06/26/2013 03:19 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

A Symbol of Exclusion? Why I Can't Stand the 'Interfaith Logo'

Earlier this year, on these pages, Rev. Donald Heckman wrote that the interfaith movement must rebrand. Heckman made some strong arguments that the name 'Interfaith' is problematic, and I think he has a point. But the purpose of my article is not to respond to Heckman, rather, I want to suggest that if the interfaith movement is due a rebrand, then there's nowhere I'd rather see this upgrading exercise begin than with the "interfaith logo." Ok, there is no such thing as a logo per se designating the interfaith movement, but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, simply perform a web image search using the term "interfaith" and you'll view a whole array of these problematic perpetrators. The "interfaith logo" is made up of lots of smaller logos (shrunk to a size which distorts the extent to which you can actually understand some of them!) usually arranged in a circle, maybe featuring a globe or a handshake, or if the logo designer is going all out, the symbols will be arranged around the image of a dove. So far, so clichéd!

Such logos, and their designers, are well-meaning I know, and I don't mean to cause offense, but it's time that I say this out loud -- I can't stand the "interfaith logo." I believe that there are two strong concerns that the 'interfaith logo' highlights. Starting with the more superficial of the two:

1. it's so ugly!

Back in the 1990s, when clipart and bubble-writing were the height of sophistication, and when the interfaith movement was in its infancy, I've no doubt that the "interfaith logo" was a beacon of modern design. But things have moved on since then. Steve Jobs and his friends changed our aesthetic expectations forever (or at least the next few decades). Clean lines and simple design is what we now consider modern and cool. Clean and simple the "interfaith logo" is not! But why does this matter I hear you ask? I'm not saying that the interfaith movement has to be 'modern and cool' (although, hey would that be such a bad thing?) but one of the biggest challenges the movement faces is engaging young people. Having just about shaken the image of interfaith dialogue belonging to groups of friendly older folks, sharing tea and discussing how 'we're all the same really', the interfaith movement now needs to move beyond these old-fashioned aesthetics if it is to appeal to newer generations; which it really must.

2. it's too exclusive.

In spite of the best efforts of the more zealous designers, it is impossible to fit every religious symbol onto the "interfaith logo." For sure, they'll include a crucifix, a crescent and a Star of David but what happens beyond that is a free-for-all. And what of the religions which can't be represented by a simple symbol? As a Quaker who frequently takes part in interfaith occasions under the banner of an "interfaith logo" I sometimes get to thinking "well where am I in this picture?" Certainly, many Quakers self-identify as Christian and might feel included by the symbol of a crucifix. But many other Quakers, myself included, would not.

Two concerns again spring to mind. Firstly, I fear that the interfaith movement may sometimes be unintentionally exclusive. The worry is that the interfaith movement, rather than being an actual movement, is just a special club for special people. Interfaith can become a sort of badge of identity, which is not a bad thing in itself, but there is the risk that people outside of the movement may look at those on the inside and think "but I'm not like them. My religion is different, my beliefs are different; I can't be part of that." Consequently, interfaith work becomes accessible only to those who were already predisposed to it. Too often I feel that the interfaith movement is preaching to the converted (to coin a phrase!). This is a challenge we urgently need to address.

Secondly, an even bigger concern in my mind is that some interfaith organizations may be intentionally exclusive. There are organisations with strict criteria designating who is, and who is not able to participate under the banner of interfaith. Thankfully there has been some progress over the past few years, with most now accepting that Humanists, even atheists, need to be included in the conversation. Yet even today, the proposed acceptance of Druids into one of the UK's largest interfaith organisations has caused a major sticking point. Not only does this exclusive attitude seem to be at odds with the aims of interfaith work (promoting tolerance and understanding anyone?), it demonstrates an extraordinarily rigid (dare I say Imperial) understanding of the terms 'religion' and 'faith', which is difficult to reconcile with the realities of contemporary belief.

The interfaith movement has a great potential to offer a new paradigm for divided societies. But as yet, I feel we are a long, long way from reaching our potential. We need shaking-up, perhaps we need rebranding, and we need the experience of the movement's elders to be open to fresh ideas from the younger generations. Abandoning the "interfaith logo" is not the solution to all our problems. But it might offer a symbolic gesture which suggests that the interfaith movement is transforming in to a dynamic, contemporary, relevant and inclusive initiative.