"Don't Exclude Humanists, Atheists from the Melting Pot," a Commentary by Greg Epstein

August 28, 2008

Author: Greg M. Epstein

Source: The Washington Post/Newsweek


This past Sunday the Democrats unveiled their 2008 convention with an "Interfaith Gathering of Clergy." I am a Humanist: a proud, active member of the community of millions of Americans who believe in being good without God. So you might think I regarded this as some pernicious "intrusion of religion into the public square." But I was glad to hear about the interfaith event.

The Democratic Party has learned well from leaders of the "Religious Left:" innovative thinkers like the evangelical Jim Wallis and the rabbi Michael Lerner who preach that poverty, the environment, and education are deeply moral and spiritual issues; and that Democrats mustn't abandon religious voters to those who pray on a narrow, puritanical, and too-often hypocritical obsession with sex. And raise your hand if you could have predicted just seven years ago on 9/11, not to mention seventy years ago, that a major American party would begin a convention honoring a black man by honoring a Muslim woman cleric, standing alongside an Orthodox rabbi, and many other representatives of America's diverse communities. I don't care how much of a secularist you are; if you couldn't find something heartwarming about this event's signaling our nation's expanded horizons, consider having your ticker checked.

"On Faith" has asked us panelists to advise the McCain and Obama campaigns on what role religion ought to play in U.S. politics. I have no basis for believing the McCain campaign would be interested in my opinions, so you'll forgive me if I don't waste your time with advice for the Republicans.

Happily, though, I've seen several signs that an Obama administration might recognize the single most essential truth of American religion and politics in the 21st century. That is, not only is the U.S. not merely a "Christian Nation," we have become something new entirely: the world's first truly "Interfaith Nation." As my Harvard colleague Diana Eck has eloquently described, the U.S. is now the world's most religiously diverse nation. If we embrace the values of religious pluralism, our diversity will be a rich resource, rather than a source of division.

However, this historic opportunity would become an historic tragedy of prejudice and discrimination if we fail to recognize that an Interfaith Nation must make room for Humanists, atheists, and the non-religious as equal partners alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and many others. Will "faith" end up as nothing more than an exercise in division between religious and secular Americans-- a cheap euphemism for belief in God, miracles, and the supernatural as opposed to reason, empirical evidence, and this-worldly ethics?