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Why We Should Get Involved in Interfaith

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Lyz Liddell, Director of Campus Organizing
Lyz Liddell, Secular Student Alliance Director of Campus Organizing.

From SSA's Director of Campus Organizing Lyz Liddell

Interfaith. It's complicated, it's controversial, and it's growing like wildfire on college campuses throughout the United States. The recently announced President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge has brought this new trend to a point, and the freethought movement has been hot with discussions about whether or not we should participate.

In many of these new and growing interfaith programs, including the President's Challenge, a hand has been extended to secular student groups. But it's a hand we've been reluctant to accept - whether through disagreement about goals, concerns about being misrepresented or misunderstood, or misgivings about the nature of the programs.

Having worked with several interfaith programs for the last year, I feel strongly that this invitation to participate in interfaith programs is an opportunity that is too valuable to be missed. I'll outline the reasons for my perspective, and I hope you'll consider getting involved in an interfaith program on your campus.

What's in a Name?

The first argument I always hear when I bring up the idea of nontheists participating in interfaith is about the name. Nontheism isn't a "faith," so why would we be participating in something called "interfaith?"

Interfaith Service in Action
Members of Students for Freethought at Ohio State work with the Thomas Society (an OSU religious organization) to build basketball courts in low-income neighborhoods in New Orleans.
It might surprise you to know that even strong proponents of interfaith programs don't always like the name. From my experience working with interfaith so far, it seems as though the culture of interfaith has about as many labels for itself as nontheists do for ourselves. Labels of campus offices or programs for interfaith vary tremendously, often as part of an attempt to be as inclusive as possible: Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs, Office of Multi-ethnic Student Education, Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, and (my favorite) Spirituality and Meaning-Making Programs.

"Interfaith," however, is the one that's been picked up most widely in our society, our media, and - for better or worse - the White House. Perhaps it's because one of the foremost supporters of these programs is the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), and that's the name they chose. The word "interfaith" is also short, memorable and - to many mainstream Americans - gets the basic meaning across.

Given that very real spread of names and a demonstrated intent of being inclusive, it would be a shame if secular students got so hung up on the name that they refused to participate. It strikes me as ridiculous as someone identifying as a "bright" refusing to join an "atheist" or "humanist" group because they don't like the label.

If I had to put a name on the kind of interactions I've observed in my experiences with interfaith, I would probably call it "inter-worldview." That's the goal of the IFYC programs, and the goal of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (another name that I'm not even going to touch right now). Our Communications Director Jesse Galef observed that the latest push for interfaith service by the White House, when done right, brings different religious (or non-religious) groups together for secular purposes.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Not all interfaith programs are identical. In fact, there's probably as much variation from one program to another as there is in their names. The interfaith programs I've interacted with have largely been positive, inclusive and welcoming to nontheists - if occasionally a little unsure as to how to handle us. But not all programs are as welcoming, nor are all programs designed with a focus on secular, humanitarian purposes. What do you do when the program on your campus isn't as good a fit for your nontheist group?

I find it helpful to break programs down into three broad categories: programs that are good to begin with and worth getting involved in, programs that need improvements from the inside, and programs that are truly flawed and are better engaged by taking action from the outside.

Before we get started, a word of caution. It is very easy, and tempting, to make decisions based on your assumptions about interfaith and interfaith programming. Don't do that! Learn about your campus program(s): attend meetings, introduce yourself and meet people, ask questions. Find out what they really are about, and make an informed decision about the best way to interact with it.

Million Meals for Haiti
An interfaith project at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign packaged over a million meals for Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Projects like this are great for secular involvement!

If your campus interfaith program is generally inclusive and has programming with humanitarian or otherwise pragmatic purposes, it's probably a good bet for your group to get involved. Sometimes the program might be a bit gun-shy about working with the nontheists - that's ok. Hold their hand, tell them it's ok, and point to the dozens of other SSA affiliates across the U.S. that regularly cooperate with religious or interfaith programs. SSA national can help - I would be happy to reach out to your program and help them become more comfortable with the idea of including your group.

Sometimes it's not all sunshine and rainbows. You might have a campus interfaith program with an informal mission to advocate for religion on campus. Or your campus program might be interested in catering to religion - like setting specialized swimming hours for Muslim women or building "meditation spaces" and "spiritual centers." In many of these cases, the program doesn't immediately seem a good fit for a nontheist group - but you might want to get involved anyway. In imperfect situations like these, getting involved gives you the opportunity to be a voice for change. Once you are a member of that interfaith council, you have a formal say in the decisions that concern you. Moreover, you are a constant reminder of the nontheist presence on campus.

That said, there are some situations where an interfaith program is just not a good thing, period. Situations where a public university is funding religious chaplains without allowing for a humanist alternative, groups that exist to facilitate proselytizing on campus, or organizations that use the guise of interfaith to promote Intelligent Design, limits on women's or LGBT rights, or other discriminatory practices are bad news. Trying to fight your way into these organizations is likely a waste of your time. Instead, you might consider working to expose the discriminatory or faulty programs for what they are by talking to campus administrators or an SGA-like entity.

To Participate, or Not To Participate?

Interfaith, as a concept, is now a part of our campus reality. It's growing rapidly in popularity - in no small part because the White House is giving it particular attention. These programs have increasing influence on campus, access to funds and facilities that are off-limits to the rest of campus, rising visibility and media attention, and more. As much as we might feel that they are an imperfect solution to a multi-cultural world, they are the solution that's here right now, and all our high-minded idealism isn't going to change that fact any time soon. So we need to decide how to interact with it.

I vote that we get actively involved. There are a number of ways to do this, depending on the specific program at your campus and how much time and energy you have to dedicate to it. But the fact that we are actively participating is likely more important than the details of how you do it.

White House
The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has extended an invitation specifically to secular students.
IFYC, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and countless interfaith programs on campuses across the U.S. have reached out to nontheists - secular students, specifically and by that name - to get involved. We've been asking to be more included in government for decades, and here's a chance. In the spirit of building bridges and fostering understanding and inclusion, it would seem that the least we can do is give them a try.

Getting involved brings a slough of benefits. By participating, we gain access to funds and facilities, and we get a voice in the growing influence that interfaith programs are gaining on campus. We throw a bunch of stereotypes out the window by demonstrating that we care about other people and can work with people of different worldviews. Stepping up into these programs as equals gives us political visibility and legitimacy. You might even get media attention for it - atheists in interfaith, oh my!

On the flip side, if we choose to stand back and avoid interfaith programs, we're turning our back on all those benefits. We pass up access to facilities and funding. We send the message that we don't want to be included or represented, and let down the pluralistic individuals and organizations within interfaith circles who have taken the steps to include us. Saying no to these programs is kind of like voluntarily marginalizing ourselves.

It might be tempting to turn your back on interfaith as a principled statement of disapproval. Such acts of protest can be idealistic, but they're only effective when others notice our absence and understand our reasons. But we simply don't (yet!) have the numbers or political clout to make that case heard. Our refusal to participate will be ignored by those who already assume that good works come from religion, and we'll only seem petty to those who wonder why we decided not to join them.

If you're still waffling, remember that we can do more to change what we don't like from the inside than from without. If you're not sold on the purpose of the group, the project, the name, the colors on the website, whatever - you can't change it by staying on the outside. Once you've taken your seat at the table, you can begin to work toward the changes you want to see.

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