This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

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This is the first of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoans in the words below, is uploading them on this lunch break.

It’s been over a week since I last updated this blog which, if I’m to believe the “rules of blogging,” translates to years of radio silence in the fast-paced realm of internet media. Every resource I’ve consulted about blogging says the same thing: “Blog. Daily.” A week without new content and you may as well call it quits. The blogosphere is a fickle lover.

I haven’t followed that rule because 1) I just don’t have the time to post every day, and 2) I don’t want to publish something that I don’t think is worth circulating. In other words, I’m a sucker for the ol’ “quality over quantity” mantra, even when it works against me in “building a brand.” But this blog has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations – though I’ve just been figuring it out as I go along, NonProphet Status has amassed a loyal and sizable following. I guess it’s you I’m talking about now, isn’t it? So this is the part where I say “thank you for reading, oh loyal faceless reader! I hope you didn’t disappear forever in my absence.”

incarnationAnd I guess I really do mean that. This blog exists for public writing – words that exist for more than just myself, writing that I hope will find its way to readers and stir in them a response of some sort. So it is because of you that I am sorry to have disappeared without warning for over a week, but it was a worthy sacrifice. No, not even that – not merely worthy, and not at all a sacrifice. It was a necessary reprieve. You see, I was in Connecticut for a week for the Common Grounds pilot program, a collaborative project of Yale University’s Chaplain’s office, Andover-Newton Theological School, and Hebrew College on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. It was five days of speakers, workshop sessions, hiking, swimming, sailing on the Connecticut River and, most importantly, community building – all at the beautiful Incarnation Retreat Center near Ivoryton, CT.

The week was full. But I wasn’t just too busy to blog, or too focused on the activities of the retreat – I simply couldn’t get online as the facilities were without internet. It was a total sea change for me; living in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Chicago and working extensively on media strategies for disseminating a narrative of interfaith cooperation at the Interfaith Youth Core, I spend a significant percentage of my day in front of a computer screen. Yet today, as I sit in front of my laptop, it couldn’t be any clearer to me that I’d rather be back in those woods. The internet has lost its luster.

Last week I accessed a part of me that I’ve been a bit disconnected from this year (realizing that it’s been so long is a bit jarring, I must admit). By unplugging from my vast and various online networks, I recalled something I’d forgotten since the three weeks I spent last summer in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota: how important it is for me to be immersed in what many religious folks call Creation. Back in this cavernous concrete chaos called Chicago, I feel the absence of unmolested mud puddles, boundless trees, shoeless days – the undemanding pace of the unpaved world. I miss star-filled skies, penless peacocks, the quiet hum of mosquitos and the echo note of a single drop of water returning to the earth. I miss appreciating rather than ruing the sunrise. I miss uninterrupted birdsong. I miss silence.

Before moving to Chicago two years ago I spent so much time outdoors, but it has proven difficult since I got here. I’d like to re-prioritize and make it happen more often again. Why is it so easy to participate in a culture so disconnected from our natural world that we have to schedule time to escape into it? What does it say that we even distinguish it as the “natural world” instead of just “the world”? As we discussed at Common Grounds, perhaps this disconnect is why it has been so easy for us to destroy our planet. You can’t feel sorry about trashing something that doesn’t really exist to you. Maybe we’ve retreated from retreating to soothe our own guilty consciences.

My return to the infinite urban landscape isn’t the only thing throwing off my groove today; I also miss the people I met. Last week a ragtag team of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Indigenous, Christians, Pagans, Muslims, and me, the self-proclaimed Secular Humanist, spent five days making known our entire selves. A crystalizing moment was standing in front of the collective conference at the week’s end and delivering a rap I’d written with others there, accompanied by a man on guitar, another on harmonica, and a chorus of beatboxers. It’s been a while since I’ve rapped for anyone, and it was a constellating enterprise. I had no performance anxiety; in fact, I was ecstatic to share in that experience with them. We created something of a “sacred space” together where expressions were honored and embraced. It was collaborative and comfortable; our conversations were intimate and important. That sort of extensive exposition isn’t common in day-to-day life, and stepping out of it was a sharp divorce. I made some fast friends; now the community we carved out is dispersed across the continental United States. I miss it, and the person I was in it. I am working hard to bring that person back into my routines.

These profoundly intertwined aspects of the retreat – the solitude of the “natural world” and the warmth of deeply engaged community – proved the ideal situation for some much needed personal reflection. My ship ran aground at Common Grounds and I was forced to slow down and take stock of my rations. It has been pretty smooth sailing lately – I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of accolades and opportunities recently, from awards to speaking invitations to personal celebrations of my work – but those affirmations made it easy to continue the fast pace I established during the throes of my thesis-writing, exacerbating a bad case of “doing, not being.” I’d lost sight of the “slow down and notice” mode I resolved to model. And while I do not wish to deny the opportunities I’ve been so lucky to receive, I’m also rethinking some of my priorities. I’m once more asking the so-called religious questions that come from a shared life. What are my deepest desires? What will I demand of myself? What matters most? How can I make this world just a little more balanced for myself and for others?

I think I began to resolve some of these questions last week but, when it comes to the so-called religious questions, revelation is ongoing. The authority and responsibility of an ethically godless life requires a commitment to this endeavor. I’ll continue to ask, and to listen for answers. And I think that ambiguous process is easier when done in communion with others, such as those I was honored to know last week, and perhaps best facilitated apart from the distractions of our modern world. My heart hurts today, and it’s a symptom suggesting just how important this retreat was for me and why I need to more actively cultivate some of those aforementioned components of retreat. So for this lunch break I’m turning this thing off and going for a walk, to listen instead of type or talk.

Check back this week for another reflection coming from the Common Grounds retreat, on an exchange I had with the Rabbi Arthur Green about working within or without traditional religious paradigms.

This post is the second part of a two part report on the Secular Student Alliance‘s New England Leadership Summit. For a report on the first day, click here.

Interview with Greg Epstein

I first had the opportunity to meet Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, when I was working onInterfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 Conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. We exchanged several emails and had a greg-epsteingreat conversation at the event itself. We’ve since stayed in touch, and it is always great to hear him talk about his work at Harvard, so I was excited for the opportunity to do so at the Summit. Epstein discussed what he does as a Humanist Chaplain, which is working with students to achieve goals, build a sustainable community, teach and advise student research, and help provide resources for those outside the Harvard Community. He discussed his interpersonal work with students, including a conversation he frequently has with students about values: “Once you begin to think skeptically,” Epstein said, “where do you draw the line? Where do you reconstruct a set of beliefs that says we have all kinds of natural, relative, but still very important reasons for caring about ourselves, others, and the world?”

Epstein also reveled that when he started as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, the total budget was $28,000, which included his salary, money for programming — everything. He has since expanded it significantly. Epstein said that the small amount of funding for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard represents the struggle our movement faces as a whole: “In this career field, and in this movement in general, you have to be willing to take a risk if you want to make any kind of advance. We are starting so much further behind anything that might reasonably be considered our competition.” As usual, it was a pleasure hearing Epstein talk. For more, check out a video of the session here (and, if you turn the volume up, you can hear me ask a question about collaborating with religious chaplains near the end of the video).

