Why Should New Atheists Engage in Interfaith Service?

This is a guest post by Jonathan Figdor. John (MDiv ‘10, Harvard Divinity School) is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University as well as a board member of the Secular Student Alliance, an organization that provides support for young atheists, skeptics, and Humanists. on campuses across the country and around the globe.

His new blog is called Atheologically Thinking.

As an avid reader of Pharyngula, Butterflies & Wheels, and, of course, Friendly Atheist, I was surprised to see how much negative attention the idea of Interfaith Service generated last week. I’ve heard a lot of interesting reasons why Interfaith Service poses challenges to secular folks, but I wanted to share what I think are the overwhelming benefits of Interfaith Service. But instead of answering the relatively easy question of why Humanists ought to engage in interfaith service, I want to answer a more interesting question: Why should New Atheists engage in Interfaith Service?

  1. It accomplishes service. Who cares if we have to hijack someone’s religious delusions to compel them to help us build a park or feed the homeless? The point is, we get a park built and the homeless fed.
  2. Doing Interfaith Service lets people know about Atheism. A lot of people who might consider themselves Atheists don’t even know that we exist. This helps raise our profile. Furthermore, your group of New Atheists might even get media attention for their participation. Imagine how being featured on the local news, or in an article in the local paper might help you spread the word about your local group of heathens.
  3. It robs religious groups of yet another day to publicly proclaim that only faith can compel people to acts of public service. Now that they have to mention that we ”dirty Atheists” helped them build a park, maybe we can have a little less pretentious public piety.
  4. It helps disprove the (untrue) and offensive assertion that atheists are immoral. Religious believers can hardly accuse non-believers of immorality when they are side by side, building low-income housing, or taking a shift at a soup kitchen with them.
  5. It gives us an opportunity to talk to believers about their faith and show them that they don’t have to believe in an invisible man in the sky to live ethical lives. How are people going to learn that you can be good without god and leave a happy and ethical life as a non-believer, if we happy and ethical non-believers cloister ourselves in our ivory tower of Atheism?

One final consideration: If you want people to stop calling it “Interfaith Service,” because you find that term offensive (because we don’t have faith in an eternal sky father), join an Interfaith Service project and make your impassioned protest that you feel like the name of the event excludes you by definition from within their own community.

If your Interfaith group isn’t respectful of your criticism and doesn’t make some effort to include you (perhaps, by saying ”Interfaith and Inter-Philosophy Service,” or ”Inter-World-View Service”), you can complain loudly and publicly that your so-called ”Interfaith Service Group” isn’t standing up for all participants, faithful and faithless. You can even threaten to back out of the group (call a press conference, write an op-ed) and eloquently call attention to their hypocrisy. If the Interfaith movement really does want to include Atheists and respect our perspective, they have to put their money where their mouth is and respect criticism from Atheists just as they would respect any other group’s criticism (for example, not meeting on Jewish holidays, on Christmas, or during Ramadan). In essence, you can use their invitation to Interfaith Service to open a dialogue about how you feel like “faith” is given undue credit, and to show them how communities of faith victimizes Atheists by excluding them from the faith conversation by its very title.

In short, the “New Atheists” stand to gain a lot more than they would lose by participating in Interfaith Service. At best, they can use Interfaith Service to educate people about Atheism. At worst, they can serve as the reasonable adults in the room and expose the areas where the Interfaith Service movement might improve (including that very term…).

  • dan

    Hey,

    Enjoyed this article. I’m a Christian, but think this guy obviously makes some compelling observations.

    From the perspective of a “faith-er”, if I have already joined people of a faith in contradiction to mine, why wouldn’t I join with someone of a belief system in contradiction to mine in the name of service to humanity?

    I’m surprised this view is so criticised in these circles.

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com David McNerney

    Are “atheist” and “humanist” being used interchangeably?

    Just because a person is an atheist doesn’t mean they are moral either nor does it mean they give a damn about the homeless.

    Of course, many atheists are humanists. But why isn’t this a humanist driven exercise.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Some good point are raised here. I await the discussion that will ensue here and possibly elsewhere.

  • http://brickwindow.wordpress.com Brick Window

    This article presupposes there are atheist groups organized enough to be invited…

  • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

    I’m not buying into his argument(s).
    I have no problem (and in fact, encourage) working with certain types of faith-based organizations to bring about change in the world, but I don’t see that it is a necessity to give up our secular principles -and perhaps even identity – in the process.
    There’s no reason to think that because religion is currently dominant in many areas of our culture, that this will always be the case. We don’t need to assimilate and grovel in order to make good things happen or to gain acceptance in our communities.
    It’s a very good – even necessary- thing to interact with those from the faith-based community. That doesn’t translate into becoming a part of it. Leave Interfaith organizations to those of faith.

  • Claudia

    I think this subject is important enough to ignore the supremely annoying term “new atheists” for.

    For me inter-faith service is a pretty simple matter of cost-benefit analysis, where the promotion of religion is considered a “cost” and the helping of others a “benefit”. Ordinarily I choose to maximize this equation by giving to exclusively secular groups like MSF, but for given actions I would not neccesarily have a problem with collaboration with religious groups. Different questions have to be asked:

    1. How urgent is the need? If the group tries to spread the faith to the people it helps when, say, refurbishing an inner-city playground, I might find that unacceptable. On the other hand, if it’s attempting to feed and give shelter to refugees from a sudden natural disaster or war, this need is urgent enough for me to loosen what I’m willing to put up with.

    2. What exactly do you mean by “religious”? Reform Jews or Unitarians are a completely different animal from Pentacostals. Not all inter-faith collaborations are created equal and not all collaborations are equally acceptable or nonacceptable.

    3. How much will faith figure in the actions proposed and what resources will be used to that end? If you’re going into Haiti to install water purifiers with your church t-shirts and an odd “God bless you” I’ll slip into a Humanist t-shirt and go along. If you’re using half the money for purifiers and the other half to build a church, I want no part in that.

    4. Are there suitable and equally effective secular alternatives? If there is an option for helping in the same degree without religious entanglement I’ll take it. If the best service is provided by the religious organization I’ll look at questions 1 and 2 and decide how much of a hit on the service I’m willing to take to go to a secular service.

    Ultimately I think service should be first and foremost about helping others, and that the political benefits for the nontheist community should be more secondary. I’m not too keen about complaining about “inter-faith services” either, at least not where we are just one out of a number of different groups. If a secular group teams up with a religious group half and half, it seems fine to say “inter-philosophy”, otherwise, I’d leave it alone.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I very much support religious and nonreligious people working together to do charity work. I agree with many of the points you (Jonathan Figdore) and Greg Epstein made about the importance of helping others, changing misconceptions about atheists, etc. My main comments/questions/concerns were these:

    1. Religious and and nonreligous people are already working together at secular charities. I’m not against atheists joining interfaith groups, but it’s not the only way to work together with others of different beliefs to help people. (My main objection to Epstein’s article was his insistence that we “must” specifically participate in this initiative, instead of encouraging working together in general.) Personally, I feel better about supporting secular charities that focus on the charity part, not the interfaith part.

    @Claudia: I like the guidelines you’ve laid out. I agree that there are some situations when supporting a faith group may be worth it and others when it’s not.

    2. Separation of church and state. I’m against government funding or support going to faith groups. The fact that there was “The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge” made by the “White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” makes me uneasy. It makes me think that supporting it is an implicit support for the idea that the government should be supporting faith groups.

    3. How would an interfaith group handle a situation in which a member’s religious beliefs are interfering with their ability to help the people in need (e.g. religious beliefs that conflict with proper medical care)?

  • http://www.kidkaos.us Kid Kaos

    First Humanist does not equal Atheist. I for one am not a humanist and I do not feel that I should be ashamed to say so.

    I have and continue to do great service to the community I live in and even the world without any help from any imaginary sky monster. My membership and involvement in environmental organizations as well as my actual profession contribute to the betterment of my community and the world. (Profession = IT for College geared towards low income students)

    None of my activities take me anywhere near to any religious service. If I were to associate my service with them then I would be assisting them in perpetuating their myth beliefs.

    As for the “spread the word of Atheism” argument. I don’t prostilatize. You are either smart enough to not believe in fairytale or you are not. Nothing I do or say is likely to fix you.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    Great comments so far, everyone.

    I don’t consider Atheists and Humanists to be the same thing. Atheism is the simple lack of belief in a god. Humanism includes Atheism, and then adds on ethical observations and insights. I can understand why it might be confusing since I consider myself both an Atheist and a Humanist.

    And for KidKaos, I would suggest you’re giving up too quickly on your religious counterparts. Many of them are just one intelligent conversation away from Atheism.

  • mkb

    I’m all for inter-community cooperation. In fact, I was part of a CFI crew helping to put together rehydration packets for Save the Children at an event organized by a Jewish temple? synagogue? on Sunday. However, I do wonder why the need for the interfaith label. Why couldn’t it be “The President’s Community Service Campus Challenge”? Is it because the faith groups won’t participate unless they get some sort of privileged publicity out of it that makes them feel like they are better than everybody else?

  • http://intwaste.blogspot.com Dale

    This is a rather interesting suggestion that you have posed here. Many of the arguments in the post I will agree with, however, I do have to reflect that several of the considerations raised in response are very important to take into consideration.

    Atheist and Humanist are not mutually inter-changeable. In my experience I find those who fall under the banner of Humanist to be far more organized and willing to participate in group events. As mkb pointed out you also have CFI as a rally point. These are not normally falling under the banner of Atheist. There are a few Atheist groups out there organized enough to participate in an Interfaith gathering, but I don’t expect that to the the rule.

    Should Atheists participate? If they want to and find it meaningful. One commenter kindly reminded us that it also depends upon the denominations of the religions you are dealing with. You might find InterFaith to be strictly Inter-Christian, because no one else matters. If you are having an Inter-Faith being between religions eg. Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Wicca I am sure you are going to be dealing with the more “liberal” versions of these religions.

    I honestly am in support of joining in these discussions and organizing participation of Atheists under strictly secular organizations to help drive home the fact that we are here and they can’t ignore us. That being said, you have to pick your fights, but even if a group tries to gain admittance and is rejected, making a public fuss over the fact at least shows that we are the ones trying to have a dialogue and are more open then they are. That can be fun too.

  • ludovico

    What’s wrong with the term “interfaith?” Atheists don’t have faith? Tell that to Colette and Sophia, Orange Co. Teenagers, Sisters…Atheists featured on the FFRF billboard in the below post…

  • Thegoodman

    From the Interfaith Services Website of San Diego

    To promote mutual understanding and respect among the member faiths; to deal with issues which affect the religious community; to share the members’ concern for these problems; to voice these concerns when, by common consent, the members feel that moral leadership is needed; and to implement programs for basic needs, social services, counseling, and economic development which will empower the disadvantaged in our community.

    I do not promote a mutual understanding and respect of faiths, I promote respect of humanity (and I personally feel that many faiths do not).

    One of the key “issues” of the religious community is my existence.

    I am not a member of a faith, so I cannot share concerns.

    “moral” is relative. Christian morals are full of hate and intolerance, I cannot condone this.

    Just a few issues I have with Interfaith Services. No thank you.

  • http://jacobblock.com Jacob

    I’m a bit confused why religion is implied to hold a stronger public service position in society in many of these essays, like it’s the norm. There are plenty of organizations helping the community where faith just wouldn’t even come up because you’re too busy helping people. Are you seriously picturing a group of atheists that are doing some good over here, and a group of faithers over there helping people, and thinking “wow… if we could just put these two groups in the same location I bet we could help that many more people”?

    Interfaith work isn’t for improving the community, it’s for trying to reduce the clickyness of groups.

  • Ron in Houston

    Considering the number of stereotypes atheists have about people of faith, participation in interfaith services might be an educational experience.

    I don’t see what’s wrong about learning about one another. You never know it just might lead to greater acceptance.

  • cat

    If I want to participate in community service, I will do so via a secular group (secular here used to mean “religiously neutral” rather than atheistic). Putting our service under the interfaith title does not help fix the notion that religion and service are intertwined, rather, it reinforces it.

