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Can atheists really participate in “interfaith” work?

It’s been a touchy subject lately, and I’m not convinced we can.

No doubt people from different backgrounds can work together to advance common goals, and President Obama alluded to this late last week with a new proposal:

The White House is launching the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative inviting institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus. This programming might take the form of campus Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular student organizations implementing a specific year-long community service project. It might also involve students from a campus partnering with local religious groups to tackle a specific community challenge together.

Obama even mentions us by name in the first few seconds of this video:

It’s not only lip service, though. We were physically included in a recent White House discussion on interfaith cooperation. Harvard’s Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein was very excited about that… perhaps too excited. He writes:

As with his other main speeches on interfaith cooperation, President Obama has gone out of his way to make clear that this initiative must be fully open to and inclusive atheists, and agnostics, and Humanists.

Joshua Dubois, the convener of that gathering and Director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, greeted us.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist, took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others — and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance (I was joined by my good friend August Brunsman, Director of the Secular Student Alliance.) To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there. I felt chills — despite polls consistently showing atheists like us to be the least electable demographic group in the US, here was a key representative of the highest authority in the land, looking us in the eye, in public, and making it indisputably clear that our beliefs, our Humanist values, and our secular colleagues were every bit as American as anyone else. And in the months that followed, some of my students and staff have joined other Humanists in attending White House-sponsored training sessions on interfaith service. We’ve been full partners in a lively and constructive debate about how people from diverse religious and ethical traditions can build a better society together.

Well, a room filled with people who want to be involved in interfaith cooperation aren’t really the same people — the majority of Americans — who think we’re unelectable and untrustworthy.

Despite the term “interfaith,” the fact that we’re included in such a mix ought to be a given. Of course we’re Americans. Is the fact that this administration is admitting that really a “step forward”? I know a lot of us were excited when Obama mentioned non-believers in his Inaugural Address… and when atheist leaders had a meeting with White House staffers, but I haven’t seen much more than lip service toward our requests.

When I visited the White House in February, 2010, we had three things to discuss with staffers there. Has anything changed?

Military proselytization. We wanted it to stop. Christians are given unfair privileges in our military and atheists are shunned. The lack of support from military leaders at Fort Bragg for the atheist Rock Beyond Belief event just shows we have a long way to go before we’re treated the same as Christians.

Religious exemptions for child abuse. There have been no steps to ban religious exemptions for child abuse at the federal level. (Though the Oregon House of Representatives recently voted to eliminate the exemption.)

Faith Based Discrimination. Do Christian groups still get tax-payer money? Do they still discriminate against non-Christians and gay people? If anything, the practice has only gotten worse.

Keep in mind that there’s a President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Lots of Protestants on the list. And Catholics. And Muslims and Jews.

Still not a single atheist.

Tell me again why we’re so excited to be “included” in talks about interfaith community service projects when we’re excluded on things that involve money or advising the president?

Ophelia Benson says it well:

… “we” have not been included in a company of that kind; chaplains and interfaith student leaders: that doesn’t include us. You may have been included, and your “we” may have, but I haven’t.

“We” are allowed to tag along with the much larger group of normal people. That’s called tokenism, and it’s insulting. Epstein seems to have internalized so much of the routine atheist-phobia of the US that he all but bursts into tears just because he gets a name-check from a crowd of godbotherers. He’s way too easily pleased.

The name-checks were nice after years under George W. Bush. That time came and went quickly. The White House has acknowledged our existence and included a couple moderate representatives from our community in larger forums where the government reps talk about how faith is a virtue. It isn’t.

They want everyone to get along while ignoring the very beliefs everyone else has that makes getting along impossible. Most of the people in that room with Greg believe he’s going straight to Hell. But let’s set that aside while we build some houses…

I suppose it’s better than the alternative where we’re not included at all or where the White House reaches out only to Christians, but this doesn’t sound like true outreach at all. The White House doesn’t care what we think. They want to placate us.

Working on common goals and community service projects is a good thing. But there’s no reason it takes religious groups (along with a couple token non-religious people) to accomplish that.