Interfaith Jujitsu: When We Should Engage

by Jesse Galef –
It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist firebrand or a diplomat. Some interfaith projects are worth joining. It’s particularly relevant right now, since secular students were included by name in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.

It’s the political thing to do. It’s the humanitarian thing to do. It’s the clever Machiavellian thing to do. And concerns about the label “interfaith” can actually be used to our advantage.

I won’t defend all interfaith, but I do encourage fellow atheists not to dismiss opportunities for the wrong reasons. There’s too much broad generalization and vague hand-waving about definitions. When should we engage and how?

In a nutshell: It’s worth engaging when we’re working toward a shared secular goal, when there’s a chance of gaining social capital through positive interaction, and when we’re not buying our place at the table with silence or dishonesty. How should we engage? Skillfully, loudly, proudly, and with a big ol’ smile on our faces.
(For the tl;dr conclusion, click here to go to the end.)

Don’t reject all Interfaith ‘By Definition’

A first stumbling block: I recommended not participating at the cost of dishonesty. Is it dishonest for an atheist, just by definition, to participate in interfaith? PZ dismissed the President’s Challenge, saying “‘interfaith’ is a code word for the religious clubhouse. It’s used to exclude secularism and promote a unity of faith, any faith, where it doesn’t matter what BS you believe, as long as you really, really believe.”

It’s a common view. My friend Jen, who writes Blag Hag, criticized anything called interfaith yesterday, starting a post with:

That’s partially why I think the push for atheist inclusion in interfaith panels and organizations is so silly. Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it’s the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith. Case closed. If that simple dictionary definition wasn’t enough…

Words can be used in a strict or loose way, they can apply to different concepts in different contexts, and have literal and implied connotations. You know who understands that? Some guy wrote an awesome post a couple months ago mocking “dictionary atheists” for insisting on a strict definition of the word. It was on a blog with a strange name, I think it was Pharyngula or something:

Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else…

You tell yourself, PZ! We should be wary if someone’s argument starts with “By definition, atheism is -.” or “By definition, interfaith is -.” The word ‘interfaith’ isn’t a platonic ideal that always, in every case, excludes us. Sure, it very often does – after all, the dictionary definitions exist for a reason! But we have to know how a person is using the word before we know whether it applies; quoting the strict dictionary definition isn’t appropriate in every context. If we could cut through the semantics and just look at the project’s details, what do we think?

From all evidence, the White House has demonstrated – through public statements and actions – that we atheists, humanists, and secular students are included. The project is an effort to unite people of all religious backgrounds toward common secular goals. In short, a project doing work I support.

Connotations Matter – Apply Jujitsu!

Yes, semantics DO matter. I couldn’t do my job without paying attention to semantics. We can’t completely scrub words of their connotations – using the word ‘faith’ to refer to a worldview can be problematic if people still have the association ‘belief without evidence’.

Interfaith leaders are aware of this – they’ve voiced similar frustrations. Think about all the arguments we have over whether to call ourselves atheist, agnostic, skeptic, humanist, secular humanist, bright, pastafarian, freethinker, theological noncognitivist, nontheist… How do you feel about a self-professed humanist who refuses to go to an “atheist” meetup or conference because they don’t want to be associated with “atheism”?

Is it a problem for atheists to be involved in a project whose name includes the word interfaith? I’m going to go against the grain and say not only is it not a problem – we can use it to our advantage. To the extent that the word ‘interfaith service’ has the connotation ‘religious people doing charity’ we can do some Memetic Jujitsu!

Just look at what President Obama said in announcing the project:

I know that as we go forward it’s going to take all of us – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer – to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As a Christian who became committed to the church while serving my community, I know that an act of service can unite people of all faiths – or even no faith – around a common purpose of helping those in need. In doing so, we can not only better our communities, we can build bridges of understanding between ourselves and our neighbors.

See how he was forced to emphasize that we were involved? I can’t tell you how much I love political and social leaders telling the world that religion isn’t the only way to be a good person. Our participation makes them highlight that we are being good without god.

