Letter to a Fellow “Nonbeliever”

January 6, 2010

islamIn my work at the Interfaith Youth Core, one of my responsibilities has been to help respond to some of the inquiries we recieve from folks who want to know why we do what we do. One such inquiry we received last month asked the following (I’ve left the inquirer’s identity anonymous for the sake of his privacy):

I’m a devout nonbeliever, and unconvinced religion in most of its forms does more good than harm to us as human beings over our short history on planet earth. But, annoyed as I sometimes get with religious people’s posturing and proselytizing, (especially in the mid south where I live) I understand it’s not going to go away and folks who practice a religion get much from it.

I have two issues [IFYC founder] Mr. Patel [has] brought up I wish to address, and maybe someone there can give me a decent answer to them. If, as he’s labeled them, Muslim “extremists” do not represent what Islam truly is, and most mainstream Muslims believe and understand this, why is there no long well established, hugely popular broad Muslim movement to completely uproot, ostracize and eliminate them? Almost to the point of a self-imposed pogrom against them. Especially if they’ve so twisted the holy word?

Also, having read the Koran, there are many, many places in the text that are easily seen as violent, vengeful and non peaceful. I just don’t understand how he can extol the virtues of the faith while glancing over the inherent problems I easily see…

Again, my admiration for what your organization tries to do. I can, as John Lennon said, ” imagine no religion….a brotherhood of man”. What you’re after is the next best thing.

Below is my response. There is, of course, much more I could say — about how I draw inspiration and insight from the wisdom traditions of others, about the cultural-creative expressionistic roots of religion, about the transformative role religion played in social revolutions such as the American civil rights movement and the liberation movement in El Salvador, and so on — but I wanted to be brief and to the point.

I hope this finds you well. My name is Christopher Stedman. I work for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), and I am not religious. I was very interested in your email to us, as you have many of the concerns about religion that I have held at times. Ultimately, you’re right: religion isn’t going anywhere. The secular boom of the ’90s is long gone and religious belief is once more on the rise. So, as you’ve rightly noticed, religion is probably here to stay. How we respond to religion, then, is where our authority as non-religious folks is situated.

I think you’re totally right to point out problematic elements of texts regarded by certain communities as sacred, and to take a critical eye to them. But I’d caution against “throwing the baby out with the bath water” — dismissing the positive contributions of said writings because of the negative components.

Regarding your comment on Islam / terror; I’d like to recommend a piece about Muslims who speak out against terror. You can find it here.

Additionally, I was especially intrigued by your reference to Lennon and the elimination of religion. While I too recognize inherent flaws in much of religion, I think we will lose something of consequence if religion disappears. I’m reading a book right now called “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than without It” by Bruce Sheiman. It might interest you.

Finally, I want to share with you is a short guest piece I did for the Washington Post last month in which I described my commitment to remain secular but still find a way to respect the religious beliefs of others. You can find that here.

I’d be honored to continue this conversation with you if you’d like. Please don’t hesitate to contact me, and thank you for engaging these important issues.

Unfortunately, he never responded. I’m still interested in continuing this conversation — any takers out there?


2 Responses to “Letter to a Fellow “Nonbeliever””

  1. Arius said

    I have much respect for religions–however, the fundamentalist poise that saturates this country breeds cultural and religious bigotry. I am also aware that secularism can attain fundamentalist status also–which is why, harmonious aggregation should be sought rather than mere tolerance.

    Good post.

  2. Hello:

    Thank you for mentioning my book, “An Atheist Defends Religion.” I am also perplexed by the lack of respect that religion receives within the secular community.

    I have learned a lot from religious people in writing my book. Though I am sure there are religious dolts out there, I have not met many of them. Religious people have been largely respectful and tolerant of my unbelief. Admittedly, that could be because I am defending their cause — but, at the same time I am implicitly repudating religion for myself. They all ask me why, if I am sympathetic to religion, I cannot embrace Jesus. I say that neither belief nor unbelief are a rational and deliberate choice; both are a matter of faith. It is not that I do not want to believe; it is that I cannot.

    As for atheists, I have found them to be contemptuous and disrespectful, considering me a “traitor.” This, despite my being a non-believer who is on their side of the spectrum. But because I actually aspire to be a believer, I would like to believe in a God as Savior, they see me as the enemy. And they have not learned the Christian sentiment to embrace one’s enemies — just as those aforementioned religious people are doing with me.

    I understand your efforts to find a secular crowd that is accepting of religious aspirations, but that may be a big challenge.

    Tell me more about what you think or believe (or don’t believe).


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