by Jesse Galef –
It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist firebrand or a diplomat. Some interfaith projects are worth joining. It’s particularly relevant right now, since secular students were included by name in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.
It’s the political thing to do. It’s the humanitarian thing to do. It’s the clever Machiavellian thing to do. And concerns about the label “interfaith” can actually be used to our advantage.
I won’t defend all interfaith, but I do encourage fellow atheists not to dismiss opportunities for the wrong reasons. There’s too much broad generalization and vague hand-waving about definitions. When should we engage and how?
In a nutshell: It’s worth engaging when we’re working toward a shared secular goal, when there’s a chance of gaining social capital through positive interaction, and when we’re not buying our place at the table with silence or dishonesty. How should we engage? Skillfully, loudly, proudly, and with a big ol’ smile on our faces.
(For the tl;dr conclusion, click here to go to the end.)
Don’t reject all Interfaith ‘By Definition’
A first stumbling block: I recommended not participating at the cost of dishonesty. Is it dishonest for an atheist, just by definition, to participate in interfaith? PZ dismissed the President’s Challenge, saying “‘interfaith’ is a code word for the religious clubhouse. It’s used to exclude secularism and promote a unity of faith, any faith, where it doesn’t matter what BS you believe, as long as you really, really believe.”
It’s a common view. My friend Jen, who writes Blag Hag, criticized anything called interfaith yesterday, starting a post with:
That’s partially why I think the push for atheist inclusion in interfaith panels and organizations is so silly. Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it’s the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith. Case closed. If that simple dictionary definition wasn’t enough…
Words can be used in a strict or loose way, they can apply to different concepts in different contexts, and have literal and implied connotations. You know who understands that? Some guy wrote an awesome post a couple months ago mocking “dictionary atheists” for insisting on a strict definition of the word. It was on a blog with a strange name, I think it was Pharyngula or something:
Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else…
You tell yourself, PZ! We should be wary if someone’s argument starts with “By definition, atheism is -.” or “By definition, interfaith is -.” The word ‘interfaith’ isn’t a platonic ideal that always, in every case, excludes us. Sure, it very often does – after all, the dictionary definitions exist for a reason! But we have to know how a person is using the word before we know whether it applies; quoting the strict dictionary definition isn’t appropriate in every context. If we could cut through the semantics and just look at the project’s details, what do we think?
From all evidence, the White House has demonstrated – through public statements and actions – that we atheists, humanists, and secular students are included. The project is an effort to unite people of all religious backgrounds toward common secular goals. In short, a project doing work I support.
Connotations Matter – Apply Jujitsu!
Yes, semantics DO matter. I couldn’t do my job without paying attention to semantics. We can’t completely scrub words of their connotations – using the word ‘faith’ to refer to a worldview can be problematic if people still have the association ‘belief without evidence’.
Interfaith leaders are aware of this – they’ve voiced similar frustrations. Think about all the arguments we have over whether to call ourselves atheist, agnostic, skeptic, humanist, secular humanist, bright, pastafarian, freethinker, theological noncognitivist, nontheist… How do you feel about a self-professed humanist who refuses to go to an “atheist” meetup or conference because they don’t want to be associated with “atheism”?
Is it a problem for atheists to be involved in a project whose name includes the word interfaith? I’m going to go against the grain and say not only is it not a problem – we can use it to our advantage. To the extent that the word ‘interfaith service’ has the connotation ‘religious people doing charity’ we can do some Memetic Jujitsu!
Just look at what President Obama said in announcing the project:
I know that as we go forward it’s going to take all of us – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer – to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As a Christian who became committed to the church while serving my community, I know that an act of service can unite people of all faiths – or even no faith – around a common purpose of helping those in need. In doing so, we can not only better our communities, we can build bridges of understanding between ourselves and our neighbors.
See how he was forced to emphasize that we were involved? I can’t tell you how much I love political and social leaders telling the world that religion isn’t the only way to be a good person. Our participation makes them highlight that we are being good without god.
Are you really worried about people thinking atheism is a religion when the President is repeatedly referring to “people of all religions and none”? That people will think atheists have faith when they hear “people of all faiths and none”?
The best way to get people using those phrases? Get involved and pivot the collective vocabulary. Sit at the table with religious leaders and smile, so they’re confronted with their (usually inadvertent) exclusionary language. Sharon Moss, the President of our Humanist Community, has shared inspiring success stories like this. Not only have people started being more inclusive, she doesn’t even have to be the one to raise objections. As the other participants became more aware of humanist participation, some of them started arguing HER side. She could sit there while others had her back. That’s progress we wouldn’t see without specifically engaging with religious groups.
