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Opinion

Some of my best friends are atheists

In April, above Gopals a Hare Krishna restaurant in Melbourne – a rather unusual meeting took place.

About 25 people gathered for a special dialogue/encounter between people of faith and visiting atheist Chris Stedman (the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University).  The dialogue brought together a mostly youthful audience of under 35s, with a smattering of grey hairs as well. It was made up of diverse nationalities and faiths, including Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.

The intention was to hear the considered position of an atheist/humanist chaplain and discover the views those of faith held towards atheists.

This dialogue was as much about listening to each other, with our heads and hearts truly open, as it was about speaking. It was never intended to be debate.

We opened by listening to the life journey which brought Chris Stedman into his humanist chaplaincy. We talked about contested perceptions and definitions of atheism, faith and interfaith understanding. The goal was to expand our view beyond our own perspectives and to prompt serious consideration of our deeply held beliefs in response to the strong beliefs of others. To do this it was important that we worked to build a trusting and accepting environment where everyone could speak openly about their own journey in, and even out, of faith.

We agreed that we had to recognise the spectrum of positions held within all faith groups. And slowly people began to share stories about finding strength in faith and, also, of having various doubts along the way. A major part of what we heard was that each of us was looking to find meaning, love and community in our lives.

One conundrum for respectful dialogues of this nature was the difficulty of using labels. Are we progressive, pluralist or fundamental – what exactly do these words mean? The detrimental nature of all these labels was discussed because they lead to division, misunderstanding and ‘othering’.

Truly, it was said, that what we should be doing is emphasising the common ground of compassion, love and generosity shared by all people – those of faith and those without faith as well.

Larry Marshall
Project Manager,
Uniting Through Faiths

For more information about UTF contact Larry Marshall: larry.marshall@victas.uca.org.au

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