    1. Service can and should be done through non-religiously purposed groups. I have done community service and volunteered without becoming involved in “interfaith” groups. That is how service should be accomplished, in a way that demonstrates the value of it for its own sake, rather than for religious posturing.

    2. Yes and no. It perpetuates the silly notion of “atheism as another religion” which is a bad idea. Also, do not pretend like agressive “new atheists” do not inform people about atheism. In fact, they tend to reach the widest audiences.

    3. No it does not, because the service is still being attached to a faith label. Interfaith carries an assumption of religiousity and reinforces the stereotype you discuss here.

    4. This can be accomplished by other means and, again, hiding atheist service under a nominally faith based group erases a lot of this for outsiders.

    5. Hah. “Interfaith” groups have a strong tendancy to hate such discussions and play the wooey “why can’t we all just get along” line rather than actually accept criticism of theism. Debate and discussion in other areas is a much better way to accomplish this purpose. Besides (and this relates to 4 as well), it is not the fault of atheists that theist have bullshit stereotypes, any more than it is the fault of black people that white racists hold racist stereotypes. Do not blame the bigotry of the powerful majority on the much less powerful minority. In addition, no atheist I know of actually lives in an “atheist cloister” and merely not joining interfaith groups will not make such a thing the case. Perhaps an atheist in Sweden could live without having to interact with theists, but in the US, this idea is laughable.

  • Reginald Gabel

    You state that you as an atheist do not believe in God. And you have stated that “You do not practice atheism be cause it is not a faith.”

    Interfaith groups are for groups that have faith in God though they may beleive different.

    You don’t believe… so why be part of an interfaith group. Let them work together and you find a group that faith is not part of the program… united way…. red cross…

    Believer should have their groups and non-believers can have their group

  • Rieux

    Have to agree with cat. Jonathan is simply wishing away the fundamental problems with participating in the promotion of “faith” as a means of social organization.

    Faith needs to be discredited, not collaborated with. Atheists contributing their time, resources, and energy to overtly “faith”-based efforts are promoting the marginalization and disempowerment of all of us.

    And then this:

    If your Interfaith group isn’t respectful of your criticism and doesn’t make some effort to include you (perhaps, by saying ”Interfaith and Inter-Philosophy Service,” or ”Inter-World-View Service”), you can complain loudly and publicly that your so-called ”Interfaith Service Group” isn’t standing up for all participants, faithful and faithless. You can even threaten to back out of the group (call a press conference, write an op-ed) and eloquently call attention to their hypocrisy.

    If you seriously think there’s a snowball’s chance in Hell that that tactic could possibly work, I’ve got some beachfront property in Wyoming to sell you.

    If the Interfaith movement really does want to include Atheists and respect our perspective, they have to put their money where their mouth is and respect criticism from Atheists just as they would respect any other group’s criticism….

    Well, that’s an easy one: the interfaith movement does not actually want to include atheists or respect our perspectives—at least insofar as we and our perspectives are contrary to non-negotiables like crediting and promoting “faith.”

    You can ignore the suffocating religious privilege that “interfaith” organizing both perpetuates and is suffused with, but that doesn’t make it go away. Organizing around “faith,” by definition, marginalizes atheists. There’s no way out of that, and no real-life religious group is going to drop that organizational principle just because a group of people insist on defying certain matters of majority privilege that said groups swallow hook, line, and sinker.

    “Interfaith” activities unavoidably (and intentionally) promote religion and religious privilege. Those happen to be bad things. We shouldn’t promote them.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    How do you know that the Interfaith Service movement doesn’t want Atheists involved if you’re not involved in the Interfaith Service movement? And why would they invite Chris Stedman, Greg Epstein, Lyz Lydell, myself, and other atheists to the White House to discuss Interfaith Service if they really didn’t want to involve Atheists?

    I understand being skeptical of Interfaith Service, but you ought to give it a try if for no other reason to test out if your preconceived notions against it hold true.

  • mkb

    Jonathan, What did the White House say when you asked why the initiative wasn’t called “The President’s Community Service Campus Challenge”? Or didn’t you even ask to be treated as an equal? And if not, why not?

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    I don’t have faith, I don’t keep the faith, I consider faith one of the chief problems with the world, while I may ‘act in good faith’ that’s just a problem with the language that needs to go as far as I’m concerned, common trust perhaps. I wont be participating in volunteer work that in title promotes faith, that would include the red ‘cross’. I have some knowledge and good will and will only work under secular banners.

  • Rieux

    Jonathan—c’mon, you’re smarter than this.

    And why would they invite Chris Stedman, Greg Epstein, Lyz Lydell, myself, and other atheists to the White House to discuss Interfaith Service if they really didn’t want to involve Atheists?

    Who said “they really didn’t want to involve [a]theists”? Clearly they did. It just so happens that what they are doing—and are all to happy to have atheists collaborating in—contributes directly to the marginalization and dehumanization of atheists.

    What you’re so excited to have experienced is called tokenism. Please look it up before you allow yourself to be used as a justification for undisguised promotion of religion and religious privilege… yet again.

    I understand being skeptical of Interfaith Service, but you ought to give it a try if for no other reason to test out if your preconceived notions against it hold true.

    What “preconceived notions”? Interfaith initiatives put their purpose and inevitable consequences right out front: they reinforce the power of religions and religious privilege, and that inevitably leads to the marginalization and diminution of nonbelievers.

    Surely our energy would be better spent on efforts—including charitable and humanitarian ones—that do not strengthen religion’s grip on humanity?

    President Obama has gone out of his way to make clear that this initiative must be fully open to and inclusive [of] atheists, and agnostics, and Humanists.

    Well, just for one thing, it can’t be. An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses. We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t. We shouldn’t be pretending there is nothing exclusive or particularist or antisecular about faith-based offices and faith-based challenges in and from a branch of government. I don’t feel included in Obama’s challenge. On the contrary; I feel very pointedly and explicitly not included. That’s one reason I (and many other people) think presidents shouldn’t have offices and challenges of that kind. It was Bush’s innovation, and Obama should have ditched it.

    [....]

    “We” are allowed to tag along with the much larger group of normal people. That’s called tokenism, and it’s insulting. Epstein seems to have internalized so much of the routine atheist-phobia of the US that he all but bursts into tears just because he gets a name-check from a crowd of godbotherers. He’s way too easily pleased.

    Ophelia Benson, responding to Greg Epstein’s triumphant description of his trip to the White House

  • IThinkTherefore

    Show up to an group that you know the name of and complain loudly and publicly that the name doesn’t suit you?

    Perhaps not the… best way to go about this?

    I would think that it would be much more reasonable and polite to email the local director and set up a meeting to discuss our concerns.

    Not that respect for secularism shouldn’t be spoken about in public, but I wouldn’t have a lot of respect for anyone who behaved like that in public or disrupted a meeting, and I’d be a lot less likely to take their concerns seriously.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    I’m just saying that engagement, even if that takes the form of confrontation, is preferable to burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problem.

  • Stephen

    If it weren’t for interfaith, secular service just wouldn’t happen– at least not on the scale that it does currently. Those atheists that are content to complain about interfaith on the internet are more than welcome to their opinions, but those actually doing service and promoting secularism through interfaith ventures (Center For Inquiry, Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, Interfaith Youth Core, etc) seem to be entitled to a more valid opinion. Thanks for the thoughtful guest post John!

  • an atheist

    I’m an atheist, not an Atheist. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but throughout your post atheism is treated as just another small religion like Judaism that Christians would play nice with if only they knew more about its people. I am extremely uncomfortable participating in an inter-anything because individuals in such a group are not participating as individuals but as a member of a religion flying that religion’s flag. I don’t want to fly an atheism flag, I don’t even want there to be an atheism flag. If the purpose of volunteer work is to help, not to show off your non-religion’s colors, you should be volunteering as an individual, not as an atheist.

    Your post makes volunteering about the person/the group of the person who is doing volunteering, not the task being completed. The way you describe it, it is a consumption good that will make atheists feel good about themselves by demonstrating to others that they are good people. It reminded me of the following quote:

    “Charity is no substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth – even if they decide to help the less fortunate – while others are short-changed, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible.” -Michael Eric Dyson

    Ultimately, I don’t want to say that I volunteered in a soup kitchen. I want to say that everyone is fed. We need a lot fewer Christians spending one weekend in a soup kitchen and a lot more people voting for politicians who recognize food as a basic human right and support expanding government food assistance programs. You talk about alternatives, ultimately there is always an alternative: that we come together and guarantee something as a society, not offer it as charity.

    Finally, the kind of Christians who do inter-faith work are not typically the kind of Christians who need help seeing atheists as moral individuals. They are typically the kind who have so intellectually watered down their religion that they they have a problem with neither atheists nor Jews nor Muslims. Interfaith work is in part based on this kind of “it doesn’t matter that we have fundamentally different beliefs because we’re all good people” hand waving. I’m sorry, but I don’t share this kind of hand waving. Believing in a sky god is on some level crazy. Religion is complete nonsense because it lacks empirical justification. If a particular religion were actually true, they’d have the evidence and would publish in the journal Nature. They don’t and so they rely on brainwashing their children. There is no easy hand wave around this set of facts. As such, I don’t feel comfortable participating in an inter-whatever that is ultimately about diminishing the differences between the groups that are present and ignoring the inherent conflict between atheism and religion and between different religions themselves. Charity is no substitute for justice, inter-faith work is no substitute for reality.

  • Rieux

    I’m just saying that engagement, even if that takes the form of confrontation, is preferable to burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problem.

    Swell. Then let’s “engage” in ways that don’t involve participating in our own marginalization. Many thousands of us very much do “engage,” of course. I hope you’re not implying that your critics are advocating “burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problem.”

    Taking part in interfaith activities promotes religion. Surely it’s not difficult to understand why atheists think you shouldn’t do that.

  • Katie

    I have to agree with Rieux on this. I’ve been involved in a great deal of interfaith work (IFYC conference in DC, as well as two groups at my college the each meet once a week). I had an open mind at first but now I inevitably leave these meetings feeling philosophically dirty. While it is important to have atheists in the room at these things, getting too involved exposes us to the risk of losing our identity. We can’t succumb to the temptation to be placated by what Rieux correctly identifies as tokenism. I’m the only atheist on both the interfaith campus groups I’m part of, and every time I want to resign from them, I don’t because I feel guilty knowing that if I don’t suck it up and stick around, secularists will have no representation there whatsoever.
    Ultimately, my approach to interfaith is this: sit at the table, but don’t drink the Kool Aid.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    Like I said in my piece, if you hate the name interfaith so much, why not approach your local group and suggest that they make their name more inclusive and open? In Boston, we Humanists and Atheists do productive community service alongside religious folks, and we find that far from being marginalized, we’re given a seat at the table and a voice in the dialogue.

    I also don’t think we’re so easily marginalized. I pushed an MDiv through Harvard Divinity School while being extremely stridently critical of religion (giving Greg Epstein a few grey hairs in the process). What I learned from the experience is that if you want to get your perspective across, you have to engage with your religious colleagues. Once you open the lines of dialogue, you can begin to question their religious delusions.

    And really? You would prefer that a park NOT be built, than it be built by Atheists and religious folks working together? That’s some magical thinking.

    (great comments through, I really appreciate your thoughtful arguments. [not being sarcastic here, seriously])

  • Aj

    1. It accomplishes service. Who cares if we have to hijack someone’s religious delusions to compel them to help us build a park or feed the homeless? The point is, we get a park built and the homeless fed.

    If engaging in charitable activity is the real goal what use does bringing faith into it serve? It is at best a distraction from what should be the real goal. You seem to have a very specific example in mind where the religious would come and join a wholly secular effort. Call me when Southern Baptists build a women’s health centre (actually operated on the basis of the best current medical knowledge).

    2. Doing Interfaith Service lets people know about Atheism. A lot of people who might consider themselves Atheists don’t even know that we exist. This helps raise our profile. Furthermore, your group of New Atheists might even get media attention for their participation. Imagine how being featured on the local news, or in an article in the local paper might help you spread the word about your local group of heathens.

