January 27, 2011
This has been long in the works, so I’m excited to finally share the exciting news with you all: I’m going on a speaking tour of seven Midwest colleges and universities next month! At the invitation of campus staff and student groups from the following schools, I will be going from Indiana to Illinois to Iowa to speak about the importance of religious-atheist engagement, and the experiences that led me to the work I do around this issue.
Below is my itinerary — if you’re in the area for any of the “open to the public” events, please come by. I’d love to see you there! (And if you’re a student at one of these schools, I heard a rumor that some of your professors are offering extra credit in exchange for your attendance! Grades hitting a February slump? Come sit in the audience and pretend to listen while playing “Angry Birds.”)
February 2011 Midwest Speaking Tour
(Or, “What I’m Doing Instead of Taking a Vacation!”)
2/10: DePauw University | Greencastle, IN
- Meetings with the Interfaith group, LGBTQA group, and the Center for Spiritual Life
- 7:30-9:30 PM | Speech (open to the public)
- Meeting with the Indiana Interfaith Service Corps (AmeriCorps)
- Noon-1:30 PM | Speech / Luncheon (open to the public)
2/14: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign | Urbana-Champaign, IL
- Meetings with student groups
- Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
- Speech (open to the public)
2/15: Northwestern University | Evanston, IL
- 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)
2/16: Elmhurst College | Elmhurst, IL
- Meetings with student groups
- 11:30 AM | Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
- 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)
2/17: DePaul University | Chicago, IL
- 6 PM | Speech (open to the public)
2/21: Simpson College | Indianola, IA
- Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
- 5-7 PM | Speech (open to the public)
Interested in having me come speak? Email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com!
January 21, 2011
In partnership with the PBS documentary The Calling, a campaign called What’s Your Calling? was launched to explore the topic of a “calling.” I was honored to be invited to do an interview with them; in our interview, they asked me to talk about my “calling,” so I shared a bit of my story and discussed my hope for greater nonreligious-religious dialogue and cooperation.
Using this interview, they produced the above video (full of old, embarrassing photos, haha). Please check out their page on my video, browse their site to watch other videos, and join their important conversation.
P.S. I’ve written a piece on atheism and calling / vocation; it should be out relatively soon, so stay tuned!
January 19, 2011
Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:
The discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.
I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.
I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.
What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.
While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.
So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.
Not sure where to start? Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity. While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.
Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.
December 13, 2010
Today’s guest blog, the latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors, comes from Stephen Goeman and Bruce Wang, members of Tufts Freethought Society. It is a reflection on pluralism and its ramifications for several contemporary social issues, written from the perspective of two up-and-coming nonreligious student leaders. Initially produced for the Tufts Roundtable, it is a thorough and compelling call for pluralism — please check it out:
A fundamental challenge is confronting America’s modern religiosity: a nation once considered primarily Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian, is getting a taste of secular values. The National Day of Prayer, first started in 1952, has been challenged by a federal judge, LGBT teen suicides have many reconsidering their stance on homosexuality, and Muslims are fighting to build Islamic centers wherever they please—regardless of their proximity to Ground Zero. These examples characterize a push against the fundamentalist stances of religious America—the push of pluralism—or the idea that peace in a modern society depends on allowing all lifestances to thrive. While fundamentalism threatens to divide members of various communities, enforcers of pluralism seek to unite these beliefs in order to maintain the progression of civilized debate and inclusive cooperation.
Traditionally, there are few limitations on what or who is considered American: all individuals, regardless of their point of origin, creed, or identity have an equal position as American citizens. This is a tradition worth preserving. However, this basic right is under fire on America’s religious spectrum by exclusivists, who counter America’s growing religious diversity by denying outsiders the right to participate in America’s religious culture. This view has a consecrated history in everyday language through the exclusivist phrase “Christian nation.” Exclusivism creates a unity at the expense of America’s minority opinions—opinions that need protecting.
The progressive preservation of equality comes from pluralism. Eboo Patel, President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explains that “pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus… Instead, religious pluralism is ‘energetic engagement’ that affirms the unique identity of each particular religious tradition and community, while recognizing that the well-being of each depends on the health of the whole.”
Pluralism is advanced through interfaith cooperation, the goal of which is to make knowledge of individual beliefs readily accessible through positive and productive interaction. Interestingly, nonbelievers are taking a leading role in this movement. Chris Stedman, Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, claims that “it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.” It is clear that the stereotype of atheists as desirous of conflict with religion is monstrously untrue (even the aggressive Christopher Hitchens is on record as saying that, given the chance, he would not end international religious belief).
As Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain for Harvard University, notes, “Would some atheists reject the concept of pluralism? Of course. But plenty of Christians reject it as well, and you’d hardly think of holding an interfaith meeting without Christians because of it.” Epstein believes that interfaith events which exclude the nonreligious are arbitrarily divisive and not truly pluralistic. Stedman agrees, and further argues that the religious should be willing to come to the defense of nonbelievers when individuals belittle nonreligious values. Progress is already being made in these areas; the Universal Society of Hinduism publicly defended atheists from Pope Benedict XVI’s comparison of atheists and Nazis, and even the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly has recently admitted that atheists are not immoral. If we desire the end of prejudice in America, pluralism must be advocated.
Recent legislation has called exclusivist values into question. For almost 60 years, Americans have gathered once a year to celebrate faith through the medium of unified prayer with government sponsorship. However, the legality of this event has been questioned by federal judge Barbara Crabb. Does this event actually encourage equal participation between all Americans, or does it lend itself to an unconstitutional favor of religion? Crabb asserts that the event characterizes the latter, stating that, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on an issue that must be left to individual conscience.” It is also clear that the event is not a celebration of all American religions, but instead caters exclusively to Christians. An Indiana celebration in 2003 split into two disjointed events: one for conservative Christians, and one for everyone else. In 2005, invitations to participate in the Day of Prayer in Plano, Texas were restricted to Christians. That same year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force objected to an American Hindu woman leading a prayer.
This string of events characterizes the clash of exclusivism and pluralism; Americans who seek equal representation for all citizens, regardless of their religious stance, have to contend with an exclusivist tradition. Crabb is right to contest the National Day of Prayer’s government sponsorship. America is characterized by a distinct cohesiveness which unifies greatly varying beliefs, and this is absolutely something to celebrate. However, the National Day of Prayer does not foster these pluralistic values. Our nation can do better.
