At the 61c today, I ran into someone who sounded a lot like a guy I used to know in columbus from Insomnia - a self-described "bisexual witch" who talked endlessly about casting spells, manipulating energy levels, how he could tell the future and boss ghosts around, and things of that sort. While I tend to find talk of such things intensely irritating (at least partly because the attitude they tend to encourage in those around them is doe-eyed gullibility and weaving everybody's beliefs about reality into a single truth), the guy in Columbus was otherwise a rather neat guy, and we hung out whenever we were at the place at the same time. I never spoke with him much about his beliefs though, and I sometimes think about that. Recently, Eboo Patel's column on interfaith issues talked about Pope Ratzinger's recent statements about the meaning of interfaith dialogue, in particular stressing commonality of stress on "life, dignity, and religious freedom". He concluded that cosmic questions are importantly shared between people of many belief systems, and that we are challenged to bring our questions and answers "respectfully, all of us in awe of the infinite and ineffable mystery of God". The two topics here tie together into the problems of how Atheists fit into notions of respectful dialogue and searching. Is our position inherently disrespectful, and should we be bothered if it is?
Respect for other traditions is a troublesome notion - to some people it simply means "do not be quick to persecute others for their beliefs", to others, it might mean "be happy that they believe what they do", and to others it suggests "nobody's beliefs are better than any others by any reasonable set of standards". The last seems to me to be a poor perspective, as it is both transparently wrong (or sneaky, depending on how broadly one can play with the term "reasonable") and destroys one's ability to act on one's beliefs. Sometimes we do see people adhere to it though - there was a lot of criticism of recent sermons by the current pope that suggested that the Jewish faith is "incomplete" - I don't think it's insensitive in a problematic way because Christianity (like Islam) is universalist - its notion of good, evil, afterlife, and salvation are not intended just for Christians but for all of humanity. To refrain from that belief is to demand that Christianity lose the trait of universality. An alternate criticism is that these beliefs should not be expressed in a high profile way. For a philosophy or faith, I don't think this is a particularly wise idea - ideas that are not in the open may easily be lost as they fail to be transmitted between generations (secularists like me also value that religions that are not secretive can be criticised by laypeople based on their actual texts). What form should interfaith respect take? The difference between Khatami's "Dialogue of Civilisations" and Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations" model hinges on what respect means - should criticism, competition, and possibly mockery still be permitted between members of various civilisations?
On a more individual level, how do people actually talk to friends about religion when they differ on the topic? As with the friend in Columbus, I've generally not spoken with people much on the topic because I understand that materialist atheism, more than any other religion, is threatening and perhaps inherently disrespectful in a stronger way than most other outlooks are, as we deny much more and even consider many of the questions Patel points out as common to be meaningless. My worldview does not include notions of sin, souls, an afterlife, gods, spirits, moral codes intrinsic to the nature of things, or many of these other things that Patel sees as common, and it considers these things to be made up by people. This is of course true to a lesser extent between the faiths - the multiple "aspects of god" in trinitarian forms of Christianity leads to frequent debate and contrasting rulings within Islam and Judaism on whether those forms can be considered monotheistic or not, and there are other fundamental differences, but in atheism we toss everything out as meaningless (even though some of us such as myself find it interesting anyhow). Part of respect is in if/how/when one presents one's views - one can try to be both frank and nonpushy. Some atheists I know have taken offense at the notion that by most Christian traditions, the things they have done that are sins by the Christian morality, unforgiven by divine grace through the vehicle of salvation through Christ, will presumably merit them Hell upon their death. Religious people might conversely take offense that I think that their gods do not exist and their faith and notions of virtue are at best a mixed bag - these two examples are measures of intrinsic offensiveness of an idea, and are not things that one can dispense with while remaining honest and open. It is obliged upon us to accept things of this nature if we are to have good social relations with people who believe differently - we are betraying ourselves in a deep way if we lie about or obfuscate our beliefs to avoid offending others. Do we always need to bring these matters up, especially when unasked or multiple times after positions are known? Probably not, and avoiding use of spit words while discussing these differences (calling the way someone comes to a belief insufficiently careful or based on poor evidence is different than calling them an insane idiot, for example) is a kind of respect we can give that doesn't cause us to sacrifice our beliefs. Sometimes the offensiveness of an idea will close doors, but offensiveness in presentation of an idea is at least largely avoidable without losing integrity.
I don't think the ecumenical table has a place for atheists of the materialist flavour though, at least those who are intellectually honest. It may be possible to show that some atheist Weltanschauungen have notions of virtue that have some elements in common with some religious forms of morality, but pan-religious fameworks for understanding the world are not something we could be fit into without making the classification of outlooks so broad that it becomes meaningless.
Lawrence Lessig's "change congress" project needs help documenting positions of politicians on reform issues so it can hold them to it - those interested can get involved here. As has been made clear to me by some friends who were involved in politics for a time, it's easy for a politician to honestly agree that some kinds of reform are a good thing and want to do them, but these beliefs are challenged with all the trading of favours that happens invisibly in politics. Whether Lessig's efforts will be able to impose enough of a cost on that invisible dealmaking is something we'll have to see.