    Accepting that engaging in charitable activities can raise the profile of atheists and atheist groups; you’ve provided no reason why we should join up with the faithful to do so.

    3. It robs religious groups of yet another day to publicly proclaim that only faith can compel people to acts of public service. Now that they have to mention that we ”dirty Atheists” helped them build a park, maybe we can have a little less pretentious public piety.

    Except the religious rarely proclaim that generic faith compels anyone, they claim either that Allah/Jesus/Bob did it directly, or that faith in Allah/Jesus/Bob did it (admittedly they do often use the shorthand of “faith” in the latter case, but they clearly don’t mean it in the non specific sense). They will likely continue to make that claim regardless as to who put in the actual sweat (well the Bobists might not, but the others likely will).

    4. It helps disprove the (untrue) and offensive assertion that atheists are immoral. Religious believers can hardly accuse non-believers of immorality when they are side by side, building low-income housing, or taking a shift at a soup kitchen with them.

    How does joining up with the religious in order to do good work dispel the notion that religion is a requirement for good works? If anything you’re giving them more evidence for their belief.

    5. It gives us an opportunity to talk to believers about their faith and show them that they don’t have to believe in an invisible man in the sky to live ethical lives. How are people going to learn that you can be good without god and leave a happy and ethical life as a non-believer, if we happy and ethical non-believers cloister ourselves in our ivory tower of Atheism?

    One of the reasons that I often despise what you call faith service is that is allows the religious to disguise some really quite offensive evangelising as charitable work. I realise you’re not exactly suggesting we do the same, but it’s not that far off. I’d also disagree that the only alternative to joining specifically interfaith groups is cloistering ourselves.

    Frankly you seem to be blurring the line between engaging in charitable/community activities with people of whatever faith and engaging in interfaith charitable/community activities. It’s supporting the interfaith part that people are objecting to.

    I don’t think people shouldn’t join interfaith groups if it appeals to them. It just seems bloody odd to me that you would want to.

  • http://jondreyer.org Jon Dreyer

    One other reason is pragmatic. Like it or not, many folks do their do-gooding in a religious context. So even if we don’t think “interfaith” applies to us because we don’t have any, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the (other) do-gooders are.

  • Rieux

    Like I said in my piece, if you hate the name interfaith so much, why not approach your local group and suggest that they make their name more inclusive and open?

    Because I recognize that that’s ludicrously pointless. Being “interfaith”—promoting faith across ecumenical lines—is the purpose of those organizations. You might as well “approach” the Democratic National Committee “and suggest” that they stop endorsing Democratic candidates. It’s absurd.

    I also don’t think we’re so easily marginalized.

    Well, some of us aren’t. You are happily advocating lending our names, positions, and credibility to “Interfaith Service.” That—the very thing you are arguing in favor of in this thread—is marginalization. So is raising the profile of “faith” and religion as such in society, which is what “interfaith” organizations exist to do.

    I pushed an MDiv through Harvard Divinity School while being extremely stridently critical of religion (giving Greg Epstein a few grey hairs in the process).

    That’s good. Why you want to throw all that away (and think we should too) by lending (y)our time and energy to the promotion of faith I can’t understand.

    What I learned from the experience is that if you want to get your perspective across, you have to engage with your religious colleagues.

    So engage! Thousands of us are doing so. Pharyngula, Butterflies & Wheels, and Friendly Atheists (to name three sites you mentioned) “engage” with religious people all the time. PZ, Ophelia, and Hemant have never declared their blogs (or, to my knowledge, themselves) part of an “interfaith” network. Nor could they, without violating the basic notions their blogs are founded on.

    And really? You would prefer that a park NOT be built, than it be built by Atheists and religious folks working together?

    Where in the world did anyone say that? I haven’t seen anyone argue that a park shouldn’t be built. The issue here is whether it makes sense for atheists to give their support to organizations that, by both definition and intention, increase the strength of religion and religious privilege in our society. You can’t seriously believe that there’s no way to build parks, or engage in any other particular kind of social work, without inevitably strengthening religion’s hand at the same time.

  • Sigmund

    Jonathan Figdor said:
    “You would prefer that a park NOT be built, than it be built by Atheists and religious folks working together?”
    You are presenting us with a false dichotomy.
    “Interfaith” is not the same as community service.
    It might be if it is organized for a specific purpose – for instance a pooling of efforts of various religious and non religious charities to tackle an urgent need, such as the Haiti earthquake relief effort. In such cases the word interfaith is not particularly apt. Why not just use the term intercommunity charity or something similar.
    Usually, however, “Interfaith” means the positive promotion of supernaturalism.
    It really is difficult (or at least it is illogical) for atheists to join with efforts that have this objective at their core.

  • http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org Ophelia Benson

    Like I said in my piece, if you hate the name interfaith so much, why not approach your local group and suggest that they make their name more inclusive and open?

    Because that would be rude and presumptuous and intrusive and just plain absurd? You don’t approach existing groups and suggest that they change the name – it’s none of your (or my) business what people call their groups.

    I don’t join with Conservative groups or Family Values groups or Pro-gun groups or Anti-feminist groups in order to do service or for any other reason. I don’t waste my time joining my opposites. It of course remains entirely possible that I could find myself working together with members of any or all of those groups on particular projects or campaigns that we all support. I can do that without endorsing ideas that I reject. “Faith” is one such idea.

  • Sean Santos

    My personal problem with Interfaith stuff isn’t the part about just being around religious people, or the name. It’s that the very nature of the exercise is to point out religion in the middle of an irreligious exercise.

    The only of the points listed above that I find completely compelling is #1, which can be accomplished equally well by people of all faiths within secular, irreligious organizations, as in interfaith ones. I don’t see how the charity work itself, however, benefits from points 2-5, which are, to be blunt, kind of a cynical marketing campaign. Join a group that does charity work, so that people can see how good and nice you are? I suppose it probably does no harm, but on a personal level that feels more than a bit icky to me.

    Let me give a more concrete example about some of the weirdness I feel about interfaith stuff. Tomorrow I’m going to go to a rally and then testify regarding civil union legislation in a committee of the Colorado legislature. The vote that will (probably) be held that day is really the make or break moment for this bill. The activist group that’s running all this is going to then have an interfaith gathering to discuss the events (and celebrate or commiserate accordingly). I’m fine with them having such a gathering, but I can’t work up any interest in it. It’s not that I probably won’t have the urge to celebrate or vent once those interminable hearings end. It’s that, frankly, I have little interest in talking about religion while doing it. Admittedly, that’s an activist rather than a “charitable” situation, but the same standard applies; I don’t want to waste time and energy talking about atheism or having other people talk about their religion, if what I’m actually there for is a different issue that’s important in and of itself. I’m all for feel-good pats on the back and all that (and if the bill doesn’t pass, I might need to commiserate or vent), but I don’t have any interest in people using their beliefs (any beliefs) to fish around for that.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    @Stephen:

    If it weren’t for interfaith, secular service just wouldn’t happen– at least not on the scale that it does currently. Those atheists that are content to complain about interfaith on the internet are more than welcome to their opinions, but those actually doing service and promoting secularism through interfaith ventures (Center For Inquiry, Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, Interfaith Youth Core, etc) seem to be entitled to a more valid opinion. Thanks for the thoughtful guest post John!

    What about all the secular charities (e.g. Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, American Cancer Society, Amnesty International) that hire and help people regardless of religious belief? Don’t both religious and nonreligious people work with and donate to these charities, even if they’re not necessarily in an “interfaith” group?

  • Egbert

    Once you form your alliance with the interfaith group, don’t forget to choose a suitable scapegoat to berate and unite against. I suggest those horrible new atheists, who seem the complete opposite of interfaith.

    Here’s an idea: How about a non-interfaith group, which does exactly the same thing but this time with coherent and worthwhile goals. Oh we already have those.

  • http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org Ophelia Benson

    The Center for Inquiry is “doing service and promoting secularism through interfaith ventures”? Are you sure about that? It sounds wrong to me.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    I guess some folks are less comfortable questioning religious people about their beliefs than I am. I feel perfectly comfortable having these conversations with religious folks, especially while accomplishing something productive like building a park, or providing meals to the homeless. That way, if the dialogue fails, at least something good was accomplished.

  • ln

    1. We can “accomplish service” without having to pay lip service to the spectre of faith.

    2. Why do so many people seem to believe that we’re trying to win a popularity contest? The point of the Gnu Atheist movement is to assert our rights as citizens and combat the religious reactionaries who threaten to take them away. (One might also call THAT an “interfaith” campaign.)

    3 & 4. We have nothing to prove to the religious groups, and we need neither their approval nor permission to be atheists.

    5. Attempting to “convert” people in the guise of service is disingenuous.

  • Sigmund

    Johathan said:
    “I guess some folks are less comfortable questioning religious people about their beliefs than I am.”
    I have no problem discussing religion with anyone. And whats the fascination with building parks?
    Try building a family planning clinic with your interfaith friends and see what happens.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    I mention parks because our Harvard Humanist graduate group built a park last year as a service project. And I mentioned cooking food for the homeless because our undergrads made food for homeless victims of domestic violence. They did these as exclusively secular events (not interfaith). But both groups also do interfaith events as well. We deeply understand the value of service in the name of Humanism and/or Atheism. We just also believe in the value of Interfaith Service as well. It opens a dialogue and can actually change the minds of some religious folks.

    I know that the culture of the Harvard Chaplains became a lot more secular after Greg and I came to Harvard, for example. One obvious example is that the chaplains don’t pray together before or after meetings. I’m just saying there are tangible impacts of Interfaith Service/dialogue.

  • Sigmund

    Enough of the parks! I’m beginning to suspect you have shares in a landscape gardening company.
    If you want to engage with the religious in an ‘interfaith’ setting then fine, go ahead. The reason why many of us gnus have rather jaded views of the matter is no doubt influenced by the fact that many of those atheists who are either involved or who promote interfaith see fit to demonize the gnus, to portray themselves as ‘good atheists’ in contrast to the bad gnus. It is the promotion of the idea that interfaith is the sanctuary of the moderates (in both religion and irreligion) that seems rather constant from our accomodationist friends when the reality is that immoderate religion is pretty much the norm of most of the worlds society while ‘extremist atheism’ that is not associated with communism, is virtually absent. In fact you are more likely to see extremely moderate individuals like Richard Dawkins, Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne compared to religious fundamentalists by fellow atheists on the interfaith bandwagon than by the religious themselves.
    When we see an accomodationist rush to the front of the bus it’s usually to get in the queue to throw the rest of us under the wheels.

  • http://furiouspurpose.me Rorschach

    Way to completely miss the point. As I’ve said to Ophelia Benson, not only do I not feel included in Obama’s interfaith challenge, but I also don’t want to be included ! Interfaith is just a buzzword for an artificially generated, pseudo-harmonious wankfest among different faith groups. As long as there is faith, and belief, any belief. But I don’t have belief or faith in any sky pixie, and I don’t see any value in just another accomodationist-type “be nice to each other” lovefest. I have a radically different understanding of truth, morality and the role of religion in society, and I am not one who sees any point in empty symbolic gestures, that only help maintain a status quo that I am fighting to demolish.

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    Rorschach said:

    I am not one who sees any point in empty symbolic gestures, that only help maintain a status quo that I am fighting to demolish.

    What strategy do you have for fighting the status quo? And can we make clear what the status quo is so we’re all on the same page?

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    How is everyone here an expert on what Interfaith Service is if you’ve never done an Interfaith Service event? I’ve done the experiment and found out that my preconceptions (that it was a liberal religion wank-fest) were disproved. Maybe you would find the same thing, but you won’t find out unless you test the hypothesis instead of clinging to blind faith that Interfaith is bad…

    If you have done Interfaith Service and had a bad experience with god-botherers harassing you or marginalizing your views, please blog about it! If Interfaith Service in your area isn’t tolerant of atheists, we need to spread the word that Interfaith Service is prejudiced against Atheists in your area.

