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 workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:

HereafterA 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.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

NickNicholas 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.

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Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a re-feature from Tikkun Daily by Jorge Cino. Jorge is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern and a NonProphet Status reader, and it’s a total pleasure to refeature his work here. His post is in honor of National Coming Out Day, and though “spiritual” is a dirty word to some atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other nonreligious people, it is an important and worthwhile read about coming out and how rejecting religion impacts the queer community. Check it out — the original post can be read here — and many thanks to Jorge for offering to share his work with NonProphet Status.

umbrellasFor those of us who have come out of the closet, National Coming Out Day – which is being internationally celebrated today – is a good reminder of the spiritual journey each of us have undergone since the fateful day we decided to say, “Enough. I am who I am, and from today onwards I will live by it.”

The idea that coming out is a defining spiritual moment in a person’s life is not something you’ll find in mainstream LGBT discourse. Understandably so, of course: those who control religious discourse in America and elsewhere have done a tremendously effective job at turning gay people against organized religion. Ask a gay guy if they believe in God and an overwhelming majority of them will say, “I don’t think so,” or “No, I don’t.”

In reality, what they are rejecting is the entire cauldron of anti-gay sentiment that classmates, relatives, priests, politicians, etc. have been unloading in our ears since we were born. It is no surprise then that a lot of us in the gay community have gone as far as rejecting religion and faith all together. (The question here would be, “What has the LGBT community replaced religious virtue with?” The answers to that question would merit another post.)

It’s a clear case of blaming the sinner instead of the sin. Because we hear the Pope saying grotesque lies about homosexuality, because the Mormon Church donates exorbitant amounts of resources to statefederal, and even international anti-gay initiatives, or because many evangelicals go out of their way to vote against our rights, the majority of us get so frustrated, so infuriated, that we decide that religion as a whole is inherently wrong; a harmful man-made power tool; a below-par way of thinking.

And yet, whether we like it or not, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, and subsequently coming and living “out” in a society that by and large is still religious – those are all experiences that test our relationship with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. But why are we letting them thwart our relationship to a higher power, or a higher way of living? Why are we letting bigots strip us of our faith, whatever our faith is?

Being “out” should not necessarily mean breaking away from religion, God, or faith. On the contrary, it could be an opportunity to positively rethink your personal relationship to your god, to respectfully and fully engage in spiritual conversations with yourself and others, and to learn how to live in love and kindness. Gay people, contrary to mainstream conservative diatribe, are looking for happiness and fulfillment just like anyone else. We want equality for us and for everyone else. We defend freedom and kindness and respect for all beings. We have and continue to work hard to build a community that is supportive of those individuals who are going through special struggles, whether it be AIDS, substance abuse, depression, discrimination–you name it, we have support groups and organizations for all of them.

How much easier would it be for a gay man to go to take a good second look at the sacred text of his family’s religion and study it under this his “new” worldview? How much more quickly could we gay folks win over the religious middle if we engaged in healthy, constructive conversations with them about religion and faith, instead of antagonizing with them? Or how much easier would it be for someone who is really struggling with his coming out experience to look at it as an opportunity to test her fears and doubts, and make a commitment to be loving and kind with those people who she thinks will not accept her?

I am sure most straight Tikkun readers have reflected on these issues, but if you haven’t lately, this might be a good time to do so. How can you be more empathetic and show more support to a colleague, a child, or a neighbor who is gay? Let’s remember that they who are different depend on the “other’s” willingness to listen and engage with them. They will live a better life (including, perhaps, a more spiritual life) if you show an interest to integrate them fully into your life.

jorgeJorge M. Cino is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern, and a recent graduate from University of San Francisco. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he has lived in the Bay Area for the past six years. He is passionate about social justice; here, there, and everywhere.

Today’s entry in our series of guest posts is by Bruce Johansen, a prolific freelance writer who also happens to be my first cousin once removed! You may remember my Mom’s guest post on NPS — it’s a family affair here. To that effect, Bruce offers a poignant and illuminating look into the recent memorial service for his father and the role religion did (and didn’t) play in planning it. It’s a real honor to share this affecting and insightful writing with you today — thank you for sharing this moving piece with us, Bruce.

