Why an Atheist Group Should Accept the White House’s Invitation to a Faith-Based Gathering

We learned on Wednesday that the Obama administration extended an invitation to the Secular Student Alliance to an upcoming “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge” planning meeting:

“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.”

Exciting news… unless you’re Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and you think the SSA should have rejected the offer on principle:

… I think that to accept that invitation was most unfortunate — and I think that is true on several levels.

1. Like any other national humanist, atheist, or secular organization, SSA is (rather obviously) not a faith organization. Hence it has no place in an event whose organizers choose to describe it with an outmoded, exclusivistic term like interfaith.

2. Participation by a movement organization in an interfaith event sends a confusing message to supporters and throws ammunition to our opponents.

3. Affirming an “interfaith” event as an appropriate way to organize delivery of social services or charitable outreach buttresses an outmoded model of faith organizations as primary vehicles for organizing so-called good works.

Flynn goes through all of these points in detail on the Center For Inquiry blog but, seeing as I share his concerns, I’d like to offer a few rebuttals.

Whether or not we’re fans of the word “interfaith,” I see the word as merely a misnomer for a legitimately good idea — one that says we’re all better off putting aside our theological differences and working toward the goals we all share, like making this world a better place and helping those less fortunate. That’s a table we deserve a seat at but haven’t been offered one until now. Why not? Maybe because others were ignorant of the fact that most atheists want to achieve those same goals. Sure, it would be great to see the Obama administration stop using the annoying “I” word… but I see value in focusing on the inter rather than the faith, at least until a better, more accurate word takes over.

Will our critics attack us for “being a religion” ourselves for being part of an interfaith gathering? Yes. Our lazy, uninformed critics will call us a “religion” (in a pejorative sense). Guess what? They’ve been doing it for years, and after this meeting takes place, they’ll still be wrong. Flynn says we’d be handing our opponents “actually true facts to beat us with” by going to the White House, but anyone who falls for the idea that we’re “officially a religion now” just isn’t worth arguing with. They’re not persuadable. Why bother.

It’s the same reason I don’t find it hypocritical in the least to say that the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships should be abolished… but, until that happens, I want to see an atheist on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I’d rather be part of the discussion and decision-making than whine about it from the outside after the decisions have already been made without me. I want the SSA at this meeting. They have nothing to be nervous about. But some of those religious groups will be on their best behavior knowing that atheists are in the room.

Finally, Flynn argues that faith groups shouldn’t be the vehicle for doing good works — because they’re not the only groups that can perform them. I kind of agree with him here — they shouldn’t be the vehicle Obama’s using. But they are, and they are for good reason. Religious organizations are unbelievably organized. If you want to mobilize people in a hurry, then talk to pastors and nuns and imams and other faith leaders. Obama knows that better than most.

Flynn writes:

The White House, through the Department of Education, sought to encourage greater participation by college students in social-service work and other forms of charitable volunteerism, and one of the first things it did was to involve religious organizations. It could have explored strategies to reach out to students as individuals to encourage them to give more hours to charitable entities in their communities, whether religious or secular. But it didn’t do that. What it did instead was to create something called “the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.”

That’s… wishful thinking. Even though a lot of college students are non-religious, most have religious faith. And getting their leaders to support this program is a quick way to get all of them involved.

If there was a better way to get millions of students on board with these community service and charitable projects, I’d love to hear Flynn’s suggestion.

This isn’t a bad philosophical debate to have, but practically speaking, it does us no good to sit this one out. We’ve been kept out of these sorts of discussions for decades and it’s gotten us nowhere. Now that we can be a part of it, let’s take advantage of the opportunity.

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.


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