An Atheist Love Letter to the Multi-Faith Centre

Sometimes, when the lull of a conversation seems to set in, I like to ask tricky questions: "Is God dead?" is one of my favourites. Part of this is me being sneaky and believing that the only way to break a somewhat awkward silence is to introduce a more awkward question, so people can laugh at the absurdity, or occasionally jump in with an excited answer which seems "obvious, Jennifer, come on". Part of this is hating small-talk, and kinda wanting to know how people will react to this question - for indeed, U of T is certainly a place where religious diversity exists in its near-complete, complicated, and exciting glory.

The Multi-Faith Centre, then, is an interesting social experiment. Imagine a church (synagogue, mosque, temple....) where absolutely everyone could come in, say/debate/declare/ritualize/practice/seek whatever it was they believed, and everyone else agreed to listen. Not to necessarily agree, but to give every voice a "yes, okay, maybe... but why?". Imagine being an evangelical-Christian-turned-atheist, or atheist-turned-Muslim, or any other representation of complicated spiritual and existential journeys, and then sitting in a room full of other students - some certain in their beliefs, some intensely uncertain - and learning Buddhist meditation (as I have been, for the last 9 weeks). There's bound to be dialogue. Sometimes academic, but more often, words which are intensely personal and sometimes dwelling at the edge of the inarticulable. Many (but certainly not all) of my deeply scientific friends are also deeply atheistic, and some of them ask me "why I care" about religious studies in the classroom, or about spending so much time at the Multi-Faith Centre otherwise. The truth of the matter is, we all have belief systems which (either ideally or practically) guide our actions and our conceptualizations of the world. We can choose to call these religions or not, but I know that in understanding the different ways people can think about living and dying, solving conflict, being meaningful to others, and about "people who are not like us", the better I can understand how to not simply communicate, live, and love these people, but how they can maybe even teach me something about my own life and how best to live it.

Last night I attended the, "What if.... there were no religious/secular divide?" debate at Hart House, broadcast on CIUT 89.5 fm. Here was a discussion by a Professor of Religious Studies and the current president of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance about whether believers and non-believers can both reach enlightenment; the social implications of theocratic social values in a secular society; and the uses (utilitarian and otherwise) of religion across the globe.

What jumped out at me about it the most was the readiness of the participants to view religions (including secular belief systems) as not mere ideas, but ways of living. They reminded us how, regardless of faith, there are varying degrees to which individuals live according to their beliefs, and the universal challenges in carrying on living what we hope is a meaningful life, even without the answers that would provide us certainty that what we are doing is "right". In contrast to the usual types of Huxleyian perennialism - "we're all the same, beneath all of these faiths" - they also emphasized the importance of difference. We're all engaging in an introspective, existential battle - but this battle is as unique as the individual who engages in it, and the context in which they have, do, and will live. In seeking - something, anything - the unique vantage point of the time period in which we live, and the intense multiculturalism and religious diversity of 21st century Toronto has at least, for me, challenged my mind and opened my eyes to new ways of living. Since university is a time that, perhaps first and foremost, should be spent in the cultivation of critical thinking and the articulation of the self, I hope that other students who perhaps haven't yet will seek out the Multi-Faith Centre and attend some of their events. A good way to learn of these is by joining their facebook page. I've found that at the very least, what you hear and see and do will be interesting. At the most, it might change, in some way, your life. Sometimes worlds collide, but sometimes, they reveal to each other the parts of themselves that the others don't yet seem to truly understand. Jennifer

3 comments on “An Atheist Love Letter to the Multi-Faith Centre

  1. Hello Jennifer,

    I applaud your perspective on not choosing a side, by allowing to be positioned between two, often at times, opposing views. Sitting “on the fence” (as they say) just might be the best seats in the house! Do you think reconciliation is a welcomed term by either party? Does “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” have relevance in this conversation?

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    I don’t think of it so much as “on the fence” as I do, “taking in a different view,” because I don’t think that it makes sense to take sides when our language really doesn’t even do justice to distinctions within terms like “meaning” or “God”. It’s hard for me to even think of where these “fences” might be, between people, because perceived “group” belonging is rarely as simple and cleanly divided as it seems, particularly on issues as nuanced as these. Often I find that when people take sides, it’s because of the way they’re defining their terms before the debate has even begun, and I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of the disagreements begin with semantics and the inadequacy of language for describing parts of the human experience. That said, I do know where I stand in relation to faith and spirituality and I think it is valuable for me (and everyone else) to define terms and explain interpretations in forums for religious, psychological, and existential talk. This is why I see immense value in the Multi-Faith Centre. I recognize, however, that having the opportunity, support, and safety to explore varied cosmological interpretations of the human experience is certainly a privilege (although admittedly, one with its own unique challenges) and one that I do not take for granted. Furthermore, I do not wish to discount the existential explorations of people with a different relation to faith than I do, because we all have our reasons for believing the things that we do, and “believers” are certainly not a homogeneous group. It is important to me not to assume we know where to draw the lines between things. We are all in different places in different journeys, and the time period in which we live – with a combination of unprecedented globalized perspectives and scientific knowledge – makes it extraordinarily difficult to reconcile different parts of our culturally-inherited belief systems with one another. Therefore, I think it is hard to speak of “reconciliation” by “party”, because I think being human is more dynamic than that. The ways in which our values, knowledge, and perspectives change are not necessarily proportional or consistent with one another. Also, it is difficult or impossible to ever tear ourselves completely free of the culture and ideologies of our past, but the more we talk to one another, the more we can recognize privileges and perspectives. I think that the opportunity to know what is true and/or meaningful (and the many levels at which something can be evaluated as “true” or even “meaningful”) from a variety of people helps us all on our journey as truth-seekers and human beings. Therefore, the friends/enemies distinction – at least for me – doesn’t hold. “Bring strangers closer,” might be a better phrase. There’s so much we have to learn from one another, and I feel that anyone who is deeply searching for the truth – rather than mere confirmation – realizes this with the quietest ears and loudest heart.

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