The recent Chapel Hill shooting in the United States (US) was a tragic event that has opened up debate over prejudices and stereotypes that can have fatal consequences. President Obama had hinted at a possible hate-crime by saying, “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” In fact, news had been abuzz over Craig Hick’s purportedly anti-religion remarks on social media. Given the rise in Islamophobic sentiments in Euro-America, many are speculating the possible connection between the killer’s atheistic views and the targeting of a Muslim family who were shot, according to reports, ‘execution-style’, with bullets to the head.

Yet, many atheists were quick to respond by condemning the shooting. Yale Humanist director called upon atheists to address anti-Muslim prejudices among them. The American Humanist Association issued a statement stating, “We’re deeply disturbed that this person identified as an atheist, and he must be brought to justice.” Even Richard Dawkins, a writer with wide appeal among atheists worldwide for his scathing criticisms against religion, condemned the killing by posting in Twitter soon after the murder: “How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?”

In these instances, a situation has emerged where societies are no longer grappling with inter-religious encounters, but between religionists and non-religionists over a range of issues. Two factors seemed to have accelerated such encounters in recent times. First, the global religious resurgence across all major religions for the last four decades that brought religious expressions and religious lobbying to the forefront of public policies and debates. Second, the emergence of newly invigorated atheistic movements with leading voices gaining worldwide attention with a march against religion and reacting against religion having a role in public life and policies.

Religion encounters atheism

At the intellectual level, there were frequent encounters between apologists of both sides. In 2013, Cambridge University hosted a widely publicised debate between former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and prominent scientist and atheist, Richard Dawkins. Earlier, in the Munk Debate in 2010, Tony Blair debated Christopher Hitchens over whether religion is a source for good in this world. And in 2009, Karen Armstrong penned an article titled “Think Again: God” for the Foreign Policy, which attracted subsequent exchanges with atheist polemicist, Sam Harris.

These encounters were not uncommon throughout history. It started with Enlightenment project in Europe and continued through the Second Vatican Council up to the present era. Prominent Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner had fruitful engagements with atheism over the last century, particularly within the European experience. In general, such engagements remain at the intellectual sphere, reserved for great thinkers of the day; the same cannot be said of the ordinary encounters at the sphere of daily interactions.

In fact, religious encounters with atheism were mired in uneasy relationship with the rise of openly anti-religion postures of Communist regimes from Stalin to Mao in the early 20th century. In Muslim countries, atheism was viewed as an enemy to be combated, such as in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In Indonesia, the Suharto regime exploited devout Muslims’ sentiments against atheism to purge supporters and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – leading to one of the most brutal massacres of the 20th century that left up to a million or more dead between 1966-1967.

Uneasy relationship

Today, people who do not affiliate themselves to any religion constitute 16% or more of the world’s population, according to 2012 data from the Pew Research Center. Atheism, agnosticism and humanism are becoming new ways of belonging to a community beyond the traditional religious affiliations. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), founded in 1952, is currently the only global umbrella body for non-religionists with over a hundred member organisations from some 40 different countries. The IHEU requires its members to subscribe to its minimum statement, which includes non-theism and a rejection of supernatural views of reality.

Despite the statistical growth in atheism, it remains a problematic expression of self-identity in several countries. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This was generally understood to include not only freedom to leave a religion, but also freedom from religion. Yet, it is not apparent in several cases.

Indonesia accords recognition of 6 religions, although one may leave the religion section blank in the identity card. However, to profess atheism is to contradict the national ideology of Pancasila that puts belief in one God as the first pillar. Thus, to openly profess atheism may be deemed unlawful. This was the situation in the widely reported case of Alexander Aan who was imprisoned for two and a half years in 2012 for his Facebook postings that declared “God does not exist” and rejecting beliefs in heaven, hell, angels and devils. The Indonesian court found him guilty of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility.”

Interfaith dialogues need new partners

American religious studies professor, Diana Eck once remarked that “the global movements of people have brought about a new geo-religious reality” since the 1970s. Coupled with this is the growing consciousness towards inter-religious engagements. The past decades have seen considerable growth in efforts worldwide to establish dialogues between religious communities as a way to build positive relations while overcoming prejudices. There has been success in stemming inter-religious conflict and hostilities through such efforts.

However, instances of crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias are also increasing. Inter-communal conflicts such as those between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic, as well as rising instances of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe and North America, calls for greater efforts in bridging communities through inter-religious engagements as part of peace-building efforts.

