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Preventing Misunderstandings of Atheism in Interfaith Settings

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Lewis Marshallby Lewis Marshall; Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) @ Stanford University

In Spring of 2009, AHA! chose to become part of Stanford University's interfaith community, the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). We chose to become associated with SAR for a number of reasons, including an invitation from the Dean of Religious Life at Stanford, desire to increase our exposure to religious groups and students, and to have access to resources that the SAR provides.
The decision to join the SAR was made after considerable internal debate. The most controversial matter was reconciling AHA!'s identity with the guidelines and requirements for SAR groups:

(a) to promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community;
(b) to support Stanford's steady exercise of free inquiry and its pursuit of the highest standards of intellectual and moral excellence;
(c) to represent that group and its purposes forthrightly, while at the same time treating with respect the religious traditions and activities of others; and
(d) to safeguard the religious freedom, human dignity, conscience and personal spiritual welfare of all members of the university.
-Stanford Associated Religions Pledge

Section (a), and the idea that AHA! should promote "spiritual growth" is difficult to interpret for a group that does not except the existence of a metaphysical spirit. To clarify our position and our identity as a group, we drafted a memorandum of understanding (link) explaining our interpretation of the word spiritual in this context. This document also clarified whether AHA! could be construed as a "religious" group.

The memorandum draws a clear line between the common traits and purpose that AHA! has with religious groups and the supernaturalistic practices that are anathema to atheists.

Atheism and agnosticism are philosophical positions on the existence of a supreme being, and secular humanism adds an ethical component to these worldviews. AHA! represents atheists, humanists, and agnostics who share an open-minded curiosity about these issues and their relevance to worldly affairs. It does not engage in worship services, traditional ceremonies, or other hallmarks of most religions; however, with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!'s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.
-AHA! Memorandum of Understanding to the SAR

The central idea being expressed is that AHA! does seek to replicate many of the essential human functions of religion - fostering community, ethics, and discourse - while leaving behind the mythological baggage of religion. I think that making this point is essential in understanding any atheist groups association with interfaith activities.

It was easy to sign onto (b) and (d) of this pledge. Atheists have much to gain in supporting discourse and safeguarding religious freedom. The mutual respect clause of (c) raised questions. At Stanford, this clause has not been interpreted as a moratorium on the criticism of religion. Rather, it has been interpreted as a request that criticism of religion conveyed forthrightly, in a way that gives the criticized party a chance to respond.

Reaction to AHA! joining the SAR has been minimal. In the past two years, there have been no incidents where the membership of atheists in the interfaith community has been questioned. Frankly, I doubt many people outside of our group and the Office for Religious Life have ever seen our memorandum of understanding on SAR membership. Despite that, I'm glad that the document is there to rely on if questions are ever raised about AHA!'s presence and obligations in an interfaith organization.

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