White House Interfaith Panel—No Place for Humanists

September 19, 2013

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) has accepted an invitation from the White House to take part in a Department of Education interfaith panel to help plan campus service projects, and most of the movement is happily abuzz about that. (See link at bottom of this post.) I’d like to offer an alternative view. Speaking personally, I think that to accept that invitation was most unfortunate – and I think that is true on several levels.

1. Like any other national humanist, atheist, or secular organization, SSA is (rather obviously) not a faith organization. Hence it has no place in an event whose organizers choose to describe it with an outmoded, exclusivistic term like interfaith.

2. Participation by a movement organization in an interfaith event sends a confusing message to supporters and throws ammunition to our opponents.

3. Affirming an “interfaith” event as an appropriate way to organize delivery of social services or charitable outreach buttresses an outmoded model of faith organizations as primary vehicles for organizing so-called good works.

Let’s examine these points in more detail.

No organization from our movement belongs in an “interfaith” event. The word’s dictionary meaning says it all. An “interfaith” event is one between or among faiths – an event involving representatives from a variety of religious perspectives. But secularism is not a religion. Nor is atheism, nor is humanism. Secular humanism is most definitely not a religion! So if an event is legitimately interfaith, no group from our movement has a place there. Moreover, no organization from our movement should want a place there. We shouldn’t be clamoring for seats at such a table, and we should actively decline invitations when they are extended. Our answer should be “Sorry, we are not a faith organization, this is not for us.” If – as seems to have occurred with the Department of Education event – organizers protest that they want to bring together representatives from a wide variety of life stances, religious and nonreligious alike, our reply should be that they need to describe their event in a way that says what they really mean, not some old-school term that suggests the event is open only to persons of the cloth.

This isn’t some trifling semantic objection. Wording matters. Secularists, humanists, and atheists aren’t just not people of faith; most of us actively disdain faith. We don’t think that willful assent to unproven propositions is a smart way to make discoveries about life or to deal with life’s challenges. To use Dan Barker’s colorful phrase, we’re the people who have “lost faith in faith.” What is more, many of us are distinctly proud of our accomplishments in renouncing former attachments to faith in our own lives. Being not only people who live without religious faith, but active critics of faith as a process on epistemic and social grounds, we have no place in an interfaith forum. We shouldn’t be invited, and if we are inadvertently invited by someone who doesn’t understand the facts, we should decline.

Tempting as it may be to be granted a seat at what is no doubt a significant table, accepting even the implication that an organization from our movement has become “one more faith organization” is too high a price to pay.

Participating confuses our supporters and strengthens our opponents. What is, say, a committed atheist to think when an organization from our movement accepts a place at an “interfaith” event? How are our claims of “living without religion” to be evaluated when an organization representing our movement happily joins a panel ostensibly composed of representatives of varied religions?

What I find more disturbing, however, is the ammunition that a development like this offers to cultural conservatives. For almost half a century, ideologues on the religious Right have insisted that secular humanism, humanism generally, and sometimes even atheism are religions in competition with Christianity. They argue that, for example, evolution should not be taught in public schools because it is a doctrine of the “religion of humanism.” And they’ve found just enough scraps of supportive evidence that some find their arguments convincing. Yes, there is such a thing as religious humanism. Yes, one major national movement organization operated for decades under a religious tax exemption. And now, yes, a secular student organization has proudly accepted a seat at an interfaith event. One day, we really need to stop handing these critics actually true facts to beat us with!

The very message that an interfaith event is the best way to attack social problems is one that secularists should criticize, rather than affirm by joining in. This is my most substantive objection. Let’s examine the background of the proposed event. The White House, through the Department of Education, sought to encourage greater participation by college students in social-service work and other forms of charitable volunteerism, and one of the first things it did was to involve religious organizations. It could have explored strategies to reach out to students as individuals to encourage them to give more hours to charitable entities in their communities, whether religious or secular. But it didn’t do that. What it did instead was to create something called “the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.”

