“Interfaith” and Inclusion: Another View

April 19, 2013

There’s been much passionate commentary about the recent Boston interfaith service excluding humanist, atheists, and other freethinkers. It’s not for lack of effort; Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein and other heavy-hitters in the movement strove mightily for a place on the altar — pardon me, stage — and were coldly stonewalled. But what are we asking for when we seek inclusion in such events? While it may make sense for Epstein, whose work skews religious-humanist, to want a place at an interfaith event, should atheists and more secular humanists be seeking to stand by his side? I don’t think so. On my view, those of us in the movement who are not comfortable with the “religious humanist” identifier should not be seeking entry to interfaith events. Instead, we should be boycotting them, then demanding something more inclusive in their place.

Commenting on the controversy, blogger J. T. Eberhard wrote: “Today there will be an interfaith event to mourn the victims of the Boston bombing.  The President himself will be in attendance.  But when they say interfaith, they really mean interfaith.” Really, though, who should find this surprising? Sometimes words mean what they say. Dictionary.com defines interfaith as “relating to, between, or involving different religions.” Why should non-religious people want, much less expect, to be included in an event whose stated scope is only to bring together representatives of different religions? Why should atheists and hard secularists who actively disdain religion want to play any part in something like that?

Full disclosure: I used to take part in interfaith events in the Buffalo, New York area. Ironically, it was after reading Epstein’s provocative book God Without God, in which he argues for unbelievers to take part in interfaith work, that I fully grasped the contradictions implicit in doing so. I don’t appear on interfaith panels anymore. When invited, my stock reply is “Sorry, this is an event for representatives of various religions, and I do not represent a religion. When you plan an event that’s not narrowly restricted to persons of faith, be sure to call me.”

To some degree, this reflects my particular situation as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. For more than forty years, religious Right ideologues have been accusing humanism generally — and secular humanism specifically — of being just another religion, one more rival to Christianity in the game whose other players are Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on. The purpose of much of this argumentation was that if it became generally accepted that humanism was a religion, then evangelicals could seek to have ideas associated with humanism (such as the theory of evolution, the idea that Earth is billions of years old, or the notion that moral decision-making ought to be individual and autonomous rather than based on rules handed down by authority figures) excluded from public schools as violations of the separation of church and state. (To this day, about the only way you can catch some religious Right spokespeople admitting that there is such as thing as church-state separation is if you get them going on the “religion of humanism.”) For decades, one of the Council’s recurring imperatives has been to make clear at every opportunity that secular humanism is not a religion. For much of this time, we had to do this in a setting in which avowedly religious humanists were quite visible in the Unitarian Universalist Association and elsewhere, and in which the other principal humanist organization, the American Humanist Association, was a religious organization for tax purposes. (Fortunately, that ended in the early 2000s.) So we at the Council had to expend a lot of energy in maintaining that secular humanism, at least, was in no way a religion. When you come out of a background like that, the perils of taking part in interfaith events should be obvious — so much so that I personally regret not having recognized the need to boycott such events much sooner.

But there’s a larger issue here. In my view, it’s the real message of inclusiveness that most of us in the movement should be emphasizing — a message we cannot credibly send while some of us are begging to be included onstage alongside the priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams. There’s a popular impression that “interfaith” is the acme of inclusiveness, that when you want to stage an event that’s designed to encompass an entire community, an interfaith observance is the way to go. That impression is decades out of date, and more of us ought to be saying so. Because an interfaith event embraces only members of religions, and does so frankly and openly, in a nation where twenty percent of adults don’t belong to any religion, “interfaith” is not the last word in inclusivity. Interfaith events, by definition, exclude twenty percent of American adults. They exclude a third of the young.

If, after some traumatic event such as the Boston bombings, officials want to hold an event that includes everyone, from now on they need to do better than interfaith. They need to develop events that do not draw most of their architecture from religious services that no longer speak to the identities and aspirations of one adult American in five. Except in situations where representatives of different churches legitimately do want to just talk to one another — wrangling out differences in how they interpret the Bible, or some such — “interfaith” is an idea whose time has passed.

Of course, it’s difficult to maintain that principled position when you’re begging for grudging admission to what amounts to the back seat on the church bus.

To my mind, leaders of atheist and secular humanist and other strong-freethinker groups shouldn’t complain that they are being excluded from interfaith events. They shouldn’t campaign to get in. No, we should stay out even when asked, and use whatever spotlight that casts our way to press the argument that in a nation that is home to growing numbers of post-religious men and women, real inclusion demands something way better than an interfaith event … something that is radically more inclusive than a church service with the points of doctrinal disagreement sanded down.

Finally, there’s another issue that must be confronted when the interfaith observance in question is a memorial. Seeking to place religionists and nonreligionists on the same stage at a memorial event presumes that there is anything that representatives of these diverse perspectives can validly do together when the focus is on helping attendees to come to terms with the loss of fellow citizens, friends, or loved ones. The problem here should be obvious. For traditional believers, the focus of a memorial event is altogether different than it is for unbelievers. Traditional believers acknowledge the pain of loss, but cover it over with the ointment of beliefs in the afterlife. Unbelievers are confronting a starker reality: the deceased is truly, achingly gone and will never, ever be seen again. To put it more flippantly than I probably should, when believers and unbelievers sit side by side at a memorial event, they are two discrete groups doing two very different things. The unbelievers are there to say “Good-bye forever”; the believers are there to say “See you later.” I don’t know if it will ever make sense to try to achieve two such disparate objectives at a single event. (A tip of the hat to Jason Torpy, with whom I co-developed some of the ideas in this final paragraph in the course of another online debate.)