As an outspoken interfaith enthusiast and secular humanist/atheist, I often throw people into a bout of cognitive dissonance. That uncomfortable feeling we experience when trying to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously. Why interfaith? — is a question the religious and non-religious alike are quick to ask. In my experience, I have found it commonplace for people to assume ‘atheists hate religion’ or that ‘interfaith work is only for believers.’ So the following is a small piece of the story on how I came to take part in interfaith activism. Ultimately, this path has led me to seek out like-minded freethinkers in this field and pursue studies at The Humanist Institute.
As a Filipino-American, I was raised and culturally identify with Catholicism. Having grown up in Arizona, Guam and the Philippines — Christianity was the religion I was surrounded by and became intimately familiar with. Though a non-believer from an early age, I was curious about other faith traditions. So I declared Religious Studies my major in college and went on to study Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and so forth. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of students in the religious studies department. I was one of many atheists/agnostics/humanists, and we got along well with our devout religious counterparts.
I fondly recall taking a class taught by a Reform rabbi, titled Women in the Hebrew Bible. She was probably the first female religious leader that I had ever met, which challenged my own assumptions of the roles women play in their faith traditions. The rabbi taught me how to read sacred literature critically. At that point in my life, I had never read the bible in full. I had only heard the gospel as read to me at a Catholic mass. It was a revelation to read the text for myself and have its contents open for interpretation and discussion.
Not long after completing this class, I picked up the Qur’an, Book of Mormon, and other holy texts. I also visited local religious sites such as temples, mosque, and synagogue. I had been eager to learn the stories that shaped peoples’ worldviews. In conjunction with courses in religion, I took part in inter-worldview dialogues at my university. I learned from and about people of varying religious backgrounds, and in turn learned a lot about myself.
When people ask me, ‘Why Interfaith?,’ I have many answers:
~ Interfaith promotes a culture of ‘difference without division.’
~ Interfaith provides a forum where you can freely articulate your truth and bring your whole self.
~ Interfaith builds diverse communities of individuals who work toward shared goals, aimed at the common good.
~ Interfaith work cultivates humanist values, such as openness to new knowledge; the acceptance of uncertainty and difference;respect, compassion and concern for the well-being of all humankind; and a co-operative and appreciative approach toward conflicts of shared interest.
Interfaith work is peace work. If we are going to take on some of the most challenging issues facing humans today…poverty, global warming, war…We best do it together.
Vanessa Gomez Brake is active as a community educator, peacemaker and interfaith activist. She is the director of operations & outreach at the The Chaplaincy Institute for Arts & Interfaith Ministries (ChI) in Berkeley, California. ChI is an interfaith seminary re-visioning theological education to serve a pluralistic world. For several years, Vanessa has also served as research assistant for the Abrahamic Family Reunion — a project offering ways to use psychological and spiritual approaches in reconciling conflicts among Jews, Christians and Muslims.