Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World – Can Atheists embrace Religious Pluralism?


"I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow...Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, 'when I looked for light, then came darkness.'"

So said President Obama in his address to the nation in Tucson, Arizona, where he memorialized the victims of the Tucson shooting and prayed for the health of those who were wounded. Obama was exercising his capacity for leadership at a time of extraordinary uncertainty, when the USA is wracked with debate about the reasons for those terrible events, and he drew heavily upon the reservoir of his Christian faith to do so. Repeatedly quoting scripture, enjoining Americans to kneel and pray, and movingly speaking of the heaven to which he believes Christina Taylor Green has gone, jumping in puddles. This is truly faith and leadership in a fragmented world.

"Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World" - this is also the gripping headline for an intensive "immersion workshop" I will begin tomorrow at Harvard, aiming to explore the relationship between faith and leadership, and how religious traditions can serve as a support for those seeking to lead others through uncertainty, just as Obama did on Wednesday. In anticipation of the workshop I find myself both excited and apprehensive. Excited because the professors on the program are distinguished in their fields and well-regarded teachers. Apprehensive, because as a person without faith, I am unsure as to my role in such a space.

Certainly I have a broad interest in the themes of the course: I hope to become a leader in my community and I am deeply concerned with the role of faith in people's lives. At the same time I see very little space for the nonreligious in the readings we have been tasked with prior to the first day. Although many religious views are represented and discussed, Humanism and atheism are either absent from consideration or, worse, mildly disparaged.

I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of Obama's beautiful speech. I am drawn-in by the poetry of his scriptural references, and I am powerfully moved by the image of a celestial Christina jumping in heavenly puddles. I can see that Obama's faith provides him with both courage and hope - essential qualities in a leader facing dark times - and I am challenged by the thought that much atheist writing provides neither. Yet I recognize, too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I'm standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold.

Is it possible to build a "church" which could hold atheists as well as the religious, despite their differences? Can we find a way of talking and living which honors the substantial disagreements between people of faith and naturalists, or are we Humanists doomed to forever languish outside in the cold, excluded or excluding on the other side of the "faith gap"? Chris Stedman has written eloquently on this topic on numerous occasions, and he is even involved with a new program from the Foundation Beyond Belief which aims to challenge the "faith gap". Frequently, the answer seems to hinge on some idea of "pluralism". Stedman writes, for example, that " without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn't be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution", and calls on atheists to jump into interfaith discussion. He would surely approve of my presence at the Faith and Leadership workshop.

But one of the readings for that workshop has led me to question whether atheists can truly embrace religious pluralism. Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project, lays out her definition of "pluralism" in chapter 7 of her book Encountering God. She distinguishes between three approaches one can take toward religions you don't belong to - three "theological viewpoints": you can be an "exclusivist",  who "affirms identity in a complex world of plurality by a return to the firm foundations of his or her own tradition", rejecting the claims of other religions simply as false; you can be an "inclusivist", who believes that all religions are pathways toward God - but the God that the inclusivist believes in, such that other religions are essentially lesser (though valuable) "versions" of your own; or you can be a "pluralist".

A pluralist, Eck writes (drawing on the work of British Philosopher John Hick), has undergone a "Copernican revolution" in their thinking about God. Unlike the inclusivist, who sees their religion (a planet in the metaphor) as the center of the universe, with the concepts of other religions (other planets) and God (the sun) revolving around their religious ideas, the pluralist puts the sun (God) at the center of their religious universe. Other religious traditions become other "planets" orbiting that sun, engaged in the same fundamental activity (seeking God) through different trajectories and paths. Just as no planet is "better" than another, no religion, under this conception, has a monopoly on religious understanding.

It is a powerful metaphor, and it is easy to see its appeal in interfaith circles. Eck claims that there are "even avowedly humanistic pluralists".  It strikes me, however, and despite Eck's position, that there is no room for the atheist in this solar system. To extend the metaphor, the atheist claims that the sun does not actually exist, and that the planets are circling endlessly to no avail. Worse, the "sun" might even be a black hole, sucking religious adherents into a destructive and unproductive void. In Eck's terms, many prominent atheists are much more like "exclusivists", who reject the accuracy of the tenets of religious faith and who see little value in traditional theology whatever its religious flavor. Even "inclusivist" atheists, who might wish to see religion as a natural psychological urge towards sense-making, are in an entirely different position to religious "inclusivists", who at least think there is a "sun" that shines its light, even if dimly, on religions not their own. And disturbingly, despite quibbles over terminology, I think the metaphor Eck mobilizes is fundamentally correct when it excludes atheists in this way. I don't see belief in God as "another way of understanding the world", or as "a different route to truth". I see it as wrong. Mistaken. Unsupported.

This realization - that despite the positive connotations of the word I cannot consider myself a true religious pluralist (at least in Eck's terms) - has troubled me. I strive for respect in my work and writing, and I want to make it clear the majority of those attending the workshop next week that I respect and value them as people. But Eck's description has led me to the understanding that I cannot honestly say that I respect their faith. There truly is a gap between my worldview and a religious one, and despite the best efforts of Stedman and the Foundation Beyond Belief, I see no authentic way to bridge it. However much I respect an individual and work beside them, I cannot put the Sun of God in the center of my intellectual solar system. However grave the situation, however powerful the incitement, I cannot bend my knee to nothing. I am stuck outside the church, face pressed against the glass.

And it's getting cold.

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