the thorough frameworks already in place simply because they came from religious people? Social problems are looming and I see no reason to avoid a long-established, well-meaning systems.

But on a less practical note, I’m fascinated by the balance between abandoning and understanding my preconceptions. When I’m engaged in interfaith dialogue, I am continually aware of my preconceptions as well as constantly challenging them.

As an example I want to share the biblical passage I read last night. I randomly opened to Isaiah 25 and when I first read it, I have to admit that only the bolded words jumped out at me:

1 O LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you and praise your name,

for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

2 You have made the city a heap of rubble,
the fortified city a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
it will never be rebuilt
.

3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of
ruthless nations will fear you.

4 For you have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

5 the noise of the aliens like heat in a dry place,
You subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; The song of the
ruthless was stilled

6 On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;

8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
and the
disgrace of his people he will take away
from all the earth.
for he LORD has spoken.

9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so
that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

10 For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trampled down in a dung-pit.

11 They will spread out their hands in the midst of it,
as a swimmer spreads out their hands to swim.
their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands.

12 The high fortifications of his walls will be brought
down, laid low, cast to the ground, even to the dust
.

When I read this I saw only a harsh, exclusionist view of God… and I totally missed the point of the passage. I’m not trying to gloss over the fact that this passage uses harsh language or that it presents the Israelites’ enemies as toiling in a pile of shit. But what I’m trying to say is that this Old Testament passage also promises a haven for the poor and needy, safety and comfort for “all people.”

My alliance with people of faith comes from my desire to see the poor and needy living in comfort and safety, a desire that this passage articulates. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible’s stories, you can’t deny its power. In the face of problems that are so entrenched, it is comforting to know that something as big as the Bible is on my side. While justice and equality serve as abstract greater goals, I am aware of their near impossibility. In the meantime, I enjoy stepping out of the limitations of my head and into the wider interfaith community to benefit from its enrichment.

Kelsey SheridanKelsey Sheridan is a junior at Northwestern University where she majors in journalism and religious studies. Although originally from South Florida, she’s enjoying living in Chicago and working with the Interfaith Youth Core and University Christian Ministry.