“There Won’t Be Anything”

I remember it vividly. We were in the kitchen doing dishes, when my father said something that I could not quite follow.

“I guess there won’t be anything for me when I’m gone.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“No funeral or service,” he clarified.

Still not sure I understood, I pressed him further: “Why wouldn’t there be a service?”

“Well,” he replied, “your mother and I haven’t belonged to a church in years.”

Bruce and father

Celebrating one of my father's last birthdays.

It was true. My parents had stopped attending church years (actually decades) ago, and at some point my father, for whom religion had once seemed most important, had drifted away from it completely. Even so, I assured my dad that having severed that relationship was no reason to think that there would be no service. We knew several people who could put together something wonderful and meaningful. It would not be religious in the traditional sense (no God language or prayer, for example) but it would serve many of the same functions.

In hindsight I wish that I had followed up with more questions. What would he like to have included in a service — readings, pieces of music, stories? I also found myself wondering what had become of the Christian beliefs that had seemed so important for much of his life, back when he prayed before holiday meals and attended church faithfully. At the time, however, I was mostly relieved that I had put his mind at ease.

When the Time Came

One night in June, a couple of years after that exchange, my father died. Since January 2008 he had suffered a series of physical setbacks, including two fractured hips and a stroke. As his health deteriorated, he often expressed his desire to die. Still, upon receiving the news, we as a family found ourselves unprepared, both emotionally and in practical ways. Suddenly we were confronted with the reality of his absence, and by numerous tasks that were new to us, many involving finances and stacks of paperwork. Fortunately we had a trusted financial advisor we could lean on for advice about that sort of thing. What was not so clear was how to mark my dad’s passing.

In families that have a strong connection to church, a funeral or memorial service is less of a quandary. The church is notified and conversations are held, hopefully with a trusted pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or someone in a comparable role. In most traditions, a service is scheduled, most often for the following week. There are certain prescribed rituals; expected music, commonly shared words. But what happens when that connection to church is lacking, and when members of the immediate family hold views about religion that range from humanist to agnostic to atheist? That was the context in which we, as a family, began our conversations about how to mark this chapter.

With few models to work with, two family members suggested that we think of the event as a “celebration of life.” Initially it was thought that this celebration would be held outdoors, in a park along the Mississippi River that in recent years had become a favorite site for family gatherings. An aunt who had planned and led two services — one for her mother who had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and the other for a dear friend who had committed suicide — could officiate. The service itself would be shaped around the sharing of stories. Most importantly, it would not be generic and impersonal.

While we liked the spirit that my family wanted to capture, my partner and I had our share of concerns. Some were logistical. Would elderly friends and relatives be able to hear if it were held outdoors? Would people find the spot and would it be easy to navigate? What if the day happened to be rainy or overly hot? Anything was possible in Minnesota in late August. After mulling over those questions, a decision was made to hold the service in the chapel at Macalester College, my father’s alma mater.

The next decision proved trickier. While I had no doubt that my aunt would do a wonderful job preparing and officiating, I thought that there could be some wisdom in inviting friends who had professional training and experience planning such events. From services I had attended, the best helped loved ones remember the person who had died and confront some of the deeper issues and questions that all of us face about mortality and the meaning of life. After some initial hesitancy, other family members consented, and I invited the assistance of two people in addition to my aunt, Susie: a good friend, Rod, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and another, Marilaurice, who is a long-time Catholic liturgist. All three would guide us.

The Potential Gift of Religious Practice

service

Pictured (from left): Rev. Rod Richards, UU minister; Marilaurice Hemlock, Catholic liturgist; Susie Stedman, experienced service leader; Carol Johansen, the author’s mother; nieces Erin Collins and Michelle Collins Zhao, and Bruce Johansen, all of whom joined Rod Richards and Susie Stedman in reading the story of the author’s father’s life.