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    It seems to me that many people grant more importance and oppressive value to the Interfaith title and enterprise than is warranted. In theory, the term “Interfaith” essentially excludes those who do not have faith. Some people have the theory that offers for atheists to participate in interfaith are to have them as tokens and for no other reason. As Jonathan points out based on his experience, each of these theories do not hold much water in practice.

    As for the word “interfaith,” this may be a convenient yet antiquated term that the voluntary participation of atheists could serve to change. Perhaps we could brainstorm of an alternative term that recognizes differences in worldview but is not nominally restricted to those of religious / theistic persuasion.

    As for the redundancy of interfaith efforts when considering extant organizations already comprised of people with different worldviews working together — I think that idea reduces the objective of interfaith to solely doing good work. Interfaith, it seems to me, is to do more than good work, and that is to achieve comity among groups of people that are more or less antagonistic to each other (when their differences in worldview are salient). Working with people in the Red Cross or Amnesty International does not acknowledge differences in worldview, and therefore avoids the antagonism that could arise when those differences are salient. Yet for many people, their worldview and those of others is by necessity salient (attire, rituals, conversation, &c). So interfaith involves acknowledging and making salient the differences in worldview, but then tries to reframe the relationship to be one of respect and greater understanding. I think that is a process worth supporting.

  • Rieux

    Jonathan:

    I guess some folks are less comfortable questioning religious people about their beliefs than I am.

    What in the world are you talking about? Who here has expressed any discomfort with “questioning religious people about their beliefs”?

    We who disagree with you here have questioned the value of participating in “interfaith” activities. It does not follow from that critique that anyone is “uncomfortable questioning religious people about their beliefs.” You cannot seriously believe that activities that bill themselves as “interfaith” are the only forum available for “questioning religious people about their beliefs”!

    You’re being seriously disingenuous—and it’s starting to get a little insulting. You can decide to defend your support of “interfaith” entities or not, but please stop casting wild, irrelevant aspersions on people who disagree.

    I feel perfectly comfortable having these conversations with religious folks, especially while accomplishing something productive like building a park, or providing meals to the homeless.

    Then do so. There is no need whatsoever to lend your support to anything “interfaith” in order to “have” any such “conversation.”

    Stop trying to change the subject. We’re talking about “interfaith” activities as such, not “questioning religious people about their beliefs,” “having these conversations with religious folks,” or “accomplishing something productive like building a park, or providing meals to the homeless.” None of those activities requires the slightest acceptance of “interfaith” anything, so you can stop trying to put on airs about how much better suited you are to them than the rest of us are.

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    Myself:

    Yet for many people, their worldview and those of others is by necessity salient

    I would also add that many people’s worldview is salient by choice, and that is okay! We should encourage saliency of worldview, right? Interfaith tries to make the effects of worldview saliency positive rather than negative.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    I’m not trying to be insulting, nor am I disingenuous.

    But Rieux, how are you going to challenge people on their religious views if you don’t see them in person? By questioning them in internet forums?

    I suggest a much better way of getting your point of view across is by participating side by side in Interfaith Service and simultaneously showing people that faith isn’t necessary for service, while questioning why they they believe faith is necessary for service.

  • Rieux

    Andrew:

    In theory, the term “Interfaith” essentially excludes those who do not have faith.

    That’s not “theory.” That’s unavoidable definitional fact. “Inter” is an English prefix meaning “between.” It is impossible, by definition, for a non-faith to be included within a set defined as “interfaith.” Dance around that all you’d like, but it doesn’t make it any less a fact.

    Some people have the theory that offers for atheists to participate in interfaith are to have them as tokens and for no other reason.

    Again with this “theory” nonsense; have you been reading too much Ken Ham or something?

    An organization that exists to promote religion and religious privilege can certainly include—and be happy to include—irreligious people. It suits their purposes to project an image (not least within their own heads) of diversity and inclusion. Nonetheless, including token atheists does nothing to lessen the damage that such promotion does to the place of nonbelievers in society. Promoting religion and religious privilege is never going to be in nonbelievers’ interests, no matter how much you like to throw around the word “theory.”

    As for the word “interfaith,” this may be a convenient yet antiquated term that the voluntary participation of atheists could serve to change.

    Now there’s a “theory” that’s absolutely bereft of supporting evidence. Show me a single overtly “interfaith” organization that has ever jettisoned its “interfaith” appellation as the result of complaints by faithless people. Let’s see it. Let’s see the slightest inkling of evidence that we can get an organization created to promote religion to agree to stop promoting religion.

    Interfaith, it seems to me, is to do more than good work,

    Of course it is. (Explain this to Jonathan!)

    …and that is to achieve comity among groups of people that are more or less antagonistic to each other (when their differences in worldview are salient).

    …In favor of increased fealty to, and “salien[ce]” of, faith. Right! “Never mind that you guys are Christians and you guys are Muslims; we’re all people of faith! So let’s get along!”

    When it dawns on you that that tactic involves reconciling religious people by excluding and marginalizing irreligion, we will have achieved something.

    “Interfaith” reconciliation comes at the cost of increasing the power and “salience” of religion. Some of us are not as resigned as you clearly are, Andrew, to notion that that salience is unavoidable. To the contrary, religious identity is not inevitable or indestructible; it is rapidly losing salience for a huge portion of the planet, a portion that includes the United States. Your defeatism notwithstanding, hastening the irrelevance of religious identity and privilege is what is obviously in nonbelievers’ interests.

    You denigrate “[w]orking with people in the Red Cross or Amnesty International” because such work “does not acknowledge differences in worldview”; but that’s precisely why they are superior to “interfaith” entities. The “differences in worldview” you cite are entirely irrelevant to the work in question, and lessening the relevance of religious categories is precisely what we should be doing.

    So interfaith involves acknowledging and making salient the differences in worldview….

    I agree entirely. That’s why it and you are wrong. More salience for religious identity means more power for religion to control all of our lives. Many of us will not simply accept that state of affairs as passively as you do.

  • Rieux

    Jonathan:

    But Rieux, how are you going to challenge people on their religious views if you don’t see them in person?

    Are you joking? Where in the world do you live? Where in the world do you think I could live and not “see” religious people “in person”?!?

    I meet hundreds of religious people every day. (As, I’m sure, do you.) I work with them on all manner of projects—recreational, charitable, work-related, you name it. I’m also related to several religious people, as is pretty much every atheist.

    I have a very difficult time envisioning how you could seriously believe that it’s only in “interfaith” activities that atheists can ever encounter religious believers. That’s, frankly, just crazy.

    And if that’s not what you mean (and, really, it can’t be—you’re not an idiot), then I’m at a loss to understand what point you could actually be making. “Interfaith” activities provide no gain whatsoever over other activities in the ability to “challenge people on their religious views.” So WTF?

    By questioning them in internet forums?

    Why not? Thousands and thousands of people have lost their religion on the basis of skeptical critiques they’ve seen on the ’Net. What’s wrong, or useless, about that?

    I suggest a much better way of getting your point of view across is by participating side by side in Interfaith Service and simultaneously showing people that faith isn’t necessary for service….

    Um. Yeah. Then, I’ll chain-smoke six packs of cigarettes while lecturing everyone within earshot on the lethal dangers of tobacco.

    Sorry, but I rather think technique you suggest involves preaching one thing and then doing the exact opposite. You’re not going to reduce religions’ power over all of our lives by lending your time, energy, and legitimacy to strengthening it.

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    Rieux:

    An organization that exists to promote religion and religious privilege can certainly include—and be happy to include—irreligious people. It suits their purposes to project an image (not least within their own heads) of diversity and inclusion.

    You’re imputing those motives upon interfaith organizations, without any evidence to support the claim that they have those motives. I think you’re assuming malevolence and mendacity where there is none.

    how me a single overtly “interfaith” organization that has ever jettisoned its “interfaith” appellation as the result of complaints by faithless people.

    I can’t show you one instance of where faithless (participants) complained about the interfaith appellation. Let’s try it and find out.. But that would first require willing nontheists to even be a part of the enterprise to begin with.

    When it dawns on you that that tactic involves reconciling religious people by excluding and marginalizing irreligion, we will have achieved something.

    Oh, and as I continue to disagree with you, apparently there’s nothing being accomplished. What ever happened to appreciating the dialectic? In order to agree with you, I would have to assume the malevolent and mendacious motives of interfaith organizations, and I do believe they are there.

    Some of us are not as resigned as you clearly are, Andrew, to notion that that salience is unavoidable. To the contrary, religious identity is not inevitable or indestructible; it is rapidly losing salience for a huge portion of the planet, a portion that includes the United States. Your defeatism notwithstanding, hastening the irrelevance of religious identity and privilege is what is obviously in nonbelievers’ interests.

    I think salience is a good thing for as long as those differences exist, because I am for free and honest expression of one’s views. Ignoring those differences, while they exist, amounts to suppression of conscience and expression.

    You denigrate “[w]orking with people in the Red Cross or Amnesty International” because such work “does not acknowledge differences in worldview”

    I did not denigrate! I was merely making a distinction. Amnesty International is only trying to do ‘good work’. Interfaith is doing ‘good work’ + ‘improve relations among people with different worldviews.’ So I did not denigrate AI or other organizations like it, but merely meant to demonstrate how interfaith efforts are not redundant because they aim to achieve additional goals than just do good work.

    More salience for religious identity means more power for religion to control all of our lives. Many of us will not simply accept that state of affairs as passively as you do.

    Are you implying that it’s okay for atheists to assert their identity but not for theists? I believe everyone should be able to assert their identity, and that we should eventually achieve a mutual respect of these identities. That doesn’t preclude debates/discussions of morality and public policy, but it at least allows people to not suppress their identities and views.

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    In order to agree with you, I would have to assume the malevolent and mendacious motives of interfaith organizations, and I do believe they are there.

    “and I don’t believe they are there.”

  • http://n/a Dustin Finney

    I won’t be participating in any “faith,” “multi-faith,” “inter-faith,” or any other kind of “faith-based initiatives,” for the simple reason that these initiatives are based on something I don’t possess. What I do possess, are principles, one of which is that I will not throw my support behind unconstitutional government programs with a stated preference for people of faith. As the coordinator of an aspiring SSA affiliate, I am deeply disappointed to learn of the parent organization’s endorsement of these initiatives. I suspect it would rightly be singing a different tune if we were talking about “Straight-based,” “Caucasian-based,” or “Male-based,” programs. Once again, religion gets a pass.

  • an atheist

    Jonathan, thank you for sticking around in the comments and continuing to advocate your position. There are a few points that I believe you have sidestepped, however, and would like you to address.

    First, you write that:

    If Interfaith Service in your area isn’t tolerant of atheists, we need to spread the word that Interfaith Service is prejudiced against Atheists in your area.

    As many of us have pointed out, the word faith inherently excludes atheists. Faith is believing in things for which there is a lack of evidence, it is anathema to rational empiricism and the scientific approach in which it is quite simply a failed hypothesis. So interfaith means between ignorance, between sacred but failed hypotheses. You suggest that if we don’t like the name, we should change it, but this sidesteps what the initial meaning of the term is. So my question for you is why is this not the meaning of faith? Because if it is the meaning of faith, atheists joining an interfaith organization implies that atheism is just another faith. On a similar note, you consistently capitalize Atheism as if it were a religion. Why? Language is important and so I would ask you to answer these questions about the language and not about your experience in interfaith organizations.

    As to your experience in interfaith organizations, say we get over our hang up about the term or the name is changed such that the promotion of ignorance is not in the title. Let’s just take your description of the experience at face value. By your own admission, aren’t you participating as an atheist, not as an individual? As I put it above:

    I am extremely uncomfortable participating in an inter-anything because individuals in such a group are not participating as individuals but as a member of a religion flying that religion’s flag. I don’t want to fly an atheism flag, I don’t even want there to be an atheism flag. If the purpose of volunteer work is to help, not to show off your non-religion’s colors, you should be volunteering as an individual, not as an atheist.

    Your post makes volunteering about the person/the group of the person who is doing volunteering, not the task being completed. The way you describe it, it is a consumption good that will make atheists feel good about themselves by demonstrating to others that they are good people.

