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Should Freethinkers be included in interfaith organizations?
Original column
The red text below sparked the controversy.

2008  Dec 31 
A wish list for faiths 
in 2009 

A growing number of folks are, like me, convinced that one’s spiritual life is deepened by knowing about the faiths of others, and that our community is strengthened by mutual respect. 
   In various ways over twenty organizations in the metro area are now putting these sentiments into action. Good. And to move forward, here is my 2009 wish list for the Heartland. 
   * Form a Council of Congregations. Since 1989, we have been served by an Interfaith Council with members of more than a dozen faiths, from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, one member per faith. This may be the ideal arrangement for education. 
   But we also need a metro-wide organization through which all religious groups are able to exchange information, respond to urgent or long-term social needs, co-ordinate resources, and co-operate on issues of mutual interest. 
   The creation of such a group was the chief recommendation of the 30-some religious leaders of the Religion / Spirituality Cluster of then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver’s 1996 Task Force on Race Relations. 
   In their opinion, a body organized through denominational offices would be ineffective. Each congregation, of whatever faith, needs to be represented. 
   * Create an interfaith chapel at KCI. A non-profit group should lease space at the airport so that we, like other great cities, can offer travelers a place for prayer, meditation and reflection. It would also enhance our city’s reputation far beyond the members of the North American Interfaith Network who will come here for their convention in June. 
   * Welcome Freethinkers into the interfaith conversation. In the US, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Deists and others, often called “Freethinkers,” number more than any religion except Christianity. These folks care deeply about humane values. They work as much as those of any faith to make a better world. They have much to contribute to, and learn from, interfaith dialogue
   * Access art to grow spiritually. Several groups are appropriating the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as part of their interfaith explorations. There and at other facilities as well, they are discovering that even works with seemingly secular subjects often elevate the spirit. 
   Kansas City offers ballet, opera, chamber, symphony and club music, as well as theater, film and other arts that help us understand the world afresh, and awaken and deepen the basic spiritual capacity to wonder, to sense the sacred where we might not have expected it. 
   May you, dear reader, and our beloved community be blessed in 2009. 


On “Freethinkers”

Richard J. Janet

Professor and chair, Dept. of History
Director, Thomas More Center
Rockhurst University

 I am not a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or the American Legion – I cannot be, as I am not a veteran of any branch of the U.S. armed services.  I lack the necessary qualifications, the specific shared experiences that would allow me to enter fully into the activities and society of veterans groups. 

However, I can and have worked with such groups on projects and in organizations dedicated to the exploration of American values or the pursuit of some project to enhance understanding of the American heritage. We can work together positively even though we lack specific common experiences because we share broad values – love of country, interest in American history, commitment to the civic life and community.  These broad areas of mutual interest allow us a commonality of purpose even though our specific experiences might differ. 

If I were a radical anarchist who rejected civic values or a revolutionary internationalist working to obliterate national boundaries and cultures I could not, and should not, work with others who prize American interests and values on ventures that demand such common commitments. 

To do so would be dishonest, and would detract from (even undermine) the stated purpose of the group. 

That does not mean that an anarchist or radical internationalist is necessarily a bad person – some good and sincere people reject patriotism and might offer points for fruitful reflection, if for no other reason than to help us crystallize our own beliefs – but it does mean that they have no business joining with others for a purpose that requires some basic commonality of interests. 

 In my mind, the same principle applies to calls for atheists to join in groups dedicated to religious dialogue among people of faith.  In his December 31 column in The Kansas City Star, Vern Barnet included such a call in his “2009 wish list for the heartland.”

Dr. Barnet is a respected religious leader who has advocated for interfaith dialogue in the Kansas City community for over two decades, and he has demonstrated his willingness to work with people of all faiths to promote religious understanding and tolerance. 

In his New Year’s Eve column, he wrote, “In the U.S., atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Deists and others, often called “Freethinkers,” number more than any religion except Christianity.  These folks care deeply about humane values.  They work as much as those of any faith to make a better world.  They have much to contribute to, and learn from, interfaith dialogue.” 

Dr. Barnet is undoubtedly right – many freethinkers are good people with positive ideas for bettering the world based on values of reason and humanity. 

But an interfaith conversation is not just about bettering the world through any means; it is about explaining common beliefs and learning from disparate religious experiences as a step towards a better world.  Inviting formal affiliation in an interfaith organization to freethinkers would be akin to inviting anarchists into an organization committed to the goal of civic improvement through better central government.  While the ultimate goal of a “better world” might be shared, the means for achieving that goal are so disparate as to render affiliation a meaningless and, even, destructive enterprise. 

