iowaThis has been long in the works, so I’m excited to finally share the exciting news with you all: I’m going on a speaking tour of seven Midwest colleges and universities next month! At the invitation of campus staff and student groups from the following schools, I will be going from Indiana to Illinois to Iowa to speak about the importance of religious-atheist engagement, and the experiences that led me to the work I do around this issue.

Below is my itinerary — if you’re in the area for any of the “open to the public” events, please come by. I’d love to see you there! (And if you’re a student at one of these schools, I heard a rumor that some of your professors are offering extra credit in exchange for your attendance! Grades hitting a February slump? Come sit in the audience and pretend to listen while playing “Angry Birds.”)

February 2011 Midwest Speaking Tour
(Or, “What I’m Doing Instead of Taking a Vacation!”)

2/10: DePauw University | Greencastle, IN

  • Meetings with the Interfaith group, LGBTQA group, and the Center for Spiritual Life
  • 7:30-9:30 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/11: Butler University / Indiana Campus Compact | Indianapolis, IN

  • Meeting with the Indiana Interfaith Service Corps (AmeriCorps)
  • Noon-1:30 PM | Speech / Luncheon (open to the public)

2/14: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign | Urbana-Champaign, IL

  • Meetings with student groups
  • Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
  • Speech (open to the public)

2/15: Northwestern University | Evanston, IL

  • 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/16: Elmhurst College | Elmhurst, IL

  • Meetings with student groups
  • 11:30 AM | Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
  • 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/17: DePaul University | Chicago, IL

  • 6 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/21: Simpson College | Indianola, IA

  • Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
  • 5-7 PM | Speech (open to the public)

Interested in having me come speak? Email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com!

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.

share your secular storyAs I mentioned last week, the new issue of Jettison Quarterly is out. But my article on the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)’s Takin’ It to the Streets is just the tip of the iceberg of Jettison‘s diverse content. And all the more, Jettison offered to publish the last of the amazing winning entries from our Share Your Secular Story contest in their latest issue! Joseph Blaha’s submission, “Learning to Love the Religious,” was selected by our panel of judges as the winner of the “Youth” category. Below is an excerpt of his entry; it can be read in full on pp. 46-47 of Jettison Quarterly:

Religion has always been a tricky subject for me. It always confused me that something so apparently influential could be considered almost taboo to bring up in general conversation. Because of this, other people’s theological beliefs used to rank pretty low on the long list of things I’ve spent my hours thinking about.

As I got older and began to build my own support community of other like-minded twentysomethings, I found that the people I’d become close enough with to approach the subject candidly tended to be just that; like-minded. This caused me to drift even further away from a common thread with the more dogmatic individuals I’ve encountered, making it easier to dismiss their motivations whenever our ideas seemed to clash. This misunderstanding of religious motivations more or less set my state of mind until I developed a deep enough relationship with a group of people who had religious beliefs. Continue reading at Jettison Quarterly.

jettisonMany thanks to the Jettison team for running this story. For more secular stories from our contest, check out Jeff Pollet’s submission that was featured in the Washington Post’s Faith Divide, Corinne Tobias’ entry on Killing the Buddha, Vandana Goel-LaClair’s submission on Killing The Buddha, runner-up Rory Fenton’s submission and Nate Mauger’s example story for NonProphet Status.

streets

Photo by Leon Andrew Hensley.

Check out my article on the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)’s Takin’ It to the Streets in the Fall 2010 issue of Jettison Quarterly on pages 102-107. Below is an excerpt; it can be read in full at Jettison Quarterly:

It was one of the hottest days in a summer full of them, but even the blistering sun couldn’t compete with the hot rhymes blasting through Chicago’s Marquette Park.

Camped out beneath that scorching sun, the organizers of “Takin’ It To The Streets” weren’t deterred, greeting festival attendees with enthusiasm as they arrived.

Standing before an eager crowd of hip-hop lovers, one woman shouted: “Welcome everyone! How blessed are we to have this beautiful sun today?” The crowd responded with a cheer; I rubbed my already red arms, wishing I’d brought sunscreen.

Started in 1997, “Streets” is an annual summer festival organized by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. Featuring a diverse lineup of musicians, artists, public speakers and vendors, “Streets… aims to bring the arts, spirituality, and a passion for justice together to unite diverse communities and inspire social change.”

Though “Streets” is a Muslim-led festival, its attendees were a diverse group – people of all races, religions and ages mingled in the International Bazaar, watched international graffiti artists collaborate on faith-inspired murals, listened to speeches by public figures such as U.S. House of Representatives member Keith Ellison, and applauded wildly when rappers Freeway and Brother Ali took to the stage for a surprise afternoon performance.

