Inside Interfaith – Principled Engagement is the Key

Inside Interfaith – Principled Engagement is the Key February 16, 2012

My recent post on religious privilege at the Creating Change conference in Baltimore is relevant to this question.

I have recently reentered the discussion of interfaith work, through a response to a post by JT Eberhard about a panel on interfaith work at ReasonFest. I recognize there are serious disagreements within the freethought community when it comes to engagement with interfaith work. I think any discussion of the topic needs to be informed by level-headed thinking, experience with interfaith work itself, and a strategic outlook which recognizes the value of the many different ways activists can benefit the freethought movement.

Also, let me state at the outset that interfaith work is not my primary area of concern. I believe there are many more effective ways to promote rationalism, skepticism, atheism and Humanism than engaging in interfaith work. I myself am only a recent convert to the value of such work: I have only been engaged seriously in such efforts for the past couple of years, and I am still skeptical of the value of much of what goes on under the interfaith heading. I acknowledge that the term “interfaith” is not ideal, and that we should seek to change it if we can. I support organizing service work ourselves without the banner of “interfaith” when we are able too.

At the same time, I also recognize that changing or avoiding the interfaith label will not always be possible, especially when we are dealing with long-established interfaith events. I think the position JT seems to be taking, and that commenters at Freethought Blogs like Rieux explicitly take – that atheists should not engage in work which goes under the heading of “interfaith” for any reason – is needlessly restrictive, and closes off useful options which freethought activists might wish to consider.

Instead, I advocate an approach I call “principled engagement”: atheists should feel free to engage in interfaith work if certain stringent conditions are met, while remaining alert for situations in which their principles might be traduced. I am not arguing that every atheist or Humanist, or every atheist or Humanist group or organization, should engage in interfaith work. I am not arguing that anyone must engage in such efforts. I am arguing, rather, that it is beneficial to the movement as a whole, and to the causes we espouse, if some atheists engage, in a principled manner, in interfaith work, if the only other option is that an interfaith event would go ahead without us.

I’m not responding here to those who say “interfaith work is not for me” – to each their own. But I do object to the argument that no atheists should ever engage in interfaith work, and to the insinuation often present in discussions of interfaith work that to engage is to somehow betray the atheist cause. I also note here that I am writing from my own explicitly Humanist perspective, and that, in my work, I seek to promote Humanism, not simply atheism or skepticism. This is important because the principles I argue should guide engagement in interfaith work are ones which are drawn from the Humanist tradition and which may not be shared by all atheists.

The Basic Benefits of Interfaith Work

There are a number of “basic” benefits which accrue to the atheist movement of engaging in interfaith work which are relatively uncontroversial, and which I will only outline here. Chris Stedman has done a much better job than I can outlining these basic benefits.

  1. Interfaith service work is still service work. The hungry we feed benefit if we participate. If we did not participate, less meals would be made, and more would go hungry. So too for any form of service work.
  2. Working together with other institutions spreads the organizational load. It is much easier to organize a large clothing drive when multiple groups come together to share the work. This also relates to the first question, since a critic might well ask “Why can’t we do this work alone?” One answer is that it’s much easier to do this work in collaboration with others.
  3. Working alongside people of faith, or sharing our stories with them, helps dispel prejudicial myths about atheists. It is harder to disparage people with whom you have just painted a decrepit house.
  4. There is inherent benefit in working toward a common goal alongside people who are different to you. I have become a better, more considerate, more compassionate person because of my discussions with people of faith at interfaith events. I may not agree with them, but I understand them better. In a deeply divided society, that is itself of benefit.
  5. Many progressive social goals will not be achieved any time soon without the help of the religious. Humanists are simply too few in number (self-identified atheists and Humanists are a tiny fraction of the US population) to make progressive changes like ensuring a woman’s right to control her own body is not violated, everyone has the same marriage rights, and even that science is taught in schools. We need the help of the religious to achieve these ends, so working with them in interfaith settings may be necessary.