Like other traditionally religious people, my first reaction to calls for inviting freethinkers into the religious camp was one of combative rejection.  Are these not the people, I admit to wondering, who reject religious belief as, at best, superstitious and, at worst, a positive obstacle to human fulfillment?  Are these not the authors of much-publicized recent works that ridicule and savage religious faith as delusional and pathetic?  Of course, not all freethinkers are as strident.  Those who are would never entertain thoughts of joining with religious adherents anyway. 

On reflection, however, my attitude remains one of reasoned hesitation.  You do not have to believe in God or a higher spirit or power to be a good person who wants good things for the world. 

You do, I think, need such a belief to be called a person of faith who seeks an honest exchange of ideas and insights with other faithful believers.  Without such common values and experiences, believers risk undermining the very foundations on which they attempt to lead lives of service and charity, and work towards a better human community.  While all might welcome and even strive mightily toward the noble end of achieving “humane values” and “a better world,” the means do make a difference. 

As a Catholic, I share the common goal with countless others of making the earthly city a better place for all. 

However, the basis of my efforts, and the inspiration for my work – the very foundation on which I build my beliefs and goals – emanate from trust in a loving God who created a good world and calls us all to share in his promise of love and redemption.  These fundamental beliefs, and the triad of doctrine, ethics and culture built around those beliefs, define and drive my ideals.  That is what is meant by a person of faith – to make faith central and not a supplementary or incidental accretion to otherwise utilitarian or humanist motives. 

While other people of faith differ in the expressions of their fundamental beliefs, and certainly vary widely in the doctrine (if any), ethics and culture that grow from those beliefs, freethinkers do not.  Freethinkers do not share the experience of belief.  Some, if you take recent writings as proof, even see faith as an impediment to improving the world.  How, then, could they enter into a group committed to sharing religious insights, no matter how disparate, and exploring both common and different beliefs? 

No matter how noble their intentions or sincere their ideas, freethinkers do not belong in groups dedicated to dialogue on religious faith.  Their inclusion would prove more dissonant than not. 


Vern Barnet

I appreciate the courtesy Professor Janet affords me to respond to his generous and “reasoned hesitation” to endorse my recommendation that “Freethinkers” be embraced within interfaith circles. 

Let me begin by saying that I agree with him that some strident Freethinkers — Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins come to mind — indeed associate religion with ignorance, hypocrisy, oppression, and violence, sometimes fairly. However, these writers too often confuse foul expressions of faith with faith itself.

Yet most Freethinkers I know are far more modest in assessing religion. They are not arrogant; they do not try to convert me, unlike some proselytizing Christians. Most freethinkers practice a style of conversation just like that of my friends in interfaith circles. We share our stories and what they mean to us as we improve upon our understanding of our own paths and each other’s.

I also agree with Professor Janet that many Freethinkers are involved in efforts to make the world a better place. In fact, I could name at least a dozen high-profile Freethinking citizens in Kansas City without whom our community would be greatly diminished.

My disagreement with Professor Janet involves these four points.

1. Religions cannot easily be defined by beliefs. To be a Jew, for example, one must be born of a Jewish mother or convert. Jews who are atheists can be good Jews because Judaism is not defined by theology. 

In fact, scholars often characterize religion by four functions, sometimes called the “Four C’s” — creed, cultus, community, and code; and religions vary in the weight given to these several dimensions. In Judaism, for example, allegiance to the community and its cultus (rituals) is far more important than beliefs.

While Christianity has normatively been concerned with correct creeds, other faiths eschew catechisms. Taoist scripture, for example, states that “He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” What is truly important spiritually cannot be captured in formulations.

2. Common beliefs are not essential to interfaith conversation, as the 15 faiths embraced by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council demonstrate in practice. Folks can learn from each other and work together without shared theological statements. For example, Buddhists do not proclaim belief in a Creator God or even what Christians call the soul. Attachment to any belief betrays the genius of that faith, including what the Buddha himself taught.

In fact, the Council’s vision statement is not constrained by theology but rather explodes such constraints: “We are building the most welcoming community for all people.” 

3. Religions share no common beliefs. Professor Janet writes that “interfaith conversation is not just about bettering the world through any means; it is about explaining common beliefs and learning from disparate religious experiences as a step toward a better world.”

