Mulling over multifaith

This is my latest column in Humanitie, the Humanist Society of Scotland‘s magazine. Be sure to read it alongside Tim’s column from the Friendly Humanist.

There are many reasons why humanists should be involved with chaplaincy. These include educational encounters with people involved in various world faiths, avoiding the build-up of prejudices, and meeting lots of differently-minded people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always a bed of roses. The Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh often clashes with some of the religious groups, particularly the Christian Union (*shakes fist*), and it’s been a hard road getting the Chaplaincy and its users to choose more inclusive language that doesn’t leave non-believers out, however unintentionally. They do, after all, claim to be a service for people of all faiths and none.

But I don’t want to concentrate on that, I want to take a look at the tactical advantages of being involved in chaplaincy from the standpoint of a humanist. At the University Chaplaincy, there are two multifaith (I asked them to change the name. They said no.) groups. We get invited to one of them. I’m sure it’s just through an administration problem, but actually it’s a good job, there are only so many hours of empty statements and unsupported assertions I can take! But for 18 months or so I went along to that group which met about once every three weeks, and these are some of my reasons:

1. Outside of our circles, who even knows what humanism is? Especially in Scotland, lots of people think we marry people and then bury them (after they die of course). Chaplaincy is a good way of showing off true humanism to people who might not otherwise have encountered it. I’ve often been asked “what’s the humanist perspective on such-and-such?”, and whilst I do continually have to explain that there’s not really a ‘humanist perspective’ on much at all, I can then offer an opinion representative of most humanists I know.

2. Even when I’m sitting right there, I’ve heard complete baloney about atheists and unsubstantiated benefits of faith spouted as fact in group discussions. I’ve had to object to some quite discriminatory views and challenge beliefs about religious morality being superior. On many occasions I’ve been the only person in the room who saw a problem with what had been said, so imagine what they’d get away with if a humanist wasn’t in the room! Lots of people object to interfaith groups on principle, but at least if we’re there we can have some influence.

3. Setting up events between groups when you know someone in a society is much easier. This includes things like debates and discussions, as well as fundraisers and film screenings. That contributes to the dissemination of ideas on campus (and hopefully the humanist ideas will come out on top), and these encounters allow us to hone our arguments to be better used next time, win/win!

These are just a few reasons, and there are other less Machiavellian benefits too. But despite its shortcomings, multifaith and chaplaincy in general is definitely something humanists should be getting involved with.

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