Bridging the Divide — Keys to Respectful Interaction and Cooperation with Religious Groups

This session, as well as the next two to follow, where those that most directly echoed the work that I do. I was so excited to see this workshop on the list of sessions, and it did not disappoint. Nate Mauger, Secular Student Alliance intern, described maugerhis experience when his Secular Student Alliance group partnered with an on campus Christian group to go to New Orleans for a service project. You can read about his service experience in his amazing NonProphet Status guest blog from earlier this week. In his presentation he highlighted some key beliefs on why it is important to collaborate with religious organizations (beliefs I obviously share), including that it is a “great opportunity to dispel common negative stereotypes aimed at the secular movement,” that engaging with people of differing viewpoints enhances the quality of conversation, and that one is able accomplish a lot more by combining resources. Mauger also offered advice on how to reach out to a religious group, and counseled that clear communication is key and disagreement is inevitable but that you should “take time to focus on issues on which you can find common ground.” All in all it was an excellent presentation and a helpful starting point for secular folks interested in getting involved in an interfaith project.

A Secular Humanist Invocation

Andrew Lovley, Founder and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) and student at the University of Southern Maine, offered a reflection on the controversy that ensued after he was invited to deliver an invocation at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine. Unsurprisingly, his invocation actually prompted less outcry from religious people than it did from those within the secular community, where he was criticized for doing something “religious.” Lovley asserted that he believes lovleythat “Secular Humanists should do invocations and other religious practices whenever they have they have the opportunity” and use them as opportunities to “unify and inspire, not protest [religion],” saying he believed such protests are counterproductive. As a Secular Humanist who has taken a preaching class in seminary and preached several secular sermons, I agree with him on this. As Kelly Bodwin said on the first day of the Summit, we can use religious forms and apply them to our secular values, modeling our communities off the good things about religion. Lovley’s call for secularists to expand their notions of what kinds of activities secular folks should engage in resonated very strongly with me a secular interfaith dialogue facilitator and I really enjoyed hearing him speak so eloquently about his experiences and beliefs. You can read his invocation here, read a blog he did about whether Humanist’s should deliver invocations here, and see a video of his SSA Leadership Summit workshop here.

Gaining Acceptance — Lessons Learned from the Front Line

Greg R. Langer, an attorney from Los Angeles and founding chairperson of Chrysalis, a non-profit serving the homeless in L.A., lead a workshop on how to advance the secular movement’s quest for wider societal acceptance. He echoed a lot of what I’ve said in my work — the idea that demanding we be recognized as legitimate is far less efficient than demonstrating we are (show and don’t tell), saying that “claiming Atheists are victims does not engender positive responses.” Langer asserted that we will often need to meet religious people more than halfway, advising secularists to “treat each person as an individual and not as a representative of [her or his] group, even when you are not treated that way.” He acknowledged that “Atheism has baggage — it is seen as hostile,” and that “non-theism, while not as problematic, still only says what you do not believe.” For those reasons, Langer said that he prefers to identify as a Secular Humanist — this is precisely what I’ve said on this blog many times over.

Langer continued by saying that, though it may be tempting, the secular inclination to tell religious people that they are deluded is never productive. He warned that when engaging with theists one should anticipate and be prepared to address negative langerassumptions about the non-religious, but also said that we must “check [ourselves] for prejudices too. We will only achieve acceptance if we really hear [the religious] and empathize.” Langer also condemned the common Atheist desire to serve as a de-conversion missionary, saying that “while it might be nice [to de-convert], it is not our priority.” This echoes the interfaith idea that, while we would all love to see others come to recognize our “truth,” we know it is not the most important issue at hand. Ultimately, he said, gaining wider acceptance is about engagement — and, more specifically, changing how secularists engage. “Disdain must be replaced with empathy,” Langer said,” just as we ask them to empathize with us.” I found Langer’s speech to be a very important articulation of the message that I advocate and really enjoyed the ways in which he broke it down into specific actions secularists can take to promote wider acceptance of secular perspectives.

Building a Relationship with the White House

This was a fun session on the Secular Coalition For America‘s White House briefing in which participant Jesse Galef shared some of his experience. You can see a full video here.

Conversations

As great as the sessions were, my favorite part was meeting with the other attendees of the Leadership Summit. There was a broad variety of perspectives present, but we all spoke our mind without fear of disagreeing and without criticizing one another. It gave me a lot of hope for greater unity in our movement, and I was glad for the opportunity to participate.

Now that my travels are done and I am back in Chicago, I’m turning to work on the final days of the Share Your Secular Story Contest. It closes in 15 DAYS so submit now!

Sorry for the limited number of posts recently — I hit the ground running upon returning to Chicago and immediately got sick. I’m still a bit ill but have continued to work in the interim. It’s little wonder I fell sick; it was a long and winding trek. I started at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) in New York City / Newark, NJ, stopped by Washington, D.C. for some meetings, headed back north to Rochester, NY for Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference and, finally, made my was to Boston for the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit. My first conference, AAC, was a mixed bag at best (1, 2, 3). The second, IUC, was consistently excellent (1, 2, 3).

SSAHow did the SSA Summit hold up? In a way, it was like a hybrid of the previous two experiences. Like AAC, I was in significant disagreement with many who were there (as opposed to IUC, where we all rallied behind a common cause). Unlike AAC, however, I found some pretty significant allies and all present put their best foot forward, constantly working to hear the other out and take her or his idea seriously. Respectful dialogue ruled the day.

There were many sessions — 18 in total, plus the MythBusters on Humanism event — but I want to highlight a specific few that I found especially interesting:

Creating a Semester Programming Arc & Engaging Local Freethought Groups

This session was facilitated by Jim Addoms, a graduate student at Syracuse University. He talked about his experiences founding a secular student group. I thought he had an interesting story but was confused by the lengthy portion of his presentation that addressed the fact that there is a lot of interfaith going on at Syracuse and that his group developed as a critique against it. He especially focused on the COEXIST movement, which he called “silly.” Addoms spent a lot of his talk saying that he has problems with COEXIST, saying there are “real differences” between religions. I’m not certain why he saw that as opposed to interfaith; the new interfaith movement recognizes and acknowledges the reality that we have distinctly different views but pragmatically declares that we need to find a way to disagree and still live in a way that transcends tolerance and prioritizes collaboration over critiquing one another’s religious beliefs. Unfortunately, though his presentation was very professional and it sounded like they have a lot going on at Syracuse, he spent a lot of time talking about how he thinks COEXIST is stupid and I found it to be distracting from the session’s goal of actually talking about developing secular programming.

Churchless Charity and the Philosophy of Philanthropy

This session, led by Secretary of the Harvard Secular Society and Founder of National Secular Service Day Kelly Bodwin, was an excellent exposition on the importance of engaging in service work as secular individuals. She talked about “reclaiming service NSSDas a secular tradition,” saying that while secular service’s primary goal is helping others, it also facilitates a secondary goal: “helping ourselves by building community, establishing traditions, and breaking stereotypes [because] we have an image problem.”

Bodwin raised the question of what kind of community are we creating, highlighting the differences between such figureheads as Greg Epstein and Christopher Hitchens and asking: “how we can build a community that encompasses all of these perspectives and stop the infighting? Through service.” She declared that service brings people together, revealing that even her Catholic roommate came for their National Secular Service Day event. Her idea is very similar to the one propagated by the Interfaith Youth Core — that service brings together diverse people, such as the various divergent positionings in the secular community, and unites them under a common cause organized around a shared value.

She called secular service “the sincerest form of flattery,” saying “we are emulating the parts of the church we like. The church does some great things, so we should imitate these good models.” She also said that service work will serve as act of self-definition in helping to break stereotypes about the non-religious, proposing that “actions speak louder than words – we need to show that we’re good, not just tell.”

