January 27, 2011
This has been long in the works, so I’m excited to finally share the exciting news with you all: I’m going on a speaking tour of seven Midwest colleges and universities next month! At the invitation of campus staff and student groups from the following schools, I will be going from Indiana to Illinois to Iowa to speak about the importance of religious-atheist engagement, and the experiences that led me to the work I do around this issue.
Below is my itinerary — if you’re in the area for any of the “open to the public” events, please come by. I’d love to see you there! (And if you’re a student at one of these schools, I heard a rumor that some of your professors are offering extra credit in exchange for your attendance! Grades hitting a February slump? Come sit in the audience and pretend to listen while playing “Angry Birds.”)
February 2011 Midwest Speaking Tour
(Or, “What I’m Doing Instead of Taking a Vacation!”)
2/10: DePauw University | Greencastle, IN
- Meetings with the Interfaith group, LGBTQA group, and the Center for Spiritual Life
- 7:30-9:30 PM | Speech (open to the public)
- Meeting with the Indiana Interfaith Service Corps (AmeriCorps)
- Noon-1:30 PM | Speech / Luncheon (open to the public)
2/14: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign | Urbana-Champaign, IL
- Meetings with student groups
- Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
- Speech (open to the public)
2/15: Northwestern University | Evanston, IL
- 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)
2/16: Elmhurst College | Elmhurst, IL
- Meetings with student groups
- 11:30 AM | Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
- 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)
2/17: DePaul University | Chicago, IL
- 6 PM | Speech (open to the public)
2/21: Simpson College | Indianola, IA
- Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
- 5-7 PM | Speech (open to the public)
Interested in having me come speak? Email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com!
January 25, 2011
Please check out my latest piece for the Huffington Post, currently featured at the top of their Religion section! Below is a selection; it can be read in full at the Huffington Post:
“I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest,” said White. “Blues singers sort of have the same feelings as someone who’s called to be a priest might have.”
That he connected his sense of a calling to a career in ministry isn’t surprising. The word “calling,” or “vocation,” has explicitly religious roots; derived from the Latin vocare, or “to call,” the terms originated in the Catholic Church as a way of referring to the inclination for a religious life as a priest, monk, or nun. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther broadened the term beyond ministry to include work that serves others, but still couched it in a religious framework.
Today, “calling” has become common currency in the American parlance, its meaning expanded to refer to the realization of an individual’s passion or drive. Though the term has long had religious associations, it is used just as often to refer to secular work as it is religious.
Still, there’s something more to a calling — something almost otherworldly.
January 21, 2011
In partnership with the PBS documentary The Calling, a campaign called What’s Your Calling? was launched to explore the topic of a “calling.” I was honored to be invited to do an interview with them; in our interview, they asked me to talk about my “calling,” so I shared a bit of my story and discussed my hope for greater nonreligious-religious dialogue and cooperation.
Using this interview, they produced the above video (full of old, embarrassing photos, haha). Please check out their page on my video, browse their site to watch other videos, and join their important conversation.
P.S. I’ve written a piece on atheism and calling / vocation; it should be out relatively soon, so stay tuned!
January 19, 2011
Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:
The discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.
I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.
I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.
What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.
While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.
So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.
Not sure where to start? Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity. While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.
Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.
January 14, 2011
Please check out my latest blog for the Huffington Post! Below is a selection; it can be read in full at the Huffington Post:
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve just might be my favorite of the year. It is the one time that my entire family gets together. We spend several days eating our favorite foods, catching up and playing board games.
I’m the only member of my family who doesn’t live in Minnesota — I moved away several years ago — so that week is particularly special for me. While the snow piled up outside, I stole my 7-month-old nephew from his doting grandmother and smooshed his face into mine, worked on an unsolvable puzzle with my siblings and ate way too many cookies.
As I was getting ready to leave for the airport, my dad’s girlfriend stopped me at the door. “I’ve been wanting to ask you something,” she said, leaning in. “I know you’re an atheist, but is it OK for me to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to you?”
