A Place at the Table

November 1, 2010

The latest in our ongoing series of guest posts is adapted from a talk given by my friend James Croft at the Congress on the Future of Faith at Harvard (which I was lucky enough to see in person). There’s so much I could say about this, but I think it speaks for itself. A monumental piece that is both important and timely. Check it out:

tableI’m James, and I’m a choirboy. You can probably tell—something about my angelic features, and the slight haze of a halo above my head. And as a kid I loved singing in Sunday Service. I loved the sense of ritual, the quiet aura of the space, but most of all I loved the singing:

[Sung]

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

I remember once going up to the altar to be blessed—something I didn’t usually do. I could see the Reverend moving down the line of children with their heads bowed, placing his hand upon their heads, the smell of incense in the air. And when he got to me, the Reverend pressed really hard, as if he was trying to squeeze God into me. And I wondered: perhaps he knows I don’t believe.

You see, I’m an Atheist. I grew up in a happy nonreligious family. My values come from the rational, pluralistic vision of Star Trek (in fact I’m convinced I’m named not after the King James Bible but after James T Kirk). I used to watch the stars with my grandfather, visit the planetarium with him, listen to Carl Sagan, and contemplate the wonder of the universe—no God included.

So it’s a little strange that I should be here, speaking with you today. I am a representative of the faithless at a gathering of the faithful. What am I doing here? This is a question that another of our attendees, Chris Stedman, an atheist and a leader in the Interfaith movement, regularly encounters.

I’m here because, in the UK, my atheism was never a problem. I debated spiritedly with people of all religious faiths, and found my position, generally, respected. I had a place at the table. Then, I came to the USA. And here, in my first few weeks at Harvard, I met a fellow graduate student in the canteen of my dorm.

“You don’t believe in God? Are you serious?” He laughed uproariously, flinging his hands into the air before slapping them down onto the table which sat between us, causing the glasses on our canteen trays to ring, our cutlery to jump. “So, what? You think that all this“—he gestured expansively, encompassing all of everything with his arms—”just sprang up out of nothing, with no reason behind it?” I wish now that I had given a more eloquent response than a surprised “Yes!”, my eyebrows raised in astonishment.

I remember my fellow Harvard graduate student prodding at my beliefs as if I was some strange, exotic curio, asking “If you don’t believe in God, where do your morals come from?”, and “Isn’t your life meaningless without an Ultimate Purpose” (the capitals were clearly indicated by the portentous way in which the words “ultimate” and “purpose” were intoned). If I were someone inclined to take offense, it strikes me that these could be seen as extremely offensive questions, implying as they do that the only route to a moral life is through religion, and that my nonreligious worldview must therefore be ethically deficient and devoid of meaning.

After four years living in the States, however, I am no longer surprised when I hear such sentiments expressed. Instead, horrifyingly, I am sometimes relieved if the worst someone has to say to me about my worldview is that it must lead to an amoral and meaningless existence. Why? Because, since then, I have come face to face with many more egregious and insidious examples of prejudice against Humanists, agnostics, and the nonreligious.

I have heard televangelists shriek that people who are not traditionally religious are responsible for social breakdown, crime, and natural disasters. I have heard news reporters casually describe nonreligious people as de-facto supporters of Stalinism and Nazism. I have noted how it seems impossible for a nonbeliever to be elected to high office in this country, and how public declarations of religious faith are required by those aiming highest.

The effect of all this hit me when I met Bill on a Secular Service trip to New Orleans. Bill attends Humanist meetings but refuses to pose for group photographs because he fears, should his atheism be revealed, that he would lose his job.

And seeing all this made me want to work harder for Humanism, brought me to Greg and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and called me to apply to become a Humanist Chaplain myself. And my relationship with the Humanist Chaplaincy has been profound: it was on the same service trip where I met Bill that I was able to resolve my struggles around my sexuality and come out as a gay man. So I have much to thank the Humanist community for, this group of atheists who helped me find myself.

