Serving on an interfaith panel

have been invited to take part in an ‘interfaith’ panel to be held at the Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus, as part of their Diversity Day Program. The program is open to the public and is titled Voices – A Spiritual Mosaic of Humanity. It will be held on Thursday, April 14, 2016 at noon in the Galleria (Student Services building—center of campus). 11000 Pleasant Valley Road in Parma, OH.

The program will last approximately 90 minutes and be followed by a question and answer session. I am told that parking is free on any of the lots that surround the central buildings as long as you avoid the spots that require a faculty/staff parking tag.

The panel will consist of people from five religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) with me providing an atheist perspective. The format consists of each panel member addressing the following questions:

  1. How do I get to heaven?
  2. Are the gods of all the religions the same?
  3. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  4. What happens to us when we die?
  5. How does your religion address others from different faiths?
  6. What is the nature of evil?

As an atheist, my responses to #1 and #4 will be quite short. Question #3 is premised on the assumption of the existence of some form of cosmic justice and a cosmic judge, and my not accepting the assumption makes the question moot. Question #6 seems to assume that ‘evil’ exists as some kind of autonomous and independent entity, which if course I reject. I will treat #5 politically and sociologically and not theologically. What I am curious to hear is the response of the other panelists to #2 which is an awkward one to answer except for fundamentalists who think that their own religion is right and everyone else’s is wrong. On ecumenical panels like this where people are unlikely to take such a position, people tend to avoid this question or duck the problems that immediately arise by assuming that all gods are the same.

I am curious as to what the readers here have to say about these questions.

Atheists are now seen as a significant enough group in the US that we are included in these discussions. It was not always thus and it is an encouraging development because it allows the atheist perspective be more widely known. The only catch is that the usual umbrella term of ‘interfaith’ becomes inappropriate when we are included, though a better term is yet to be found.


  1. efogoto says

    Keeping it short and sweet:
    1. How do I get to heaven?
    The same way you get to Narnia, or Tarabithia.
    2. Are the gods of all the religions the same?
    In that there is no evidence for their existence, yes, they are the same. What differs is what people claim about their gods, and that may differ within a single religion.
    3. Why do bad things happen to good people?
    For the same reason that good things happen to anybody. Things happen, and we describe them as good or bad.
    4. What happens to us when we die?
    We die.
    5. How does your religion address others from different faiths?
    As people.
    6. What is the nature of evil?
    See #3.

  2. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    When I was still religious (Catholic), I used to believe that there was one God and it was just us stupid people that got things about him wrong so we created so many different religions. I didn’t consider Catholicism any more right or wrong than other religions, just as one version of human belief in God.
    This was also a way I could dismiss parts of Catholicism I disliked -- it must have been something people made up because a just God wouldn’t do that. Creation, Noah’s Ark, the whole business with the Egyptians … they were all either metaphors (as an atheist, I would ask my naive self -- metaphors for what? I never was clear about that) or interpretations of some perfectly natural and scientifically explainable events that people at the time didn’t understand or just wanted to be poetic about.

  3. rorschach says

    Are the gods of all the religions the same?

    They are the same in that they are all not true. It doesn’t really matter what imagined clothes the Emperor wears.

    Why do bad things happen to good people?

    “Why” questions are not generally helpful, like “why do I have pneumonia, doctor?” There is no reason, shit just happens.

  4. badgersdaughter says

    No, no, no, no. Don’t do the flippant, off-the-cuff thing. To the other people, these questions address things they care about. Atheists care about those things too, because we’re also human and have human minds and emotions. Here’s a way to approach these questions:

    1. How do I get to heaven? (This is where I might talk about “heaven” as, generally speaking, a place of pleasurable reward for the good. As an atheist, I might say that I strive for the sort of here-and-now in which good people are rewarded for their good actions. Of course, what a “good person” might consider to be a “reward” could well differ based on the situation, anything from “I helped make the world a better place” to “I’m so happy I was nice to that lady on the bus because she turned out to be my intensive care nurse” to “I heard my teacher tell my mom that I’m always helpful and friendly and I stick up for bullied kids”.)

