Today’s guest post comes from Kelsey Sheridan, a student at Northwestern University. Kelsey has done amazing things, working with diverse groups ranging from Christian Ministries, multiple interfaith organizations, College Feminists, and Planned Parenthood. Today, she brings her skills as a bridge builder to an insightful exploration of interfaith from an atheist’s perspective:

open bibleFirst off, let me say that I’m really flattered to have been asked to do a guest post for NonProphet Status. As a way of introduction: I’m an atheist who lives in a campus ministry building and am a reader of NPS — so you can probably gather that I believe in interfaith.

People are always asking me, with varying levels of politeness, what role can atheists play in interfaith work? And why on earth would it interest us in the first place?

The answer to the first question is simple. I have found that atheists play the same role as any other person of any of other faith would in the interfaith process. We help out where needed, observe, learn, and share our opinions where appropriate.

The second question is a little more nuanced. Secularists have a wide spectrum of thoughts and experiences that bring us to the interfaith table. For me interfaith work is attractive mostly in the efficiency with which faith-based initiatives address social needs. Why would any secular person interested in helping others ignore the thorough frameworks already in place simply because they came from religious people? Social problems are looming and I see no reason to avoid a long-established, well-meaning systems.

But on a less practical note, I’m fascinated by the balance between abandoning and understanding my preconceptions. When I’m engaged in interfaith dialogue, I am continually aware of my preconceptions as well as constantly challenging them.

As an example I want to share the biblical passage I read last night. I randomly opened to Isaiah 25 and when I first read it, I have to admit that only the bolded words jumped out at me:

1 O LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you and praise your name,

for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

2 You have made the city a heap of rubble,
the fortified city a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
it will never be rebuilt
.

3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of
ruthless nations will fear you.

4 For you have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

5 the noise of the aliens like heat in a dry place,
You subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; The song of the
ruthless was stilled

6 On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;

8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
and the
disgrace of his people he will take away
from all the earth.
for he LORD has spoken.

9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so
that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

10 For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trampled down in a dung-pit.

11 They will spread out their hands in the midst of it,
as a swimmer spreads out their hands to swim.
their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands.

12 The high fortifications of his walls will be brought
down, laid low, cast to the ground, even to the dust
.

When I read this I saw only a harsh, exclusionist view of God… and I totally missed the point of the passage. I’m not trying to gloss over the fact that this passage uses harsh language or that it presents the Israelites’ enemies as toiling in a pile of shit. But what I’m trying to say is that this Old Testament passage also promises a haven for the poor and needy, safety and comfort for “all people.”

My alliance with people of faith comes from my desire to see the poor and needy living in comfort and safety, a desire that this passage articulates. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible’s stories, you can’t deny its power. In the face of problems that are so entrenched, it is comforting to know that something as big as the Bible is on my side. While justice and equality serve as abstract greater goals, I am aware of their near impossibility. In the meantime, I enjoy stepping out of the limitations of my head and into the wider interfaith community to benefit from its enrichment.

Kelsey SheridanKelsey Sheridan is a junior at Northwestern University where she majors in journalism and religious studies. Although originally from South Florida, she’s enjoying living in Chicago and working with the Interfaith Youth Core and University Christian Ministry.

It’s been a long minute since I’ve done one of these, so I’m bringing it back. Below, some recent highlights (and lowlights) relevant to secularism, interfaith and religion:

psych todayWill Atheism replace religion? That’s the claim made by Nigel Barber over at Psychology Today. What do you think? His points are well made, but I don’t agree with all of them. Religion meets some fundamental needs and is continuing to adapt to contemporary context, as it always has. His portrayal of religion as “[requiring] slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs” does not accurately represent the way that religion functions today. That aside, a myriad of psychological studies demonstrate that religion has become an integral component to individual and communal identification for many (as I learned in my second Psychology of Religion course this last semester) and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Ultimately, the relationship between religion and psychological wish fulfillment is a bit more complex than this article would like to make it seem. As a starting point for a more well-balanced counter-argument, check out this brief introductory piece on ways in which religion is psychologically beneficial.

Everybody’s Talkin’ ’bout Chalkin’ as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD) debate continues. After my blog post on the campaign a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working closely with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) on how secular folks who penaren’t interested in engaging in this campaign can best respond in light of the awful vitriol it has inspired on the internet. The Young Turks took on IFYC’s Eboo Patel’s post that went up on the Huffington Post, Sojourners and the Washington Post (in which my blog post on the controversy was given a nod). The critiques they make of Eboo’s blog can essentially be boiled down to: “You’re offended? Get over it.” I find this operating position, which I identified as a common problem in our community in my initial post on EDMD, to be arrogant and demonstrative of a lack of personal responsibility. Additionally, The Young Turks raise the comparison of EDMD to drawing offensive images of African Americans and say that it isn’t an appropriate parallel because Blacks have faced a history of violence and subjugation in this country. But this point collapses in on itself precisely because Muslims are a minority group in America that is a frequent target of oppression. This is an important point to remember as we consider this issue. Our free speech does not occur in a vacuum; in fact, activities such as EDMD are innately and intentionally public. It is our responsibility to acknowledge context and weigh our actions in light of it. I have so much more I could say on this subject, but since I already said my peace, I’ll stop here — for now. For more information on this issue, check out IFYC’s resource (which I helped write and which borrows its title from my blog post).

The rest: First off, I can’t recommend enough a piece up over at the New Republic called “Another Kind of Atheism”  by Damon Linker. Read it and let me know what you think. After that, I’m happy to report that Bill Maher got schooled on his miss usaantagonistic Atheism — I’ll try to hide my grin. Secular Student Alliance intern Nate Mauger got interviewed by Bridge Builders about the guest piece he wrote for us on interfaith cooperation. I “interviewed” homosexuality and the Bible documentary Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens for The New Gay (part 1 went up last week, part two goes up next). On less exciting fronts, tensions are high in France as they prepare to ban the Burka. In spite of what a good story it would make, the majority of mainstream media ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber is himself a Muslim. The political Right is up in arms over Muslim Miss USA Rima Fikah. And, finally, the angry robocallers struck again last Wednesday with three calls in one night. I’m still no closer to finding out who they are and feeling more and more like I have a stalker — especially since they called me back right after I tweeted about them saying they read my tweet. So I blocked the number. What now, robocallers?

atheist nexusThe other day I began a conversation on the Nonreligious social networking website Atheist Nexus that I (admittedly cheekily) titled “I love religion.” In my initial post, I identified what I saw as a disconcerting amount of religious prejudice taking place on the website and attempted to offer up a perfunctory defense of some of religion’s positive attributes. My intent was two-fold: primarily, I was seeking out other secularists who were sympathetic to religious aims, values, and people; secondarily, however, I hoped to prompt a thoughtful dialogue around the issue of Nonreligious attitudes toward religion. Unsurprisingly, a robust debate followed.

With a looming thesis deadline, I’ve unfortunately had to abandon the conversation. But I wanted to share some some selections from the ensuing debate. It is not my intention to give a lopsided representation of the exchanges; however, I didn’t want to just copy and paste the entire thing (because that would be extremely long). I hope these selections will give you a sense of what transpired. The portions I’ve chosen are, in my opinion, the most provocative counter-arguments to my initial post, and my responses. After the selections, I’ve offered some concluding reflections. Read the rest of this entry »

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