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.