You mean you’re not going to throw me out?

Greg Epstein, the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard, is rather too easily pleased.

Yesterday, the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships unveiled an unprecedented new initiative: The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge…for me and perhaps for millions of my fellow nonreligious Americans, there is one particularly historic and controversial aspect of the challenge that cannot be ignored. As with his other main speeches on interfaith cooperation, President Obama has gone out of his way to make clear that this initiative must be fully open to and inclusive [of] atheists, and agnostics, and Humanists.

Well, just for one thing, it can’t be. An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses. We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t. We shouldn’t be pretending there is nothing exclusive or particularist or antisecular about faith-based offices and faith-based challenges in and from a branch of government. I don’t feel included in Obama’s challenge. On the contrary; I feel very pointedly and explicitly not included. That’s one reason I (and many other people) think presidents shouldn’t have offices and challenges of that kind. It was Bush’s innovation, and Obama should have ditched it.

I can vouch for the fact that we have been included every step of the way; not only in big public moments like the inaugural speech shout-out to “nonbelievers”, but also behind the scenes. Last June, I was invited to visit the White House as part of a small gathering of University and college presidents, deans, chaplains, and interfaith student leaders to discuss the initial plans that led to this initiative.

Dude, you can’t vouch for that; “we” have not been included in a company of that kind; chaplains and interfaith student leaders: that doesn’t include us. You may have been included, and your “we” may have, but I haven’t.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist, took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others—and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance (I was joined by my good friend August Brunsman, Director of the Secular Student Alliance.) To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there. I felt chills—despite polls consistently showing atheists like us to be the least electable demographic group in the US, here was a key representative of the highest authority in the land, looking us in the eye, in public, and making it indisputably clear that our beliefs, our Humanist values, and our secular colleagues were every bit as American as anyone else.

“We” are allowed to tag along with the much larger group of normal people. That’s called tokenism, and it’s insulting. Epstein seems to have internalized so much of the routine atheist-phobia of the US that he all but bursts into tears just because he gets a name-check from a crowd of godbotherers. He’s way too easily pleased.

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