Now, not all of us are atheists—in fact I imagine there are very few here! But all of us, even though we’re committed to different issues and different values, want our story to be heard. We don’t want to be dismissed. We don’t want anyone to tell us, just because of the values we espouse, or our faith. that we aren’t worth listening to.

That commitment—that everyone should be heard, and no one left out of the cultural discussion—is part of the founding principles of this country which, for now at least, we all call home. In America, we’re all part of a remarkable experiment—a country in which people can believe what they choose, can strive for their own version of the good, can pursue their idea of happiness, and will not be excluded because of their beliefs. That’s why the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and made the long, dangerous journey to these shores, landing not so far from where we stand today.

That’s why I found it so shocking when I heard Rick Warren had said, during the last presidential election, “I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says…I’m totally self-sufficient by myself. And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”

I want you to imagine that that Warren had been talking about your faith group. I could not vote for a Catholic. I could not vote for a Jew. I could not vote for a Muslim. A Hindu. A Sikh, a Buddhist or an Anglican. Can you imagine the uproar that such a statement would cause? I think that the principles which beckoned the pilgrims across the ocean, which enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to practice their faith, should protect atheists and Humanists, too.

I think that wherever we find our spiritual calling whether it’s the song of the muezzin or the lure of a star-dusted sky, we deserve to be heard. And that’s why interfaith discussion is important, and why it must include people like me.

And interfaith discussion particularly matters now, at this moment. Because, let’s face it, the dialogue around religion in this country is broken, and not just the dialogue between religious and nonreligious people.

Certainly, I think of the fact that there is, and only ever has been, one openly atheist member of Congress, and no openly atheist Senators. None.

But I also think of Pastor Terry Jones, who thought it would be a good idea to pile high copies of the Koran and set them alight, or protesters who rented decommissioned missiles and pointed them at a Muslim cultural center and mosque in New York City.

There are two potential responses to this. We could get angry, atheists tearing down religious political candidates, or Muslims burning copies of the bible, in an ever-escalating war of words and actions that brings us all down. We could all get our own missile.

Or we could get smart, and begin to engage with each other in a more respectful and productive way.

We are the perfect people to do this: in this room are the leaders of the future. Politicians, faith leaders, business leaders: people who will be in a position to influence discussions around faith in this country.

And now is the time to do this. Right here, right now, when we’re all gathered together in one room—a remarkable and rare opportunity to engage with each other, to come to know each other more deeply.

So I’m asking you to dig deep, for all our sakes. Share your story, honestly and openly, and listen to the stories of people who disagree with you, profoundly. And we will disagree—I, for my own part, am skeptical about the future for faith at Harvard. And, as a gay man, I know there are people in this room who hold beliefs I find profoundly difficult. But, instead of sitting at home and complaining, or speaking just to those who agree with me, I came here. Because I know how important it is to be involved in the discussion. So don’t hide your differences, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to give of yourself, and be brave enough to listen. If we can do this I see a future in which, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, Jains can all sit around a table, breaking bread together. No more piles of the Koran, waiting to be set alight. No more missiles pointed at mosques. And, perhaps, and atheist Senator or two.

This post originally appeared on The New Humanism.

James CroftJames Croft is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he studies Human Development. He is a vice-chair of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, where he works closely with Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy, and is an editor of the Humanist Chaplaincy’s online magazine The New Humanism.

Atheism’s Happy Family

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!

Jon's family

Jon's family

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 MyerovJon 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.

“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” – Carl Sagan, Wonder & Skepticism

“Holy shit,” he said. “That is a dead body underneath that tarp.”

It was a Sunday morning. The air was quiet; many Columbus residents, I imagine, were seated in church pews. Nat and I were leaving the hotel where we’d spent the weekend and headed to the Ohio State University for the final day of the 2010 Secular Student Alliance (SSA) National Conference. We were in a hurry – conference proceedings were to begin at 10:30 AM with a panel on interfaith, and I was on said panel.