Are you really worried about people thinking atheism is a religion when the President is repeatedly referring to “people of all religions and none”? That people will think atheists have faith when they hear “people of all faiths and none”?

The best way to get people using those phrases? Get involved and pivot the collective vocabulary. Sit at the table with religious leaders and smile, so they’re confronted with their (usually inadvertent) exclusionary language. Sharon Moss, the President of our Humanist Community, has shared inspiring success stories like this. Not only have people started being more inclusive, she doesn’t even have to be the one to raise objections. As the other participants became more aware of humanist participation, some of them started arguing HER side. She could sit there while others had her back. That’s progress we wouldn’t see without specifically engaging with religious groups.

What Interfaith Has over “Just Community Service”

The objection to the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge I consider strongest is: Why organize service around faith traditions at all? Why “Interfaith and Community Service” and not just “Community Service”? By specifically reaching out to religious groups – and highlighting their involvement in the project’s title – it strengthens the impression that religion is the source of charity.

The point is well taken. But while interfaith programs are this way, I don’t see much benefit from our refusing to participate. At least by getting involved, we can use our Jujitsu to help mitigate the effect.

And we do benefit by making an effort to reach out to faith traditions. The idea isn’t simply to do community service, it’s to bringing together different groups (often with strained relations) to work toward a shared goal. The psychological impact can be powerful (see the Robber’s Cave experiment). When people work together for something they both want, it reduces animosity.

Why should we care? For one thing, political progress will be easier if we’re not despised. But also: With less animosity, it’s easier to win on the merit of our arguments. The more I learn about psychology, the less I can believe that we humans rationally weigh arguments to evaluate which side has better evidence. Chris Mooney just wrote an excellent article for Mother Jones titled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science“:

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

We have better arguments than religion. I truly believe that. But getting people to listen to those arguments through the irrational stigma can be tough. We’re all influenced by a emotional factors, including how much we like the person making a particular argument. Ask yourself: are you more likely to consider evidence from someone you like and trust, or someone you don’t?

In each situation we have to weigh what we’re giving up to gain that social capital, and whether it’s worth it. If we gain social capital while doing something we wanted anyway – like community service – it’s a win-win.

The Wrong Kind of Interfaith

There’s a time to offend people. It can be a powerful tool. We can’t pursue social capital at all costs and be “nice” no matter what.

For example, it might make the religious right more comfortable to tell them science and religion are perfectly compatible. But lying is not a price I’m willing to pay. I won’t pretend to believe something I don’t or make a show of respecting something that I don’t.

If your interfaith program makes funding/membership rely on an agreement that you can’t voice “offensive” opinions on your own time? Well, remember how I said I wouldn’t defend all interfaith? Yeah, get the fuck out of there. That’s the wrong kind of interfaith. Our right to criticize religion is far too valuable. Jen (fairly) complains about the double-standard:

[R]ight now, the “accepting” interfaith movement is full of hypocrisy. It’s totally fine for religious people in the interfaith movement to disagree about things – that’s the whole concept of interfaith work. But an atheist disagrees with them? Then they’re just being an asshole and need to shut up. We saw this sort of reaction with Everybody Draw Mohammed Day – when the atheists stood by their values, they were the ones in the wrong. They were the ones who needed to shut up lest they offend the others in the group.

It really IS an annoying double standard. But if the only consequence is being told we’re in the wrong, that’s an indictment of society’s double standard – not of engagement with interfaith. People might get offended by smiling chalked stick figured labeled Muhammad, and they have the right to be Very Upset about it and tell us so. But that’ll be the case whether or not we’re working to rebuild houses with them or sitting in a circle to talk once a month. We don’t have to change your approach outside to get benefits from interfaith:

Engage in interfaithDon’t Engage in Interfaith
Draw MuhammadMake our point, building social capital before/after the Very Stern Talking To.Make our point without added social capital, increased chance of misunderstanding/uncharitable interpretations
Don’t Draw MuhammadBuild bridges and avenues to influence mindsHave fun on your own, but change the world less

If anything, increased interaction with the interfaith crowd will cut down on the confusion and double standards. Since the Interfaith Youth Core controversy around Draw Muhammad Day, we’ve built much better relations. I think both sides have a better understanding now – achieved by each of us doing what we thought was right and discussing it.

