Reflecting on University of Western Australia's First Ever Interfaith Dinner
The University of Western Australia (UWA) Religion and Globalisation Initiative’s Interfaith Dinner last week was a fun, inspiring and ultimately a historical event. 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 to bring these varying perspectives together, at one table, to talk about working together toward a greater goal, that 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.
A group of about thirty participants, including university chaplains, faculty members, and students representing a wide range of religious backgrounds, from Baha’i, Catholic and Jewish to Agnostic and Atheist, gathered around a simple meal of Four Bean Dahl, prepared at a cost of under two dollars per person to allow guests appreciate the struggles of those living in extreme 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 three basic points that resonated.
The first came up during dinner conversation and, to be honest, was not something I had really 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 past time 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 publically as you want about how terrible and irrational you think religion is. Secular neutrality has morphed into an anti-religion 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 during the after dinner dialogue, excellently facilitated by Anglican Chaplain, Michael Wood. As each person took their 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.
The final, and arguably the most important point was the one that surprised me the most. It was that none of the participants, especially the students, were satisfied with just dialogue anymore. More than just a simple willingness, there was a fervent desire to do something. It wasn’t even a request. It was a demand. We want action! What are we going to do about extreme poverty? Michael Sheldrick, Tony Blair Faith Foundation Fellow, Campaign Manager for the Global Poverty Project and mastermind behind the evening itself made a great point in reminding us that it’s important not to just bring people together and get them excited about a cause, but also to give them a clear avenue for action, give them something to do about it.
Already venturing into unchartered waters, answering this demand will be the next challenge for the UWA Religion and Globalisation Initiative. Even as our event, which seemed to end far too quickly, came to a close, participants took the time to stay and chat about ideas for future action. There was talk of making these dinners a regular occurrence, possibly a student led organisation, as well as different projects that may need our help. The energy in the room was incredibly inspiring. I couldn’t keep from smiling for hours afterwards.
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, as a race, it is part of who we are 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. I’d like to conclude with a wise and eloquent quote from Mr Michael Sheldrick, as I do not think I could say it better:
"Contrary to the thesis of modernity, the number of people worldwide professing a belief in some form of religious deity isn't declining. It’s growing. In the 21st century then, it is crucial that future business, political and community leaders, whether religious or not - but especially if they aren't religious - understand the nature of religion and how it intersects with other global forces. That’s what this event was all about.”