state of beliefI recently had the honor of appearing on State of Belief, a weekly radio program hosted by the great Rev. Welton Gaddy. Having read my last Huffington Post article, he asked be about the Interfaith Youth Core‘s D.C. institutes and the role of the non-religious in interfaith work. Check it out here!

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Following Monday’s guest post, “The Gay Divide,” I’m excited to bring you yet another perspective on queer issues and interfaith work. Today’s post for our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Robert Chlala, a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core. Written in advance of the recent IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institutes, it is an important and timely message on the importance of LGBTQ participation in interfaith work. As a queer interfaith advocate, Robert’s message resonates deeply with me. I hope it will with you, too. As Robert shows, not only does it get better, but we’re “better together.” Without further ado:

better togetherNews had recently broke about the suicide of yet another LGBTQ youth in the U.S., the latest in a rash that has brought to light the exclusion and violence that continues to plague those marked “different.”

Speaking to a top conservative leader and member of the Young Republicans on her campus, Lily Connor calmly relayed her story of how she has worked to create a space for interfaith dialogue in the social justice campaigns she leads. She pauses for him to share his experiences, but he is unsure where he fits in. As she guides him he lights up as he realizes that he too has a story: that he is living interfaith cooperation in that very moment.

This could be your typical story of a growing interfaith student movement, one that we hear at Interfaith Youth Core almost daily. But I’m leaving out a few important details:

• Lily is transgender, and the leader of Feminist Voices and several other campus action groups.
• The campus is Southwestern University, located in the small, conservative commuter town of Georgetown, Texas.

In the face of a more-than-uphill struggle, Lily could have stayed home that day and forgotten she had ever heard the word “interfaith.” She could have chosen not to brave the possibility of awkward glances, retreated from trying to give LGTBQ people a voice in growing social movements.

Instead, as Lily explained in her application to IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington, DC – which she will attend this weekend with some 300-some college students, faculty and staff from across the country – she knew she could not just stay home. She wrote, “My faith informs the social work I engage in, just as other people’s religious or secular values inform theirs… In short, social justice and interfaith cooperation need each other.”

So she came to the table.

As did the several members of Auburn University’s LGBTQ organization, who worked with with two dozen multicultural and faith-based student leaders on a beautiful fall Sunday last month to understand how interfaith cooperation is integral to all their efforts at the Alabama public university.

As did Ted Lewis, the Assistant Director for Sexual and Gender diversity at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, who participated in an intensive interfaith workshop we held last Friday. Glowing, he shared how he was inspired by several local churches’ efforts to build bridges with LGBTQ communities.

Ted and his fellow staff, listening to the stories of young students from across the South that IFYC has encountered in the last few months, beamed with the understanding that the interfaith movement isn’t just something that happens in remote big cities up North or on the West Coast. It is already happening in neighborhoods and on campuses a stone’s throw away.

At a time when perhaps we have never needed it more, this growing movement is creating a space for young people – from Kentucky to California – to articulate their values and truly come as they are, towards creating a better world.

This weekend, hundreds of these dedicated college students and faculty, of all religions, ethnic and racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities, will gather to take this vision to the next level.

As part of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, they will gain tools to take interfaith cooperation home to their campuses, towards tackling some of the most pressing social issues of our time. As part of the Better Together campaign kicking off this fall, they will change the conversation on faith and values.

What they may not realize is that – by sitting in the room together – they are already moving the course of history. They will confront their fears and prejudices. They will ask questions they were long afraid to confront.

And they will understand that they are poised to overcome the verbal and physical violence that drive young people to hopelessness, to defeat the virulent xenophobia and intolerance that colored this last summer, and to build a world where we are truly better together.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

RobertRobert Chlala is a Campus Engagement Associate with the Interfaith Youth Core and a freelance writer. Over the last 10 years, he has helped lead numerous social change organizations, such as the California Fund for Youth Organizing , which have been rooted in the power of young people to radically impact issues such as immigration, media, human rights, and education. Interfaith engagement has been a core of this work: he has seen first-hand how youth working around shared values have transformed his home communities in Los Angeles and Northern California – and are creating a better world around the U.S. He is also a practicing Nichiren Buddhist and active with the local Soka Gakkai International chapter.