    If there is the choice between working at a secular charity where religion is not invoked in the completion of a task and working through an interfaith organization, which would you rather do? Do you see the distinction between diminishing differences between individuals (working on a common task in a secular setting) and diminishing the differences between groups (in an interfaith setting)? I ask this because you state that people who do interfaith work are not all liberals, but I think our point is more that by coming to an organization as a group not as an individual you are inherently working to narrow the gap between groups. I am happy to bridge gaps between individuals, working together and simply ignoring our views on religion, but I don’t want any part in something that equates atheism with a religion and says that atheism and Christianity are not all that different.

    You talk about experiences with these kinds of organizations and challenge people to try it. In my albeit limited experience, the prayer said before the service project is ridiculously vague hippy dippy liberal, but a prayer is nevertheless imposed upon me. Why should I bother fighting this in what is admittedly an interfaith setting, when I can simply go to a secular organization and not have to deal with this kind of waste of time? In many of your comments you make it out as if atheists don’t join interfaith organizations important things won’t get done, but there is plenty of work that secular charities would love your help with and if something is truly essential it should not be charity, but guaranteed by society.

    Finally, I was interested to learn that the Harvard chaplains have stopped saying a prayer together to be more inclusive of atheists. Isn’t that kind of ridiculous? What meaning does religion have if it is that accommodating of the non-religious? As many of said, I don’t want any part in this kind of thing, even if I am invited and included. You clearly do, but it seems rather odd to me for atheists to join interfaith organizations, a lot like an atheist getting a Master of Divinity. If you’re an atheist, doesn’t that mean that you’re mastered/study/research other people’s nonsense? This most likely comes off as glib and it is meant to be cheeky, but it is also a serious question and I’d be genuinely interested in your reasons for doing an M Div. Because in much the same way that I am not interested in interfaith organizations even if I’m invited, I would never think to do a Master of Divinity even if there were a program that accepted atheists.

  • a non-Atheist

    It accomplishes service. Who cares if we have to hijack someone’s religious delusions to compel them to help us build a park or feed the homeless? The point is, we get a park built and the homeless fed.

    hmm, i just hope the religious people in question don’t read this and realize you have no respect for them. This post doesn’t seem to meet the “friendly atheist” guidelines, alas. How can you have a meaningful dialogue with people who you think are morons? I’m not sure that you can. But then, I’m not sure you intend to–it sounds more like you want to convert them all.

    In short, the “New Atheists” stand to gain a lot more than they would lose by participating in Interfaith Service. At best, they can use Interfaith Service to educate people about Atheism. At worst, they can serve as the reasonable adults in the room and expose the areas where the Interfaith Service movement might improve (including that very term…).

    The reasonable adults? Seriously, why not just let us morons play with our toys? Your perspective already controls most realms of discourse. If privileged western men are genuinely worried that the world doesn’t think of them as good people, they should start with using some of their power to undo the many evils wrought by secular society, instead of turning themselves into victims. Unfortunately, that requires listening, and avowed new atheists seem to be crap at listening, in my experience. If it doesn’t fit into their objective scientific framework, it doesn’t exist! Yes, it’s hard to learn when you’re convinced you know everything–one of the many dangers of certainty.

    I would say that your cause would benefit from its leaders being less insulting, but that sort of seems to be the point of it: “we’re smart, you’re dumb, and the fact that you don’t recognize that we’re smarter than you is driving us crazy.”

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    @Non-atheist

    This post was not written for a religious audience, but for a “New Atheist” audience.

  • an atheist

    @ a non-atheist

    You raise important questions:

    How can you have a meaningful dialogue with people who you think are morons? I’m not sure that you can.

    I would say that to the extent atheism views religion as delusional atheists as a group cannot work with religious groups in interfaith work (I am, of course, happy to work together towards common goals outside of a religious framework). To try and smooth over our differences about religion is intellectually dishonest. Being honest about this difference is the best way to treat religious people respectfully.

    I don’t think of religious people as less intelligent. Many of the religious people I know are very intelligent and many of the non-religious people I know aren’t that bright. But I would say that when it comes to their religion, very smart people completely turn off their critical thinking skills.

    For example:

    If it doesn’t fit into their objective scientific framework, it doesn’t exist! Yes, it’s hard to learn when you’re convinced you know everything–one of the many dangers of certainty.

    This statement betrays a fundamental lack of critical thinking when it comes to religion. You’re damn right we demand evidence. You characterize this as having certainty and being closed minded, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you asked me, is their a god(s)? I would tell you offhand that no, there is not. But strictly speaking, I would say that there is a complete lack of empirical evidence to match such an extraordinarily important claim. If you have the evidence, by all means publish in the journal Nature, but no religion has ever produced said evidence and yet they all have faith that their particular god(s) exist and all other gods do not. Faith is the hallmark of close-minded certainty because it is a belief in something despite a lack evidence.

    We had a pastor ask us for questions from atheists for his congregation and part of my response to him applies well to your post:

    Thinking about the ability to falsify an hypothesis is extremely important for understanding what is intellectually dishonest about faith. Is faith an intellectually legitimate reason for believing in something given that faith is belief without evidence? If it is, then you are forced to accept the faith of the Muslim terrorists who flew planes into the twin towers in the name of their faith as equally valid as your faith in your god, because neither faith is based in any evidence and as such cannot be logically differentiated from one another. If faith is intellectually legitimate, faith in anything is equally legitimate.

    What this gets at is that if the standard of evidence requires no evidence, then no hypothesis can be falsified and all hypotheses are equally valid. If on the other hand you are going to claim that there is evidence for your particular god then you must come up with an objective standard by which the evidence for other gods is rejected, but the evidence you present for your god is not. This would not demonstrate definitively that your god does exist, but it is a basic first test which I don’t think your god can pass. So if you are interested in this inquiry compile evidence for other gods as well, put it to the test, and see if there is any objective standard by which your evidence is not equally discarded. If you cannot come up with standard, you obviously cannot show your beliefs to be true. Finally, understand that you have the burden of proof, otherwise it would be perfectly legitimate to base one’s life around a celestial teapot.

    You would seemingly treat this call for empirical inquiry as unreasonable, but as I point out at the end, the alternative is to accept things that you would acknowledge as patently absurd. You presumably don’t believe in fairies or pixies or invisible purple unicorns or celestial teapots, but without an empirical inquiry and the burden of proof on the believer, these extremely crazy beliefs must be accepted right alongside the worship of Zeus and Poseidon, and that very respectable being, whom it’s not crazy at all to believe in, called God. In the words of a more pithy atheist, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    I think I can have a conversation with people who I believe are deluded. I don’t believe that religious people are stupid, but instead, under the power of a collective delusion. If you believe that there is a god that controls the Universe, I think you believe in a fairy tale. I don’t assert this without evidence, but as my MDiv thesis topic (The God That Failed: A Rejection Of Theodicies Predicated On Classical Theism).

    This article was an attempt to reach out to a community that is traditionally hostile to Interfaith Service and to offer them new reasons why they ought to consider pursuing it. I would write an article about why Humanists ought to do Service, but Greg Epstein and Chris Stedman have already done that ad infinitum.

    I’m glad that it has inspired some more aggressive atheist types to consider putting their activism to good use in Interfaith Service settings. And for those who would prefer to not get involved and offer opposing arguments on the internet, that has an important role as well. I just hope that eventually you decide to put Interfaith Service to the test and find out that I’m right – that Interfaith groups do actively want Atheist participation. Check out http://www.IFYC.org for more info.

  • Sigmund

    Jonathan, your intentions seem good but you are missing two factors that make interfaith networks unattractive for gnus. First, as we have said numerous times in this thread, ‘interfaith’ is synonymous with the promotion of supernaturalism. For gnus to join interfaith organizations as they are currently structured would be like an anti-gun organization joining the NRA. We simply have opposing objectives.
    As for our actual objectives I think you might be misreading the gnus. I for one do not think our major objective is to convert the religious to atheism. I think the objective is to create a society where the children of the religious realize that they have a choice. To do this involves publicising our existence through internet, bus and billboard campaigns, in making our voice heard when religion is promoted in public and in creating communities where we can interact with other like minded atheists. Yes, most of us gnus do think that religious stories are myths and fairy tales and it is the fact that we are not shy to say it in public that causes the animosity between us and both the religious (who are used to having their stories remain unchallenged) and by accomodationists who disagree with publicly stating the lack of evidence underlying religion.
    The second reason we are reluctant to join is that interfaith is a haven for accomodationist gnu haters. It frequently seems that there is some sort of entry requirement for any atheist that wants to join a major interfaith group that involves writing an article for the Huff Post that disparages the gnus as uncouth, aggressive and philosophically unsophisticated.
    Solve that second problem and you might have a better reception from the gnus.

  • Rieux

    an atheist wrote:

    [I]t seems rather odd to me for atheists to join interfaith organizations, a lot like an atheist getting a Master of Divinity. If you’re an atheist, doesn’t that mean that you’re mastered/study/research other people’s nonsense?

    Yes, it does—and that’s an extremely important pursuit. As should be clear from this thread, I agree with you (and how) about “interfaith” organizations, but I think it’s a good thing that there are outspoken atheists who hold advanced degrees in religious studies and otherwise have extensive knowledge about religion. (That Jonathan’s degree includes the name “Divinity” is unfortunate and regrettable, but it doesn’t diminish the importance of the studies. At least it isn’t “Interdivinity”!) For my money, two of the most important people within the modern atheist community are Hector Avalos and Dan Barker, both of whom are ex-fundamentalists and, for that reason among others, are operating from a huge knowledge base when they criticize religion. Then, of course, many of us (both apostates and “atheists since day one”) have extensive knowledge about religion ourselves, even if we don’t have the academic credentials to prove it.

    Atheists, or at least some of us, need to “master/study/research other people’s nonsense,” because that nonsense is so damned powerful in our world. It’s the “know thy enemy” principle; and anyway ignorance is never ennobling.

    I would never think to do a Master of Divinity even if there were a program that accepted atheists.

    I think you’ll find that a large proportion of M.Div. programs accept atheists. Indeed, at public universities it’s illegal to deny admission to a student on the grounds of religious (non)belief. And at private but secular institutions like Harvard (Jonathan’s alma mater) and the University of Chicago (mine), admission is certainly not conditioned on being a religious believer.

    Studying religion in an academic setting can be a lot like studying cancer in an academic setting: studying it certainly doesn’t imply supporting it.

  • Rieux

    Moi, then Andrew:

    An organization that exists to promote religion and religious privilege can certainly include—and be happy to include—irreligious people. It suits their purposes to project an image (not least within their own heads) of diversity and inclusion.

    You’re imputing those motives upon interfaith organizations…..

    What “motives”? Promoting religion and religious privilege? Do you seriously want to argue that “interfaith” organizations don’t exist to do that?

    I think you’re assuming malevolence and mendacity where there is none.

    You do? Oh. Well then, I’m afraid your imagination has run away with you, because I have neither assumed nor asserted anything of the kind. There’s nothing the slightest bit malevolent or mendacious about wanting to make one’s group diverse and inclusive—or, more precisely, wanting to feel in one’s own mind that one’s group is diverse and inclusive.

    How you get from that “motive” to “malevolence and mendacity” I have no idea. You don’t seem very interested in addressing what I actually write.

    As for the word “interfaith,” this may be a convenient yet antiquated term that the voluntary participation of atheists could serve to change.

    Now there’s a “theory” that’s absolutely bereft of supporting evidence. Show me a single overtly “interfaith” organization that has ever jettisoned its “interfaith” appellation as the result of complaints by faithless people. Let’s see it. Let’s see the slightest inkling of evidence that we can get an organization created to promote religion to agree to stop promoting religion.

    I can’t….

    Well, there you go, then. Your notion that “interfaith” groups might be convinced to stop calling themselves “interfaith” because some atheists show up and complain is based on no evidence at all. Zilch.

    Which means—hey, look! You’re pushing a faith belief. Your notions about what “interfaith” organizations would be willing to do based on atheist complaints is founded on nothing but blind, evidenceless faith. Suddenly your fellow-feeling with folks who proudly align themselves with faith makes a little more sense….