    2. Are the gods of all the religions the same? (Well, from my perspective, they are as different as characters in different novels. Are the characters in different novels all the same character? What would it mean to literature if they were?)

    3. Why do bad things happen to good people? (Because of natural forces that don’t discriminate between bad and good people. Because of bad people whose actions impact good people.)

    4. What happens to us when we die? (The meaningful part of us that lives after us can be seen in the ongoing consequences of our actions while alive, and the memories and emotions of people we knew.)

    5. How does your religion address others from different faiths? (We trust you to find your own path to reality. If that means you eventually become an atheist, that’s fine if it is legitimately what you want. If that means you stay religious, so long as it’s your honest and open-eyed choice, that’s OK too. All we ask is that you do your best to think and feel for yourself and that you try not to blindly follow anyone, religious or nonreligious, without carefully weighing their words against what you know is real.)

    6. What is the nature of evil? (Purposefully causing pain and/or destruction. Without purpose behind it, you can call an action or event bad, regrettable, tragic… but “evil” is a word that should be reserved for something someone does deliberately to cause harm.)

  5. Bruce says

    I agree with #3 badgersdaughter. As to the word interfaith, it is a panel of diverse theological views. Our theological view is that there is no basis for religion, according to any ordinary standard way of thinking.
    To ask if all gods are the same is like asking if all dreams are the same. In a vague sense, yes. But in any normal sense, every person’s dreams and religious thoughts are unique. The only way to truly share a common thought or view with anyone else in the universe is to have our thoughts grounded in the common base of objective reality. Only reality-based thinking can connect us truly with the other precious seven billion fellow humans with whom we share our planet.

  6. Vicki says

    Questions 1 and 4 overlap somewhat, of course. If someone’s answer to “what happens when we die?” is “we are reincarnated, unless we escape the Wheel” the answer to “how do we get to heaven?” is likely to be something like “there is no heaven, but here’s how people achieve Nirvana” or “…but here’s what you should do to improve your situation the next time around.”

    Most Jews don’t spend a lot of time thinking about an afterlife. If someone you care about has died, Jews are likely to say something like “may their memory be a blessing for those who knew them,” not “may they rest in peace” or “they’re in a better place now.”

    I am unsurprised to see a list of questions for such an event that shouts “written by a Christian”: even with an expected mostly Christian audience, I wouldn’t expect a Jew or Buddhist to lead off with “How do I get to Heaven?” rather than omitting it altogether or at least putting it after “what happens when we die?”

  7. says

    I think it might be an idea to deliberately highlight how the questions are biased in favor of the theist (and particularly Christian) point of view. As you say, you’ll have quite short answers to some of the questions, so maybe use the time to make that point instead.

    Other than that, I would focus on just seeming reasonable, calm and nice above all else. If you come off as antagonistic, it would be all to easy for all the theists to avoid the real issues by beating on you. Make your points simply and with a smile.

  8. Lofty says

    1. How do I get to heaven?

    By meticulously following the arcane and convoluted rules and regualtions written down by the all too human leaders of your particular religion. One slip and you’re toast, sunshine.

  9. says

    I would have great difficulty delivering any answer without significant levels of snark. I mean “2. Are the gods of all the religions the same?” -- “They share all relevant properties, yes”. Perhaps a better question is what are the relevant properties of a god.

    I suppose the trick is to pivot towards more sensible topics of discussion, like “6. What is the nature of evil?” -- “Evil is a shorthand (and a bit lazy) description of morality based on moral values that are incompatible with one’s own.”

  10. Mano Singham says


    You are quite right that the questions are biased towards theistic religions in general and Christianity in particular. I wonder how the Buddhist would answer questions about god and heaven.

    I tend to not be antagonistic in general. In such kinds of discussions and panels, and I have been on a lot, I am not really talking to my fellow panelists but to members of the audience who might be more open-minded and presenting your ideas in a reasonable way is usually the best way to reach them.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    What happens to us when we die?

    A non-human character in John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time provides an answer a physicist might find apropos; IIRC,

    Our vector sum persists in the universe.

  12. Chris The Happy Humanist says

    I agree with much of what badgerdaughtter says -- don’t be predictable and reinforce negative stereotyping of atheists.