As planning proceeded, the main challenge was to design a celebration that would prove meaningful, while not setting off alarms for the most anti-religious among us. Some family members lump all religion together with the most literal, fundamentalist brand. As for me, I have a longstanding appreciation of humanist religions. I also know many people who identify with and derive meaning from more traditional religions, who are smart and thoughtful, and who have a negotiated relationship with their religion. They may appreciate religion in metaphorical, not literal ways, or find in some of its parables useful lessons for how to be in the world, while rejecting other texts. Many of these people seem well grounded, fight for social justice, and treat others with an inspiring compassion, kindness, and love.

Those of us who hold a more nuanced view know that while religion can be a source of great suffering and terrible violence in the world, it can also elicit the best in people. And, as this story shows, religion — including the humanist variety that I am most comfortable with — also has the capacity to help people navigate the most difficult moments and questions in their lives.

What evolved from working with three people who possessed the right blend of skills and sensitivity was exactly the kind of celebration I had envisioned, and proved to be more than what my family had hoped for. The groundwork was laid through phone calls, email exchanges, and an initial planning session that brought the minister and liturgist, my mother, partner, and me together around a table on a Saturday afternoon. That casual exchange led to many good ideas being bandied about. By the end of our session the order of service was nearly set and to everyone’s satisfaction. The following Friday, the day before the service, all of us came together as a family, with our planners, and the final details fell into place.

The service that resulted captured who my dad was, and simultaneously grappled with the big questions about life, death, and what it means to be human. Between thoughtful opening and closing words came the sharing of my dad’s life story, music, poetry, silence, and a wonderful blessing tailored to my father’s life. Photo albums, carefully prepared by my brother, enhanced the story that was told. All of the elements were respectful of the beliefs and wishes of my family.

Every person present for my dad’s celebration of life left the campus grounds that Saturday knowing more about him than when they arrived. And for those who may have entered the chapel skeptical about or even hostile toward religion, the service demonstrated the potential gift that religious practice can be in helping people mark important passages of life. To a person, members of my family were sure that my father would have been pleased with how the celebration had unfolded. While his physical being was not there, much of his spirit was present.

Stepping Back

If I could step back in time, rejoin my dad in the kitchen that day, I would assure him with much greater confidence that the service planned would be one of reflection, respect, tenderness, and love; that his absence from church these past many years would not matter one bit; that our family could learn from those among us who are more “churched” than we, and that they could learn from us as well.

bruceBruce Johansen is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in American studies. He currently does research and writes reports for the DC-based FrameWorks Institute and devotes much of his time to community development work in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. As a child, Bruce attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, and then, in his 20s, discovered Unitarianism. More recently he has found himself drawn to Ethical Culture and Buddhism as well.

Today’s guest blog is an anonymous submission, and it wrestles with the ongoing issue of how America’s diverse Muslim community is perceived and how Atheists, Christians and others might better support it. This is a truly excellent and especially important piece and I hope that all of NonProphet Status’ readers will heed the below advice and encourage others to do the same. Without further ado:

Islamic CenterAn American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, necessary for the growing local population, that was temporarily blocked by the city council. The interviewer asks him whether Muslims should participate in U.S. politics.

He responds that when politics can reduce public harm, Muslims are obligated to participate. “Theoretically, it is very easy to say [avoid political involvement], but practically, we consider Islam as a dynamic faith… Because really, we are part of this society, we are citizens. What will harm them, will harm us, and sometimes what will harm them harms us first. So how can I isolate myself from the entire society?”

Political engagement is becoming more common in American Muslim communities today. David SchanzerCharles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa sent their overworked graduate students around the U.S. to learn how typical Muslim communities prevent radicalization of troubled individuals. The most significant of their findings may incite the xenophobic among us, but will be no surprise to many people; increasing political mobilization among American Muslims is a positive change which should be encouraged.

Through Muslims’ political activity, “grievances are brought into the public sphere and clearly articulated so they do not fester and deepen,” and “disputes are resolved through debate, compromise, and routine political procedures.” Well, of course that sounds obvious to you. Keep in mind this report was written in part for politicians, who need to be constantly reminded why we employ them.

Regardless of the side benefits to wider society, citizens and guests should be able to feel welcome in the United States. Yet Muslims here are still experiencing a surge in hate crimes, which peaked in late 2001. Citing FBI hate crime statistics, the authors report “current levels remain about five times higher than prior to 9/11.” These are only the most threatening incidents in an ongoing pattern of collective punishment.

