Why Pluralism is the Way Forward: Resources for the Nonreligious

September 27, 2010

the new humanismI have two new articles up at The New Humanism, a publication of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. In the first, I wrestle with the question: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” In the second, I offer some best practices, cautionary considerations, and potential obstacles for nonreligious involvement in interfaith work.

These two articles are my attempt to offer an introductory but comprehensive consideration of the issues surrounding nonreligious involvement in the interfaith movement, and I hope they will be useful to those weighing such questions. Please visit The New Humanism to read them, comment on them with your response, and share them with others who may be interested in exploring this issue.

Below is a selection from the first article; it, and its companion piece, can be read in full at The New Humanism:

We start with our stories.

My name is Chris Stedman. I have an indiscriminate love of tattoos, a couple degrees in religious studies, and don’t believe in God. I am also an ardent advocate of interfaith cooperation.

The idea that interfaith cooperation is necessary to advance social progress was not a conclusion I came to overnight. In fact, after I stopped believing in God, I spent some time walking about decrying the “evils of religion” to anyone who would listen. I wanted nothing to do with the religious, and was sure they wanted nothing to do with me.

After reflecting on several episodes where I neglected to engage the religious identities of people I otherwise respected and admired, I realized that I had been so busy talking that I wasn’t listening. I was treating “religion” as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives. And when I started listening, something interesting happened. I realized that my approach to religion was lazy and distorted: I’d been thinking of the texts, not the practices; the stereotypes, not the people. It was only once I observed the actual practices of religious communities—and, more importantly, engaged with religious people and their stories—that I was able to see the benefits of collaborating across lines of ideology and identity differences.

Now I see interfaith cooperation as the key to resolving the world’s great religious problems. All the more, I want my secular community to join me, to share their stories and learn from those of the religious. And, more importantly, I want us to join with the religious in working to resolve the problems that afflict our world. Together, we will accomplish so much more.

But if we are to participate in interfaith endeavors, there are some important things we must account for. Continue reading at The New Humanism.

And while we’re on the subject, The New Humanism has a lot of really great content — just a few examples of not-to-be-missed articles on there are “Oratory of Division” by Sikivu Hutchinson and “Building the Humanist Movement” by James Croft.

Finally, many thanks to The New Humanism for the invitation to write these pieces!

3 Responses to “Why Pluralism is the Way Forward: Resources for the Nonreligious”

  1. Hitch said

    I am really just waiting for the situation when I do no longer have to take exception to something that is said. Sadly that situation isn’t here.

    We agree very loosely on pluralism. I’m all pro. We agree on cooperation (call it interfaith or any other dimension), I’m all for it. We agree on the value of humanism. No issue there.

    But when I look at your narrative I have issues, and sadly I don’t think the issues I have with most of it is really new. Some details are new so it is perhaps worthwhile to highlight that, but for completeness let me try to address all contentious points:

    “Now I see interfaith cooperation as the key to resolving the world’s great religious problems. All the more, I want my secular community to join me, to share their stories and learn from those of the religious. And, more importantly, I want us to join with the religious in working to resolve the problems that afflict our world. Together, we will accomplish so much more.”

    Secular people have for decades if not now centuries worked with everybody on the world’s problems. Humanist advancements have always been carried along also with non-religious thinkers, at times even driven by them against great resistance and with great risk.

    Yes I would agree that a cooperative world is better. But why do we have to join the religious? Or the religious to join “us”? Isn’t this cooperation and partnership? Then neither party requires, in principle, an invitation.

    Quoting Eboo Patel:

    “Looking at the shouting match in our culture, between the forces of aggressive atheism (The End of Faith, God is not Great) and the armies of belligerent belief (James Dobson, Pat Robertson), it looks like the widest part of the faith divide is between religion and secularism.

    Eboo Patel, Secularism Good for the Soul”

    Ah yes. Predictably visible, outspoke atheism is “aggressive”. In a way this is a win. At least it is no longer a racist/nazi comparison. And given that new atheists have also been compared to violent religious fundamentalists, being compared to Pat Robertson is, perhaps a step up in the chain of stigma!

    Of course this is part of the gross misunderstanding here, but we’ll get to it more later.

    “Before considering why the nonreligious might engage in interfaith work or how we may approach such endeavors, it is important to take the temperature of the community on this issue and explore the idea of religious pluralism.”