Under the Magnifying Glass

Shelley Mountjoy, Founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University, gave a helpful presentation on how to present yourself publicly if you’re in a position of leadership. She asked attendees to consider the image mountjoypresented by one’s presence in social networking forums. Asked Mountjoy: “Are you living your values? Before you an think about the image you’re conveying, think about the person that you are, about your actions and how they can be interpreted.” This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about. As someone who has taken on a public voice through this blog, speaking engagements, the workshops I lead, and so on, I’ve considered the kind of image I’m presenting on Facebook and other websites. My Twitter account is linked to this blog – when I tweet about going to a bar called “Whiskeys,” how is that being interpreted? I guess there’s only so much I can do. Those who truly know me know my lifestyle; others can only imagine. Still, I want to take stock of my priorities, discern what of me is most important to advertise, and employ discretion.

Working with Local Groups

goddardDebbie Goddard, Campus Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Inquiry, facilitated a session on ways of reaching out to other Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, Freethought, Skeptic, et al. groups, suggesting ways to collaborate in spite of possible differences in a way that reminded me some of the interfaith movement. She talked about seeking out allies, ways of reaching out, what other groups can offer and what your group can offer them, and more. She also offered keen words of advice that resonated strongly with me: “If you don’t like what’s out there, work to change it, or create something you do like!” I also really appreciated how she highlighted the need to work with what if often seen as “our opposition” or “the other side” — religious groups.

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

This session, lead by blogger and writer Greta Christina, was one of my favorites even though Christina and I disagree about many things. She began by saying, “Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.” Christina said the community has done a pretty good job of gaining visibility, but said “I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out.” Christina argued that the secular movement needs to put more energy into creating communities akin to religious ones, and on this she and I are in absolute agreement.

Christina then moved on to a very thought-provoking idea — that the secular community ought to “let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.” The idea that both positions will Christinaadvance the “secular agenda” in different ways is something I’ve heard time and time again from secular folks (unless they are telling me that my position isn’t welcome), but I’m still not totally convinced it is right. While the queer rights movement certainly benefited from having both diplomats and firebrands, the firebrands of the queer community offended by being explicit about their queer identities, and the diplomats worried about offending more popular sensibilities. This is not a perfect parallel because the firebrands of the secular movement want to see religion disappear, whereas the firebrands of the queer movement did not work to remove the presence of heterosexuality, just to make their own identities known in a radical way. The diplomats of the queer movement agreed with the firebrands in terms of core message but disagreed when it came to how to best bring about change; I on the other hand, as one who sees certain benefits to religion’s presence in the world, am on an entirely different page than secular firebrands who want to see religion done away with. I understand the point she was trying to make, but I don’t think it translates all that well.

She also raised another very interesting point — that the queer movement has succeeded in spite of differences in identification language and that the secular movement should “not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.” I agree with her; though I’ve said that “Atheist” is a problematic term, I also am fine with others who identify as such if that is what she or her prefers. We’ve more important things to address as a community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christina declared that “Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m consistently surprised by how much the secular movement is dominated by heterosexual, middle-class, white men. It isn’t that such individuals shouldn’t participate; of course they should. But as Christina said, it is important to be intentional about making the community a place where these individuals are not just allowed to participate and gain positions of leadership but a place that invites them to do so. I’ve been surprised by how few queer folks I’ve meet in the secular community, so as a queer it was great to see Christina speak about the parallels between our movements.

One thing that I would’ve liked to have seen explored was an excellent analogy Todd Stiefel made at the American Atheist Convention between the queer rights movement’s utilization of straight allies to advance queer acceptance to Atheists aligning with religious groups. I actually raised the question during the Q&A, to which Christina rebutted that, unlike queerness to heterosexuality, Atheism is innately opposed to religiosity and presents a direct negation of religious ideas. And while I understand this, I don’t think it means that religious-secular alliances are an impossibility. In my interfaith cooperation efforts I have not found that my godlessness has presented the kind of challenge to my religious collaborators that Christina has suggested it might; perhaps that is because I have not positioned myself in opposition to them.

You can find the full text of her speech here.

starkAddress from U.S. Congressman Pete Stark

Three years ago U.S. Congressman Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, filled out survey saying that he did not believe in God, making him the highest ranked politician to openly declare that he does not. His short address was a call to arms in which he said: “we hear from Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party every day; it is very important that you make your voices heard as well.”

Keynote by Rebecca Goldstein

International Academy of Humanism Laureate Rebecca Goldstein, who’s been mentioned on this blog before, gave the conference keynote, a lecture on “how to answer theists who accuse you of being unable to tell right from wrong.”

She began by declaring that “moral facts are weird. What kind of facts can ethical facts be? They seem different from other facts: they don’t describe how things are, but how things ought to be. ‘Oughtness,’ or normativity, means that ethical facts can’t lie there limp and inert but must exert some sort of ‘oomph.’ [They] must contain a motivational component.” Goldstein critiqued the oft-proclaimed Atheist mantra that there are “no moral facts,” stating: “Don’t say it because it will confirm [the religious] opinion [about you], and don’t say it because it’s wrong.” She used Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, or the question of whether something is right because the gods say so, or if the gods say something is right because it is right. Said Goldstein: “If God wants goldsteinyou to do it because it is right, then that’s the reason and reference to God’s choices is redundant. Or his choices are mere whims, caprices.” She quoted Bertrand Russel’s “Why I Am Not A Christian,” and then moved into a discussion of secular ethics, saying, “if religious grounds aren’t [going to] do it… what grounds can we offer?” Goldstein said that just as “both physics and ethics begin with intuitions,” “our moral theories begin with intuitions that, unsurprisingly, concern ourselves.”

Referencing Spinoza and Kant, Goldstein suggested that the development of ethics, then, involve a going beyond the self, a cultivation of empathy, and a recognition that members of groups outside our own have the same rights to dignity as members of our own (which, to me, sounded a lot like my impetus for interfaith advocacy). She declared that it isn’t that there is a universal but that things can be made universalizable. “Can there be a morality without god?” Goldstein asked. “It’s hard to say god would be relevant. So what is relevant? Knowing intuitively that I matter. Reason can’t be unique to me. The moral emotions endowered to us by evolution contain a folk morality including an inchoate grasp that someone else matters… but the bias toward our own selves and our own kin and kind must be corrected by reason.” Her talk was heady and important; listening to her speak, it was easy to see why Goldstein was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” prize.

Check back for my report on the second exciting day!

This post is the third in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; for the second, click here.

Workshop: A Place at the Table

For the third and final workshop session of the conference, I attended “A Place at the Table: Including Atheists, Agnostics, and Secular Humanists in Interfaith Dialogue.” It shouldn’t be surprising that I was very excited about this workshop being offered, IUC_logoas this is a significant growing edge for the larger interfaith movement. Even more exciting: it was the most sizable workshop I attended, with over 45 people in the room. The session was an opportunity for people to share their experiences of secular-religious relations, air and analyze their misconceptions about secular people, and offer best practices for getting secular individuals motivated about interfaith cooperation. I ended up being invited to share a lot from the work that I do and the things that I have encountered. It was a lively conversation with a diversity of perspectives in the room and I was pleased to be a part of it.

Plenary: From Religious Extremism to Interfaith Dialogue

hirschfieldRounding out the keynote addresses at IUC was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He told the story of how he moved away from being a Jewish Zionist extremist through a relationship with someone of another faith and how he came to recognize the importance of pluralism. “We need eachother and we need each other,” said Hirschfield near the conclusion of his moving story.