I have studied world religions for most of my life. I have yet to find common beliefs. To me, the popular list of versions of the Golden Rule in sundry faiths is, while well-intentioned, an ignorant, cheap, distorting, and disrespectful attempt to overcome the discomfort some folks have with genuine differences. Most religions do proscribe some forms of dishonesty, killing, theft, and sexual impropriety, but how these prohibitions are interpreted varies so much it is a strain to call them common beliefs; anyhow, they are more like ethical codes than theological statements about, say, the nature of God or existence. 

So I do not recognize the “common beliefs” to which Professor Janet may be referring.

4. A criterion for interfaith conversation more basic than belief is essential. If common beliefs cannot define the circle of faith conversation, what does? Is Professor Janet’s parallel between the VFW and the interfaith circle apt? In other words, what should be the criterion for participation in interfaith dialogue, and do Freethinkers possess it?

An answer may be implicit in the second part of Professor Janet’s statement about “learning from disparate religious experiences.”

Can a Freethinker have “religious experiences”?

William James (Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902) and John Dewey (A Common Faith, 1934), among others, have pointed out how multivalent such terms can be.

While a Freethinker may not be “religious” in the sense of belonging to a religious institution (although I actually know some who are church members), he or she may be religious in a deeper sense. 

If religion is understood as the search for what is of utmost importance, then every Freethinker I know qualifies, even if the term “religious” is discomforting because of the understandable associations of horror some may have with it.

In my own thinking, I call that which is of utmost importance “the sacred,” and I have never talked with a Freethinker who did not have a sense of it, even if he or she eschewed use of such terms.

The test for me is not whether a person has what Professor Janet calls the “experience of belief” but rather whether one has experiences awe and wonder, expressed in gratitude, matured in service. Such folks have what I call a spiritual or religious sensibility, and I want to know their stories and learn from their perspectives, whether or not they claim a traditional religious label. And I’d exclude folks even if they have a religious label but do not experience awe or have a sense of what really counts.

Especially if they are atheists or agnostics or other species of Freethinkers, I want to know how they live with the fundamental questions of faith. 

These questions are not narrow queries like “Is there a God?” They are far more basic to the human spirit like “Is life worth living?” and “How can we better understand, honor, and share the wonder of being alive?”

Our world faces crises in the environment, in our understanding of what it means to be a person, and in how we can get along with each other. I want fresh help from everyone who has the capacity for awe, thanksgiving, and service, including Freethinkers.

OPINION June 10, 2011

Do Atheists Belong 
in the Interfaith Movement?
Yes, because interfaith work is not just a religions-only Kumbaya club...


Interfaith work: not just "kumbaya"

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. He is a panelist for the Washington Post On Faith, a columnist for The Huffington Post Religion, and his writing has appeared in venues such as The Journal of College and Character, Tikkun Daily, and The New Humanism. He is at work on a memoir about his experiences as a former evangelical Christian, a queer person, and an atheist for Beacon Press.

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the organized atheist, humanist, skeptic and freethought movements about the potential benefits and drawbacks of interfaith work.

Over at Patheos, the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, recently made an excellent case that—while the terminology of “interfaith” may be problematic and there are several other important issues to grapple with—it is worth atheists’ while to get involved. At Friendly Atheist, Secular Student Alliance Communications Director Jesse Galef offered a long list of reasons atheists might participate, and how their involvement might improve some of the problems within the interfaith movement. Despite Galef and Speckhardt’s serious concerns and reservations, they have been actively involved in intentionally interfaith efforts, and I suspect their participation has informed their conclusions about the idea.

However, those speaking out against atheist involvement in the interfaith movement are, at the moment, a bit more numerous (just a couple of examples, with several others to follow). As far as I can tell based on what many atheists opposed to interfaith involvement state in their writing, a large percentage of them seem to have kept their distance from interfaith work. I understand their hesitation given the criticisms they offer, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some disconnect when those who criticize the interfaith movement the most also seem to have had little to no actual experience with it. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if someone who had been involved in interfaith work would suggest, as prominent atheist blogger P.Z. Myers did, that it “cheerfully and indiscriminately embrace[s] every faith without regard for content.”

