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Keeping the faith: is Interfaith Week “a slap in the face to secularism”?

The religious festival has its detractors, but the university’s chaplains have backed this year’s inclusive approach, reports Cale Hubble.

The USU Interfaith Week logo.

The university’s religious leaders have defended Interfaith Week after University of Sydney Union Board Director Tom Raue publicly questioned its usefulness and merit.

Mr Raue used the Atheist Society’s Facebook page to express his beliefs that the USU has a Jeffersonian separation of church and state, claiming: “This event gives extra publicity and support to religious groups on campus and is a slap in the face to secularism.” The comment sparked vociferous debate between ardent secularists, who would prefer to see religions abolished completely, and pragmatic moderates, who sought to promote religious dialogue in pursuit of respect and understanding.

Lawrence Muskitta, one of this year’s two Interfaith Directors, said the festival is a chance to encourage collaboration and discussion between the USU’s 17 faith-based societies, which claim thousands of members – as well as tackling the ‘big questions’ and addressing those without faith.

Given the success of the USU’s interfaith program over recent years, the members of the university’s Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre were surprised that a Board Director was considering its demise. Representing a common-held view, April Miller, a chaplain of the Hillsong Church, said: “I just feel that this is only a positive thing, and that everybody working together can only be a benefit to the university.”

The chaplains were generally sceptical about including atheism in Interfaith Week. According to Ms Miller: “More and more the religious side of things is getting pushed out, so I think if we can keep and protect that it’s only a good thing.” Catholic chaplain Daniel Hill said that opening up interfaith into a general ‘Cultural Diversity Week’ would mean “including every single possible group, turning it into a nothing”. Rabbi Eli Feldman jokingly quipped: “When I last checked, atheism is not a faith!”

Former Atheist Society President Josef Daroczy, who was not contacted for this article, commented on Facebook of last year’s Interfaith Fair: “[people] weren’t doing anything but staring glaze-eyed like little cultists thrown into a big scary world.”

“I like interfaith – I just thought that last one was woefully mismanaged. They weren’t keen on having ASoc involved,” Mr Daroczy clarified, after this article went to print.

On the other hand, this year’s Executive seems to be more engaged; they are involved in numerous debates, panels and events for Interfaith Week this year.

Mr Hill said that Interfaith Week “creates a safe place for people who do subscribe to some kind of religious faith, or even none, to be who they are.” He emphasised the importance of diversity and democratic thought. Our Buddhist chaplain, the Venerable Neng Rong, agreed. “As society is getting more multicultural, it is a good thing to have interfaith dialogue and have more understanding of one another,” he said.

For Rabbi Eli Feldman, of the Orthodox Jewish sect Chabad, Interfaith Week brings the goodness of different faiths together. “All religions stand for goodness and kindness, for belief in higher ideals…and that life essentially has meaning and purpose,” he said.

“I think that’s something that can only bring happiness and positivity to people.”