If you want to be a diplomat and build bridges, this is an opportunity to live and demonstrate your humanist values.

If you want to be a firebrand and change minds, this is an opportunity to build up some social capital to help your argument go down easier.

If you want to speed up our political progress, this is an opportunity to gain influence.

If you want to change society’s association of morality with religion, this is an opportunity to change the dialogue.

Unless we’re required to give up our honesty and sign away our right to speak our minds (a legitimate concern), the benefits seem to outweigh the costs.

So what if the title has ‘faith’ in it? It forces people to highlight that we’re good without god. So what if society has a double standard? We change that by speaking our mind AND engaging to help others understand us. So what if we get yelled at? We’re strong enough. We know other people don’t agree with us. We know some of them think we’re going to hell. We know other people believe and do things we find repulsive. None of that is a reason to avoid interfaith engagement, especially in projects that focus on secular missions like the President’s Challenge.

I hope to see secular students getting – carefully and skillfully – involved.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Ben

    You used PZs argument against dictionary atheism to refute BlagHag’s use of the dictionary… then say “You tell yourself, PZ! “? BlagHag != PZ. His argument against interfaith groups was based on unrelated reasoning.

  • Jesse Galef

    I felt both Jen and PZ made objections relying on the semantic argument that “interfaith means…”

    PZ didn’t explicitly use the word ‘definition’ but his objection against the President’s Challenge WAS about word choice, not the details of the project.

  • Mike

    Just curious. Do you actually practice JuJitsu (aside from the mental kind)?

  • Jesse Galef

    @Mike – not at all! That’s why I might be using the wrong spelling/capitalization.

    But I DO try to practice mental and verbal Jujitsu.

  • Digitus Impudicus

    @Mike: I do! I will engage in Jujitsu with the faithful, gladly.
    @Jesse: There are about a score of ways to spell or capitalize it and they are all technically OK, since Jujitsu is a Japanese word, not an English one, and it all just turns into an argument about romanization.
    Sorry, OT.

  • CanadianNihilist

    This blog post did not have as much JuJitsu in it as I had hoped for.
    I am Disappointed.

  • Janice in Toronto

    For most of the faithists this would place atheism in the faith catagory.

    Not a good idea.

  • Janice in Toronto

    category sorry about that…

  • http://www.facebook.com/foss4us Matthew Foss

    Well said, Jesse. This is exactly the kind of rational assessment we need to take of how we relate to religious people. We do need both firebrands and diplomats to make progress; whichever one you are, it makes sense to consider the consequences.

  • Stephen

    Does it matter that the empty set is still a set? No faith is still a type of interfaith? :o

  • AxeGrrl

    Personally, I don’t give a rat’s a** if ‘dictionary atheists’ annoy PZ Myers. He’s a smug git for suggesting that to be a ‘real’ atheist you have to have this, this and this, etc as part of your wordlview/strategies….

    Speak for yourself, PZ, cause you sure as hell aren’t speaking for me when say things like that.

  • Sean Santos

    I have a sort of “meh” reaction to interfaith stuff. I’m still neither opposed nor personally interested. But I do understand Jen’s and Ophelia Benson’s recent reactions. Chris Stedman has been pushing the interfaith stuff for a while, and he tends to find ways of saying things that can be kind of, well, irritating. (A small example: his recent HuffPo article uses the phrase “rejectionist atheist”, which I’ve never heard before, and which sounds like just a gratuitous new way of playing some sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine with atheists. It’s really, really annoying to some of us when people keep emphasizing how they are somehow nicer than other types of atheist, especially when they do so without even explaining what they mean.)

    But on to the topic of interfaith stuff itself: I personally don’t get involved simply because I only have so much time and energy that I’m willing to devote to volunteer work, and I’d rather spend it on stuff I’m really invested in. Which usually means the groups I have a long-standing relationship with, or with actual atheist/humanist groups.