Note: Below is a very brief blog I produced while working at the Interfaith Youth Core / White House Interfaith Leadership Institute, which just ended today. Whew! So much to share about the last week; stay tuned. For now, my blog:

White House PictureAs a secular humanist working to advance positive and productive dialogue and action between the religious and nonreligious, I have been so thrilled to meet several nonreligious students at both sessions of the IFYC / White House Interfaith Leadership Institute.

One such individual is Michael Anderson, a young man in the cluster I am working with as an Alumni Coach. A Junior at McKendree University in Lebanon, IL, Michael has been doing interfaith for a long time, but his secular humanist identity was something that came a bit later. Though he experiences some tension as a humanist doing interfaith work, he also said, “I’m a firm believer that if things don’t sit well, that’s probably a good thing. I also believe that if you keep at it, that feeling might settle.”

Ultimately, he sees interfaith work as a pragmatic necessity. “We’re all just human beings, and we have to come to a conclusion on how to live together.”

Another nonreligious student at the Institute is Chelsea Link, a Junior at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, who said that she does interfaith work because “there’s no way you can deny that religion is important in the world for so many people; the point of being a humanist is to find common ground in humanity, to support one another, to find meaning in life, and to work together. You can’t do that if you’re shutting out giant portions of humanity just because they believe different things than you do.”

Chelsea, who heard about the Institute through Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, said that she plans to carry everything she learned here out into the world to work to bring the religious and nonreligious together.

“When I found humanism, I felt like many humanists and atheists were detached from religious communities, and many were antagonistic toward the religious,” said Chelsea. “Meanwhile, at interfaith events, I didn’t see much of an invitation for atheists or humanists. The religious and nonreligious don’t know how to deal with each other; I’d like to see more reaching out from both sides. We shouldn’t be afraid of each other!”

After this weekend, I know there are many other amazing young leaders who agree with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s guest post in the current lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Lewis Marshall, the  president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. Lewis reflects on how AHA! became one of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR) and the subsequent interfaith alliances they built. This is a really great resource for any non-religious students interested in interfaith campus work. Without further ado:

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey speaking on secularism in the Stanford Memorial Church.

I had the honor of being on a panel discussion about operating an atheist student group in an interfaith organization at the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference this summer. I had a great time, and it was nice to meet the other panelists (Hemant Mehta, Chris Stedman, and Jonathan Weyer). Chris has graciously invited me to share more of my experiences with getting involved in interfaith work. I hope this context helps to explain why I think atheist groups should be involved in interfaith organizations. I’m also going to share a few lessons I’ve learned that may help those starting this process.

There may be dissent from your own organization

In the spring of 2009, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!) applied to become a member of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). The main sticking point in becoming a member of the SAR was discomfort inside our group about the pledge that is required of SAR groups. In part, it reads: “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.”

That single word, “spiritual,” was a major source of argument in deciding whether to join the SAR. Many people believed that joining this organization would compromise our values. Others thought that we shouldn’t join because we are not technically a “religion.”

In the end, we joined, and with our application included a memorandum of understanding, which read in part:

Though its participants generally do not consider themselves religious, AHA! reconciles its purpose with a broad interpretation of the term “religion,” and of the pledge by all SAR organizations to promote “spiritual growth” …with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!’s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.

Looking back now, the initial argument was overblown. Being part of the SAR has not affected the daily life of our group, or forced us to compromise our mission. We’ve still been able to do controversial events and we’ve still been able to run our group as we see fit. In my mind, the practical outcomes are more important than any hang-up over labels.

There may be less backlash from religious organizations than you expect.

In part, we wrote the memorandum of understanding for ourselves, to show that we had a clear vision for our involvement with the SAR. In another sense, it was a way of preparing for objections from religious organizations. We were concerned that religious organizations would question our place in a community that pledges to promote spiritual growth.

In reality, we’ve had virtually no comment from religious organizations on our involvement with the SAR. No one objected to us when we joined, no one has showed surprise at seeing our banner at events. It has been a complete non-issue.

