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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Secularism and Interfaith: Does It Matter What You Believe?

Bryant University 
Research and Engagement Day 
April 24, 2013 


Atheist involvement in interfaith activism is polemical on both the theistic and non-theistic sides of the divide. On one hand, there is the argument for pluralism and mutual tolerance and on the other there is the argument for intellectual integrity. The most obvious area of common ground, perhaps is that both interfaith and atheism seek to minimize religious sectarianism.

The Interfaith service held after the Boston Marathon bomb attack is an example of a theonormative view of Interfaith. It was called "Healing our City" but was inclusive only of the Abrahamic religions. The Harvard Humanists Community, Secular Coalition of America and American Atheists lobbied for inclusion, but were rebuffed.

Healing Our City 


Interfaith is a step toward pluralism, as it extends the spirit of Christian ecumenicism to other people of faith, but it forms a community united by theonormativity--the presumption that religious faith is universal. The Boston service presented a dilemma. It was announced that the service would be Interfaith. A secular response was never on the table. Under the circumstances, a humanist presence was the only alternative to invisibility. 


The Interfaith model is unsustainable without inclusion of atheists. Interfaith needs atheists to demonstrate the sincerity of their desire for true pluralism. Atheists, on the other hand, hesitate to work under the Interfaith umbrella because we do not hold faith as a positive value. Some atheists advocate for working with the Interfaith movement--despite the unfortunate nomenclature--in order to bring about economic and social justice.



Just as the Interfaith movement will have detractors among religious conservatives, atheists involved in interfaith have their detractors among atheist activists. The opposition to atheist involvement in Interfaith from fellow atheists coalesces around the problem of obscurantism. Whether or not they are involved in Interfaith activism, atheists need to be careful if they are not to misrepresent atheism as yet another religion. Socrates was a martyr to religious obscurantism. He was executed for impiety and corrupting the youth--not for disbelief.

Perhaps ironically, atheist participation in Interfaith community may be the best way to engage the religious on theonormativity and challenge their skeptophobia. Not every atheist has the temperament for such work, but the question remains whether those who do are doing a disservice to the atheist struggle. It is easy to say that the religious should just know better and that we should seek political rather than social solutions, but today's heretic may be tomorrow's apostate.

Atheism 101

One way to understand atheist identity is to look at the four basic arguments against the existence of gods: reasonable non-belief, lack of empirical evidence, inconsistent revelations and the problem of evil. Each argument corresponds to four distinct atheist identities that feature it prominently. Any argument against the existence of gods advanced is a variation of one of these four.

Ontological Argument

Reasonable Non-Belief

Inquiry trumps faith.

Lack of Empirical Evidence

Discovery trumps revelation.

Inconsistent Revelations

Reason trumps custom.

The Argument from Evil

Autonomy trumps piety.

Freethought and Reasonable Non-Belief

Reasonable non-belief, the position that the burden of proof is on religion, is a core argument of freethought. The freethinker rejects alien notions of the sacred because they make doubt a thought-crime. Reasonable non-belief establishes that religious claims are not self-evident and that non-belief is a reasonable default position. This argument is the response to special pleading, that atheist arguments are wrong because they are blasphemous.

Skepticism and Lack of Empirical Evidence

Once established that non-belief is a reasonable default position, lack of empirical evidence invalidates these extraordinary claims. Both reasonable non-belief and lack of empirical evidence are arguments from skepticism, but the freethinker is associated with rejecting alien notions of the sacred. Just as the freethinker rejects special pleading by religious apologists, the skeptic understands the god-of-the gaps argument as a false choice.

Secularism and Inconsistent Revelations

The argument from inconsistent revelations applies to internal consistencies within a text, mutually contradictory religious claims between religions and claims that cannot be reconciled with reason. Secularism follows from inconsistent revelations because the unreliability of religious texts is the most compelling argument against theocracy.

Humanism and The Argument from Evil

The problem of evil is also know as the theodicy problem or the epicurean trilemma. Given evil, the gods must be either malevolent or impotent. Humanism rejects capricious gods dispensing reward and punishment and shifts agency to humanity. 

Antitheism 101 

Antitheism is perhaps understood as an intensifier of freethought, skepticism, secularism and humanism.  If it has an identifiable philosophy of its own, it is that beliefs matter. The freethinking antitheist sees faith as acquiescence, the skeptical antitheist sees faith as credulity, the antitheistic secularist sees faith as obscurantism and the antitheistic humanist sees faith as authoritarianism. Each of the Four Horsemen has a particular strength.

+ Antitheism

Faith = indoctrination


Faith = credulity


Faith = obscurantism


Faith = authoritarianism


Freethought: Breaking the Spell 

Whereas the freethinker insists on the personal and political right to doubt, the freethinking antitheist sees religion as a social ill and fundamentally incompatible with critical thinking. Daniel Dennett's thesis in Breaking the Spell is that if the religious claim to be interested in the truth, they must be open to scrutiny.

Skepticism: The God Delusion 

While the skeptic may be interested in debunking a variety of irrational beliefs, like astrology and homeopathy, the antitheistic skeptic regards religion as undermining the believer's approach to evidence. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins laid out the skeptical case against faith.

Secularism: The End of Faith 

A purely political secularist has no quarrel with religious beliefs, only with theocracy. An antitheistic secularist understands that religious encroachment is not limited to overt violations of church-state separation. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris lays out the case that religious faith undermines the believer's moral and intellectual judgment. 

Humanism: god Is Not Great 

Humanism is particularly divided on the issue of Interfaith activism. While secular humanism (Humanism) officially renounces obscurantism, there are religious humanists--humanistic Jews  Mormons, etc.--who maintain obscurantist sectarian identities. There is even a Humanist chaplaincy that provides services such as officiating at weddings and funerals and speaking on Interfaith panels. The antitheistic humanist holds that religious obscurantism is inherently coercive because it affirms conformity with or without conviction.


    Because Interfaith implies a challenge to religious sectarianism, its natural constituency is religious moderates and liberals. Given the constituency, the Interfaith movement is a natural ally in the struggle against religious encroachment on civic life. Applied properly, the pluralistic principles of the Interfaith movement represent a challenge to Christian hegemony. To challenge the influence of the majority religion, one must understand that freedom of religion depends on freedom from all others.

    • Can interfaith be as inclusive as secularism? 
    • Will the humanist chaplaincy entrench clerical privilege? 
    • Will interfaith support progressive secular interests over conservative religious ones? 
    • Will a more inclusive Interfaith model undermine secularism as the ultimate goal? 
    • Will clergy relinquish religious privilege when a secular response is appropriate? 
    • Can faitheism be intellectually honest? 
    • What will clergy risk for inclusion?

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