This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

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Kate Fridkis recently wrote an Op/Ed for the Huffington Post’s Religion Section titled “Atheists Can Be Stupid, Too” in which she addressed the fact that Atheism is fraught with an intellectual superiority complex. I found her piece so compelling and worthwhile that I reached out to her to see if she would be interested in having a conversation to be published here. She graciously obliged; below is a transcript of our exchange.

NonProphet Status: Hey Kate! Thanks for joining me today. For those who don’t know who you are, what do you “do” besides write for the Huffington Post?

Kate Fridkis: Well, I work as a lay cantor at a synagogue in central New Jersey. For people who don’t know, that means I’m the other person standing up on the Bima with the Rabbi; the one who keeps singing in Hebrew. I also blog at eatthedamncake.com about body image and being a young woman in New York City, and sometimes about my experience as a homeschooler and how that continues to impact me. I am the Interviews Editor for the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue, teach for Interfaith Community here in the city, and I make awesome sandwiches.

NPS: Great! It certainly sounds like you’re busy.

Fridkis: Yup. Who isn’t?

NPS: You make awesome sandwiches; do you also make awesome cake? [Laughs]

Fridkis: [Laughs] I wish! Ironically, my fiancé is a diabetic so I don’t really bake. Though I try to order it out as much as I can.

NPS: Does that leave you eating cake alone? That’s kind of a depressing image… [Laughs]

Fridkis: No, it’s an empowering image! Read my post about ice cream

NPS: [Laughs] Excellent reframe. I’ll get right to it. So, let’s not beat around the bush – do you believe in God? Now that’s a loaded question, eh?

kate fridkisFridkis: I don’t believe in God, and I haven’t believed in God for a really long time if I ever did.

NPS: Is your synagogue a Humanistic Jewish community?

Fridkis: No, it’s a Reconstructionist Shul.

NPS: Are you “out” about your non-theism in your community?

Fridkis: No, not to my congregation, which is why I was really nervous about that last HuffPo piece. It felt like “coming out.”

NPS: How do you think they would react to it?

Fridkis: I’m not sure, honestly. A congregation is just a bunch of individuals and I think they’d all have different reactions. But there’s something very sensitive about clergy being Atheistic and I’m nervous that the board wouldn’t approve.

NPS: So what made you decide to “come out” in spite of the possible ramifications you could face?

Fridkis: I’m tired of not being able to say anything. I’m tired of having to pretend that everything that I believe and am doesn’t come together to make me better, rather than weaker, as a person. I hate the implication that supposedly contradictory beliefs make someone confused and lost, rather than stronger, more honest, and more complex. The fact is there are plenty of Atheist clergy members; they just don’t talk about it. I think Daniel Dennett is writing a book about this now.

NPS: That’s perfect. I couldn’t have said it better if I tried… and I have. [Laughs] So I completely agree. But your piece for HuffPo was about more than just you coming out as an Atheist. You also offered a pretty strong critique of the idea that Atheists are intellectually superior to theists.

Fridkis: Yes; in fact, the piece wasn’t about me coming out at all. That was incidental. As, I feel, it should be.

NPS: Absolutely.

Fridkis: I’m just one person, and I’m part of a much bigger trend, which is the point.

NPS: Yeah. I think you really underscore this at the end of your piece, and I couldn’t help but think of the work I’ve done with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) when I read it, where you say: “Maybe we need some new terms for the camps. How about this: ‘people who are willing to have a conversation, ‘ and ‘people who just want to hear themselves talk. ‘” It’s very reminiscent of IFYC’s framing of “pluralists” and “totalitarians” instead of the old “Clash of Civilizations” model.

Fridkis: Absolutely. I really think that the bifurcation is incorrectly positioned – if we need one at all! People like dualisms, though, because they like the idea of “dueling.” Sorry, that’s corny… but it’s true. That tension is very exciting: the idea that we’re on opposite sides and we’re locked in this cosmic battle.

NPS: Yeah – it’s why I utilize that IFYC model even as I acknowledge that, ultimately, even it is inadequate, as any simplification is. But we need to simplify to get ideas out there, and it’s certainly “better” or, at least, “more helpful.” It points in the right direction.

Fridkis: Totally. And I love what you’re doing.

NPS: Thanks! So we’ve got this binaristic narrative right now that is totally dominating secular community organizing that is essentially quite fundamentalistic in its critique of religious fundamentalism.

Fridkis: Right.

