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.

  • Librepensadora

    Hemant: As they say Down Under, “too right, mate!”

  • Free

    re·li·gion noun ri-ˈli-jən

    : the belief in a god or in a group of gods

    : an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods

    : an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

    The third definition form Websters dictionary applies to the Atheist. I would add that religion is a very broad-stretching word. For atheism to own their world view as religious is within the correct use of the word. We are not talking about a belief in God but a belief in science and reason and therefore a composite of tenants that shape your values and attitudes. Join the cause and help some folks. We all might just learn things from one another.

  • EdmondWA

    The third definition could apply to football fans, Trekkies, and scrapbookers. It’s REALLY stretching the definition. It hardly seems helpful for atheists to “own their world view as religious”, when such a definition can apply to practically anyone interested in anything.
    I think that atheists and theists can easily work together to make the world a better place, as well as learn from each other, but learning is the LAST thing we’re going to do if we’re going to play so fast and loose with definitions. Call atheism a religion, if you like, as long as you’re also using the word to describe graffiti artists, parkour enthusiasts, and my grandmother’s shamisen group. Such poor regard for more concise use of definitions will only stymie understanding of another group, not foster it.

  • invivoMark

    Getting represented at a major national meeting, while giving the SSA’s name more prominence, recognition, and influence, is supposed to be a bad thing? I don’t see how. I’m happy for the SSA’s leadership that they were invited, and I’m happy that they took up the offer.

    “Will our critics attack us for “being a religion” ourselves for being part of an interfaith gathering?”

    No, they won’t. Our critics will attack us for “being a religion” irrespective of whether the SSA or its members take part in an interfaith gathering.

  • Bitter Lizard

    I love how religious people defend religion against atheists by talking about how great it is, and then use the word “religion” to describe atheism like it’s the nastiest, most cutting insult they can come up with. It should tell you something when the meanest thing you can think to call someone is yourself.

  • A3Kr0n

    I’m going to agree with Tom Flynn, this reminds me of the IRS offer to FFRF for clergy tax exemptions, which they refused. Agreeing to participate in the interfaith meeting is accepting a government/religion relationship, which I don’t agree with.

    If we are putting aside our theological differences, then why is it good to work with an interfaith? That’s not putting aside differences, it’s minimizing atheists by calling it interfaith.
    You said “I’d rather be part of the discussion and decision-making than whine about it from the outside”, I can understand your position, but do you think atheists will really be part of the discussion? If the Nones are 20% of the population, will 20% of the people at the meeting be non-religious?

    Government should have nothing to do with religion, and religion should have nothing to do with government.

  • John Gills

    I think some of the confusion is because people tend to equate “faith” with “religion.” Actually a first definition of faith is, “confident belief, trust.”*

    We agnostics and atheists have FAITH that the world can be explained by a scientific understanding of natural processes. Religious believers have FAITH that there is a supernatural being or force that interacts with the world.

    Atheists and religious believers are both coming from positions of confident belief and trust, but they are very different and mutually exclusive beliefs and trusts. (We’re back to Stephen J. Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria.”)

    This misunderstanding is also at the root of why some religious believers try to equate belief in science with religion. They do not understand that faith does not equal religion.

    *The American Heritage Dictionary, copyright 1983, Houghton Mifflin Company.

  • stanz2reason

    What you’re doing doesn’t make sense and here is why. An oddity of ‘language’, English in particular, is that words have multiple definitions, which are ultimately determined by the context in which the word is used. The definition of ‘religion’, as it is commonly used here (and elsewhere) is definitions 1 & 2 above. Pretending that definition #3 is relevant to discussion here (and it is not) is either remarkably stupid or simply dishonest.

    To further illustrate this I present the following:

    Dog: noun, often attributive ˈdȯg, ˈdäg
    1) : canid; especially ; a highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the gray wolf
    2) a : a worthless or contemptible person
    b : fellow, chap (a lazy dog) (you lucky dog)
    3) : any of various usually simple mechanical devices for holding, gripping, or fastening that consist of a spike, bar, or hook
    4) : uncharacteristic or affected stylishness or dignity (put on the dog)
    5) (capitalized) : either of the constellations Canis Major or Canis Minor
    6) (plural) : ruin (going to the dogs)
    7) : one inferior of its kind (the movie was a dog): as
    a : an investment not worth its price
    b : an undesirable piece of merchandise
    8) : an unattractive person; especially : an unattractive girl or woman

    Here we have one of the simplest words in the English language, probably among the first 100 or so words most english speaking people learn as children. Yet we have 8 very different definitions of the word. Were you point to and say ‘dog’ to a 1 year old in the presence of a dog (#1), there would be little confusion on the childs part what you were referring to. Surely if a 1 year old can handle some of the subtle nuance of the English language, someone older can as well.

