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Obama Administration Invites Atheists to Interfaith Planning on Campus


Five Representatives from Secular Student Alliance to Attend National Interfaith Gathering

Contact: Jesse Galef, Communications Director
jesse@secularstudents.org (614) 441-9588 x101

An unlikely party will be sitting at the table when the United States Department of Education hosts its interfaith initiative: atheists.  The Secular Student Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to organizing nonreligious students, announced today that they were invited to take part in a special planning session September 24th as part of the national gathering for the President's Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.  The planning session, which also includes organizations like Hillel, Campus Compacts, and the Hindu Seva Charities, aims to determine the best ways for campus service projects to include all worldviews.

"We're honored to be included in the President's call for interfaith and community service," said Jesse Galef, spokesperson for the Secular Student Alliance.  "There are thousands of nonreligious students eager to work alongside their religious friends to make the world a better place."

The Obama Administration has had a history of reaching out to secular students, a practice which has provoked some religious leaders.  When President Obama invited atheists to a White House interfaith discussion in 2010, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. accused him of widening the tent too much, saying "I think we're being set up -- for people of living faith who believe in a born-again experience who follow the Bible -- to be seen as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who need to come into the 21st century."

The pushback hasn't stopped the Obama administration from including the nonreligious in its campus outreach.

"From the beginning, President Obama has envisioned students from all worldviews, religious or secular, being part of his Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge," said Ken Bedell, Senior Advisor with the Department of Education's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center.  "We know it's important to include all viewpoints in this process."

The secular demographic is one of increasing importance -- polls like a 2012 Pew survey found that 20% of Americans are unaffiliated with religion, up 5% from 2007.  Politically, NPR reported that President Obama lost the Protestant vote by 15% in the 2012 national presidential election but captured 70% of the "unaffiliated" vote.

Younger Americans in particular are more likely to be secular. The same Pew survey found that a third of those under 30 report no religion.  Their growth is reflected in the growth of the Secular Student Alliance, which has exploded from 81 campus groups in 2007 to 395 groups today.

These Secular Student Alliance affiliate groups frequently engage in community service projects, from fundraisers to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to trash pick-up activities.  43% of their groups specifically reported cooperating with religious or interfaith programs on campus in the past year.

"Atheists absolutely want to do their part to improve the world," said Galef.  "We may not believe in religious services, but we sure believe in community service."

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