Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why I Don't Believe in "Interfaith" Community Service Projects

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” (; today at the Friendly Atheist, my friend, Jesse Galef says “yes” ( 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.


Don Wharton said...

Mary, thank you so much for your thoughtful post on such a contentious topic. I think you are absolutely correct on the need for better language to describe service events including secularists.

I do think it is a powerful force in reducing anti-secularist bigotry when secularists who publically label themselves as such participate in multifellowship projects. As you note, there is even more benefit if a better word was used for the activity.

Jaseo Jenkins said...

"Interfaith" makes sense if the effort is *led* by a coalition of multiple diverse faith-based groups, regardless of the cosmic dispositions of the volunteers. To call it an "interfaith project" because there happen to be volunteers of differing outlooks makes no more sense than saying McDonald's is an interfaith restaurant because all sorts of believers and nonbelievers go there.

Anonymous said...

Yes, very well said Mary. The theists want the credit for the project as faith-based. Habitat for Humanity is a Christian effort. If secularists participate, their work is labeled as a work of faith.

lucette said...

When we are interested in a project which is labeled "interfaith", we are obviously excluded or used if we are non-believers. Excluded if we don't participate in spite of our interest. Used if we decide to participate and accept to be invisible.
My response is not just to abstain from participating but to contact the organizers and let them know that the "interfaith" qualifier excludes the non-believers.
My hope is that some of the organizers might think about it and maybe, maybe, change.

lucette said...

In fact, I also ask the "interfaith" organizers why they are excluding us.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Perhaps we need a competing concept like "transfaith" to describe the types of efforts that would include us or that we would be willing to participate in. However, I see that even this term has been hijacked for something like interfaith.

Philip Goldberg (Interfaith Minister, author of 'American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West') expressed his disappointment with the interfaith movement this way in a HufPost article:

"In the past, many gatherings resembled the setup to a bad joke: a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into the room. A few clerics would expound on some topic from the perspective of their own traditions, usually comparing their beliefs, doctrines and rituals, or their positions regarding social problems. To their credit, the representatives would treat one another with dignity, and they would occasionally combine forces to take a stand on a pressing social issue or roll up their sleeves to tackle a local or national problem. But I would invariably leave feeling that the assembly wasn't wide enough and the probing wasn't deep enough. Where were the Buddhists and Hindus and Sikhs and Toaists? What about the pagans and the Wiccans and the indigenous peoples? And why no discussion of transcendence, let alone the sharing of practices toward that experience? "

Even this is not enough for me since it leaves no space for the practices and thinking of Secularists

lucette said...

What is the purpose of "interfaith" action? Would Secular Humanists ever organize a meeting that they would call "interfaith"? The importance of "faith" is plainly expressed in a word like "interfaith". There is another expression which excludes Secular Humanists: "People of Faith." The intent of these expressions is clear. It is not wise to ignore it.

evefaulkes said...

I came upon this discussion as I was looking for projects that had surmounted issues of faith by doing community projects that brought together people who may have had prejudices against another group based on faith differences or secular vs faith. It seems to me that the ignorance which causes stereotyping can become diffused once anyone works side by side with the "other" and may give purchase on acceptance. I think that' the benefit more than who gets credit. Perhaps if it were an invitation more directly targeted as an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with people likely to be on a different faith or non-faith place in the spectrum for the public good, we could get the folks there that most need to see one another up close. I am still looking for projects which have done this if anyone has an experience to give me. I am putting together a conference on Designing for the Divide, polar opposite groups of people such as these and socioeconomic, left-right, etc for the benefit of communities.