The conflict between Christianity and homosexuality could also desperately use an injection of pluralist values. The issues of gay marriage and LGBT teen suicides in the last few years have been a painfully divisive wedge between fundamentalist Christian values and those advocating for progressive equality. At every gay rights rally, there are those who vehemently oppose legal equality for all LGBT-identified people on religious or moral grounds, and there are the Christian progressives reminding us that everyone falls under God’s love. If the focus is adjusted to today’s main-stream Evangelicals, the new progressives are those who fully accept homosexuality and the fundamentalists that now advocate a stance similar to the “love the sinner, not the sin” approach. While secular culture overwhelmingly continues to favor gay rights, outspoken fundamentalists have ramped up their rhetoric in order to balance against what they perceive to be antagonism towards their religious values, resulting in their radicalization.
Consider the recent controversy over censorship of high school senior Sean Simonson’s article asking students to reach out in support of LGBT youth. Administrators of Benilde- St. Margaret’s School banned the publication of Simonson’s article, offering this explanation; “this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students.” While the general response to LGBT youth suicide by the majority of Christians is that of compassion, this is merely one example of many of the widening gap of opinion on the issue of homosexuality. Both sides want to prevent mistreatment and suicides of LGBT youth, yet one accepts their identity as morally valid while the other continues to condemn their nature as intrinsically immoral.
The questions Christians must ask themselves, regarding this issue, are: do we really want to help stop teen suicide, and does this condemnation of homosexuality further that commitment? To answer these questions definitively is vital to the reconciliation between traditional fundamentalists and a growing liberal movement, but first a plurality of opinions and stances must be accepted in order to foster civilized debate between the traditionalist and progressive communities. If the issue of homosexuality is to cease existing as a wedge, they must abandon their combative and hostile attitude regarding fundamentalist tradition and embrace a movement to bridge their differences.
Islamphobia is another form of exclusivity which has gained widespread media attention through controversy stirred by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Ironically, when news of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (actual name) was first publicized, few took notice, much less opposed the project. When Daisy Khan, wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf, project leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on The O’Reily Factor, no indication of controversy was found. Ingraham, who has spoken out against radicalized Islam frequently on her radio show said, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it” and “I like what you’re trying to do”.
However, when anti-Muslim blogger and Executive Director of Stop Islamization of America Pamela Geller framed the issue as an offense to the victims of 9/11 and a ploy to spread extremism in America, exclusivists began to take notice. She pushed her position to the mainstream media through the New York Post almost half a year later, drawing the fear and prejudice of an impassioned constituent. By later distorting Feisal Abdul Rauf’s intentions, Geller was able to promulgate this needlessly divisive issue in order to advance the self-explanatory goals of Stop Islamization of America.
The damage of religious exclusivity and marginalization has been dealt: hostility, insensitivity, and mischaracterization of the Muslim minority in America has only fed the flames of extremism abroad. Feisal Abdul Rauf began the Islamic Cultural Center as an effort to promote moderate Islam and to combat violent extremism from creeping into American society, but the effort by mostly right-wing Evangelicals to suppress a religious minority in order to preserve and extol one’s own religious identity over another has undermined a genuine effort towards advancing international peace. It is an affront to our principles of equality when Muslims so willingly meet America halfway, only to be cut off by exclusivist thinking.
As religion grows in America, exclusivist doctrine must be repudiated in favor of impartial pluralism. Members of all faiths—and no faith—should work together through the interfaith movement on an equal playing field, and we should not be surprised that nonbelievers are being included.
Americans should rush to fight prejudice, even when they are not members of the group being marginalized. Through pluralism we can defend universal equality which is simply not attainable through exclusivism. The pluralist movement, secular in principle, should be encouraged to continue as the catalyst of individual and communal growth in America. By these means, we can live up to our most progressive motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), and leave the exclusionist motto, One Nation Under God, behind.
Bruce Wang is a sophomore majoring in International Relations with a minor in Film Studies. Currently he is also the Public Relations Chair of the Tufts Freethought Society. Stephen Goeman is a sophomore majoring in cognitive and brain science and philosophy. He is the community outreach representative of the Tufts Freethought Society.
November 17, 2010
Today’s guest blogger is Nicholas Lang, an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. He’s previously written for NonProphet Status about his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith work, about Park51 and the state of American dialogue and on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:
A couple weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Faith Project with my friend, Miranda. We sat in the back, in close proximity to the tasty treats, and listened to amazing religious people talk about how their backgrounds inspire them to fight for justice and equality for all. Although we stood in solidarity with these interfaith activists, Ms. Hovemeyer and I came from a far different perspective than our religious compatriots did. We both identify as agnostics, and together, we help make up the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago.
And as I expected, one puzzled audience member interrogated us as to our involvement in interfaith. As an agnostic passionate about work erroneously perceived as only involving religious people, I get questions like his all the time: Why do you care about religious work?
And another personal favorite: Aren’t you guys against religion?
A: We’re not.
In fact, Miranda and I both label ourselves as People of Faith, although that faith happens to be an indefinite one. As a Humanist with a Unitarian Universalist background, Miranda’s tradition taught that religions share more commonality than difference. In her understanding, this overlap has the power to unite disparate communities.
Working both in interfaith and within the queer community showed me that we have a duty to build these bridges ourselves. The only way to create tolerance and religious plurality in society is by actively working toward it. I might not have a label to describe what tradition I ascribe to, but I believe in the power of people.
I believe in us.
At an interfaith event that Miranda and I helped moderate last week, we once again stood surrounded by religious people. Organized by the DePaul A.V. Club and DePaul Interfaith, this “Dinner and a Movie with Interfaith” utilized art as dialogue to start a discussion around religious difference. Our screening of the Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter” drew around 50 guests, from an incredible diversity of campus religious groups. Among many others, I stood with Protestants from DePaul InterVarsity, Catholics from University Ministry, Muslims from DePaul’s UMMA organization.