    Beyond the only defining trait of Atheism (the disbelief in God(s)), there is no definable singular worldview of an Atheist. Atheists might tend to favor the scientific exploration of the world as the one most likely to reveal the truths of the world and our reasoning skills as tools for understanding it, but the promotion of and ultimate reliance on science & reason isn’t universal amongst Atheists, nor is it limited to Atheists.

    Now this isn’t to say that Atheists aren’t interested in helping out, quite the contrary. There is no reason that acknowledging that Atheism is not in fact a religion should mean secular groups shouldn’t be involved in charitable causes. Disbelief shouldn’t prohibit involvement in charitable action, especially when it comes to action organized by the federal government.

  • invivoMark

    The two situations are hardly analogous. Had the FFRF taken the IRS offer, the FFRF would compromise their own message of separation of church and state by accepting a government tax exemption. In contrast, by accepting an invitation to an interfaith meeting, the SSA will become more closely involved in dialogue about the role of religion in government programs.

    Dialogue is useful for atheists, because the more of it there is, the more people will come to the right conclusions. And dialogue will be particularly helpful for atheists when we take the moral high ground. In the FFRF case, the moral high ground is to refuse the IRS’s offer. In the SSA’s case, the moral high ground is to be involved in community service projects, which is precisely what they agreed to do.

    The SSA case is not without nuance, but I still think it’s overwhelmingly the better idea for them to accept the invitation.

  • A3Kr0n

    I do sincerely wish them the best during their meeting.

  • T. Joseph Lawson

    Imagine the government is handing out microphones. If you refuse to take yours, you will not be heard.

  • DougI

    Flynn took a tall glass of Haterade. Is his goal to have Atheists as irrelevant as possible and ignored by the government?

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    Tom Flynn might be what we should call a fundamentalist in his atheism, secularism, and anti-religion. For example, he refuses all participation in Christmas because of the risk of being mistaken as a (religious) celebrant, making his atheism, secularism, and religious abstinence essentially invisible. So no Christmas decoration or celebration for him; he goes to work on Christmas day as if it were like any other. (Those interested in Tom’s take on all things Christmas can read “The Trouble with Christmas.”)

    This reminds me of reactions to recent ideas about “atheist church.” Flynn is doing exactly what some atheists have done regarding Sunday assemblies and the terminology used to describe them. If we aren’t like them, why even take the chance to be confused for them, and lose what, to some, is a fundamentally defining feature of our minority?

    My own opinion is that non-faith types should accept the invitation. The opportunity can be used to, among others things, explain the problems we have with the terminology and criteria for inclusion.

    EDIT: I wanted to add that, according to both the video and text here, it is clear that people like atheists are meant to be included.

  • Dave

    When there is evidence no one speaks of faith. We are not coming from the same position, we are diametrically opposed.

  • Jim Jones

    We need a new word, one that can include religious and non theistic groups.

  • Dave

    I think the ” interfaith and community” fits nicely with my non faith based atheism. It is like faith and community are separate. You have community interests and faith interests. One day it will just be community interest.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I’m a board member of the local interfaith council, and the religious board members have said and have shown that they’re very glad to have me participating.

    You could not read these words right now if not for the empty white space around each black letter. Without the perspective of someone with no faith at all to give the various faithful members a common point of reference, a zero line so to speak, they would not have as clear a view of their own and each other’s faiths. I provide the empty white space around each of their different letters. My input on group panels makes all the panel members’ input more interesting to compare and contrast.

    Wine tasters often use water to clear their palate between different wines.

    Without brief silence between notes, music becomes a buzz.

    Without zero, numbers make no sense.

    Don’t get hung up on the word “interfaith.” That’s a foolish distraction. “No faith” is just as much a category of the topic of faith as a Muslim’s faith or a Christian’s faith. Having no faith is an important point of view in the overall panorama of human experience of faith, and it’s growing more rapidly than any other category.

    Besides, being part of a public interfaith activity gives atheists the opportunity to humanize our image for many people, to be living contradictions of the ugly, scary stereotypes that most often go unchallenged: “Oh now we’re gonna hear what the atheist has to say about this subject. …Hmm. Well I don’t agree with some of what he said, but he was reasonable and civil. Not the hostile ogre I was expecting.”

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    That damned buzzing legato!

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    Be careful that you don’t conflate religiosity and theism.

  • pirate_froglet

    Isn’t that word, in this case, ‘Community Service’?

  • Jim Jones

    Maybe, but that’s a bit TOO inclusive. Perhaps a new word that means “belief systems” and includes flavors of non belief.

  • Jim Jones

    There’s hardly any difference there.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    You should be more careful.

  • pirate_froglet

    So you want a committee on Belief Systems and Community Service? But, but, that won’t fit on a business card as nicely!

  • Tom Flynn

    Exploring ” 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” is hardly wishful thinking. It’s the way any White House prior to George W. Bush’s would necessarily have approached this challenge, recognizing that for the U.S. government to empanel a consortium of religious organizations for the purpose would not be constitutional. That in a nutshell is the enduring tragedy of the Office of Faith-based and Community Partnerships.
    – Tom Flynn