    The key here is that religion is amplified as dimension. We don’t talk plurality. We talk _religious_ plurality.

    Shouldn’t we just strive for plurality without qualifications? But more on that later too.

    “A Community Divided

    Most self-declared nonreligious people have little in common, save one thing–that we do not believe in God. There is, however, a growing population of nonreligious individuals united by another belief: that religion is the root of all evil.”

    Ah yes. Now here is a challenge. Quote me one prominent “new aggressive” atheist who has ever stated (not asked or otherwise qualified) that “religion is the root of all evil”.

    The truth is noone has. It’s a mischaracterization of people’s feeling or of the so-called new atheists to claim that they hold the belief that “religion is the root of all evil.”

    They don’t. But they dare to criticize aspects of religion that are harmful and also dare to suggest that perhaps we can envision a world that transcends religion.

    But this is the same problem as Eboo’s “aggressive atheism”. It’s part of depicting outspoken atheists as more extreme than they really are.

    “By positioning themselves in stark opposition to religion and the religious, the so-called New Atheists have managed to dominate the public discourse on nonreligiosity.”

    Yes, the so-called new atheists have dominated the discourse. But not because they say that it’s the root of all evil. The real reasons are much more nuanced and frankly also much more positive!

    “They have succeeded in making atheism more publicly known, but at what cost? Nonreligious identity remains hugely unpopular, with recent polls showing we are the least electable group in America, behind lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, Muslims and African Americans.”

    It’s frustrating for me. I have previously pointed to the Minnesota study.


    Now what does the Minnesota study say? We had this atrocious negative image long before the new atheists came about.

    You now spin it as if new atheist have brought about the negative image of atheists in the public. That is basically wrong.

    The truth is that, even though atheists have been nice, quiet, non-confrontational and followed a soft-spoken secular humanist model, we still had the worst image of all these groups!

    People have for decades been afraid to self-identify as atheists exactly because of the social risk it involves.

    So what has the new atheism brought to us? Well the social impact is to be seen. But there is a chance that indeed it may have helped be a coming out moment for one of the most stigmatized groups in the US.

    But of course the intend here is not historical accuracy. We are supposed to feel bad about outspoken atheism and blame it for the bad image! I’m sorry to say, I have to reject that as unfounded.

    “Contemporarily, narratives of secular identity are being popularly defined as anti-religious. This isn’t necessarily problematic; an integral aspect of secular identity is understandably rooted in the idea that “we are not religious.” But in recent years secular identity has taken this a step further in the form of “New Atheists” who have been quite successful in marking nonreligiosity as being equivalent to anti-theism.”

    And we are supposed to be scared of that too. But isn’t pluralism exactly about incompatible views?

    “When the majority of prominent secular thought leaders name the end of faith as one of the movement’s top priorities, the idea of participating in organized interfaith efforts can seem contradictory.”

    Not at all. First of all you again overplay what Sam Harris is about. Catchy publisher-friendly titles are made into mantras of content. That is too shallow, and does not reflect what is going on.

    Hitchens “crusade” to end faith has taken such horrifying turns as having a long chain of public debates and discussions. Is that really contary to interfaith dialogue? Or is this not exactly one possible form of interfaith dialogue, though certainly not the only one.

    “Even Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist and author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, has expressed conflicted feelings on the subject, saying that though he believes religious-secular coalitions are possible in certain cases, he feels torn on how to approach such projects. Writes Mehta: “I don’t want to just ‘let our differences slide’ or ‘agree to disagree.’ I want to persuade religious people that they are mistaken when it comes to their mythology… I want people to lose their faith just as much as the New Atheists do.””

    Hmm yes. Here is the question? Is a secular identity allowable? That is what you criticize. Because let’s invert the roles, we do not demand of believers to check their faith at the door either. We don’t expect of them to disregard their identity, their position, their view of what is correct at the door.

    But of atheists that is A-OK to do. To think that religion is mythology against one can have an opinion apparently is not OK.

    And that is where pluralism has already broken down. Apparently it’s pluralism, just not “that kind of” pluralism, the pluralism that allows an atheist to say “you know, perhaps it is OK for us to say that religion is a mythology”.

