Religions view each other with either condescension or suspicion. This can make for contentious public discourse and, as we all know, frequently escalates into open hostilities. In order to avoid having things get out of hand, one periodically finds attempts by well-meaning people who think that the problem is due to religious people being ignorant of other religions, and that if they understood each other better they would recognize enough similarities and deep commonalities to defuse the antagonisms. And so we have the emergence of ‘interfaith’ movements.
In the past, such movements brought together only people from different religions but in recent years, there is growing recognition that skeptics are a significant part of the population and so the umbrella has on occasion been extended to include them as well. But the label ‘interfaith’ poses a bit of a problem because once you include skeptics, you are no longer talking about faith-based organizations anymore. Atheists shun the word faith because its most common usage is associated with religious faith, which is the acceptance of beliefs that lack any evidentiary support and are even counter to evidence. In fact, the less the evidence in support of a religious belief, the supposedly more admirable that belief is. This is absolutely counter to the rational evidence-based approach promoted by skeptics. But I cannot think of a good word that would accommodate both faith and anti-faith groups.
These interfaith programs usually take two forms. One consists of dialogues to get different religious groups together to share information about what they believe and to clear up any misconceptions that others may have about them. I am all for increasing the general awareness about religious people’s beliefs. In fact, I think that the academic study of the world’s religions (as opposed to religious education that seeks to indoctrinate children about one particular religion) is a proper part of a school curriculum. I think skepticism and skeptic organizations can play an important role in such discussions, once we overcome the problematic ‘faith’ label.
The other kinds of programs often involve getting different religious organizations to work together on some community projects. Although well-meant, there is something fundamentally odd about such interfaith projects. Let’s face it, each religion thinks that it alone is true and all the others false. They are incompatible at a fundamental level. You cannot have real equality between religions simply because of their divergent truth claims.
These kinds of interfaith projects basically involve asking religious groups to set aside their religious beliefs in order to do worthwhile projects that have nothing to do with religion. So unlike in the case of interfaith dialogues where talk about religious beliefs is explicitly encouraged, when it comes to interfaith projects, people are expected to suppress their differing beliefs but simply work for the common good.
There is nothing at all wrong with that except why bring in the faith aspect at all if you are asking people to then suppress it? Why not invite people to take part in community service and challenge projects for their own sake simply because they are good things? You can send the invitation out to all organized groups (including religious ones) to publicize to their members or to even take part as a group but leave the issue of faith entirely out of it. The goal of getting differing religious groups to stop fighting and killing each other is surely a good thing but that does not have to be coupled with worthwhile non-religious projects.
What does religion add to such community projects, unless religious groups are taking part to show how virtuous they are because of their religion? (In my college days, I was a member of a Christian student group that used to get involved in community service projects and some of the more evangelical members of the group used the occasion to proselytize, basically telling the poor non-Christian people we helped “Look at us! We are doing good works because we are Christians so why don’t you become Christians too!” Even though I was a devout Christian in those days, this would drive me up the wall.)
My concerns apply only to the interfaith part of such projects. The other diversity elements such as including intercultural or interethnic groups suffer from no such contradiction since being a member of one ethnic or cultural group does not necessarily imply that one thinks that other ethnic or cultural groups are inferior. It is understood that these are mere accidents of one’s birth and thus not obstacles to true equality amongst them. In fact, secular democracies are based on that idea.