Dialogue with others

What do we mean by ‘dialogue’?

  • By ‘dialogue’ we mean engagement between people with different approaches to life to build mutual understanding, identify common ground and, where it makes sense, engage in shared action.
  • We do not mean failing to challenge ideas and activities we believe to be harmful, or failing to recognise areas of disagreement. Mutual understanding means understanding differences as well as common ground. If dialogue achieves no more than box-ticking, photo-opportunities, or mutual admiration, it is of little value.
  • Debate, unlike dialogue, is adversarial, with each side trying to persuade an audience to adopt one rival view and ultimately to win. We participate in many debates but recognise that they are not the only way to engage.
  • “Interfaith dialogue” is a term often used by religious people. But over half the people in Britain, including all humanists, do not identify with any ‘faith’. Dialogue that excludes the non-religious can seem like – and be – ‘circling the wagons’ rather than coming to terms with the rapid changes taking place in British society. In practice, many ‘interfaith’ bodies welcome constructive humanist contributions, in some cases changing their names to reflect their inclusive approach. For many years, humanists have worked alongside religious people both in local ‘interfaith’ groups and at a national level.

Why does the BHA engage in dialogue?

  • We want to see a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations. We believe this entails viewing people who have different views from ours first-and-foremost as fellow human beings, rather than ‘The Other’. That does not mean failing to argue for what we believe is right; but it does mean listening, understanding, looking at evidence, treating people fairly, and avoiding ill-informed generalisations. It also means being willing to work with others of different beliefs for the common good.
  • Living cooperatively is essential for the type of secular state we want to see, where the human right to freedom of thought and expression is guaranteed, where there is no religious privilege, and where everyone is treated equally regardless of religion or belief.
  • As well as understanding others, we want to help religious people understand humanists and Humanism.
  • By supporting groups to take part in effective dialogues of their own. See our ‘Guideline for humanists engaging in small group dialogue with religious people‘ for more information.

Why is dialogue important now?

In terms of religion, philosophy, and worldviews, British society is going through a profound change:

  • Far more people say they do not belong to any religion. The British Social Attitudes survey has been run annually since 1983. When asked “Which religion or denomination do you consider yourself as belonging to?” in 1983, 32% of people said they did not belong to a religion. In 2013 it was 51% – a change that is even more pronounced in younger people.
  • The mix and religiosity of those who do say they belong to a religion is changing. There are now many fewer Anglicans (down from 40% in 1983 to 16% in 2013, with a weighting towards older age groups). The population of Catholics has remained relatively constant at 9%, sustained by immigration. The big growth has been in the number of Pentecostals and other non-denominational Christians (3% in 1983, 12% in 2013). The proportion of Muslims has also grown (1% in 1983, 5% in 2013, weighted towards younger age groups), with a big diversity of types of Islam among the British Muslim population reflecting both their varied origins and global trends.

Given world events and this complex national background, issues relating directly or indirectly to religious and non-religious worldviews have a higher profile in Britain now than at any time in living memory. Too often the discourse is hijacked by hardliners or characterised by uninformed generalisations and dehumanising “us versus them” narratives – the opposite of a humanist perspective. Dialogue can be a powerful enabler for people from diverse backgrounds directly to encounter and understand those with different views.  Humanists have a constructive role to play in making that happen for the good of individuals and of wider society.

Here are some examples:
“How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?”
“Careless Talk”
“Common Ground: Conversations among Humanists & Religious Believers”

If you have any comments or want to know more about our dialogue activities, please email dialogue-officer@humanism.org.uk