In a couple of weeks I''ll be going to listen to an interfaith panel discuss the genocide in Darfur. The panel will include a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. There's no room at that table for anyone who doesn't believe in God.
That seems just a little unfair. It's interesting to see how different faiths regard that problem. But this isn't just an exercise in comparative religion. The panel is being convened because allegedly these religious leaders have a special ability to guide us on moral matters. And people who don't believe in God have less of an ability?
We shouldn't buy into that. The question is how an un-believer could get a seat at such a table. Well, why not just empanel a sagacious ethicist? But then ethics is not religion. This is an interfaith panel.
An unbeliever can only get a seat at the table if he or she represents a way of thinking that's at least quasi-religious. This would have to be someone who affirms a set of values, who has some conception of how people ought to live and treat each other. (Plus, I suppose, a lot of followers.) I think Paul Kurtz, the "secular humanist" founder of the magazine Free Inquiry, could do the job. (See here for what secular humanists believe.)
Atheism is a big tent, with people of all sorts standing under it. The vocal, antagonistic crowd, like Dawkins and Harris, are smart and energizing. But the "kinder, gentler" secular humanists are rather important as emissaries to the world. They have a chance on that panel, and Dawkins and Harris don't.
The secular humanists could link up with Unitarians, liberal Jewish congregations, liberal Christians and others who share their political and ethical vision. Atheists, by contrast, are just all the people who disbelieve, from Karl Rove (!) to Larry Flynt.
I don't think I can actually call myself a secular humanist--I'd have to be excluded from the panel because at best I can call myself an ethicist. The way I look at ethics isn't the way secular humanists do. But I think those folks should be encouraged. In fact, I'm going to go buy a copy of Paul Kurtz's magazine today. (Ahem...I have an article in the current issue.)