But more importantly, non-religious people joined us at the forefront of this discussion. That evening, we welcomed guests from the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, our university’s organization for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Also known as DAFT, the group is just over a year old and new to interfaith dialogue on campus. The evening’s discussion centered on perspectives on life and the afterlife, and in joining the conversation, I sensed a lot of hurt and resentment from my non-religious friends. As an agnostic, I understood exactly where they were coming from.
I would be lying to you if I told you that religion is always good, that faith always acts as a tool for empowerment. Scott, the evening’s most vocal DAFT member, lamented the damage that religion can inflict when he pointed out that any discussion of a religious afterlife meant little to him. As a gay man, he believed his Catholic background had already condemned him to Hell.
However, something incredible can happen when religion does help people to heal the divides that ail them. Although many of us disagreed about what happens to us when we die, we found out that the value our traditions place on death tells us each something about how to live. For many agnostics and atheists, nothing awaits us after our death, and this reality acts as a powerful incentive to live life to its fullest now. Our school’s UMMA representatives discussed the role of our others in keeping the memory of the departed alive after they die. According to their tradition, we spiritually live on in those we impact in our lifetime.
Whether we were discussing Heaven or a “fluffy Soul Cloud in the sky,” we were articulating the same needs in our lives: the need for purpose, for community, for connectedness. We all desired to find something, whether in this life or this next.
All of us have a role in creating conversations in our lives that work towards creating common ground. At the end of the discussion, Scott asked if those around him felt that all of us could truly be friends, despite our stark ideological divides. The room resoundingly answered yes.
At moments like these, I know that non-religious folks belong in the interfaith movement. If faith is to unite build bridges across faith lines, skeptics have a key role in ensuring that religion acts as a force for good in the world. Although this was not the case when he began working in interfaith, Huffington Post columnist Chris Stedman recently mentioned that we agnostics and atheists are now “hard to miss.” That’s because we have a unique perspective that is increasingly impossible to ignore, even if what we bring to the table can sometimes be difficult to talk about.
And if last week’s event showed anything, there’s another reason that today’s non-religious folks stand out in interfaith work:
We’re helping lead it.
Nicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.
November 15, 2010
Today’s installment in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Ryan Linstrom, a humanist who has studies International Development and Human Rights. His guest piece is a personal reflection the hot topic of conflict in the Middle East, the ramifications of leaving religion out of the conversation, and the nuances of religion as a force for evil and a force for good. Offering an interfaith way forward, Ryan’s piece is a powerful, wise and timely read — check it out!
My first experience of the Middle East was in the Fall of 2005. Though I met with countless numbers of people during the 3 month study abroad program, the interactions that stuck with me most were the meetings with angry Palestinian Refugees, radical Israeli settlers, fundamentalist Christians, and the racist Jewish Rabbis who would take the long way around the Old City of Jerusalem to avoid going through the “Arab part of town.” Needless to say, the trip left me disillusioned, some may even say, bitter. I ended the trip like most people who have seen the horrors of conflict: convinced that “Religion is the greatest source of evil the world has ever known.”
To an extent, part of me still believes it. Religion has inspired more hate, more intolerance, and more conflict than any other organization known to man. But, it would be presumptuous to end there. To assume that religion has only played a negative role throughout history is to ignore the great good that religion has given us – The Ghandis, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s, the Mother Theresas. Yet, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve ignored the religious aspects of the conflict and attempted to bring peace in purely secular terms. As one scholar suggests, this has been fairly unsuccessful:
Since the peace effort has been led by secularists, peace itself has become identified in Israel with (the) secular left, religiously committed people that feel threatened by it. They may not be against peace or compromise, but they see this effort linked to increased secularism. ¹
Now, I think most rational people would agree that religion has played a significant negative role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For those of us who saw the religious-infused hate and racism, a secular solution makes a lot of sense. So what’s the problem?
I’m glad you asked.
Here’s how I see it:
1. Powerful narratives exist here.
The negative religious narratives that support the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are successful for a reason: they are deeply intertwined with the sense of identity of the inhabitants of the region. The truth is, religion, geography, history and identity are all so intricately woven together that it probably takes more effort to ignore religion in a solution to this conflict than it does to include it.
2. Extremists roam free.
You’ve seen them on the nightly news: Hamas members burning flags chanting “Death to Jews”, Radical Jewish settlers whispering obscenities at Arab women. Extremists on all sides have been allowed, unopposed, to propagate hateful, intolerant messages using cherished religious histories. Without any serious challenges, these hateful messages have become the norm, leaving people with a terrible taste in their mouth towards both peace and religion. Many of those involved, or no longer involved in this conflict have nothing left to fight for. That brings us to #3:
3. Moderates are given no incentive to engage.
As with all religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide a framework that can help to make sense of the tragedy of conflict. When radicals hi-jack the predominate religious narrative, moderates have little incentive to participate in the pursuit of peace. Without an alternative story to connect to, the Jewish man living in Jerusalem has to choose between being a “good Jew”, and working towards peace. Similarly, the Evangelical Christian in the U.S. has little choice: What Would Jesus Do? Well, he would support Israel, of course. No Matter What. Jesus was Jewish, ya’ know…
I’ve recently started attending a mutli-religious Sunday service at a Unitarian Universalist Church here in L.A. Mingled within the many banners and flags that populate the stage is one that says, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I’ll admit, it’s cheesy, and there is an undertone of idealism that may make the realists in the room groan just a bit, but it’s a principle that this conflict needs to find a way to embrace.
What we need is an inclusive, interfaith narrative that takes seriously the religious stories from each affected group. If there is to be any progress towards peace, we need to find a common story that allows us to stop identifying each other as the negation of the other: Not-a-Muslim, Not-a-Jew, Non-Christian.
A couple examples of inclusive narrative-change comes to mind:
My second trip to Jerusalem left a far better taste in my mouth. As an intern for the Rabbis for Human Rights, I was highly impressed with their mission to positively redefine the term, “Zionist”. Though the word is commonly used pejoratively among peace activists, the Rabbi’s were firm in their conviction that true “Zionists” took care of the “foreigner in their midst”. They work daily to reclaim the religious narrative, interpreting Jewish scriptures in support of human rights and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.