    …show you one instance of where faithless (participants) complained about the interfaith appellation.

    How shocking! I bet you’d have a tough time finding instances of African-American members of local branches of the KKK complaining about the group’s racism. I wonder why not….

    Let’s try it and find out.. But that would first require willing nontheists to even be a part of the enterprise to begin with.

    Gee: I count two “willing nontheists” on this thread who profess to have “be[en] a part of the enterprise to begin with.” Were you and Jonathan asleep at the switch, or what? You have bragged about all the great stuff you’ve done in interfaith organizations; how come you’ve achieved nothing at all toward getting rid of that awful name?

    Goodness—if I didn’t know better, I’d say your total failure to achieve any change in the name of an “interfaith” organization you’ve been a part of is evidence that your aforementioned faith is false.

    When it dawns on you that that tactic involves reconciling religious people by excluding and marginalizing irreligion, we will have achieved something.

    Oh, and as I continue to disagree with you, apparently there’s nothing being accomplished.

    Well, to that end, it certainly appears not! You sure haven’t wasted a single idle thought on the concern that you’ve devoted so much time and energy toward empowering religion and excluding and marginalizing irreligion. Thanks a lot.

    In order to agree with you, I would have to assume the malevolent and mendacious motives of interfaith organizations….

    False, indeed ridiculous. Apparently you don’t understand the first thing about privilege and how it works. Structures of privilege have no need for overt or intentionally conceptualized “malevolent [or] mendacious motives.” White privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, and class privilege (among many others) exist and do serious damage to innocent people notwithstanding the fact that very few white, male, straight, or wealthy people are actively or self-consciously “malevolent [or] mendacious” toward the people disempowered by those forms of privilege. Religious privilege is no different, and thus “interfaith” institutions (like many others) lend aid and comfort to the forces that marginalize and dehumanize atheists without any need for any “interfaith” member to have overtly bad intentions.

    The notion that privilege requires “malevolent [or] mendacious motives” is an elementary, though all-too-common, error. I strongly suggest you read up on the subject: I can recommend Johnson’s Privilege, Power, and Difference and Kimmel and Ferber’s Privilege: A Reader, both of which are mainstays of social science curricula.

    Some of us are not as resigned as you clearly are, Andrew, to notion that that salience is unavoidable. To the contrary, religious identity is not inevitable or indestructible; it is rapidly losing salience for a huge portion of the planet, a portion that includes the United States. Your defeatism notwithstanding, hastening the irrelevance of religious identity and privilege is what is obviously in nonbelievers’ interests.

    I think salience is a good thing for as long as those differences exist….

    [Facepalm]

    Okay, you don’t actually know what “salient” means. (Sigh.)

    salient: (1) Worthy of note; pertinent or relevant. The article is not exhaustive, but it covers the salient points pretty well. (2) Prominent.

    salient: the salient facts about something or qualities of something are the most important things about them[.] She began to summarize the salient features/points of the proposal. The article presented the salient facts of the dispute clearly and concisely.

    salient: a salient fact, issue, or feature is one that is especially noticeable or relevant[.] The report covered all the salient points of the case.

    So. When you declared that you “think salience is a good thing,” you were asserting that it’s good for religious identity to be, and remain, “pertinent or relevant”; indeed, that it be regarded as “the most important thing about” people.

    Assuming you knew what you were saying (doubtful), that would be your argument committing hara-kiri. Which is to say, if you really are that resolved to perpetuate the salience of religion, I’m not sure why you think any Gnu Atheist would ever want to take your claims seriously. That position renders you just about as directly opposed to Gnu Atheism as one could imagine.

    I am for free and honest expression of one’s views. Ignoring those differences, while they exist, amounts to suppression of conscience and expression.

    What sneering nonsense. No one on this thread has said the slightest word against “honest expression of” anyone’s “views.” And your pretense that refusing to promote religion amounts to “ignoring those differences” or “suppression of conscience and expression” is insulting garbage. No one is trying to suppress anything, and I’ll thank you to stop lying about that.

    More salience for religious identity means more power for religion to control all of our lives. Many of us will not simply accept that state of affairs as passively as you do.

    Are you implying that it’s okay for atheists to assert their identity but not for theists?

    Of course not. (Jesus H. Christ, you might as well whine that Black History Month isn’t fair because there’s no White History Month!!eleventy! You are having serious trouble with basic notions about power, privilege, and despised minorities.)

    That you somehow have the notion I am “implying” anything of the kind demonstrates either (A) woeful reading comprehension on your part or (B) (to coin a phrase) malevolence or mendacity on your part. At present I’m leaning toward Option A, but (given your remarks about the salience of religion) it’s not self-evidently the correct one of the two.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    Rieux pretty much hit the nail on the head for why I went to Divinity School at Harvard.

    … but I think it’s a good thing that there are outspoken atheists who hold advanced degrees in religious studies and otherwise have extensive knowledge about religion. (That Jonathan’s degree includes the name “Divinity” is unfortunate and regrettable, but it doesn’t diminish the importance of the studies. At least it isn’t “Interdivinity”!) For my money, two of the most important people within the modern atheist community are Hector Avalos and Dan Barker, both of whom are ex-fundamentalists and, for that reason among others, are operating from a huge knowledge base when they criticize religion. Then, of course, many of us (both apostates and “atheists since day one”) have extensive knowledge about religion ourselves, even if we don’t have the academic credentials to prove it.

    Atheists, or at least some of us, need to “master/study/research other people’s nonsense,” because that nonsense is so damned powerful in our world. It’s the “know thy enemy” principle; and anyway ignorance is never ennobling.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    Just out of the idlest curiosity, Rieux (and others), what if I was to get the Harvard Chaplains Interfaith Committee (Greg Epstein is its Chair) to change its name to “Interfaith and Inter-World-View,” or just “Inter-World-View?” Would you consider that a strong enough commitment to including atheists to change your perspective about participating in Inter-World-View Service? If not, what could Interfaith/World-View groups do to convince you they’re genuinely interested in hearing our perspective?

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    Rieux:

    What “motives”? Promoting religion and religious privilege? Do you seriously want to argue that “interfaith” organizations don’t exist to do that?

    Yes I do. Can you say, in any substantial and practical terms, how interfaith organizations are detrimental to the nonreligious? You make claims without evidence, it’s curious you hold everyone else to a higher standard than yourself. You’re making claims too – mind substantiating them?

    There’s nothing the slightest bit malevolent or mendacious about wanting to make one’s group diverse and inclusive—or, more precisely, wanting to feel in one’s own mind that one’s group is diverse and inclusive.

    How you get from that “motive” to “malevolence and mendacity” I have no idea. You don’t seem very interested in addressing what I actually write.

    By suggesting that interfaith groups merely want to recruit atheists in order to give the appearance of diversity, you’re characterizing their motive as deceitful. The ‘malevolent’ part referred to the motive of increasing / maintaining privilege. You point out that increasing / maintaining privilege does not require a conscious effort, so the claim of malevolence need not apply.

    Your notion that “interfaith” groups might be convinced to stop calling themselves “interfaith” because some atheists show up and complain is based on no evidence at all. Zilch.

    Which means—hey, look! You’re pushing a faith belief.

    It is an untested hypothesis. Assuming it will not work is just as much a leap of faith.

    I bet you’d have a tough time finding instances of African-American members of local branches of the KKK complaining about the group’s racism. I wonder why not….

    This analogy has been brought up before, and I think that it is a false analogy. The KKK has motives that are contrary to the interests of black people. It would be absurd for a black person to join. However, some atheists believe that the motives of interfaith organizations/efforts are not contrary to the interests of atheists, but rather in alignment with them. If that is true, then it would not be absurd for atheists to participate in, and simultaneously be critical of something as trivial as the appellation ‘interfaith’.

    You have bragged about all the great stuff you’ve done in interfaith organizations; how come you’ve achieved nothing at all toward getting rid of that awful name?

    I did not brag. I love your consistent mis-characterization of me and the things I say. Besides, that comment of mine mentioned how an offshoot group formed named “Believers and Non-believers in Dialogue”. So… yeah there you go, non-believers nominally, equally, and legitimately recognized.

    You sure haven’t wasted a single idle thought on the concern that you’ve devoted so much time and energy toward empowering religion and excluding and marginalizing irreligion. Thanks a lot.

    I have not sought to empower religion and exclude and marginalize irreligion. Exaggerating, twisting, and mis-characterizing make for great PR for dishonest folks but should not have any place in an honest debate.

    I think salience is a good thing for as long as those differences exist….

    [Facepalm]

    Okay, you don’t actually know what “salient” means. (Sigh.)

    When those differences exist, they should not be suppressed and hidden, but expressed, and thus salient (especially noticeable or relevant).

    if you really are that resolved to perpetuate the salience of religion, I’m not sure why you think any Gnu Atheist would ever want to take your claims seriously. That position renders you just about as directly opposed to Gnu Atheism as one could imagine.

    When religious differences are salient, antagonism can arise. Interfaith efforts, while allowing religious differences to be salient, also promotes the saliency of our common humanity and abundance of shared values. That effect improves comity and reduces antagonism and mistrust. That is a good thing. I’m not trying to be recruited into Gnu camp so I’m not deathly scared of Gnus not agreeing with me.

    your pretense that refusing to promote religion amounts to “ignoring those differences” or “suppression of conscience and expression” is insulting garbage. No one is trying to suppress anything, and I’ll thank you to stop lying about that.

    I’m not saying that we ought to promote religion, I’m saying that religious people ought to be able to express their identity and convictions. When you said “[m]ore salience for religious identity means more power for religion to control all of our lives,” it appears we were using different definitions for salience. You chose the ‘qualities that are most important’ definition, I have been using the ‘features that are especially noticeable’ definition, the way it is used in psychology (and more broadly, I thought). So I took your comment to mean that allowing religious identity/convictions to be noticeable amounts to increasing religion’s power over our lives, a notion I disagree with. So we were misunderstanding each other, due to using different yet equally valid definitions.

    Our comments have gotten absurdly large, Rieux. I can only hope that some people find our dialogue interesting / fruitful. I enjoy the back-and-forth because it allows us both to become more clear with our message. I do not enjoy reading the constant slights at my intelligence and character, however. You can make your points without them being barbed. I suspect people who are less patient than I would not bother to continue talking with you, which would be a shame because you are intelligent and have worthwhile things to say.

  • Rieux

    Jonathan, I think “Inter-World-View” is more than a little weird, but it would certainly be an improvement over “Interfaith.” I’d like to think you/we/someone could come up with an adjective that (1) expresses that membership is available to people without regard to religious pigeonholes but (2) doesn’t require two hyphens.

  • Rieux

    Look, Andrew, if you seriously are going to maintain that (1) “interfaith” as such doesn’t promote religion and religious privilege and (2) the use of that term in the title and public face of an organization is “trivial,” then I’m afraid that there’s little use discussing this with you. I don’t see how to overcome that level of divorce from reality; the level of apathy, if not spite, you demonstrate toward the interests of your fellow atheists is startling. “Trivial”? Sorry, but that’s simply the end of your credibility.

    During our previous exchange, you raised the question of whether, as you claim, you “care deeply about non-theists.” I’m afraid this last comment of yours is the death knell for that assertion.

    You have waded into a lengthy thread full of atheists expressing serious concern about the offense and damage it does when charitable organizations push “interfaith” privilege. You have denied it all, and indeed declared all of it—all of the statements of principled refusal to accept a “faith” label—to be “trivial.”

    I guess you really do think you “care about non-theists.” Meanwhile, you’re willing to collaborate in blatant marginalization and dehumanization of atheists, occasionally authoring some of it yourself (“trivial”); and then you deny it exists. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how any but the most self-hating atheist could ever see that as “caring” about us or our interests. You simply don’t, and as a result I don’t see why any self-respecting atheist should be interested in what you have to say about us.

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    @ Rieux:

    I’m afraid we’ve reached an impasse.

