Mid-Atlantic Muslim-Catholic Dialogue Addresses Particular Aspects of Secularism

Representatives of the Mid-Atlantic Catholic and Muslim Dialogue gathered on April 2-3 at the Why Islam? Center in Somerset, New Jersey to present papers and engage in conversation and the promotion of strategies for addressing particular aspects of secularism that present themselves as challenges to modern Catholic and Muslim families.  The Most Reverend Barry Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington, D.C. and Dr. Talat Sultan of the Islamic Circle of North America, presided.  The topics covered during the two-day meeting included the cultural and social effects of, and religious responses to, neo-atheism, the status of Muslim youth in modern American culture, teaching religious diversity in a secularized world, and the spiritual impact of secularism.

The first paper, entitled “Neo-atheism as it is presented in David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” was delivered by Rev. Dr. Sidney Griffith.   Dr. Griffith addressed the difficulties of religious persons who inhabit a de-sacralized public square and who, as a consequence, must navigate their lives in a social and cultural environment in which is perceived the absence of God.   The phenomenon of practical atheism as the lived reality of many people, even people of faith, in modern society is, Dr. Griffith asserted, “a problem that Catholics and Muslims can work together to address.”  

The second paper, entitled “Growing up Muslim in a secular world,” was presented by Mr. Rameez Abid.  Mr. Abid provided an engaging analysis of the relationship between the need for assimilation in American culture by young Muslims and the increasing disconnect from their traditional practices that this experience of assimilation produces.  

The third paper, entitled “Teaching religious diversity in a secularized world,” was presented by Dr. Sandra Keating.  In her paper, Dr. Keating explored some of the complications in teaching young people today who, because they generally lack positive experiences of religion, struggle to appreciate religious diversity.  “In general,” she contended, “American culture has come to understand religious freedom as ‘freedom from religion’, where religion is seen as antithetical to secular values.  Further, ‘religion’ is often regarded from perspectives hostile to it, rather than as the human expression of our deepest desires for meaning and true happiness. The consequence is that young people seek fulfillment of these desires in material and human sources.”  Keating concluded with the observations of Methol Ferré, the Uruguayan philosopher who was recently quoted by Pope Francis concerning the need to reach young people with a “self-aware practice . . . that is equipped intellectually.”  Dr. Keating noted that Methol Ferré made the provocative claim that “the Church is the only subject that can confront and overcome libertine atheism.”  

The fourth paper, entitled “The spiritual impact of secularism,” was presented by Shaykh Abdool Rahman Khan.  Shaykh A.R. Khan’s paper outlined the pastoral difficulties religious leaders in the Muslim community are currently addressing, especially with assisting Muslim families in their assimilation to American culture, which overwhelmingly lacks an intentional devotion to God.

The purpose of this meeting was to address together the broad phenomenon of secularism as it is perceived to have encroached upon, and so to challenge, both the spiritual formation of, and the overall participation in the public square by, the Muslim and Catholic communities.  Anecdotal “best practices” were shared by clerical and religious leaders in attendance.

In addition to the co-chairs and presenters, the Muslim representatives at the meeting included Naeem Baig, Ph.D., current ICNA President, Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, Ph.D., of Bayshore, New York; Muhammad T. Rahman, secretary general of ICNA; Khursid Khan, Ph.D., principal of MDQ Academy, Bayshore, New York; Imam Hafiz Zafeer Ali, Jamaica, New York; Asim Kahn, Alexandria, VA; Sarah Sayeed, Ph.D., Director of Community Partnerships, Interfaith Center of New York, Ms. Nahela Morales of ICNA, and Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, Monmouth Jct., NJ.

Additional Catholic representatives included Rev. Dr. Sidney Griffith, chairman of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research, The Catholic University of America (CUA); Pim Valkenberg, Ph.D., Professor of Religion, CUA; Sandra Keating, Professor of Religion, Providence College; Paulist Father Tom Ryan, ecumenical and interreligious officer, North American Paulist Center, Washington; and Anthony Cirelli, Ph.D., Associate Director, USCCB SEIA.