Atheism, Humanism, and “Interfaith” Coalitions
April 25, 2011
In this post I will argue for this proposition: Atheist and humanist groups should participate in “interfaith” coalitions only in exceptional circumstances. In other words, no participation should be the default position, and a compelling set of facts should be required to defeat this presumption. We should avoid the “faith” label at least as vigorously as we avoid the “religion” label.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that atheist and humanist groups should not cooperate with religious organizations or groups. That would be a ridiculous position to adopt. We should have no reluctance to work with (most) religious groups on projects where we have shared goals and we can accomplish some good. Indeed, we should try to find opportunities to do so. CFI and its affiliates have cooperated with various religious groups on a number of different projects, from legal briefs, to conferences, to service projects. In engaging in such cooperative efforts, however, we must not compromise on core principles. In my opinion, agreeing to work under the banner of “faith” constitutes an unacceptable compromise.
This is not a question of mere semantics. The cornerstone of atheism and humanism is the rejection of faith as a means of obtaining knowledge and understanding the world. Our most fundamental principle is that we should use critical reasoning and conform our beliefs to the evidence. For atheists to accept the “faith” label is as intellectually dishonest as a group of astrophysicists allowing themselves to be called astrologers. (“After all, we’re all interested in stars.”) We should not allow science to be labeled as magic and we should not allow atheism to be labeled a faith.
In participating in interfaith coalitions, atheists are implicitly allowing atheism to be considered just another religion—it’s merely a very peculiar one that’s godless and rejects anything transcending the natural world. (Instructions for an interfaith dinner: “Make sure the Jews get kosher, the Muslims get halal, and avoid beef for the Hindus and god-talk for the seculars.”) Among other things, this provides fodder for those religious fundamentalists who have always maintained that atheism and humanism are religions and that their “doctrines” such as evolution should not be taught in the public schools. It also lends support to the pernicious myth that reliance on science and empirical evidence is just as much a matter of faith as accepting the validity of revelation or mystical experiences.
Those who argue that atheists should participate in interfaith coalitions emphasize the supposed practical benefits of doing so. These arguments have been especially prominent in some of the discussion around the question of whether secular student groups should participate in the interfaith college service project sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. One of the contentions is that participation will help erode some of the negative stereotypes about atheists. Another is that participation will provide secular groups much needed recognition and the proverbial “seat at the table.” There have been many cheers about “inclusion.” Finally, those in favor of participation have asserted that as disagreeable as the term “interfaith” is, there is no effective naming alternative.
Let me address the last two contentions first. A seat at the table is less than worthless if it’s bought at the price of compromising our integrity. It’s nice that some politicians are finally willing to acknowledge our existence, but are we so desperate for acceptance that we’ll allow others to condescendingly misdescribe us as adherents of a faith? Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can “pass.”
And I don’t accept the notion that “interfaith” is the only term that can describe cooperative efforts among people with starkly different views about the value of faith, and that somehow we’re being unreasonable and nitpicking if we balk at use of the this term. If Jewish groups would balk at working under the label of Catholic Charities, it’s seems that atheists would have at least as much reason not to embrace the “interfaith” label. Regarding the name, if we’re talking about cooperative college projects, why not “Campus Partnership”? If we’re talking about cooperative projects in cities and towns, how about “Community Partnership”? To assume we can’t avoid using the term “interfaith” in the name of a cooperative service project is to buy into the whole notion that faith and charity necessarily go together. (Query: Have any of the secular groups that have jumped onto the interfaith bandwagon ever even recommended a name change? Or is there a fear that even that modest expression of concern would risk losing the coveted seat?)
Finally, it is probably true that working together with religious groups in interfaith coalitions will result in some good will and more favorable opinions about atheists. Unfortunately, many people do think of us as uncharitable. But this benefit has to be weighed against the cost. The mission of secular organizations is, presumably, not just to get atheists to be liked. Among other things, it’s to promote critical reasoning; it’s to advance the view that faith is decidedly not a virtue. Calling our worldview a faith does not seem the best way to achieve these objectives.
