Interfaith work ought to include nonreligious people. But religio-normativity often leads people to assume that everyone has a religion. In our secular world, this assumption is no longer sustainable.

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New York mayor Eric Adams recently objected to the idea of the separation of church and state at an interfaith breakfast event at the New York Public Library. Library President and CEO Anthony Marx offered a welcome that celebrated libraries as places of inclusion, diversity, and freedom of thought. In his speech, the mayor acknowledged religious diversity. But he did not seem to acknowledge either the basic principles of American secularism or the presence of nonreligion. This leads me to wonder whether the interfaith tent is big enough to include nonreligion.

As book bans and Christian nationalism grow across our country, we need to recommit ourselves to the separation of church and state. The interfaith project needs to grow to include nonreligious people, and nonreligious folks need to show up at interfaith events.

The problem of The New York interfaith breakfast

The video of Mayor Adams’s February 28 speech is worth watching in full. After the Library’s CEO welcomed people to the event, a Christian pastor gave a prayer that concluded by invoking “the name of Jesus Christ.” Other prayers and invocations were provided by speakers from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and in both Spanish and English. Before the mayor spoke, a member of his staff celebrated “the power of the faith-based community” and the “power of prayer.”

Then the mayor gave his speech.

The mayor’s worrying remarks about religion were connected to comments he made about raising children. He said, “when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.” He suggested that we need to “instill” in children “some level of faith and belief.”

Mayor Adams continued: “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them. That’s who I am.”

The crowd applauded.

Religio-normativity and the faith assumption

Perhaps this applause is to be expected at an event that was intended to celebrate the faith communities of New York City. But it is worth considering what this says to nonreligious people, including nonreligious parents, teachers, and kids. Can we, the nonbelievers, feel welcome in a world that suggests that we ought to “instill” faith in our children? And how inclusive is an interfaith event in which the keynote speaker suggests that the church is the heart of the body politic?

The applause in response to Mayor Adams’ comments is a sign of what I’ll call “religio-normativity.” I’m coining that term here to help describe the problem faced by nonreligious people. I model the idea from discussions about LGBTQ persons and the challenge of “heteronormativity.” Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and ubiquitous. Religio-normativity makes it seem that nonreligion is abnormal, unnatural, unusual, and weird. But, as I discussed in another column, it is not reasonable to assume that faith is natural.

Religio-normativity is the assumption that everyone has a “faith” or describes themselves according to some religious classification. Religio-normativity is obviously inadequate today. As is well-known by now, social scientists and demographers who study religion have recognized the growth of the “nones,” those who do not identify with any religion and who mark “none of the above” when asked. About 30% of Americans now identify as “nones.”

The future of interfaith

This growth of the nones challenges the assumptions of religio-normativity. We should no longer casually assume that everyone has a religion or belongs to a community of faith. And when 3 out of 10 people are not religious, it makes no sense to suggest that kids should pray in school or that faith should be instilled in children.

One would think that those who are actively working in interfaith communities would recognize the need to avoid religio-normativity. But they may need reminders. In my work with interfaith groups, I usually encounter progressive, thoughtful, and sensitive people. Fundamentalists do not typically seek out this kind of thing. But nonreligious people also often fail to show up to interfaith events. And so they are easily overlooked and forgotten.

One powerful interfaith group is the Interfaith Alliance, currently led by Paul Raushenbush. Raushenbush, who is also a Baptist Minister, spoke out in response to Mayor Adams’ remarks. He said, “Every person has the right to religious freedom, including the mayor. However, I encourage the mayor to stop imagining himself as the servant of God and instead take seriously his obligation to serve the diverse people of New York – people of all faiths and no faith alike.”

Thank you Rev. Raushenbush, for recognizing and including nonreligious folks. Public figures need to more actively work to include nonreligion.

Conclusion: the atheist in the front row

Interfaith work needs to include the nonreligious. But the inclusion of nonreligious people in interfaith groups will make things more difficult, since the idea of interfaith includes faith. And some atheists bristle at the very idea that their lack of belief could be described as a kind of “faith.” We will need to work out the details of how nonreligioius people can be included. And we won’t be able to resolve every issue. But nonreligious people can benefit from showing up and demanding representation in interfaith events. And interfaith gatherings can be cured of their religio-normativity, when atheists show up and sit in the front row.  

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Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...