    That, supposed bridge-builders who would not demand of the faithful to check their demand for respect for their religious beliefs at the door to call “aggressive”.

    “It is clear when reading contemporary secular writing on religion, then, that engagement with the religious in interfaith work is a highly contentious issue for many in our community. But a new brand of nonreligiosity is growing: one that prioritizes interfaith collaboration over inflammatory rhetoric. This has understandably created some division among Humanists, with labels of “Angry Atheist” and “Accomodationist” bandied between camps.”

    I cannot disagree to that. But from my position the reasons are multitudes and more interesting I would argue.

    Anybody considered that some interfaith theories simply never even considered secular identities? That some explicitly demand a pro-religious stance, that some see themselves in opposition to enlightenment and secularization.

    Does it sound like a secular humanist identity would feel welcome in that kind of setup? Perhaps not. And perhaps that continued otherizing from of visible secular identities that dare to hold incompatible views is another problem.

    In reality there are no camps. There are plenty individuals with a diverse set of perspectives. But it’s easier to brand if we group folks, so this divide is kept alive for the sake of argument. How else are we going to call a whole group of people haters and bigots after all!

    “Community in Transition

    What all of this suggests is that nonreligiosity is undergoing a sizable transformation and is experiencing some accompanying growing pains in which we are asking how to expand our community and engage with the world.”

    That is too simple. There are many complex reasons for what is going on. The continued oversimplification of it all is part of the damage. Perhaps another time I will write about all the detail here, but as long as people get key facts wrong (such as that the ostrization and stigma is decades old and that vocality and visibility is a necessary factor in overcoming stigma) there is real trouble, in that people are mismeasured and misunderstood.

    “Indeed, there are some who now argue that there is no such thing as secularism—that “religious” and “secular” represent a false dichotomy. The claim that atheism is a religion unto itself is now quite popular, and even has a good deal of legal precedence. While perhaps an issue of semantics, this shift is also an indication that nonreligiosity is moving toward a more affirming framework.”

    Nah this is also wrong. The religious constantly want to call non-religious identities to be like religion. And how legal precedent should define identity is at best questionable at worst just bad argument.

    The truth is rather that some identities are imposed not chosen, and in turn, overcoming the stigma requires mobilization.

    “This may be the result of a growing recognition that the defensive positioning of nonreligious identity as directly opposed to religious narratives is unsustainable, and that Humanism ought to establish independent moralistic narratives of its own. ”

    This is also wrong. I would agree that a number of people try to create this narrative. We are told that non-religious identities, secularization etc is non-sustainable or simply is untrue.

    But that’s a narrative not a truism. It turns a blind eye to a range of evidence and social developments.

    But it is a narrative that is welcomed by those who want to rescue religion from a more secular progression.

    “In Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James Fowler argues for the necessity of religious narratives but offers a caveat: “The fact that one images the ultimate conditions of existence as impersonal, indifferent, hostile or randomly chaotic, rather than as coherent and structured, does not disqualify his or her image as an operative image of faith. The opposite of faith, as we consider it here, is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is nihilism, the inability to image any transcendent environment and despair about the possibility of even negative meaning.”

    Oh geez. Apparently we can send the long history of secular ethicists home. They were silently preaching nihilism!

    This is ignorant to say the least, and yes it feeds straight into another canard that atheists have to content for a very long time. Without faith you deny morality and meaning. Well no. We do have a long tradition of secular, subjective ethics. We do have theories of meaning and value of life that do not refer to deities or faith.

    But it’s the old dynamic. Theists tell atheists how things are!

    But the word faith can be rescued with proper investigation. But it is not what Fowler implies. But I can let Fowler off the hook just a little, after all he is professor of theology. I have read few theologicans who manage to actually represent the secular perspective sensibly enough.

    But take yourself Chris, self-identified non-believer. Yet quoting this?

    “Humanism represents a radical move away from nihilism, and Fowler’s model emphasizes this distinction. Thus, in its attempts to narrate nonreligiosity, Humanism employs a close cousin of religious narrative pattering.”

    Not at all. Secular ethics does not base itself on fideism or misology. It bases itself on outcome, consequence, obeservation, progress and refinement.

    Humanism is not a cousin of religious narratives. It is a loose notion of making things better without prescription or “faith”.

    But it was a neat attempt to first introduce the scare of nihilism to then rescue us through Humanism, the “secular faith”.

