The Secular Blues

Tom Flynn

What’s better than stirring up a bitter controversy with one of these editorials? Stirring up two bitter controversies, of course.

White House Errs with ‘Interfaith Service Challenge’

In March, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships announced the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative encourages colleges and universities to design one-year service projects on which students and student groups of every faith perspective—and none—can collaborate. The White House announcement notes that “since his inauguration, President Obama has emphasized interfaith cooperation and community service,” then blends the two into something called “interfaith service.”

That’s one bold stroke of hybridization.

As The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart likes to observe, when you bring two things together, sometimes you get peanut butter and jelly, and sometimes you get Baconnaise. The White House announcement veered far into Baconnaise territory when it declared: “Interfaith service involves people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds tackling community challenges together—for example, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Jews, and Muslims and non-believers—building a Habitat for Humanity house together.”

That shout-out to nonbelievers is no fluke—Campus Challenge materials are relentlessly inclusive toward the nonreligious. At first glance, this may seem hugely positive: the Obama administration is delivering on its promise of fairness toward Americans of all faiths and none. On that basis, some of my religious humanist friends are (pardon the expression) rapturous about this project. “Nonreligious Must Embrace White House’s Interfaith Service Challenge,” runs the headline of Harvard University humanist chaplain Greg Epstein’s March 18 blog post at washingtonpost.com.

I won’t be joining in the cheering for this initiative. I think secular people and organizations ought to steer clear of the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and be unyielding in their criticism of it. Why?

First, it comes from the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the current iteration of George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative,” which longtime readers will recall as a full-frontal assault on the separation of church and state. In the view of most expert secularists, the very existence of this office is probably unconstitutional—though in the present climate, it’s unlikely that any court will declare it so. If you’re a strict separationist, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is one of those quarters from which, presumptively, no good can come.

I’ll grant that as objections go, that one is rather presumptive, perhaps even presumptuous. So let’s leave aside, for now, the question of whether the Faith-based office should exist. Are there other reasons to oppose the Campus Challenge program? Yes.

My second objection is that the Campus Challenge abuses language, in the process reinforcing—perhaps inadvertently—long-standing prejudices against the nonreligious. Let’s look again at its inaugural announcement, this time with added emphasis: “Interfaith service involves people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds. . . .”

Let’s define our terms. The Random House Dictionary defines interfaith as “of, operating, or occurring between persons belonging to different religions.” The World English Dictionary defines it as “relating to, between, or involving different religions.” Defining religious or its cognate religion is extraordinarily difficult, but for the sake of argument I’ll rely on the rough-and-ready definition I developed in 2002: religion—“a life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.” Religious would denote something pertaining to such a life stance.

Given these definitions, how can an “interfaith” initiative include the nonreligious? By definition, an interfaith program excludes those who don’t possess a religious faith. That’s no semantic quibble: a great many secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers are proud of living without faith. They hold that a principal characteristic distinguishing them from the religious is that religious believers have a faith and they don’t. Many in our camp contend that faith—the process of granting assent without proof, especially to supernatural claims—is inherently illegitimate. We insist on a higher epistemic standard. To borrow Dan Barker’s delightful phrase, we are the people who have “lost faith in faith.”

Any effort to nudge the purposely faithless under an “interfaith” umbrella therefore abuses language. Moreover, it does so in a way that disrespects the nonreligious, belittling one of their principal and proudly held points of distinction from religious believers. An “inter–life stance” initiative might be acceptable, if verbally monstrous. But nonreligious people who’ve outgrown faith, yet allow themselves to take part in an “interfaith” initiative as though their life stance were just another faith, are being co-opted.* Worst of all, whether accidentally or not, such an effort to drag the faithless under the interfaith umbrella reinforces age-old stereotypes that truly moral action is accessible only to people imbued with some religious or spiritual commitment. Allow me to cast this point into even sharper relief.

My third objection is that the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge is profoundly antisecular. It injects questions of life stance and sectarian identity into a matter where they have no rightful place. Along the way, yes, it further impugns the moral probity of nonbelievers.

Community service is laudable in itself. In most contexts, it can be considered an innately moral act. That is true whether a person doing community service work—or the person benefiting from it—is a believer or an atheist. The value of such work is independent of anyone’s religion or lack of one. If we are secularists, that’s a point we can’t make often enough. Morality and epistemology are independent. Religious organizations deserve no special role when it comes to social service work, and neither should secular organizations simply because they play a role in secular people’s lives vaguely analogous to that which churches play for believers.

Doing good works has no inherent connection to anyone’s life stance. Conversely, knowing someone’s life stance tells you nothing about his or her likelihood to engage in moral (or immoral) actions. But you’d never know that to look at the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. After all, its opening move is to conflate service with religion, pushing forward like an institutional-size jar of Baconnaise that tattered old falsehood that moral action and faith have some necessary link. They don’t.

Of course, this is where traditional bigotries against the nonreligious find their support. The Campus Challenge program encodes the hoary assumption that values and decency somehow depend on what beliefs individuals hold—or do not hold—concerning the supernatural. The clear implication is that men and women who lack religious faith are stunted beings whose nonbelief diminishes their capacity for genuine moral action. Secular
people should reject that view and insist that the propensity for moral actions is entirely independent of what, if anything, we choose to take on faith.