Present in almost every atheist blog I’ve read opposed to interfaith work are perhaps the most common critiques I hear from my fellow atheists regarding interfaith work, and they’re directly related: that interfaith leaves no room for religious criticism, and that it by default excludes atheists because atheism isn’t a “faith.” Most atheists I know who reject the idea of participating in interfaith work do so in part because they assume that, in order to participate, everyone must bite his or her tongue and play nice, and that participation in this kind of movement lends our implicit approval to “faith” as a concept and rallying point.

I’d like to explain why I think these concerns may be somewhat overblown; how they might be combated where they exist, and the reality that they actually don’t apply to most situations.

Isn’t interfaith just a pro-religion ‘kumbaya’ club?

A recent expression of these concerns was made in a blog by Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, an organization I have worked with a number of times (I recently accepted an invitation to join their Speakers Bureau) and whose “Living Without Religion” campaign I greatly admire. In his blog, Lindsay wrote that “it’s nice that some politicians are finally willing to acknowledge our existence, but are we so desperate for acceptance that we’ll allow others to condescendingly misdescribe us as adherents of a faith? Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can ‘pass.’” I’ll set aside my distaste for the bizarre (and far too common) parallel made between the atheist movement and the civil rights movement and address the meat of the argument: the fear that, in order to maintain the “kumbaya” status quo, atheists need to keep quiet about their beliefs about religion.

Lindsay continued:

“it is probably true that working together with religious groups in interfaith coalitions will result in some good will and more favorable opinions about atheists… But this benefit has to be weighed against the cost. The mission of secular organizations is, presumably, not just to get atheists to be liked. Among other things, it’s to promote critical reasoning; it’s to advance the view that faith is decidedly not a virtue. Calling our worldview a faith does not seem the best way to achieve these objectives.”
Unsurprisingly, the thought that interfaith work requires significant tongue-biting makes many atheists very uncomfortable; it was certainly a concern I had before I started working in the interfaith movement.

The irony of this worry is that the atheist and the interfaith movements actually share a common point of origin: they both started, in part, as a reaction to religious extremism. Much like the atheist movement, the interfaith movement seeks to build inter-group understanding, encourage critical thinking, and end religiously-based sociological and political exclusivism. The fundamental misunderstanding that many atheists have is that they imagine the interfaith movement as uninterested in combating religious totalitarianism and solely existing to maintain religious privilege—as an excuse to show that religion, in its many diverse forms, has a monopoly on morality—but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In my experience, interfaith work exists to bring diverse religious and nonreligious people into common work to build relationships that might deconstruct the kind of “us vs. them” thinking that contributes to exclusivistic religious hierarchy. It is a place to challenge and question, but to do so constructively.

The success of such challenges is contingent on whether invested relationships exist between the involved parties; otherwise, disagreements run the risk of degenerating into shouting matches in place of reasonable discourse. In “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” Robert Putnam wrote that diversity is important to build strong and sustainable communities. But, at least at first, people tend to “hunker down” with those very similar to themselves and gaze upon others with suspicion. For diversity to flower, individuals must meet and learn from one another.

Similarly, in Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Ashutosh Varshney theorized that the likelihood that inciting events would lead to widespread or long-term violence was significantly less in communities where civic ties across lines of religious identity were present. In populations where such ties were nonexistent, inciting incidents provoked extensive inter-group violence. And while atheists and the religious in the United States don’t regularly commit physical violence against one another, it is clear that invested relationships across lines of identity difference are essential for cooperation and constructive inter-group communication, whether those groups are religious or not.

Whether it is engaging Christians around my negative experiences as a former evangelical and a queer person, or challenging my religious peers to rationally explain their beliefs, I’ve found interfaith work to not only be a fruitful place for such conversations, but the ideal forum for it. I can fondly recall any number of incidents where I argued theology and philosophy with a religious colleague while doing interfaith work; and how, later, they told me that they actually took my perspective seriously because we had built a trusting relationship. It made all the difference that I treated them as intellectual equals—as people with respectable goals rather than just mindless adherents of some stupid religion. They had heard positions similar to mine in the past from other atheists, but they had been presented so disrespectfully that they had made no impact, and had closed them off from even entertaining such ideas in some cases.

This is precisely what interfaith work sets out to do: elicit civil dialogue to increase understanding, not stifle it for the sake of “playing nice.”

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.”

(For a more in-depth exploration of why atheists might get involved in interfaith work, check out a series of posts I wrote for The New Humanism, or this excellent post by the Secular Student Alliance’s Director of Campus Organizing, Lyz Liddell.)