During the Q&A session Hirschfield was asked about critics and, in light of the recent batch of negative appraisals of my work, I found his answer to be especially wise. “Anytime someone says you shouldn’t question the community is the time to get out,” Hirschfield said. “The more important your cause, the more important the questions are, because these questions move you toward an ethic. When I felt I was in a community where my questions were not welcome, I had to get out.” I couldn’t help but reflect in this moment how welcoming of my challenges and critiques this conference community had been, and how occasionally difficult it has been to have my questions dismissed and my character smeared by many in the Atheist community both at the AAC and in my blog work.

And yet, just as I was tempted to start down the path of “perhaps he’s right – perhaps my efforts in these particular Atheist communities where I’m being rebutted are futile,” he offered a reminder to remain engaged with those who disagree with you in response to the question, “How do you share the idea of interfaith cooperation with people who don’t want to hear it?” Hirschfield replied: “Before you can be anyone’s teacher, you need to be their student… Everybody, no matter how hateful, has something to teach [you].” Ultimately, the “student before teacher” philosophy is one we share. On that note, for those who may be wondering about what is going on with “Burkagate” – in the spirit of building bridges, I reached out to the young woman (one of those wearing a Burka at the American Atheist Convention) who made a YouTube video in which she called me a coward, criticized my comparison of the session to other hate exercises and decried my friend Sayira’s declaration that she found wearing hijab empowering the day after she posted the video. We are exchanging emails at this time; I’ll keep you posted if it seems relevant to do so.

In any event, Hirschfield’s story was a great conclusion to the plenary series and a stark reminder to all conference participants of the power of making relationships with religious others and how pluralism allows us to build connections without needing to sacrifice our individual religious integrity.

Closing

The closing included remarks by Daan Braveman (whose remarks from the opening I recounted in the first IUC post) and Muhammad Shafiq, Executive Director of Nazareth’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. I was invited to give a closing reflection and spoke about Huston Smith, the “strangeness” of interfaith dialogue, and its capacity for change. Two others who were recognized as “Next Generation” leaders we also invited to offer reflections.

webbThe first came from Emily Webb, a young Unitarian Universalist woman from California who is a youth advocate. She delivered a poem entitled “Engage You,” which she had written that morning in response to the conference. She’s given me permission to reproduce it here; though it is a beautiful read, hearing her speak it aloud was all the more powerful:

I saw a man float upside down on his chair

I heard an Iroquois storyteller speak in a language so ancient

she does not know the meaning of some of her words

I learned your name means the light of Ali

I bathed the Buddha in sweet tea

I felt angels underfoot

Can I get a witness?

I have embraced ten new friends

asking the question

over coffee and whiskey

How are we going to get along?

I learned another way to speak

a lexicon of 40 more words for respect and trust

Do you hear me brothers and sisters?

It is with these words these stories I construct

a humble sanctuary

for those who are

still writing letters to

Dr. King, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother T

still raising their hands in classrooms and boardrooms

asking why

still looking into the eyes of the Other

saying

how can I engage you?

alaniI spoke after Emily and was followed by Alykhan Alani, a Muslim from Rochester who is a student and social activist. He offered the following reflection, which he was given me permission to post here:

Sensei Mio told me

there is only one stream

V.V. Raman taught me to embody

Gandhi and King’s dream

From Nicole, our continued commitment

to the Earth, our mother

and from Emily-

trust and kinship we find in one another

Sister Joan awakened me

to the beauty of feminine divinity

and my friend Chris

to belief in the faith of humanity

the dynamic Eboo Patel

has empowered this movement of change

and… isn’t it strange?

that the take-away lesson here

the awakening call

is that we must have love

for one and for all.

three

L to R: Webb, me, Alani, looking like the "Next Generation Leaders" we are.

Salaam.

The closing left all involved motivated, energized, reflective and grateful. I was privileged to be in attendance for this conference, which confirmed that the interfaith movement is becoming a force to be reckoned with and is a place of great understanding and social change.

This last weekend I was in Boston for the fourth and final leg of my East Coast “Chris-cross” (credit to Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM’s Tom Herman for this term, which he used during a remote radio interview he facilitated from the conference with me, Alani, and Webb – listen to the archive here, fast forward to about 41 minutes in), where I attended both the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit and dropped by the CIRCLE National Conference 2010. Summaries on those coming soon; check out my Twitter for the conclusion of my trek and beyond.

This post is the second in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; check back tomorrow for the final installation.

Plenary: “How Water is the New Salt”

The first plenary of the second day of the conference was a pair of talks by Dr. Panchapakesa Jayaraman and Sensei Bonnie Myotai Treace titled “How Water is the New Salt: An Interfaith Language for our Time & Gandhian Interfaith Approach to Non-violence and Peace-making.” A mouthful, certainly, but a thought-provoking one.

jayaramanJayaraman, Founder and Executive Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, was up first, talking about Gandhi’s role as an interfaith leader. “Gandhi was a staunch Hindu,” Jayaraman said, “but not a fundamentalist… Though [he did not] press his religion upon others, he did express [his religious] opinions.” Jayaraman spoke about Gandhi’s life, religious beliefs and peacemaking efforts, offering a vision for interfaith leadership rooted in Gandhi’s interfaith approach to non-violence: “For the vast and broad-minded persons, the whole world is a family. We must go beyond ideology to principles and policies. Don’t hate anyone. All of us are one.” He also talked about how Henry David Thoreau influenced Gandhi, who influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrating how interfaith convictions and collaboration lead to widespread social change.

After Jayaraman, Treace, Founder and Spiritual Director of Hermitage Heart, Bodies of Water Zen, spoke from her Zen Buddhist perspective about her efforts responding to the climate crisis and how interfaith cooperation can be used to address such systemic problems:treace

One of the sloth places of the mind is a not fully [allowing for] the other… What the mind tends to do is freeze, look away, in the same way that an interpersonal crisis causes a personality change, a deadening of the full capacity of the exquisite intellect. The tradition of Gandhi and of Zen is the power of asking again, of challenging fully… [of] creating the situations… There are many who are saying the next four years are the most critical in history, [that] we have the chance to be the turning point of life on this planet, [to decide] whether it is livable. That [must be] the religious activity.

Treace, like Jayaraman, spoke passionately and knowledgably, and also incorporated a few jokes that aroused the sleepy early morning crowd. Together, their speeches offered a balance of intellectualism and emotion, history and prophecy, and humor and gravity.

Workshop: “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?”

In the afternoon of the second day I attended “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?” during the first batch of workshops. It was facilitated by Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, Founder and President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a “non-partisan, interfaith public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions” that has represented folks of nearly every faith.

Hasson spoke on something I’ve talked about time and time again – the inadequacy of mere “tolerance.” Said Hasson: “Tolerance has a dark side to it. [Many who think tolerance] it is the way to go – whether in government or civil society – [do so because] it means they have the right to be intolerant if they want to.”

hassonHe highlighted that we live in the most pluralistic society ever and offered a model for two “inauthentic” responses to religious diversity – “the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers.” He used as a case study the story of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock, saying that they “were looking for real estate; they weren’t fleeing intolerance, they were fleeing assimilation with the ‘impurities’ of their surrounding societies. They wanted to make a theocratic system of their own.” So, according to Hasson, the first inauthentic response is “to impose one mechanism in the state.”

The second response he identified is “Park Rangers,” which he classified as people who say that religion is divisive and does not belong in the public sphere. “These are the people who say that we ought to pretend that religion doesn’t exist and remove it from the public realm.” Hasson then offered his understanding of an “authentic” response: “Conscious pluralism… that is, pluralism without relativism, as relativism leads you at best to tolerance, which is inauthentic.”

