Speaking Up, or How Mo’Nique Showed Me the Light

March 12, 2010


Just imagine: this could be you, accepting your prize for Best Secular Story...

Earlier this week in my radio interview for Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM Chicago, I was asked if I agreed with Mo’Nique’s Oscar acceptance speech declaration that “sometimes you have to forgo doing what is popular in order to do what’s right.” At the time I laughed, but the inspiringly brazen lady has a point.

For all of the wonderful, positive response we’ve received for the Share Your Secular Story contest, and more generally this blog, we’ve been getting some critical feedback as well. In the spirit of my exchange on Atheist Nexus, we’ve received emails saying that religion isn’t worth respecting, that we’re really religionists disguising ourselves as secularists (aka “traitors”), that this project reflects a willingness to bend over and allow religion to do unmentionable things to us, and a batch of mocking faux submissions and condescending comments dismissing the spirit of this contest as “nicey-nice.” It isn’t that I expected this contest to be celebrated by each and every secular individual, but I can’t help but wonder when being nice became something worth condemning.

The reason for this contest is and always has been two-fold: primarily, it aims to help build a canon of secular stories, as contest judge Nick Mattos so eloquently described in his elegant, poetic guest post this week. As a growing movement, it is imperative that we advertise our stories. But those involved in the contest also hope that it will facilitate greater understanding between religious and secular folks, to help create a climate of religious pluralism in which other beliefs and identities are not just tolerated but respected. I’m unashamed that this contest is not anti-religious. I’m not ashamed that I want to be “nicey-nice” to religious people, even if I am not one. Like Mo’Nique, I don’t care that this idea runs contrary to the rampant anti-theism I’ve seen in the secular community.

I don’t mean to sound self-important, but I’ve got a bone to pick. I want to take some of my secular peers to task. I’m sorry if this sounds martyrical, but I’m entirely worn out on hearing that “religion is the worst thing that has ever happened” or that “religious people are dumb.” Comments like these offend me because they are intellectually lazy and because there are people I care deeply about that are deeply religious. For all the horror it has incited, religion has also inspired more compassion, empathy and good works than pretty much any force in history. It is not difficult to make a thoughtful case that religion does more good than it does harm. Think religious people are stupid? Many of history’s greatest intellectuals were religious. Try going toe-to-toe with Thomas Aquinas, Arianna Huffington, or Mahatma Gandhi and tell me that religious people are dumb.

The purpose of this post isn’t to construct an apologia for religion. I’m all for intellectual critique of theology — I do it daily in my religion classes — but when such conversations move from rationally discussing a belief to radically attacking an identity, I start to have a problem. The crux of the matter is that such comments aren’t just intellectually and personally insulting — they’re discriminatory. As a queer person and a secular individual, I’ve experienced my share of being dismissed or discriminated against solely because of stereotypes others hold about my identity. Why would I want to perpetuate that cycle by making blanket-judgments on religious people when they could turn out to be among my greatest allies if only I’d keep an open mind? As the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — who was, lest we forget, a deeply religious man motivated by his theological convictions to better the world — said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We secularists need to get over this antagonistic, self-defensive stance toward the religious other and embrace the reality that we live in a world of religious diversity. Religious people are everywhere; they are our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. And we need them to accomplish any vision we may have for a more unified world. We cannot be isolationists. We need to appeal to the values of religiously-minded individuals if we’re going to build broad coalitions of solidarity.

If we truly want to change hearts and minds with our secular stories, we must open our minds and our hearts to the experiences of our religious counterparts. To quote the great unifier Abraham Lincoln:

“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.

On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

The more we continue to deny empathy to those who believe differently than we do and fashion our community with an antagonistic posture toward religiosity, the more our efforts will flounder. As contest judge Erik Roldan so aptly put it, “looking at the religious as the enemy does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t help anything to simply identify the negative and try and keep away from it. If anything, isolating ourselves from the reality that the world and the United States are driven by politically powerful varieties of faith is complacent. It’s a resignation to being a voiceless minority, and what progress could that possibly result in?”

If our identities as secular individuals remain rooted in uttering “we don’t agree with religion” over and over, we will fail to say anything about our values. I try to remain patient and sympathetic to those who feel alienated by religion but, frankly, I grow weary of being called a “traitor” because I have religious friends and appreciate some religious values. I’m not an ally of the religious right — hell, they surely would look at me, a secular community organizer, as working against their cause if they were aware of my existence — and neither is the message of religion-friendly secularism.


I was wearing this shirt while writing this entry. Yes, this is important information.

Maybe it’s the “Minnesota nice” in me, but I’m a firm believer that “nicey-nice”ness is the quickest route to social progress. It may sound cheesy, but it’s what I believe. We secular folks need to stop wasting our time hemming and hawing over the faults of religion and start recognizing the unique perspective we have to offer; if we don’t, our community will become rooted in a definition that merely tells the world that we are not religious while saying nothing of our convictions. Well, here is one conviction I hold: today, I say “no more” to my community’s rampant anti-religious discrimination.

The thing I mourn most about the secular obsession with anti-religiosity and the way in which it prevents us from articulating our convictions is that, from engaging with my secular communities, I know we have a so many important values to impart upon the world. But in order to make them known, we’ve got a lot of work to do — work that we cannot do alone. If you’re a secular individual interested in keeping your heart and your mind open to the experiences of others and want to make your own experiences known, I hope you’ll consider submitting to the contest. We need each and every secular voice. Thanks for indulging my scowled lament, and thank you to all who have contributed so far. I treasure every “nicey-nice” response we’ve received.

