By Tracy Herrick
UWA takes pride in its diversity and has many vastly different student-run groups open for participation, both religious-based and those dedicated to social action. But bringing these varying perspectives together, around one table, at UWA's first Interfaith Dinner last month, to talk about working together toward a greater goal, had never been done before.
The goal of this particular evening was to open up a dialogue around whether or not it is possible for religious cooperation to be a force for good in the world on issues such as global poverty. I felt honoured to be in the presence of such passionate, open-minded and thoughtful individuals. The excitement in the room was palpable. As I chatted with my neighbours during dinner and listened to the dialogue that followed the meal, there were some basic points that resonated.
The first came up during dinner conversation and, to be honest, was not something to which I had given enough thought before. A new friend expressed to me her excitement about being invited to a public event, outside of her own religious group, where it was okay to talk about her faith.
We may not live in Tudor England, where voicing the wrong religious view meant a fiery death, but there is still a subtle sense of oppression creeping in.
Secularism was initially meant to create a neutral space in public life, so that different religious groups would be able to coexist, but it's taken on an ideological life of its own.
Even as an agnostic, I can appreciate the fact that a person's religion isn't just some casual pastime or something akin to a music or movie genre preference. It's at the very core of who you are. But nowadays religion is quickly becoming a taboo topic.
Now I'm not talking about the radical groups the media loves. I'm just talking about regular day-to-day life with average people who may never spend a moment on television or holding a picket sign, the kind of people who are more interested in turning essays in on time or getting their children to soccer practice than in converting anyone. The casual mention of anything related to their religion causes them to be greeted with sighs, a little eye rolling, and almost always judgment of some kind. So, rather than ruffle feathers, they stay quiet.
In the meantime, it has become perfectly acceptable to be as loud publicly as you want about how terrible and irrational you think religion is. Secular neutrality has morphed into an antireligion stance, and I'm not sure that's fair. I'm not sure it is any better than racism, sexism, prejudice against homosexuals, or the anti-fat prejudice I've been reading about in the news lately. So, I was genuinely happy to see my new friends smiling at finding acceptance and relishing the rare opportunity to give their full, honest opinions.
The second point became evident after dinner, in discussions excellently facilitated by Anglican Chaplain, Michael Wood. As each person took a moment to speak, I kept hearing the words ‘like-minded' uttered in reference to our little group. Here we were, a collection of people of varying ages, backgrounds and religious beliefs, a lot of us complete strangers to each other prior to this evening, and yet we were like minded. We were a community. We were part of an us. The idea of coming together to help others was more important than the things that would normally divide us. Rahim Ghauri, from the Council for Islamic Dialogue noted: "It was good to see so many young people there and their interest not only to be familiar with other religions, but also to work together for peace, harmony and a friendly society." I couldn't agree more.
Religion isn't a threat. It isn't the enemy, and it isn't going away. It can be a force for good in the world because it is part of who we are as a race and we can be a force for good. We need to learn how to accept each other and not be threatened by each other's world views so that we can finally make real strides in helping the sick and the hungry.
Published in UWA News, 25 June 2012