DO ATHEISTS BELONG IN THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT (Part 2)

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by Christopher Stedman

But Atheism Isn’t a ‘Faith’… 
As Lindsay articulated, there is a related concern that many atheists have about joining interfaith coalitions—that participating in interfaith work somehow bolsters religious privilege. And, all the more, that some will conflate atheists participating in interfaith work with the idea that atheism is “just another religion,” when some of the underlying values of a religious mindset are exactly what many atheists reject.
“In participating in interfaith coalitions, atheists are implicitly allowing atheism to be considered just another religion,” wrote Lindsay. I can only speak from my experience here, but I have been invited to address interfaith conferences and groups many times, and I often open with this line: “Let’s get one thing out of the way—atheism and humanism aren’t a religion.” Not once have I had anyone disagree with me.
To atheists concerned about being seen as “just another faith” and worried that interfaith isn’t an avenue for substantive discourse: I encourage you to give it a shot anyway, and be vocal about where you stand. I cannot begin to recount all of the times interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs—in fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the interfaith movement. All the more, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t.
I regularly hear from atheist students who are leading the charge for interfaith cooperation on their campuses, and their experiences echo mine. I’ve spoken on the topic of atheism and interfaith work at fourteen colleges and universities in the last two months, which gave me many opportunities to see it in action. Last month, Tufts’ Freethought Society hosted a panel on the role of atheists in interfaith efforts. I was fortunate enough to sit on the panel alongside experienced interfaith activists like Rabbi Or Rose, Valarie Kaur, Jen Bailey, and Chris LaTondresse (with whom I later, over a beer, debated about the existence of Christ).
Eboo Patel, Founder and President of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), created a video to kick off the event, and in it he said: “Interfaith work in America and the world is incomplete without the presence, the participation, and the contributions of Secular Humanists.” It couldn’t be any clearer that our perspective, with all of the challenge it may present to the religious, is wanted in interfaith work.
The question, then, is: will we take up the call? Or will we sit on the sidelines listing off reasons why we don’t belong?
An atheist blogger I really admire, Blag Hag author Jen McCreight, recently wrote that she has a problem with “the interfaith people who say the debaters and the intellectuals need to shut up and just sing kumbaya with religion.” Those people may exist, but I haven’t met many—and the only way to ensure that there is a place for compassionate but challenging discourse in interfaith work is for those who hold it in esteem to actually show up.
In my experience, interfaith work doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door; it invites people to try to understand and humanize the other. It’s a worthy goal, and if the only thing keeping some atheists from participating is a semantic disagreement with the word “faith,” I think that is a missed opportunity.
Wondering if interfaith cooperation is more than just “kumbaya”? Try it out and let me know what you experience. Your conclusions about the importance of interfaith work very well might not match mine, but I’d love to get your feedback.
Based on my own work in the interfaith movement, I’m hopeful that other atheists will find themselves pleasantly surprised. As my mom always said when, as a child, I protested eating an unfamiliar food: “Don’t knock it til you try it.”

Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago, for which he was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement. A graduate of Augsburg College with a summa cum laude B.A. in Religion, Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status.

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