For Asad Jafri, one of those responsible for organizing the nation’s largest Muslim-led festival, the diverse mix couldn’t be more appropriate. Continue reading at Jettison Quarterly.

Today’s post in our ongoing series of guest bloggers comes from the amazing Amber Hacker, Network Engagement Coordinator at the Interfaith Youth Core. Below, Amber reflects on a few atheists who inspire her and the kinds of honest and respectful conversations atheists and Christians can have. Take it away, Amber!

crossA few months ago I told my friend Chris Stedman, a former Christian and current atheist, that there’s nothing I’d love to see more than for him to come back to Christ.

This is true, except a part of me would be disappointed if that happened, because Chris is such an important leader in the interfaith youth movement who represents a much needed non-religious voice.

Our conversation is not a typical one between a conservative Christian and an atheist. The reason Chris and I were able to have that difficult conversation is because of the relationship we’ve built with one other through working at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

A big part of my job at IFYC is answering calls and e-mails from folks interested in getting involved in the interfaith youth movement, but aren’t sure if they have a place. I can’t tell you how often I hear “I’m really inspired by this message, but can I be involved in interfaith work if I am [insert blank here — atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, non-religious, seeking, etc.]?”

My answer? “Yes! You absolutely have a seat at the table, and we need you in this movement.”

Let me tell you about these folks that inspire me on a daily basis – my secular/atheist/agnostic heroes.

greg-epsteinGreg Epstein, Harvard Humanist Chaplain and recent author of the bestseller “Good Without God,” is a good friend to IFYC and an important voice for those that identify as non-religious. I got to know Greg when I organized IFYC’s 2009 conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. Greg was one of our most popular conference speakers because people in this movement, both religious and non-religious, are hungry for his message — that secular humanism should have with respectful relationship with religion (and I would argue, vice-versa).

ChristinaGreta Christina, author of the widely-read Greta Christina’s Blog. While I don’t know Greta personally, she taught me that we have a lot more in common than what we have different. For example, 95 percent of what makes Greta angry makes me angry too.

Mary Ellen GiessMary Ellen Giess, an incredibly skilled staff member here at the IFYC. Mary Ellen, who is a humanist, helps me better articulate my identity as a Christian. She is such an important ally for the non-religious to this movement.

The Author

And of course, Chris Stedman, who is a dear friend and founder of NonProphet Status, one of the most talented interfaith leaders to come through the IFYC’s programs, and someone who continually inspires me on a daily basis.

Bottom line: I believe the faith divide isn’t between the religious or non-religious. For that matter, it isn’t between Christians and Jews, or Muslims and Hindus. It’s between those who believe in pluralism — that we can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty — and those who seek to dominate and divide.

We may not agree about heaven or hell (or for that matter, if there is even an afterlife). I don’t think we should gloss over these differences — Chris and I certainly haven’t. What I hope we can agree on is the importance of being in relationship with one another. And as I say on the phone to potential young non-religious interfaith leaders and what I want to say to you today:

We need you in the interfaith youth movement. Because we certainly have a lot of work to do — addressing poverty, hunger, human trafficking, the environment, you name it — and I think we can do it better together.

Amber HackerAmber Hacker is the Network Engagement Coordinator for the Interfaith Youth Core, where she organizes the organization’s biennial Conference, internship program, and alumni network. In her spare time, she works as a Youth Group Leader at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @IFYCAmber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey folks! Sorry this blog’s been a bit barren this week — I’ve got several very exciting projects in the works that have been keeping me extremely busy (not to mention I moved across the country this weekend). So, to hold you over until I’m able to return to full blogging form, I dug up this entry from my stint as a columnist for The New Gay. It’s one of my favorites and I decided to share it because one comment I got from a reader here asked for more personal stories. Since I laud storytelling frequently on this blog, I want to put my money where my mouth is. Without further ado:

god hates fags“Fags! Repent!”

Oh great – those words. Turning to meet them, I rolled my eyes as those funny, short words echoed and bounced toward me over hot summer-baked pavement. The words were intended to hurt but the insult fell flat. “I’ve heard much worse, and much more creative, fuckers,” I thought with a self-satisfied smile of superiority.

Still, I couldn’t ignore them. My friends and I were in someone’s crosshairs, singled out as needing salvation. What had started as a normal night migrating from bar to bar in search of new friends and hot beats had quickly become something of consequence. With just two words, a divide was drawn between these strangers and my cohort as cloudy and seemingly impassable as the Guinness I had just gulped.

