Atheism, Humanism, and “Interfaith” Coalitions

April 25, 2011

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In this post I will argue for this proposition: Atheist and humanist groups should participate in “interfaith” coalitions only in exceptional circumstances. In other words, no participation should be the default position, and a compelling set of facts should be required to defeat this presumption. We should avoid the “faith” label at least as vigorously as we avoid the “religion” label.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that atheist and humanist groups should not cooperate with religious organizations or groups. That would be a ridiculous position to adopt. We should have no reluctance to work with (most) religious groups on projects where we have shared goals and we can accomplish some good. Indeed, we should try to find opportunities to do so. CFI and its affiliates have cooperated with various religious groups on a number of different projects, from legal briefs, to conferences, to service projects. In engaging in such cooperative efforts, however, we must not compromise on core principles. In my opinion, agreeing to work under the banner of “faith” constitutes an unacceptable compromise.

This is not a question of mere semantics. The cornerstone of atheism and humanism is the rejection of faith as a means of obtaining knowledge and understanding the world. Our most fundamental principle is that we should use critical reasoning and conform our beliefs to the evidence. For atheists to accept the “faith” label is as intellectually dishonest as a group of astrophysicists allowing themselves to be called astrologers. (“After all, we’re all interested in stars.”) We should not allow science to be labeled as magic and we should not allow atheism to be labeled a faith.

In participating in interfaith coalitions, atheists are implicitly allowing atheism to be considered just another religion—it’s merely a very peculiar one that’s godless and rejects anything transcending the natural world. (Instructions for an interfaith dinner: “Make sure the Jews get kosher, the Muslims get halal, and avoid beef for the Hindus and god-talk for the seculars.”) Among other things, this provides fodder for those religious fundamentalists who have always maintained that atheism and humanism are religions and that their “doctrines” such as evolution should not be taught in the public schools. It also lends support to the pernicious myth that reliance on science and empirical evidence is just as much a matter of faith as accepting the validity of revelation or mystical experiences.

Those who argue that atheists should participate in interfaith coalitions emphasize the supposed practical benefits of doing so. These arguments have been especially prominent in some of the discussion around the question of whether secular student groups should participate in the interfaith college service project sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. One of the contentions is that participation will help erode some of the negative stereotypes about atheists. Another is that participation will provide secular groups much needed recognition and the proverbial “seat at the table.” There have been many cheers about “inclusion.” Finally, those in favor of participation have asserted that as disagreeable as the term “interfaith” is, there is no effective naming alternative.

Let me address the last two contentions first. A seat at the table is less than worthless if it’s bought at the price of compromising our integrity. It’s nice that some politicians are finally willing to acknowledge our existence, but are we so desperate for acceptance that we’ll allow others to condescendingly misdescribe us as adherents of a faith? Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can “pass.”

And I don’t accept the notion that “interfaith” is the only term that can describe cooperative efforts among people with starkly different views about the value of faith, and that somehow we’re being unreasonable and nitpicking if we balk at use of the this term. If Jewish groups would balk at working under the label of Catholic Charities, it’s seems that atheists would have at least as much reason not to embrace the “interfaith” label. Regarding the name, if we’re talking about cooperative college projects, why not “Campus Partnership”? If we’re talking about cooperative projects in cities and towns, how about “Community Partnership”? To assume we can’t avoid using the term “interfaith” in the name of a cooperative service project is to buy into the whole notion that faith and charity necessarily go together. (Query: Have any of the secular groups that have jumped onto the interfaith bandwagon ever even recommended a name change? Or is there a fear that even that modest expression of concern would risk losing the coveted seat?)

Finally, it is probably true that working together with religious groups in interfaith coalitions will result in some good will and more favorable opinions about atheists. Unfortunately, many people do think of us as uncharitable. But this benefit has to be weighed against the cost. The mission of secular organizations is, presumably, not just to get atheists to be liked. Among other things, it’s to promote critical reasoning; it’s to advance the view that faith is decidedly not a virtue. Calling our worldview a faith does not seem the best way to achieve these objectives.