    Essentially these questions are about the values we all share, that is what is at the heart of it, it’s more about our humanity and our hopes and fears and how we deal with an imperfect world. The questions posed just shows that the organizers haven’t really given the Humanist/atheist/freethinker et al position much thought.

    They are probably expecting the atheist to be the “that guy” so don’t be predictable and be “that guy.” Try to look beyond the mere form of the questions and look deeper, there is no reason why we as Humanist can’t respond amicably to these issues, because it’s really about our shared values at the end of the day

  13. kestrel says

    “How do I get to heaven?” Gosh, we’re already there. All you have to do is notice. Yeah, I know it’s not perfect, but this is what we get, I’m afraid, and that’s why we should all work together to make it better.

    Have fun with the panel! It sounds fascinating. Wish I could attend!

  14. OlliP says

    badgersdaughter #4 gives great answers. And on a panel like this, I would also like to hear an atheist and humanist take the questions seriously from their point of view.
    I would add to her points:
    3. We can try to prevent bad things from happening, so though many bad things are chance events, that doesn’t imply a nihilist attitude. Eg. slipping and falling on a street and hurting yourself is an accident, but those accidents can be reduced by taking care of streets. Humanism implores betterment and action.
    4. Despite the memory and works remaining behind, the person doesn’t exist anymore. No need to obscure this, though it’s important to consider leaving a positive legacy.
    6. In addition to deliberately causing harm, neglecting to consider the consequences of your actions and causing harm by negligence is also evil in my view.

  15. badgersdaughter says

    Yeah, my previous answers were simple, cheerful, and geared toward a multifaith audience. If I were to answer them without trying to be upbeat and easily digestible, I could say that heaven to a starving child is a piece of bread. I could say that all of the gods are personifications of natural, social, and human qualities and experiences (as I was once told by a Hindu priest!). I could say that there are no “good and bad” people, just “better and worse” people, and that one of the reasons bad things happen to good people is that they sometimes give in to bad impulses or are forced by circumstances to make choices between bad options. And I could say that inflicting pain and destroying things are really inevitable if you’re a doctor, but of course that’s not evil; it’s more like someone taking pleasure in the infliction of harm because they see it as advancing their own cause.

  16. Crimson Clupeidae says

    If you get a chance, you might point out that the 5 representatives really represent:
    Forty thousand plus versions of xianity,
    A couple dozen-ish versions of judaism,
    2-4 major versions of islam (maybe more, I’m not aware of all the schisms there may be),

    I think it would be a fun and potentially interesting point to make.

  17. tecolata says

    Agree these are obviously Christian.

    I would add a few things: Why do bad things happen to good people? The reasons given by some above (chance, others’ bad actions) are true but can add that good people, being human, make mistakes that might have bad consequences. For example, a good person may be misinformed about vaccines and decide not to vaccinate his/her children or him/herself. And the children get a serious illness, maybe even die. So while we cannot avoid “bad things” we can try to be informed about our choices so we have better control, and oppose laws like restrictions on abortion/birth control that deny people the ability to make good choices.

    What happens when we die? We can impact that by becoming organ donors. Our eyes restoring someone’s sight or our kidneys taking people off the shackles of dialysis is a true “life after death” and far more satisfying than being toasted on a griddle by some god because we don’t believe in him/her/it.

    Evil is defined differently by many people. Some consider it more evil to disobey a Bronze Age law than to kill a person who does so, hence the terrorist killing of atheists in Bangla Desh and the attacks by groups like ISIS. Some consider it evil to stray from their version of revealed truth, so they pass laws like the one in Mississippi and kill doctors in Colorado. But humanists define evil as something that harms other people/life/the planet. We cannot totally avoid hurting others but we should strive to do so as little as possible.

  18. Chris The Happy Humanist says

    Well, you can point out how they are all different, but the question is if you should? It is perhaps very reflective of the religious thinking of the Abrahamic religions, but this merely shows you within which cultural context you are dealing with in your approach.

