Yesterday representatives from the Council for Secular Humanism “participated in a first-of-its-kind White House briefing for members of America’s secular community.” At this meeting, “Officials of the Obama Administration met…with a delegation drawn from the nation’s leading secular humanist, humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations to discuss policy in areas of concern to the nonreligious community.”
Three things struck me regarding this briefing. First, the fact that there has never been a prior meeting of its kind. Think about that – it has taken until 2010 for the White House to officially meet with representatives of the nonreligious in this country. This has never happened before. Of course, briefings with representatives of various religious communities have been going on for a very long time. This, in a country that is explicitly secular in its foundation. I find this surprising.
Perhaps the disparity is linked to this second point: notice how the discussions are described as a chance to talk about “policy in areas of concern to the nonreligious community” (my emphasis). It seems significant that this term is used – the idea that there might be such a thing as a meaningful nonreligious community is not uncontroversial in this country, and I think it is valuable that, more and more, we should start to view ourselves in this way. This self-reconceptualization might lead to a deeper discussion of what services we should offer as a community, how we might make our community more welcoming, and how we should relate to other communities, be they religious or otherwise. Also, by re-cognizing ourselves as a community, we will begin to realize the power we can wield through collective action – presumably the White House is beginning to realize this, hence the briefing.
Finally, I am intrigued by the topics chosen by the nonreligious representatives to raise in this forum: “[the] issues included protecting children from religion-related neglect and abuse, ending proselytizing in the military, and fixing the faith-based initiative to conform with accepted secular principles.” These are all important issues, valuable to work on. Doubtless, the read testimony of Liz Heywood, “a survivor of a childhood bone disease left untreated by her Christian Science parents”, would have been powerful, and nonbelievers should feel as welcome in the military as believers.
At the same time I can’t help detecting a certain poverty of ambition and parochialism in the raising of these issues in a briefing at the White House. Why not talk about increasing inequalities of wealth, or educational disadvantage? As a Humanist these are just as important to me as “specifically nonreligious” issues – indeed, even more so. I wonder if the esteem in which nonbelievers are held in this country would improve if we were to speak more passionately to these broader issues of human concern, rather than to those issues that affect nonreligious people as “nonreligious people”. The tragic loss of human potential due to educational failure is a deeply Humanist issue, and I think the White House would have benefited from hearing that message from our representatives.