So, what can the rest of us do to ease hostilities against American Muslims?

We should widely publicize anti-Muslim activity. Many people habitually want to imagine that biases against minorities are always a thing of the past. The media’s current attention on anti-Muslim bias will fade soon, as all news cycles do. But the collective punishment will continue in relative silence. We can at least talk to our acquaintances about these issues, and bother our local news companies regularly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has decent coverage of anti-Muslim activity. There is also Islamophobia Watch, which focuses more on the U.K. but includes some coverage of the U.S. We don’t need to agree with all the policies these organizations advocate; merely as news sources they are indispensable. I hope readers can suggest others in the comments.

We should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in public and in private, drawing on both religious and secular arguments. Much of this has gone unnoticed in the mainstream press, and many Americans wonder — erroneously — why Muslims have been silent on the subject.”

Reporters don’t like going to their jobs any more than the rest of us. If consumer pressure doesn’t tell them that when reporting on violence by Muslims, at minimum they must include Muslims condemning violence, they won’t bother. Bloggers and people active on social media can try to fill the gaps.

We should highlight the diversity of views within Muslim communities. Humans often assume that unfamiliar groups are monolithic, even while recognizing that more familiar groups are made up of individuals with their own personal views. A non-Muslim may read the Quran and think “now I know what Islam is all about.” Though religion is not primarily about texts anyway, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who simply read the Bible and assumed they now understand Christianity would be overlooking thousands of common interpretations, and billions of individual Christian views.

If reading a text was sufficient to understand a religion, there would be no market for theology. The reason there are so many schools of Islamic theology, so many arguments about hadith, and thousands of scholars cited in arguments, is that Muslims do not agree on what Islam should mean to the individual in her or his time and place. The reality of Muslim diversity is far more complex than blanket terms of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi may suggest.

This kind of cognitive bias about unfamiliar groups was part of the reason many Americans once imagined that Catholic immigrants were a unified invading horde, not thinking for themselves but all taking orders from the Pope. This happened even though any careful observer could see multiple competing sects within the Catholic Church. Today’s fear of Muslims will one day be as embarrassing as yesterday’s anti-Catholic paranoia is now, but that day can’t come soon enough, and we should do whatever we can to speed the process along.

We should welcome American Muslim identity politics. There is a tendency among dominant groups to demand that others drop some aspect of their identity. We’ve heard this most often directed at African-Americans. But the demand comes without evidence of its practicality. Am I an atheist first, or an American first? Such questions suppose a consistency which no human actually practices. When I’m talking religion, I’m more obviously an atheist. Talking politics, I’m more obviously an American. People are not so distinct as labels may imply, and we are all capable of valuing many things at once.

This suggestion is likely to meet resistance, so I’ll quote the authors’ explanation: “Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding. A recent book offers an outspoken vision of this double identity:

This anthology is about women who don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim… We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz ‘amma (the final thirtieth [chapter] of the Qur’an) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur’anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we’ve pioneered.'”

We should learn to address the systemic problems that affect American Muslim communities. This can be difficult without listening; systemic problems involving housing, policing, education and employment may not be immediately obvious to those who aren’t experiencing them. Established communities of African-American Muslims face the same kinds of discrimination as other African-Americans do, and recent immigrant communities face challenges of their own.

We should support American Muslim community-building efforts. Involved communities, religious and secular, can provide bulwarks against crushing boredom and lonely isolation, reach out to troubled youths, direct financial and other assistance to those who are struggling in poverty, and generally make life more livable.

We’re not just talking about overtly religious efforts here. There are “charity events, dances, mixers, basketball tournaments, soccer leagues, lobbying, media-relations, voter-registration, electoral campaigns, fashion shows, religious festivals, ethnic festivals, national-heritage holidays such as Pakistan Independence Day and Iranian New Year.”

Some community-building can work to counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. These should be of special interest to government officials and politicians: “Many Muslim-American communities have the resources to build community institutions without assistance; others do not. We recommend that all levels of government make additional efforts to offer disadvantaged Muslim-American communities such community-building resources as funding for recreation centers, day care centers, public health clinics, and courses in English as a Second Language. There is a special need for these resources in isolated immigrant communities.”