    I don’t shy away from talking about religion if it comes up, but I actually like keeping different parts of my life more separate, and I don’t have a desire to mix religion into an endeavor that doesn’t have to do with that. Sometimes volunteer work is, for me, a way of escaping the whole religious majority thing. The atheist groups and the religion’s-not-that-relevant groups I’m with don’t throw religious discussion into the mix, whereas it seems to be the point of interfaith groups. So while I don’t have anything against atheists being in interfaith groups per se, that doesn’t appeal to me at this point in my life, and I have other things that I’d rather be doing.

    Anyway, I just wanted to throw that out there, because it’s not the case that people who mostly represent atheism through argument and not through interfaith work, are actually opposed to interfaith work. Sometimes it’s just not our role here. And we do still do some non-confrontational P.R. work, if we are out and represent ourselves to religious friends, family, coworkers, etc. in a moral and friendly way. This is a slow method of acceptance but has, for example, done more for the LGBT community than anything else has.

  • mal99

    Great article, absolutely agree that interfaith is more about people from different backgrounds showing each other that they’re human, that they’re good, and that in the end, we’re all alike and shouldn’t hate each other so much despite our differences! :D

    I remember one Christian girl telling me I had no morals because I was an atheist once, I doubt she could have thought that way if she had ever really worked together with an atheist in an effort like this.

    I do agree that your point about PZ could be taken the wrong way though, as he didn’t necessarily argue about the definition… his argument could also just mean that he complains about the reality of what interfaith is, not what the word means? I’m really not sure about this one though, it does seem to me that his trouble lied mostly with the word itself…

    Oh well, I think it won’t matter too much. Again, great article!

  • ACN

    Personally, I don’t give a rat’s a** if ‘dictionary atheists’ annoy PZ Myers. He’s a smug git for suggesting that to be a ‘real’ atheist you have to have this, this and this, etc as part of your wordlview/strategies….

    AxeGrrl,

    That isn’t at all what PZ said. Jesse quoted the gist of it above.

  • Sean Santos

    @AxeGrrl

    He’s a smug git for suggesting that to be a ‘real’ atheist you have to have this, this and this, etc as part of your wordlview/strategies…

    Well, his main point is that actual communities of atheists tend to be people who are skeptics and who have particular views. Apatheists, by definition, tend not to join up even if they are atheists. And I get the impression that PZ uses harsh language, um, almost as a sort of activism, or sense of responsibility he feels, not to cave to people who use discussions of tone or “that’s offensive” as a sort of weapon to discredit others. Sort of like people who are “politically incorrect” for its own sake, but with less bigotry.

    All that said, I kind of agree with you. The reason that people talk about the definition of atheism is to make our terms clear, and to fight misconceptions and stereotypes about us, and it’s certainly not the case that atheists have any kind of set platform like a political party. It annoys me that “dictionary atheism” annoys PZ.

    IMO, this video goes over the same ground, and explains things much better than PZ:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNDZb0KtJDk

  • Karmakin

    I personally don’t have a problem with interfaith in and of itself, although I think it can be quite problematic in terms of entrenching privilege in our society.

    The problem I often have with interfaith is with what they’re doing. I have a problem…a serious problem with most charity. That’s not to say that I’m against it. It’s to say that I don’t think it’s enough. While it’s important to treat the wound, it’s also important to stop the shooter!

    And that’s what I personally have a problem with. My experience is that because interfaith groups because of their nature are more interested in not rocking the boat, any hope for them assisting in positive systematic change is a very dire hope indeed.

    It reminds me of the joke/saying. Sitting by a river, a child starts floating downstream, struggling for breath. Someone jumps in and saves them. then another child comes floating down. Someone else jumps in as well. Yet another child comes floating down. One person gets up and starts to run upriver. “Hey! Says someone in the water. Arn’t you going to help these kids?” “Yeah, says the runner. I’m going to stop the jerkwad who’s throwing them in the river”.

    That’s the core of my ethical structure right there.

  • mkb

    I always enjoy reading what you have to say Jesse, even when I don’t agree. I’ve posted my thoughts on the subject over at Secular Perspectives, http://secularhumanist.blogspot.com/2011/04/why-i-dont-believe-in-interfaith.html but in short, if there has to be a word (instead of just volunteering as Jen says), I’ll go with multifellowship or something similar.