Did this really have to happen now? I was newly 21, looking to have fun, a few drinks in and feeling a bit defensive. I wasn’t sure I was really in the mood to navigate this assault gracefully.

The battle cry had seemed to manifest out of the ether. My friends and I were between bars, enjoying our evening and ready for some spirit-ed dancing. We are not exactly a motley crew – sure, a good number of us are marked by tattoos, lightly adorned with piercings, regularly extinguishing cigarettes, and dressed in clothing that might raise a few Sunday morning eyebrows, but we are an amicable bunch and my feeling is that we do not alienate others in spite of our appearances. Yet as we approached a queer bar one humid August night and prepared to pop, lock and drop it we were confronted by several men with Bibles in hand, accusing us of maintaining an “alternative lifestyle” – a phrase that always makes me smirk, as if there were such a thing as a uniform lifestyle when you cut to the bone of things – and offered our “offensive” appearance as evidence of this.

My friends were clearly caught off guard – after all, we were just there to party – and responded in self-defense, though in all fairness I thought that some of what they had to say was not in the best taste. Slightly embarrassed, I thought to myself: “Well, politeness is not readily facilitated by beer and not easy when one feels ambushed.”

Sensing escalation, I suggested my friends move inside, recognizing that the conversation was quickly becoming aggressively didactic, not thoughtfully dialogical. They were happy to oblige – they had come to dance, not debate. A friend whispered in my ear as he passed by, “are you going to be okay?”

Though I’d had a lot of experience speaking with folks who disagreed with me, I suddenly wasn’t sure. I felt compelled to pursue a conversation with these individuals; perhaps because of a recent attempt that had gone terribly awry, or maybe just as a part of who I am. Either way, I sensed that they desired dialogue, so I went for it.

Our conversation began with a reading from the Bible, not intended to open dialogue with a graceful spirit but as a blatant attempt to proselytize. I thanked them for sharing their holy book with me, and asked if they would like to explain to me why they had chosen to spend their Friday evening on this particular street corner. They informed me that they had recently given their lives over to Jesus Christ and had been commissioned by their minister to recruit other believers. They had heard that this part of Chicago was “heavily populated by homosexuals” – you know, flooded with queers – and decided to come spread their message of reformation and repentance to a community that they believed was in need of it.

After hearing them out, I asked if I might be allowed to share my story with them. To my surprise, they nodded affirmatively. I told them of my years as a Christian and how immensely powerful they were for me – the love that I experienced, the joy I found in communion with other believers, and the inspiration Jesus Christ provided me. But there was a darker side to those years: my struggles with recognizing my sexual orientation and wrestling to reconcile it with the teachings of the tradition, the shame I felt over who I was, and the weight of what felt like living a double life. This was a very difficult time for me, and I shared with them every embarrassing, difficult detail.

When I was finished, I noticed that a quiet had overtaken the group. Finally, one member spoke up. With a gruff tone and eyes fixed down, he thanked me for sharing my story with him, saying that he had never actually known a “homosexual.” He hadn’t thought what it might be like to experience intolerance for being queer, comparing it to the xenophobia and racism he had known as a Mexican-American immigrant.

We engaged in open discourse for the next few hours with candor and respect, discussing discrimination and dancing and difference, beer and bigotry and basketball, religion and rap music and respect, fags and forgiveness and frijoles. Though we all remained fixed in our convictions, we came to understand one another as fuller human beings, not caricatures of our sexualities or religious identities.

Not all conversations go as well as this one – as I alluded to earlier, another summer night just one month prior to this incident, a friend and I found ourselves suddenly surrounded in a subway tunnel. We had been talking at length and not paying close attention to our surroundings, something my mother always warned me about, when we lifted our heads to see that we were encircled by a group of men who accused us of sin and sickness. Though I attempted peace-making and dialogue, the incident ended in violence.

I’ll never forget the night I was attacked on the Chicago Red Line; though I’d like to believe open dialogue can always overcome problematic conversations, I know that this is not true. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I have learned that there are times where personal safety is a higher priority than respectful engagement.

Yet I will also always remember my night outside a gay bar, sharing stories as bass-heavy music floated right on by me, carried away on a cool summer night’s breeze, my friends dancing just inside to a song I’d never know – I enraptured by music much sweeter in the form of dialogue despite difference with new friends who were supposed to be enemies.

Hey missionaries of the world – get at me. I’ve been burned a time or two, but I’m still your fag.

This post originally appeared on The New Gay.

Gods, Gays and Goodbyes

July 22, 2010

beersLast night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master’s Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to mention we both grew up in Minnesota. Ben’s been gone for a lot of the summer, working on his next album, so this was both an opportunity for us to both catch up and “say goodbye” (though we’ll be reuniting in August for some good ol’ Minnesota camping).

