A panel discussion held at Colby College in November sought to answer whether religions can really coexist. The public discussion was organized and moderated by Daryl Witmer from the AIIA Institute, an evangelical Christian educational organization in Maine. Panelists included myself; Sakhi Khan, a Sunni Islam; Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, a Conservative Jew; Hugh Curran, a Zen Buddhist; and Nathan Rittenhouse, an Evangelical Christian.

The moderator asked key questions. Does coexistence require compromising certain beliefs? Can there be tolerance of a belief system without endorsement of it? Does coexistence allow one to claim that their beliefs are exclusively true? Are there limits to coexistence and, if so, who defines those limits? Why should we coexist? And don’t we already coexist? If not, what needs to change and why?

All five panelists were asked if they believed that coexistence was possible. All four panelists representing a religion agreed that it was possible and that it would be difficult, but they were unclear as to why they thought coexistence would be difficult.

My position, however, was that barriers to religious coexistence are primarily a problem created by various religions trying to interject their beliefs into our nation’s secular laws. Doing so not only hampers coexistence but violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of religion, the freedom from religion and the separation of church and state.

Rittenhouse, representing evangelical Christianity, said the atheist position had a moral foundation no better than “a potato.” This, sadly, produced a laugh from the mostly Christian audience. Representing atheism, I did not respond in kind. In retrospect, I wished I had taken the opportunity to express what, generally speaking, atheists consider to be their moral foundation;

1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.

2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of evolutionary change, an unguided process.

3. Ethical values are derived from mutual human needs and interest.

4. Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

5. Humans are social by nature and relationships are the source of meaning in life.

6. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

7. Respect for humane views in an open, secular, democratic, environmentally sustainable society.

Atheists support the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause, including the freedom from religion and the separation of church and state. They allow everyone to believe what they want and to practice those beliefs in their home or at their place of worship. Not encouraging or discouraging one specific religion or religion in general over non-religion, is not a violation of anyone’s rights.

During the discussion, Khan emphasized that the Sunni Muslim believes everything that happens is an act of God, while fundamentalist Christians often claim that God has a plan. Believing that everything that happens is an act of God provides no incentive to contribute towards a peaceful world of coexistence, and the clear lack of evidence for any God, much less a plan, leaves us all vulnerable to the beliefs of the dominate religion and the catastrophic outcomes of religious intolerance.

Sadly the discussion ended rather short of the goal of establishing what needs to happen for true religious coexistence to occur. One can only hope that those who believe in a religion, or in no religion, will realize the mutual value in allowing one another to believe what they want while limiting practices that conflict with secular laws and human rights. Doing so gives real meaning to religious freedom, advances religious coexistence and recognizes the value of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

I applaud Witmer for organizing this important and timely event. Religious coexistence is much more critical now because of the election of Mike Pence as vice president and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

Pence — who has said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order” (apparently being an American comes in no better than fourth, if at all) — and DeVos, who has long championed replacing public education with publically funded Christian schools, pose a real threat to religious coexistence.

I urge Witmer and the AIIA Institute to host another public discussion on coexistence aimed at attracting an audience with a more diverse religious perspective.

Tom Waddell is the president of the Maine chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

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