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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Dan

    In my experience with volunteering, “interfaith” often means interdenominational Christian including Catholics, but excluding others. In such situations, the prosyletizing of the receivers of the charity takes on a blessings on you, or a Jesus loves you, praise him, etc character which I’ve found to be really offensive, and can appear condescending or demeaning to the recipients as well.

    I don’t think there’s a free lunch for anyone when it comes to religious charity work, no matter how interfaith-y they claim it to be.

  • Stacey Melissa

    I’ve been thinking of contacting some churches to see if they’d be willing to let my atheist group help them with some charity work. Aside from the regular benefits of charity, the reasoning behind it is that we’d be communicating our message that atheists are upstanding citizens, and communicating it directly to the people who need to know it most – the churchgoers. Doing charity on our own is great for a lot of reasons, but not for proving that we are also good people, because people just won’t notice it. I realize that probably sounds like a bit of a crass consideration, but it nonetheless has worked very well in practice for religion.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Jen’s point is well taken.

    If you and the wife are both atheists then why do you attend any church, even a Unitarian one?

    Yes, I know the Unitarians nowadays are atheist friendly and refuse identification as a Christian church.

    But then why are they still playing in the “interfaith” sandbox?

    Maybe they would not agree with you that they do not stand for a faith?

    Worth thinking about.

    Isn’t this one of the numerous issues dividing the more hard-line atheists and those whose participation in liberal religion seems to make them soft on religion in general?

    Which side are you on, again?

    Full disclosure.

    My wife is a believer and though we don’t belong to any church we sometimes attend and often contribute to a local Methodist church.

    We were married by a female Presbyterian minister, years ago.

    She was the first minister we could find who would marry us in a church without asking me too many questions.

    Marriages are a family thing, after all.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    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.

    Yes, exactly. I think it’s an excellent idea to work together with people of different beliefs when doing charity work, but I resent the insinuation that this has to be done specifically in an interfaith organization to really “count”, when there are so many secular charities which have both religious and nonreligious members and workers.

    I feel like I’ve been writing the same comment, with the same three points, in the comments sections of many of the blog entries on interfaith work, but I’ll do so again, briefly.

    (1) I don’t think that the government should be giving money to or supporting any faith groups (e.g. The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge).
    (2) There are secular charities with people of different beliefs working together. I’m not against interfaith, but I prefer secular organizations, so the focus is on the charity. (Of course, while doing this, we have the opportunity to get to know each other.)
    (3) I have questions about how an interfaith organization would handle a situation in which a member of the organization was not willing to help others due to their religious beliefs (e.g. improper medical care, not wanting to help gay people, etc.).

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re being a hypocrite. When Jonathan Figdor wrote a guest post at the Friendly Atheist blog, a commenter named Claudia made a good point about criteria she uses about when to support a faith based charity, and I think she makes some excellent points. (http://friendlyatheist.com/2011/03/29/why-should-new-atheists-engage-in-interfaith-service/#comment-699018) I think your donating to the UU Church fits in with her suggestions.

    -Ani Sharmin

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    On the other hand, there are just not enough hours in the day for me to devote any to reducing “stereotypes of atheists being cruel, unsympathetic people” or showing to believers “that we can temporarily put aside our differences when working toward a common goal.”

    Phooey.

    And on the original point Ani @ 4 is on the money, I think.

  • Joffan

    “transfaith”, perhaps? Nicely ambiguous between “across” and “beyond”.

  • Staceyjw

    Interfaith is code for “Christians who play well with others who bow to them”. I don’t like it, but until we have more secular alternatives, it’s hard to totally avoid participating. Of course it’s better to start up a new secular charity when you see the need, but not everyone is capable of doing this.

    Speaking of non religious charities, are there any crisis pregnancy support/housing groups that are secular? Like a maternity home or a group that organizes private homes that are there for homeless or other pregnant women in crisis? I haven’t been able to find one.
    There are also few charities for orphans and such that aren’t explicitly, or implicitly, religious.
    Being pro choice has to also mean supporting women who keep their unplanned pregnancies. Can you imagine having to walk this road as an atheist/non theist, with your only access to assistance coming from religious people or the state? worse, some states have contracted religious groups to offer secular services like this. UGH, how is this allowed?
    if anyone knows of one, let me know, I could be missing it.

  • Alex Weaver

    Speaking of non religious charities, are there any crisis pregnancy support/housing groups that are secular?