#1 downtown dave (Guest) on Monday April 25, 2011 at 6:11pm
The fear (reverence) of the Lord is the beginning of understanding.
#2 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Monday April 25, 2011 at 10:39pm
Ronald, I have no problem working with religious groups of a certain mindset, i.e., Americans United, on First Amendment issues. Other than that, I think you’re right that we need to be careful.
Besides, in the wake of Haiti, especially, secularist aid groups have arisen, alongside older non-religious ones like Oxfam and Doctors without Borders. Secular alternatives to 12-step groups exist. And, more and more, nontheistic alternatives to other religious social programs will arise.
With different backgrounds and presuppositions, avoiding entanglements is good.
#3 Max (Guest) on Monday April 25, 2011 at 10:59pm
#4 jerrys on Tuesday April 26, 2011 at 11:37am
Americans United is not a religious organization. It has religious members, but that doesn’t make it a religious organization. On its website ( http://www.au.org/about/ ) it describes itself as “We come from all 50 states and a wide variety of religious, political and philosophical backgrounds.”
#5 Jonathan Figdor (Guest) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 at 1:18pm
Great post Ron, but I disagree entirely. I think you do a good job of warning us of the problems that face interfaith, but I wanted to push back against your argument a little bit.
At Harvard, Greg and I use our seat at the Harvard Chaplains Interfaith table to vigorously advocate for the rights of atheist/Humanist/agnostic students. We are going to be leading a discussion for all the Harvard Chaplain in the comings weeks on anti-Atheist bigotry, and about discrimination against atheists. So yes, I think that some of us are able to use interfaith to accomplish important goals.
I think that you’re right in your suspicion of many interfaith events, but the “interfaith” events that we do at Harvard University are ones in which our Humanist/Atheist voice is given the respect and attention it deserves.
Keep fighting the good fight!
PS: Lots of people in Interfaith hate the term “Interfaith,” such as Buddhists (who don’t believe in god).
#6 Max (Guest) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 at 1:52pm
Drop the “interfaith” label and get on with it.
If Catholics decide to work with Protestants, they can call it a Christian coalition, but not a Catholic coalition.
If Christians decide to work with Jews and Muslims, they can call it an Abrahamic coalition, but not a Christian coalition.
When all faith-based groups work together, it’s an interfaith coalition.
To include atheist groups, pick a more inclusive name for the coalition.
#7 Graeme Hanigan (Guest) on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 12:50am
I invited the local Interfaith group along to a Socrates Cafe night to discuss the subject “Is there a place at the interfaith table for atheists?”. As Interfaith was established to break down religious intolerance the consensus was yes Interfaith should be inclusive of atheists as they are subject to intolerance from many religious groups.
Recognising atheists is also an acknowledging that ‘no faith’ is a valid option in the faith marketplace.
Interfaith is a delicate balance as I found out, having been invited along to the Interfaith Festival to give a ‘secular blessing’ they we unable to agree on what it was I could and could not say so I eventually withdrew before they resorted to blows!
It was an interesting exercise and I understandably received very strong support from the Buddhists.
#8 slowe on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 4:39am
Absolutely spot on! BRAVO for saying this and saying it so well. If we ever use the word faith we need to make it clear that we use it in a very constricted sense: Faith in Humanity, or faith in ourselves to achieve some goal. But in most of these cases another word would do just as well, like “confidence in” or “trust in” something or someone. I have decided to abandon the word itself because it is tainted by its association with theism and has been appropriated by religionists and touted as a virtue. For now, at least, it has no place in my vocabulary except as a mild derogative - something to be avoided and embarrassed by.
#9 James Croft (Guest) on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 11:33am
This is an argument that comes up every so often and is a perfect example of a position that sounds good in principle but breaks down in practice. When you actually engage in interfaith work you discover that the fears of “compromising principles” do not actually manifest themselves.
The presence of Humanists at the interfaith table causes opportunities for repeated assertion of the fact that Humanism is not a faith, which introduces a certain disequilibrium to the endeavor, and perturbs the religious participants far more than the nonreligious ones. If we got involved more often we would be able to get the name changed, which itself would be a huge victory.
