For a third year in a row, the Obama Administration formally invited atheist groups to participate in this year's Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge, reiterating what the Department of Education called the President's belief in building bridges between communities and cooperating to solve local problems.
"The Administration has had a commitment to service and serving the common good, and the interfaith challenge has welcomed people from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds to tackle various issues and challenges within their own communities," Cameron French, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education, told The Progressive.
"This is the third year of the challenge and we continue to see interest in the program [from] secular groups, as well as the Methodist Church," he continued. "Both will be participating together for the first time this year, so it's definitely a wide range of groups. We're happy to accept anyone who is interested in and committed to building a better community."
Nonreligious Americans are one of the fastest growing groups in the country, according to a Pew Research Center survey published last October. The survey found that one in five Americans today claim "none" as their religious affiliation, with the vast majority being younger people. A full one-third of Americans under age 30 said they did not follow a religion, whereas just 10 percent of those 65 and older said the same.
When President Barack Obama announced the youth-oriented interfaith service program in 2011, he emphasized that a diverse coalition of the faithful and nonbelievers can "not only better our communities, we can build bridges of understanding between ourselves and others."
"They might build houses together, or organize clothing and food drives," he added. "Or dream up a new way to address an issue that affects your neighborhood. One thing's clear: While we may not all believe the same things, we don't have to. We can certainly agree that together, we can make a difference."
This year's gathering, set for later this month, will see hundreds of students from campuses across the country meeting in Washington, D.C. "We'll talk about education issues, talk about energy and the environment, health services and healthy living," French said. "The hope is that the various attendees of the different sessions will be able to take some helpful information from these team leaders and groups and learn not only from administration officials, who are very knowledgeable about these different topics, but also learn from each other."
While a program of this sort might not sound like that radical a leap, Lyz Liddell, director of campus organizing for the Secular Student Alliance, said the Administration's explicit and continual inclusion of atheists and the nonreligious represents a new high-water mark for religious tolerance in government.
"This is significant for us because historically nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers have been very much shut out of governmental processes, going all the way back to the 1950s and McCarthyism, anti-atheism, Red Scares going on," she said. "Still today there's a very big religious influence in the government -- this need for politicians to declare their faith, especially with the religious right in recent years... It's important because this is a big change from what we've seen over the last decades... No prior Administration had ever reached out [to us]."
Liddell added that the Secular Student Alliance's goals at this year's interfaith gathering would be to figure out better ways to promote interfaith cooperation on college campuses, and to form stronger ties with the Department of Education and the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- that way government personnel will hopefully be better equipped, and more willing, to partner with explicitly nonreligious Americans going forward.
"If you're going to engage with people of different faiths, you can't just shut out people of no faith," she said. "We may not use the same words, but we definitely have a worldview and a way we see the world. You just can't have a gathering that tries to bring all people together and leave out 30 percent of the population."