Religious Freedom and the Humanist Vision

Submitted by Andrea Perrault

As President of the Ethical Society of Boston, I was honored to be invited to attend The Inaugural Symposium of the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom and Its Implications moderated by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Sheikh Dr. Yasir Qadhi, Reverend J. Brent Walker, and Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl on Thursday, May 1, 2014. The event was sponsored by the Harvard University Center for American Political Studies, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. This discussion presented leading religious figures in an important dialogue about the role of religious freedom in the country, guided by questions posed by moderator Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. Engaging leaders of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths on the national day of prayer (as dedicated by President Obama) to ponder the need for religious freedom to safeguard human rights provided an important forum in a world often characterized by incivility and outright violence toward those with divergent points of view. In fact, the reference to President Clinton’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act emphasized the constant need to review and reaffirm a commitment to the centrality of religious freedom in American society. All presenters identified the benefit of community as central to their religious beliefs, and that community is essential to engaging in united action to address the ills of society from illiteracy to homelessness to violence to global warming.

Sheikh Dr. Yasir Qadhi, raised in Texas and leading a community in Memphis, Tennessee, offered three points on interfaith connectedness: 1) Most religious communities need interfaith dialogue; those least active in such dialogues often are most in need of it, as isolationism is a hindrance to building a society that values religious freedom; 2) We must acknowledge the elephant in the room – we do not worship in the same ways – we should not shirk from recognizing the obvious; 3) Interfaith dialogue is needed, but so is intra-faith dialogue and dialogue with those of no faith. He cited the Pew Study where 30% of respondents identified that they did not identify with any specific religious tradition. Dr. Qadhi’s ultimate concern is that interfaith dialogue must be translated into interfaith action.

Rabbi Angela Buehdahl spoke to the challenge of navigating the roles of culture and religion. Born in Korea of a Korean mother and a Jewish father, her life presented her with challenges, often through reactions of people to her appearance and her professed beliefs. As a Board member of the Auburn Presbyterian Seminary, she understands and practices commitment to interfaith dialogue. She cited a need to come together in community regardless of religious traditions to address some of the most difficult issues facing society: gun control and violence, income inequality, and global warming.

Rev. J. Brent Walker addressed the fact that this nation was born under a commitment to religious freedom regardless of how it may not have been fostered at different times and in different places. Citing the fact that “we need a hard core and soft edges” to engage from our different religious traditions to build a civic minded community with respect for all. Valuing rights, responsibilities, and respect is central to demonstrating positive civic engagement. We must be committed to action, and to getting to know each other.

While each leader impressed me with his or her background and current actions to build interfaith dialogue and civic engagement in the world, I was concerned that greater inclusion of the humanist perspective was needed to make a genuinely “interfaith” expansion of community. Atheism and agnosticism did seem to be outliers in this community forum; skepticism about such viewpoints seemed to creep into the discussion.

Ultimately, I agree with Sheikh Qadhi that dialogue among all in the larger community is necessary, including those who express no adherence to a specific faith. Members of the Ethical Society of Boston and the Humanists at Harvard are building the larger voice of humanists in the Greater Boston Area. This forum confirmed my belief that this is an important task. Let’s all find avenues to expand the dialogue on religious freedom in the broader community, and to see that humanist voices are active participants.