Another example is that of the Melkite Catholic Priest, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who builds common ground with Christians, Muslims, and Jews by pointing to a shared religious history. In his book, “Blood Brothers”, he says, “We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God”. His school in the Galilee area has become a beacon of hope, for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students that attend, and for the conflict as a whole.
In ignoring the positive contributions that religion can make in this conflict, not only are we excluding populations of passionate people of faith from a solution that they have a stake in, but we are conceding defeat to extremists and allowing “The Holy Land” to become something incredibly un-holy. The passion, community, and deeply-felt historical meaning that religion can bring to the table in this conflict is desperately needed to inspire, unite, and impassion all of those involved towards a peaceful common goal.
1. (Landau, Yehezkel. 2003. Healing the Holy Land: Religious Peacebuilding in Israel Palestine. Washington, DC: Peaceworks Series of United States Institute of Peace (USIP).)
Ryan Linstrom recently graduated with an M.A. in International Development and Human Rights. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he plots his next big move. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter @ryanlinstrom.
November 8, 2010
Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes once more from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Today’s piece is a personal triumph; searing, sobering, and terribly relevant. There’s really nothing more that I can say about it, besides the fact that you must read it. Seriously. Read it:
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I looked into the face of a stranger. I didn’t know his middle name or what he was really like, but when I heard that he had leapt off of a bridge to take his own life, I cried. When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I saw that many commentators and bloggers were confused by this sudden suicide, said that they couldn’t fathom the incredible loneliness that leads to such a drastic action.
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I cried because I did understand. I cried because America is full of Tyler Clementis. I cried because I was Tyler Clementi.
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I thought about the first time I pondered committing suicide.
It was 7th grade; I was in gym class, wearing shorts ten sizes too big for me and a thick gold chain with a cross at the end. Thinking about suicide was surprisingly easy. I knew exactly which pills I would take. I knew what my body would look like when my grandmother discovered it in the morning. I knew the words I would write to my family, knew I would take the longing looks I sent to a certain male classmate with me to my grave. I couldn’t name my feelings, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I wanted to be the same, to cover up the Agatha Christie books I read in secret, to feign interest in the bland rap songs the other students were blaring.
And if I couldn’t minimize my difference, I would execute it.
Throughout high school, I would devise a number of ways to kill myself, some melodramatic, others rather macabre; my preferred method involved a simple revolver to the head in my stepfather’s dilapidated pick-up truck. I even made it into a favorite pastime, finding myself surprisingly adept at doodling my Rube Goldergesque strategies in my notebooks. For me, suicide was the only way to sublimate the secrets I couldn’t share, to minimize the hurt of having my backpack thrown in a garbage can, to deafen the “gay jokes” of a father who had to know what he was doing to his oldest son.
When I came out in my Very Southern Baptist church at sixteen, a few of my fellow churchgoers were wildly supportive: one boasted that he had been fired from his job at a car wash because of the HRC Equality Symbol that rested proudly on his windshield. However, I was largely met with indifference or scorn, and the week after my sexuality’s unveiling, the subject of Sunday’s sermon was something akin to “San Francisco: How the 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah is Destroying Your Family.” Although all sinners were in the hands of an angry God, the head pastor sat me down that day to explain to me that God reserved his most special brimstone for us “flamers.” In particular, God was waiting for me specifically, waiting to “cut me down” like a Johnny Cash song. God may have been loving and forgiving for normal folks, but He doomed gays to a life of ostracizion and depression.
In conclusion, my pastor sent me away with a simple homework assignment: change. He asked me to read those Bible passages about my “abomination” and gave me some helpful anti-pornography literature. With a little help from Jesus’ friends in the publishing industry, I was to turn from a sinner into a winner.
After that day, I never went back.
In my case, and in many other cases, religion was used as a tool to divide us, a way to mark “others.” For extremist Salafi Muslims, labeling fellow Muslims as “kafirs,” which translates to apostates or non-believers, allows these radicals to wage violent jihad against their own people. In my case, labeling me a sinner allowed my co-religionists to wage spiritual violence against me, to rhetorically put me to death. I once went to a service where the pastor told us that God loved all of His weeds, but I wondered why I was labeled a “weed.” Why was my difference so pejorative, so ugly? Why was my difference always in need of heavenly forgiveness? Everyone else seemed to agree that weeds like me needed to exterminated, that AIDS was God’s lawnmower. They were so busy telling me to die that I never got around to wondering about how to live.
Years of Pat Robertson condemning me to Hell, Jerry Falwell condemning me to Hell, my grandmother condemning me to Hell only served to further support their argument. When I read about Anita Bryant telling good, God-fearing Americans that they had to “Save the Nation” from people like me, I understand that it’s our culture that teaches LGBT kids to hate themselves. How can we truly speak of change in our society when Focus on the Family ads still proclaim to be saving Americans from us, when Bush’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage largely got him elected in 2004? We uphold the loneliness of LGBT kids when we tell them that their love doesn’t belong in this church, their love can’t go to this prom, their love isn’t legal in this state.
In his seminal book, “Acts of Faith,” Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel speaks of a “Faith Divide” that permeates today’s society, a religious intolerance that leads people of separate faiths to blow each other up. To borrow from Mr. Patel, what I see in the midst of the LGBT suicide epidemic is a Gay Divide: One which arms good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims to destroy people they don’t know. In a letter published in the Salt LakeTribune, William Germain writes that recent events show a growing “divide in the way we treat each other, whether with religion, race, sex or politics. We have become a people of hate…It’s almost like we’re fighting a bunch of civil wars, and for no reason.”
In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Mitchell Gold likewise finds that these divides can “have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy.” Gold’s column was in response to recent remarks by media demagogue Tony Perkins, who has used the “bullying” controversy to publicly insist that it’s not society’s intolerance that leads to the suicide of kids like Tyler. Perkins affirms that what drives them to suicide is an understanding of their own immorality.
Although people like Tony Perkins, and the many others like him, many be on the front lines of this conflict, Gold seems to insist that an entire system of religious teaching and preaching is implicit in perpetuating the Gay Divide. Gold writes, “During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.”