We decided to hit up our favorite spot, a little hole in the wall called The Anvil on Granville. As residents of Rogers Park, Ben and I frequented The Anvil a lot this year. It’s truly a neighborhood bar; a place that seems to have changed very little in the last 40 years, dimly lit and without a sign outside, a nook primarily populated by people who live within a mile of it. The Anvil is also a gay bar. For this reason it is especially fun to go to The Anvil with Ben, a straight man, and witness the cross-cultural confusion that ensues.

Though I can’t speak to how he operates when I’m not around, Ben seems to be terribly comfortable around gay men. Or, at least, he is terribly gracious. Every time Ben and I go to the Anvil, he gets hit on. A lot more than I do, I should add. Often aggressively: it wasn’t until a week after the first time we went there that Ben informed me that the man who’d been hanging around him that entire night had stuck his tongue in Ben’s ear. Ben had played it cool, not wanting to make a scene. His patience for situations that would make the average person uncomfortable and his willingness to engage contexts outside his own continue to inspire the work I do in facilitating religious and secular dialogue.

But back to last night. We were off to a good start: ten minutes in and Ben’s inner ear was still unmolested. We picked a spot on the back patio and got comfortable. As we lifted our mugs of miraculously cheap beer and clinked to my move and our friendship, we were approached by a man who began to compliment my tattoos, my feet (“can I touch them?”), my stretched earlobes and my smile. Well, guess I’m taking the bullet tonight, I thought, at which point he immediately directed his attention at Ben. We were both patient, but I had immediately dismissed this man in my mind. I’m not here to get hit on, I thought impatiently, I’m here to say goodbye to a close friend.

I closed myself off, but Ben had other plans. In his unending kindness, Ben continued conversation with this stranger. He asked if we lived in the area, and Ben said we did but that I was moving. The man inquired why and I explained that I’m relocating to continue my work facilitating secular and religious engagement. He asked me to clarify. I replied: “Basically? I encourage people of all faiths and no faith at all to not just tolerate one another’s existence — which itself would be an improvement — but to engage one another’s deepest motivations and move into collaborative action around identifiable shared values despite religious differences.” He asked if I believed in God, and I replied with a strong and swift: “no.” He quickly took me in his arms and squeezed me tight. “God will reveal himself to you,” he said. “I’ll pray it so.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in my life. But instead of getting insulted — instead of closing myself off even more — I smiled and said “thank you.” You see, what this man didn’t know is that God reveals him(or her)self to me every day.

For the last year that I’ve worked at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the Gods of my co-workers have had a sizable impact on me. Whether it’s the Christian God of my supervisor, Cassie, giving her the compassion to forgive my latest screw-up, or the Muslim God of my boss, IFYC founder and White House advisor Eboo Patel, inspiring him to invite a Secular Humanist such as myself to contribute to the public discourse on religion, I would not have had the opportunities I have if it weren’t for their passionate religious beliefs. And I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationships that I formed with them — or with Ben, or even with the man who stroked my feet at The Anvil — if I had refused to engage their beliefs. I may not share in them, but they still matter to me.

After a bout of friendly dialogue, the man asked me: “Okay, but tell me this Mr. Atheist: where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” I answered honestly: “I’m not a scientist, you know, but I can perhaps best describe it as some incredible series of random events. But to be honest that question doesn’t really matter to me. I could care less how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?” He clutched his chest, hugged me again and grinned, nodding his solid agreement. I’m so glad that Ben’s kindness inspired me to give this man a chance.

What will we do? I hope that we’ll engage one another’s deepest values with at least as much patience as Ben in a gay bar.

[That’s a wrap, folks: I’ll be at the Secular Student Alliance national conference this weekend speaking on a panel about interfaith cooperation. Check back next week, when I’ll try to have a report on that — though I’m moving across the country a week from today, so it may be difficult. I haven’t the words to express how much I’ll miss this city, so this post will have to do as my general goodbye. And if I don’t get around to posting something next week, be sure you check out Tim Brauhn’s amazing guest post from this morning in the meantime, which was featured on the front page of WordPress today!]

