Obama Administration Invites Atheists to Interfaith Planning Meeting

Two years ago, the Obama Administration launched the “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge,” which asked colleges and universities to “commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming on campus.”

Next week, representatives from a number of religious organizations will be meeting at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to discuss best practices and plan new projects, and atheists will be included at that meeting for the first time.

Five leaders of the Secular Student Alliance have literally been given seats at the table:

“We’re honored to be included in the President’s call for interfaith and community service,” said Jesse Galef, spokesperson for the Secular Student Alliance. “There are thousands of nonreligious students eager to work alongside their religious friends to make the world a better place.”

“From the beginning, President Obama has envisioned students from all worldviews, religious or secular, being part of his Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge,” said Ken Bedell, Senior Advisor with the Department of Education’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center. “We know it’s important to include all viewpoints in this process.”

Considering how many Millennials are unaffiliated with any religion — nearly a third of them, according to a recent Pew Research Center study — it makes a lot of sense to have a non-theistic organization at the meeting.

The SSA has been attending these Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge meetings since they began, but this marks the first time they’ll be a part of the planning discussion. I asked Jesse if the SSA asked to be included or if the White House reached out to them and I was pleasantly surprised to hear the invitation came directly from the White House.

I was present when the Obama Administration first met with atheists back in 2010 and it’s nice to see those interactions occurring more frequently. The real change will happen when these meetings stop becoming a cause for celebration every time they happen because they’re just to be expected.

Already, right-wing websites are showing hints of pushback. One article noted how the inclusion of an atheist group was “curious” given that this was an “interfaith” gathering. And as I write this, a headline about the meeting is on the Drudge Report. Give it another day and you’ll hear about it on Rush Limbaugh’s show and FOX News Channel.

So, celebratory press releases and faux outrage aside, what are the goals of this meeting?

The SSA hopes they can discover ways to involve secular students in these community service projects as much as possible — and, yes, part of that outreach may require that people use a different word than “interfaith.” They also hope to make university heads aware that secular students make up a sizable proportion of the student body, no matter the school, so the schools would be wise to make their campuses safe places for non-religious students and places where critical questions about sacred beliefs are welcomed.

While I am thrilled by this outreach, it should be noted that the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships — a group of leaders from the religious community who have a more direct line to Obama — has never included an atheist representative since its inception. Considering that the head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Melissa Rogers, is a supporter of church/state separation and even met with atheist leaders this past summer, it’s about damn time to include a non-theistic voice in that mix, too.

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.

  • Art_Vandelay

    One article noted how the inclusion of an atheist group was “curious” given that this was an “interfaith” gathering.

    Yes…almost as curious as the White House having an office of faith-based initiatives to begin with.

    • LutherW

      We need a word or words that imply faith based and non-faith based inclusively – something to ask for when these things come up. I just off hand do not know the word(s). I do not mean words that include an ‘and’ as in “faith and reason’, but one, two or three words that are inclusive.

      Otherwise it is a good development.

      • David Joseph Post

        If the goal is centered around community service, how about just Community Service Campus Challenge instead? Or since he wants an emphasis on varying communities coming together what about Inter-Community Service Campus Challenge?

      • Green_Sapphire

        Europe, with its much higher (admitted) atheist population, is increasingly using “life stance,” as in “people of all life stances.”

      • 3lemenope

        We need a word or words that imply faith based and non-faith based inclusively – something to ask for when these things come up.

        “Everyone.”

      • Bitter Lizard

        “Crazy-Sane Alliance”?

      • peknud

        “Interaction.”

      • John H

        NGO?

  • curtcameron

    Someone alert Fox News! Let the hilarity ensue!

  • islandbrewer

    See? I knowed that Kenyan muslim member of Jeremiah Wright’s church was an atheist! All them communist fascist Satan-worshippers are atheists!

  • allein

    Considering how many Millennials are unaffiliated with any religion

    At first glance I read “unafflicted”…

    • The Other Weirdo

      Pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

    • Itarion

      Oh, good. Not just me.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    Interfaith: The very name is exclusive – http://exm.nr/1302RLc

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    Thanks for reminding me how horrible the design of The Drudge Report is. Or should I say lack of design. How does anyone find anything in that mess?

    • monyNH

      Do they intend for their website to look like it came from 1998?

      • Itarion

        No, they were aiming for a progressive ’96.

        • 3lemenope

          Or a reactionary ’04!

  • wtfwjtd

    The term “interfaith” is not technically incorrect, as applied to secular people. Personally, my faith in mankind far exceeds any faith that I ever had in “God” in the past.

  • Sweetredtele

    Interesting how the religious call atheism a religion under some circumstances and then not a religion in other circumstances.

  • DougI

    I wonder if the religious are going to try to start the meeting with a prayer and be shocked that the Atheists don’t want to pray.

  • kelemi

    Our city council had a moment of prayer. Each council meeting rotated ho did it. An atheist was elected to the council. When it was his turn, per council agreement, he had “A moment of silence”.

    • tubi11

      Did the council have to agree to the content of the other members’ prayers? If not, seems like an issue. And couldn’t he just have said, “OK, no prayer today. Let’s just get to work!” that’s what I would have aimed for.

      • kelemi

        Prayer is free form. However, there isn’t the religious bigotry that much of the planet has. Don’t know about your “no prayer” option. Good point.

  • Dave

    So atheism is faith based.WTF. Just say no.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      The Münchhausen trilemma leaves pretty much anything “faith based”, at the lowest foundations. As with taking a mathematical axiom like the Axiom of Pairing, however, the sort of “faith” required does not have much resemblance in character to the usual religious sorts.


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