This week, Mo’Nique made her voice heard — I hope you’ll do the same.

Chris Stedman, Share Your Secular Story contest organizer

P.S. After writing this post, I came across a stellar editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette that critiques the atheist movement for its mean-spirited anti-theism. This piece serves as a good reminder to our community that the world is watching our actions and that offensive, alienating behavior only delegitimizes our perspective and actually hurts our aims for greater recognition and acceptance. Wise words from someone watching on the outside.


8 Responses to “Speaking Up, or How Mo’Nique Showed Me the Light”

  1. […] NonProphet Status « Speaking Up, or How Mo’Nique Showed Me the Light […]

  2. fromthesunrising said

    This is a copy-paste comment from one site:

    I know that Jehovah and Jesus are two distinct persons. I would like you Reeves to refer on my blogs concerning about the trinity. The blog is entitled “TRINITY:A FALSE DOCTRINE OF A FALSE CHURCH” AND “THE UNDERLYING TRUTH IN JOHN 1:1″ and see for the truth that you cannot deny after reading…see also by your self the other blogs on that site…
    If Jesus was really God (the Almighty) then why did Satan offer him the kingdoms of the earth in exchange of worship and bow for him? Well, if I am Jesus and claim to be God the Almighty, would I not tell this Satan “Are you out of your mind Satan? I am your God, your Creator yet you want me to bow and worship you? What the hell are talking about?!” And that’s the big proof that Jesus isn’t Jehovah, the God Almighty

    What Jehovah said in Isaiah 44:6 is that He is the only God who is above all other gods that is why he is called Almighty God. If there are no gods then he won’t be called Almighty God. For what it would stands for right? It doesn’t mean when Jehovah said he is the only true God and no gods before me means Jesus is a false god. First consider the statement of him He said the “ONLY TRUE GOD” and HE ALSO SAID “BESIDES ME THERE IS NO GOD” Would you think if you would take this literally it will coincides? Of course he won’t be saying as he is the only true God (as it would sounds there are false gods) and yet he is saying “there is no god besides me”. So what he affirm here is that he is alone the REAL GOD and the others are just lower gods and false gods. It should not mean that Jesus is not a false god then he must be the true God. In John 17:3 he said Jehovah is the only true God and he never said he is God but the Son of God. 1 Corinthians 8:5 shows gods in heaven and on earth. Would you say that those gods in heaven and some god’s people are the true Gods? Jehovah said he is the only true God but it doesn’t mean that angels, and other’s God’s people and Jesus are false gods. They are just considered as gods subordinate to the only true God.

    ON JOHN 1:1
    There is only one way of defining the “the Word was God” and it is in quality not in identity for the last phrase must coincides with the second phrase which is “The Word was with God” and the phrase in verse 2 of John 1 which states “This ONE was in [the] beginning WITH God. Therefore there are two separate persons that are together. And that makes the translators of NWT decide to put it as “a god” and not only “God”. The word “a god” means a quality of being divine or having godlike nature and a being a sort of god from among gods which is true to the identity of Jesus.Please read my other blogs at http://www.fromthesunrising.wordpress.com
    Enjoy reading the truth…

  3. […] Atheist Convention. This is something I’ve recognized for some time — and most recently wrote at length about in a response to some critiques our Share Your Secular Story contest has gotten — and I […]

  4. Xtine said

    As born&bred Minnesotan who hasn’t managed to escape, I appreciate what you’re saying about being civil and that it never helps to stereotype believers as stupid nor does it help to be condescending and mean. However, – and I’ve been chewing on this for a while – you have to understand, nicey-nice – especially to a formerly christian minnesotan woman – can be highly over-rated, unrealistic, passive-aggressive, and ineffective. Maybe I’m particularly sour to playing nice-nice because it was and is expected of me as a minnesotan woman – and was extremely expected of me as a christian girl/young woman. I’m very good at playing nice when it comes to debating and discussing belief systems but playing nice is different than being assertive, empowered and honest – which is different than being aggressive, stubborn and mean. I sometimes allow for un-niceness because I’m still learning how to expect respect, to express strong opinions, and to question the status-quo. As some of us nice/don’t-cause-waves women and men learn to be assertive in expressing our Disbelief, so can some mean/drama-queens learn to take it down a notch – and that is what I appreciate about you tackling this dilemma – the call to TRY to be kinder and gentler when interacting with aggressive/passive-aggressive Believers.

    My new motto: Love the Believer. Question the Belief. — Doing my best to leave hate out of the equation. I agree – that we need to listen – we need to be empathetic – or TRY to be empathetic. But it can be a very hard balancing act for those who have learned to throw off the shackles of nice-ness along with the shackles of sexist Belief. For atheists, their behavior is inexcusable – but even then, we need to dig to understand what brought them to this point. Besides, I argue that the strongest “weapon” secularists have against believers is Love. But I’d prefer honest kindness over playing-it-safe any day of the week.

  5. […] I’ve written on here before, the basic premise of this blog – to build pluralism among secular and religious folks and work […]

  6. […] agenda. Stiefel had a lot of say and I agreed with most of it. Early in his talk he said something I’ve been saying for a long time in almost the exact way I say it: “Religion is not going away anytime soon. […]

  7. […] missionaries and aim to bring about the end to “religious myths.” I don’t have a strong desire to see my religious peers abandon their faith. Why should it bother me that my neighbor believes in God, as long as that belief isn’t […]

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