That brings me to mosques. We should help build mosques, the most visible symbol of American Muslims’ presence. They generally provide both the benefits of community-building, and the serious religious training that can immunize troubled individuals against extremist propaganda on the internet.

Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities.

It’s not enough to be indifferent. It’s not enough just to speak up for First Amendment rights, though that bare minimum is important.

Government funding can’t be used, but non-Muslims should make public our efforts to support the construction and expansion of mosques, as an example of American values. Some Americans really need to be reminded right now what those values are.

By support, I mean financial or volunteering, whatever you can do. If there are any mosques planned or under construction in your area, it would help to call local politicians and tell them you support the Muslim community’s construction efforts and will only support politicians who uphold the First Amendment. Churches and atheist organizations should get in touch with local Muslim groups, and ask what they need. If our neighbors can see us taking an active role in these efforts, they may be reminded of their own better nature.

BIHThe author of this piece, BloggingIsHard, is an anonymous gay atheist. You can find him on twitter.

Today’s guest post for our lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Josh Oxley, a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago who is the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and recently started a new blog worth checking out. Like me, Josh is a former Christian who went on to pursue additional degrees studying religion; in today’s post, he explains why it is so important for secular folks to enrich the dialogue around religion, become religiously literate, and move beyond simplistic “religion is bad” rhetoric. And away we go:

religious literacy

From Stephen Prothero's website; click to go there for helpful info on religious literacy. -Chris

There’s a beautiful diversity to the atheist community. Diversity in experience, thought, method, temperament. We’re united in our rejection of the fictional and supernatural, but almost anything else goes.

Some of us left a religious tradition in the name of freethought. Others never had a faith to leave.

Some view ethical decisions as humanists. Some are nihilists. Others, hedonists. Utilitarians. Objectivists.

I love that kind of breadth and depth. There’s power in our varied experiences, our varying approaches to this life. To come to the same place — a rejection of religion within our lives — from such different journeys and walks is a pretty powerful statement.

What we can sometimes forget, however, is the great diversity within religious traditions as well. And I think we run a great risk when we sell religion short.

You probably know many to most of the big schisms. Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox Christianity. Sunni-Shia Islam (and the Sufi question). Theravada-Mahayana Buddhism. And you know there’s a whole myriad of more minute distinctions in addition to these, across all faith traditions.

For that reason, I think it’s our job to stay the most informed, to stay literate in our understanding of religion.

Why? So many reasons come to mind. For one, our illiteracy in religious matters can make our assertions — and our check on religious overreach — less impactful. You know what it feels like when a talking head on TV gets your community’s purpose all wrong. Nothing pisses off a conversation partner quicker than misrepresenting her intellectual position. It shuts off the genuine give-and-take dialogue that life thrives on, and it makes for fast enemies. If we paint religion with too broad a brush, we run the risk of degrading the power of our message. It’s a matter of integrity.

And integrity matters. It’s damaging to the community every time we try and characterize a “Religion of Peace” or “Religion of the Sword.” No tradition is so easily described, and we should know that. I’m still annoyed with the New Atheists for taking this path — particularly Hitchens — as it makes for far too simplistic a dialogue. There are vengeful Buddhists and pacifist Muslims. Religions move from domineering to Diaspora. And yet we feed that simple, dualistic language in society that pits the “Us” and “Them” at each other’s throats. And we sell ourselves short, in a world that still is far too beholden with belief for its own good.

Religion is also a part of history, world politics, and all sorts of affairs. We’re remiss if we think we can label it all under “superstitious bunk” and think we have it figured out. American politics is particularly rife with it. The furor over gay marriage isn’t fully understood without looking to Mormon and Catholic involvement. The rise of American homeschooling has much to do with the rise of evangelical Protestants. So one could go on and on. Suffice to say, an understanding of politics devoid of religious knowledge would be a dangerously impaired grasp.

