What is an atheist doing at a religious freedom summit?
“We have to break down the walls within the broader rights-promoting community,” said Samantha Power of the United States Agency for International Development.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — An atheist walked into an international religious freedom conference and picked up a microphone.
No, really, American Atheists president Nick Fish showed up — invited — to IRF Summit 2023 on Wednesday, and showed that he actually wasn’t out of place.
“Any nation that can take away your right to practice your religion can also force a religion onto me,” he said. “We’re all in this together. Every single person in this room, every group in this room, every denomination, every person on this stage, we’re in the shared struggle together, and it’s vital that we work to elevate FORB (freedom of religion or belief).”
The second day of the third annual IRF summit again displayed a determinedly bipartisan, multi-faith effort that is creating the kind of strange friendships that lead to New York Times editorials and cause atheists and religionists alike to throw side-eye looks at who is participating.
“We have to break down the walls within the broader rights-promoting community. I think that’s happening already by necessity, because the sense of persecution and the growing repression is forcing that,” said Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Leaders who want to repress human rights like religious freedom are collaborating across the world, Power warned during Wednesday’s main summit session.
“They’re learning from one another. They’re copying restrictions from one country, cutting-and-pasting them and putting them in another country,” she said. “We need to be as sophisticated as we can be in our toolkit in contesting these abuses, including by being in coalition with partners that we may not have cohabitated with in the past.”
Power called for more stories about persecuted people, which is a passionate reason for existence for the IRF Summit and many of the 70 civil society partner groups that sponsor and attend the summit each year.
For example, conference-goers rained applause on Ummad Farooq, an Ahmadi Muslim man who survived a bullet to the head from extremists in Pakistan, and Russian-born pastor Dmytro Bodyu, who first left his own country 30 years ago to practice his faith only to have to escape Russian forces again last year when they invaded Ukraine.
Later in the day, as if in response to Power’s call to action for new partners, Fish shared the story of a Nigerian humanist sentenced to 25 years in prison for expressing a lack of belief in the afterlife.
Data shows support for religion
One panelist in a main session argued that believers should not be shy when they call for religious freedom or for more reporting on the issue, despite media reports about decline in church attendance.
“Maybe certain statistics say that fewer people show up in the pews, but we happen to know that people around the world are showing up in prayer, and in institutions and in communities that care about these issues,” said Aaron Sherinian, CEO of Radiant Foundation and senior vice president of global reach for Deseret Management Corp. (DMC). The Deseret News is part of DMC.
Sherinian said fresh data continues to show that spirituality is important to Americans, Europeans and others around the world.
“We need to remember that (religious freedom) is not a niche issue,” he said. “Sometimes when we approach the media, when we approach those who make a culture if you will ... we approach these issues as if they’re niche, but 83% of the world’s population affiliates with a faith, so that’s not a niche issue. It’s a human issue.”
Sherinian said believers should respond to Power’s call to action to share stories about the human consequences of religious persecution.
He said a recent survey from HarrisX shows a market opportunity for media outlets.
“More than half the people polled said they would favor a media outlet if it has more religion or faith-based content,” Sherinian said, and they also said they would be willing to pay more for it.
“I think we, as those people who care about the issue, and you, people who advocate for it, we should start with that fact,” he said.
Religious persecution and the media
Sherinian and his co-panelist, an Italian journalist, suggested journalists and media outlets need to educate themselves about religion.
Otherwise, said Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of the publication Bitter Winter, “journalists can become allies of persecution.”
In an interview with the Deseret News, IRF Summit co-chair Sam Brownback cheered the editorial in Sunday’s New York Times titled “One of the strangest friendships in Washington,” about a conservative appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom by Mitch McConnell and a liberal appointed by Nancy Pelosi.
“Wrong things bother her,” the former said. “And wrong things bother me.”
“This last Sunday, they’ve got an article in The New York Times editorial about (religious freedom) being a bipartisan topic that progress can be made on,” Brownback said. “Thank you, Lord, because that’s ... if the New York Times can start talking that way, then maybe others can look at this and open up their minds.”
Brownback welcomes the media coverage. On Tuesday night, he and co-chair Katrina Lantos-Swett did a live television interview at midnight.
“We’ve had more media here than we’ve ever had before,” Brownback said, “still not as much on the left as I’d like to see covering it with the seriousness of this time, because we’re talking about a lot of people that get imprisoned or killed or harassed or just have difficulty with their lives because they are a person of faith.
“It just seems to me like that should appeal to the media, but it’s better than it’s been.”
What is, and isn’t, religious freedom?
One of the summit’s final panels considered what religious freedom is and what it is not, and it included Fish, the atheist leader.
“It is clearly something that’s pluralistic and not just a particular brand of secularism,” said BYU law professor Cole Durham. “It’s something that leaves open a real framework for us to live together, and it’s one of the things that, in my view, is one of the great modern keys of how we live together in our differences in peaceful ways. It protects the nonbelievers. It protects the believers. It protects the minority religions. It protects threatened majorities, as well. We’re very fortunate to have that.”
Fish nodded as Durham spoke.
“I’m certainly not in favor, and I don’t think most atheists or humanists would favor an idea that there is no religion in public space,” he said. “Public spaces are shared public spaces.”
Fish and the other three panelists didn’t agree on everything, but the conversation never became argumentative.
Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar and president of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, said many believers are faced with a transitional generation.
“Those of us who are older have seen just such major shifts in our culture,” he said. “And one of the biggest shifts is this movement away from traditional religion as it’s understood. All of the traditional religions, I think, feel under siege right now.”
Yusuf argued that some indeed are calling for religion’s withdrawal from public spaces and that there should be consideration for the potential fallout.
“I think that one of the views in our civilization now is that somehow religion was the scaffolding by which we built our civilization, but those of us who actually still believe feel that it’s the foundation of the civilization, and we can’t simply just remove the scaffolding of religion and think anything’s going to be left.”
Afterward, Durham said the discussion was helpful.
“We concluded that people at this conference probably have a very strong sense of what freedom of religion is, but it’s helpful to think about some of the things it isn’t,” he said. “It isn’t a mask for bigotry. That’s what it’s often confused with in this country, but you have to be at a conference like this where you realize how many people really need this protection.
“We have such a strong buffer of religious freedom, actually, in this country that our problems are fine-tuning of a wonderful model. But you can see in many other parts of the world, the situation is just horrendous. So it’s helpful to think about some of the things that (religious freedom) isn’t. I thought it very impressive that the atheist in the group took a very pluralist position which I would agree with in a lot of ways.”