    [Edited to make the link work - Jesse]

  • Patrick

    I understood Myers’ point, though not his expression of “hatred” – maybe that was just hyperbole. He seems to be an asshole, but the kind of asshole who doesn’t really mind being called and asshole.

  • cat

    So your point boils down to “refusal to participate in religious and psuedoreligious groups makes others think you are a meanie”? Well, that isn’t a solid argument at all. It is like suggesting one always keep one’s atheism secret lest one be thought to be a meanie. You are buying into and supporting the notion that participation in these religious and psuedoreligious activities means one is a better person than refusal to do so. You are not targeting the group that is the problem. Atheists who refuse to participate in nominally religious activity are not the fucking problem, bigoted theist who assume that atheists are bad. There is an old feminist saying “if you are a good enough dog to the patriarchy, it might throw you a bone every once and a while”. Well, your argument is in essence “if you are a good enough dog to the theocrats, they might throw you a bone every once and a while.”

  • Ron in Houston

    The idea of interfaith is to get rid of the very bigotry that many atheists have experienced. I don’t really understand what’s the big deal. If you’re a compassionate atheist who sees the value in the particular project then why not participate?

    Seems to me that if you’re letting your non-belief outweigh your compassion then you’re really not much different than the religious folks you criticize.

  • http://www.fantasticastoria.blogspot.com Chana

    cat,

    I’m not really sure where you’re getting quite that distillation from the several independent points that Jesse made. He in fact specifically points out that atheists should not stop performing activism on their own time.

    There’s a time to offend people. It can be a powerful tool. We can’t pursue social capital at all costs and be “nice” no matter what.

    …I won’t pretend to believe something I don’t or make a show of respecting something that I don’t…

    If your interfaith program makes funding/membership rely on an agreement that you can’t voice “offensive” opinions on your own time? Well, remember how I said I wouldn’t defend all interfaith? Yeah, get the fuck out of there. That’s the wrong kind of interfaith. Our right to criticize religion is far too valuable.

    That doesn’t quite sound like an indictment of, as you say, being a “meanie.” Jesse is simply pointing out that there is a time and a place, not even for appropriateness’ sake, but also so as to further our goals.

    You also say, “You are buying into and supporting the notion that participation in these religious and psuedoreligious activities means one is a better person than refusal to do so.”

    He absolutely is not. There is an entire section of this post describing connotations, meaning and different uses of language, and how in some cases it’s important to let the semantic distinctions go in order to achieve a broader goal. Not only that, but often the entrance into interfaith work can change the language and the meaning from the inside.

    Everyone agrees that bigoted theists are a problem, but given the world we live in, we need to decide what our best options are. Furthermore, many theists around the country may not be bigoted; they simply have never heard of atheists engaging in this kind of activity. We have the potential to change their minds. Furthermore, in engaging in the kind of work that has been hithertofore closed off to the nonreligious, we raise consciousness and have the ability to make change from the inside, and maybe change around some of those “bigoted theists.” Hence the call to action.

    We are throwing no one a bone, and to label all religious people, especially those engaged in interfaith volunteer work as theocrats is extremely problematic and also entirely incorrect. If we want respect, we should be giving it, too.

    Interfaith doesn’t stop us from expressing our opinion or changing minds or changing the world. In fact, it makes all those things a little easier.

  • Gordon

    I think faith groups seem to use their “charity” as a shield

    - “look at all the good we do” they say –

    but they drop it in a heartbeat if it conflicts with their dogma

    - “we have to let gays adopt? well we will close our doors to everyone then” -

    Participating in interfaith just legitimises it.

    It isn’t about turning off your compassion but rather finding a secular outlet for it.

  • Vanessa

    Totally agree, Jesse. Thanks for sharing.

    The problem is really the word, right? Not the act itself? So let’s keep participating until they change the term to something more appropriate. Just complaining and refusing to participate won’t help.

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

    Gordon wrote:

    “Participating in interfaith just legitimizes it.”

