Interfaith Dialogue Must Include Atheists

October 11, 2010

hpWhew. My first piece for the Huffington Post’s Religion section, “Interfaith Dialogue Must Include Atheists,” came out late Friday night and I have been just overwhelmed with gratitude by its reception. The article has, as of this posting, accumulated a whopping 3,500+ comments and was promoted on Saturday to the front page of the entire Huffington Post website! I’m so grateful that so many people decided that this issue is worth discussing. I’d love to respond to all of the comments on the piece but unfortunately there are just so many that I don’t even know where to begin, and this week is among my busiest yet. But I’ve been encouraged to see as I’ve glanced at the comments that it has spurred so much conversation. Thank you to everyone who read it, commented on it, and shared it with others.

Below is an excerpt of the piece; it can be read in full at the Huffington Post:

In my work as an interfaith activist, I’ve fought to bring an end to religious division. Lately this has increasingly meant speaking out against the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence sweeping America. As a member of the Common Ground Campaign, I’m actively working to oppose those who wish to disenfranchise the American Muslim community.

Advocating for religious people has often put me at odds with my own community. As an atheist I hear a lot of anti-religious talk from other nonreligious people, and speaking out against it has made me somewhat of an unpopular figure among some atheists. Yet it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.

Why? For one, without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn’t be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution. Not that long ago, I could not have been a public, vocal atheist at all. Continue reading at the Huffington Post.

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3 Responses to “Interfaith Dialogue Must Include Atheists”

  1. Hitch said

    Overall that piece has quite a bit of stuff I can dig. Just the intro part that you cite here is something I’d take issue with.

    Sadly, being outspoken and critical about religion is not the same as disenfranchising the American Muslim community.

    So yes you do make yourself unpopular when you speak out against outspoken atheists because it’s them who have made it less dangerous to actually be more public in the first place. You have made yourself unpopular by allowing or yourself peddling extreme rhetoric, from white supremacist comparisons to hosting or defending people who compare smiling stick figures to swastikas, hatred or bigotry.

    I guess being an atheist indeed means that doctrine of religions do apply to us! And if not we deserve to be criticized from atheists. Well or that is roughly the message you are sending. But that, of course, is not atheism, but at best forced social religiosity. Something that ought to be, and in a real multi-cultural system must be optional.

    The conflation of something illegitimate (disenfranchising) with something legitimate (the market-place of ideas, criticism, expressed differences) is why I certainly don’t tend to agree with you on that point.

    Anti-religious may sound scary. But we don’t call religious people anti-atheist! Should we call the ex-Muslim community which advocates for secular society anti-muslim to reframe the difference in position in more scary terms? Will that help or extremize the dialogue on those differences?

    Yet for atheists, we do see these subtle and not so subtle antagonizing words frequently and it is part of the canon that tries to maintain the incredibly negative image atheists already have. And it also is used to protect religion from criticism. Simply keep it scary to be critical.

    So willingly or perhaps unwittingly you may be feeding disenfranchising… but disenfranchising of atheists, a clearly disenfrenchised because largely unelectable, highly stigmatized group.

    And in this very sense you are on the wrong side of the case. I am fine with interfaith work, cooperation, pluralism, multi-culturalism. But I’m not fine with unfair imbalance in the way people can express their perspectives. Atheists have a lot to catch up, in terms of speech that we are granted without push-back. Many countries still have blasphemy laws on the book with in some cases devastatingly final punishments.

    And we have this intriguing push-back-from-within phenomenon to which you are one of the most vocal spokespeople.

    There is no pluralism and multi-culturalism when some cultures are intolerant in the sense that critical speech is not permissible. And yes this does go for all groups, including atheists. But we are at the bottom of that food chain. Not at the top or the middle.

    So more power to you for doing interfaith work. Perhaps one day we’ll see you actually having sympathy for the atheist work that needs to happen that makes it possible for you to unfairly criticize us. But that this is possible is exactly an emerging sign of pluralism, a pluralism where you happen to chose a side that is counter-productive to real pluralism.

    But as long as real pluralism prevails it’s all good, because then we can draw smiling stick figures and understand that they are what they are. Positive signs of freedom and pluralism. The statement that you may not be allowed to idololize and draw Muhammad, but in a pluralistic society what is sacred to you does not have to be sacred to me. And we can still be more than friendly. We can be friends. To learn tolerance in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society is to learn this.

  2. megaman said

    chris i think you should get in to contact with a S. E. Cupp you two have alot in common.

  3. Nikki Bluue said

    Stedman, you did it again! 🙂 There will always be some atheists who strongly disagree with you on what you are doing for the interfaith dialogue. That’s collateral damage, nothing to focus onm unless they have a point you need to think about, in order to improve how you are going about things. Just focus on the positives that you are working on. Heck, you got my full support. 🙂

    HITCH sayeth: being outspoken and critical about religion is not the same as disenfranchising the American Muslim community.

    Agreed. We all can be critical of religion in a constructive way. Or in ways that can help religious folk start to _think_ about their own religious tenets and practices. I believe that if they start to critique their own beliefs, spirituality can come in, and more reasoned thinking can enter the picture.

    HITCH is right: “you do make yourself unpopular when you speak out against outspoken atheists because it’s them who have made it less dangerous to actually be more public in the first place.”

    But, S? Keep doing it, anyway. You are doing what you feel is the right thing to do. The Holy Purple Chihuahua deems it so!! 😉 YARK YARK!

    “peddling extreme rhetoric”? I don’t see it as “extreme”. I really don’t agree with the notion that I gotta respect every prophet in the world…and not draw pics of them or whatcrap, but the people who feel that joking about their prophets is similar to drawing Nazi swatiskas, they have a right to feel this way. I am assuming they don’t quite understand the notion of “joking” or religious criticism.

    They may not understand that notion does not mean the people “hate” them, their prophets or their religion. At least, I am assuming that for some of the folks, not all. I am willing to take the time to explain this to Muslims cuz I _care_. For those who do understand and still “whine” about it, then we need to do more work.

    Stedman, drawing jokes about prophets is part of good fun. I don’t take part in this “Draw Muhammed” or “jesus jokes”, cuz I don’t wanna, but honestly, it’s all in good fun. I don’t get offended when they “mock” sciences and scientists…..or *GASP*….they mock Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens, oh my! Goes both ways. I have seen atheists get all butthurt when their idol is criticized. How funny.

    Stedman, Hitch has a point: I’m not fine with unfair imbalance in the way people can express their perspectives. Atheists have a lot to catch up, in terms of speech that we are granted without push-back.

    Religious peeps can be iffy about atheists and atheism, so they are going to push a little. We just gotta push back, too. And there IS going to be push-back from other atheists. *sigh* I was un-friended by another atheist cuz I said I believed in interfaith dialogue. Atheists can just be as intolerant as some of the religious folks, if not more so. Stedman, don’t let them dissuade you or bring despair. There are many other atheists who DO believe in interfaith.

    Hitch….atheists are always criticizing each other. The more aggressive /angry ones annoy me….just as I know I annoy them with my “Pollyannaish” views—much to my delight. Mehta is right—we need BOTH groups of atheists. I am willing to accept my angry brethen. I wish they would accept me, a Pollyanna.

    I am never good with debates, so my points here may fall apart. Great discussion, imho.

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