January 6, 2011
NonProphet Status’ first guest post of 2011 is by Andrew Lovley, founder and former chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH). Below, Lovley, who previously defended the invocation he performed at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine, weighs in on the “accomodation vs. confrontation” debate and offers a thorough and impassioned case for positive and engaged atheism and humanism. This is among the best explications I’ve read on this topic and, though it is lengthy, it is well worth your time and I encourage all of you to read it in its entirety. Many thanks to Andrew for composing this, and for inspiring me (and, I’m sure, many others) with your words.
Atheist activism is at a crossroads. Atheism has arguably gained more attention in recent years than ever before, thanks to a concerted campaign by secular individuals and organizations to raise awareness as well as their frequent contribution of ideas and perspectives to the national discourse.
Yet as secular individuals, we must ask ourselves: How has this attention served us thus far? How could this attention be best utilized? The answers to these questions and an honest appraisal of our efforts rely on a consensus of what our goals are as a movement. Our increased salience in society affords us an unprecedented opportunity to realize our public activist goals, if we can manage to agree on what those goals are.
Virtually all atheist activists agree that we should promote science and critical thinking, encourage society to be more accepting of atheists, and try to provide support for atheists who have already elected to step out and brave the torrent of social stigma and castigation. Where a consensus manages to evade us however is in regards to our relationship with the religious communities by which we find ourselves surrounded.
Some suggest that we should focus our efforts toward making society less religious by actively trying to persuade people away from religion, while others believe we should work toward toleration and coexistence with our religious neighbors. Until atheist activists achieve some sort of consensus on this issue, we will continue to contradict each other in words and in actions and threaten our relevance as a movement.
It is time we make a prudent choice about how we should relate to religion and its adherents. Our movement’s vitality, and our success at achieving our goals, is being undermined by our too-often acerbic and pretentious attitudes. It is time we recognize that the secular movement and its members are best served by acting on an agenda that balances affirmation of our identity and values with conciliation toward the religious.
Generally speaking, the attitudes that shape the interactions between atheists and theists are characterized by mistrust, mockery, and vilification. Yet these attitudes do nothing to further our cause and become obstructions in themselves. Even if/when theists direct these attitudes toward us, we are better off not reflecting them. Let us lead by example by acting on humanist principles, and give those who deride our motives and actions no factual grounds upon which to base their biting criticisms. Angry and bitter atheist activists serve only to enflame the negative stereotypes we are plagued by. Atheist activists, who rhetorically exacerbate our differences and vilify theists in general, only encourage those theists to do the same and ultimately foster greater alienation of atheists. We are sometimes accused of intellectual hubris, and other times accused of possessing a sense of moral righteousness. These are not appealing qualities, and if we want more respect in the societies we find ourselves in we should abstain from having such attitudes.
Let us gain respect by respecting. Let us be tolerated by being tolerant. The Humanist Manifesto offers a great piece of democratic wisdom when it suggests that we should tolerate different but humane views. Too many atheist activists assert that giving any positive recognition to religion somehow makes one less of an atheist, or an accommodationist – a charge that only has respect in divisive and antagonistic circles. It may be accommodationist to acknowledge praiseworthy actions and services carried about by people inspired by their religion, but it is certainly no less atheist to do so, it is honest. The accommodation of different yet peaceful life-stances is a justified practice; in fact it is the glue and grease that is necessary for a civilized democratic society to be sustained. It is not a disparaging term, but rather a civic compliment.
Perhaps the most pervasive and frustrating mistake many atheist activists make is presenting an overly reductionist conception of religion in their critiques. What religion is reduced to is not always the same, but more often than not religion is spoke of as if it is merely a collection of falsehoods about the world, a reverence for mythical figures, and/or an act of willful ignorance called faith. Yet any real exposure to religion and religious people should lead one to recognize that religion means a whole lot more to people than the simple belief in the theology; in fact the theology may not even be the most important aspect of the religious experience. It may be convenient to level charges against religion by reducing it to theology, because it is most vulnerable to scientific and philosophical advances. Other important aspects of religion, however — such as the community it creates, the social work it encourages and fosters, the spirituality it engenders through collective singing and shared worship, the psychological preparedness and remedies for common struggles — aren’t the least bit disagreeable and that is probably why they are conveniently ignored in strident atheist criticisms.
