The Course of Reason

Transfaith vs Interfaith: Breaking the Mold

August 8, 2011

The Status Quo
The virtues of cooperative work (frequently referred to as interfaith) with religious groups are widely noted and assented to in the secular community. You can improve your community service by adding many more volunteers to the effort. Better still, you can humanize yourself to people who might hold a narrow, two-dimensional stereotype of atheists (and vice-versa). Eventually, through this, you might even diminish the discord between religious and secular people at scale.

This all sounds great! Why would anyone running a secular group not want to do this? All is not well in interfaith paradise.

Lingua Franca
Interfaith first has a language problem, as noted by popular bloggers like Blaghag’s Jen McCreight. The prefix inter- has a clear meaning: between, among. Atheists are de facto excluded from a group of faiths. Interfaith and religious groups have, to their credit, welcomed the nonreligious to their efforts. In doing so, they are changing the definition of such cooperative works which originally had an unambiguously religious foundation. If they are going to willingly augment the definition, why is it too great a trespass to ask for a slight change in terminology? Just a few years ago, the nontheists began to ask that Christians refer to them as “atheists” instead of by the previous words used to describe them such as “child molester” and “commie”.

At best, the term “interfaith” shows disregard for nonbelievers who want to participate, and at worst implies atheism is some sort of faith. I agree with the Secular Student Alliance’s own Jesse Galef when he says we shouldn’t get hung up on labels. That said, there are other problems (see below) plus if the word “interfaith” itself is keeping secular groups away from important outreach work, then we need to take the problem seriously whether we agree or not.

Since we’re looking for one, we must admit “trans-” is a superior prefix. It can mean “across” which is inclusive of faith traditions it spans, but can also mean “opposite to” or “beyond” thereby including the nontheists as well. It works for everyone. In a movement which claims as a tenet inclusiveness and mutual respect, this should be a priority. Is it?

Some of interfaith’s cheerleaders, including those who are atheists in the secular movement, have vociferously criticized aggressive atheist activism. By itself, the criticism might be fine except that the main point seems to be that activism necessarily impedes service and outreach with religious groups. In other words, that atheists who protest, debate, or criticize too loudly are shooting themselves in the interfaith foot, cutting off opportunities for successful cooperation with theists. Ignoring for a moment the arrogance required for anyone to kick us out of the Interfaith Club by edict, the hypocrisy is jarring. Interfaith advocates are telling atheists “strident criticism is rude and ineffective, so cut it out, stupid, and do what we say.”

Sweet Irrelevance
Worst of all, the two things aren’t necessarily even related. ISSA has protested against the Catholic church and worked successfully with local Catholics. We drew fire while drawing the prophet Muhammad, but then worked, again successfully, to build a solid relationship with campus Muslims. ISSA’s most productive and satisfying relationship among campus groups is not with a philosophy, science, or polisci club as you might imagine, but with the evangelical Christian group called the Navigators. The transfaith philosophy is not about saying that interfaith, its proponents or critical message is bad or wrong. Its that the discussion about who is right or wrong about activism is irrelevant to the work. It doesn’t have anything to do with service or outreach work, and it brings nothing to the table.

The Transfaith Way

How is transfaith like interfaith?
Transfaith and interfaith have virtually the same stated goals and virtues- the virtues of volunteering, serving our community, and doing outreach to religious groups and people. When we cooperate with religious groups (who often do that sort of work just as we do) we can make such projects much more effective. Secondly, we get to show religious people and people in general that atheists can be charitous and community-minded. Similarly, we put human faces on atheism for theists, who might not otherwise have a positive view of them. We get the same value in return, as we too, put human faces and learn names of people from a faith tradition that we might be in danger of stereotyping. Everyone gets to become a little more worldly and tolerant, and if that were the only virtue of transfaith/interfaith… it would be more than enough.

How is transfaith different?
Like atheism or google+, transfaith is great for what it doesn’t have. Let’s break it down.

Inclusiveness. Thanks to simplicity of the prefix and simplicity of the idea of keeping service about service and outreach about outreach (not criticism of people we don’t like), transfaith is more inclusive than any existing organized effort at intergroup cooperation. Everyone can play, including those who now embrace “interfaith”.

Autonomy. Transfaith means not worrying people will get the wrong idea (that you are “accomodationist” or not) because it has no pejorative connotation. It’s about the work. As a relatively new term, you can make it your own, and not fret about potential incompatibility between your transfaith and your activism. Even if you now fully embrace mainstream interfaith, you can fully endorse and call yourself transfaith if you wish. What’s more, ISSA has shown that you don’t have to wait for some organization with the word interfaith in its name to produce an event and jump on — forge your own relationships and create your own events.  This can be challenging, but it is eminently satisfying. Transfaith is about realizing you can have it your own way, and are not beholden to some other person or organization’s arbitrary strictures.

Genuine respect. Semantically severing activism from cooperative efforts means chucking the interfaith-y notion that theists are so feeble and immature that honest criticism will drive them away. To us, such a view is not respectful. It is an insult to religious people, which we will not abide. Some theists (and atheists) really are immature or insecure such that they can bear no criticism — but this can not be presumed as some sort of presumptuous rule of thumb. By default, the transfaith view is that theists and atheists can bicker and argue, debate and protest… and when we’re done disagreeing, roll up our sleeves and work together on common projects. We know that honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.

Respect is not a prescription to never argue, it is the guarantee a chair exists for my rival in any debate or discussion I host, which is equal to my own.

Moving forward
If any of this resonated with your experience, here’s how you can promote transfaith:

  • Remind people, especially religious groups, that atheists do not have faith and therefore prefer the inclusive term “transfaith” when we are to be involved in cooperative efforts.
  • Organize your own transfaith events, whether with one other group or more.
  • If you’re a secular student group, join NOMS, an alliance of campus secular groups more than happy to give you ideas on service and outreach.
  • If you have local campus groups called “Interfaith…” politely suggest that they consider a name change in order to be inclusive of the nonreligious; do likewise for individual events, such as panel discussions.
  • Carve your own path! Let your guide be reason and compassion, not politics or what others expect.

This post originally appeared on the Illini SSA blog.




About the Author: Ed Clint

Ed Clint's photo
Ed Clint is a senior at the University of Illinois, returning to the campus after 7 years in the Air Force. He now study biopsychology and philosophy and is President to the campus atheists group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance.




Guests may not post URLs. Registration is free and easy.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

The Council for Secular Humanism's magazine (available at is called...

Creative Commons License

The Course of Reason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

CFI blog entries can be copied or distributed freely, provided:

  • Credit is given to the Center for Inquiry and the individual blogger
  • Either the entire entry is reproduced or an excerpt that is considered fair use
  • The copying/distribution is for noncommercial purposes