This is a guest post by Jonathan Figdor. John (MDiv ‘10, Harvard Divinity School) is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University as well as a board member of the Secular Student Alliance, an organization that provides support for young atheists, skeptics, and Humanists. on campuses across the country and around the globe.
His new blog is called Atheologically Thinking.
As an avid reader of Pharyngula, Butterflies & Wheels, and, of course, Friendly Atheist, I was surprised to see how much negative attention the idea of Interfaith Service generated last week. I’ve heard a lot of interesting reasons why Interfaith Service poses challenges to secular folks, but I wanted to share what I think are the overwhelming benefits of Interfaith Service. But instead of answering the relatively easy question of why Humanists ought to engage in interfaith service, I want to answer a more interesting question: Why should New Atheists engage in Interfaith Service?
- It accomplishes service. Who cares if we have to hijack someone’s religious delusions to compel them to help us build a park or feed the homeless? The point is, we get a park built and the homeless fed.
- Doing Interfaith Service lets people know about Atheism. A lot of people who might consider themselves Atheists don’t even know that we exist. This helps raise our profile. Furthermore, your group of New Atheists might even get media attention for their participation. Imagine how being featured on the local news, or in an article in the local paper might help you spread the word about your local group of heathens.
- It robs religious groups of yet another day to publicly proclaim that only faith can compel people to acts of public service. Now that they have to mention that we ”dirty Atheists” helped them build a park, maybe we can have a little less pretentious public piety.
- It helps disprove the (untrue) and offensive assertion that atheists are immoral. Religious believers can hardly accuse non-believers of immorality when they are side by side, building low-income housing, or taking a shift at a soup kitchen with them.
- It gives us an opportunity to talk to believers about their faith and show them that they don’t have to believe in an invisible man in the sky to live ethical lives. How are people going to learn that you can be good without god and leave a happy and ethical life as a non-believer, if we happy and ethical non-believers cloister ourselves in our ivory tower of Atheism?
One final consideration: If you want people to stop calling it “Interfaith Service,” because you find that term offensive (because we don’t have faith in an eternal sky father), join an Interfaith Service project and make your impassioned protest that you feel like the name of the event excludes you by definition from within their own community.
If your Interfaith group isn’t respectful of your criticism and doesn’t make some effort to include you (perhaps, by saying ”Interfaith and Inter-Philosophy Service,” or ”Inter-World-View Service”), you can complain loudly and publicly that your so-called ”Interfaith Service Group” isn’t standing up for all participants, faithful and faithless. You can even threaten to back out of the group (call a press conference, write an op-ed) and eloquently call attention to their hypocrisy. If the Interfaith movement really does want to include Atheists and respect our perspective, they have to put their money where their mouth is and respect criticism from Atheists just as they would respect any other group’s criticism (for example, not meeting on Jewish holidays, on Christmas, or during Ramadan). In essence, you can use their invitation to Interfaith Service to open a dialogue about how you feel like “faith” is given undue credit, and to show them how communities of faith victimizes Atheists by excluding them from the faith conversation by its very title.
In short, the “New Atheists” stand to gain a lot more than they would lose by participating in Interfaith Service. At best, they can use Interfaith Service to educate people about Atheism. At worst, they can serve as the reasonable adults in the room and expose the areas where the Interfaith Service movement might improve (including that very term…).