Not only is religion in general a victim of straw-man arguments, but so is the diversity of religions and religious people. We must not make the naïve assumption that all religions are the same. Defining religion has been a difficult, if not impossible task for generations, precisely because of the diversity of structures, beliefs, and practices of the world’s religions. Atheist activists often speak of religious people as if they are all dogmatic, anti-science, anti-reason, evangelical social conservatives, an overgeneralization that is wont to needlessly offend the multitudes of moderate, liberal, and / or modern religious peoples out there. We must refrain from engaging in extreme moralization whereby all religious people and their behavior is considered disingenuous at best and repugnant at worst, and believing that atheism is the only justified and morally superior lifestyle.
Historically, the atheist agenda has primarily served to question the established orthodoxies of the time and to promote critical and scientific thought. Presently, however, many are going a step further to try and ‘deconvert’ religious people, a venture that is not only unnecessary but routinely counterproductive. Activist atheist attitudes that are especially condescending have the effect of nullifying the persuasiveness of their claims, regardless of the facts upon which they are based. Confrontational atheists are virtually ineffective at persuading theists that they are wrong, and the atheist’s efforts seem to further entrench theists in their beliefs and attitudes – not to mention increasing their distrust and/or contempt for atheists.
However if atheist activists insist on the critical urgency to draw theists away from their religious beliefs and practices, they would prove far more successful were they to revise their tactics. Theists with strong convictions are for all intents and purposes immune to rational criticism. Wavering theists, on the other hand, perhaps already burdened with doubts regarding the veracity of religious teachings, may be more responsive to atheist critiques if those critiques were supplemented with alternative (i.e. naturalistic) ways of addressing life’s existential and ethical questions. If we are preoccupied with ridiculing religion and its adherents, we are missing genuine opportunities to demonstrate the strength and comprehensiveness of secular humanism. On a similar note, wavering theists will be far more likely to join our ranks if they sense they can be associated with a positive and constructive crowd, not having to choose between the camaraderie of religion and the tenuous animosity of atheism.
A question atheist activists must address is: Would the world necessarily be a better place if all people were atheists? Atheist activists will sometimes espouse the idea that a merciless pursuit of objective knowledge and an abandonment of all unfounded truth assumptions will necessarily lead to a better society. This notion itself is quintessential modernist dogma and ignores the practical experience of belief. The personal benefits of belief come not from the beliefs being based in objective truth per se, but instead from the perception that those beliefs are based in truth – they come from certainty not objective veracity. An honest reflection upon this question of an atheistic society should conclude that no, it would not necessarily be a better one to live in. Atheism by itself does not produce the sustenance that a healthy society thrives on. Democracy, compassion, justice, and progress are not derivatives of atheism. As atheist activists we should recognize that these are in fact humanistic values.
If atheist activists care about progress and the betterment of the human condition, perhaps the ‘deconversion’ of theists should not be prioritized, but instead the promotion of humanistic values. Our socio-political agenda should not include or be premised on the universalization of our atheistic world-view. If the movement is more than apologetics and includes prejudice and proselytization, it is more destructive than worthwhile. Theists can be and often are humanists too, and society is better off for it. Atheist (or secular) humanists and theist humanists each find extremist ideology repulsive and dangerous, and should be willing to work together in stifling its spread.
Contrary to what many believe, atheists and theists alike, a civil and progressive society is possible where atheists and theists live together harmoniously. When atheists and theists get to know each other better, unencumbered by and disabused of stereotypical notions of each other, they often discover that they share many important values. Atheists should be willing to recognize this, and encourage alliances with theists on socio-political issues where they share similar sentiments and goals, including but not limited to the separation of church and state, stewardship of our planet, civil liberties, social services, and curbing extremism. Atheist activists need not be hyperbolic when discussing the fate of science and rationality either, because honest observers will notice that many worthwhile scientific and philosophical contributions have been made by theists or deists. We need not pretend as if we are bound up in some Manicheistic battle between good and evil, a battle between the non-religious and the religious, and adopt the false dichotomies that are typically conjured up in theology. We can live and prosper with those who do or do not believe in god; more importantly, we cannot afford to ignore those who have no respect for human dignity.
