On Atheists And “Interfaith” Participation

On Atheists And “Interfaith” Participation April 30, 2011

There is a lot of commotion in the atheist blogosphere about how and/or whether atheists should participate in so-called “interfaith” organizations in which (if I understand correctly) members of different religions cooperate on shared service projects, aim at shared goals together, and (possibly?) dialogue about where they might find philosophical, ethical, and political common ground despite their differences. Without attempting to sift all the various existing positions or identify the various camps fighting over this topic, I am just here going to list off my thoughts on the various issues raised by the question of atheist participation in “interfaith” groups.

Some atheists are understandably wary that by participating in “interfaith” groups, they would be tacitly conceding that “atheism is just another religion” or “atheism is a faith-based position like any religious one”. Atheism is not, itself, a religion. But, then again, neither is theism. Atheism and theism are themselves just philosophical positions. There exist already numerous theistic and atheistic religions. But learning someone is either an atheist or a theist tells me nothing immediately about whether that person either is religious or to what religion she belongs if she is.

Atheism is also not a “faith”. And, again, theism is not itself a “faith” either. Again, atheism and theism are both just philosophical positions. To have a “faith” a group of people must orient their lives, beliefs, and practices out of a willingness to loyally submit to shared beliefs and practices, even, and especially , when those beliefs and practices are irrational and require genuine sacrifices of good things from the members as tests of trust, devotion, submission, and true belief. A faith, in this way, demands some degree of subordination of members’ intellectual or moral consciences such that they believe and act, to one degree or another, in accord with what the community demands, even beyond their personal abilities to judge proposed beliefs or practices good.

There could be atheist faiths oriented around faith-based, irrationalistic ideas and practices that simply have nothing to do with gods. But simply being an atheist does not by any means automatically entail even minimum commitments to an atheist community–let alone willful submission of one’s mind and will to any dogmatic, counter-rational claims or loyalty-testing sacrificial practices of the atheist community. Being an atheist itself simply means not believing in gods. It does not default one into anything more robust than that.

Of course atheists have other beliefs too and in many ways atheists may agree in common on various kinds of issues more with each other than with religious people, but just being an atheist does not default one into any kind of robust faith. And even where atheists do share like mind on issues in part due to their shared atheism the views held can be (and I think usually are) held for reasons that are neither implicitly nor explicitly “faith-based”. Even were atheists wrong about a great number of issues that would not make them the sorts of people who deliberately hold beliefs that they think are unsupported or counter-indicated by evidence as the self-consciously faithful do. Atheists can make bad assumptions or bad inferences and have faulty perceptions and biases, etc. without making a virtue out of intentionally believing what they admit goes against (or “beyond”) logic and available evidence.

So, in this way too atheists do not have “faith”. Typically their atheism is not chosen by willful faith, and nor is it reinforced by such an act of counter-rational will. It is typically grounded in skepticism and even if it is mistaken, it is so because of something different than faith. And the other beliefs of atheists share are typically not self-consciously or willfully faith-based either. Again, if they are wrong, it is due to other intellectual errors and not due to the will to defer to a tradition or a group or a god, even against the best standards of reason and evidence which they know.

But all this said, should the word “interfaith” itself be a stumbling block?

While I don’t think atheists should have faiths, since I think they’re offenses to reason and conscience, I do think there can, and probably needs to be, new atheist religions which harness what good tools religion has in the service of genuine, non-cultish, non-authoritarian rationalism. And notice I say there should be atheist religions, plural, not an atheist religion. Why do I say this? Because I think that there are multiple kinds of ethical, spiritual, and other self-formation practices and rituals which can be beneficially developed for people and that different atheists should have different groups for exploring different approaches to the good life.

Currently, under the hegemony of irrationalistic religions, there are pernicious cultural assumptions that faith-based religions are the only paths to communally developed and shared ethical, spiritual, and ritualistic practices. In a pluralistic society we need to allow multiple acceptable approaches to the good life to flourish and we also need points of contact, dialogue, and cooperation between such groups lest their separation into competing, non-communicating communities fracture the larger culture and make a more fundamental political common ground impossible. So, we need inter-good groups. Given religious hegemony and the backwards assumption that conceptions of the good stem from faiths only, the current default is to call these groups “inter-faith”.

And, insofar as these groups initially arose as a way to reduce inter-religious conflicts, it was a propros they be called that. The reason is that it is precisely faith, both in the sense of adherence to dogmatic assertions that are not acceptable, or even rationally defensible, across traditions and in the sense of loyal, trusting devotion to one’s own tradition, which causes the divisions that “inter-faith” groups are currently premised on soothing. Interfaith groups are morally and politically necessary (though possibly futile) because of faith’s specific work of creating (or, in modern eras, sustaining) incommensurable divisions of people into different intellectual, moral, and identity camps. Faith is the cancer and interfaith is the treatment to contain it, if not quite cure it yet.

So how to situate the atheist here? Well, we fit in that our position is incommensurable with the other faiths’. And when some atheists do not want to tacitly legitimize the theistic religions by holding hands with them and playing nice, they are being challenged to overcome incommensurable intellectual, moral, identity based barriers just as much as the different religious leaders are when they have to acknowledge each other’s religions as minimally acceptable too. This is a good exercise for atheists, just as it is for the religious. We all need to learn to find the ways to see each other’s common humanity and common values and build cooperation based on that. And we all need to have positive, constructive, interpersonal interactions and shared projects with those who have different philosophies and identities from ourselves.

Atheists really shouldn’t be there monolithically, as atheists. Ethically, there are many different kinds of atheists and they should probably represent their own various traditions distinctly. And the multiple delegations of atheist representation should lead the way in advancing a key philosophical shift in both cultural perception and the self-understanding of current inter-faith organizations. Currently interfaith groups are an attempt to unite people with theoretically incommensurable beliefs, practices, and identities by appealing to their shared commitment to faith. No matter how much they disagree about the particulars of values and metaphysics, they at least all affirm the importance of faith. In this way, they represent the very antithesis of the anti-faith, rationalistic, activist atheists and the sort of union which is based on precisely the thing we atheists oppose most vociferously on principle. In fact they could very well function as an alliance for faith against atheism as their shared greatest threat (and often theists do precisely this).

If they are to really be a group that is about overcoming theoretically incommensurable barriers then they must do this not on their affirmation of the fundamental importance of faith (which is the real source of their irresolvable divisions in the first place) but they should be based rather on their shared humanity and concern for the good. And if they shift their emphasis to this, then there will be no puzzle or contradiction in including humanists or transhumanists or skeptics or any other of a myriad possible stripes of moral atheists. And one of the ways to get them to make this shift in their own self-understanding is for atheists to join them in the first place. The reason for this is that when atheists are routinely understood to be (a) deniers of the value of “faith” and yet (b) full participants in “interfaith” groups, then the term “interfaith” will become an obvious misnomer over time and atheists can use this as impetus to change the designation of the groups from being about faith to being about shared humanity and shared commitment to the good, as they should be.

This is the best way I see to get our place at the table and to assure that the table does not rest on faith alone.

Finally, joining interfaith groups does not mean abandoning outspoken denunciation of faith-based beliefs where appropriate. What it means is challenging the ideas that faith is the one unquestionable value that should unite people and that accepting it as good should be the litmus test for being either a good person or a tolerant one. Atheists need not compromise their principles to join these groups any more than the religious have to abandon their faiths or the particulars of their doctrines to join them. All we need leave behind is any prejudices that those who are in error in one matter are in error in all and that those with different views cannot share and be profoundly bound by, other values and goals.

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