God, We Need Atheists

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:

bizarrojerkThe 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.

frankFrank 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.

question marksSo you might be wondering: “Where is Chris? He’s been kinda absent from the blog lately…”

Guilty as charged! I’m sorry, but I hope you’ve been enjoying the awesome commentary from guest bloggers. I’ve had a lot going on; here’s a taste of what I’ve been up to:

1. State of Formation

Over the summer, I was hired by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue to be the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders co-sponsored by Hebrew College, Andover Newton, and the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. We’ve been working hard since then to recruit amazing contributors and get the site together — and, last week, it began its rolling launch! Please check it out; I’m incredibly proud of the fantastic content by our contributors already up on the site.

2. Book deal!

This fall, I’ve been working with a publisher on a book proposal, and I was very pleased to learn that my proposal was accepted this week! I officially have a book deal! Every bloggers dream, eh? Haha. It’s been an amazing process so far, and I can’t wait to finish the book and share it with you all. I challenge you to guess what the book will be about… Ha.

3. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard

I’ve also been working with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and am so thrilled to announce that I am coming on board this year as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow! In this position, I will coach and empower Humanist students to initiate and organize community service work in partnership with faith communities at Harvard. Read the announcement on HCH website here.

4. The Common Ground Campaign

I’ve been working hard with some awesome folks on the Common Ground Campaign, a youth-led movement standing up in response to the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America. Stay tuned for several announcements about those efforts coming soon!

So that’s all for now! I’ve got more in the works, but I’ll keep it short and sweet for now. I just want to add that, as I announced some of this news over the week on Facebook, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to my news about my book and about HCH. I’m feeling especially grateful right now for all of your support, friends. It’s what got me here.

share your secular storyOur Share Your Secular Story contest is quickly coming to an end — the period for submission closes in less than a month on May 15, so get your entry in! We wanted to give you an example of a secular story that demonstrates how one young secular individual found a way to engage with people of another religious identity, remain strong in his own, and identify shared values with others around which they were able to collaborate. Today’s guest post comes from Nate Mauger, a student at The Ohio State University and intern at the Secular Student Alliance, who shares his “secular story.” His story is a profound testament to the importance of expressing secular values and the potential significance of interfaith collaboration. We hope it inspires you to share a story of your own!

It was early in the morning — well, at least too early to be awake on one’s spring break — and our group was wandering aimlessly around the house we had been told we would be working on that day. New Orleans had been cool and sunny for the majority of the week, but today the sky was overcast and the air was hot and humid. As our group waited to get inside, we were told that the eighty year old woman who had lived in this house had died in its doorway as Hurricane Katrina swept through nearly calendar5 years ago. She had stayed to protect her belongings from looters and vandals, and sure enough almost everything she owned was still sitting in place where she had left it. Even a calendar on her wall was still flipped to August, 2005. To say the scene was unsettling would be an understatement. As we made our way through the house, we were told to strip out all her things and throw them in a dumpster. Then our group would rip the drywall from the walls, essentially gutting the residence down to the studs. When a house is mostly empty, doing demo work can be an invigorating experience. Seeing someone’s life laid out in front of us dampened our enthusiasm, to say the least.

The group with whom we went to New Orleans consisted of twelve Christians and twelve Atheists from the The Thomas Society (An Ohio State University Campus Ministry) and the Students for Freethought at OSU (SFF), respectively. The idea had been inspired a similar joint venture undertaken by a secular student group from the University of Illinois – Champaign Urbana. This was the second annual trip SFF and the Thomas Society had made to New Orleans together. This being my first trip, I was understandably anxious and a little apprehensive. Though the two groups had been cooperating for almost two years, and many people could testify to the respectfulness of the interaction, I still had my reservations. In a alien environment like a service trip, would members of a Christian group see the inherent intimacy of our venture as an opportunity to proselytize me? Could the Atheists avoid the temptation to attack what they see to be the many distasteful and irrational positions of the Christian faith?

Putting my fears aside, I dived in headfirst and learned a great deal about what interfaith cooperation really means, and why it can be such a valuable experience for people who hold opposing worldviews to work together to make our world a better place. I IDknow that sounds cliché, but the service trip we took together convinced me that the altruism present in the Thomas Society isn’t all that different from the emotion a Secular Humanist feels when they see an individual in need or a community in ruins. In that moment when we were surveying the state of that elderly woman’s house, I could tell that a common chord had been struck within every member of our team. We were collectively outraged at the sustained neglect of not only this property, but of the community in general. How could this injustice be perpetuated for so long? As I looked on at the work in front of us, it occurred to me that it would be entirely irresponsible of us to focus on our differences when our common goals and ideals could be harnessed to affect a positive change in the short window of opportunity we had been given.

I should mention that while we had a singular focus as we worked on these homes, that does not mean that we ignored our differences entirely. On many nights, we had long discussions concerning the details of our differing worldviews. These were undertaken in a respectful manner, but they were not brushed under the rug in any way. In talking with the leaders of both groups extensively, I got the feeling that each group had a fierce desire to know the truth. While the approach SFF and the Thomas Society take is strikingly different, that passion is there. Disagreement and debate with faith groups are critical to freeing our minds from the excessive insularity that a group’s isolation can engender.

serviceOf course, we didn’t forget that we were on spring break. Most nights, you could find our groups wandering the French Quarter experiencing all that this amazing city has to offer. Bourbon Street was particularly active during our visit, and one of my most vivid memories of the trip involves our encounter there with a fundamentalist evangelical Christian group holding signs condemning us for our iniquity. Naturally, the we couldn’t help but confront them and discuss their views and motivations for taking such a militant stance. As I argued for what seemed like an eternity with these people the subject turned to what we were doing down in New Orleans. We explained that we were part of a service trip involving both Atheists and Christians, and they seemed to be extremely surprised by this. As we continued to go back and forth, I noticed that some of my closest allies in this debate were the moderate Christians who accompanied us down to New Orleans. At least for the moment, we had more in common than we held in opposition.

In summary, I would encourage anyone to look into a joint service trip like the one our group decided to do over spring break. We worked with AmeriCorps and the Trinity Community Center down in New Orleans, but opportunities like this exist all around the country. Developing mutual respect for your peers of differing faiths and working to better a community can be extremely rewarding… and oh yeah, don’t be afraid to have a good time while you’re at it. I promise you, we did.

maugerNate Mauger is the Wintern (Winter + Intern) at the Secular Student Alliance. He is an active member of Students for Freethought at The Ohio State University where he studies Anthropology and Geography. Nate’s experience traveling with SFF and The Thomas Society to New Orleans for a service project gave him a new perspective on the benefits of cooperation with faith groups. With graduation on the horizon, Nate hopes to stave off unemployment by attending grad school to study Geographic Information Systems.

Have a secular story of your own to share? Enter our contest before May 15!

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