Atheist activists should reconsider their priorities and reevaluate their efforts. A sign of maturity for any group is a focus on what they are for rather than what they are not. It often seems as though atheist activists direct more of their attention to religious people rather than to fellow atheists. We are doing ourselves a disservice when we are preoccupied with critiquing religion instead of engaging in dialogue about how atheists can lead positive, fulfilling lives and contribute to a better world.
Let us direct more of our efforts toward helping secular people address the concerns of being secular and human such as death, anxiety, purpose, hope, relationships, parenting, etc. Let us devote more energy toward building up our own monuments rather than tearing down others. Let us affirm our identities and our values in an honest, yet tactful manner. If we want atheists to enjoy a better place in society and to have access to the resources they need to have fruitful lives, then we need to think carefully about our agenda and how we conduct ourselves as public activists.
Andrew Lovley is the founder and former Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists, a student organization at the University of Southern Maine. He holds a B.A. in Psychology, and is currently acting on his humanist values by serving in AmeriCorps as a tutor and mentor in Spokane, Washington.
November 17, 2010
Today’s guest blogger is Nicholas Lang, an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. He’s previously written for NonProphet Status about his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith work, about Park51 and the state of American dialogue and on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:
A couple weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Faith Project with my friend, Miranda. We sat in the back, in close proximity to the tasty treats, and listened to amazing religious people talk about how their backgrounds inspire them to fight for justice and equality for all. Although we stood in solidarity with these interfaith activists, Ms. Hovemeyer and I came from a far different perspective than our religious compatriots did. We both identify as agnostics, and together, we help make up the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago.
And as I expected, one puzzled audience member interrogated us as to our involvement in interfaith. As an agnostic passionate about work erroneously perceived as only involving religious people, I get questions like his all the time: Why do you care about religious work?
And another personal favorite: Aren’t you guys against religion?
A: We’re not.
In fact, Miranda and I both label ourselves as People of Faith, although that faith happens to be an indefinite one. As a Humanist with a Unitarian Universalist background, Miranda’s tradition taught that religions share more commonality than difference. In her understanding, this overlap has the power to unite disparate communities.
Working both in interfaith and within the queer community showed me that we have a duty to build these bridges ourselves. The only way to create tolerance and religious plurality in society is by actively working toward it. I might not have a label to describe what tradition I ascribe to, but I believe in the power of people.
I believe in us.
At an interfaith event that Miranda and I helped moderate last week, we once again stood surrounded by religious people. Organized by the DePaul A.V. Club and DePaul Interfaith, this “Dinner and a Movie with Interfaith” utilized art as dialogue to start a discussion around religious difference. Our screening of the Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter” drew around 50 guests, from an incredible diversity of campus religious groups. Among many others, I stood with Protestants from DePaul InterVarsity, Catholics from University Ministry, Muslims from DePaul’s UMMA organization.
But more importantly, non-religious people joined us at the forefront of this discussion. That evening, we welcomed guests from the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, our university’s organization for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Also known as DAFT, the group is just over a year old and new to interfaith dialogue on campus. The evening’s discussion centered on perspectives on life and the afterlife, and in joining the conversation, I sensed a lot of hurt and resentment from my non-religious friends. As an agnostic, I understood exactly where they were coming from.
I would be lying to you if I told you that religion is always good, that faith always acts as a tool for empowerment. Scott, the evening’s most vocal DAFT member, lamented the damage that religion can inflict when he pointed out that any discussion of a religious afterlife meant little to him. As a gay man, he believed his Catholic background had already condemned him to Hell.
However, something incredible can happen when religion does help people to heal the divides that ail them. Although many of us disagreed about what happens to us when we die, we found out that the value our traditions place on death tells us each something about how to live. For many agnostics and atheists, nothing awaits us after our death, and this reality acts as a powerful incentive to live life to its fullest now. Our school’s UMMA representatives discussed the role of our others in keeping the memory of the departed alive after they die. According to their tradition, we spiritually live on in those we impact in our lifetime.
