There is an argument going around in the blogosphere this week (and maybe every week) about whether or not atheists, humanists and secularists should be involved in “interfaith community service projects.” Blag Hag had a post up yesterday in which she said “no” (http://www.blaghag.com/2011/04/what-do-you-call-interfaith.html); today at the Friendly Atheist, my friend, Jesse Galef says “yes” (http://friendlyatheist.com/2011/04/20/interfaith-jujitsu-when-we-should-engage/). Sorry, Jesse, but I’m not buying your argument.
First, I would like to point out that “interfaith” is not a word that makes sense for community service projects even where all of the participants come from a faith tradition. “Interfaith” makes sense in the context of interfaith dialogues, where members of different faith communities come together and talk about issues “between” or “among” their faiths. “Interfaith” does not make sense in the context of service projects because the projects are not between or among the faith groups – the projects aren’t Baptists fixing the roof on a mosque or Catholics collecting for a food pantry for poor Lutheran children. The projects are projects of people from many communities to help people in the larger community. The proper prefix is “multi-“ not “inter-“.
Second, if we’re there, the proper root word is not “faith”. There are a lot of root words that could be used, for example, community or association. I kind of like “fellowship” despite the gendered language – multifellowship service projects instead of interfaith ones. The only reasons to use the word faith in the banner over a project involving both theists and nontheists are ignorance or arrogance, and I think that the day when one could get by with the excuse of ignorance on this issue are over.
Third, if we permit the word “interfaith” to be used, then we are permitting our contributions to be erased. We may know that the “interfaith” workers include nontheists, President Obama may know that the projects include people of faith and no faith, but the person on the street is still going to believe that only theists do good works and they’re going to believe that we aren’t there.
Fourth, beyond whether or not the word “faith” works for us, the idea of “interfaith” projects is a bad one for society. I have been involved in several volunteer projects this winter and spring that have brought people together from different communities to do service. One was organized by a synagogue, another by a secular non-profit and the third by my county government. None of the projects was labeled “interfaith.” Crews at the various events were organized by churches, employee groups, atheist/humanist groups, Rotary Clubs, housing projects, a club for people who like to volunteer and a high school honor society to name a few. Do you know who would have been left out if all of the credit went to an interfaith effort – the employees, atheists and humanists, Rotarians, housing project residents, volunteer club members, high schoolers and others who came just to help. Let’s stop pretending that we live in a society where everything good is organized by churches.