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Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Constituency That "Interfaith" Forgot

The presence of interfaith centers on college campuses can be understood as part of a holistic approach to student needs that goes beyond their intellectual development. Co-curricular activities as a whole address social and affective needs and can be regarded as supporting the academic mission. The interfaith dialog is inclusive of Humanism in its policy, but the term "interfaith" invokes an effort at tolerance only among people of faith. The unfortunate limitation of the term seems to demonstrates an oversight rather than a deliberate slight to nonbelievers. If the community of faith can transcend the dogma that divides its constituencies, it should be able to address the presumption of faith that alienates non-believers. The interfaith movement could demonstrate a fuller commitment to pluralism by adopting a name that reflects the inclusion of secularists who reject identifying with a community of faith. 

Nonbelievers may well have the most to gain from interfaith efforts to transcend the religious dogma that divides society, but the term "interfaith" excludes nonbelievers by implication. The implied exclusion of secular interests from the term "interfaith" puts interfaith centers in a politically awkward position. To the community of faith spiritual needs are real. A holistic approach to student development can hardly afford to ignore the needs of believers, whether real or perceived, when institutions of higher learning depend on donors with definite religious preferences. The presence of an "interfaith" center, however, seems to suggest that spiritual needs are not only real but also universal. 

Freethought organizers often ask what they can learn from Queer activism. Stressing the importance of "coming out" may be the most obvious influence of the latter on the former. Another lesson to be learned is the inclusion of allies. Just as sexual orientation is dynamic, so is religious orientation. Today's ally may fall anywhere along the Kinsey Scale but not identify as queer, at least at any given moment. When making the point that no sexual orientation is inherently superior or inferior to another as long as it is authentic to the individual, it seems inconsistent to assign differential status based on current practice or identity. In the freethought movement our allies are believers who simply seek no particular advantage for their religious preferences in civic governance. Although believers, these allies are secularists in the strictest sense of the word. 

Freethought activism differs from Queer activism in its sense that the ally's worldview is flawed. Today's straight ally may be tomorrow's out and proud queer, just as today's secularist believer may be tomorrow's militant atheist. Antitheism maintains, however, that faith is inherently suspect because it is the determined allegiance to a claim whether or not it happens to be true. This understanding limits cooperation between antitheists and believers strictly to the realm of secularismAll antitheists are secularists even if all secularists are not antitheists. The goals of secularism represent significant common ground. Antitheism makes the case for secularism more compelling, but the case does not rest on antitheism.  

The nonbeliever contributes a key perspective to the interfaith dialog, that the presumption of faith is as alienating as the particular differences in dogma. Nonbelievers do not have to indict religious faith in absolute terms to make the case that the presumption of faith is alienating. The case against the presumption of faith does not rest on antitheism any more than the case for secularism does. People of faith who are committed to promoting understanding among believers should be open to understanding the problem of the presumption of faith. 

Although the term "secular" denotes that which does not pertain to religion, the term "secular" does not represent an absolute limitation as the term "interfaith" does. The term "secular" excludes believers by connotation and the term "interfaith" excludes nonbelievers by denotationSecularists can be people of faith, but they usually are not. A secular alliance is inclusive of believers and nonbelievers in the strict sense of the word, but usage suggests at least a preponderance of nonbelievers if not the absolute exclusion of believers. A secular-interfaith alliance would best describe a group committed to resisting the encroachment of religion on public policy.

Unlikely alliances represent a challenge to avoid cynical compromise for the sake of strategic advantage. It is not unusual for campus groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance to find an unlikely ally in the interfaith center on their campusCooperation can be mutually beneficial. A campus interfaith center can project a fuller commitment to pluralism than their name suggests by actively reaching out to nonbelievers. Secular student groups gain an additional resource by cooperating with interfaith centers. Secular students may resist being associated with the term "interfaith," but a secular-interfaith model might be more palatable. A secular-interfaith alliance need not be alienating to antitheists. Foregrounding resistance to the presumption of faith should preclude any conflict over acquiescence to the faith community

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you; I think the main reason any secular person uses the term "interfaith" is that there really isn't an obviously-better choice.
    Secular-interfaith is a mouthful but much more clear.