Whether we were discussing Heaven or a “fluffy Soul Cloud in the sky,” we were articulating the same needs in our lives: the need for purpose, for community, for connectedness. We all desired to find something, whether in this life or this next.
All of us have a role in creating conversations in our lives that work towards creating common ground. At the end of the discussion, Scott asked if those around him felt that all of us could truly be friends, despite our stark ideological divides. The room resoundingly answered yes.
At moments like these, I know that non-religious folks belong in the interfaith movement. If faith is to unite build bridges across faith lines, skeptics have a key role in ensuring that religion acts as a force for good in the world. Although this was not the case when he began working in interfaith, Huffington Post columnist Chris Stedman recently mentioned that we agnostics and atheists are now “hard to miss.” That’s because we have a unique perspective that is increasingly impossible to ignore, even if what we bring to the table can sometimes be difficult to talk about.
And if last week’s event showed anything, there’s another reason that today’s non-religious folks stand out in interfaith work:
We’re helping lead it.
Nicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.
November 5, 2010
Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), calls out Bill Maher for his recent narrow-minded comments on Islam. All the more, it’s a call to action — and one I plan on participating in. Take it away, Frank!
Last Friday on Bill Maher’s show on HBO, he had an epiphany that should trouble many of us. After discovering that the various spellings of Mohamed together comprised the most popular name for baby boys in the United Kingdom, he claimed he was “alarmed” and later divulged, “I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”
Now, I know that Bill Maher has it out for all faiths. I saw his feature-length documentary, Religulous, where he found ignorant religious people to mock, and his spurn for faith leaves no religion untouched. However, I think for many religious and non-religious people alike, whose faith and intellect are not at odds, it is time to challenge Bill Maher.
I think he makes two errors that undermine the ethos of pluralism in America. Firstly, naming your child with a religious name doesn’t necessitate faithful devotion in the child’s life. I know plenty of Marys who avoid mass, Sauls who rarely go to synagogue, and yes, even Mohameds who really love bacon on their cheeseburgers.
The second issue is that Bill Maher implicitly proposes that religious observance of Islam is a threat to Western Civilization. This assumption of incapability of faith and patriotism is the same crime committed by the groups he makes a living mocking. We have an opportunity to reveal to Bill Maher that one’s religious observance is not a hindrance to patriotism.
Since Maher already made it clear that he isn’t interested in apologizing for his statements, I think we can one up him. Religious Freedom USA is announcing a campaign, asking people to email Bill Maher a story about a person you know named Mohamed. Perhaps your friend Mohamed is religious, non-observant or converted to another faith. Maybe Mohamed has an accent, whether an Indian accent, or a Brooklyn accent. Whoever your friend is, share with Bill Maher how your friend’s name has not somehow caused him to inadvertently undermine the foundation of Western Civilization, and that he’s even a productive member of society.
This is important here and now in America. Genuine Islamophobia is becoming increasingly frequent and its perpetrators unrepentant. Given the climate for such inflammatory language, this poses an opportunity to reframe the discussion on Islam in America, with a human face of our Muslim friends and neighbors.
We’ve written detailed instructions on the RFUSA website, which you can use to email and send your friends. If he gets a thousand emails from all of us, perhaps Bill Maher will rethink his sloppy analysis of Islam in America.
Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine and Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and works as an Online Marketing Consultant.
October 28, 2010
The latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a wonderful submission by Jonathan S. Myerov. Jonathan’s post was a runner-up in our Share Your Secular Story contest, and it is a beautiful exposition on atheism, family, and how ultimately, in spite of our different beliefs, we must work and live together. Thank you to Jonathan for this entry!
Leo Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina by observing that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Similarly, every atheist has a unique story. Each of us becomes unhappy in religion in our own way.
Now, “unhappy in religion” deserves some explanation because it does not mean unhappy with everything or unhappy with life. On the contrary, the atheists I know are as happy as anybody. Personally, I am a happy guy, and — it may surprise some to learn — I have never felt oppressed by Judaism, the religion I was born into.