    Ingersoll once wrote: “Justice is the only worship. Love is the only priest. Ignorance is the only slavery. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now, The place to be happy is here, The way to be happy is to make others so.” (well, if wikiquotes are anything to go by:)

    I think it’s important to approach people in good faith, so to speak, if you want to contribute positively then all parties should approach the discussion with an amicable attititude.

    So many times we play into the negative stereotyping of atheists and reinforce their bad perceptions of who we are and so it’s important to respect everyone as you would like to be respected.

    Simon Blackburn has an excellent article on respecting people vs respecting belief and why the one doesn’t necessarily imply the other --

    These words like “heaven” or “hell” can also be interpreted by Buddhists in a different way than Christians do for example and as Humanists we can also interpret it in our own practical way, words are just words, they have no intrinsic meaning, you give shape to words by setting a narrative.

    I’m not saying atheists should not be angry about a great deal of many things, nor that we should not ridicule the ridiculous, but I am saying there is a time and a place for everything.

    Just because we differ doesn’t mean we should always take such extremely polarized stances, that doesn’t help bring anyone together -- and that is what I hope this panel discussion would be all about.

    I would suggest sticking to actually trying to answer the questions posed honestly, instead of trying to attack your perception of what they are saying by focusing on how you see it from your point of view, so I would disagree with tecolata there.

    In the end it’s really about coming together and talking about our common humanity and not about who is right or who is wrong, but about the values and things we all share.

    I know it can be said that the questions posed favors a certain religion and that it plays to a certain ear, but all I’m saying is that you can control the narrative and not just let the narrative control you.

  19. badgersdaughter says

    Oh, the notion of Hell. How silly and childishly hyperbolic. “Imagine the worst pain you’ve ever felt, and then imagine it being even worse, as bad as pain can possibly ever get. Then imagine that TIMES A ZILLION. And imagine you can’t pass out or die because you are ALREADY DEAD. And imagine it going on for as long as you can possibly imagine. Then imagine that TIMES INFINITY. That’s what will happen if you don’t do what I say, I mean, what God says.” Don’t they listen to themselves?

  20. Chris The Happy Humanist says

    Is it too much to quote some more Ingersoll?

    “While utterly discarding all creeds, and denying the truth of all religions, there is neither in my heart nor upon my lips a sneer for the hopeful, loving and tender souls who believe that from all this discord will result a perfect harmony; that every evil will in some mysterious way become a good, and that above and over all there is a being who, in some way, will reclaim and glorify every one of the children of men; but for those who heartlessly try to prove that salvation is almost impossible; that damnation is almost certain; that the highway of the universe leads to hell; who fill life with fear and death with horror; who curse the cradle and mock the tomb, it is impossible to entertain other than feelings of pity, contempt and scorn.” -- The Gods (1876)

    “I cannot believe that there is any being in this universe who has created a human soul for eternal pain. I would rather that every god would destroy himself; I would rather that we all should go to eternal chaos, to black and starless night, than that just one soul should suffer eternal agony.” -- What Must We Do To Be Saved? (1880)

    “The God of Hell should be held in loathing, contempt and scorn. A God who threatens eternal pain should be hated, not loved — cursed, not worshiped. A heaven presided over by such a God must be below the lowest hell. I want no part in any heaven in which the saved, the ransomed and redeemed will drown with shouts of joy the cries and sobs of hell — in which happiness will forget misery, where the tears of the lost only increase laughter and double bliss.”

    And Ingersoll has this to say about being heavenly -- about loving others:

    “Love is the only bow on Life’s dark cloud. It is the morning and the evening star. It shines upon the babe, and sheds its radiance on the quiet tomb. It is the mother of art, inspirer of poet, patriot and philosopher. It is the air and light of every heart — builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every hearth. It was the first to dream of immortality. It fills the world with melody — for music is the voice of love. Love is the magician, the enchanter, that changes worthless things to Joy, and makes royal kings and queens of common clay. It is the perfume of that wondrous flower, the heart, and without that sacred passion, that divine swoon, we are less than beasts; but with it, earth is heaven, and we are gods”

    Finally, Robert Green Ingersoll, “the great agnostic” also once said this:

    “Standing in the presence of the Unknown, all have the same right to think, and all are equally interested in the great questions of origin and destiny. All I claim, all I plead for, is liberty of thought and expression. That is all. I do not pretend to tell what is absolutely true, but what I think is true. I do not pretend to tell all the truth.

