Why This “Mosque” Matters to Atheists

July 28, 2010


From a recent rally against the "Ground Zero Mosque."

I remember the first time I was invited to attend an Islamic prayer meeting with a friend. As I sat and observed, I closed my eyes and listened to “as-salamu ‘alaykum sound against the walls of the mosque. Though it was my first time at an Islamic prayer meeting, the words rang familiar. I was transported back to my years of Christian worship attendance before I stopped believing in God, to services that concluded with an equivalent wish: “Peace be with you.”

As most folks now know thanks to Sarah Palin’s liberal use of the english language (never thought I’d put “Sarah Palin” and “liberal” together), there is a controversy brewing in lower Manhattan. Park51, a proposed Muslim community center, is coming under significant fire for its proximity to Ground Zero. The very conservative right, once again conflating the individual actions of an extremist fringe with the larger religion of Islam, has taken to calling this Muslim community center a mosque and is demanding that the city forbid its construction.

Yesterday my friend Joshua Stanton, in collaboration with a diverse group of young leaders, launched Religious Freedom USA, a counter-movement in support of Park51. In a write-up for the Huffington Post, Josh and Frank Fredericks offered a poetic explanation of why they are establishing this initiative:

Some may wonder why a Born Again Christian and a future rabbi, both under the age of 25, are working to build support for a Muslim community center. To us it seems natural: this is not simply a Muslim issue, a Jewish issue, or a Christian issue. This is an American issue, and members of all religious communities are affected by a threat to religious freedom.

We Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, Freethinkers, Skeptics and the like should be leading the charge in support of Park51 alongside Josh and Frank. We value freedom of choice when it comes to religion — because of it, we are able to choose “none.” Which means we should rally behind the right others have to practice their religion of choice, and stand in solidarity when their right to do so is threatened.

As we well know, surveys show that the non-religious are among the most marginalized groups in this country. We understand what it is like to have our non-religious beliefs and identities diminished or dismissed. So too is Islamophobia rampant in our culture; yesterday the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee was quoted as saying that he is “not sure” if the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to Muslims, calling Islam a “cult.” Such inflammatory rhetoric should sound very familiar to our community, which is often accused of being a cultish and immoral outlier in a religious nation.

Park51 is under attack because of how demonized Muslims are in America, plain and simple. Many Americans see nothing but godless, immoral, savage heathens when they think of Muslims. As a community comparably cast, we should empathize and come to their defense. Defending their freedom is defending our own. Josh and Frank get it just right when they write that “more extreme voices want this right to apply only to their own religious communities, and not to others. But when one group’s freedoms are threatened, the religious freedom of all Americans is at stake… This is about protecting the civil rights assured to all Americans in the Constitution.”

If we want to ensure that our non-religious freedoms are protected, we must stand up for our Muslim neighbors. This is not merely a civil imperative: it is a moral one. Our Humanistic values call us to act on behalf of the oppressed. The first Humanist Manifesto states that Humanists should “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.”

Another central value of Secular Humanism is reason; the propaganda being put forth by those who oppose Park51 is entirely irrational and unethical. We can and should call them out. Let’s join the Religious Freedom USA campaign and stand up for Park51. I can see the headline now: “Atheists and Muslims Band Together!” The political right would have a field day. It may sound farfetched but it’s happened before. It can and should happen again now.

You don’t need to be a Muslim or a Christian to wish peace, or salam, for us all. Now, let us have freedom too.

8 Responses to “Why This “Mosque” Matters to Atheists”

  1. dam said

    Count me in. As an agnostic living north of Dallas, Texas, I can relate to this post. It’s ashame that other groups (whether it’s Muslims, Atheists, Gays or a certain race) are still demonized and discriminated against at this point in our history. I cannot imagine the uproar if a Baptist church were at the center of this debate….

  2. Emy said

    Thanks for your passionate insight, Chris. I agree with you on why this “mosque” and the debate swirling around it should matter to religious and non-religious groups. As a Christian, I hope to stand in solidarity alongside Secularists, Atheists, Jews, Hindus, etc. as we protect the rights of a marginalized and misrepresented group. Great post!

  3. Hitch said

    I’m for the mosque, or rather it’s not mine to be against it.

    However, my I do have problems with my moderate Muslim friends who heavily advocate for the mosque, because if I ask them if they are for the reinstallement of the historic depictions of Muhammad in the Metropolitan Museum of Art they are not.

    I hope we will get a culture that is a two-way street. Not one where one group gets all their demands, but thei do not extend the same tolerance in return. Else this is no longer pluralistic toleration, but politics, the politics of grabbing what one can get.

    So I hope that there will be a mosque, but I also hope that there will at the same time be real multi-culturalism, pluralism and tolerance.

    And I hope that they indeed will stand up for my rights, though so far very few of my muslim friends do. They support blasphemy laws and oppose any criticism of religion and consider atheism immoral.

    But tolerance is that we allow those views to exist, but the most stigmatized group in the US needs some serious help, and Muslims, Christians etc all could help, in they they will need to help.

  4. Clint said

    I feel you are absolutely right that we as a nation should defend the religious freedoms of others, that is in large measure why our forefathers left England to come here. Freedom from tyranny is at the heart of our nation’s birth. So often though when issues arise, such as this one, it seems to be human nature to take a passionate stand without recognizing some of the real truths behind it. While I believe there are many who have prejudices against the Muslims, and unduly so, there are yet many who recognize the difference between the radicals and the peaceful in that faith, and it is the radicals who have set so many at defiance. I have read about what is happening in New York and much of the sentiment is to simply have the mosque built in another location. Just as you or I, when hurt, would hope that others would be sensitive to our feelings as we heal, so also are many American’s pleading for sensitivity as they continue to heal. September 11th was a very deep wound for our country and thousands of people had family and friends horrifically and suddenly snatched out of their lives by intolerant and cowardly men. Men who were raised with their idealogies in mosques. Can we really blame Americans for being sensitive and defensive in nature? I believe not. And I don’t think that it is too much to ask that Muslims be sympathetic to our reasoning either. Yet I don’t feel that we as Americans should condemn the peaceful followers of the Muslim faith.

    There will always be a radical group in every faith and culture simply because there will always be people who are radical in nature and are slow to recognize things accurately for what they are before they act. The world cries for peace, but we don’t take all the measures to bring it about. I hope that we will take the time to understand the underlying truths of things and people then move forward as we feel to be right without the animosity that causes the contention and strife we wish did not exist.

  5. dam said

    The two-way street will be a work-in-progress for a looong time IMO. It’s hard to change the mindset that most religious folks have: their religion is the only true religion. Kinda hard to change that mindset when you’re born into the faith…

  6. […] We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is …. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity. […]

  7. […] Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart took on the islamophobic critics of Park51, aka the “Ground Zero” “Mosque.” Everyone needs to watch the video — you can see it here. Best line? ”Why does everyone […]

  8. […] Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities. […]

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