There’s a little-discussed point to mention. We have the unique opportunity to be the most thorough, critical, and exacting observers and students of religion. It’s one of the reasons why I’m still a Religious Studies student at this moment, working on my Masters degree, even though I don’t find belief compelling. Religions don’t always understand each other all that well. As a Christian in much of my undergraduate years, I could study Islam thoroughly, but I couldn’t help but be a bit uneasy. A Muslim faculty advisor, perhaps jokingly, asked me to not convert anyone I met during field work. I’d never do that, I told her. But part of my brain also told me that saving souls was more important that data collection. I was torn by that divide, but can see past that now. There are no competing masters to serve. And few would argue against helping Muslims and Christians deepen their understanding, I’d wager, if it could lead to greater peace and security in the world.

With no hell to tempt and no deity to commit sacrilege against, we can ask the pointed questions of religion as few others can. But let’s do so in honesty and charity. Let’s aim to be the well-spoken and well-read at the table. Let’s give the same respect we would ask for. That way, we can emerge as a vital community, honest in its dealings, and yet powerfully committed to seeing the world change for the better. And better understanding religion — and its practitioners throughout the world — will go a long way towards fulfilling that goal.

Josh OxleyHaving spent most of his life in Virginia, Josh Oxley is a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago, Class of 2012. He is currently the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and is a member of the Religious Advisors Council. He’s a member of the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Foundation Beyond Belief. Deeply committed to building secular community in the United States, Josh seeks to work within an interfaith role to better humanity here and now. He’s all for atheism developing a vital and positive image in the public light, and doing what he can to bring that about.

Today’s guest post comes from Tim Brauhn, a Catholic interfaith activist. Tim, who recently finished a year as a Fellow for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation‘s FaithsAct anti-Malaria interfaith initiative, is a lovable weirdo. Tim was once an anti-Atheist schmuck but has since changed his tune. He shares why below:

c/o /livelyivy.com

My friend Ahab is an atheist. Note: his nickname, which I was kind enough to bestow upon him, has no relation to his faith orientation, so don’t go all crazy with white whale language just yet. Ahem.

I was having a chat with Ahab one night a long time ago back at Aurora University. It was snowing outside, as if that was important to the story. I asked him, “So you admit that for a god to exist it would have to be an infinite being?” His reply was a strong affirmative. “But you still don’t believe that god does, in fact, exist?” Again, he answered yes.

AHA! I knew I had him this time! I was finally going to score a point against his godless ass! “Well then, my dear friend, you have failed! In acknowledging the necessarily infinite existence of a creator god that you don’t believe in, you have turned your disbelief into the flipside, anti-infinite version of the non-affirmation of said creator god. Therefore, even by saying that god doesn’t exist, you admit by extension that god does exist as a universal MUST! It’s all about ones and zeros! I’ve got you, you fisher king rat bastard!”

Ahab blinked, took a drag from his cigarette (typical atheist maneuver), and said, “Whatever, dude.”

I didn’t meet avowed nontheists until I arrived at college, and when I did, I tried hard to figure out what they were about. How could they not believe in some kind of… thing? Granted, at the time I was still building my own conception of the divine — a process that grows more beautiful and happy by the day. The friendly (honest!) conversation recounted above was the closest I ever came to admitting how I really felt: My brain couldn’t handle what I perceived as the irrationality of non-belief.

In time, of course, I mellowed. I realized that agnostics are capable of feeling just as much universe-rending glory as me without having to attribute it to some greater intelligence. Working and dialoguing with nontheists on issues of social concern, especially, helped me get my head on straight. But it wasn’t until I read Greta Christina’s Alternet piece “6 (Unlikely) Developments That Could Convince This Atheist To Believe In God” that I found a truly admirable and altogether frightening reality: religious people can’t be proven wrong.

I suppose that I always knew this. I’d been questioned by atheists myself and forced to defend or explain many positions. It wasn’t until reading Greta’s very plain language that I figured it out. Example: If god descended from the clouds and thundered, “I DO NOT EXIST — STOP BELIEVING IN ME!” I think my brain would literally melt in my skull and slide out through my nose. That’s a logic bomb right there.