The Singapore model

Singapore is a sterling example of preventive measures being instituted early to ensure inter-religious conflicts do not take root. Concerned with rising religious extremism, the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) was put in place in 2006 to promote social cohesion, peace and harmony among the Republic’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. The programme is both preventive and responsive: many of its activities aim to build reservoirs of goodwill and understanding within the community, thus lowering the risk of inter-group tensions.

Yet, interfaith efforts in Singapore have largely focused on institutional dialogues between established religious communities. There seems to be either an oversight or reluctance to broaden the scope to include atheists and agnostics. According to the 2010 population census, some 17% professed to have ‘no religion’: an increase from 13% in 1980. In 2010, the Humanist Society was registered and has been active in promoting non-faith based perspectives on life, society and ethics. But other than occasional involvement of atheists and agnostics in Explorations into Faith programme run by the Southeast Community Development Council, there is a glaring absence of religionist and non-religionist engagements at public interfaith platforms and activities. This is not an uncommon situation in many multi-cultural societies.

This is a gap that can have long-term implications. If policy consultations are based on the assumption that different religious communities may have specific perspectives and concerns, then missing out on what is a non-insignificant demographic is remiss. While it can be argued that the non-religious will be engaged in other categories such as occupation type or socio-economic status, not recognising or engaging the non-religious in the same way that religious groups are, implies a lack of understanding that these groups may and do also hold specific and valid set of values and positions. This policy blindspot sends a signal that the non-religious and their concerns can be ignored.

Often, lack of opportunities for deep interaction, be they via official platforms or otherwise, will allow assumptions to take root. The ‘othering’ process can be pernicious and dangerous, or simply a missed opportunity: individuals who feel wronged by their interactions with members of other communities have no opportunity to have their stories heard by the ‘offending’ party, and there is no opportunity for conciliation. On a societal level, we have also seen the effects of ‘othering’ on social cohesion. We often project our fears on those who are not like us, which eventually lead to demonisation, suspicion and hostility. In the long run, it dampens our common humanity as inter-group rivalry becomes more acute.

Recognising the common ground

The lack of engagement between religious and non-religious communities must be remedied to prevent deeper divide between both. Presumptions and prejudices across both communities need to be addressed. Among religionists, there is a common perception that atheism is necessarily anti-religion and atheists lack morality. For non-religionists, the dominant perception is that religion is irrational, superstition and legitimates violence.

This mutual suspicion contributes to the view that there can be no common ground between both. When confronted with a range of contemporary issues and debates such as sexual rights and governance of the secular space, there is a false binary that works to establish mutual opposition in values and positions to each other.

This is a mistaken view. Notions of what are ethical or good and the search for purpose and meaning in life and this world, need not – as the atheist would insist – be predicated upon God or religion. Atheists are equally concerned and committed to the flourishing of human life and good ethical values. On the other hand, religionists would insist that what is ethical or good is not mere arbitrary subjection to some irrational principles found in Scripture or God. On this plane, religionists and non-religionists can have meaningful conversations to discover and uncover the premises of each other’s belief (or non-belief) in order to build a future together within a shared polity. It is as important, if not more so, to understand how we choose to live, as much as the values and beliefs that underpin our actions, because actions are the expression of belief, and it is action that directly impacts our communities. This is the dialogue involving the lived realities of both communities striving to be more human and humane in an increasingly volatile world.

As the debates surrounding the Chapel Hill incident had shown, there is much prejudices and suspicion between both religious and non-religious communities. But a fair mind would not hold the most extreme of each spectrum as being representative of the entire community. Just as the acts of ISIS do not represent Islam, neither does the far right militant, Anders Breivik, represent Christianity, so Craig Hick cannot be the representative of atheism in general. To reject these fringe individuals and groups in each community requires the voices of reason to reclaim the discursive space and to engage with one another in mutual respect and with the intent of building bridges of cordial friendship and understanding.

The existing interfaith platforms will be a good start. But that space must be redefined. This will be the task of those active in inter-religious work to extend the sphere of dialogue to include all, including those who hold personalised faiths outside formal and established religious institutions, and those who profess no faith or religion. The urgency has grown and a lesson learnt from the tragedy at Chapel Hill.

Mohamed Imran is a Muslim interfaith activist with Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative in Singapore. Chew-Lin Kay is a volunteer facilitator with Explorations into Faith and identifies herself as a humanist.