For most of my life I associated Judaism with the happiness of spending time with family. When I was growing up, I loved to pray and sing in temple alongside my father. I enjoyed being with him and hearing his beautiful tenor voice. This past winter, I brought my wife and three children to my brother’s home for Hanukkah. All of us — including my father and mother, my brothers and their families—sang together and had a delightful time. Such experiences have been typical. So many cherished moments of family togetherness in my life have happened under the pretense of Jewish observance.
But I was unhappy in religion because it yielded no satisfactory answers to my questions. If Judaism was true, why wasn’t Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? Why was God so present in the lives of Biblical people and so absent in the lives of modern people? Why did the Bible repeat itself in some places and contradict itself in others? Why did so much disagreement exist over the correct interpretation of biblical passages? Where and how were the books of the Bible written? By whom were they written, and for whom?
I wanted answers, not atheism. Yet the more I investigated, I found only one answer fitting the information before me: God and the Bible were the products of human thought and human desire. This conclusion came to me after many years and several intellectual wanderings, through graduate school and finally through a brief period when I sought to live as authentically a Jewish life as I could. During this later time, I devotedly studied the Bible and the wisdom of the Jewish sages. I prayed several times daily, and I observed the Sabbath.
Yet, I was unhappy in religion. I loved my family and treasured the heritage of my ancestors, but I could no longer pretend that Jewish belief engaged my curiosity, passion, and character. And so I began to self-identify as an atheist.
Very little has happened since then.
Wait. That’s not quite true. Some of my family members did not like pro-atheist material I posted on Facebook. My wife, still a theist, raised concerns that a rift might develop between our children and me. But these flare-ups were minor, and they settled into nothing very quickly.
Why? Because we are family. In the end, our being family and our being together has trumped everything, even our views on a supreme being of the universe. So what that I don’t think the world was literally created in six days? So what that you believe the Exodus really happened? More important is whether you’re going to come over to celebrate the two-year-old’s birthday or whether I will help you put up the drywall in your basement. The truly meaningful question is whether we see one another as family or not. The real question we all must answer is whether we will treat and appreciate one another as family.
My atheism has helped me to appreciate life as it really is, the life that happens before us every minute of the day. Every day is a holiday. Everything about us and around us is grand and miraculous. While some thank God for life, I thank people — those who have passed, are passing, and are yet to come.
We believe (in) many stories, ideas, and scenarios. We segregate ourselves in ways that are sometimes logical and sometimes curious. We have many ways to be happy and many more to be unhappy. In any case, we are the only help available to ourselves, as Carl Sagan so eloquently reminds us in Pale Blue Dot:
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
I am happier making a stand and happier in unbelief. For me, that stand begins by answering yes to atheism’s best question to the world: “Are we family or not?”
Jon Myerov works as a senior proposal lead for a Boston-based robotics company. He is also currently preparing a dissertation in Anglo-Saxon literature and textuality. A married father of three children, he teaches English literature and composition at Middlesex Community College. He has also helped research, write, and edit popular books on science, religion and ancient beliefs. He can be contacted via email at jbmyerov [at] hotmail [dot] com.
October 20, 2010
Hey everyone! Please check out my newest blog for the Huffington Post Religion. This one, like the last, ended up getting so many comments that it was promoted to the front page of the Huffington Post, and was Monday’s #1 most commented on article for the entire site. With 2,000 comments and counting, I again don’t know where to begin responding (especially during an even busier week than last!). I’m so grateful that my writing seems to be initiating a much-needed conversation, but it’s meant that things are much busier these days, making getting much else done difficult. Anyway, here’s a selection; the piece can be read in full over at the Huffington Post:
Last Friday, a New York Times headline declared: “Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be.” This ongoing debate among atheists — “Just how much should we confront the religious?” — is nowhere near resolution.
Last year when I visited Minnesota to spend the winter holidays with my family, I spoke with a Christian friend about my budding efforts as an atheist promoting religious tolerance and interfaith work. She too was excited about the idea of bringing people together around shared values in spite of religious differences, but near the end of our conversation she asked me a pointed question: “I’m a little confused. Isn’t part of being an atheist trying to talk people out of their faith?” Continue reading at the Huffington Post.