We anticipated some criticism participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad day. In particular, the rules of the SAR require that we inform religious organizations of events critical of their religion. We did not receive any response from Muslim student groups over this event, the only criticism was in anonymous comments on our website.

In my mind the take-away lesson is this: If you act like you belong in an interfaith organization, people will treat you like you belong in an interfaith organization. Be kind and confident, and you might be surprised by the reaction.

There may be more material benefits to joining an interfaith organization than you realize.

When we joined the SAR, we anticipated that it would be a mainly symbolic gesture. In reality, we’ve received a number of material benefits that we never considered.

Incoming freshmen at Stanford are asked to fill out a religious preference card letting the Office of Religoius life know their religious affiliation. Each year, we get a list of over 100 incoming freshmen who listed themselves as atheists, agnostics, or something uncommon like like “Jedi” or “Discordian.”

Being on the SAR mailing list has led us to many event opportunities. While we always table at the major activity fairs, we now have the opportunity to participate in discussions and tabling events specifically for religious organizations. We currently have a list of about five events catering to the religious needs of incoming freshmen this fall.

We now have access to a number of meeting spaces we would not otherwise have, including the Stanford Memorial Church. This year, we were able to host Austin Dacey in the church at the regional SSA conference at no cost to ourselves.

Religious organizations are likely to need the same sorts of infrastructure as an atheist student group. Interfaith organizations can help you tap into that infrastructure and make organizing your group that much easier.

You may find some natural allies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the very helpful people we’ve met in Stanford’s religious community. The Progressive Christians have been some of our best friends at Stanford.  They were particularly helpful in setting up a discussion with Hemant Mehta and their campus minister, Geoff Browning. The Hare Krishnas facilitated one of the most vigorous discussions we’ve had about the existence of God. We’ve also had contact with the Quaker and Buddhist communities. These two groups contain atheists and I think they could make great allies.

I think it’s important to build ties to partner organizations like this, because it’s one of the quickest ways of changing perceptions about atheists. Some of these communities were hesitant to work with us, but after holding events together I think we have a solid relationship and a real understanding.

So why join an interfaith organization?

In my mind, this is like asking, “Why join the SSA? Why join the Center for Inquiry?” All of these organizations have resources that can help your group. They have connections to interesting, involved people. If you can find a way to use those resources, you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping to build a meaningful, diverse community.

P.S.  That’s great, Lewis, but it doesn’t really help me…

I realize that many of you live in areas more conservative than the Stanford, and you might not find your religious organizations as welcoming as we did. I’ve certainly talked to people still getting a cold shoulder from religious organizations. I can only speak from my experience, but I think this will get better. Religious students attend meetings and share ideas cross-country too. As more and more atheist groups enter interfaith communities, I think it will start to seem more normal. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Lewis MarshallLewis Marshall is the former publicist and current president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. He was previously a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota. Lewis is currently a third-year Ph.D. student of chemical engineering at Stanford and received his B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2008.

While I was in Minnesota last week for a wedding, the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) posted a video of the panel I was on at their National Conference last month. Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist blogger, was also on the panel (along with Jonathan Weyer, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics) and posted the video to his blog. I checked out his post today and the majority of the comments aren’t exactly, well, friendly. Per Friendly Atheist readers, I am “an insufferable moron” who uses “weasel language” and “has no fucking clue.”

A bit scathing, eh? I’ll let you be the judge and watch the video for yourself (though be warned, it is very long):

Reflecting on the panel, I feel that I did a good job representing what I believe and standing my ground on the issue of interfaith cooperation despite being in the minority and finding myself on the receiving end of some very pointed questions (as one Friendly Atheist commenter kindly stated: “I have to say Chris took the heckling with dignity“) …and, you know, having seen a dead body just an hour before.

Each time I speak on this apparently contentious issue, I become better at articulating what I believe. At 23 years old I still have a lot of learning to do, so I appreciate the opportunities I get to articulate and refine my stance. I’m not just interested in writing about this issue – I want to actively discuss it with people and so I am glad that we are able to, even when we find ourselves in profound disagreement.

