Earlier this month, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC)—a leading interfaith organization in the United States that works with college and university campuses to equip young people for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values—released intriguing numbers about the alumni of their programs.

Religious and nonreligious identification results from IFYC's 2013 alumni survey.

Religious and nonreligious identification results from IFYC’s 2013 alumni survey. Courtesy of Interfaith Youth Core.

According to their survey results, nearly 1 in 4 IFYC alums identify as atheist (4.7 percent), agnostic (7.1 percent), secular humanist (5.3 percent), or spiritual but not religious (6.5 percent).

“The number of IFYC alums that identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist is about as much as our Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist alumni combined,” said IFYC Director of Alumni Relations Amber Hacker in a recent interview.

The large number of nontheist or nonreligious IFYC alums may come as a surprise to some—perhaps especially those wondering whether nonreligious people are actually welcome in interfaith work.

When I worked as a contractor for IFYC a number of years ago, I didn’t encounter many other atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious people. But that has shifted dramatically in recent years.

Hacker says that the significant percentage of atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious IFYC alums is evidence that IFYC is “building an interfaith movement that is 100 percent inclusive of the nonreligious.” To her, this reflects a change in IFYC’s programs.

“There’s always room for improvement, but through focused outreach we’ve made some important strides in three important ways,” Hacker said.

“The first is inclusive language,” said Hacker. “We use language that is welcoming to people of all faiths and perspectives, including those who do not ascribe to a particular faith or spiritual tradition.”

“The second is lifting up stories of inspirational nonreligious people such as A. Phillip Randolph, who we name as one of our interfaith heroes at our Interfaith Leadership Institutes (ILIs). Finally, we include nonreligious representation in our programs, at our ILIs, and on staff at IFYC,” Hacker continued. “At our ILIs we tell student leaders that interfaith events are more successful when the diverse constituents of a community are bought in from the beginning and given a stake in the vision.”

In early 2013 IFYC offered a special track for secular students at one of their ILIs, partnering with the Secular Student Alliance (SSA)—a national organization that resources campus groups for atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students—on content.

“Secular humanists are not only present in a big way at our Leadership Institutes,” said IFYC founder and president Eboo Patel in a recent interview, “many of them go on to be some of the best interfaith leaders in the broader movement.”

SSA, which has just over 325 affiliate groups on college and university campuses around the U.S., currently estimates that around 100 of those groups are now participating in interfaith programs.

Lyz Liddell, SSA’s Director of Campus Organizing, said that SSA first collected data on how many of their affiliate groups reported participating in interfaith programs in 2011. At that time, about 20% of groups said that they were.

“I’d predict that that number has grown to 27-30% of groups for the 2013-2014 academic year,” said Liddell in a recent interview.

She continued:

This year was pretty incredible for secular student involvement in interfaith. We were invited to be a part of the program for the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge national gathering in September, which was a huge sign of inclusion. But even more encouraging were the interactions I had while I was there. Three years ago, I would have been spending my time convincing religious interfaith programs that they should reach out to secular students, and guide them in doing so, while at the same time convincing the secular students that they should be participating. This year, I heard story after story about secular students initiating interfaith programs where there hadn’t been any, programs that realized that their names weren’t inclusive to secular students and worked to improve them, and the central role secular students played in established programs. I didn’t have to convince anyone—the students and programs were doing it all on their own with enthusiasm.

Hacker said that “IFYC has definitely noticed an increase in nonreligious persons involved in our programming” in recent years, and that today about 20 percent of IFYC’s staff identifies as atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, or nonreligious.

“Nonreligious folks contribute to the interfaith movement in so many ways,” said Hacker. “As someone who identifies as religious, I rely on my nonreligious colleagues to ensure that our programs and our language are inclusive of everyone involved in the interfaith movement—both religious and nonreligious. I draw inspiration from nonreligious folks involved in interfaith work every day.”

IFYC encourages interested undergraduate students, faculty, or staff members of all religious and nonreligious backgrounds to get involved and attend an ILI. Their next ILI is the last weekend of January 2014 in Atlanta, and there is another in mid-February in Los Angeles. Click here to learn more.

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