Any criticism of interfaith work must take the above benefits seriously. They are noted as benefits by all atheist groups I know of who have had extended engagement with interfaith work under the framework of a clear set of principles (read: know what they’re talking about from experience). This is true of the Humanist student groups at Harvard, Chris Stedman in his work with the Interfaith Youth CoreEd Clint and the Illini Secular Student Alliance, and Conrad Hudson of KUSOMA. And these benefits are not negligible: they represent steps forward in multiple areas of primary concern for Humanists.

Furthermore, many of these benefits scale. Consider the first: the value of the service work done under a banner of “interfaith”. Depending on the nature of the service work, the size of the project, and the needs of your community, the value of this item changes. In a community riddled with youth crime, an interfaith effort to prevent it becomes more pressing than in a community where that is less of a problem. Interfaith efforts to combat manifest injustices, like the attacks on equality for queer people in the USA, are particularly important on this score. Benefit 2 also scales: the bigger the project, the greater the need to spread the load. Benefit 3 scales depending on the level of prejudice toward atheists in your area. So these benefits alone can be compelling to the Humanist, whose primary commitments are to reason and compassion. Getting involved in interfaith endeavors – even under the banner of interfaith – can promote both, and may cause a significant impact. The power of these benefits grows with the necessity of the service you are engaging in.

The Dangers of Interfaith Work

In my examination of various sources in the preparation of this post, I have identified the following central criticisms of interfaith work from an atheist perspective (Rieux’s comment at JT’s blog is an extremely concise description of these criticisms):

  1. Interfaith means “between faith perspectives”, and atheism and Humanism are not based on faith – indeed, are antagonistic to it. Engaging in interfaith work therefore misrepresents the nature of atheism and Humanism, which is a form of lie.
  2. This misrepresentation lends ammunition to those of our critics who claim that atheism and Humanism are “just another religion” or “based on faith”. This undermines our claim to epistemic superiority, making atheism not “the only fully reasonable option” but “one view among many that are equally legitimate”. Since we want to argue for the epistemic superiority of a naturalistic worldview, this harms our cause.
  3. Engaging in interfaith work reinforces religious privilege, by allowing “faith: to take the credit for good works, and by lifting up the voices of religious leaders whose legitimacy we have cause to doubt. In so doing we further marginalize nonreligious people.
  4. Interfaith work by necessity involves the silencing of religious criticism, since atheists need to bite their tongue in interfaith settings in order to play nice.
  5. Interfaith work allows “faith” and people of faith to take the credit for secular activities. Rieux gives the example of the civil rights and LGBTQ movements, which he claims “begin as heavily skeptical entities attacking mainstream American Christian bigotry” and end with “Christianity claim[ing] credit for the entire movement”.

These criticisms are not to be taken lightly. They are well-posed and stem from clear principles – principles I share. I certainly recognize that all five dangers could be realized in a given interfaith encounter, and sometimes are realized (hence my criticism of the approach to interfaith at the Creating Change conference). If all these criticisms were accurate, I might not engage in interfaith work.

Why do I say “might not” instead of “would not”? Because I believe, in certain situations, the benefits still outweigh the dangers. Some human need is so great, and some oppression so atrocious, that I am willing to temporarily promote religious privilege in order to meet the need. This is not heresy: it is the principled balancing of competing ethical commitments common to any complex moral problem.

When Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made a call to clergy to join him in the second march from Selma to Montgomery, and made the event explicitly an interfaith one (“There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes’’), multitudes of Humanists also marched (Edward Ericson describes this movingly in his book The Humanist Way). I have no doubt that in following King to Selma, and engaging in the prayer session which he led during the march, some amount of religious privilege was reinforced. “Faith” took some of the credit. Atheists allowed themselves to be described as members of a “faith”. And a blow was struck for civil rights which reverberated around the country.

I would have been there. Those who oppose interfaith at any cost would have stayed at home.

What is needed, it seems to me, are principles of engagement which will guide nonbelievers in their interfaith efforts, such that we avoid, as much as possible, the dangers which might accrue, and reap most of the benefits.

The Five Rules of Principled Engagement

So what are the “rules of engagement” I propose when it comes to interfaith work?

