The Interfaith Movement and Where Secular Folks Fit In

December 13, 2012

Reading an article put out a few weeks ago by the Center for American Progress, I was surprised to learn statistics showing that Catholic universities have a higher percentage of Muslim students enrolled than does the average four-year institution in the United States.

To secularists, this data should be surprising. Why are religious minority students finding private Catholic institutions more welcoming than public secular ones? 

Some secularists have argued (as Jacques BerlinerBlau does in a recent Point of Inquiry episode) that secularism offers a place at the table for religious minorities. Or that, in practice, it should.

But Muslim students that choose Catholic institutions have been quoted saying, "I like the fact that there's faith, even if it's not my faith, and I feel my faith is respected." (That's from Maha Haroon, a Muslim student at Jesuit Creighton University.)

The Center for American Progress article also finds ties between Mormon students and Muslims. Brigham Young University, for example, sets aside a room for Muslim students to pray every Friday.

The article then argues that building interfaith efforts at secular universities poses a unique challenge, saying that interfaith efforts are fundamentally based on the shared value of faith.

This is an important point to remember for secularists, as we have discussions like the one brought up by Chris Stedman's recent book Faitheist. (For reference, here's my favorite article responding to the book.)

Does the word "interfaith" include secular groups?

And all this brings up a question I've been grappling with a lot lately: How can interfaith efforts be inclusive to secular people?

When the word used to describe these efforts is interfaith, I find it hard to see how I fit in as an atheist and a skeptic. When "faith" is the common thread between groups, students (and others) who have eschewed faith appear to be necessarily excluded.

In fact, in this recent article on interfaith dialogue from a religious perspective, one bishop even states that this dialogue is "important in protecting the role of religion from the secularism that threatens it."

In conclusion, the Center for American Progress article finds that "the lesson of moments such as this seems clear: Building community takes time, effort, and the firm belief that our shared core values are more essential than our differences." (emphasis mine)

Is that "shared core value" faith? If so, I don't see how I fit in.

But, if that "shared core value" is humanism—the belief that, for example, anti-Muslim prejudice "divides and weakens our country," and that freedom and tolerance for all is what we share, then we need a new word.

Interfaith just won't cut it, I think. Lyz Liddell of the Secular Student Alliance argues that we should set aside our problems with the word because of the opportunities interfaith affords, and she makes some compelling points. I'm all for pragmatism—don't get me wrong. But I'd hate to see those defined in part by their lack of faith be excluded.

Interestingly, the word secular is inclusive of faith groups. But if faith groups weren't comfortable with this label, I wouldn't ask them to embrace it, just as I wouldn't ask Muslims and Sikhs to join a "non-faith" initiative.

Maybe there is a way we can welcome religious groups into the secular movement based on our shared humanist values. I think enough of us certainly want to. And it certainly behooves us to create a progressive place for religious minorities who might otherwise turn to socially conservative Catholic or Mormon institutions to feel welcome.

But we can't leave it at a simple statement of support. We need to take the next step. How can secularists create a place for religious groups who share our values without compromising values we hold dear? 

I have a few ideas about the way forward, and while I think respectful arguments are an integral part of the spirit of secularists, at some point we do need to come up with action steps.

An anecdote on reaching out

A few weeks ago, Debbie Goddard and I did some tabling outreach for the Center for Inquiry On Campus at Erie Community College's "Beliefs Fair." The event was put on by the college's Campus Ministry, described as its "interfaith program," as a chance for students to learn about community organizations sharing their beliefs.

One could argue that we unnecessarily conflated CFI's secular values with faith-based ones by even taking part in the fair, but I can't help imagining the result if we hadn't made an appearance at all. If secular students faced with religious opportunities don't feel they have a place to turn, maybe they'll choose to take part in another organization that seems to more closely match their values, just because it's there and available.

And to me, that would be a greater travesty.

In any case, I bring up the tabling experience because it introduced me to a Buffalo-based organization (CFI's headquarters are in Amherst, right outside Buffalo, NY) called the Network of Religious Communities. Their purpose, listed on their website, is to:

  • foster interreligious, ecumenical, and interracial understanding, dialogue, and cooperation;
  • facilitate collaboration in areas of common concern and in response to the needs of the residents of our region; and
  • promote justice, peace, and the common good—as expressed in the faith traditions of our members.

Change the wording above from "faith traditions" to "faith and non-faith traditions," and the name of the organization to the "Network of Religious and Humanistic Communities," and CFI, its members, and other secular groups would arguably have a place at the table.

If every community secular group, campus groups included, took the time to find similar organizations in their communities and propose ways they can get involved with existing networks, while standing their ground on the values they want to see represented, we could become more visible as leaders.

New opportunities for outreach through social justice

The best part of this, as I see it, is the opportunity for secular people to get involved with existing social justice efforts in their communities. Like it or not, religious organizations are often leading the way in local efforts to support those homeless and in need in their communities.

Not only would this give us a chance to plug into already existing community outreach, but our involvement in these efforts would provide another outlet for promoting humanistic, skeptical, and scientific values.

It would also give us a chance to reach out to new demographics that have been traditionally underrepresented in secular organizations. One of the proposed reasons for the freethought community's lack of diversity is our members' relative economic privilege—privilege that has the potential to make us blind to issues encountered by significant segments of the population.

