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EXPLORING
COMMON GROUND

As part of our work to build a tolerant society, we try to build bridges between humanists and religious communities – educating both sides and building links in support of a peaceful, plural society.

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.

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 an established term often used by religious people. Taken literally, it excludes people of no faith, but over half the people in Britain, including all humanists, do not identify with any ‘faith’. In practice, and for many years, humanists have worked constructively alongside religious people both at a national level and in local ‘interfaith’ groups. In some cases these groups have changed their names or amended their terms of reference to reflect their inclusive approach.

Why does Humanists UK 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; or challenging words and activities we see as harmful, 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. Since 2016, it has been over 50% – 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 14% in 2016-18, with a weighting towards older age groups). The population of Catholics has declined much more slowly, mainly as a result of immigration, to around 8% in 2016-18. The big growth has been in the number of Pentecostals and other non-denominational Christians (3% in 1983, but now around the same as Anglicans). The proportion of people identifying with non-Christian religions has also grown (3% in 1983, 8% in 2016-18, weighted towards younger age groups). This includes around 5% who are Muslim, with a big diversity of types of Islam, 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.

How humanists engage in dialogue

Many aspects of Humanists UK’s work involves engagement with people from religious backgrounds.  For example, we work with the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, the Cutting Edge Consortium, and we are long-standing and active members of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, a group bringing together representatives from many religion and belief organisations which share the desire to promote high quality education about religion, beliefs and ethics in schools. Members of the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network work closely with religious people in chaplaincy and pastoral support teams in hospitals and prisons.

Larger events and public speaking

Humanists often speak in schools as members of multi-belief panels, and our Dialogue Officer is involved in a wide range of interactions with people of faith, including events such as:

‘How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?’
‘Common Ground: Conversations among Humanists & Religious Believers’

We have spoken at a wide range of events where we have been invited to provide humanist perspectives on dialogue including at the British Islam conference, and you can see examples of this here and here.

There are humanist members of many local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs), and faith and belief forums throughout England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. And there have been many examples of specific local dialogue activities, such as this Catholic/humanist interaction ‘Careless Talk’.

Dialogue network

If you are a member of Humanists UK (or about to become one), and are interested in participating in our dialogue network, please complete this form and you’ll be on our mailing list so we can contact you when we have upcoming training courses. If you have any questions, please email dialogue-officer@humanism.org.uk.

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