  1. Values First. Humanists should never engage in interfaith work towards a goal which conflicts with Humanist values. Thus an interfaith event arguing against equal marriage or for racial inequality, for example, is a non-starter.
  2. Inclusive Language. Humanists should negotiate inclusive language and practices to be used at the event itself. This includes ensuring facilitators talk about people of faith and without faith, do not refer to “whatever God you believe in”, and police other rhetoric of this sort. This should ideally be sorted-out beforehand through training of the facilitators (for example, the Interfaith Youth Core provides such training to its facilitators), but  we can also self-advocate at such events (I believe self-advocacy is critical, as will become clear later). I have done this successfully multiple times.
  3. Giving Voice. Humanists should negotiate an opportunity to present themselves and their views openly and honestly before whatever constituencies are involved in the event. This may mean speaking on a panel to all the participants beforehand, sharing our experience in small groups, giving a speech alongside representatives of religions, or wearing t-shirts identifying ourselves as atheists (I’ve done all these).
  4. Equal Representation. Humanists should negotiate fair representation in any press materials which accompany the event. This includes fliers, press-releases, interviews, videos, web-sites etc. Clearly, full control over the press is not possible, but a concerted effort should be made by organizers to stress that nonreligious people – people who are not people of faith – are also involved in the effort in question.
  5. Right to Critique. Humanists should never give up their right to openly and robustly criticize dangerous religious practices and beliefs, as well as religious faith itself. Our criticism should of course be principled itself (see an upcoming post at the Humanist Community Project for an exploration of principled criticism), but we should never allow our ability to critique to be muzzled. This may sound idealistic, but I have never attended an interfaith event in which I have not been able to articulate to my satisfaction my criticisms of faith and of damaging religious practices and beliefs.

These rules ensure, in my view, that our engagement with interfaith events remains true to our core values. To the extent that adherence to these rules is in the control of the Humanist participants or the event organizers, they are non-negotiable. Some entail a certain amount of risk – the press will tend to cover the event how it likes, for example, and it’s hard to control that – but I believe the risks are overblown by critics and the rewards under-acknowledged.

Further, adherence to these five principles opens the door to a sixth benefit of interfaith work: Humanist presence in interfaith work can destabilize and damage religious privilege. I.e. we can not only avoid the dangers but, I believe, achieve the opposite of what the critics suppose.

Principled Engagement in Practice – Three Examples

Three of my own experiences with interfaith should serve to illustrate how these principles might play out in practice. This is a critical section of my argument, because it is my experience that many of the staunchest critics of interfaith work have no extended experience of it. Therefore, they suffer from misunderstandings which feed their fears.

The Congress on the Future of Faith at Harvard

My first experience of interfaith work was as a panelist and discussant in the day-long seminar “The Congress on the Future of Faith at Harvard”. I was not only a participant in the event, but also one of the organizers, involved from the beginning in the planning of the day. I was involved from the start because I wanted to be: I made it clear, when I heard about the event, that I felt it would be essential for a nonreligious voice to be represented. From my understanding of their arguments, people like JT and Rieux (a commentator I greatly admire for his ferocious intelligence and powerful wit), I should not have been involved (I suspect PZ Myers feels the same, going by posts such as this).

Let me be very clear about what would have happened had Humanists not been involved in the Congress: the event would have gone ahead anyway (there was already significant investment in the idea among certain quarters), and religious people would have discussed the “Future of Faith at Harvard” without being challenged by the fact that some, like me, think that faith’s “future” in a University setting is highly dubious. By engaging with the process from the start I was able to raise critical questions from the start about how the sessions would be run, how the event would be marketed, and which language would be used. I was also asked to speak as one of four panelists in the opening session, representing the Humanist worldview – I am convinced this would not have happened had I not chosen to be fully engaged in the process from day one.

At the event itself, then, I got to deliver a speech which raised issues which otherwise would not have been raised at the event – issues which are central to the atheist cause. Issues like discrimination against atheists in politics and the workplace, and the negative stereotypes about atheists that persist in American society. I got to present a positive vision of a pluralist society in which atheists are fully respected. And I got to state my skepticism that faith has any role in the future of Harvard at all. Then, in small group sessions, I was able to press Mormons on their anti-gay views, evangelicals on their lack of rationalism, and to further press my criticism of faith itself. These are not the sort of “deferential mewling sentences” which Rieux fears characterize atheists in interfaith discussions.

