Will the Real Interfaith Movement Please Stand Up?
by Edward Clint
Recent years have seen a disturbing tread on the American religious landscape in the form of ever-larger groups promoting division, distrust, and acrimony. These groups are known as interfaith organizations. Larger exemplars of this group, such as the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), enjoy slick marketing and proliferate under a veneer of hyper-PC rhetoric:
"Interfaith Youth Core builds mutual respect and pluralism among young people from different religious traditions by empowering them to work together to serve others."
Immediately one notices in this purpose statement concern only for the religious, excluding from mention some 45 million non-religious Americans who don't qualify. Worse, leaders of such groups, like Eboo Patel the founder and executive director of IFYC, sow discord among nonbelievers by promoting offensive stereotypical views that an individual must either be an appeasement-based interfaither or an intolerant bigot. Often the same interfaith group that seeks to fight false religious stereotypes, such as that of the militant Muslim, will readily condemn the thoughtful atheist as an uncouth, rabble-rousing firebrand with no awareness of the irony.
It is not merely the unreligious who suffer the consequences. Interfaith activities unify, support, and foster religious groups that actively oppose equal rights and other pluralistic initiatives. Given the choice, interfaith members will always choose faith over reason as a means to achieve social progress. Major interfaith organizations remained silent as churches and groups poured money into California in 2008 to pass Proposition 8, which constitutionally defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The interfaith movement refuses to concern itself with critical, relevant issues, such as stem cell research, sex education, women's rights, and U.S. educational standards. Interfaith leaders have never openly opposed terrorist religious organizations, condemned pedophile-protecting churches, or addressed the disgusting slave-like conditions India's religious-backed caste system imposes on human beings. No atheist of conscience can make him- or herself part of an interfaith organization that willfully refuses to even discuss such egregious affronts to human dignity and human rights condoned or directly caused by faith-based organizations.
It is true that many groups under the heading of interfaith do excellent service and outreach work. This is important and laudableï¿½”but not special or unique. The Society of Non-Theists at Purdue raised money for the local food bank and engaged in community clean-up efforts this past year. Students for Freethought at Ohio State University went to New Orleans to aid in reconstruction efforts. Both of these were cooperative efforts with religious groups! And there were many blood, food, and clothing drives by other secular groups in partnership with religious groups across the country.
Everything an interfaith group is capable of doing, a secularist group can do betterï¿½”even in terms of interfaith. Why better? Because as secular groups work, their members never ask anyone to check their ethics or intellect at the door. The atheist groups work with Christians, Jews, and others without demanding adherence to a politically homogenized stance on issues and without a sacrifice of autonomy (individual nonbelievers get the same deal).
A truly pluralistic organization works with disparate groups on common goals, without demeaning either the groups or individuals with requirements for strangled discourse. Criticism is rightly seen as a means of respecting other groups when they are afforded a chair at the debate table equal to everyone else's. Inclusiveness means no one is a second-class citizen at that table the way that non-believers are usually treated within the "interfaith" movement.
Service and cooperation with mutual respect and retained integrity is the domain of atheists and of those religious groups willing to work together with secular groups. The questions is not why would an atheist join an interfaith council? It's why would anyone join an interfaith council?
Edward Clint is the president of the Illini Secular Student Alliance at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.