    I agree. I don’t see it as being consistent to advocate interacting with the religious in a way that tacitly acknowledges religion as valid. Engage the religious in non-combative dialogue? Sure, but why in a religious or quasi-religious setting of their own making or choosing? It just seems more reactive than proactive to me.

  • http://n/a Dustin Finney

    Galef’s glowing praise of the president for his lip-service to non-believers is particularly ironic given recent developments on the litigation front. The Obama administration was directly involved in two disastrous court decisions of the past two weeks – one involving an Arizona tax-subsidy to religious schools and another addressing the National Day of Prayer. In both cases, the president successfully argued that mere taxpayers have no standing to challenge unconstitutional violations of the Establishment Clause, regardless of the merits of their case. If this standard had been observed in the sixties, we would still have school-sponsored prayer and little recourse to do anything about it. Oh yeah, but the president mentioned us once in a speech, so everything’s cool . . . .

    Especially since he’s reserved us a slot to aid in our own marginalization. The above post states, “If you want to change society’s association of morality with religion, this is an opportunity to change the dialogue.” No, it’s not. It’s an opportunity to do the president’s bidding by legitimizing a brazenly prejudicial faith-based initiative that will only encourage the convolution of ethical behavior with religion, as well as of atheism with faith. Let’s remember also that, despite his promises to the contrary, Obama has continued letting faith-based groups who receive federal dollars discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs. A friend indeed . . . .

    As the organizer of a fledgling chapter, I strongly object to SSA’s cheerleading of faith-based initiatives and its apparently unflinching support for the president. I do not share these sentiments and I will not be echoing them to my members. I fully intend to argue, as I always do, that faith-based initiatives have a stated preference for people of faith, that they are unconstitutional and that every self-respecting atheist should refuse to participate on these grounds, organizing instead our own community service initiatives that will do much more to bolster our image than piggy-backing with the pious.

  • ACN

    Well said Dustin.

  • Vanessa

    Am I missing something? I don’t understand how interfaith = faith based initiatives. I thought we were just talking about working toward a common goal with religious people.

  • Dan W

    I have to disagree with Jesse Galef on this issue. For one thing, I agree with Jen (of BlagHag) and PZ Myers on “interfaith” – it promotes religious faith, while I as an atheist am against that. I also disagree with PZ on “dictionary atheists,” although I think people more commonly use the dictionary definition of atheism when debating theists who may have inaccurate beliefs about what atheism is. Anything outside ‘lack of belief in gods’ does not fall under the label ‘atheism.’ And one final point, just because President Obama understands that atheism is not a religion doesn’t mean everyone else gets that too. There are still plenty of theists out there who say “atheism is a religion”, and us getting involved in this interfaith nonsense just reinforces that idea.

  • http://TempleoftheFuture.net James Croft

    Great post! I’m delighted that a more level-headed approach to interfaith endeavors is prevailing at the SSA. This can only mean good things for secular students everywhere.

    Those still on the fence, why ot go to an event and get some actual data? Then if you still want to sit out, go ahead. But don’t make a judgment in the absence of data.

  • AxeGrrl

    ACN wrote:

    That isn’t at all what PZ said

    I disagree. And I’m basing this on hearing PZ talk about this issue elsewhere.

  • AxeGrrl

    Sean Santos wrote:

    All that said, I kind of agree with you. The reason that people talk about the definition of atheism is to make our terms clear, and to fight misconceptions and stereotypes about us, and it’s certainly not the case that atheists have any kind of set platform like a political party. It annoys me that “dictionary atheism” annoys PZ

    That pretty much sums up my feelings on the issue. Thanks for expressing it Sean :)

  • http://n/a Dustin Finney

    There seems to be some difficulty understanding the principle precluding many of our support for “inter-faith” initiatives. Allow me to clarify.

    Adding a prefix to “faith” does not make it any more inclusive of non-believers. At any rate, of what importance is a person’s religious orientation in this regard unless someone is trying to imply a causative link between religion and good works? And why can’t the coordinators of these programs simply choose a name that is inclusive of everyone, unless of course, they are bowing to religious pressure? I often liken it to a hypothetical “inter-straight” initiative that permitted gay volunteers but still made a public show of boosting heterosexuals at the expense of the former. So far, no one has shown me how this analogy is inept to describe our situation. I invite rebuttal.