Maybe that’s what drove me nuts back in the day. I couldn’t square my own faith-based shortcomings with atheists who seemed perfectly content to not believe in god. It was impossible to prove me wrong, which made it possible to be always right. And that’s no way to be.

I’ve stopped trying to score points against atheists, largely because I realized that even if they don’t have religion, they still have faith — often boatloads of it. Faith in humanity, faith in one another, in natural processes, or something else entirely. I learned that calling someone a non-believer made collaborative action difficult, and that regarding secularism (especially the American style) as a positive piece of our national character is a must. We’re all in this together, gods or no gods, and we’re all the stronger for it.

timbTim Brauhn grew up in an agrarian Irish Catholic home in northern Illinois. He has been in the interfaith sphere for the last five years, connecting people across faith lines for mutual inspiration and common action. He drinks hellacious amounts of tea and mate and doesn’t cook his food. In addition to a bit of interfaith consulting, Tim is a Community Mobilizer with Ashoka Changemakers, where he uses the power of the WORLD WIDE WEB to connect social entrepreneurs and innovators worldwide. Tim is also RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

Today’s guest post is a profound and powerful essay by Rory Fenton, a young man who grew up in Belfast and now studies undergraduate Physics at Imperial College London. Fenton, 20, cofounded ICAN (Interfaith Charity Action Network), a new movement across London. This essay is his submission to our Share Your Secular Story contest; it was honored by the panel of judges with the runner-up position in the interfaith category, and Fenton has agreed to share it here. Since I was not a judge for the contest I can be as biased as I’d like and say that this amazing essay was truly among my favorite entries — I’m so honored to run it on NonProphet Status. Without further ado, take it away Rory.

roryGrowing up as a Catholic in Belfast gave me many experiences I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. I remember our car being searched by the British Army every time our family went shopping. I remember my little church being burnt down and my Catholic school petrol bombed — twice. I remember the fear when our school was closed early during riots and being in the back seat of the family car, aged 7, when a man was shot dead by the IRA outside our flat. Living in a city split in two by a 25 foot tall wall, I never really met a Protestant of my own age in my first 18 years of life and that only when studying in England.

These days I would associate my beliefs with those of Secular Humanism. It would be reasonable to assume that it was these experiences that turned me off religion, leaving me eager to ‘wash my hands’ of the whole thing; but it would be much too easy, far too tempting, to justify my disbelief by blaming the Northern Irish “Troubles” (as they are euphemistically known) on religion itself.

In truth there was neither a shot fired in the name of the Sacrament of Confession nor a petrol bomb thrown in defiance of papal authority; rather, violence was a product of people allowing religious difference to be all consuming. Here were people who believed in the same God, in the one Saviour. People who believed in common “do unto others as you would have done unto you” and “turn the other cheek.” But it was their differences, their tiny differences, that were allowed to cloud this wonderful fact of agreement, amplifying the political differences between the two sides and plunging my small country into a continuation the longest civil war in known history. But there was a time when there was no violence. Tension, yes, but the bombs and shootings had yet to come. It was here that political and religious leaders had the opportunity to quell these tensions and draw on what united the two communities but instead of reaching out to fellow Christians, to brothers in humanity, they chose to create straw men and saw only division.

Leaving home for university in London, I was eager to leave that situation behind. I was delighted to meet many more people who too were Atheist and who too shook their heads in disbelief at the dreadful conflicts caused by religion. However, I soon found that the grass wasn’t quite so much greener as I had first thought. I was encouraged by fellow non-believers to view religion and the religious as “the source of all evil” with the unanimous verdict being that unrelenting bible bashers would stop at nothing to spread unreasoning thinking and fear; people who, if they showed any real goodness, only did so in hope of reward in the hereafter. I was hearing caricatures of religion that reminded me of the most bombastic of Northern Irish political speeches. I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to the divisions and the inhuman and false caricatures of pre-Troubles Belfast.

Such a hard line approach, it seemed to me, failed to learn the lessons of the past; the lessons that I had learned firsthand. There can be clearly no reconciliation between the theological beliefs in conflict in Belfast but there is, equally clearly, more to a person than their answer to the question “What do you make of the Pope?” Likewise, it is patently obvious that Atheism and Theism are incompatible as definitions of the world, but there is infinitely more to a person than their response to the question, “Is there a God or not?” Humans are deeply more complex and varied than that — a fact that forms an essential part of my Humanism.