Hasson, who had Parkinson’s, used humor (joking about his shaking) and a competent understanding of history to keep the session both light and highly educational. Though it was an idea I was very familiar with, it gave me a new framework through which to consider the problematic nature of mere “tolerance.”

Panel: “The Next Generation”

Eboo PatelIn the afternoon was a panel that included the prior night’s plenary speaker Sr. Joan Chittister, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) Founder and Executive Director Eboo Patel, and five young people. In this session, Chittister spoke more directly that she did in her plenary about the import of interfaith work, sharing a story from her childhood in which a Catholic Sister at her school said her father was going to Hell because he was a Protestant. She told her mom this. “I said, ‘Sister is wrong,'” Chittister shared. “My mom asked if I had said anything to Sister; I ashamedly told her no, I hadn’t. My mom said ‘It’s okay; you’re a smart little girl… You’ll tell her she’s wrong when you’re older.’ And I think I have been ever since.”

Patel talked about being a Muslim and why that encouraged him to promote interfaith cooperation, telling the story of his grandmother’s pluralistic work. “My grandma offered her essence of Islam – that mercy, compassion, and pluralism – in the way she best knew, in a mid-20th century style. So my question was: What was my expression going to be?… Our convictions can be the same… but the way we practice mercy and compassion and pluralism has to change over place and time. In a world where too many people think religion is a source of division, a bomb or barrier, we must make of it a bridge.”

chittisterThe student representatives talked about their identities, told stories regarding their respect for the beliefs of others, and asked questions of Chittister and Patel. The latter talked about the need to make interfaith cooperation mainstream, like the environmentalism movement. “We have the chance to make IF cooperation a social norm,” said Patel. He continued:

America’s the most religiously diverse nation in history, and when a critical mass of people can see success in pluralism and lead towards that, we will have accomplished our goal. We can measure it in 4 ways:

1. People’s attitudes toward religious diversity – Is it an asset? Do we ignore it? Is it bad?

2. What are our experiences? It should be important for us to create spaces for people to have positive experiences of pluralism.

3. Knowledge base – Do you know something positive about another religion? Do you know something in your own religion that inspires you to do interfaith cooperation?

4. Initiative – We should be looking for people to start an interfaith project with and advancing the idea that people from different religions – including no religion at all – should be coming together in ways that promote understanding and cooperation.

Near the end a young Jewish man by the name of Ethan Heilicher from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) who sat on the panel talked about the challenges he faced with secular engagement, indicating that the RIT skeptics group is huge and wondering how the interfaith group could work with them. I approached him after the session and suggested that we talk about ways of inviting secular folks to participate in interfaith engagement; he was excited about working out a way to bring the groups together to collaborate. In our exchange I felt the interfaith movement growing.

Plenary: “Acts of Faith”

Patel, who spoke earlier in the day on the Next Generation Panel, offered what was unsurprisingly the most energizing and, I believe, vital talk of the conference (full discretion: it’s possible that I am biased here, as I was once the Narrative Development and Media Training intern at IFYC, am presently a contracted adjunct trainer for the organization, and call Patel a friend). His ability to both constellate emotionally resonant stories that exemplify the necessity of interfaith cooperation and crystallize achievable strategies makes him second to none in articulating the goals and achievements of our movement. I wish I could transcribe his entire speech here, but for the sake of your time and mine I will stick to the bare-bones highlights.

patelPatel put forth four reasons why young interfaith leaders are necessary now more than ever. “First, it is a time of religious revival,” said Patel. “Fifty years ago social scientists were predicting the impending ‘demise of traditional religion,’ arguing that modernity pluralizes and inherently secularizes. They have since said they were wrong.” The second reason he offered was that we are in a time of “youth bulge” – for example, the median age in Afghanistan is 17 and there are more young people in India than the total population in the United States. These young people are particularly vulnerable to the sway of fundamentalist recruitment. Third, we are situated in the “most interactive moment in human history and it is among the most disorienting things imaginable… with the ubiquity of media, we are forced to implicitly justify things our grandparents never had to about who is right and how we will get along.” Finally, Patel noted the dramatic breakdown of socioeconomic patterns around the world and how they are contributing to religious conflict. Patel acknowledged the reality of religious conflict but said that it is not about different religions in conflict; rather, it is totalitarians versus pluralists. “I refuse to be pushed into the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Framework of Jew versus Muslim, believer versus non-believer,” said Patel, referring to political scientist Samuel P . Huntington’s pessimistic, misdirected theory. “It is not a divide between faiths but between pluralism and extremism.”

He charged the audience with building the interfaith movement, noting that “right now, the people who have built the strongest organizations are extremists” and emphasizing our need to offer a different narrative. Patel defined an interfaith leader as a person who takes religious diversity and makes it religious pluralism, asserting that “diversity is a fact; pluralism is a positive engagement of difference. The challenge for America is to embrace its differences and… [live in] equal dignity and mutual loyalty [where] identities are respected, relationships mutually inspire, and we have a commitment to the common good. Diversity can move in the direction of conflict or in the direction of cooperation. The difference lies in the direction leaders move it.”

So how do interfaith leaders change the conversation? Patel had many ideas, including the necessity of being to articulate the difference between pluralistic religiosity and extremism, having a knowledge base about your own religious or philosophical tradition and how it inspires you to do interfaith work and comparable values in other traditions, and acquiring a skill set to apply those values.

I could go on, but I can’t do Patel justice here. If you want to see him speak, check out his address to the Chautauqua Institute. After his lecture at IUC Patel spent a long time answering the questions of young conference participants. During the Q&A a student asked a question about secular participation in interfaith leadership, which resulted in a somewhat embarrassing moment for me in which Eboo called out, “Where is my friend Chris Stedman? You’re in here, right buddy?” He then asked me to stand up and talked at length about the work that I do as a “young Secular Humanist leader” in the interfaith movement. Though a bit red-faced, I was grateful for the acknowledgment and happy to serve as an example of secular participation in interfaith cooperation – especially after his powerful speech that left everyone in the audience talking about the action they would take to promote interfaith dialogue in their own communities.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over – come back Monday for the final IUC recap post, and follow me on Twitter to keep up with my secular sojourn!

This post is the first in a series of three on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference. Check back over the next couple days for the others.

Coming off a generally bad experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) (see reports: 1, 2, 3), the tone of Nazareth College‘s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC) was radically and refreshingly different. I attended IUC, which was in Rochester, NY from 4/11/10 – 4/13/10, to absorb as much information about the interfaith community outside of Chicago and to be recognized as a “Next Generation” leader. Though it was populated by a hundreds-strong diversity of religious, geographic, and age demographics – “intentionally interfaith and intergenerational, combining the wisdom of one generation with the vitality and hope of the next,” as they termed it – it was an intimate community motivated by a desire to learn from diverse others and permeated with optimism and action.

Opening

duffyMayor Robert J. Duffy of Rochester was among those who kicked off the event, reflecting on his childhood and how his mother taught him not to look down on people of other faiths, Rochester’s long history of social justice and interfaith, and his hopes for the conference. Said Duffy:

When I look at [religious] divisiveness, I know it is not the [fault of] faith itself but people using it as a tool. In our world and community we have many issues and challenges [but] nothing is insurmountable. As we gain greater understanding [of one another], we pull together as community and start to see disrespect and violence dissipate through greater education and understanding.

bravemanPresident of Nazareth College Daan Braveman – a Jewish man at a college with Catholic roots – also reflected on the history of the community and the college, and what this conference could mean:

Today we have an opportunity to give back and make a difference in the world. This conference is focused on encouraging and training students on the skills that encourage interfaith dialogue… I can think of no better way that young people can make a difference in the word, [to learn to see] religious differences not as a source of division but as a source of tremendous strength.