  • Lion IRC

    ” …increased interaction with the interfaith crowd will cut down on the confusion and double standards…”

    EXACTLY!

  • Jesse Galef

    Dustin – First, I’m only speaking for myself and not the SSA. Not that we ever tell you guys what you have to do – do what you think is right in your area and for your group!

    But on a personal note, I actually totally agree with you that President Obama needs to do more. This article is from 2009 is still relevant – http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/07/31/obama-losing-the-faith-less/

    And Obama’s poll numbers remain much stronger with the unaffiliated than with regular churchgoers. But nonbelievers won’t keep the faith forever. “We’re glad he [Obama] is taking steps forward. But he could still do more to make us happier,” Galef concluded. “Lip service is better than no service. But at a certain point we’ll stop being happy with just the lip service.”

    I’m not at that point quite yet; partly because we’ve had other sucesses. Hemant did a great job highlighting some of the things Obama’s done that really disappointed me. But that doesn’t change the fact that the things I mentioned are good improvements. If Bush had invited us to participate in government and made numerous public statements defending our inclusion in the nation, we would praise that despite everything else he did.

    More on the other issues later; I’ve gotta drive to Des Moines for the American Atheists convention. Thanks for sharing your perspective; I’ll try to respond soon!

  • ACN

    I disagree. And I’m basing this on hearing PZ talk about this issue elsewhere.

    That’s fair I guess, and maybe this is coming from NOT having heard him clarify/expand his view on this in another venue, but reading the quote that Jesse included does not seem to be consistent with how you’re characterizing his view.

  • http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/indexExp_111189.htm Jeffrey Eldred

    Don’t forget about this important discussion covered earlier on Friendly Atheist:
    http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/10/26/should-atheists-promote-the-interfaith-movement/

  • http://n/a Dustin Finney

    Jesse,

    You may not be speaking formally on SSA’a behalf, but you’re at least the fourth of its senior staff-members I’ve read publicly extolling the virtues of this faith-based initiative and I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable from this to extrapolate the prevalent attitude at SSA. Less clear are its grounds for dismissal of the legitimate concerns raised by myself and many others with respect to the inherent exclusivity of “inter-faith” programs and the impropriety in the first place of the government’s wading into matters of religion.

  • Jeanette

    I agree with those who said “why Interfaith Community Service and not just Community Service”? I agree, it does draw a false causation between religion and doing good deeds.

    I’m a pretty active volunteer/community service type. I just use secular venues where I’m sure the majority of people are religious, but that’s incidental to their service, as is my atheism.

  • http://Welldone! Rieux

    Dustin is winning this thread by a wide margin. Jesse and company, I share Dustin’s disappointment that you’re wasting your time and the SSA’s institutional credibility on efforts that redound entirely to the benefit of religion. The notion that public attitudes about atheists can be improved by our participation in organizations that explicitly marginalize us is flat nonsense. (It’s a little embarrassing to see how gaga you’ve gone at empty lip servce from the President; Dustin did a strikingly good job at throwing properly cold water in tha idea. Wake up; constitutional law matters just slightly more than empty political rhetoric.)

    Hard as you work to deny it, the word “faith” actually means something, and millions of people have no problem seeing what that is. Lending time and resources to promoting faith, of all things, is simply collaboration with a religious power structure that has its boot on all of our necks. Surely there are ways to pursue the goals you’re interested in that do not so directly strengthen religion’s grip on the world.

  • anon

    The reason to participate in the presidents challenge would be to get some publicity for atheism you would not get otherwise.
    Beyond that is interfaith community work not about the community work but about the group therapy. But to do this you need to call it interfaith in order to attract people that are interested enough in their own faith.

  • Jim

    Thank you for articulating my position so well, Dustin and Rieux. The atheist tokenism cloaks the preferential treatment of religious organizations with legitimacy. It’s bullocks.


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