Suffolk Humanists

For a good life, without religion

Religious literacy, and why it matters

Posted by Margaret on Saturday, Oct 29, 2011

There are many atheists and self-styled humanists who are so anti-religious that they don’t want to know anything about it. When they talk about Islam, say, it becomes evident that they know very little about Muslims, and have probably never knowingly spoken to one. As far as they’re concerned, Islam is a threat, and that’s all there is to it.

When it comes to our quality of life, what matters is how people behave, not what they believe. This applies to atheists and humanists too, some of whom could do with lessons in manners. There are times when this sort of attitude leads atheists to do very silly things, like Richard Dawkins’ response to the Haitian earthquake. To demonstrate that humanists are caring people, he set up a separate fund from all the well-established disaster relief funds. A lot of atheists won’t donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) because some of the organisations involved have a religious ethos and they imagine that the money might be used for proselytising, instead of food, shelter and welfare. Dawkins’ fund, which was promoted by the BHA, was channelled through PayPal, an American money transfer system, which meant that British donors couldn’t take advantage of the Gift Aid scheme, so their donations were worth less than they would have been through DEC. This was inexcusable, considering that there are British disaster relief charities without a religious ethos, and that donors could have gone direct to any of them. Humanists are supposed to be rational people, but this wasn’t very rational.

I support charities that are neutral in religious terms, including Action Aid and the Red Cross; they help anyone and they employ people of all faiths and none. Religion is irrelevant, when it comes to helping people. That’s what secularism is all about. I’m happy to belong to an Inter-Faith organisation that works harmoniously because everyone is on an equal footing; no preaching or proselytising is allowed. The ethos is a friendly and respectful one. It’s interesting to learn about what other people believe, and why, even if I sometimes find it hard to understand a religious view of the world. Many atheists seem to imagine that religious people have all been indoctrinated as children, or that they’ve been bullied into believing, which isn’t true.

Today I read about why “religious literacy” is important in some charitable organisations in the development sector, “even in secular organisations” like Oxfam (see Oxfam blogs). One reason is given as,

Resilience to shocks: whether its the global financial crisis, or the first few chaotic hours and days after the Haitian earthquake, poor people turn to their churches and mosques for help in an emergency. If we are serious about promoting disaster risk reduction before catastrophe hits, we need to be talking to the institutions that are most relevant to poor people.

You can’t expect to change people’s beliefs to satisfy your own sense of what’s right or wrong; that’s as bad as religious proselytising. Religion’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and while religious people may believe things that we don’t, it’s arrogant to think that they’re inferior because of it. This is a form of snobbery. See the people, not the labels, and recognise that altruism is a human characteristic, not a religious or atheist one.

If you disagree, why not comment?

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