Certainly, the members of my church never stopped to consider what the effect that their condemnation would have on me, the years of psychological damage that thinking God didn’t, couldn’t possibly, love you would cause. I spent years hating God because of the bigotry of one man, and I was lucky that such sentiments didn’t have the same ultimate effect on me that it had on Tyler. Although I am no longer at the point where I call myself a believer, I know what my travails made me believe in: the power of communities to heal. In high school, I didn’t have God, but I had friends to lift me up, friends who understood what being an outcast was like. I had the guidance of a history teacher, who was deterred from taking his own life by the kindness of a complete stranger. These allies were living proof of Dan Savage’s assertation that “It Gets Better.”
And I’m here to tell you: it does get better. I don’t believe in a God, but as a member of theVincent and Louise House, which is DePaul’s Catholic intentional living community, I have nine faithful housemates that I do believe in. As a queer man, I believe in the power of allies like these to help heal the hurt we that we share, to build bridges across social divides. At a recent DePaul vigil to honor the number of LGBT youths who have taken their lives in recent months, a mother from PFLAG came to talk about her unfailing support for her gay son, and another speaker related that their mother’s support in a time of crisis saved their life. But the incredible diversity of attendees showed that this mantle has been taken up by more than just our mothers. In the crowd, I saw teachers, students, friends and lovers standing together, people committed to a better world, committed to making America a safer place for our “weeds” to grow in.
Just as importantly, I stand in solidarity with people of faith committed to speaking about intolerance and calling for change. Following these controversies, religious leaders like Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach preached understanding and tolerance, wrote that our congregations have a place for all people, regardless of sexuality. But what really inspires me are the people who have come together to take action towards building a culture where people of faith and LGBT people are not seen as diametrically opposed. An ideological cousin to the “It Gets Better” project, the “Faith Gets Better” campaign, an initiative by Faith in Public Life, argues that hatred and bigotry divide us, not religion. These courageous religious folks — some queer, some allies — show us that religion can be a force for good in this conflict.
The “queer people of faith” involved in LGBT Change’s The Faith Project likewise testify to the fact that religion does have the power to affirm people of all backgrounds and sexualities. But at the initiative’s launch on Oct. 20, the evening’s speakers preached a far more important message: faith cannot get better all on its own. If we want a world where religion unites rather than divides, where LGBT kids are safe in their own communities, we have to build it.
As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, we recently launched the Better Together campaign, where we are asking people a similar question: “What If?” What world could we build if “we took action together?” I already know what this world could look like. I see it every day when people come together to dialogue around difference, when people decide that we are better than inherited hatreds. I see it in the faces of my ever-loving brothers, who never had to work to “accept me” for who I am, whose support and solidarity was as easy as an embrace. I look in their eyes and know that this better world is there, waiting for us to fight for it.
We all have a role in building a society where we love past difference: where we teach our children not to hate each other, where we teach adults not to hate each other, where we are not alone. To be Better Together, all it takes is to be an ally to someone. So, all of you reading this — people of faith, people of no faith — tell someone today that you love them for exactly who they are. Tell them that they don’t need to die for you to stand in solidarity with them. Rather than waiting until it’s too late to honor a loved one, hold up a candle for them today. Taking action now might save a life.
It saved mine.
This post originally appeared on DePaul Interfaith and was refeatured on NonProphet Status at the author’s request.
Nicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.
November 1, 2010
The latest in our ongoing series of guest posts is adapted from a talk given by my friend James Croft at the Congress on the Future of Faith at Harvard (which I was lucky enough to see in person). There’s so much I could say about this, but I think it speaks for itself. A monumental piece that is both important and timely. Check it out:
I’m James, and I’m a choirboy. You can probably tell—something about my angelic features, and the slight haze of a halo above my head. And as a kid I loved singing in Sunday Service. I loved the sense of ritual, the quiet aura of the space, but most of all I loved the singing:
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!
I remember once going up to the altar to be blessed—something I didn’t usually do. I could see the Reverend moving down the line of children with their heads bowed, placing his hand upon their heads, the smell of incense in the air. And when he got to me, the Reverend pressed really hard, as if he was trying to squeeze God into me. And I wondered: perhaps he knows I don’t believe.
You see, I’m an Atheist. I grew up in a happy nonreligious family. My values come from the rational, pluralistic vision of Star Trek (in fact I’m convinced I’m named not after the King James Bible but after James T Kirk). I used to watch the stars with my grandfather, visit the planetarium with him, listen to Carl Sagan, and contemplate the wonder of the universe—no God included.
So it’s a little strange that I should be here, speaking with you today. I am a representative of the faithless at a gathering of the faithful. What am I doing here? This is a question that another of our attendees, Chris Stedman, an atheist and a leader in the Interfaith movement, regularly encounters.
I’m here because, in the UK, my atheism was never a problem. I debated spiritedly with people of all religious faiths, and found my position, generally, respected. I had a place at the table. Then, I came to the USA. And here, in my first few weeks at Harvard, I met a fellow graduate student in the canteen of my dorm.
“You don’t believe in God? Are you serious?” He laughed uproariously, flinging his hands into the air before slapping them down onto the table which sat between us, causing the glasses on our canteen trays to ring, our cutlery to jump. “So, what? You think that all this“—he gestured expansively, encompassing all of everything with his arms—”just sprang up out of nothing, with no reason behind it?” I wish now that I had given a more eloquent response than a surprised “Yes!”, my eyebrows raised in astonishment.
I remember my fellow Harvard graduate student prodding at my beliefs as if I was some strange, exotic curio, asking “If you don’t believe in God, where do your morals come from?”, and “Isn’t your life meaningless without an Ultimate Purpose” (the capitals were clearly indicated by the portentous way in which the words “ultimate” and “purpose” were intoned). If I were someone inclined to take offense, it strikes me that these could be seen as extremely offensive questions, implying as they do that the only route to a moral life is through religion, and that my nonreligious worldview must therefore be ethically deficient and devoid of meaning.
After four years living in the States, however, I am no longer surprised when I hear such sentiments expressed. Instead, horrifyingly, I am sometimes relieved if the worst someone has to say to me about my worldview is that it must lead to an amoral and meaningless existence. Why? Because, since then, I have come face to face with many more egregious and insidious examples of prejudice against Humanists, agnostics, and the nonreligious.
