Dialogue is imperative to improving relations between people of various faiths and none. Too often, religion has been an enabler and sanctifier of intolerance and conflict. The relationship amongst persons of religious and nonreligious affiliations leaves much to be desired. Interfaith-belief communications have mainly been a master-slave, king-subject, lord-servant, conqueror-conquered affair. The relationship has been characterized by hate, hostility, mistrust, persecution, oppression, impunity, and conflict. Established religions treat nonbelievers with indignity and contempt. Mainstream faiths are often rallied against no faith traditions and non-believing communities.
Religion is codified not to tolerate or include the other, the nonreligious or unbelieving other. This unfortunate situation applies because people of faith wrongly assume that they have a monopoly of truth, knowledge, and morals. Believers are socialized to dislike or loath non-believers. They are conditioned to regard nonbelief in god as a serious crime, a capital offense, and, yes, a forbidden habit. Interestingly, a believer in one religion is regarded as an unbeliever by other religions. Dialogue within the universe of belief has been framed in faith, theistic or religious terms. Belief in a God has been made a criterion to participate in a dialogue. Interfaith or inter-religious, not interfaith-belief, dialogue has been the norm. An interfaith-belief dialogue that includes atheists and other non-believers is an exception. But this should not be the case. The dialogue project should be inclusive.
The entrenched religious antagonism towards the non-religious should not be a surprise. Religious intolerance is rooted in teachings, indoctrinations, and traditions. The Christian scripture explicitly describes non-believers as fools (Psalms 14:1), that is, those without knowledge and wisdom. Non-believers are designated as blind and ignorant (Ephesians 4:18). Belief in the existence of a God constitutes an automatic investor of wisdom and understanding. The scripture enjoins believers not to relate or yoke equally with nonbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Sacred texts sanction oppression and unequal treatment of nonbelievers. They make a virtue out of persecuting and discriminating against non-believers. The Islamic holy book contains verses that incite hatred and violence against non-Muslims. The Qur'an enjoins Muslims to attack and kill non-believers (Surah 3:151) and treat them without mercy. Other verses contain chilling statements of violence and intolerance. For instance, Surah 2:191 says: "And kill them (non-Muslims) wherever you find them … kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers (non-Muslims). Surah 9:5 states: "Then kill the disbelievers (non-Muslims) wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every ambush.
Among the Islamic traditions, conversion to Islam is celebrated, but renunciation of the islamic faith is an offense and a dishonor to the family. Deconversion from Islam is punishable by death or long imprisonment. Views that are critical of Islam are regarded as blasphemies and serious infractions.
But it is pertinent to note that religion is a mixed bag of doctrines. There are religious teachings and scriptural verses that emphasize love, tolerance, and compassion. But the antagonism towards people from no faith traditions is rooted in the hateful and immoral teachings and indoctrinations of religions. The time has come to take a critical look at these teachings that undermine interfaith-belief dialogue. Dialogue will transform communication between faith and no faith constituencies. It will turn the imparting or exchange of information between people of faith and no faith into a two-way process. What obtains at the moment is a one-way- an unyielding one-way religious communication.
What applies is a monologue, an intense religious monologue. The non-religious are constantly informed about religion and belief in God. There is no room to inform the religious about nonbelief or irreligion. Due to this one-way communication, the religious continue to languish in prejudice and ignorance of nonreligious canons including humanism, atheism, and freethought. The religious find it difficult to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the non religious.
In addition, a dialogue will change interfaith-belief relations into a business of equals, not unequals. It will transform interfaith-belief relations into an interaction marked by mutual respect. Dialogue will emphasize shared values and translate interfaith-belief relationship into an asset, and a mechanism to foster peace and development in the country.
By Leo Igwe