We were very glad to be leaving this particular hotel. Our room smelled like a wet dog, the carpet was sticky, and every available piece of fabric was stained. We aren’t high maintenance – just last month we slept on the ground for five days while camping in the mountains – but this place was something else. To cope with the horror we felt about being stuck there, we spent the weekend jokingly referring to it as the “Murder 8.” As we packed our things and went to check out, we made one last joke to bid the hotel farewell and alleviate the nervousness I experience anytime I do public speaking. “Bye bye, Murder 8,” we chuckled.

Boy, did we eat our words when we stepped into that rainy Sunday morning and saw yellow police tape outside our room’s window, crime scene investigators busily snapping shots, and a single hand protruding from beneath a blue plastic sheet.

Neither of us knew what to do. There was nothing to do, really, except get in the car. Man, I spend too much time worrying about minute things, I mused as we drove away, sick to our stomachs.

Trying to put the image out of my mind, I readied myself to talk about secular participation in the interfaith movement. The panel was comprised of myself, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work with Atheists named Jonathan Weyer, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics. During the panel, I spoke strongly in favor of interfaith cooperation and why I think it is important for secular folks to engage with religious communities in a respectful manner. I thought it went really well, but I admit I was surprised at the end when a significant number of the questions during the Q&A were directed only at me and seemed a bit pointed.

After the panel was done and the panelists had all shaken hands and expressed our mutual gratitude, several students approached me and asked me to denounce things some of my interfaith allies have said about Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). I said that I could not – and then everyone was asked to be seated for the next session. I never got the chance to reconnect with these students as I had to catch an early flight home. I can’t help but feel bad about the anger they expressed and my inability to offer anything to soothe them.

Noticing a trend here? Humor, shock, nervousness, anger: experiences get processed through emotions. They were the cornerstone of the conference experience; both my own – the friendships I built, the anxiety I felt before speaking, the shock of a random death – and those of others – the impassioned questions, the anger and hurt of some students, and the community constructed. Whatever we do, emotions narrate our experiences and guide our actions.

Perhaps it is useful at this point to share an illuminating conversation I had with a man I now count as a personal friend: Jesse Galef, Communications Director for the SSA, adjunct blogger for The Friendly Atheist, and stellar breakdancer. Ours has been an evolving dialogue: it started at the SSA New England Leadership Summit I attended this past April, continued during a conference call we were both on around EDMD, and most recently extended before an audience at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference last month where we were on a panel together.

During a break in the conference schedule Jesse and I returned to this ongoing conversation on our different approaches – what are often caricatured as “aggressive” Atheism and “accommodationism” – and why we practice them. At one point in the conversation, Jesse identified his number one goal as working toward a world rooted in “rationality.” I’m not sure why I didn’t fully recognize this before, but that is not a goal we share. I’m more interested in cultivating communities and relationships that develop broad coalitions of solidarity across identified lines of difference. Relationships of mutuality and respect. Relationships that account for – you guessed it – emotion.

Our approaches are different because our end goals are different. We both believe we are being pragmatic; it’s just that I pragmatically don’t think a solely “rational” world is achievable. Nor, emotionally, do I think it is preferable. Emotions do and always will play a sizable role in the decisions we make, and I think that when we try to divorce our actions from our emotions and rest entirely on “reason,” we end up making pretty irrational decisions.

panel

Three fourths of the interfaith panel. (photo c/o Roy Natian)

Take, for example, a recent blog post by my fellow panelist Hemant Mehta, who is also on the SSA’s Board of Directors. Writing about Anne Rice’s declaration that, though she still believes in Christ, she can no longer identify as a Christian due to the tradition’s historical bigotry, Hemant dismissed her statement and said he’d “pay more attention” if she abandoned her religious beliefs altogether. As Skeptigirl’s response post wisely notes, Hemant displays zero compassion in this reflection. There’s no sign of sympathy or even a practical appreciation for the ways in which her move advances our cause. There’s no emotion there, only superiority.