I have heard televangelists shriek that people who are not traditionally religious are responsible for social breakdown, crime, and natural disasters. I have heard news reporters casually describe nonreligious people as de-facto supporters of Stalinism and Nazism. I have noted how it seems impossible for a nonbeliever to be elected to high office in this country, and how public declarations of religious faith are required by those aiming highest.
The effect of all this hit me when I met Bill on a Secular Service trip to New Orleans. Bill attends Humanist meetings but refuses to pose for group photographs because he fears, should his atheism be revealed, that he would lose his job.
And seeing all this made me want to work harder for Humanism, brought me to Greg and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and called me to apply to become a Humanist Chaplain myself. And my relationship with the Humanist Chaplaincy has been profound: it was on the same service trip where I met Bill that I was able to resolve my struggles around my sexuality and come out as a gay man. So I have much to thank the Humanist community for, this group of atheists who helped me find myself.
Now, not all of us are atheists—in fact I imagine there are very few here! But all of us, even though we’re committed to different issues and different values, want our story to be heard. We don’t want to be dismissed. We don’t want anyone to tell us, just because of the values we espouse, or our faith. that we aren’t worth listening to.
That commitment—that everyone should be heard, and no one left out of the cultural discussion—is part of the founding principles of this country which, for now at least, we all call home. In America, we’re all part of a remarkable experiment—a country in which people can believe what they choose, can strive for their own version of the good, can pursue their idea of happiness, and will not be excluded because of their beliefs. That’s why the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and made the long, dangerous journey to these shores, landing not so far from where we stand today.
That’s why I found it so shocking when I heard Rick Warren had said, during the last presidential election, “I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says…I’m totally self-sufficient by myself. And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”
I want you to imagine that that Warren had been talking about your faith group. I could not vote for a Catholic. I could not vote for a Jew. I could not vote for a Muslim. A Hindu. A Sikh, a Buddhist or an Anglican. Can you imagine the uproar that such a statement would cause? I think that the principles which beckoned the pilgrims across the ocean, which enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to practice their faith, should protect atheists and Humanists, too.
I think that wherever we find our spiritual calling whether it’s the song of the muezzin or the lure of a star-dusted sky, we deserve to be heard. And that’s why interfaith discussion is important, and why it must include people like me.
And interfaith discussion particularly matters now, at this moment. Because, let’s face it, the dialogue around religion in this country is broken, and not just the dialogue between religious and nonreligious people.
Certainly, I think of the fact that there is, and only ever has been, one openly atheist member of Congress, and no openly atheist Senators. None.
But I also think of Pastor Terry Jones, who thought it would be a good idea to pile high copies of the Koran and set them alight, or protesters who rented decommissioned missiles and pointed them at a Muslim cultural center and mosque in New York City.
There are two potential responses to this. We could get angry, atheists tearing down religious political candidates, or Muslims burning copies of the bible, in an ever-escalating war of words and actions that brings us all down. We could all get our own missile.
Or we could get smart, and begin to engage with each other in a more respectful and productive way.
We are the perfect people to do this: in this room are the leaders of the future. Politicians, faith leaders, business leaders: people who will be in a position to influence discussions around faith in this country.
And now is the time to do this. Right here, right now, when we’re all gathered together in one room—a remarkable and rare opportunity to engage with each other, to come to know each other more deeply.
So I’m asking you to dig deep, for all our sakes. Share your story, honestly and openly, and listen to the stories of people who disagree with you, profoundly. And we will disagree—I, for my own part, am skeptical about the future for faith at Harvard. And, as a gay man, I know there are people in this room who hold beliefs I find profoundly difficult. But, instead of sitting at home and complaining, or speaking just to those who agree with me, I came here. Because I know how important it is to be involved in the discussion. So don’t hide your differences, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to give of yourself, and be brave enough to listen. If we can do this I see a future in which, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, Jains can all sit around a table, breaking bread together. No more piles of the Koran, waiting to be set alight. No more missiles pointed at mosques. And, perhaps, and atheist Senator or two.
James Croft is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he studies Human Development. He is a vice-chair of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, where he works closely with Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy, and is an editor of the Humanist Chaplaincy’s online magazine The New Humanism.
October 28, 2010
The latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a wonderful submission by Jonathan S. Myerov. Jonathan’s post was a runner-up in our Share Your Secular Story contest, and it is a beautiful exposition on atheism, family, and how ultimately, in spite of our different beliefs, we must work and live together. Thank you to Jonathan for this entry!
Leo Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina by observing that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Similarly, every atheist has a unique story. Each of us becomes unhappy in religion in our own way.
Now, “unhappy in religion” deserves some explanation because it does not mean unhappy with everything or unhappy with life. On the contrary, the atheists I know are as happy as anybody. Personally, I am a happy guy, and — it may surprise some to learn — I have never felt oppressed by Judaism, the religion I was born into.
For most of my life I associated Judaism with the happiness of spending time with family. When I was growing up, I loved to pray and sing in temple alongside my father. I enjoyed being with him and hearing his beautiful tenor voice. This past winter, I brought my wife and three children to my brother’s home for Hanukkah. All of us — including my father and mother, my brothers and their families—sang together and had a delightful time. Such experiences have been typical. So many cherished moments of family togetherness in my life have happened under the pretense of Jewish observance.
But I was unhappy in religion because it yielded no satisfactory answers to my questions. If Judaism was true, why wasn’t Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? Why was God so present in the lives of Biblical people and so absent in the lives of modern people? Why did the Bible repeat itself in some places and contradict itself in others? Why did so much disagreement exist over the correct interpretation of biblical passages? Where and how were the books of the Bible written? By whom were they written, and for whom?
I wanted answers, not atheism. Yet the more I investigated, I found only one answer fitting the information before me: God and the Bible were the products of human thought and human desire. This conclusion came to me after many years and several intellectual wanderings, through graduate school and finally through a brief period when I sought to live as authentically a Jewish life as I could. During this later time, I devotedly studied the Bible and the wisdom of the Jewish sages. I prayed several times daily, and I observed the Sabbath.
Yet, I was unhappy in religion. I loved my family and treasured the heritage of my ancestors, but I could no longer pretend that Jewish belief engaged my curiosity, passion, and character. And so I began to self-identify as an atheist.