NPS: And your piece in HuffPo is kind of a call to acknowledge the gray areas of both religious and secular identity.

Fridkis: Exactly.

NPS: What inspired you to write it, besides the catharsis of “coming out” about your Atheism?

Fridkis: It’s annoying to feel as though, as an Atheist, one will immediately get lumped in with the people who dismiss religion as a whole.

NPS: Oh yeah, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. People hear I don’t believe in God and automatically assume they can start ribbing religion with me, thinking that such comments wouldn’t be hurtful to me just because I’m “not religious.”

Fridkis: Sure.

NPS: When really, I think they should hurt anyone who has a basic respect for the dignity of all people. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got a sense of humor about religion. You have to when you work with it as much as I do. “Dogma” and “Saved!” are two of my favorite movies.

Fridkis: [Laughs] Exactly! I’m all for being able to make fun of everyone, really, though I try to be sensitive about it.

NPS: I guess I just think there’s a difference when you start attacking identities in a public way.

Fridkis: I couldn’t agree more. I guess what inspired me to write the piece was an endless string of conversations I’ve had with people. Some of these conversations focused on my Atheism, and people would challenge me to defend it. The idea that I had to defend it seemed ridiculous to me.

NPS: [Laughs] Right?

Fridkis: I don’t think anyone should be responsible for having mastered the intricacies of an entire tradition, unless that’s their life’s goal.

NPS: Right. It does feel like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it? To have to speak on behalf of your entire community and the history of a belief, let alone just speaking to how it functions in your own life?

Fridkis: The idea that, because I identified as an Atheist, I should be able to make these brilliant logical arguments in defense of my stance felt ridiculous. And too difficult!

NPS: [Laughs]

Fridkis: People started suggesting that the whole point of being an Atheist was that you thought you knew better than everyone else; that you used logic, and not faith, to make sense of the world. This bothered me a lot, because I don’t think there’s ever any one way to approach a state of being. People arrive there from every direction, from every background, from every set of experiences imaginable. I couldn’t explain why I was an Atheist very well – I just knew I’d never really believed in God. I also knew I was totally committed to Judaism. I love my people so much that I feel like crying anytime I see something like Jews coming together to march for peaceful causes, people lighting Shabbat candles, whatever. The New York Times does a piece on a little Jewish community somewhere, as they like to do, and I cry. It’s kind of funny. And one of the most fulfilling ways I can express my commitment to my people is through being a Jewish leader. Being a cantor feels right. But it also doesn’t feel as though it should logically exclude my Atheism, because my participation in my own religion is very people-oriented as you can probably tell. It’s not about God, it’s about community. And even if people are there for God, they’re still there as a community.

NPS: Right. That’s beautiful, and it’s why my friends and I started a Secular Humanist community here in Chicago – because we still crave some of the things that religion has historically offered: community, opportunities to give back, etc.

Fridkis: Awesome! Good for you. And, of course, I completely agree.

NPS: And, unfortunately, I see a lot of “baby with the bathwater” rejection among Atheists. Anything that seems even the least bit “tainted” by religion is dismissed as “emotional.”

Fridkis: Absolutely. And that’s also why I wrote the piece – because of my conversation with an Atheist leader who was a complete jerk.

NPS: I know a lot of Atheists who will laugh when they read that you cry over any NYT piece about a Jewish community, because it will “prove them right.” “She clings to religion for its emotional benefits,” they’ll say. To which I’d respond: “So what?!” [Laughs]

Fridkis: [Laughs] As if anything is ever divorced from emotions. That’s a ridiculous argument, and when people make it, I wonder why they’re even bothering to talk. You can’t separate being a person from having emotions.

NPS: Right.

Fridkis: This goes back to that absurd argument everyone wants to make that Atheism is about cold, hard logic and nothing else. My philosophy friends will hate me, but “logic,” as I understand it, is perfectly capable of including emotion.

NPS: Absolutely! I went to the American Atheist Convention last month and they did a blasphemy exercise where three women dressed in burkas sang a song that I found horribly offensive. It prompted me to cry. When I shared that on my blog, which felt very vulnerable to do, it was met with scoffs and scorn, including a YouTube video where one person called me a coward and smirked when she repeated that it made me cry.

Fridkis: Wow. That’s sad.

NPS: When did our community – Atheists – decide we wanted to be emotionless robots?! [Laughs]

Fridkis: Seriously! I’m so sorry you’ve gotten that response. It’s embarrassing for the Atheist community, if there really is such a cohesive thing.