I love the Secular Student Alliance because they empower young people to create communities. They do such important work, and I am honored to be a member, contribute to the eMpirical, and speak at their conference. I celebrate where our ambitions overlap – I too want to see more secular students be vocal about our identity and actively create communities. But where we diverge is that I worry about the identity we model when engaging in things like EDMD, a contentious issue that came up several times throughout the conference and repeatedly in our interfaith panel.

I walked away from the conference solid in my conviction that things like EDMD and Blasphemy Day are bad for our community because they symbolize our worst characteristics and attempts at emotion-denying: a tendency toward intellectual superiority and a struggle to empathize with different experiences and identities (these go hand in hand). We say “it’s just humor” as if everyone should be expected to see the joke in how we mock their central tenants. I can’t help but notice in this a stark difference between humor that elucidates a truth and humor that just dehumanizes.

I’m proud of my non-religious identity but I also know that secularism is a sign of profound privilege, and we ought to exercise caution in how we navigate this reality. As Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry, keynote speaker Greta Christina, and others rightly noted, our movement is dominated by upper-class, educated, heterosexual white men. Why is this? Most people do not have the luxury of sitting around debating the existence of God, let alone taking an entire weekend to attend a conference on secularism, because they are preoccupied by just trying to live, to eat, to survive. Some reconcile the struggles and challenges of their existence with a belief in God.

I don’t think we need to treat “believing something different” and “sharing in humanity” as mutually exclusive entities. Our secularism needn’t deprive those who do not share in it of their dignity. We have the luxury of being able to devote our time to critical thinking and inquiry, so let’s use them for good. Let’s stop seeing the world in dichotomies of black and white, right and wrong, rational and emotional, secular and “delusional.” They just aren’t very useful; the world is full of information and we shouldn’t close ourselves off from any of it by thinking we’ve reached “the truth” while boasting that others haven’t. We must always aim for empathy and humility, not unabashed assuredness. If we cannot, we are just as guilty of what we accuse the evangelical religious of – exclusive truth claims that promote oppression.

Instead of cracking so many jokes at another’s expense, let’s listen to more stories, like the one my mother shared on this blog about how she learned to embrace the legitimacy of choices that differed from her own. As Eboo Patel, April Kunze and Noah Silverman write in Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work: “Personal storytelling moves the encounter from competing notions of ‘Truth’ to varied human experiences of life, which possess the unique quality of being both infinite and common.” If we tell our stories and listen to those of others, we’re likely to learn a lot.

We may not believe in souls but we can be soulful. Let’s stop focusing so much energy on how we are “right” and on “promoting rationality,” lest we forget about our hearts. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive either. To quote from something I’ve written before:

My mom occasionally recounts a story about me as a child, a time I corrected a kid at a birthday party for calling sherbet “ice cream.” She always laughs when she tells it… As you might guess, in my youth being “right” held ultimacy. I corrected everyone who I felt was “wrong.” With age and experience, my perspective has shifted. I do believe it is better to be “good” than to be “right.”

I may not always get this right, but I’m trying to practice what I preach the best that I can. It helps me to ask in any given situation that begins to move into conflict: isn’t being loving more important than being “right”? A quick perusal of human history shows that when one person’s idea of “rationality” trumps basic human decency for others, we all suffer. Let’s learn from our mutual past.

Today I am not spending my time worrying about the folks who offered negative appraisal of my comments during the interfaith panel. I think instead of the family of that nameless person killed outside of my hotel.

I wonder how they are coping; I wonder if they are praying. I could understand if that family was appealing to a God in the face of such tragedy – I remember only too well the times I turned to God when experiencing loss.

Ask yourself this: if they are turning to God to process this experience, would you go up to them and tell them that they are wrong? Foolish? Deluded?

I shudder at that thought almost as much as I do the unshakable image of that blue tarp with a single hand exposed, reaching out for something. What he was reaching for we cannot know, but we can feel it if we try.

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