Very little has happened since then.
Wait. That’s not quite true. Some of my family members did not like pro-atheist material I posted on Facebook. My wife, still a theist, raised concerns that a rift might develop between our children and me. But these flare-ups were minor, and they settled into nothing very quickly.
Why? Because we are family. In the end, our being family and our being together has trumped everything, even our views on a supreme being of the universe. So what that I don’t think the world was literally created in six days? So what that you believe the Exodus really happened? More important is whether you’re going to come over to celebrate the two-year-old’s birthday or whether I will help you put up the drywall in your basement. The truly meaningful question is whether we see one another as family or not. The real question we all must answer is whether we will treat and appreciate one another as family.
My atheism has helped me to appreciate life as it really is, the life that happens before us every minute of the day. Every day is a holiday. Everything about us and around us is grand and miraculous. While some thank God for life, I thank people — those who have passed, are passing, and are yet to come.
We believe (in) many stories, ideas, and scenarios. We segregate ourselves in ways that are sometimes logical and sometimes curious. We have many ways to be happy and many more to be unhappy. In any case, we are the only help available to ourselves, as Carl Sagan so eloquently reminds us in Pale Blue Dot:
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
I am happier making a stand and happier in unbelief. For me, that stand begins by answering yes to atheism’s best question to the world: “Are we family or not?”
Jon Myerov works as a senior proposal lead for a Boston-based robotics company. He is also currently preparing a dissertation in Anglo-Saxon literature and textuality. A married father of three children, he teaches English literature and composition at Middlesex Community College. He has also helped research, write, and edit popular books on science, religion and ancient beliefs. He can be contacted via email at jbmyerov [at] hotmail [dot] com.
October 15, 2010
By Chris Stedman & Bryan Parys
Interfaith activists Chris Stedman – a gay atheist – and Bryan Parys – a straight theist – sound off on last week’s Glee episode, “Grilled Cheesus.”
Quick Episode Summary: Glee club member Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich and sees the face of Jesus in it. Not sure if praying to Jesus works like a Genie, he prays that three wishes be granted — for the his high school football team to win a game, for his girlfriend and Glee club colleague Rachel to allow him to touch her breasts, and to be restored to the position of quarterback on the team. After the first of these prayers is realized, he requests that the Glee club sing songs praising Jesus, which concerns Rachel, who is Jewish. Kurt, another member of the Glee club, faces a personal crisis as his father suffers a heart attack. His friends rally around him with supportive prayers and worship songs, but he announces that he is an atheist and is bothered by their religious petitions. Sue, the coach of the school’s cheerleading squad, is also an atheist and takes up his cause under the banner of the separation of church and state. Meanwhile, Kurt’s friend and fellow Glee club member Mercedes invites Kurt to church and asks her congregation to pray for his father. Finn has a conversation with Emma, the school guidance counselor, and she causes him to question his newfound beliefs. Sue decides to abandon her cause to stop the Glee club from performing religious songs after a conversation with her sister, who believes in God and is a big part of why she does not. A lot more happens; Entertainment Weekly has a fairly thorough recap.
Bryan: I admit, or perhaps confess, that I had not seen an episode of Glee previous to Tuesday’s “Grilled Cheesus.” Chalk it up to providence, luck, a convergence of midichlorians, or the fact that when I got home from teaching a night class, my wife was midway through the faith-centric episode. I thought, “Ooh – interfaith dialogue in the mainstream! I wonder what Chris Stedman’s going to think of this?”
Chris: After last week’s ode to Britney Spears turned out to be little more than a thinly veiled worship of our Holy Goddess of Pop, hymns and hallucinatory visions included, I wasn’t expecting Glee to go all soul-searching Millenial on me.
Bryan: I walked in right at the moment our St. Sandwich convert, Finn, was on the receiving end of counselor Emma’s “God is real, but he’s not the God you’ve made up” debunking speech. “God works in all kinds of mysterious ways,” she told Finn. “But I’m pretty sure He doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to speak to us through sandwiches.” The just-grilled Finn then complained that people were “just floating” through space. He’d lost his faith – something that his ritualistic eating of the Hoagie Father at the close of the show seemed to cement. The last image we see is his hand chucking a Jesus-greased napkin onto an empty plate. He’d thrown in the towel, and was now enlightened. Right?
Chris: Maybe so, but either way Emma’s “counseling” of Finn made me very uncomfortable. She had a winning line that could very well be the thesis of this episode: “The big questions are really big for a reason. They’re hard. But you know what? Absolutely everyone struggles with them.” But when she looked up with her big, wet anime eyes and told Finn that his beliefs were wrong, she crossed an inappropriate line, turning his new-found Gouda News into nothing more than shredded cheese. As she offered her own theological ruminations on how God works in mysterious ways, I cringed.
Bryan: Though, part of me wonders if she recognized something even more dangerous budding in Finn and this is what prompted her strong, redirecting words. Finn starts off harmless enough as the throwaway joke-jock – praying to “Grilled Cheesus” and asking for things like God was a rich Aunt looking to spoil her only nephew. So, in one sense, Emma’s instinct to point out his God-delusion was a good one. She was trying to stop childish fundamentalism from becoming threatening. In reality, the prayer, “God, protect me as I car-bomb the Infidels,” is just a grown-up version of “God, help my team win the game.”
There’s more to this moment, but let’s look at some of the other narratives weaving through an episode hinged on holding hands, letting them go, and making for a desperate grab again at the end.
Chris: For me, the atheist narrative was the strongest; I was taken aback to see such vocal but vulnerable atheists in Sue and Kurt. Based on how her character is so often an unreasonable force bent on destroying the sacred heart of Glee Club it would have been easy to make Sue a Richard-Dawkins-in-a-tracksuit caricature. But Glee managed to, dare I say it, humanize these humanists. At one point, Sue makes an impassioned case for her atheism: “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an immoral thing to do. It’s cruel.” Emma suggests that Sue’s being arrogant – a criticism often thrown at atheists. Sue’s response is firm but honest. “It’s as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God, and if they don’t accept it, no matter how open-hearted or honest their dissent, they’re going to hell. That doesn’t sound very Christian, does it?” Emma sits there shell-shocked – grabbing for words outside her experience.