It seems we won’t be coming to a consensus any time soon, but I am glad we are at least discussing it in a civil manner (the above blog comments aside, I guess). We’re not all going to agree on this issue, but I appreciate those who have offered constructive critiques rather than just mean-spirited criticisms. I have definitely taken the pushback I’ve gotten into consideration as I weigh how to offer my opinions, just as I have the positive feedback I got from a handful of participants, including one who cited me as her inspiration (a very heartwarming moment for me, to be sure!). In all I do, I try to learn — to me, this is a key part of being a Secular Humanist. And this is what drives me to interfaith instead of so-called “aggressive” Atheism: a desire to learn from others instead of set out to “prove wrong” those who disagree with me.

The bottom line: many, many thanks to the SSA and to all the folks who asked clarifying questions during the Q&A for listening respectfully and engaging my perspective – I look forward to continued dialogue!

"9/11 was a faith-based initiative"I’ve gotten to the point in my work with other Atheists where I’m not often shocked by the ignorant ways many talk about religion. Still, sometimes I’ll hear something so inflammatory that I’m left floored.

In a recent post on The Friendly Atheist, blogger Hemant Mehta shared a video of the Secular Student Alliance National Conference (where I spoke on a panel) keynote address by Atheist blogger Greta Christina on what Atheists can learn from the LGBT movement. I’ve heard her give this talk before, but it was Hemant’s conversation with her about it that caught my attention:

I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen? […]

So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?

9/11.

As a queer person, I am mortified by this comparison. The riots at Stonewall, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, were the first major instance that queer folks, long persecuted in the United States, decided to fight back and defend themselves. Stonewall is hugely symbolic for the queer community; to summon it as a parallel to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – a moment when, per Greta, many Atheists decided to start being vocally opposed to religion – is not just inappropriate, but a gross distortion of what those riots represented.

9/11 was not a moment that catalyzed a community to stand up for equality; co-opting the tragic events of 9/11 to make a case against religion strikes me as simply malicious and manipulative, just as the extremists who co-opted Islam on 9/11 manipulated their tradition.

The comparison of 9/11 to the Stonewall riots offends me personally as a queer person, it offends me intellectually as a rationalist, and it offends me as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It is truly a sad day for our community when we sound more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.

mosque protest

Protests at mosques around America are increasing, and they are using the same anti-Muslim rhetoric Atheists do.

This comparison is merely a symptom of a larger problem: our fundamentally flawed approach to religion, and more specifically to Islam. At least once a week I hear Atheists say: “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against the terrorists who claim their tradition? Maybe if they did that, then I’d see a difference between the two.”

First, who are we to dictate what a Muslim should or shouldn’t do? They shouldn’t be expected to help us understand why they are different than extremists who also claim that identity. We wouldn’t want others demanding that we explain how we’re different from violent Atheists like Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer (who said “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”), and others, right? I don’t see many Christians running around apologizing for Fred Phelps. It’s because they don’t have to – most of us just get that there is an ideological chasm between the clan who stands with “God Hates Fags” placards and the majority of mainstream Christians.

Second, Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? ThereAre. SoMany. That. I. Can’tLink. To. Them. All (but those eleven are a good start).

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

We need to start seeking out different stories. When we look for the worst in religion, that’s what we’re going to find. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: the mainstream media totally ignored when a mosque in Florida was bombed earlier this year – imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church. The press also ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim.

Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on it. As a community that boasts critical thinking and reason as our primary concerns, we shouldn’t be so quick to swallow the inaccurate portrayal of Islam narrated by our biased news media.

mosque protestFor too long, Islamophobia has been given a free pass in the United States, and the Atheist community has been a willing accomplice. Atheism is supposed to be a pillar of reason, yet many Atheists talk about Islam in the same problematic way as right-wing conservatives (just one example: “Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive“). We claim to be progressive and enlightened but, in the same breath, espouse an oversimplified and uninformed view of Islam.

The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives.

In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the country: “they have fear because they don’t know [Muslims].” The same is true of many Atheists. We must know our neighbors before we make qualitative judgments about what they believe. Besides – c’mon, is this really the company with which we want to cast our lot?