  • an atheist

    @ Jonathan

    I commend you for sticking around in the comments, but I can’t commend your actual responses. You don’t respond to or acknowledge what your critics are saying. You don’t defend the argument of your post, you just say that you’re glad it convinced some people and glad other people argued about it. That’s great, but it treats your post as devoid of meaning. It would be nice if you actually responded to our critiques.

    @ Rieux

    Former fundamentalists are valuable to atheism as a movement because they can tell a more personal story to the currently religious. This is similar to the credibility of a recovered addict with a current addict. “If you’ve never done crack, what do know about it?” asks the crack addict. And in terms of persuasion, this is very important. Knowledge of a particular religion is similarly important for talking to said religion’s followers, if for no other reason than they expect non-believers to have an intricate knowledge of their delusions and are offended if you don’t. I am not sure how important it is, however, for the academy and the pursuit of knowledge in general.

    Science and social science already study the physiological, psychological, social, political… etc. aspects of religion. To the extent that understanding a particular aspect of a particular religion is important for understanding these phenomenon, I agree that knowledge about a particular religion itself is important. But this endeavor takes place within a framework of positive social science in which the subject of interest is the empirical impact of the particular religious belief on society, not whether the religious beliefs themselves are empirically justifiable.

    If, on the other hand, the focus of inquiry is on the religious beliefs themselves, then we both agree that there is a fairly obvious empirical result: there is a complete lack of credible evidence for any god(s). This conclusion can be reached with relatively little knowledge of the intricacies of any particular religion. For example, if a key claim of a particular variation of Christianity is that God acts upon the world to aid his followers, that we do not observe an otherwise unexplainable systematic pattern consistent with this belief is sufficient to dismiss it. I don’t need to know the particular intricacies of Jesus’ supposed resurrection or supposed details of Jesus’ life, no matter how important they are to Christians, to know that the broader claims about a deity are unjustifiable. Also note that the burden of proof rests with the believer, so if a religion actually had empirical evidence for the existence of their deity, I would of course be willing to look at it. If it held up to scientific scrutiny it would be published in Nature. It found be an extraordinary finding. Short of a religion presenting evidence in this manner, however, knowing the particular intricacies of a particular religious groups’ delusions may be important to an anthropologist studying that particular culture, but it is relatively unimportant to general knowledge. How people worshiped Zeus just doesn’t matter unless you are interested in a particular aspect of Greek society or more generalizable findings about how people worship across cultures.

    The extent to which I find pursuing an M Div odd for an atheist is the extent to which the program does not recognize that it is studying people’s nonsense, focuses on studying particular details of particular religions, but does not pursue this specific knowledge to understand psychological, social, political phenomenon. More than anything, it is the prospect of having colleagues that take the claims of religions seriously that makes me bristle at the idea of pursuing an M Div or anything to do with religious studies. Of course, I have some colleagues in the social sciences who are religious, but this in no way applies to their research. Being Christian is a personal belief, not an academically held position. To what extent can you pursue knowledge of other people’s nonsense when you are surrounded by colleagues who think said nonsense is extremely important and should govern how we live our lives?

  • an atheist

    @Andrew

    I agree with you in that I don’t see interfaith groups as particularly detrimental to atheists. In fact, the more the parents in these groups water down their religions the more likely their children will eventually become atheists. But to the extent that interfaith work is religious, it carries the same kind of religious privilege and exclusion of atheists. As I point out, in my albeit limited experience, interfaith groups often say some sort of prayer during a service project. This is a concrete way in which they promote nonsense and exclude atheists.

    Even if interfaith groups are not all that detrimental, that still does not mean atheists should want to join them. You are very eager to brush aside the importance of the term interfaith, but language does matter. How is my linguistic interpretation of the term wrong? Explain why it does not mean between beliefs for which there is a lack of evidence?

  • http://humaneaspirant.blogspot.com Andrew Lovley

    @ an atheist

    As I point out, in my albeit limited experience, interfaith groups often say some sort of prayer during a service project. This is a concrete way in which they promote nonsense and exclude atheists.

    Don’t atheists want to be excluded from prayer anyway? And if atheists wanted to do a moment of silence or begin the day with something secular and humanistic, then I do not see why they could not. Have any fellow atheists tried and been denied?

    You are very eager to brush aside the importance of the term interfaith, but language does matter. How is my linguistic interpretation of the term wrong? Explain why it does not mean between beliefs for which there is a lack of evidence?

    Your linguistic interpretation is most obviously correct! My view is that if atheists include themselves, then the term ‘interfaith’ becomes as meaningful and as powerful as when North Korea calls itself a ‘democratic people’s republic.’ The term does not become more powerful at atheists expense when they participate in ‘interfaith,’ instead it becomes less meaningful.

    No one has offered a better alternative name that can include atheists and at the same time acknowledge people with different worldviews agreeing to work constructively together.

    I think the term interfaith is a byproduct of religious privilege, not an agent of religious privilege. When atheists show up to interfaith activities because they agree with the general ethos of it, but abhor the name because it excludes them, then if the interfaith organizers are true to their values they’ll be compelled to find a more suitable term. No big deal. Atheists wanting to partake in the activities will demonstrate that religion cannot be taken for granted. Until recently, very few atheists have demonstrated an interest in helping build bridges. It’s understandable why there has been no push to come up with a more inclusive term, because for a while it probably seemed like all those who wanted to be included (the faithful) already were. It seems to me that many other atheists, if not most, are more interested in flipping off society from the island of ostracization where we find ourselves, rather than earnestly making the case that we ought not to be ostracized, and to be equally respected.

  • a non-Atheist

    @John–although you are writing for an atheist audience here, readership is not restricted; if you were asking to join my interfaith group and I googled you, well, I wouldn’t be terribly encouraged. Even if you’re just doing it for PR purposes, and even if it’s a post that won’t interest religious people, being as un-insulting as possible would probably be a wise policy. (I’m not saying never be insulting, just not unnecessarily.)

    @ an atheist

    I guess I can’t refute any of that, but I just don’t think it’s really what religion is about. I should elaborate a bit more my view of certainty…

    [me:] If it doesn’t fit into their objective scientific framework, it doesn’t exist! Yes, it’s hard to learn when you’re convinced you know everything–one of the many dangers of certainty.

    This statement betrays a fundamental lack of critical thinking when it comes to religion. You’re damn right we demand evidence. You characterize this as having certainty and being closed minded, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you asked me, is their a god(s)? I would tell you offhand that no, there is not. But strictly speaking, I would say that there is a complete lack of empirical evidence to match such an extraordinarily important claim. If you have the evidence, by all means publish in the journal Nature, but no religion has ever produced said evidence and yet they all have faith that their particular god(s) exist and all other gods do not. Faith is the hallmark of close-minded certainty because it is a belief in something despite a lack evidence.

    Something that really bothers me about many “new atheist” critiques of religious persons is how reductive they are–a person can be intelligent, except for that compartmentalized delusion of a belief in something that can’t be proven, as though religious beliefs occupied the same part of one’s life as an understanding of photosynthesis or how to change a flat tire. What religious beliefs I do have (which, incidentally, do not include “God,” another way this is all incredibly reductive, as though the concept “God” means precisely the same thing to any two people), came through affective, sensory experience, not critical thinking. I was faced with a choice–reject some of the most important, formative, compelling experiences I had ever had, because they didn’t fit neatly into my evidence-based framework for understanding life, or make room for them, hold them with curiosity and an openness to uncertainty, allow the possibility that I won’t be able to explain everything I experience in scientific terms. I realized that rigid allegiance to science, objective verifiability, etc, was far less compelling than the new sense of not-knowing that came with making space for inexplicable experience. (I think this perspective shares something with Socrates’ notion that the wisest person is the one who knows he’s not the wisest.) It isn’t more comfortable–in fact, it is generally quite uncomfortable, trying to dwell in uncertainty, but to me it seems much more in touch with reality than being convinced that reality consists exclusively of what has been “proven,” and that everything that doesn’t appear in a telescope or an MRI must be bollocks.

    Of course, just because I don’t have evidence beyond my own experience doesn’t mean that science won’t eventually explain it all–could be, that would be fine. The problem is science and critical thinking are rarely applied “objectively”–instead they are used as tools for someone’s personal or ideological agenda. It’s what humans do best–turn everything to their own personal purposes with little conscious notion that they’re doing so.

    So, my problem is with certainty, on both sides of this, because I just don’t buy it, even when it is backed up by evidence. I think it’s just another just another attempt at temporarily avoiding the discomfort of the unavoidable uncertainty of life. And, whether one is certain of God or certain of not-God, all it accomplishes is cutting oneself off from the world by reducing it all to a conceptual framework, making others impossible to understand, and making one a really annoying person to talk to.

    sorry to ramble–in brief, I think certainty is a delusion, whether religious or evidence-based. Certainty is not a necessary part of either perspective. I’m all for criticizing dangerous religious beliefs and organizations, but I think certainty is the problem, not the beliefs, and that critical efforts gain nothing by making it all an intellectual argument, as though that’s what religion is about. I realize my views aren’t the same as those of all religious persons, but I think they are closer to many more than you realize.

  • http://www.harvardhumanist.org Jonathan Figdor

    @ a non-atheist

    I don’t go into people’s churches and complain that the sermons don’t have any relevance to me. So please don’t read an article that specifically says it is going to try to convince a specific audience, and then complain that your perspective isn’t being discussed the way you want it to be.

    And as for religious folks, if they google search me and look at my writings, they’ll learn that I think their beliefs are delusional before long. I’m sorry if you don’t respond well to my blunt honesty, but I respect you enough not to pretend like we agree.

    • Anon

      John – There is a tremendous difference from “blunt honesty” and just being plain rude and disrespectful. Your writings, both in the blogosphere and on social media, are lacking in any sense of etiquette. You demonstrate complete intolerance for people who think differently than you do. It would do you well to reflect on the way you speak and write about others and help you grow and mature as the community leader you desire to be.

  • an atheist

    @ Andrew

    Don’t atheists want to be excluded from prayer anyway? And if atheists wanted to do a moment of silence or begin the day with something secular and humanistic, then I do not see why they could not. Have any fellow atheists tried and been denied?

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. You had been challenging Rieux to offer a specific example of how interfaith excludes atheists. Prayer is a specific example that excludes atheists. Atheists don’t want to have prayer imposed on them. This is a way in which interfaith organizations make atheists unwelcome.

    Your linguistic interpretation is most obviously correct! My view is that if atheists include themselves, then the term ‘interfaith’ becomes as meaningful and as powerful as when North Korea calls itself a ‘democratic people’s republic.’ The term does not become more powerful at atheists expense when they participate in ‘interfaith,’ instead it becomes less meaningful.

    We obviously attach different interpretations of the importance of this. It’s not just language but is representative of what interfaith organizations do, which is promote coexistence between religions. Great idea, I want religions to become less antagonistic between each other, but I don’t want atheism to be less antagonistic towards religion. I want atheism to bring down religious organizations.

    No one has offered a better alternative name that can include atheists and at the same time acknowledge people with different worldviews agreeing to work constructively together.

    That’s easy, don’t change the name, just scrap the idea. Do a service project for a secular charity and you will undoubtedly work constructively with people who are religious.

    @a non-atheist

    I understand what you mean about mystery and experience as opposed to objective evidence in the sense that I don’t really need to learn about oxycotin, I just want to have amazing sex as often as possible. But you write as if most religious folks are making a conscious realization that they prefer the experience of mystery over empirical reality.

    Something that really bothers me about many “new atheist” critiques of religious persons is how reductive they are–a person can be intelligent, except for that compartmentalized delusion of a belief in something that can’t be proven, as though religious beliefs occupied the same part of one’s life as an understanding of photosynthesis or how to change a flat tire.