    “There will continue to be disagreement about the benefits and limitations of both the “Angry Atheist” and “Accomodationist” approaches, but in a time of transition among those who do not identify with traditional religious identities, Humanism provides an alternative identity marker for those who wish to define nonreligious ethics. It may also be an especially fertile ground for those who wish to prioritize pragmatic approaches to interfaith engagement instead of confrontation.”

    Here is another fun thing that is going on. People try to claim that the so-called new atheists are not humanists. This is bizzare, because of course all the major books spring out of a profoundly humanist perspective. The pope is not critiqued for lolz. He is critiqued for things that one can consider legitimately immoral, such as telling a population going through an aids pandemic not to use condoms.

    The critique of religious influences are exactly the most expressed where moral and humanist concerns are at stake.

    So to present Humanism, as a third way is strange, if not an outright mischaracterization. Humanism, is not “an alternative identity marker for those who wish to define nonreligious ethics.” It is the desire to be humane. Any religious person can be humanist. All you have to do is take care for your fellow human over your religious doctrines when they are inhumane. Nothing more and nothing less. We should not see humanism as a secular idea. Many great humanists were deists, theists, polytheiists and so forth. And yes, many great humanists were anti-theists.

    But this again tries to divide rather than describe.

    “In Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein writes of the growing nonreligiosity identity marker Humanism: “It’s the melding of a comprehensive philosophy with a world tradition and deeply practical ethical and social commitment.” In this sense, it is a bridge between traditional religious narratives of steadfastness to tradition and modernity’s melding model of pluralism.”

    Tradition, or religion are not relevant to this argument. What is humane is not contingent on tradition, nor is it contingent on religion.

    We want pluralism exactly because it is humane and exactly because we do not have “objective truth”. We want diverse perspectives and ideas and we want a world were they can be expressed. To do otherwise is oppressive, illiberal, and ultimately inhumane and not humanism.

    “Community Pluralized

    Pluralism, according to the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), is “neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus, but the conviction that people who believe in different creeds can learn to live together with, in the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, ‘mutual trust and mutual loyalty.’ It surpasses mere tolerance of diversity and requires that people of different religions affirm their distinct beliefs while making commitments to one another and the world we share.”

    That’s great. I would love to see commitment of believers to atheists while they still affirm their distinct world-view.

    The very problem of atheists in some places is exactly that there is a stigma, and de-humanization going on. “You go to hell” “You are the devil” and so forth. Atheists are equated with immorality and unelectable.

    But who do we blame? Outspoken atheists!

    “Three components which hold true for a pluralist society are respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good.”

    Nope. Pluralism simply means that no one identity is allowed to be dominant but that all identities that are non-violent and in principle cooperative are allowable.

    Nothing more and nothing less.

    Religion is not a privileged dimension. Identity, individuality or particularity are all allowable. What is inspiring is subject to change and preference. What is good is up for discourse. What is common or separated is up for deliberation.

    Basically you offer a very specific confined pluralism. One in which we have to give certain notions of identity privilege. In which we have to by into some undefined notion of commonality and inspiration.

    But that is already anti-pluralistic and it is conservative. For identities that have managed to establish themselves “religiously” and relationships that have managed to gain status of being “inspiring” take precedence over those that have not.

    To me that is not the pluralism I would want. I want a real, open pluralism.

    “Of course, engaged religious pluralism will make some people very uncomfortable.”

    Yes indeed, namely those who are not in the hegemonic position of cherised identities and praishworthy relationships, or agreeing what the common good is (according to whom)?

    “Similarly, Greg Epstein acknowledges that secular expression “can make some theists feel that their humanity—tethered as it is to belief that they are God’s children—is called into question.” The growing secular narratives understandably make some religious individuals uncomfortable—and this has been used by “New Atheist” narratives to advantage their claims that the nonreligious are the lepers of a primarily religious society.”

    More geez. Nothing like twisting perspectives. Again read the Minnesota study. If you want to come up with a better analogy to describe the social outcast status of non-believers in religiously dominant societies, go ahead. Atheists in the Maldives will be thankful.

    “But by asserting our own Humanist ethics and narratives, we will find ourselves well equipped to engage in interfaith efforts. The best way to assert these ethics and narratives is by embodying them.”

