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Thursday, August 9, 2012

What's in a Name?

At first blush, it seems odd that a campus "Interfaith" center would support an atheist student group, but some of the success of such an alliance may lie in the degree to which the student group's name suggests antipathy toward religion. Whether or not a group seeks favor with an Interfaith center, the name of the group communicates to potential members the nature and scope of the group's interests. This post sketches out some of the key differences between different nominal identities and their implications, isolating the dimension of perceived religious harm.

The Interfaith community seeks to bridge the differences among people of different faiths. In doing so, it acknowledges by implication that religious dogma can be divisive. Interfaith dialogue has been formally inclusive of Humanists in principle, but this inclusion seems to imply that Humanism is a faith. Any cooperation between the Interfaith community and the Freethought community is limited by the fact that Interfaith dialogue, by definition, will be unfriendly to a antitheistic perspective.

Secularism implies an opposition to religious privilege in the public sphere. Secularists can be people of faith, but tend to be nonbelievers. The secularist viewpoint on religious harm is limited to religion's undue influence in public policy. To the strict secularist, private beliefs are a private matter. A Secular Student Alliance has the potential to make allies in the faith community, but this alliance could result in the suppression of antitheist tendencies. If a group wishes to limit its scope to matters of religious privilege and be inclusive of theists, on the other hand, a Secular-Interfaith alliance is a viable model.

A skeptic rejects implausible propositions in the absence of evidence. A skeptical view of religious harm rests on the view that religion promotes credulity. A skeptic may simply reject religion and other forms of superstition on a personal basis or actively challenge credulous arguments at every opportunity. In this regard, a skeptic is not necessarily an antitheist. Skepticism, however, is antithetical to faith in its own right, and would seem to preclude participation in Interfaith dialogue.

Atheism is godlessness by definition. While not necessarily antitheists, atheists withhold the customary deference given to religion, insisting that religious claims be subject to the scrutiny of reason. There is no obvious reason for atheists to be involved in an Interfaith dialogue, having embraced an identity that renounces faith. An atheist perspective on religious harm can be understood in terms of the marginalization of nonbelief. The atheist struggle is against theism as normative. While an Atheist-Interfaith alliance is counter-intuitive, the inclusion of atheists in Interfaith dialogue has the potential to raise awareness among people of faith about the marginalization of nonbelievers. The problem of theonormativity (or skeptophobia) can be represented in Interfaith dialogue under the banner of secularism, or another of the many names by which atheism is known.

Identifying as a freethinker is a way of viewing atheism in positive terms. Where the skeptic rejects credulity and the atheist rejects theism, the freethinker affirms reason. The term "freethinker" seems to equate religion with mindlessness by contrast. For that reason, the term "freethinker" might seem to indicate a greater degree of antitheism than the term "skeptic." On the other hand, an Interfaith center could hardly object to freedom of thought publicly without betraying the subjugation of reason that religious faith represents. A Freethought-Interfaith alliance is another viable model that may hold more appeal for antitheists. It encompasses the secularist objection to religious privilege and the atheist objection to the marginalization of nonbelief. It also poses a strong challenge to the presumption of faith implied by the Interfaith model.

Interfaith dialogue has already formally included Humanism. A campus Humanist group might have an easier time securing a place at the table in an Interfaith dialogue than an atheist group. Humanism is antitheistic in the sense that it faults religious moderates for inconsistency and religious nonbelievers for obscurantism. If the least doctrinaire forms of religion are counter-productive, there is little to recommend religion as a whole. Humanist antitheism is tempered by the desire to see the believer embrace a dignified life without religious delusions. Like Freethought, Humanism encompasses the Secularist struggle against religious privilege and the atheist struggle against the marginalization of nonbelief. Humanism is also associated with progressive values and community service. A Humanist-Interfaith model is not only viable, but also implies a more ambitious scope than a Secular-Interfaith partnership.

Contrary to what its name may suggest, antitheism is not a desire to eradicate religion by force. It is essentially the philosophical position that religious faith is intellectually dishonest and undermines human potential through the voluntary alienation of intellectual curiosity, moral reasoning and sense of meaning. Antitheism is at cross purposes with faith by definition, but antitheists are well equipped to represent the causes of Secularism, Freethought and Humanism in an Interfaith dialogue. While an antitheistic perspective is not essential to make the case against religious dogma, religious privilege, or the marginalization of nonbelief, antitheists need not feel marginalized merely because the scope of discussion is bound by the criterion of relevance. Other group initiatives will benefit more fully from the intellectual arsenal of antitheism, given sufficient autonomy from Interfaith centers.

There is a good deal of common ground to be found between Interfaith centers and nonbelievers. Interfaith dialogue implicitly recognizes the harm of divisive religious dogma. The secularist's struggle against religious privilege and the atheist's resistance to the marginalization of nonbelief are issues that compassionate theists can easily adopt. While Interfaith dialogue precludes discussion of how to rid the world of religion, the common ground remaining is considerable. If the alliance can be made without marginalizing antitheists, it promises to be productive. Nonbelievers who present themselves under the banner of Secularism, Humanism or Freethought may be in the best position to engage in Interfaith dialogue without renouncing antitheism. 

A scale of perceived religious harm, such as the one presented below, might assign a religious moderate engaged in Interfaith dialogue a (1) for rejecting extreme sectarian dogma. A religious moderate who opposes religious religious privilege in the legal sphere (Secularist) would score a (2). If also sensitized to the social marginalization of nonbelief, the Secularist religious moderate would score a (3). An apolitical atheist (or Freethinker) who is indifferent to private religious beliefs would also score a (3). An antitheist (or Humanist) would score a (4) over the additional concern for the disingenuous self-alienation that religious faith represents. Through Interfaith dialogue, theists interested in pluralism can be recruited as allies on all but the final front. Theists who come to understand the case for antitheism will have graduated from allies to partners.

Scale of Perceived Religious Harm

  1. Sectarian Enmity
  2. Religious Privilege
  3. Theonormativity
  4. Self-Alienation


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