All this is a win for Humanism. It required a certain amount of courage and a willingness to enter an uncomfortable situation: I find it very hard to talk to Mormons about why they don’t see me as equal to themselves. But when the alternative is not to engage in the discussion, I don’t see that the arguments against attendance are strong. Numerous people at the event – most all of them religious people – told me they had a new respect for and understanding of atheists and the discrimination they face after hearing me speak than hitherto. Many told me I raised important and difficult questions about their faith that they would struggle with. Some said they had never heard of Humanism before, and never considered the possibility of a powerful nonreligious moral stance.

This was not a conciliatory, spineless flash in the pan, but a consistent, principled, full-throated expression Humanism in what would otherwise have been a purely religious space. It made people question their religious privilege. It made them question their religious faith. It destabilized (productively) what would have been a more comfortable discourse had I followed JT’s advice and refused to get involved. It shone light on religious privilege and made it a topic of discussion. In effect, Humanist participation in this explicitly interfaith event achieved precisely the opposite of what critics often claim will occur: religious privilege weakened, not strengthened.

Faith & Leadership in a Fragmented World Seminar

My experience was similar when I participated in the Faith & Leadership in a Fragmented World seminar (I’ve written about this experience before, here and here). This was a week-long event, also at Harvard, again explicitly under the “interfaith” banner. I had to apply to attend – this was another conscious choice on my part to muscle into a conversation which otherwise might have proceeded without nonreligious voices (there turned out to be at least three self-identified atheists at the event). Again, this event, a recurring yearly seminar, would have happened whether we liked it or not.

An opportunity for self-advocacy in favor of atheist inclusion occurred right at the start. We’re being addressed by world-renowned experts in religious pluralism and political organizing, and everyone is talking about “faith backgrounds”, “faith traditions”, “faith-based values”. I raise my hand, and ask whether, together, as a group, we can come up with language that is inclusive of those, like myself, who do not have faith, and who have principled criticisms of faith itself. And one of the workshop leaders replies “Everyone has faith. Atheism is a faith! It requires just as much faith to be a Humanist as anything else!”

Note this is precisely one of the fears articulated by those who oppose any and all interfaith engagement: that atheism and Humanism will be considered “just another faith” or “just another religion”, that we will be enveloped by a term we do not want and do not like. But because I was there I was able to directly challenge this assertion. I was able to articulate why we object to the term “faith” being applied to us, what problems we have with faith as a way of justifying beliefs and actions, and why we reject and oppose it. If I (or other atheists) wasn’t there I would not have been able to do this, and that narrative would have gone unchallenged.

I went on to challenge faith again, and again, and again, all throughout the week. Every time a case-study presented a CEO praying for guidance, I could say how dangerous I thought that was. Every time a political leader looked to the heavens for succor, I could give an opposing view. Every time an example was given of a leader using faith to good effect, I got to mention how Bush prayed before going to war with Iraq. Once again, as before, the presence of strong, principled, unafraid atheists changed the discussion, and destabilized a cozy pro-religious consensus which otherwise would have gone unchallenged.

Again, this was tough. I didn’t make a lot of friends during the seminar. I offended some people. Some asked me pointedly, “Why are you even here?” My prickly interventions became something of a running joke. But my commitment to the moral value of Humanism, and to the rational necessity of atheism are such that I am willing to undergo discomfort to further their promotion. I am willing to step into the lion’s den and advocate for faithlessness among the faithful. And, just as before, many came forward to say my presence enriched the discussion, challenged them, expanded their consciousness. Once more, what actually happened is the opposite of what is predicted by interfaith critics.

Boston Pride Interfaith Service

This one is the most important to me personally, and the one that is also most difficult to justify under my five principles. I present this case here, even though I’m aware some will have issues with what I chose to do, for completeness and honesty. I want to show how I am willing to change my strategy if I think a cause is important enough, and also to show where I can make missteps even when I’ve thought through these issues for a while.

Last year, I muscled my way into speaking at the Boston Pride Interfaith Service. This is not an exaggeration: I emailed the organizers saying there really should be at least one representative of nonreligious people, that I was offering to be that representative, and that I wasn’t going to let it drop (once I was at the table everyone was extremely welcoming and charming). Again, the event, which has gone on for decades, would have happened with or without me, so the choice was between engagement or an interfaith event with no atheist voices.

