Specialization and Trade Lead the Way to Interfaith

This is a guest post by Conrad Hudson. He is a senior at University of Kansas, and a member of the Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA).

“Tell everyone why you’re involved in SOMA’s leadership.”

Last year these words struck me with anxiety. As a new officer for the Kansas University Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA),  they meant I would be speaking in front of a crowd in 30 seconds.  But when it was my turn the words came naturally, and today that answer serves as my key motivation for writing you.

“When I left religion, its parting gift was a broken family and social isolation,” I said. “I am passionate to make the atheist community strong so it can be there for you the way it was for me when I felt I had nowhere to turn. I will continue to work to reduce misunderstandings, discrimination and bigotry against atheists and agnostics so that one day fewer people will have to experience what I did.”

After discussing the issue of interfaith at great length—as well as personally investigating through the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC)—I would like to make a case to the non-religious community for the potential I see in interfaith to create the kind change I promised to work for, and relate my experiences participating in it. This will take the form of three posts, with the first addressing the reason some should do interfaith and while others should not, the second dispelling some common misconceptions about interfaith work, and the third making the case for what benefits we can expect and why.

With such a wide variety of skills and personalities residing in the atheist/agnostic/humanist demographic, there are gains to be had by pursuing multiple paths toward the goal of spreading reason and making the world safe for non-theists.

In a talk I attended and have since shared many times, Greta Christina (forgive that I take your name in vain Greta!) points out what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement by taking action now to be inclusive of non-white and non-male demographics. I would contend the interfaith community similarly recognized what it can gain from including atheists—but it’s obviously up to us to decide whether to take that offer and whether our movement can also gain by engaging believers in a non-confrontational context. Many are also considering whether participation in interfaith necessarily constitutes both a waste of time and an unforgivable violation of the atheist movement’s principles and goals. While I’ll be addressing the specific costs and benefits of interfaith in a later posts, I think an analogy may help illuminate why it’s the right thing to do to support those who will ultimately find the interfaith path worth following.

I’m tempted to think back to my beginning business classes when we discussed the benefits of specialization and trade. “Suppose Chris and Ed (names chosen completely at random) both produce fruit salads and smoothies,” the textbook would start. Going further into the principles of economic trade than I will here, the ultimate point of the text revealed that more can be consumed by both parties if they specialize and trade rather than having each party try to do everything for themselves. The reason for this is comparative advantage, which is the principle that two countries can both gain from trade if, in the absence of trade, they have different relative costs for producing the same goods. The great thing about comparative advantage is that even peons can use it to benefit from transactions with juggernauts. It’s not about your capacity—it’s about doing what you’re best at doing, given what you have.

Let’s make this an analogy for the situation we face today. I propose that suggesting every active atheist produce all fruit salads (mixed up together), all smoothies (pulverize those lumps!), or the a mix of the two, fails to account for the different propensities and opportunity costs we all face. Going a step further, let’s use those same randomly-chosen names—if Chris focuses on making fruit salads and Ed focuses on making smoothies, are they not both ultimately producing fruits?

My hope is that, with all this fruit being produced, the banquet that represents the concerns and goals of non-theists, will be better for Humanists and atheists everywhere.  I suppose by their fruits you’ll know—that they should focus on whatever they are best suited for, adding in their own way to the promotion of reason and the fight against injustice.

I have yet to see anyone suggest there are zero benefits to interfaith work, nor have I seen anyone suggest that there are zero benefits to firebrand style of attack. There are clearly opportunities within both tactics. So the question is how do we maximize “profit” with the resources we have?

Let’s say Chris Stedman makes 10 units of atheist profit (note to self: print atheist currency for market of ideas stock exchange) for 8 hours of interfaith work. How many hours do you think he’d have to work a day to gain the same amount of profit if he were to try to use firebrand tactics? Giving him credit for tattoos but docking him on efficiency due to his oh-so-tedious habit of over-empathizing, I think we can say it’d be more than 8 hours a day—probably more than 24!  My point is that more can be accomplished by having people do what they’re good at than asking each atheist activist to follow the same path.

The ultimate question becomes clear, should we pursue the profits of interfaith, or are we going to leave that market untapped? Will we take advantage of the efforts of hard-working atheists and humanists who are better suited for warm dialogue than they are for debate and are willing to put forth effort to reduce injustices against non-theists? Or will we discourage them for failing to follow the dominant tactics? Will those who make it their business to do interfaith give the same respect to their firebrand partners making similar progress with a different market strategy? When it comes to making the world a better place for ourselves, our fellow atheists, and the next generation of humanists, let’s be entrepreneurs–the market of ideas demands it.