Bryan: And grabbing runs all through this episode. Finn grabs a boob, and Kurt’s entire arc is bound by the symbol of holding hands while he grasps for some kind of understanding as to why his comatose father was dealt such an unprecedented almost-fatal blow. His song for the episode is then a fittingly somber version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – chaste romance traded for a deep longing for connection and meaning.
Chris: As much as Kurt is so often an overacted, melodramatic fondue (see: every time he tries to resurrect his father vis-à-vis hand-holding in the hospital), I have to admit that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the emotional high point for me. Overproduced as it was, his song cut through the cheesecloth draped over Mercedes and others’ religious piety. Kurt’s the beating, bleeding heart of this episode. Many of his fellow Gleeks are dismayed when he announces his atheism, offended by the very idea that he does not believe in God. I’ve known that feeling well; in fact, the night after this episode I was meeting with a group of Christians and at one point had to say, “no, not everyone in this room believes in God.” They all turned red. It felt like coming out, a recurring theme for Kurt on this show. But Kurt’s own comfort in his big revelation doesn’t mean his atheism won’t prove a stumbling block for him.
There were painful moments where Kurt pushed away his friends who were praying for him and his father because that’s the only way they could think to help. I understood Kurt’s frustration; the others can’t comprehend why it would bother him, just like there are many right now who do not understand why Christopher Hitchens adamantly asks that no one pray for his health. But I wanted to reach through the screen and tell Kurt, from one gaytheist to another, that his friends meant well and that he shouldn’t try to stop them from supporting in their own way (a conclusion he comes to on his own). Still, this raises an important question: is Kurt really supposed to be the bigger person here? His father is in a coma. Shouldn’t his friends be trying to meet him more than halfway? Instead, Mercedes brings him to church, baiting him with the allure of wearing feather-adorned hats, and says it is okay that he doesn’t believe in God, but c’mon, he has to believe in something. But never mind that – some woman grabs his hand, and all is well.
Bryan: It’s as if this Sistine-Sister Act moment of hand-snagging is enough to bridge the troubled water. And even though Kurt doesn’t swoon with conversion like I feared he would at that moment, the epiphany he creates feels false and unrealistic. There are some divides that even a soul-punched version of Simon & Garfunkel can’t cross.
Instead, I’m more concerned with the ‘brotherhood’ that is subtly woven between Kurt and Finn. In the end, it is their worldviews that contain the most poignant recipe for not just interfaith dialogue, but interfaith action. At some point, the talking stops, so what then? Kurt’s story is clearly the focal point here, and in a surprisingly nuanced take for a primetime pondering, Kurt’s budding atheism and humanism is not reduced by religion, but enhanced by it. Even though we don’t know how long Mercedes’ church would hold his hand after the service, the experience empowers him to deliver the episode’s boldest identity-forming line: “I don’t believe in god.”
Finn’s story is less discernible. After Emma’s theistic throwdown, he admits to feeling like he’s “just floating.” Ah – and now he’s ready for dialogue. He is able to admit his doubt – that if there is a God, S/he’s not there to prove us right in everything we do. Finn is outside of his own perception – floating, but open to the possibility of connection. And this is the same place, via a different road, that Kurt ends up at when his father’s held hand wiggles back to life on cue. The brotherhood between the Atheist and the Seeker is not only possible, but can continue forward.
Chris: As a gay atheist and straight theist, we know this duet well. We may not be blood brothers, but hell, neither are Kurt and Finn. And as we’ve both done, Kurt and Finn wrestle with the idea of a Big Cheese. In their own way they negotiate what it means to parley the crisis of The Grilled Cheesus, grease be upon him. But Finn’s just a freshly born-again football cheesehead, his faith conceived by a Big Maculate conception that returns on the third day as heartburn. Kurt’s faith, on the other hand, died along with his mother, and so his atheism is both sturdily aged and pliable – allowing him to eventually let the religious beliefs of others play an active role in his life. Sue, who also became an atheist years ago, has a similarly meaty and ambiguous exchange with her Christian sister that reveals that her beliefs are both sensitive and solid.
The atheists in this episode give us a lot to digest; the religious, not so much. Mercedes believes in “something” and thinks that everyone else must, too. Rachel needs Finn to affirm that her “children will be free to worship in the way that [she] decide[s] is right.” Quinn believes in God because she didn’t have a lizard baby. Finn models the prayer maturity of most ten-year-olds. Sure, cheese is just glorified, tasty mold, but it would’ve been nice to see someone with a deep and dynamic faith on this show. Instead, all we get is Velveeta.
Bryan: And to make things worse, Finn eats that lab-grown American cheese that, days later, had melted and reconstituted who knows how many times. It was an odd action, but we’re left with that empty plate, not Kurt in the hospital room. It is entirely possible that he’s just getting over his delusion and moving into a godless chapter. But, perhaps what he’s really done is partake in his own communion. Christ has died, Christ-crust has risen, Christ will come again – as what? Indigestion? Or, as the nutrients needed to question everything daily, why we’re floating, and why it’s not our faith, but our honesty to admit that folding our hands in prayer isn’t what it takes to touch someone else.
About the Authors:
Chris Stedman is the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter–Religious Dialogue™. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago, for which he was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement. A summa cum laude BA in Religion graduate of Augsburg College, Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. Previously a Content Developer and Adjunct Trainer for the Interfaith Youth Core, Chris is a secular humanist working to foster positive and productive dialogue between faith communities and the nonreligious. He is currently writing a book on this topic and serves on the Leadership Team of the Common Ground Campaign, a coalition of young people standing up in response to the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America.
Bryan Parys is an adjunct instructor of writing at the University of New Hampshire, and reviews instrumental music for The Silent Ballet. He holds a BA in English from Gordon College and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from UNH. His Master’s thesis, Wake Sleeper, chronicles his upbringing as a Christian, and how this journey was marked at age four with the passing of his father. The images of waking and sleeping show up throughout to suggest the literal and metaphoric struggles between night/light, life/death, and faith/doubt. His blog of the same name serves as an active forum for parsing the disparity and mystery behind endings and eternity.