    I agree completely. Humanism can bring us together. But we can do this without out-casting actual humanist, or actual difference in position, even if they are different or incompatible.

    After all for the longest time we know the basis of enlightened toleration. It’s to recognize that there is a deeply humane value in allowing an opinion that one completely disagrees with and rejecting notions of violence and retribution in response.

    But we are told that tolerance is not enough, perhaps because we have forgotten that tolerance is humane.

    “[..]To return to the toolkit: “Identity is important because religious pluralism is all about the interaction of multiple identities, respecting the diversity of others’ identities, and forming relationships across them.”

    I think identity politics is very tricky, if not also dangerous territory. Kwame Appiah has articulates the trickery of it.

    I will just say, that we do not need to identify to relate and to demand identity is part of a subtle otherization to those who don’t belong to groups or movements.

    Being “you” should be enough.

    “This presents an intriguing question: How might secular individuals participate in a movement encouraging engaged religious pluralism that is rooted in particular religious identity? And why should we?”

    Perhaps the problem are the demands and confinements of “religious” pluralism. I don’t even ask for invitation to participate in pluralism. For that I do not need to encourage identity of any kind, because what matters is your humanity (Humanism!) not your religion or whatever else one holds.

    We all should be involved in real puralism and real humanism, and that involved rejecting too confining programs that force us to choose between honesty, or self-hoods and “participation”.

    “There are four primary reasons that engaging in interfaith work will benefit the nonreligious, which I will expand on below: we’re outnumbered; we want to end religious extremism and other forms of oppression and suffering; we have a lot to learn; and we have a bad reputation and are discriminated against.”

    Alright, let’s see how you argue these:

    “1. We’re Outnumbered [..]”

    This is a long paragraph, that really doesn’t justify the summary title. I for one think we should cooperate for humanity no matter our numbers. If we cannot convince others that good things are good, we are in deep trouble.

    So being outnumbered is not the reason to be cooperative. Being interested in good outcomes is.

    “2. We want to end religious extremism and other forms of oppression and suffering [..]”

    I agree though I would frame it differently. We want intolerant violence, oppression and suffering to end. That’s Humanism. We work with those that are interested in a humane world.

    Sadly many religious traditions have blocks that get in the way of this, especially the inter-relating you mentioned. For example there is a very recent debates in the Muslim community if Muslima can/should/are allowed to marry non-Muslims.

    I can contribute nothing to such debates, but the opening up of notions of faith to a more pluralistic world is key, and a key that one can but describe.

    Yet I can guarantee you that, if I articulate the limits to inter-relational notions and the roadblocks in faith traditions, some will brand me as intolerant or anti-religious. This territory is difficult. But we do have to emphasize that the other is human, even if perspectives diverge. We all know this. Even supposed relationships within one identity group are actually individuals with diverging ideas, and negotiating difference is part of everybody’s life. Strenghtening this communicative ability to tolerate, withstand and master these negotiations is what we can offer, even if we are not in the “in-group”.

    “One of the top priorities of organized secular communities is combating religiously-based oppression, and pluralistic religious communities can be among our strongest allies in this work. However, if we adopt a broadly negative approach to religion and religious communities, we will burn this bridge and lose the opportunity to count these communities as allies.”

    This is a deep question. Where are the limits? Should we not speak up against the vaticans position on condoms to not alienate more conservative catholics? Should we not speak up in defense of artists not to offend more conservative muslims?

    Where is that line? My answer is Humanism. We cannot stand silent when people take harm. We have to speak about comdoms because of the harm that is involved. And we do have to speak about perspecuted artists and intolerant prescriptions exactly because harm is involved.

    But what harm is, is up for negotiation. Clearly a smiling stick figure apparently is massive harm, more harm than standing by and advocating for artists who live in fear for their lives.

    But in true pluralism the answer is easier. Physical harm never is less important than personal upset or offense. We can be different all we want, but we cannot breach the safety of others.

    Hence we do need, at times against waves of upset advocate for humanist values. Respect is not more important than safety. Respect is nice, if safety and other moral concerns are covered. But to respect the inhumane is to allow it.

    I do not believe that this is as hard as you indicate. Our neighbors, colleagues at work, and friends at school already buy into our humanity. Empathy of those who are indeed humane does not depend on our identity. We do need to strengthen empathy, but also speak against it when it is abandoned.

