Obama Administration Invites Atheists to Interfaith Planning Meeting September 18, 2013

Obama Administration Invites Atheists to Interfaith Planning Meeting

Two years ago, the Obama Administration launched the “Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge,” which asked colleges and universities to “commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming on campus.”

Next week, representatives from a number of religious organizations will be meeting at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to discuss best practices and plan new projects, and atheists will be included at that meeting for the first time.

Five leaders of the Secular Student Alliance have literally been given seats at the table:

“We’re honored to be included in the President’s call for interfaith and community service,” said Jesse Galef, spokesperson for the Secular Student Alliance. “There are thousands of nonreligious students eager to work alongside their religious friends to make the world a better place.”

“From the beginning, President Obama has envisioned students from all worldviews, religious or secular, being part of his Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge,” said Ken Bedell, Senior Advisor with the Department of Education’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center. “We know it’s important to include all viewpoints in this process.”

Considering how many Millennials are unaffiliated with any religion — nearly a third of them, according to a recent Pew Research Center study — it makes a lot of sense to have a non-theistic organization at the meeting.

The SSA has been attending these Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge meetings since they began, but this marks the first time they’ll be a part of the planning discussion. I asked Jesse if the SSA asked to be included or if the White House reached out to them and I was pleasantly surprised to hear the invitation came directly from the White House.

I was present when the Obama Administration first met with atheists back in 2010 and it’s nice to see those interactions occurring more frequently. The real change will happen when these meetings stop becoming a cause for celebration every time they happen because they’re just to be expected.

Already, right-wing websites are showing hints of pushback. One article noted how the inclusion of an atheist group was “curious” given that this was an “interfaith” gathering. And as I write this, a headline about the meeting is on the Drudge Report. Give it another day and you’ll hear about it on Rush Limbaugh’s show and FOX News Channel.

So, celebratory press releases and faux outrage aside, what are the goals of this meeting?

The SSA hopes they can discover ways to involve secular students in these community service projects as much as possible — and, yes, part of that outreach may require that people use a different word than “interfaith.” They also hope to make university heads aware that secular students make up a sizable proportion of the student body, no matter the school, so the schools would be wise to make their campuses safe places for non-religious students and places where critical questions about sacred beliefs are welcomed.

While I am thrilled by this outreach, it should be noted that the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships — a group of leaders from the religious community who have a more direct line to Obama — has never included an atheist representative since its inception. Considering that the head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Melissa Rogers, is a supporter of church/state separation and even met with atheist leaders this past summer, it’s about damn time to include a non-theistic voice in that mix, too.

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