#10 jerrys on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 12:19pm
If the “interfaith” groups are truly welcoming of atheists and humanists they should be willing to change their name. Something like, “Belief Communities” seems reasonable.
#11 jerrys on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 2:15pm
Turns out that campus groups aren’t the only ones facing this issue. The military is wrestling with it too. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/27/us/27atheists.html
#12 slowe (Guest) on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 3:10pm
re: jerrys…. Something like, “Belief Communities” seems reasonable.
Not really! I am just as uncomfortable joining a Belief community as a Faith community. More applicable might be: Reality community, Ethical Community, Good Works community, etc. The word “Belief” is a euphemism for religious belief or God belief. If someone on the street asks you “Are you a believer?”, it is understood to mean “Are you a believer in God?”. Humanists, or at least this one, prefer to have conculsions (even tentative ones)to beliefs.
#13 jerrys on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 3:50pm
Personally, I’m comfortable saying that I believe there are is no supernatural, although I know atheists who aren’t. And I know people like you who refuses to use the word “belief” (or any variant) because they think the word has a religious tinge. But the dictionary definition is an opinion or statement that you accept. Everyone believes some things. A stronger objection to “Belief Community” is that it includes too many groups. For example political clubs (Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, ...) could easily qualify under that rubric.
If you search for “belief” on Wikipedia you get taken to a disambiguation page. The ambiguity might be an advantage different organizations could interpret it differently and that might be an advantage if you’re trying to agree on a label.
At any rate the problem is to get the various organization to adopt some label that doesn’t imply “faith”. I just threw out “Belief” after a minutes thought. I don’t feel strongly about it.
#14 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 4:46pm
Hear hear, Ron.
I’ve been arguing with the Harvard humanists about this so obstinately that they’re probably ready to strangle me.
#15 Jonathan Figdor (Guest) on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 4:57pm
Nah, we love you Ophelia! It takes different kinds, diplomats and firebrands.
#16 Dean Buchanan on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 5:39pm
Well said Ron.
“And I don’t accept the notion that “interfaith” is the only term that can describe cooperative efforts among people with starkly different views about the value of faith, and that somehow we’re being unreasonable and nitpicking if we balk at use of the this term.”
‘Faith’ is a powerful word in our culture that reflects, and calls upon, religious privilege. Isn’t this exactly what we are trying to change?
If one of the reasons we work with religious groups is to break down stereotypes and change minds, then we must challenge the use of this word.
#17 Jonathan Figdor (Guest) on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 5:54pm
If you want the name to change, you have to show up and argue with them. You can’t just complain on the internet on websites that religious people don’t read. Engage with religious people, or they’ll just assume we don’t exist. Be a force for change. Show them that you’re offended by the name interfaith, and tell them you want them to call it interperspective or interworldview. Complaining on the internet is fine, but it has a super limited reach and little actual impact. But thank you all for expressing your totally valid concerns about interfaith. I think that perhaps in Boston, and other “enlightened” cities, interfaith opportunities are better than they might be in the deep south/Bible Belt.
#18 Dean Buchanan on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 6:31pm
A call to be engaged is always a good one.
Clarifying our thoughts and strategy is helped, greatly IMHO, by conversations like this one, sparked by Ron, and many others. So I disagree that internet discussions have little impact. They impact the people who care enough to have them.
Then they must act, as you say “show up and argue with them.”
#19 Dean Buchanan on Wednesday April 27, 2011 at 6:33pm
Also: ‘show up and listen to them as well.’ (quoting me)
#20 Sigmund (Guest) on Thursday April 28, 2011 at 1:37am
August Berkshire made a brilliant point on this topic in his recent Point of Inquiry interview with Robert Price.
What he said was that atheists DO have a common interest with members of religions and that common interest is in the strengthening (or simply application) of the laws about separation of church and state. That should be the primary reason for atheist participation in ‘interfaith’ organizations.
These laws support both religious people and non religious people’s freedom to believe what they want.