Further, truly secular people should recognize that the very idea of organizing charitable activity according to individuals’ life stances is as outdated as the buggy whip. The link between churches and charity is purely a historical one, and in the twenty-first century it’s an archaism progressive seculars should be working hard to overturn, not to embrace.

If you still don’t accept that the Campus Challenge is inherently antisecular, consider how different it might appear had it been cast more appropriately. For starters, it might have come from the Department of Education rather than the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And it might have been a “Community Service Campus Challenge,” sans that loaded term Interfaith. Colleges and universities could have been invited to compete in planning one-year projects to maximize participation in community service among students generally. Somewhere in the promotional copy, the point might be made that the program is open to students of every faith and of none, but the challenge would never be defined as an “interfaith” affair, nor would it be hinted that student religious organizations were expected to play a leadership role. Nowhere would promotional material suggest an inevitable connection between students’ life stances, religious or otherwise, and their participation in a program that is, after all, self-evidently worthwhile.

That’s what a properly secular community service challenge might have looked like. Unfortunately, it’s not what the Obama White House produced.

To reiterate: the proposed Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge is a program of a government office that, on any rigorous understanding of the separation of church and state, should not exist. It is disrespectful toward nonreligious Americans when it imagines that the label “interfaith” has anything to do with them. And it is antisecular when it postulates a necessary link between faith and moral action, perpetuating the bigoted idea that nonreligious people suffer a diminished capacity for moral action.

The Meaninglessness of Unmodified Humanism

Next controversy: in this issue there’s an article by Lawrence Rifkin, a recurring contributor to these pages, pondering the difficulties of defining the word humanism. It’s a beautifully written essay, and so we published it despite my own misgivings—and no small amount of dialogue between Rifkin and myself—about whether defining humanism is even, strictly speaking, possible.

Humanism, after all, is an enormously broad term. It has always been the position of the Council for Secular Humanism that if we wish to speak with precision about our humanism as a human-centered, naturalistic moral commitment, we really need to add a modifying adjective—say, secular.

Humanism unmodified has so many meanings that it’s difficult to single out any one of them as primary. There were the Renaissance humanists, radicals after our own hearts in that they rejected a single-minded focus on the next world in favor of a vibrant concern for this world and the people who inhabit it—but thinkers like Desiderius Erasmus and Giovanni Picco della Mirandola were nobody’s atheists. They didn’t reject a supernatural order; they just thought that the natural order merited regard in its own right. More recently, there have been humanist movements in art, in music, architecture, and even psychology.

During the mid-twentieth century, some moderate Marxists styled themselves “Marxist humanists.” Pope John Paul II called himself a “Christian humanist.” Finally, in our own day there are self-described religious humanists. Many of them are uncompromising philosophical naturalists who simply retain a fondness for the structures of congregational life. But some can be considered religious on a strict construal of that term: they may hold that humans are inherently perfectible, a stance that cannot be defended without some resort to faith in something beyond the natural order. They may believe that humans are inevitably destined for a glorious future or they may hold mystical beliefs about human nature, the “human spirit,” or some mysterious life essence. Such individuals are humanists but not naturalists. No sound definition of humanism unmodified can exclude them.

With all these varied forms of humanism present in the marketplace of ideas, it seems the height of audacity to imagine that a word so multifarious could properly be described as “not theistic” or “without theism and other supernatural beliefs.” Yet, as Rifkin rightly reminds me, these phrases occur in definitions of humanism championed by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the American Humanist Association, respectively. With all due respect, some who unquestionably deserve the label humanist are not naturalists. There are more ways to be humanistic (without a modifier) than a definition that presumes philosophical naturalism can accommodate.

Instead of trying to extrude vast, formless humanism through our preferred die, why not modify the word with a suitable adjective, so that everyone can know what we’re talking about? The Council for Secular Humanism maintains that there exists a clear and simple term to define a naturalistic life stance that attaches principal moral importance to human beings and their concerns while embracing a worldview rooted in science and the naturalistic rejection of supernatural claims.

Clear and simple, yes, but one word? No; as we’ve seen, humanism alone simply carries too much baggage. The clear and simple label has two words: secular humanism. I’m proud to be a secular humanist, and I hope you are too.

Not that they’ve ever needed encouraging, but I invite readers to share their views on these matters.


* Some will disagree. In his book Good without God, the aforementioned Greg Epstein argued vigorously that nonreligious people should engage in interfaith activities. As I mentioned in my review of the book (“A New Leader. . . For Religious Humanists,” FI, February/March 2010), Epstein’s arguments crystallized for me the incompatibility of secular humanism and interfaith participation, in fact prompting me to withdraw from some interfaith programs in which I’d naïvely been participating. By the way, readers intrigued by both parts of this editorial might profit from rereading my review of Epstein, in which I go into greater depth on issues such as the meaning of religion and religious humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


What’s better than stirring up a bitter controversy with one of these editorials? Stirring up two bitter controversies, of course. White House Errs with ‘Interfaith Service Challenge’ In March, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships announced the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative encourages colleges and universities to design …

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