    Are there any that don’t exist solely to trick/bully/defraud women out of having abortions while they’re still able to?

  • AnonaMiss

    In my opinion, it comes down to what “interfaith” means when the group uses it.

    If it means “We want to proselytize but we’d like some other churches to help out too,” then no dice.

    If it means “We’re a faith-based organization and we’d like to invite others to help out,” then sure. It’s important to distinguish the exclusion of atheists by default/through ignorance/just not thinking about it/”churches of multiple denominations/religions are involved so let’s call it interfaith” – from the exclusion of atheists through activities atheists would not approve of, e.g. proselytizing.

    An illustration. When I was a believer my youth group volunteered at a soup kitchen, which only proselytized insofar as it was held in a church’s basement (unless I’ve whitewashed it in my memory, which is possible). This was an interfaith activity, in that multiple area churches took turns supplying the food and labor; but I don’t think atheists would have been unwelcome, nor do I think they would have found it offensive. IMO that’s the perfect kind of activity for an atheist group to try to get involved in.

  • Leum

    I think your concern is misplaced. If an interfaith organization is truly interfaith (and not just a Christian mask), then I think it’s completely appropriate for atheist/humanist organizations to join up. Given the huge number of religious-based charities, excluding them just for being religious isn’t really appropriate. Atheist/humanist organizations form for much the same reason as religious ones: to get like-minded people together. Treating anything with religion on it as icky is silly.

  • kennypo65

    Here in my hometown we have a blood drive every three months. It is held in a building owned by the local Catholic parish. This doesn’t stop me from volunteering to drive donors there and back home, or helping get the word out about the drive. Everyone involved knows I’m an atheist. The parish priest jokes with me, saying I’m going to enter heaven by a side window when no one’s looking. This is a small town,(Finleyville,Pa.)and if I want to do something charitable, I really don’t have much choice but to be involved with persons who are religious. This is a blood drive, so there is no proslytizing. That would be stupid, everyone needs blood. It is held in a church social hall because it has the space and facilities that are needed, and that’s it. Everyone seems to get along together quite well and no one has ever called me a heathen. They are grateful for the help.

  • Keith Pinster

    I know that the whole point of charity is to not worry about “scoring points”, but it sure seems to me that supporting any faith-based organization fuels their side of the argument as to who supports the community. I’ve debated with several xians who want to talk about Stalin as the only example of Atheism, but want to talk about all the “good” xian organizations do. My attitude is this: why give them more ammunition to use against us? If you support a faith-based (“interfaith”, “trans-faith”, or “uni-faith”, whatever you want to call it), they will take that work as supporting the fight against Atheism. In other words, they will use it against you and the rest of us.

    Kennypo65 says if he can’t support a faith-based organization, he can’t do any volunteer work. Really? You can’t volunteer at a retirement home or library? You can’t volunteer to drive elderly to hospital or doctor appointments? You can’t find a single secular organization in your whole town to donate your time to? Maybe if there is NO non-religious organizations in your town, you should start one.

    Just be aware that ever time you hear a xian talk about how much good they do and how Atheists do nothing to support our communities, you are not only giving them fuel for their fire, you are throwing it on the fire for them.

  • Rieux

    AnonaMiss:

    In my opinion, it comes down to what “interfaith” means when the group uses it.
    [....]

    If it means “We’re a faith-based organization and we’d like to invite others to help out,” then sure.

    And Leum:

    I think your concern is misplaced. If an interfaith organization is truly interfaith (and not just a Christian mask), then I think it’s completely appropriate for atheist/humanist organizations to join up. [....] Treating anything with religion on it as icky is silly.

    So regarding this paragraph in the OP:

    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?

    …you two just pretend Adam never said anything of the kind?

    There is a very real (and, to my mind, overwhelming) problem with “interfaith” initiatives that their very existence promotes both religion and religious privilege. You two have ignored Adam’s description of the problem, but it’s still there—and pretending that it amounts to “[t]reating anything with religion on it as icky” is a little insulting.

    A whole lot of us think that religion and religious privilege are bad things, and we believe it’s a serious violation of our principles to lend our resources to promoting them. I think that idea deserves somewhat more careful attention.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @Gaius:

    If you and the wife are both atheists then why do you attend any church, even a Unitarian one?

    My wife isn’t an atheist. Although she’s no longer a Catholic, she still wanted to find a religious community where she felt comfortable, and attending a UU church was a compromise that’s worked well for both of us.

