I suspect that there would be far greater respect for inter-faith initiatives if religious leaders recognised the capacity for humans to do good without god’s guiding hand.
Religious leaders tend to gloss over this facet of faith by focusing on the capacity for religion to change the world through compassion, humility, love and peace.
Consider the claim made by Sister Joan Chittister at last year’s Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne: “If the faith communities brought their faith to bear on public policy we would change the world overnight, we would double the resources available, we would bring a new perspective.”
Although well meaning, such a claim demeans the many men and women who find moral strength and guidance in areas that are not occupied by god.
The bigger problem with inter-faith advocates is that they emphasise the value of diversity yet view those who are free of faith as morally unfit to participate in their forums.
Interfaith organisers may be praised for implementing a common ethic within the intra-religious community, but atheists ought to receive greater praise for including all who value rational thought, reason and truth in their forums.
When the chairman of last year’s Parliament of World Religion called for an inter-religious community “where people gather to build a new, just, peaceful and sustainable world”, I could not help but see it as another attempt by faith groups to fence morality off from those who are capable of contributing to just and peaceful causes without religious counsel.
It becomes an even bigger concern when political leaders seek to imbue public moral discourse with a spiritual hue, particularly at a time when religion is not as significant to individuals and society as it once was.
It is certainly a concern when political leaders look to god and the church for guidance on matters relating to voluntary euthanasia, stem cell research, women’s reproductive rights and same sex marriage.
We often see this in our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who a year prior to becoming leader penned a lengthy essay for The Monthly Magazine explaining how his Christian values inform and shape his vision for the nation. We saw it in Joe Hockey when he delivered a speech on god and politics. We see it in the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, when he explains how his political thinking has been shaped by Catholic social teachings.
This is not to suggest that ethical discussion should be stripped of scripture and spirituality. It just should not be confined to it. Public moral discourse needs to begin from a religious neutral base, not the other way around. This is essentially the principle atheists adhere to. And it is the principle that pluralistic secular societies are based on.
Inhabitants of such societies are free to practice their faith in their homes, cathedrals, mosques, temples, modern mega-churches and gated churches in secretive locations. People of non-faith are also free to go about their personal business unmolested by religion.
Although this social arrangement demands tolerance between people of faith and non-faith, it does not prohibit argument between them. In fact secular society requires it. Unity in diversity of opinion is the bedrock upon which secular liberal democracies are based.
When a person of faith publicly espouses the virtues of his or her faith, then those who are in earshot have a right to speak back. If an unbeliever seeks to discredit a faith group, then those who are aggrieved by the criticism are free to argue back. This is essentially the strength of a secular society.
Secular societies are akin to the ancient Athenian ecclesia where free adults were called together to critically discuss, argue and propose action on legal, social and moral matters. This open public forum serves as a sharp contrast to the cloistered centres of faith administered by religious leaders in accordance to religious doctrine.
Religious leaders and indeed politicians who invoke god when addressing ethical issue are essentially telling us that decency, morality and ethical conduct resides with the faithful. This is hardly a display of social inclusiveness that is encouraged in democratic secular societies.
A true demonstration of tolerance, fairness, social inclusion and justice was on display in Melbourne where the 2010 Global Atheist Convention will be held. Last weekend freethinkers of the likes of Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling came together to discuss issues of freedom, justice, peace and social equity with people who place reason and rationality ahead of religious dogma.
Such gatherings are far more productive than the one-dimensional conversation that people of faith have been enjoying.
This is not say that atheists do not enjoy discussing morality with people of faith. As we have seen with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, atheists love getting fired up over religion. And they do so because they have nothing to lose. People of faith however risk losing much more, which is probably why they shut atheists out of their conversations.
Chris Fotinopoulos is a Melbourne based writer who has taught ethics and philosophy at the university of Melbourne and Monash.