Can Interfaith Communities Work for Atheists?


Apr. 21, 2010

For years, I've been torn about the interfaith movement. I'm not sure whether to embrace them or reject them.

In response to last week's Chicago Tribune article about college atheists, Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) wrote a piece for the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog. They argue that young atheists are going in a good direction–from the "aggressive" anti-theism of the New Atheists to the more cooperative, interfaith-minded humanism of the newer atheists.

To help make their case, they say nice things about me:

Atheists today are partnering with religious groups to do service projects; dialoguing and engaging with other religious groups and organizations on campus; and changing the public discourse through blogs, like Mehta's Friendly Atheist and Chris Stedman's Non-Prophet Status.

Sounds a heck of a lot like interfaith leadership to me.

So these days when non-religious folks come up after a speech and ask how they can be involved we point them to one place–their peers, who are pioneering interfaith leadership as atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

They also quote the Tribune article:

Hemant Mehta, chair of the Secular Student Alliance's board of directors, reveals…: "And, personally, if my neighbor's religious, I don't really care. I'm less interested in the controversy, and I'm more interested in, what can we do with the beliefs that we do share?" Indeed, a recent Pew study found that 20% of young Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or have "no religion." As Mehta and others point out, this doesn't mean they lack values in common with their religious peers.

That quotation is true, but it needs clarification.

A lot of college-aged atheists do support dialoguing with people of different faiths and the Secular Student Alliance does encourage our affiliates to participate in service projects (including those done in conjunction with religious groups). We think it's important to show that we can indeed be good without a god. We want to prove that the stereotypes people have about us are misleading and incorrect, and one way to do that is through close interaction with people from religious backgrounds.


At the same time, it doesn't mean we're complacent about the religious beliefs of the people we're working with. And I don't know if IFYC would approve of my other thoughts about religion. I think those beliefs can lead to wars, "honor" killings, science-denial, oppression and bigotry, among other dangers. Religion is not always a force for good.

I don't want to just "let our differences slide" or "agree to disagree." I want to persuade religious people that they are mistaken when it comes to their mythology. Not through proselytizing or trickery, but through rational, reasoned discussion.

We can work together and we can do wonderful things to help our communities, and we ought to do that. But not in lieu of reasoned debate and a desire to point out the problems with the other person's beliefs.

As far as I can tell, those are not thoughts that IFYC supports. My impression is that they want "religious pluralism." They want religious people to grow in their faith. They avoid confrontation when it comes to conflicts/contradictions between religious beliefs. Is there room for people like me who think Islam, Mormonism and Christianity are false? And who try to tackle sacred cows like reincarnation, Heaven and karma?

I want people to lose their faith just as much as the New Atheists do. At the very least, I want them to promote secular values like church/state separation and appreciate the scientific method to finding truth. Maybe the way to do that is to plant those seeds among the more moderate religious types (at interfaith gatherings) and hope they can pass it along to the more extreme types.

So I'm in this awkward position, caught somewhere between "aggressive atheism" and happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns/all-inclusive interfaith groups–not quite happy with either side of the spectrum.

What do you think?

Should atheists be more active in the interfaith movement or should we avoid it altogether?


Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and also is an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the "eBay Atheist." Hemant's blog can be read at, and his book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, (WaterBrook Press) is now available on He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.