Plenary: “The Art of Dialogue”

After these and other rousing introductions, the conference moved into interactive plenary “The Art of Dialogue: Interfaith Dialogue Across the Generations,” hosted by Dr. Leonard Swidler, Becca Hartman and Hind Makki.

Swidler, Founder and President of the Dialogue Institute at Temple University, was up first, and opened with a mantra he claimed to have used time and time again: “Nobody knows everything about anything.” He elaborated at length, acknowledging that not only is religion a complex issue but that there are many who try to simplify it:

It sounds perfectly sensible, right? What biologist would say, “I know it all”? What psychologist would say “Oh, there is nothing more for me to learn”?… And yet, the most complicated, detailed, far-reaching discipline of all is religion, because religion is an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly based on some notion and experience… [It] is the most complicated [subject]. There are 6.7 billion people on this planet, and I guarantee there are billions of them who would insist [their religious position is] the right position… Remember, nobody knows everything about anything; this includes religion. So how do we get people to take that clear and simple mantra and translate it to the most complicated field – religion? The answer, I think, is dialogue.

swidlerHe expanded on what he meant by dialogue, saying that it is, “fundamentally not just ‘blah blah blah.’ It means saying, ‘I want to talk with you because you think differently, so that I can learn from you.'” He contended that, in the scope of human history, this is a relatively new concept:

In the past, people would talk to those who think differently so they could tell them “the truth.” That is not dialogue. We humans have been engaging in monologue since the beginning of time… we have always talked with people who think like we do – or should. We don’t talk to people who think differently so that we can learn… I would argue [that dialogue] is radical in the etymological sense of the word: it goes down to the root. In most religions people want to tell you the truth – it is a good intention based in enthusiasm – but they don’t want to hear, they just want to tell. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and all we’ve gotten are bloody heads… so we’ve got to turn around [and] develop deep dialogue – not just the surface stuff – related to critical thinking. We don’t want to share our ignorances but, together, search for the truth, and with our critical thinking issue an action complimentary to cooperation.

makkiAfter Swidler’s charge, Hind Makki (who I interviewed on this blog last month) and Becca Hartman of the Interfaith Youth Core demonstrated an example of interfaith dialogue by sharing insightful testimonials of their own experiences and then had conference participants do the same. Hartman said, “Everyone here has a story, and we want you to share them with one another.” Makki elaborated, saying, “Stories bring out the essence of why people do what they do… [they] create a space in which we can look for shared values from different sources. hartmanWe are asking you to build relationships off of shared values through storytelling and community, and then from that community to build bridges and move into action.” The experience of sharing stories with one another at the opening of the conference made it clear that this event was proactive about inviting participants to air their diverse experiences and have a sense of determinist agency as participants in the burgeoning movement of interfaith cooperation. In that sense, from the get go it was much more than a series of lectures; it was a constructive exercise of empathy and progress.

Plenary: “The Divine Feminine”

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave the second keynote of the conference entitled “The Divine Feminine: The Foundation of the Abrahamic World.” Chittister was an incredible speaker, using humor and emotional mastery to deliver a message on the importance of recognizing feminine images of the divine in interfaith work. I found myself intrigued by her speech, but also found it knotty in a few places.

chittisterFor one, as someone who is not a member of an Abrahamic religion – let alone not even a theist – there wasn’t much that was applicable to my personal beliefs or to my work. The speech was clearly geared toward theists, so there wasn’t much for me to work with. Chittister said that “the way we see God is the way we see ourselves;” I understand the truth of this statement in the context of theism, but wonder what she might think it means for atheism, in which no god-image is present.

Additionally, I thought Chittister’s use of feminine versus masculine images of God was fundamentally and problematically rooted in a reliance on gender binarism and dichotomized approaches to gender. During the Q&A session, the great Rabbi Or Rose raised a similar critique – that it is too essentialistic to term the feminine as innately nurturing and loving and the masculine as aggressive and punishing. To her credit, Chittister was open to this critique and acknowledged that she was speaking on a multilayered issue in a small space of time.

Chittister is one of the world’s most prolific female Catholic speakers, with a wicked wit and a keen understanding of how to clearly and passionately articulate her worldview. Ultimately, her talk was engaging and interesting and elicited a good deal of conversation among participants, but as a non-theist it required a bit too much translation work on my part as it was fundamentally about images of God and was not as interfaith-focused as I might’ve liked.

All in all, things got off to a pretty great start at IUC – but they got even better as the conference went on. Stay tuned for the next two installations, coming soon, and follow my trek to Boston for multiple conferences on Twitter!

Today’s guest post, a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention, comes from Andrew Fogle, a D.C.-based cultural, social, and sexual interloper presently studying philosophy and religion at American University. He is a regular columnist for the alternative queer blog The New Gay, and can be reached at andrewf@thenewgay.net

andrewThe by-now infamous conclusion of Edwin Kagin’s 2010 AAC address on blasphemy elicited more than a few interesting responses from more than a few interesting people. Chris Stedman, seated in the audience, fought a pitched internal moral battle before deciding to do the virtuously pluralist thing and hear out a perspective he didn’t agree with, however distastefully it was presented (whether or not this makes for “cowardice” seems to depend on what value a person places on sincere efforts of mutual understanding over and above the recorded sound of his or her own voice.) Sayira Khokar was nearly brought to tears by the footage posted on skepticsresource.com, recounting in her guest piece the disquieting resonance between her memories of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the behavior of the guffawing, self-satisifed (and – did anyone else notice this? – almost exclusively white) crowd gathered for the occasion of North America’s premier atheist conference.

On seeing the YouTube video of Burkagate, I had another reaction:

“Mary, Please,” I said to myself, borrowing a phrase from the famed word-hoard of my people. “I’ve seen 300 pound Latino men in Diana Ross costumes pull off more convincing altos than these girls.”

Much (and maybe too much) virtual ink has been spilled over the “Back in Their Burkas Again” fiasco, a performance which in its comedic subtlety and technical execution seemed closer to an unorthodox PTA holiday program than an SNL skit. To the thoughtful charges already explored on this blog I would add – probably unexpectedly – one more: the American Atheist Convention is guilty of sponsoring bad theological drag. Terrible theological drag. The kind of poorly-conceived, overblown ecclesiastical cross-dressing that would be booed off the stage at any respected queer cabaret on the East Coast (more welcome would be the queen who called herself “Pope RuPaul II.”)

A religious or secular commitment – like a job, a gender, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation – isn’t a part of us in the same inert and self-contained way that, say, hardness and grayness are part of a rock, or bad cover design and overpricedness are part of a Christopher Hitchens book. We aren’t the kind of beings who simply “are”: free consciousness means that we have to “play at” the roles we assume, however natural or objective they might seem. This “play” is rarely light-hearted, to be sure – the soldier at war is doing something importantly different from the little boy having fun with Cowboys and Indians, and the work of trying to build and hold on to a sense of self that is always doomed to fail is the most frustrating, burdensome, humiliating, and for all of that, important things that human beings get up to.