#21 D. Finney (Guest) on Thursday April 28, 2011 at 2:08am
Thanks to Ron, Ophelia and others for a commitment to integrity that’s been found wanting in some circles. James Croft states, “When you actually engage in interfaith work you discover that the fears of ‘compromising principles’ do not actually manifest themselves.” It’s amazing to me that James and the leadership with the SSA still don’t even seem to understand our basic objection that engagement in a government-sponsored faith-based initiative is itself an unacceptable compromise for all the reasons laid out above and elsewhere at length.
Apologists for faith-based initiatives never seem to address the issues raised. While insisting that our participation is a net benefit for all the community service it accomplishes, they never explain why this service couldn’t be performed to equal or greater effect within a secular framework without all the divisiveness attendant to this “interfaith” nonsense. Neither do they offer a satisfactory explanation for why an atheist has any more place in an “interfaith” program than a Muslim or a Jew would in an “interdenominational” Christian one.
As the organizer of a campus group that had planned on becoming affiliated with the SSA, as well as a concerned observer of the spread of government faith offices to jurisdictions throughout the U.S., I am especially sensitive to this issue and deeply disappointed that the SSA has taken the position that it has. I hope it will strongly consider its priorities going forward.
#22 jerrys on Thursday April 28, 2011 at 12:42pm
There is a difference between working with religious people on some cause, such as separation of church and state, and joining something called “interfaith ...”. There are lots of secular (non-religious) organizations fighting that cause so you don’t have to join one calling itself “interfaith”.
And I’m active in some immigration work where, as an ACLU volunteer, I’m working with some church groups. They don’t try to convert me and I don’t try to convert (deconvert?) them.
#23 jerrys on Thursday April 28, 2011 at 12:48pm
I’m long past being a student so I don’t know what the SSA’s position is on faith-based initiatives. Could you expand on that.
By the way, I don’t think anything in the previous comments was in reference to government supported faith-based initiatives, which I personally oppose and which I think CFI also opposes.
#24 D. Finney (Guest) on Thursday April 28, 2011 at 3:01pm
The source of this controversy is the endorsement by the SSA and the Harvard humanist chaplaincy of the president’s “Interfaith Challenge” and by extension, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that sponsors it. I often point out that the Freedom From Religion Foundation expended substantial time, money and resources in an attempt to stop the Establishment Clause-violating faith office that now has the SSA’s enthusiastic support.
The last thing I want to see when I visit the website of an organization I understand to advocate on behalf of science, skepticism and secular government, is a message from the leadership exhorting me to vote with my feet for Bush’s resurrected faith office, in spite of the flagrant hypocrisy this would entail.
#25 D. Finney (Guest) on Thursday April 28, 2011 at 3:06pm
My last post was a response to yours. I don’t know what happened with the links.
#26 Katie Van Adzin (Guest) on Friday April 29, 2011 at 2:50pm
Great article. I’ve had exactly the same thoughts during all of my (semi-reluctant) involvement in interfaith programs. I wanted to give it a shot, but I always end up feeling philosophically compromised. We are better off strengthening our movement independently than diluting it by becoming entangled in the nebulous interfaith movement. In addition to risking the conflation of atheism with faith, our participation in interfaith also legitimizes religious groups in a way that they don’t deserve.
#27 Tim Zebo (Guest) on Saturday April 30, 2011 at 1:45pm
Great piece and esp. the comments. My thought about participation is “it depends”. If the primary goal is to pool energies to help in a crises (e.g., tornado medical care) then let’s join in AND wear T-shirts that visibly promote Humanism to the people being helped. On the other hand if the goal is some long-range planning project with a branch of gov’t, then the “label” should reflect no bias toward either side, e.g. Ron’s “Community Partnership” is a good one.
#28 Robert Halfhill (Guest) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 at 10:54pm
One of the strongest, if not the strongest, argument against religion is that believing statements without proof is essentially jumping out at random and it is a matter of chance whether you land on something benign like universal love or Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. Or even on Hitler and Nazism.
As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe aabsurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
As Atheists, we try to limit our beliefs soley to what can be proven. Hence Atheism can in no way be described as a faith.
We can work in coalitions with religious groups but we not just another faith in an interfaith coalition.