If you find the concept of interfaith intriguing I’ll be addressing it further in parts two and three next week on NonProphet Status. I hope you’ll come by and discuss some of the following points with me: how atheists can use evidence to come to better conclusions on interfaith; why I think there are ways for interfaith to reduce non-religious discrimination; why participating in interfaith helps you be right more often in your criticism of religion; how to use interfaith to destroy false beliefs about the non-religious; and why I think atheists and agnostics suited for it should not just be accepting invitations, but should actively pursue leadership in interfaith activities.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • GaffiGubbi

    Atheists and LGBT people have some similarities, but we shouln’t take that comparison too far. Homosexuals aren’t trying to make anyone else homosexuals, they’re trying to get equal rights and be accepted by others. Atheists are, in the short term, trying to do the same thing, but in the long run we are, and let’s not kid ourselves here, trying to create a skeptical and by logical extension atheistic world. I’m happy every time I read a deconversion story (and even happier when the deconversion was influenced by a combination of critical thinking and the voices of other atheists) or statistics about the declining number of believers. I want the majority of all people to not be superstitious – if that makes me an intellectual imperialist then call me Alexander.

    I have nothing against interfaith work if it manages to get religious people to accept atheists as fellow human beings. But when the push comes to shove, interfaith atheists must be willing to act as firebrands as well. I don’t want atheists to respect stupid ideas in the name of interfaith harmony, and when it becomes clear that atheism is gaining ground when it comes to the numbers of believers and nonbelievers, these interfaith activists should be delightful that the other faiths are dying.

    Also, being a fan of Ricardo I’m not sure if the trade analogy works as well with ideas as it does with goods and services, but I’m not going to go into that here.

    *To clarify, by atheist I mean a “gnu atheist” – someone who also identifies with skepticism, humanism etc. Of course there are atheists who are uncritical thinkers and even admire faith, but gnu atheists are, by spreading information and being loud, trying to turn them into skeptics as well.

  • http://twitter.com/gordongoblin Gordon

    “I have yet to see anyone suggest there are zero benefits to interfaith work”

    I’ll say it, in fact I’ll say I think interfaith is actively counterproductive. It legitimises faith, and it lends credence to the idea that atheism is “just another faith”

    I’d say zero net benefits is a position interfaith has to aspire to!

    • Walker Bristol

      “It legitimizes faith”

      In my experience, it does no such thing. It recognizes diversity, be it cultural or religious, and encourages having mutual respect for and building relationships with people despite their beliefs. I’ve had several instances where I’ve explained how and why I don’t think his or her faith is “legitimate” to a religious friend, yet we’ve still worked together towards awareness raising events and service projects.

      “It lends credence to the idea that atheism is ‘just another faith’”

      How exactly, in any way other than a strict interpretation of the name, does interfaith necessarily do this? A number of interfaith organizations have recently made a strong push to encourage the participation of the nonreligious, and a large part of that is identifying that not everyone among them is “of faith” or “believes in a higher power”. I’m not saying that this is the case across the board, there are of course going to be places where interfaith organizations mistakenly characterize atheists, or agnostics, or secular humanists. But should we just sit on the outside and do nothing to change the propagation of such ignorance and stereotypes? Wouldn’t it be better to participate, and in doing so raise awareness about our actual values?

      • http://twitter.com/gordongoblin Gordon

        Sort answer – no, it would not be better to participate. If I were invited to a lyching I wouldn’t take part and hope to effect change from within the mob, I’d call the police.

        • Walker Bristol

          I must’ve missed the part of lynch mobs where they worked together to help the homeless, to clean up parks, or to address any number of other issues that threaten our communities while raising awareness about the diverse cultures and beliefs present within them. I also must’ve missed the part of interfaith work where people are being violently murdered.

          As far as my experience goes, interfaith is about becoming more accepting of our differences, and in some cases seeing if they can reconciled or repaired: I have, in fact, met people whose religious beliefs have changed or been excised entirely because of the ddiscussions they’ve had as a result of interfaith relationships.

          • http://twitter.com/gordongoblin Gordon

            You are right. I should never use a metaphor that does not match completely…. sheesh

            I was comparing two things I’d find distasteful to be a part of.

            So here’s my question… do you *need* to legitimise faith in order “to help the homeless, to clean up parks, or to address any number of
            other issues that threaten our communities while raising awareness about
            the diverse cultures and beliefs present within them”

            My guess is that, no, you can do those things through secular routes.

            I’d even say that by doing those things “interfaith” you are diluting the awareness raising impact as all bystanders see is that “a bunch of faith groups” did x, y or z. Nicely playing into the myth that only the religious do charity!

  • Anonymous

    The whole interfaith concept is not only irrational, it’s also harmful overall.* The goal of religion and the goal of “gnuism” are at odds. It’s not about becoming more familiar with each other to reduce conflict. At issue is the fact that religion itself is harmful. For them, it’s getting into bed with the immoral, the rebellious–the enemies of God. For us, it’s like getting into bed with superstitionists, tyrants, misogynists, and obstructionists–the enemies of justice and knowledge. This situation can’t change with more time together, even if that time is spent helping collect food for the foodbank or raising money for victims of natural disasters.

    Instead of interfaith charity, we should be working to create more nofaith charity. Everyone can participate no matter what their faith, because having faith is, at best, irrelevant to doing good, and more often a hindrance.

    And when we’re not ignoring religion, we ought to be opposing it.

    *I’m speaking from the perspective of atheism; interfaith endeavours may be beneficial in reducing conflict *between religious groups* in the short term and in specific circumstances (e.g. between Muslims and Jews in Palestine). But that’s irrelevant to the decision of whether atheists should participate in them.


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