    “3. We have a lot to learn [..]”

    “These mutual interests can never be identified if we fail to recognize that religious communities have a lot to teach us.”

    Isn’t this a two-way street? Yes, it is really good to know others. To be interested, and participate in ones own way. I for one routinely participate and engage in the activities of my religious friends, but I do not do so hiding myself. Learning is a two-way street. It’s accepting that at a religious home people may say grace, and at a secular home they may not. And the latter does not mean that one is disgraceful. And that one does not give space for saying grace is no more a sign of intolerance than expecting that a non-believer sits through it.

    But we don’t really take a symmetric position.

    “We can also pick from the best religion has to offer.”

    What the best is, is up to taste, opinion, and preference. In pluralistic society that is up for negotiation. Perhaps we do not need invocations, but can say a caring, upligting, inspiring word nontheless. Perhaps we can have community and not require specific ritual. Perhaps we can have quiet places for relaxation and reflection and not necessarily consider it meditation. Perhaps we can explore and negotiate meaning.

    “All the more, many religions are whistleblowers to injustice and we will benefit if we pay attention. Many of history’s greatest advocates for the disenfranchised—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Msr. Oscar Romero, and many others—cited their religious convictions as the primary impetus for their social justice work and launched their efforts in interfaith coalitions.”

    That is fine. But we forget, that many were secular. In fact studies of the holocaust has shown that people most likely to help jews hide from persecution by the Nazis were non-religious. We forget that Robert Green Ingersoll was not just the “great agnostic” but also one of the strongest voices in the abolishionist movement. We forget that some of the greatest moral novels were written by non-believers and that many people persecuted and killed were those who dared to speak honestly against the orthodoxy of the time, often for skepticism, humanism, and in doubt of religions.

    Perhaps it’s worthwhile to listen to secularists as well and note that some of the most generous philantropes are non-religious, some of the most esteemed scientists are, and some of the most moving actors are.

    Perhaps the answer is not that religion made these people good, but that good people are good, even secular ones!

    But to allow that narrative, we’d have to listen to all sides.

    “4. We have a bad reputation and are discriminated against [..]”

    “Another thing we will learn by cooperating with religious communities is that engaged diversity breeds the idea that all people’s rights must be protected. Through relationships, we learn that another has value, worth, and the right to dignity. If we do not allow others to know us by intentionally engaging diversity, we lose an opportunity to ensure that our rights are protected. More generally, the respectful relationships we establish with religious communities will also help us reinforce a positive public image for Humanism.”

    I hear what you are saying. I agree to about half of the message. Yes I am for positive engagement. But that should not come at a price. I will not be quiet when people take harm, or I will not abandon an important position to appear cooperative.

    If our rights are dependent on the good-will of others we have lost. Yes, it is important to elicit good will, but it is also important to protect structures and mechanisms that ensure that rights are protected even if individual and groups withdraw their good-will.

    The 1st amendment for example has been a great guardian of rights against the withdrawal of good will. Without it I dare say we would not even have this topic for discussion.

    “A recent Gallup poll demonstrated something the queer community has known for some time: people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay.”

    And this is exactly why I am for visibile, outspoken atheism. The Minnesota study not only indicates a bad stigma, but also that it is formed in absence of knowing non-believers! Billboard campaigns, and anything that raises the awareness that and helps create a more normal notion of “you know atheists are around, and I know one and he’s just a normal person with strange views”. But outspoken atheism takes a beating a lot.

    It’s “angry” “aggressive” and all the other stuff I have criticized many many times around here.

    You claim it’s about positive relationships. But in fact all studies I know are just about knowing. People who know someone of a minority group are less likely to buy into negative stereotypes about them.

    And it’s quite simple: Most people are just people. We are all on average rather nice, busy with our lives. If you know us, we are OK. So on average, just knowing us, is quite enough to understand that we are not “terrorists” or “of the devil”.

    “We will also have an easier time defending our own rights if we align ourselves with other maligned communities.”

    Well I agree, except that I would not say it this way. Supporting the maligned is a humanist thing. It is not a question of utility. It’s a question of principle. In fact even if someone of the majority group gets maligned they too fall under the same principle.