Recognizing this fact, and being able to laugh at ourselves because of it, is an important part of staving off insanity for modern people. Gay people have always been good at recognizing this, because we’ve always been especially modern and especially close to insanity. Drag as a cultural institution is the highest expression of this sensibility: a gritty, sassy, localized art form that suspends and subverts the categories and hierarchies that less interesting, more powerful people use to keep us (and others) down. For hours on weekend nights, on gin-and-sweat-streaked stages in every city in this country, the systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality that keep American injustice humming are dissolved in nebulae of glitter and laser lights. Fur, vinyl, and essentialism are slipped off seductively and cast aside until audiences are confronted with the naked and jarring truth that everything we ever call ourselves isn’t given freely by God or natural selection; it is actively affirmed or denied by us in the kinds of shows we put on for ourselves and other people, every minute of every day.

Good drag doesn’t mock particular identities (e.g. “woman,” “neo-disco pop star,” “Sarah Palin.”) Good drag makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.

In the words of Liza Minnelli – the only woman other than the Virgin Mary to whom I’ve offered petitionary prayer – “Life is a Cabaret, old chum / It’s only a Cabaret.” In the 21st century, when the kinds of traditions and certainties that used to bind people to stable, directed senses of self are shattered daily like so many martini glasses under leather high-heels, the insight has never been more relevant. We, all of us – gay and straight, religious and secular – are better off embracing the terrifying responsibility of the radically free, self-directed performativity that makes us who we are and nothing more, rejecting the bad-faith securities of an all-powerful god on the one hand and an all-encompassing materialist determinism on the other. It is in this affirmative movement, and not in the resentment of blasphemy, that the prospects for a more decent world seem most bright.

Today’s guest post, a personal reflection on wearing hijab in response to the 2010 American Atheist Convention’s blasphemy session, comes from Sayira Khokhar. Sayira is graduating from Kendall College in Chicago with a B.A. in Hospitality Management, Meeting and Event Planning. She interned with the Interfaith Youth Core in the Summer and Fall of 2009 and helped organize their conference in October of 2009. She is now working for an event planning company, helping not-for-profits plan their events.

sayiraI was nearly brought to tears after seeing the video of three women donning burkas singing a radically misinformed song at the 2010 American Atheist Convention. The audacity they had to replicate something that has been rooted in tradition for centuries and to represent it in such an offensive way is shameful.

My name is Sayira – I am 21 years old and I recently started wearing the headscarf. I tried to wear it once before when I was a junior in high school. That did not work well for me; part of the reason was because I was treated horribly because of it. Some of my classmates asked if I had gotten married, if I was being forced to wear it, if my father beat me, if I was allowed to do anything on my own, if I had to marry a cousin – the foolish list goes on and on.

At the time I was not ready for what was being thrown at me. I was also dealing with teenagers that had limited exposure to different religions and cultures, and the information they did have was misconstrued. I was one of three other girls that covered her hair in a school of over 2000 students. It was not a pleasant experience, especially after 9/11. Everyone had their idea of what my religion represented – and it had nothing to do with “Peace,” which is what “Islam” literally translates into.

When I receive these questions now I cannot help but think, “gosh, people are really closed-minded.” It is as if they refuse to think logically and with empathy. Sometimes I want to give them the answer they want to hear so they can just leave me alone instead of having a look of disbelief when I say, “no, I am not oppressed and I wear the scarf by choice.”

But, as easy as it is to walk away and not stand up for my belief, I wouldn’t be doing Islam – or myself – justice. This time I was prepared. The first day I walked into work with my hijab, my co-workers had a list of questions. They knew about the symbolism and what it stood for because there were two other women that wore them. Their questions revolved around my personal choice; why I decided to wear the scarf. In Islam it is said by Allah (which literally translates into God) that women should cover their hair and their skin. At this point, I had decided that I wanted to be grow more in my identity. No one forced me: not my siblings, not my parents, not my friends, not anyone in my religion – it was all my choice and mine alone to deepen my relationship with my tradition.

Just like Atheists choose to believe that God does not exist or that religion is not necessary, I made this choice of my own free will. Of course I disagree with Atheists on God and on religion, but I will not disrespect them for having their own mind. And I would like to be treated the same way. But there is a balance – I will always express my opinon and offer friendly disagreements to not only open another’s mind but to open my own mind as well. We live in a world of great diversity and it would be hard to make our way through life without encountering people of a different belief or affiliation. At this point respect and an objective point of view play an integral role. You can only go backwards in a progressive society when you cannot open your mind and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

To say that all women who wear the headscarf or burka are oppressed is fallacious beyond belief. To say that showing skin is the only way of being free is taking away from the freedom of having the choice to be who you want to be. I can wear the hijib and cover from neck to toe yet still be free. Who is anyone to judge me? If you do not know me and the circumstance of why I cover my hair, how can you say that I am oppressed? Do you imagine that I am some timid woman dominated by male influence? What if I told you that I will be testing for my black belt in Karate within the year; would that change your mind? What if I told you that I will be graduating with a Hospitality Management degree this year, a major I chose all on my own and not something my parents decided for me – would that change your mind?

Once you see that I am just like anybody else with the slight exception that you cannot see my hair or my belly button or my midriff, will you call me free, just as you think you are free? Think about it before you turn me into a joke.

Sayira’s guest post is a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention.

This post is the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention. For my favorite sessions from the convention, check out “The Good” post; for those that were bad but not the most offensive, check out “The Bad.”

Throughout the course of the 2010 American Atheist Convention I had extensive conversations with attendees around a single, significant question: what kind of Atheist community are we building? Some of these conversations were constructive; others weren’t. Yet even in the most productive there was considerable disagreement. How do we best assemble a community of non-belief? Is it by contrasting our identities to those of others? And if so, in what ways do we go about this? By mocking them, or by forging our own unique, singular identity based on the values we hold in esteem?

From these conversations, I have come to better understand how my “accomodationism” turns some off in the same way the blasphemy model offends my sensibilities. All the more, I gained key insight into the pragmatic problems of unifying these perspectives; just as it would be challenging to get all Christians under one roof and have every party in agreement, Atheists struggle to come to a consensus about community priorities.

Yet I still cannot help but wonder: how can we bemoan being such a hated minority, as nearly all speakers at the convention did, while practicing hate toward others? This way of community constructivism – dismantling another’s identity to build one’s own – strikes me as the easier but more fundamentally limited model, and it was out in full force at the convention. The American Atheist Convention seemed, in some ways, to aim to offend. In this respect, it hit its target with force. And one moment in particular, on the first day of the convention, left me feeling so assaulted that I nearly walked out of the room and didn’t return.

Edwin Kagin

kaginAs he was introduced it was said that, with his acts of blasphemy, American Atheist National Legal Director Edwin Kagin strikes a “fine balance of seriousness and making fun of this silly crap [religion].” Kagin’s introduction also included a rousing commemoration for his late wife, which was exceedingly moving. The fact that his wife recently passed makes it all the more difficult for me to say so, but I found his session the most offensive by a landslide – and, in hindsight, it seems clear that this was his intention.

Kagin opened by referring to Ireland’s recently passed anti-blasphemy law (as I reported on). He was understandably bothered by that, and offered an opposing definition for “blasphemy” out of his book, Baubles of Blasphemy. Per Kagin, blasphemy “is the crime of making fun of ridiculous beliefs someone else holds sacred.” With that, I had some idea where his talk was headed. But even I, with all my initial trepidation about this convention, couldn’t have predicted just how far he would go.

From the get go Kagin had little to no regard for offering ideas on how to bolster Atheistic communities or for making an intellectual case against religion – he was perfectly happy to simply shout at those in the audience about how religion ought to be brought down. “We can use their nonsense against them,” Kagin said, only offering the mocking of religious ideas and identities as a way of engaging them. “And it is nonsense, profound nonsense.”