Leadership and defining our terms

A final message to secular and skeptic community organizers out there with an interest in reaching out for more cooperation with religious groups: If interfaith or religious networks don't exist (or don't offer us a seat at the table), we can take the lead in starting them, putting ourselves in a prime position to ensure non-religious folks have a place at the table.

We don't have to call these groups interfaith (I'd say we should avoid the term whenever possible). Probably, the best way to brainstorm a working label would be to have a meeting with all the voices we want represented—as many religious leaders as we can find that have the desire to work together—and create a shared vision and name together.


#1 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday December 14, 2012 at 11:30am

A thought-provoking piece. It’s funny you should mention Buffalo’s Network of Religious Communities; for a couple of years I was their “house humanist,” representing the humanist in community at half a dozen or more “interfaith” events. With time I thought more deeply about this, and withdrew the Council for Secular Humanism from participating in this or any other interfaith event. The issues are twofold, both tied to that word “interfaith”:

1) Many secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers have very specifically (in Dan Barker’s deathless phrase) “lost faith in faith.” They explicitly reject faith as a way of deriving information about the world or making moral decisions. For a humanist organization to take part in an interfaith event does a disservice to those in the unbelieving community who attach great importance to their principled refusal to embrace any faith.

2) It’s been a long-standing religious-Right canard that humanism is not a philosophy, worldview, or lifestance, but rather that it is an alien religion directly competitive with Christianity. A big part of the reason why the Council was formed as a *secular* humanist organization was that “religious humanists” of various types do in fact exist, and it was important to define at least one category of humanist action that was explicitly in no way religious. To the degree that “interfaith” suggests that all participants claim some faith or religious identity, it is clear that secular humanists should not take part lest they create the impression that despite their claims to the contrary they somehow are religious.

For those reasons, I stopped sharing the stage with the proverbial priest, rabbi, and imam. What would it take to fix this problem? As Sarah says, some word that makes clear that participation in the event is not restricted to persons or institutions of “faith.” Direct word substitution yields monstrosities: who would want to attend an inter-lifestance event? An inter-worldview dialogue? Other alternatives are too vague: a “values summit” could be a discussion of who has better bargains, BJ’s or Sam’s Club.

I had some rewarding experiences on the “interfaith” circuit, and I’d be happy to go back if someone can devise a more inclusive label that’s both descriptive and not off-puttingly ugly. If I could think of one myself, I’d have suggested it here.

Tom Flynn
Executive Director, Council of Secular Humanism

#2 jerrys on Friday December 14, 2012 at 1:56pm

It seems to me that replacing the word “religion” by the word “faith” is relatively recent.  I have the impression that it has only become common in the last ten or fifteen years.  A Google ngram search shows that “interfaith” was coined in around 1930 and its use has been steadily increasing ever since. (Well to be completely honest, there was a significant dip in the 1970’s). 

As an atheist I find “interfaith” annoying because it seems to suggest that “faith” is a positive virtue.  Whereas I, and I think most atheists, see it as a rejection of reason and a negative value.  As such I have a hard time joining any “interfaith” organization even if they welcome me. 

As to what might replace “interfaith”, I propose “interbelief”.  I don’t think most religious people would object to calling their religions “beliefs” and I don’t have any problem saying that my atheism is a belief that there are no gods.  Although I know a lot of humanists would would reject that strong form of atheism I only know a few that reject the idea that they have some beliefs.

#3 Sarah Kaiser on Sunday December 16, 2012 at 5:36pm

@jerrys - I like the proposition, but “belief” strikes me as potentially too general. We have beliefs about all kinds of things that aren’t religious.

Personally, more and more, I think the cause might be the likely focus of inter-religious-and-non-religious work. Social justice efforts seem likely places for us to come together in progressive cross-community activism. Maybe naming a religious and non-religious coalition after the cause would be more apt? This point has come up in a recent (long) article written by David Hoelscher called “Atheism’s Class Problem.”

#4 jerrys on Monday December 17, 2012 at 1:08am


Yes, “belief"l is very broad, but that’s the point.  Whatever word is used needs to be broad enough to cover atheists/humanists but acceptable to religious organizations.

With regards to why not just label the coalitions with the cause there are two reasons:

1.  Many interfaith coalitions deal with multiple causes.  In particular, and related to your position, University interfaith organizations tend to continue from year to year without a completely defined charter.  I know that the Stanford student group (“Atheists, Humanists, Agnotics”) has joined that University’s “Interfaith Council”. 

2. There are many organizations that gratuitously add interfaith to their title.  I’m not sure why. For example a google search just now turned up an “Interfaith Immigration Coalition”.  I’ve been working on immigration issues lately and would be thrilled if CSH would join this organization.  But I think Tom is right that it shouldn’t as long as the organization retains that name.  (My sense is that Immigration Issues aren’t high on CSH’s priorities and we probably wouldn’t be interested even if the name of the organization were changed. But my point about the name is independent of that consideration.)

#5 fodigg (Guest) on Monday December 17, 2012 at 1:04pm

Inter-perspective? It sounds nicer than the alternatives but it’s so vague. Hmm.

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