Charity Yes, Interfaith No?

We atheists are nothing if not argumentative, and the latest argument is over whether an atheist can or should participate in “interfaith” charitable work. Chris Stedman, a member of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, asserts that “we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion” by participating in interfaith projects as often as possible. Ophelia Benson and Jen McCreight were unimpressed, pointing out that there’s something paradoxical in a nonbeliever participating in a movement explicitly based on faith. I especially like Jen’s comment:

What do you call interfaith volunteering where atheists participate?

Volunteering.

…Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it’s the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith.

This is a personal dilemma for me: the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend supports a local food bank called the Interfaith Nutrition Network, and I’ve donated money to support their efforts in the past. I felt some uneasiness about donating for just this reason, but as the INN is non-sectarian and the need is great, I decided at the time that the potential good to be done outweighed other considerations. I suppose, then, that I either have to declare myself a hypocrite or else conclude that atheists can rightfully participate in interfaith efforts at least sometimes.

Still, something about the notion leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And to be honest, I think it’s Chris’ scolding, condescending tone. (Yes, I’m making a tone argument!) For one, he describes himself as a former “rejectionist atheist”. This is clearly meant as a pejorative, but I can’t see how it wouldn’t apply to all atheists, unless he means to compare the “bad” atheists who speak out forthrightly about their rejection of religious belief with the “good” atheists who don’t. And then there’s this:

Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people’s mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge – but not yet enough about love and compassion… Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we’ve got no business saying that “religion poisons everything.”

This treads dangerously close to saying that our arguments against religion are invalid if we don’t do as much interfaith charity work as Chris Stedman thinks we should. I happen to agree that everyone should do whatever they reasonably can to make this a better world. But I emphatically deny that this has any bearing on whether one’s views on religion are factually correct or should be voiced in public. We can (and should) say that religion poisons everything as often and as loudly as we like, no matter how many dollars we’ve donated or hours we’ve volunteered.

There’s nothing wrong with atheists working together with religious believers to advance moral goals that we have in common. I’ve advocated this myself in the past. But when we cooperate with religious groups, we should be very careful to do so as equals. Participating in “interfaith” work undermines this. It means that you’re starting out on their turf, and it lends credibility to the harmful frame that faith is necessary as a source of morality – especially when you make a big deal out of how it’s essential for atheists to do “interfaith” work. I have an alternative suggestion: Why not just do regular charitable work?

It’s not as if we’re not doing this already. Atheists have the largest lending group on Kiva. We have the Foundation Beyond Belief and other secular charities. We organize food and clothing drives, book drives, blood drives. We participate in disaster relief.

It’s perfectly fine for Chris Stedman to call on atheists to do more, but he should acknowledge these already meaningful and substantial efforts. To do anything less is insulting to the nonbelievers who do work toward making a better world (and, again, reinforces a pernicious religious stereotype that no genuine good can happen that’s not done in the name of “faith”). Interfaith work per se isn’t necessarily bad, but using it to scold your fellow atheists most definitely is. Rather than trying to prove that we can be good people just like theists, we should just be doing good, in whatever ways the opportunity presents itself. The rest will follow naturally.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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