“Religious pluralism is meaningless” without atheists, contests Dr. Frank Burton, Executive Director of The Circle of Reason and a local organizer of the First Minneapolis Circle of Reason and Secular Bible Study. Burton founded the Circle of Reason, an international community for "pluralistic rationalism," on January 1, 2000, with the intention of harnessing a small piece of the simultaneous worldwide celebration and introspection that ushered in the new millennium. In doing so, Burton sought to create a space for “reasoning dialogue,” where theists and non-theists could come together and have respectful, rational, and meaningful conversations about their worldviews. Burton broadens the idea of “interfaith dialogue” by referring to this kind of intentional engagement as “transbelief dialogue,” an approach that attempts to builds bridges between theist and non-theist as well as different religious communities. Burton contends that, “atheists can help…bring out the assumptions that theists share…If all the theists are trying to figure out how to get along with the atheists, then they’ll figure out how to get along with each other a little bit better.”
The Circle of Reason, like the Secular Bible Study it sponsors, is an all-volunteer organization that draws a diverse crowd. Burton describes the Circle of Reason’s regular meetups as gatherings of “fundamentalists, liberal religious members, non-Christian religious members, spiritual people who don’t define themselves as religious, agnostics, atheists, and people who just define themselves as rationalists.” Meetups, which are announced through a subscription-driven website, are organized by group members and discussions can range from the Bible, Christianity (the focus of the Secular Bible Study), or religion, philosophy, or politics more generally.
The Secular Bible Study began as a joint effort between Minnesota Atheists and Trinity United Methodist Church, and today is offered jointly with the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis. Participants examine the secular impact of the Bible and Christianity through a series of expert presentations and discussions. Examples of past talks include “From Parchment to Barnes and Noble: History of Biblical Translation” and a presentation on creationism and quantum mechanics. When weather permits, Circle of Reason meetups take place outdoors, with members enjoying a nature walk while they discuss various issues— "following the footsteps," according to Dr. Burton, "of the Greek Peripatetics." The First Minneapolis Circle of Reason and the Secular Bible Study adopt a consensus-based approach to leadership: “If the atheists don’t like it, it doesn’t get done, if the Christians don’t like it, it doesn’t get done—but if they can all agree on doing something then they’ll all do it together.”
Burton says that the essential goal of The Minnesota Circle of Reason and the Secular Bible study is to cultivate an attitude that can “see and explore the assumptions that underlie one’s own belief and the belief of the other individual.” He would like to see the individuals who attend Circle of Reason or Secular Bible Study meetings to view their participation as a form of “charitable outreach,” namely, that “the Christians in Secular Bible Study are not coming here to convert the atheists. The atheists in Secular Bible Study are not coming here to ‘de-program’ the Christians. Instead…all come here simply to engage in reasoning dialogue and then use it as an opportunity to build bridges across what would normally be a very large chasm of differential belief.” The basic principle at work is simply that promoting understanding, trying to engage in “reasoning, trans-cultural, trans-belief dialogue,” is more effective than simply countering the opinions of the other.
Bringing together people who are devoutly religious and committed atheists is not without its challenges. It can be difficult to engage individuals with often wildly different understandings of the Bible and its legacy. Despite this, Dr. Burton notes that while “we do get people espousing their belief[s], it tends to go over okay, because what we’re trying to do in this group is make sure that everybody understands where everybody else is coming from.” The goals and methodology of The Circle of Reason and Secular Bible Study work closely together: to understand, rather than disprove or debate, the beliefs of those with whom you may not agree. This can be reached through the focus on reason, rationality, and a sense of respect that characterize discussion in these organizations.
The connotation of “interfaith” is one that, in Dr. Burton’s view, urgently needs to be broadened: everyone on the vast spectrum of belief and non-belief should be included in the conversations that affect how they relate to one another. Secular, humanist, and otherwise non-theist individuals and groups “can have good insights into disagreements between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups,” among others. The Circle of Reason and Secular Bible Study are insistently all-inclusive: “think of it as food for the mind,” Burton says, “that we’re giving out free, to all those folks who might want to understand your viewpoints, and the assumptions that underlie your faith.”