[Outer]faith or Interfaith[less]?


Dec. 15, 2010

As a participant at a recent Interfaith Youth Core conference in Washington, D.C., an initiative created by interfaith leader Eboo Patel, I observed students and college faculty and staff members of nearly all religions interacting with one another. They participated in workshops together, ate all their meals together and roomed together in a nearby Holiday Inn. Everyone at least observed if not participated in religious rituals of faiths other than their own. The camaraderie, political correctness and free food put everyone in a good mood, and it was easy to get caught up in the moment and think that this spirit of unity and cooperation could someday be reflected in the real world. But then my natural skepticism kicked in. No surprise there– I’m an atheist.

Yes, even atheists are increasingly being invited to participate in interfaith conferences and panels these days. This isn’t to be taken for granted; I know all too well that there are many places in the country and the world at large where they are not. But in this day and age, serious interfaith work (even if only to be seen as such) tends to contain a non-religious element. At this particular conference, I was that element, or I should say, one-fifth of that element. Five secularists were in attendance that weekend, out of about 200 people from various backgrounds of belief.

At first I was just impressed by the diversity of my companions. It is rare to have the chance to be in such representative company, and this was a valuable opportunity. The most meaningful component of the conference was for me not any of its organized programs, but rather the casual conversations that would spring up over meals or between training sessions. We soaked up one another’s perspectives like sponges and nodded respectfully at every word and tried our hardest to agree.

But even as I enjoyed the conversations and the sharing and the thinking, I had a feeling of unease. It was only on the plane ride back to Boston that I was able to pinpoint its source. Atheists, I realized, cannot win when it comes to interfaith work.

Why? The reason is simple, but the solution may be nonexistent. It was often reiterated at the conference that religions, despite semantic or technical differences, are essentially different colored threads of the same cloth. In spite of their distinguishing aspects, they all comprise belief in a deity or deities and have each constructed an accompanying worldview. Religions, when boiled down, are left with a substrate of common ground. It is reflection upon this fact that allows many people of different faiths to unearth their spirit of cooperation.

Not so with atheism. The very lack of this core is what makes us who we are. So it is here that the problem presents itself; in order to assimilate with the rest of the interfaith community, we must find common ground. But the common ground that has been found in the interfaith world tends to rest on this predicated notion of a common belief in god(s). If we assimilate, we must deny or de-emphasize this inherent difference, thus neutralizing ourselves and denying our very identity. If we do not assimilate, we remain outside the interfaith community, one that will only expand and become more politically, socially and economically vital as globalization goes marching on. The term “interfaith” itself handicaps atheists at the outset; we are by definition excluded from this community as we are not of faith. It’s more like an “interfaith, oh and those other people, community.”

What to do? Stressing the only true common ground between the people of all these groups (their common humanity) would be forcing our godless humanist ways on everyone else. Can’t have that! That’s atheist bigotry at work. Forfend that we should practice coexistence and cooperation for their own sake. To get the religious on board, the commonality has to center around religion. And then some token atheists can be brought on as an afterthought, as long as the bonds forged are not on their terms and the religious nature of the endeavor is secure. If the atheists don’t like it, they can leave; either way they have no political and not much of a cultural voice.

Here is our quandary. We are the invisible sector of society. We are the most despised group in America — polls have shown that atheism is a characteristic that the American public would never tolerate in their president, and that they would sooner support a gay, Muslim or recent immigrant candidate over one of no faith. So do we ensure our continued marginalization by boycotting integration efforts that weaken us by their very nature, or do we go with the flow and let ourselves be worn down like rocks in a river?

Opting out is not realistically a choice. We need representation desperately, if we hold any hope of even being remembered. I really should not have been brought to tears by Obama’s mention of non-believers in his inaugural address, but I was. In a country where every speech seems to end with “God bless America,” being given even the slightest of nods by the president provoked extreme emotions of relief, gratitude, and happiness. I wish I could say I’d set my hopes higher, but I hadn’t, and I was blown away. But this means that if we want to be mentioned ever again, we must keep showing our faces and raising our voices in interfaith organizations and gatherings. But we must take extra care, more care than any of our religious counterparts, to remember who we are and what defines our identity. It would be so easy to be swallowed up in the religious groupthink. So easy to be glossed over or generalized out. Written off and overlooked. Do not let this happen. This is an interfaith[less] movement, and don’t ever forget it.

Katie Van Adzin is a senior at Wellesley College and founder and leader of Secular Wellesley, Wellesley’s community for secular students. She serves as the atheist representative to Wellesley’s Multi-Faith Council and as a member of the student advisory team to Wellesley’s dean of Religious and Spiritual Life.