Respecting religion, staying secular

December 10, 2009

I’m starting this blog because I wrote a guest piece for the Washington Post about an issue I feel very strongly about — the idea that I can inspect and respect religion while remaining secular — that got a lot of response. I’m interested in continuing the conversation, so here I am.

To get things going, I want to share here what I wrote for the Washington Post. I hope you enjoy it and that you’ll join me in this dialogue.

Respecting religion, staying secular

Today’s guest blogger is Christopher Stedman, an Outreach, Education and Training intern at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC); he also facilitates IFYC’s media work with Chris is currently a candidate for a Master of Arts in Religion at Meadville Lombard Theological School, where he is writing a novel and an accompanying paper on storytelling.

Ever since I stopped going to church a number of years ago, I’ve been seeking out a community of like-minded “non-believers.” But secular folks are particularly difficult to organize; assembling Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, and all the other “non-religious” is tricky because our common thread–that we are not something–underscores only what we do not believe. That leaves a lot of room for division among what we do believe.

Last weekend, this search led me to a panel organized by a non-religious group. The topic was how secularists should approach religion. I suspected that there would be mixed feelings about religion, but I also hoped that someone might defend religion’s positive characteristics, identifying within them similar values held by Humanists. I went with optimism and excitement–as a Secular Humanist and intern for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), I felt in a particularly good position to discuss religion in the lives of non-religious folks: “Look, I work with religious people every day and my secularism is stronger than ever!”

I left the panel sorely discouraged. Throughout the program, religion was mocked, decried, and denied. I’d arrived hoping to find a community bound by Humanistic ideals. Instead, I felt isolated. When I asked a fellow attendee to consider that religious diversity fosters an environment where discourse thrives, I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost.”

The next day, I attended my weekly Spiritual Direction course at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies. I’m the only self-identified “non-religious” person in the class, and I’ve been met with many questions. Once, a Catholic classmate cornered me, proclaiming, “I’ve been dying to ask you about your atheism!” But it didn’t feel like an affront–she was genuinely curious.

Sitting in class, I realized that I felt more at home with my Catholic colleagues than the secularists from the day before. While my classmates may feel that their religious beliefs are right, they are not only willing to tolerate my beliefs, but they enthusiastically embrace and challenge them.

Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein writes in his new book, “Good Without God,” that our society must move beyond the question of if one can be good without God to how this can be accomplished. I join Greg in wanting people to move beyond wondering whether I am a moral individual, and I want to make a reciprocal demand of my Humanist brethren: Humanism must move beyond defining itself in opposition to religion. If secular folks want to be respected in a religiously diverse culture, we need to be respectful of a religiously diverse culture.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism, once wrote:

That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.

Although some secularists may cringe at the “w” word, Emerson reminds us to be wary of casting our neighbors in a negative light. That negativity will color our worldview. Humanism asks us to look for the best in humanity. It’s not always easy, but we must endeavor to live up to our principles–just as we ask of the religious.

Have I had negative encounters with religion? Of course. As a gay man situated in a society shaped, to a large degree, by Judeo-Christian traditions, I’ve known religious-based persecution intimately. But if secular folks stay on the sidelines, mocking the religious, we’ll become isolated. To build a strong society, Humanism encourages me to engage. In doing so, I’m finding that the fellowship I’ve been seeking is already around me: a diverse community defined by shared values rather than shared identity.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.


One Response to “Respecting religion, staying secular”

  1. For me, secularism is about how public institutions are blind to gender, sexual orientation, race or religion of individuals. This is a fundamental belief that I hold.

    I also respect the right of individuals to hold beliefs, religious or otherwise. But nothing says that I must respect the beliefs themselves without good reason to do so. And I don’t respect religious beliefs, or any belief which I can show cause demonstrable harm or can not be supported by evidence.

    Respecting religion, as you seem to desire, is nothing more than accomodationalism. I refuse to accomodate beliefs which produce descrimination against gays and lesbians, women in general, attempts at forcing on others sets of morality that some do not share. If you are hoping that dialog will lead to understanding you are setting yourself up for failure because they believe that an antiquated book provides them with all the answers they need. Their ears are plugged. And things will not get better because their sense of morality is grounded in a 2000 year old zeitgeist of a barbaric sheepherding society.

    One can point to religious moderates, but where are they when Pat Robertson blames 9/11 on liberal attitudes towards gays and lesbians?Where are they when a pope tells the faithful that condoms increase the spread of AIDS, a lie which will result in the deaths of millions? Where are they when George Bush Sr tells us that atheists should be considered neither citizens nor patriots? Precious few stand up and raise their voices in opposition. Rather, they provide cover for their hard-liner kin.

    Religion is not above criticism, and criticism is sorely deserved by its proponents. There would be no problem if religion (and by extension the religious) would leave us alone. There would be no problem if the religious would not attempt to subvert secular institutions to create a theocratic state. But all accomodationalism does is provide breathing room for those who want to impose their beliefs on others, which simply results in their wanting more breathing room. Simply put, expansionism is built in to their beliefs.

    We’ve been through that time where religion was respected and not questioned, and we are paying for that accomodationalism. That time is done and I will no longer accomodate beliefs which have no room for respecting those of us who do not share their beliefs.

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