    You may have this ability. Sam Harris is an excellent example of this ability. He is particularly fond of certain Buddhist practices, but he acknowledges that the benefit of these practices is ultimately an empirical question for science to answer. But the problem is that many many people do behave as if religion were knowledge in the way that photosynthesis and being able to change a flat tire is. And they attempt to impose these views on others, by making it difficult to get an abortion, by opposing sex education and advocating abstinence only, by advocating creationism in place of evolutionary biology, and by flying planes into buildings. I understand the need to experience something, not to understand it, but to just experience it. And I get that what most people get out of religion is not intellectual, but experiential. But religion is intellectual hogwash. Faith is by definition certainty in something for which there is a lack of evidence. Harris, Dawkins, and other supposed “New Atheists” (none of us actually identify by the term) demand an evidence based approach to reality, not certainty. Dawkins is very clear on this point, he cannot be certain there are no deities, there’s just absolutely no compelling evidence that there is a deity. And so yes, we can be out-spoken and confrontational, perhaps overly so, but we’re tired of what is quite obviously bullshit.

    I agree that this is decidedly not magical (I’m still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts), but as Carl Sagan has articulated, the reality of the physical universe has a beauty to it that is magical in its own way. You mention looking through telescopes. One of the so-called “New Atheists” (I’m blanking on which one) tells a story of refusing to give a talk at the University of Hawaii if he couldn’t go up to their observatory and look at the milky way through their massive telescope. They eventually let him and the astronomers got an even bigger kick out of it than him, because many of them had never actually looked through the observatory telescope with their naked eye. They were too busy taking pictures for research. Actually looking through a telescope is not about research anymore, it’s about the pleasure and sense of awe and wonder that staring up at the stars invokes.

    I appreciate the need to experience something subjectively, to just experience it, to not fully understand, but just know that you like the way it makes you feel, that it feels right. I just don’t see why this requires believing in nonsense, particularly for someone like you who on some level recognizes it as nonsense. We’d all be a lot better off if people made do with the pleasure of sex and the awe and wonder of the stars.

  • a non-Atheist

    @ John – I deserve your ire, and apologize. The thing is, because I agree with so much of what you’re trying to do, your “blunt honesty” really frustrates me, because it seems counterproductive. But whatever, that’s just a style difference, I guess.

    @ an atheist

    thanks for the thoughtful reply. I completely join you in denouncing those who would have us all obey the laws of their tradition, and in being tired of their bullshit.

    I understand the need to experience something, not to understand it, but to just experience it. And I get that what most people get out of religion is not intellectual, but experiential. But religion is intellectual hogwash. Faith is by definition certainty in something for which there is a lack of evidence.

    I think this points to why the whole empirical-evidence argument isn’t going to get anywhere with most people who have religious beliefs: because it isn’t an intellectual conviction that they’re holding. I guess I am making an argument for John’s point, here–atheists probably have a better chance of de-weaponizing, so to speak, religious fundamentalists through interacting with them in what are for them faith-motivated activities such as service, than they do in trying to argue fundamentalists out of their nonsensical worldviews. (Of course, the really dangerous ones probably don’t take part in interfaith activities.)

    I think there’s a middle ground between “nonsense” and “empirical fact,” and by collapsing everything outside empirical fact into dangerous religious nonsense, people like me, who would like to join humanists and atheists on many fronts, are alienated. I am sure you would consider some of my beliefs are nonsense, which would be quite reasonable–I wouldn’t expect you to see them any other way, unless you experienced them yourself. My beliefs are therefore not in the empirical arena at all–I have enough “evidence” for myself, but it isn’t evidence I expect anyone else to buy into, and I don’t need them to. And I think lots of people who believe in some kind of god feel the same way.

    I’m too tired to figure out exactly how to delineate this middle ground right now; the point is I think we’d have a better chance of changing things if the shades of gray were made more explicit and acknowledged.

  • http://bostonatheists.org Zachary Bos

    Pop quiz: what’s the name for a group that’s intergenerational and culturally diverse, consisting of people who meet in person, deliberately, to come together as a community of conscience? Most people would answer: that’s a religion! But then I know that isn’t right, because I meet regularly with Atheists in Boston, and WE meet all those criteria, even if we don’t yet have a set schedule of meetings or a facility to call our home base yet. We’re certainly not a religion. But we’re religion-like. The analogy here is that JF’s actions are what many people would traditionally called “faith service,” but obviously he is a man without faith (but not, ahem, without hope).

    The criticism which many people in this thread are saying that JF is circumnavigating in his responses, seems to be the idea that participation in any activity under an “interfaith” banner would represent a promotion of “faith” and the superstitious or delusional thinking which faith entails. The problem then seems to be rhetorical or linguistic — is there some better term for the kind of enterprise that [religion] and [organized Atheism or Humanism] are both varieties of? Worldview is a bit unwieldy; the Stopes-Roe term “lifestance” I’ve never found quite natural — probably because it wears its derivation on its sleeve, whereas “religion” hides its meaning way back in its foggy Latin roots (i.e., either “to read over again” or “the state of being bound to the god of one’s belief”; scholars argue over this amicably).

    We really need a better word, so that theism and nontheism can be seen as different kinds of the same thing, rather than the latter being an absence of the former. There are any number of options, sourced from a variety of traditions and languages; here’s two dozen:

    Affiliation; Alignment; Arovia; Conscience ; Cosmotheoria; Cosmovisio; Creed; Denomination; Denomination ; Dunyoqarash; Framework; Lebenseinstellung; Livssyn; Mondkoncepto; Orientation; Outlook; Paradigm; Persuasion; System; Truvedkjenning; Verdensbilde; Weltanschauung; Wereldbeeld; Worldview.

    Any term is going to have its shortcomings and strengths. For example, the Dutch word “Geloofsbelijdenis” is great but a bit goofy for English-language speakers. The word “conviction” is accurate, but we’d end up with a congregation of convicts.

    For my part, I like the idea of Alignment. Its connotative breadth means that by saying, “my alignment is atheistic,” I’m admitting both that I’ve chosen to ally myself to atheism, and that I find myself somewhat temperamentally predisposed to it. [All due credit to D&D.]

    An Alignment Council (but that’s a silly name… ) would be a body that brings together representatives from different alignment factions — religious, non-religious, philosophical, however one defines one’s identity in view of ‘questions of ultimate concern’ — for the purpose of sharing booty (i.e., institutional or government resources) or collaborative works or what have you.

    I think that JF is acting in an exemplary way, and that the linguistic compromise of working under the “interfaith” imprimatur shouldn’t be a reason for him to stop. To disagree with Ophelia Benson, I do think we have the right to ask groups to change their names — or rather, to invite them to realize how inherently prejudicial or exclusionary their name is. I’ve met with many interfaith groups, and their members have been generally inclusive.

    The term “interfaith” is just an artifact from the decades when it was preposterous to think of anything like organized, community-oriented nontheists challenging the social definition of “religion.” We shouldn’t let the language limit our participation, and our stepping forward to claim our share of ownership and responsibility for our community, culture, society. If I understand JF correctly, it looks like he’s acting without waiting for the language to change. Which might be the best way to get the language to stretch, as we find out that our way of speaking about these matters — communities, conscience — don’t accommodate the new way of being a secular citizen.

  • http://thepracticalhumanist.blogspot.com Paul Creeden

    I like your points, John. I do not believe there should be any canonical prohibition of any humanist or atheist to perform service with anyone she chooses. In fact, the discussion itself disturbs me on the grounds that it assumes that atheists or secularists, however, identified, are a dogmatically cohesive or ethically cohesive sect, like a religion. The confusion, I believe, lies in the fact that the movement for shedding light on individual and group secular lives is being courageously led in part by those who are most likely to be in cultural contexts where religion dominates, such as Divinity schools.

    There are parallels to the early gay rights movement. Those who moved the public cause forward from the top were politicos for the most part. These were people tightly connected with various Leftist groups, whose politics were far from the politics of the majority of LGBT people, even at that time. The movement was more successful when those politicos, like Harvey Milk, rose to visible power through the main vehicles for expressing the movement,(1)voluntary, aggressively visible, urban ghetto-ization of the gay population, and (2)Gay Pride parades, open events which represented the coming-out process on a community/civic scale. This in turn promoted the concept of individual coming out, which has gradually (40 yrs) turned the public opinion polls more toward approval of gay equality. This was a bit chicken-and-egg, as with most processes of change, but the success of the LGBT movement, as we know it, has been a concerted effort of leadership, small peer-groups and individuals.

    Forming strong and safe, self-sustaining secular communities, based in celebration, education and service, is a priority for many of us who consider ourselves secular free-thinkers. While those who regularly rub elbows with the religious folks to do service add great value to our communities, I feel it should be perfectly acceptable for others in our communities to NOT participate in anything having to do with “faith” as a matter of conscience or conviction.

    I think it would be unwise for secular leadership to over-identify with or rely on faith-based initiatives or faith-based institutions for anything in the America we now know. Casting humanism or secularism as secular religion would potentially be disastrous to any hope of establishing a strong and effective secular movement in the U.S.. Our power lies in positive interpersonal relationships of all kinds, public education and scientific methodology to dispel prejudice and ignorance about nonbelievers. We need to have our own strong and inclusive communities to achieve our goals.

  • Rekha Vemireddy

    Thanks to everyone for excellent comments and insights. It seems that one camp believes that “interfaith” service projects promote religion and another one believes that “interfaith” endeavors just need a change of label and format, e.g., drop the prayers, to be acceptable to atheists.

    Both perspectives were well-presented, so I wanted to dig a bit deeper to learn more about interfaith organization. I turned to Greg Epstein’s recent book, Good without God. As some of the comments and Jonathan Figdor, the poster, mention or imply, Epstein is the leading figure promoting interfaith collaboration for nonbelievers.

    On pages 160-161 (hardcover 2009), I found

    “[G]iven our belief that science is a much better method than revelation for determining the nature of reality, we are . . .highly likely to support the teaching of evolution in public science courses, and reject the teaching of “intelligent design” (as nonscientific) in those same courses.

    But we Humanists do not seek to impose our view on the secular moral and legal systems. Rather we see our views as no better and no worse than anyone else’s when it comes to whether they should become secular law. We need to build consensus with other groups in order to find solutions that work for all people. And this is precisely what we’ve done in the past. To continue with the example of evolution, what most people on either side of the religious fence rarely stop to consider is that most religious people agree with the Humanist position, for their own reasons. The Catholic Church, the world’s single largest religious denomination, has officially affirmed that evolution is real. So have all the mainline Protestant church denominations, most organized Jewish groups, and many more.”

    From this, I gather that interfaith collaboration, broadly understood, beyond any one service project, appears to mean that Humanists and atheists should lay down their litigation initiatives, and focus on convincing religious groups. Atheism/Humanism or rationalistic/ scientific views simply become, if not other faiths, than just other philosophies, with no right to “impose” on others, as if they did not have any unique connection to secularism and constitutional government itself.

    To return to the example, the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations accept evolution as “intelligent design,” not unguided. While it is great that we have religious allies against Creationism, settling for “intelligent design” is simply not enough for myself and many other nonbelievers.

    While we should take every reasonable opportunity to persuade religious groups and people, forgoing the option to bring lawsuits, a critical tool for Humanists and atheists on issues ranging from teaching unguided evolution to gay marriage, is categorically unacceptable.

    Similarly, we should avoid any activities/ actions that imply that we are just another faith or worldview that should not be imposing itself on others through the courts. We should have plenty of opportunities to do charitable work and to persuade religious folks, without that.

  • Anetta

    It gives us an opportunity to talk to believers about their faith and show them that they don’t have to believe in an invisible man in the sky to live ethical lives. How are people going to learn that you can be good without god and leave a happy and ethical life as a non-believer, if we happy and ethical non-believers cloister ourselves in our ivory tower of Atheism?

    So in other words you would merely use this as an opportunity to do your own atheist version of proselytizing. Nice. I love how you guys will cry about your rights being infringed upon when religion is brought upon your presence, but you’re honestly no better about respecting other people’s faiths. Since the whole point of this isn’t for atheists to meet up with people of faith to specifically debate the merits of religion, you’ve no more of a right to talk them down for their belief in a “magical sky fairy” then they have to tell you that you are doomed to eternal damnation if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal saviour. Tolerance is a two-way street, buddy. If you’re not willing to provide it for others whose views you don’t agree with, then you can’t demand it for yourself.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X