Four hours in and I was ready to get up and walk out. I couldn’t help but ask aloud with a laugh: “Why do I do this to myself?”

tatooIt was a balmy June night in Chicago a little over a week ago. I was flat on my back on the second floor of a beautifully renovated West Side house flourished by heavy drapes, portraits of dogs, and surfaces populated by countless unidentifiable trinkets. At the time all of these details were lost on me. I was preoccupied, staring at the ceiling drenched in sweat, dehydrated and delirious. I had been doing pretty well until this point — as someone who hates the actual process of being tattooed, I was surprised by how calm I’d been. But now my tolerance was wearing thin and I was beginning to squirm. Crouching over me, a woman I had met mere hours before was working up a dedicated sweat of her own, pressing ink into me and rubbing vaseline over my increasingly tender skin. As Serena went over lines she had already tattooed near my elbow for a second time, I squeezed my eyes tight and bit my lower lip. Ouch, I thought. This really, really hurts. Why exactly was I doing this anyway?

This, my sixth tattoo, is the largest one yet, stretching nearly the full outer expanse of my gangly right arm. Winding around two already existing tattoos is now a fig tree. The fruits of the tree contain symbols from a select number of world religions; the Sikh khanda, the Muslim crescent moon and star, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David, and several others. Four and a half hours of pain is a lot to endure and, as the idiom goes, ink is forever. Getting a tattoo is a significant commitment to be sure. And so the question looms: why would an avowed secularist undergo hours of sharp and repeated needling to permanently alter his appearance with an arm full of religious symbols?

I have mixed feelings on “explaining” tattoos, particularly in writing. Part of me enjoys that they can be ambiguous; another likes to maintain them as an invitation for investigation. When someone approaches me to ask what my tattoos mean, it is an entree for dialogue. But though I hesitate to extrapolate, I’d like to take this opportunity to try to answer the aforementioned “why.”

A number of years ago I was deeply impacted by Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” In it there is a moment where the protagonist envisions herself perched in the split of a sizable fig tree, frozen by indecision; as someone who has struggled with making important choices, this sentiment resoundingly resonated. Below is said selection from the novel:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

new tattooI think this quote ably encapsulates the challenge of grappling with the age-old recognition that, to some degree, “every choice is a renunciation.” After ceding my exclusivistic Christian identity, I felt for a time that I had to select an alternate religion in its place in order to move forward in my search for “truth.” As I wrote in a column for The New Gay, I thought that “choosing to follow one spiritual path meant that I had to forsake every other.” Feeling trapped by the limitations of choice, I eventually chose none of them.

I stand by that decision today and remain steadfast in my assertion that there is (probably) no God. But my thinking on religion has evolved significantly since then. I may have selected my particular identity — Secular Humanist — but I advocate for respectful secular-religious engagement because I now understand that cutting myself off from the insights provided by the world’s numerous faith traditions is fundamentally limiting. And it is, ultimately, an impossibility for the engaged global citizen: if I am to know others in a way that takes seriously their desires and commitments, I must know the history that precedes them. Likewise, I must acknowledge my own. I am where I am today because I have grappled with the world’s wisdom traditions and the people that embody them — and I continue to.

speaking

Speaking at the Leadership Conference with fresh ink (photo courtesy of CFI / Ed Beck).

Four days after getting this tattoo I spoke at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference in Buffalo, New York. An attendee noticed the still dark, now scabbing piece of work and, pointing to the star of David, asked: “Are you Jewish?” I laughed and wondered to myself why it is that we assume that one who seriously entertains the stories and mores of a religious tradition must themselves be an adherent. It was a knowing laugh because I’ve maintained the same belief myself, and because it is inherent to the ideological shift I hope to facilitate. This new tattoo is a visual reminder of my aim for my secular community: that we find a way to respect and engage religion while maintaing our own identity. I have on many occasions acted as a public ambassador between these seemingly disparate communities (religious and secular) on behalf of the other. It is a position I stumbled into, but I’ve embraced it. To me this tattoo is a stake in the ground, a permanent nod to the public and personal gravity of this work. I hope people will continue to ask about the tattoo and that dialogue will, you know, blossom from it. (Get it? Because it’s a fig tree? Okay, moving on.) “Why [did] I do this to myself?” For the same reason I challenge secular communities to rethink the way they approach religion: Intentions matter. Commitments matter.

The decision to get a tattoo is an intimidating commitment, but it becomes easier each time I do it. As I’ve continued to develop in my approach to religion, I have found myself more and more able to make such sizable commitments in other contexts. We all bear the mark of the history the precedes us — I just made this mark literal.

I credit my history of engaging religion with equipping me to navigate the difficult choices of life; and like the religions I have encountered, this ink will always be a part of me. It is a visceral reminder that, when it comes to religion, I am now and forever — if you will — armed to engage.

(And Mom, if you’re reading this — and I’m assuming you are — yes, I got another tattoo. I’m sorry. I love you. From now on, for every new tattoo I get, you’ll get a grandchild. Deal?)

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