Continuing with this theme, he quoted Martin Luther as saying “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” and referenced that Luther believed that the world was relatively young. As with every religious reference he made that day, Kagin of course did not contextualize these statement; Luther said a lot more about reason than that, and was working within a limited understanding of the world, while today we have a much greater capacity for reason and have used it to determine that the world is much older than Luther believed. But instead of using this reason to philosophize about empathy, Kagin was happier to mock the religious by turning them into caricatures, selecting the things that are easiest to critique instead of taking on the significant, worthwhile task of working to find a way to reconcile the realities of religious lives with his own reality. But this obviously wasn’t the aspiration of the man who arrogantly announced: “I don’t want to be unduly condescending to ignorant people, but I do distinguish between ignorant and stupid… You can fix ignorant but you can’t fix stupid.”

Referring to the response to these kinds of claims as made in his book Baubles of Blasphemy, Kagin took a moment to congratulate himself mid-way through his speech. “People thought I was mocking that religion… and you know what, I was,” Kagin said proudly. “Some things need to be mocked, and to not do so is an abomination. You know why? We are right and they are wrong!”

Though I will argue against the mocking that occurred there that day, to label one who chooses not to engage in such behavior an abominationist was a clear sign that my beliefs were not welcome in that room. Kagin seemed to suggest that blasphemy is a powerful political tool and that any Atheist who does not employ it is not doing his or her Atheistic duty. And in some respects he is right. Blasphemy certainly can be impactful (just ask Martin Luther). But what kind of impact do we want to have? The answer in that room seemed to be greater isolation from the rest of the world – myself included.

But what disturbed me most is that no one else in the room seemed even a little fazed. Instead, they leapt out of their chairs, rallied, cheered, and rushed forward to be “debaptized.”

That’s right – in what sounds like the punchline of a joke caricaturizing Atheists, there was a “debaptizing” ceremony in which Kagin dressed up in a costume that was supposed to resemble a Middle Eastern man and took a hair dryer to anyone interested in having their “waters of baptism” blown away while he bellowed contemptuous religious references. I spoke with several individuals after and asked them about the ceremony – what it symbolized for them and why they did it. Some indicated that they had been baptized before and wanted to essentially “take it back.” But the majority said that they participated because they found it funny.

And yet, to me, the “debaptizing” ceremony wasn’t even the most odious part. Worst of all was a nasty segment in which, immediately prior to the ceremony, Kagin blew into an animal horn and called for “his wives,” at which point a group of three young white women entered the room dressed in Burkas, or traditional religious garb for some Muslim women. They sang a song Kagin co-wrote called “Back in their Burkas Again” about women and Islam. I don’t mean to sensationalize but I couldn’t help but wonder if what I felt in that moment was akin to what it must be like to be a non-racist white person at a community meeting who suddenly realizes she or he is in fact attending a Ku Klux Klan rally, watching with frozen horror and nausea as the organizers parade men in blackface before an audience that hoots and hollers with glee.

At this point, I wanted to walk out. Hell, I wanted to storm out. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more offended to call this my community. They announced that ABC News was there to film the ceremony and my face reddened with embarrassment as I imagined how many people would witness this and feel justified in how they’ve stereotyped Atheists. “This is supposed to redeem the world?” I asked myself. “If this is what it looks like not to be religious, I’m not sure I want to call myself secular.” To quote Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun’s reflection after attending the Global Atheist Convention: “I’ve never felt more like believing in God… Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.”

conventionI stuck it out the whole time, even though – and I am terribly embarrassed to admit this because it rarely happens – I began to cry. I remained for the sake of journalistic integrity – to hear it out from start to finish to be fair before offering my account – and for the sake of a full awareness of the state of affairs of the largest Atheist group in America. It took a lot of willpower to stay fixed in my seat. I honestly can’t recall the last time I felt such shame. I felt so wholly wrong for sitting quietly in the back of the room instead of speaking up. I wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I still don’t.

Look – I have a sense of humor. I enjoy certain strains of blasphemy as much as the next secular person. Saved! and Dogma are two of my favorite movies. I spend at least half of a given day joking around with friends – yesterday, for example, I participated in a particularly debaucherous pun exchange about dinosaurs and sex that I won’t share here (but oh, how I wish I could). But Kagin’s speech was anything but funny. There is nothing humorous about hate embodied.

As his speech came to a conclusion, it became clear that Kagin wanted to light a fire beneath Atheists. He was trying to incite, using incendiary language to rally the troops. “By weakening our nation and our understanding of science, [religious people] are engaged in acts of terrorism,” Kagin boomed. “By teaching our children things are other than the way they are, they are engaged in child abuse.” Kagin predicted an upcoming American religious civil war and followed up this forecast with aggressive, anti-religious rhetoric. With talk like his, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a conflict is in fact realized. You want to avoid a religious civil war? Try respectful, engaged interfaith dialogue. All Kagin seemed to be doing was fanning the flames. “If it weren’t for these fools we’d be at the stars by now.” Funny, because I’ve never felt further from the heavens.

If there are nearly 20 million Atheists in America, as Kagin suggested, it begs the question: where are they? They weren’t at this conference, which probably had a few hundred at most. I can only speculate, but I imagine (and hope) that their absence signifies that such a scene would hold little appeal to them. Atheism doesn’t have to come at the expense of respect and basic decency. Many speakers throughout the convention lamented the lack of traction Atheism has gained in America, in spite of vigorous attempts to assert itself in the public realm. After this day, the underlying reason couldn’t be any clearer. I’ve never wanted to call myself an Atheist less.

My feeling is that many in that banquet hall had been burned by religion at one point or another in their lives. I sympathize – religion has been a catalyst for significant pain in my life. But what happened in that room was painful, too. As I sat there watching three women don holy Muslim dress and sing an offensive song about a rich tradition, I understood that they had good intentions. The song was intended to call out the repression of women in some forms of Islam. But I also couldn’t help but think of a dear friend who wears the hijab because it makes her feel empowered and in touch with the tradition of her people, and how grossly this song misrepresented her. Though it perhaps intended to serve as a form of liberation, the song represented profound oppression. With all of the smart and kind people in the room, I could not believe the enthusiasm it aroused. I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again; as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This type of behavior seems like self-sabotage in Atheism’s quest for acceptance and justice.

In his talk, Eddie Tabash said “that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” I for one could not disagree more. I couldn’t help but wonder when passing a group of low-income housing units on the train en route to the conference: Why aren’t we non-religious doing more to organize and help those in need? Perhaps it is because we are too busy decrying religion –  what some Atheists see as “the root of the problem” – to deal with the pressing issues of our present reality. Meanwhile, religious efforts to help those in need far outnumber secular ones. Are these our priorities? Blowing a hair dryer in one another’s faces and laughing at how clever we are while thousands of people suffer every day and religious people are on the frontlines offering them respite?

Even as I put forth my strong critique here, I want to make it known that I didn’t come to the 2010 American Atheist Convention to pick a fight – as we recently saw on this blog, that is rarely fruitful. I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.

You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.

This post was the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention; you can read the first two here and here. Stay tuned: this upcoming Sunday – Tuesday (4/11-4/13/2010) I will be in Rochester, NY for an Interfaith Understanding Conference, and the following weekend I will be in Boston for the Secular Student Alliance Leadership Summit. I’ll be posting reflections and reports here, and I’ll also be tweeting about my experiences. Also, check out an archive of my interview with Vocalo / 89.5 FM WBEW about my experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention, and tune in next week when I report live from Rochester.

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