Instead of gratefully accepting a seat at this particular table, a more secular response might have been, “Excuse me, you want to encourage social involvement among college students – some of the least religious people in America – and you want to start by bringing together religious organizations? Why on earth start with them?”

This is what I find most disturbing. For a secular organization to take part in an initiative that seeks to shape delivery of social services by bringing together life stance groups is to perpetuate what is actually a deeply outmoded idea – the idea that life stance groups, especially religious institutions, automatically merit a central role in any conversation about encouraging good works.

Look at history. Two hundred years ago most hospitals in America were run by religious organizations. To the degree that anything we would recognize today as nursing care was even provided within them, most of the providers were actually nuns. Religious institutions also operated almost every educational institution. Today religious organizations run an ever-decreasing number of U. S. hospitals, and many of the ostensibly religious hospitals that remain have been absorbed into regional healthcare consortia or merged outright with secular hospitals. It’s hard to find a nun in nursing, a profession that is now overwhelmingly secular. And religious institutions are minority players in an education sector increasingly dominated by private-but-secular and state-run institutions.

There’s a message here. Religion’s “market share” in the delivery of social services has been decreasing – not for decades, but for centuries across the West, and there’s every reason to think that trend will continue. So it no longer makes a lot of sense to start out in attacking a perceived social problem by trying to bring a bunch of religious organizations together. It no longer even makes sense to attack a perceived social problem by casting a broader net, seeking to involve other life stance organizations including groups from our movement. No, segregating funders or providers of charitable or social service work by what life stance they hold is an outdated, increasingly irrelevant way of organizing such efforts. By joining, rather than critiquing, new initiatives attempting to organize so-called good works by life stance, we inadvertently help to perpetuate an obsolete view of religious institutions as indispensable players in this sector. (I’ve written much more about this at https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?page=flynn_26_1&section=library, https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=flynn_26_2, and https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=generous_secularists .)

Why did we once believe that religious organizations were indispensable in social service work? Why do many Americans still cling to that fading notion? To really understand what happened, we need to look at some deep history. Christianity’s hugely exaggerated importance as a social-service provider in Western culture is the result of two titanic historical accidents. First, the new religion experienced its earliest growth among slaves and the poor – among, if you will, the “99 percent” of the Roman Empire – in part by developing new ways to deliver social services to Rome’s downtrodden that the religion of Jupiter and Minerva had never thought of attempting. Second, when the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church of Rome found itself the only Western social institution still capable of organizing works of any kind on a truly significant scale. The West staggered into the later medieval period with the church in charge of virtually everything – education, health care, poor relief, the arts, finance, large-scale diplomacy, even the waging of war (remember the Crusades?). Our culture has spent much of the ensuing 1500 years taking task after task out of the hands of religious institutions, transferring them to newly-robust secular charities, non-governmental organizations, and the state. Much of the momentum behind what we understand as secularization reflects this centuries-deep process of restoring the balance of a culture that had been so terribly distorted by the exigencies attending the fall of Rome.

In other words, from the secular point of view it is not only a fact but a tremendously good thing that religious institutions are no longer the principal actors in most sectors of life. We look forward eagerly to a future in which they will play even smaller roles, as yet more functions still within their purview are passed into other, secular hands.

And that means that if someone – let’s say, the President – wishes to mount a new attack on some pressing social problem, bringing a bunch of life stance organizations together to talk about it is a ridiculous place to start. It’s a buggy whip solution. It’s bringing a halberd to a game of laser tag. It’s just silly.

And it’s silly whether it’s structured as on honest interfaith event – that is, one just for representatives of religions from which nonreligious people are excluded – or whether it’s run as a linguistically dishonest hybrid that retains the “interfaith” label yet strives to include representatives of nonreligious life stances too. No real twenty-first solution to a twenty-first-century problem is going to begin by first sifting people according to what, if anything, they think the next world is going to be like.

This is just my personal opinion. But it’s why I wish deeply that the good folks at SSA would have graciously, but firmly, declined this particular invitation from the White House.