What Interfaith Has over “Just Community Service”
The objection to the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Challenge I consider strongest is: Why organize service around faith traditions at all? Why “Interfaith and Community Service” and not just “Community Service”? By specifically reaching out to religious groups – and highlighting their involvement in the project’s title – it strengthens the impression that religion is the source of charity.
The point is well taken. But while interfaith programs are this way, I don’t see much benefit from our refusing to participate. At least by getting involved, we can use our Jujitsu to help mitigate the effect.
And we do benefit by making an effort to reach out to faith traditions. The idea isn’t simply to do community service, it’s to bringing together different groups (often with strained relations) to work toward a shared goal. The psychological impact can be powerful (see the Robber’s Cave experiment). When people work together for something they both want, it reduces animosity.
Why should we care? For one thing, political progress will be easier if we’re not despised. But also: With less animosity, it’s easier to win on the merit of our arguments. The more I learn about psychology, the less I can believe that we humans rationally weigh arguments to evaluate which side has better evidence. Chris Mooney just wrote an excellent article for Mother Jones titled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science“:
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
We have better arguments than religion. I truly believe that. But getting people to listen to those arguments through the irrational stigma can be tough. We’re all influenced by a emotional factors, including how much we like the person making a particular argument. Ask yourself: are you more likely to consider evidence from someone you like and trust, or someone you don’t?
In each situation we have to weigh what we’re giving up to gain that social capital, and whether it’s worth it. If we gain social capital while doing something we wanted anyway – like community service – it’s a win-win.
The Wrong Kind of Interfaith
There’s a time to offend people. It can be a powerful tool. We can’t pursue social capital at all costs and be “nice” no matter what.
For example, it might make the religious right more comfortable to tell them science and religion are perfectly compatible. But lying is not a price I’m willing to pay. I won’t pretend to believe something I don’t or make a show of respecting something that I don’t.
If your interfaith program makes funding/membership rely on an agreement that you can’t voice “offensive” opinions on your own time? Well, remember how I said I wouldn’t defend all interfaith? Yeah, get the fuck out of there. That’s the wrong kind of interfaith. Our right to criticize religion is far too valuable. Jen (fairly) complains about the double-standard:
[R]ight now, the “accepting” interfaith movement is full of hypocrisy. It’s totally fine for religious people in the interfaith movement to disagree about things – that’s the whole concept of interfaith work. But an atheist disagrees with them? Then they’re just being an asshole and need to shut up. We saw this sort of reaction with Everybody Draw Mohammed Day – when the atheists stood by their values, they were the ones in the wrong. They were the ones who needed to shut up lest they offend the others in the group.
It really IS an annoying double standard. But if the only consequence is being told we’re in the wrong, that’s an indictment of society’s double standard – not of engagement with interfaith. People might get offended by smiling chalked stick figured labeled Muhammad, and they have the right to be Very Upset about it and tell us so. But that’ll be the case whether or not we’re working to rebuild houses with them or sitting in a circle to talk once a month. We don’t have to change your approach outside to get benefits from interfaith:
|Engage in interfaith||Don’t Engage in Interfaith|
|Draw Muhammad||Make our point, building social capital before/after the Very Stern Talking To.||Make our point without added social capital, increased chance of misunderstanding/uncharitable interpretations|
|Don’t Draw Muhammad||Build bridges and avenues to influence minds||Have fun on your own, but change the world less|
If anything, increased interaction with the interfaith crowd will cut down on the confusion and double standards. Since the Interfaith Youth Core controversy around Draw Muhammad Day, we’ve built much better relations. I think both sides have a better understanding now – achieved by each of us doing what we thought was right and discussing it.
If you want to be a diplomat and build bridges, this is an opportunity to live and demonstrate your humanist values.
If you want to be a firebrand and change minds, this is an opportunity to build up some social capital to help your argument go down easier.
If you want to speed up our political progress, this is an opportunity to gain influence.
If you want to change society’s association of morality with religion, this is an opportunity to change the dialogue.
Unless we’re required to give up our honesty and sign away our right to speak our minds (a legitimate concern), the benefits seem to outweigh the costs.
So what if the title has ‘faith’ in it? It forces people to highlight that we’re good without god. So what if society has a double standard? We change that by speaking our mind AND engaging to help others understand us. So what if we get yelled at? We’re strong enough. We know other people don’t agree with us. We know some of them think we’re going to hell. We know other people believe and do things we find repulsive. None of that is a reason to avoid interfaith engagement, especially in projects that focus on secular missions like the President’s Challenge.
I hope to see secular students getting – carefully and skillfully – involved.