    I do not claim that I have floated level with the heights of thought, or that I have descended to the very depths of things. I simply claim that what ideas I have, I have a right to express; and that any man who denies that right to me is an intellectual thief and robber. That is all”

    Ingersoll might not have gotten everything right, all of the time, but when he nailed it, he nailed it good.

    But my question is why obsess over what people think hell, heaven or god is? God is a totally meaningless word to me, but we can each create our own heaven or hell -- heaven is when we all respect each others right to be happy and to love who and how we want to love, hell is being treated as inferior because of your sex or skincolor, it’s when you get ostracized because you differ. Hell is about intolerance and hatred

  21. John Morales says

    Chris The Happy Humanist:

    Finally, Robert Green Ingersoll, “the great agnostic” also once said this:

    Yeah, that was a feature of the circumstances of his time; he was most certainly an atheist, but that term had a very negative connotation (and consequences, to put it mildly!), so he called himself an agnostic.

    (Agnosticism seems so very mealymouthed these days; even Deism has more cachet)

  22. John Morales says


    But my question is why obsess over what people think hell, heaven or god is?

    Duh. Only the religious obsess over such stupidities.

  23. Chris The Happy Humanist says

    Haha, yeah John, I totally agree, saying you’re an agnostic seem to already favor the theism position because of the perception of what it means -- people seem to think then you’re more open -- which may be a good thing, it’s a bit less threatening, but it’s all just different labels for different positions, I like the term “igtheist” or “ignostic” as it means you take no special meaning with the word “god” and leave it open for those who believe to first explain what they mean when they use these ambiguous religious language, AronRa’s “apistivsim” is also nice.

    Anyways it does seem that I totally missed my own point by accidentally excluding the word “other” in “why obsess over what OTHER people think these stuff means….

    My point was that if you had to ask me as an atheist what heaven, hell, god, etc means, I would not adopt the meanings the religious attach to those words, but rather interpret and use it to talk about the values I do share with other good people, but yeah, the point is moot, I failed to make the point I wanted to make by a long shot, it seems.

  24. Chris The Happy Humanist says

    If FTB had a like button, I would just like your comment Mano 🙂
    So instead I thank you for reading my comments and say it was my pleasure, wishing you good luck with the interfaith discussion and I’ll leave with the vulcan salutation:

    “May you live long and prosper”

  25. lanir says

    1. How do I get to heaven?
    -- Maybe I’m reading too much into it being an interfaith panel. If it’s not all Christians and other sorts of heavens are considered then I think the best answer to this for me would be you make your own heaven by improving the world you live in.
    2. Are the gods of all the religions the same?
    -- As far as I can tell. They all like to play the telephone game. I’ll give you a different answer if I bump into one at a restaurant.
    3. Why do bad things happen to good people?
    -- Because the world does not respond to wishes. Only actions and then only with the effects that we can cause to happen.
    4. What happens to us when we die?
    -- Immediately, several processes that people are generally uncomfortable talking about. Over a larger span of time the pieces of what used to be us become other things. Nothing of our thoughts remains but the effects of our presence and later absence in the lives of others will.
    5. How does your religion address others from different faiths?
    -- It varies a lot and generally depends a lot on how members of the other faith have treated us.
    6. What is the nature of evil?
    -- There is no single focal point of evil. We don’t use this term to mean anything specific, it is just a borrowed phrase from theologies and in our usage would be semantically the same as saying something is “very bad”.

  26. doublereed says

    It’s good to see atheists being involved in such events. I hope you have a good time!

    There’s such a variety of ways to go about answering questions about the afterlife. You could talk about evidence (like how various forms of brain damage demonstrate severe issues with notions of the afterlife, like the ability to remember or recognize loved ones). You could talk about how childish it is to believe in a happy place for good people and a sad place for bad people. You could talk about how the afterlife is a distraction from making our life on earth positive and happy for others. Or I suppose you could be simple, honest, and bleak about the reality of death.

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