NPS: Similarly – and I’m sure you’ll love this – one of the presenters at the convention was asked during a Q&A session why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” His response? “Women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.”

Fridkis: [Screams] I feel like arguments like these are pointless. They’re just like war propaganda, based on enormous, absurd claims.

NPS: Totally. And, well, I think that is because a lot of Atheists do see it as a war. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you ask if there’s a cohesive Atheist community. We’ll never be cohesive if we keep trying to deny that we want to organize as a community to fulfill emotional needs, a.k.a. for the same reason that religious people organize.

Fridkis: Obviously, everything anyone does has emotional and rational components, and to say something doesn’t is to want to oversimplify to the point where arguments are placed in the cosmic terms of things like “heaven and hell,” “good and evil,” and other dualisms that obscure the complicated reality of being human.

NPS: Right!

Fridkis: But oversimplifying feels good to people. Because, well, it makes everything easy! And because it makes them feel right without having to question themselves, and questioning oneself is scary.

NPS: But this I think is one of the integral problems facing Atheist communities right now – everything needs to be quantifiable and “scientific,” which very easily lends itself to essentializing and dichotomizing and denies the “gray.”

Fridkis: Exactly. And it’s a problem because people who just don’t believe in God, but don’t have other strong opinions about the matter, are excluded.

NPS: So, oh great and wise Kate…

Fridkis: [Laughs]

NPS: How do we construct a more cohesive secular community that doesn’t try to diminish the emotional experiences that come along with not believing in God? Think you can tackle that? [Laughs]

Fridkis: Wow. Hmm… Maybe we stop making it all about God. Sometimes I think that’s the whole debate, and it gives God too much power. Atheists give God so much power by wanting to constantly talk about how God doesn’t exist. So maybe if we just focus on whatever else we want to do as people who care about the world, and we go and do it, and when people ask us why we say, “well, this is part of my Humanism,” then that might be a start.

NPS: That’s brilliant, and totally in line with how I feel.

Fridkis: So the community that identifies as Secular Humanists can go ahead and do things in the world, rather than constantly talking about all the ways in which it’s conceptually different from theists – not that Secular Humanists aren’t already doing things, of course.

NPS: Right. The Secular Humanist group we’ve got going in Chicago has had conversations about how we’d much rather focus on expressing our Humanism through service than hosting debates with theists, like a lot of secular groups do.

Fridkis: Awesome!

NPS: We’ve actually never once had the “God debate” in our group, because what’s the point, right?

Fridkis: Exactly.

NPS: We all know that everyone in the room doesn’t believe in God, but we don’t want to get stuck there. If we keep saying “we don’t believe in God” over and over again, we’ll become rooted in this innately oppositional identity.

Fridkis: Absolutely. I’m so excited about your work!

NPS: Wow, that’s so sweet of you! Thanks. And I yours, of course. So, I think we are getting to a good spot to conclude this conversation. I guess just to wrap things up, I want to thank you for writing what I think was a very insightful and important piece for HuffPo. Do you have any final thoughts for NPS readers on how the secular community can take steps to stop being as black-and-white about things?

Fridkis: I think that people need to stop thinking in dichotomies as much as possible. If a criticism of religion is that it divides things into “good and evil,” or creates a division of people into the categories “believers and non-believers,” then that criticism should also be turned back on ourselves. We should pay close attention to the ways in which we automatically establish binaries. On a more concrete level, maybe we should initiate more humanitarian and intellectual activities between self-defined religious and secular groups, like park cleanups, poetry slams, food drives, and lecture series. People don’t have to be there to talk about their disagreements, they can just be there as representatives of different worldviews, working and learning together. Because after all, we’re doing that already. We just have to recognize it and stop pretending everyone is so fundamentally different.

NPS: I couldn’t agree more. You’ve just described the world I’m working to create – or, more precisely, the world that’s already out there, just differently understood.

Fridkis: Definitely. It’s awesome to talk with someone who thinks this way. I feel like it’s rare for someone to be so articulate about this stance, so thanks so much.

NPS: Aw! Well right back at you, for all the same reasons. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’m really excited that we’ve connected and look forward to continued collaboration.

Fridkis: Me too! Thanks for contacting me!

For more on Kate check out her blog, Eat the Damn Cake, drop by her author profile on the Huffington Post, and follow her on Twitter.

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