    But then why are they still playing in the “interfaith” sandbox?

    Maybe they would not agree with you that they do not stand for a faith?

    Some of them probably wouldn’t. That’s OK with me, since Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have any official dogma or creed, and so their views on the matter can never be more authoritative than mine. (That said, I do have some issues in other respects with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s official views on atheists, which I learned about recently thanks to Rieux, who’s commented above me in this thread. But I haven’t made any decisions yet.)

  • Leum

    (That said, I do have some issues in other respects with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s official views on atheists, which I learned about recently thanks to Rieux, who’s commented above me in this thread. But I haven’t made any decisions yet.)

    What are their views?

  • John

    As an atheist UU, I’m also interested in any documentation you have on the UUA’s views towards atheism. It probably wouldn’t affect my decision to be a member of the church I attend as it is very atheist friendly, (maybe not a majority, but likely a plurality) but it would still be useful information and especially when the plate goes around specifically to fund the UUA.

    The post is talking more about charity work, but I have attended an interfaith youth dialogue as a chaperon. When there were smaller discussion groups, the adults grouped together, but went through the same exercises/topics as the youth. It was not Christian dominated, they were in the majority, but Judaism and Islam were represented as well as UU.

    I suppose since I was representing Unitarian Universalism and not atheism, it’s not quite the same because UU does not have any problem calling itself a religion and I believe the “faith” in interfaith is shorthand for inter-religious-sect. By attending I was able to emphasise that any particular Unitarian Universalist’s decisions can be based on reality and that there are no supernatural considerations.

    I’m not sure how atheist youth would get invited to these kinds of events outside of having some official group. It might happen by chance, if a host congregation had a youth who had a friend in a SSA and thought enough of it to bring it up.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I recommend these posts for Rieux’s analysis of atheophobia within UUism.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Ebonmuse @ 14.

    As I mentioned @ 3, I am a Catholic-raised and educated atheist but my wife is not.

    She was raised in her early years by fairly disagreeable Baptists, as I understand it, and now prefers services with the Presbyterians or Methodists, once in a while.

    So I get it.

    Many years ago, a previous female companion (a relatively conservative Presbyterian) and I church-hopped a bit and we briefly attended a UU church where the pastor and congregation were very liberal.

    At the time I felt it important that neither the liturgy not the sermon imply acceptance of any more than a very liberal religion – an attitude I now regard as excessively priggish, given that no liturgy and no sermon implying any religious belief at all could actually, after all, speak for me.

    Anyway, the UU minister at last alienated her totally by coming out as an atheist and then died of heart failure while giving a sermon some weeks later.

    But I think my then female companion (we never married) was likely the only congregant his confession much disturbed.

    And we were neither of us actually members.

    It is interesting that any woman I have ever known well enough to ask has made it plain that what she really wanted from religion was comfort in adversity and something to cushion the prospect of death.

    Just what Bert Cates, the liberal evolutionist schoolteacher of “Inherit the Wind,” thought was religion’s proper role, in bitter opposition to the old time religion of Rev. Brown, his fiancée’s Dad.

  • wendy

    Hi,

    I came across this site while searching for non-religious maternity homes. I am interested in starting a maternity home in the Charlottesville Va area and I was doing some research. I noticed that they are ALL religious. There are also very few of them so young girls are forced to go to with what is avail. Can you imagine an orthodox Jewish girl having to stay at a Christian maternity home?

    Well, I just wanted to let you all know that HOPEFULLY one will be around in the next couple years. I plan on opening a maternity home that is totally non-religious but that supports women from all backgrounds. My husband is an atheist and I am agnostic.

    Please keep us in your thoughts as we try to open this very needed home.

    and wishing us a little luck wouldn’t hurt either! We’ll need it!

  • Jennie

    In my view it takes a great deal of faith to be an unbeliever in a God.

    My personal faith is based in the power of human beings to shape their own lives, spiritual regeneration and communities, I would like my beliefs to be incorporated into interfaith working.

    In recognising and upholding the right for each person to follow their own path I find that working with interfaith organisations can be very rewarding and help me to reach out to and work with people in my community who have spiritual regeneration at the heart of their aims instead of pushing their own religious agenda.

    I am firmly against prejudice and without an understanding of the different faith based cultures around me I would find it difficult to relate to MANY other human beings, these understandings are often facilitated by interfaith organisations.

    The goodwill of those around us should be far more important to us than semantics.


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