I wanted to be present to show that Humanists, too, support LGBTQ equality. I have become frustrated with the mountain of words Humanist groups produce supporting gay rights, and the meager actions which stem from those words. In every Pride Parade in the USA you will find numerous church groups marching and tabling. But very often you find no Humanist or atheist groups at all (certainly in Boston and Providence this is the case. I hear it is also the case in other cities). I wanted to present a moral vision of Humanism to people who otherwise would not hear it, and stand with my queer comrades in solidarity, religious or not.

Rieux believes I should not do this. He says:

“You are lending your time and energy to the very forces that marginalize and pathologize nonbelievers. You are strengthening faith, which necessarily means disempowering the faithless. I wish you’d stop.”

I can see why he might think this. I was speaking in what is absolutely a religious setting, in a church, from a pulpit. I was speaking alongside representatives of many faith traditions, including Catholics (who have been responsible for atrocious oppression of queer people), Protestants, Jewish people, Hindus, Pagans and more. I read a poem (by a celebrated Humanist activist) which included the line “faith in people”. I even wore a Humanist stole (that’s the thing Christian clergy wear around their necks in services – I was exploring Humanist dress at the time and it intrigued and amused me to do so. I probably won’t do so again.).

In terms of my principles, I didn’t have a lot of control over the language of the event. Although the Humanist voice was represented, it may have been dwarfed by the ostensibly religious setting. Although I gained the right to speak, it was in a limited format which left me with difficult choices as to what to say. To some degree, I may have forfeited the right to religious criticism (although, as you can see from my description of Rabbi Howard Berman’s blistering attack on Cardinal O’Malley and the Catholic hierarchy at the event, I could easily have done more critique than I imagined). One result was that Humanism was referred to as a “faith” by at least one commentator, who appreciated “the broad spectrum of faiths represented, including the humanist tradition”

So this one is a tough call. But I still, with great respect, disagree with Rieux. I still think it was better to speak out than to eschew the event and have the Humanist voice remain silent there. First, because, as I found out afterward, and as is my common experience, many Humanists were in attendance, and were powerfully moved to hear and see their worldview expressed with passion and fire. They attend the service each year to support their queer religious friends and family, but always feel left out. Now they don’t – they feel affirmed and supported, energized and engaged. That, to me, seems like a win. Second, because many religious people who had never heard a nonreligious person speaking with authority on moral issues were powerfully moved by what I had to say.

But most important, I attended (and will do so again) because this is what we might call a Selma moment. The denigration and demeaning of queer people in America must stop, it must stop soon, and we need liberal religious people to help us make it stop. There are not yet enough Humanists to do it alone, and Rieux’s advice – to “Discredit and destroy religious privilege. Strengthen atheist visibility and identity. Build atheist communities. In the longer term, discredit religious faith and authority” – while all goals I support, will take too long for too many. We don’t have time to achieve all that, taking only that strategy, and eschewing interfaith efforts like this Service, will extract a price paid in the suicide of gay teens. 

Further, Rieux fails to understand that, by lifting up the voices of religious liberals, we actually destabilize religious privilege as it is constructed in America. We reinforce one piece of religious privilege to fight another piece, and in so doing fracture the whole. It is not an ideal strategy. It’s not one I’m always fully comfortable with. But with gay kids swinging from nooses of their own creation it is the strategy we, as a movement, are ethically obliged to pursue.

Perhaps this shows the necessity of a sixth meta-principle: the principle of overwhelming need. If the human need is great enough, the oppression grave enough, make common cause with the religious under the interfaith banner, even if it is uncomfortable.


Interfaith will remain a contentious issue for nonbelievers. I recognize the principled disagreements of those who feel they cannot in good conscience engage in such work. But I myself find the arguments I have presented sufficiently compelling to get stuck in. Principled engagement in interfaith efforts can not only accrue the basic benefits of interfaith work, but can itself damage religious privilege. Taking this road requires courage, and it requires skill. But it is not, I believe, a betrayal of Humanist principles. on the contrary: it is a noble expression of them.

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