Today in Northern Ireland, thousands of deaths later, we find ourselves in a period of peace. Neither side has won; far from it. Neither side has been proven “right.” Perhaps the biggest and hardest lesson of the Northern Irish conflict was that no one had to be. Humanist philosopher John Gray offers an excellent definition of totalitarianism as a system in which “conflicting judgements about the human good are seen as symptoms of error.” There was no doubt in my mind that this summed up quite succinctly the worst of the religious bigotry that I had experienced firsthand — only to be conquered when people finally saw beyond their differences. If modern atheism is to play its role in securing a flourishing future for all, it is my belief that we too must reach out and see more than just the one issue. Let those of faith be seen by more than just their religions and so let us too be more than just Humanist; in this way, let us be human.

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!

obamabfastNational Prayer Breakfast Acknowledges Those Who Don’t Pray: Obama mentioned Americans of “no faith” at the National Prayer Breakfast but in, uh, this context: “God’s grace [is expressed] by Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose, a higher purpose.” Is it just nitpick-y to criticize his language here? To his credit, his words throughout were very inclusive of people of all faiths (and “no faith,” which is again a first for an American President). But his language did at times carry some assumptions: “we all share a recognition — one as old as time — that a willingness to believe, an openness to grace, a commitment to prayer can bring sustenance to our lives.” No, Mr. President, that isn’t a recognition we all share. But then again, there was this beautiful bit: “We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.” So, like his Presidency so far, the speech had its flaws but contained significant “firsts.” (source)

Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson: Good Buddies?: The New York Times has a truly excellent op/ed on how fundamentalist Atheists use fundamentalist religious folks to drive their narrative that religion is universally extremist. Writes Ross Douthat: “the fact that Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson both disagree tells us something, important, I think, about the symbiosis between the new atheism and fundamentalism — how deeply the new atheists are invested in the idea that a mad literalism is the truest form of any faith, and how completely they depend on outbursts from fools and fanatics to confirm their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing.” Bravo!

Some Say Mother Theresa Doesn’t Deserve a Stamp: The U.S. Postal Service has come under attack from atheists for announcing its intent to issue stamps featuring Mother Theresa because she was a Catholic saint. Really — that’s the most productive place to direct your energy? In opposition to acknowledging a widely respected figure that did good work in the world as motivated by her religious beliefs? Because with that logic, stamps featuring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X should be unacceptable as well — right?

College Blocks Secular Student Club: Concordia College in Moorhead, MN (my sister is an alumni) has forbidden the formation of a Secular Students Association because they say that, while they support freedom of speech, the group’s mission is in direct opposition with the school’s identity as a college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). As a graduate of another college affiliated with the ELCA, I can tell you that religious diversity was present at my school, including many secular folks. The school’s decision is ridiculous and I hope that they will reconsider. (source)

Religion And Science Get in Bed Together: The Guardian has a fascinating piece drawing parallels between organized religion and science. It concludes: “Science and organised traditional religion have to some extent the same enemies. Both rely for their influence on society on trust in authority and that is rapidly eroding. This is obvious in the case of religion, but we can see from the progress of climate change denialism how helpless scientists are against the same kind of jeering and suspicious anti-intellectualism that some of them direct at religion.”

Sociologists See Religion in a New Light: New research from “Inside Higher Ed” describes how religion has moved from a fringe study within an academic discipline to becoming an area of study all its own. Sociologists now recognize that religion is not “only a reflection of some other socioeconomic trend, but increasingly… the factor that may be central to understanding a given group of people.”  This is reminiscent of trends seen in disciplines like economics, foreign policy, and history. (source)

Are Atheists Moral?: Beliefnet has a great piece on the question of whether Atheists can be moral — it brings in a variety of voices and does a good survey of the current conversation in light of some pretty heated issues.

Atheistic Fiction: The Boston Globe reviews the new book “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, dubbing it the story of an “Atheist with a soul.”

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