    Incidentally most of my secular friends are positive towards stigmatized groups of a wide variety. But of course “atheists” as an “identity” are not a lock-step group at all. One will find idiots, a-holes and intolerant bigots. Sadly, in the case of atheists that is made into a political thing, and HuffPo articles are written about it, when we wouldn’t do the same against any other group! Any wonder we are at such a high distrust level? Atheist stereotyping is par for the game still today.

    The queer community did not just succeed through partnerships. It succeeded because it did it all. Coming out, being vocal, not accepting being treated like second-class citizen and all that. And the struggle is not over. And with secular positions, the generational changes will help. But it did take and will take those who dare to stick their heads out and say clearly what they see as the problem just as much as those who seek to reach out hands.

    But we divide those and claim only the stretched hands deserve credit.

    The Muslim-American community does indeed deserve much help and concern, but this does not mean that we shut up when humanism, tolerance,free expression and absence of violence is at stake.

    Sadly there is both massive demamgogery and fear mongering, and the reverse. Muslims spreading scare of secularization and atheists.

    Clarity, honesty and humanity are key to not contribute to the negative image of others and we deserve the same in return.

    I for one cannot wait to see the Muslim community to align with the atheist community under your principle, given that our image actually is so bad. This is true interfaith work, to get communities to embrace and support each other, and not have that burden on one group, contingent on some specific notions of one-sided “respect”.

    “Why They Should Welcome Us [..]”

    The problem here is the conditionality. There is quite a bit of “be X,Y,Z then you can be part of interfaith”. There are two problems with this. First is the assumed inviter position. This is hierarchical and asymmetric. It is not true cooperation. The second is the demand side and who feels entitled to these demands. In the SSA panel Rev. Weyer said this beautifully. We should not be asked to check anything at the door. Precisely.

    But I repeatedly read this reinforcement of certain pre-conditions. “Not anti-theist” “Not “angry”. Not …

    Participation is conditional to giving up certain identities, in fact specifically identities that are seen as incompatible with some (not clearly defined notion) of religious practice or tradition. Non-conformity is subject to branding and shaming.

    That of course is not partnership and it is not pluralism and it is also not Humanism. Humanity is not subject to conditions.

    To illustrate this notion of condition:

    “This new expression of nonreligiousness is not dismissive like the so-called “New Atheists;” and can take religious identities seriously without needing to agree with all of their beliefs.”

    There again we have multiple problems. Of course the so-called “New Atheists” say very little to personal private notions of spirituality. In fact as best I can tell they find it unproblematic. But to say this would remove us to depict them as the rejectable other because they are dismissive. Well, if they are depicted as more dismissive than they are, perhaps we can dismiss them!

    Pluralism is exactly that we do not demand everybody to follow the same strategy. Pluralism does mean that one can belief that all “spirituality” is bunk and still be a partner and a friend.

    And there are real problems here too. Perhaps a notion is held holy or sacred, but really it not only serves the comfort the selves but organize a dividing line between those who allow the sacred and those who are not scared to call it mundane.

    Perhaps the real question is, can the minority that dares to view that be accepted. Perhaps we can allow that without shame or blame?

  2. […] and facilitating a conversation around the issue I recently wrote about in The New Humanism: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” Please email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com for more information on this […]

  3. Wow Hitch – what a lengthy response! First, may I ask a question, which is meant not at all as a criticism but merely as a way to get an important data point so I don;t disagree with you over something you didn’t really mean: is English your first language? I ask because some of your grammatical constructions suggest it might not be, and that would explain some of the things I’m about to question you on.

    Because I find it odd that you frequently accuse others of mischaracterizing the position of the New Atheists while you yourself seem frequently to misinterpret Chris’ writing (and, indeed, in our previous discussions you have frequently misinterpreted me and, for instance, Greg Epstein). You say:

    “You now spin it as if new atheist have brought about the negative image of atheists in the public. ”

    Could you say where you see this? To my mind absolutely nothing Chris wrote in this article could possibly be interpreted in that way.

    You say:

    “Here is another fun thing that is going on. People try to claim that the so-called new atheists are not humanists.”

    I can’t see anywhere that Chris does this, or anywhere where you present an example of anyone that does.

    And there are plenty of other examples. If you want the New Atheists to be represented fairly, it seems only fair that you represented others fairly too.

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