Atheists are quick to tout that America was not formed a Christian nation but on the principle of religious freedom. And yet, to quote from the Huffington Post‘s report on Akbar Ahmed’s recent appearance on The Daily Show, “unlike today’s attitudes of intolerance and suspicion, Ahmed observes that the founding fathers maintained a deep respect for Islam.”

We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is threatened. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity.

The only “wall” such comparisons construct is yet another division. Let’s stop building walls and start breaking them down, like the rioters at Stonewall did – brick by brick, piece by piece. And we can start by inviting Muslims to help us understand Islam instead of calling them guilty by association.

“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” – Carl Sagan, Wonder & Skepticism

“Holy shit,” he said. “That is a dead body underneath that tarp.”

It was a Sunday morning. The air was quiet; many Columbus residents, I imagine, were seated in church pews. Nat and I were leaving the hotel where we’d spent the weekend and headed to the Ohio State University for the final day of the 2010 Secular Student Alliance (SSA) National Conference. We were in a hurry – conference proceedings were to begin at 10:30 AM with a panel on interfaith, and I was on said panel.

We were very glad to be leaving this particular hotel. Our room smelled like a wet dog, the carpet was sticky, and every available piece of fabric was stained. We aren’t high maintenance – just last month we slept on the ground for five days while camping in the mountains – but this place was something else. To cope with the horror we felt about being stuck there, we spent the weekend jokingly referring to it as the “Murder 8.” As we packed our things and went to check out, we made one last joke to bid the hotel farewell and alleviate the nervousness I experience anytime I do public speaking. “Bye bye, Murder 8,” we chuckled.

Boy, did we eat our words when we stepped into that rainy Sunday morning and saw yellow police tape outside our room’s window, crime scene investigators busily snapping shots, and a single hand protruding from beneath a blue plastic sheet.

Neither of us knew what to do. There was nothing to do, really, except get in the car. Man, I spend too much time worrying about minute things, I mused as we drove away, sick to our stomachs.

Trying to put the image out of my mind, I readied myself to talk about secular participation in the interfaith movement. The panel was comprised of myself, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work with Atheists named Jonathan Weyer, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics. During the panel, I spoke strongly in favor of interfaith cooperation and why I think it is important for secular folks to engage with religious communities in a respectful manner. I thought it went really well, but I admit I was surprised at the end when a significant number of the questions during the Q&A were directed only at me and seemed a bit pointed.

After the panel was done and the panelists had all shaken hands and expressed our mutual gratitude, several students approached me and asked me to denounce things some of my interfaith allies have said about Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). I said that I could not – and then everyone was asked to be seated for the next session. I never got the chance to reconnect with these students as I had to catch an early flight home. I can’t help but feel bad about the anger they expressed and my inability to offer anything to soothe them.

Noticing a trend here? Humor, shock, nervousness, anger: experiences get processed through emotions. They were the cornerstone of the conference experience; both my own – the friendships I built, the anxiety I felt before speaking, the shock of a random death – and those of others – the impassioned questions, the anger and hurt of some students, and the community constructed. Whatever we do, emotions narrate our experiences and guide our actions.

Perhaps it is useful at this point to share an illuminating conversation I had with a man I now count as a personal friend: Jesse Galef, Communications Director for the SSA, adjunct blogger for The Friendly Atheist, and stellar breakdancer. Ours has been an evolving dialogue: it started at the SSA New England Leadership Summit I attended this past April, continued during a conference call we were both on around EDMD, and most recently extended before an audience at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference last month where we were on a panel together.

During a break in the conference schedule Jesse and I returned to this ongoing conversation on our different approaches – what are often caricatured as “aggressive” Atheism and “accommodationism” – and why we practice them. At one point in the conversation, Jesse identified his number one goal as working toward a world rooted in “rationality.” I’m not sure why I didn’t fully recognize this before, but that is not a goal we share. I’m more interested in cultivating communities and relationships that develop broad coalitions of solidarity across identified lines of difference. Relationships of mutuality and respect. Relationships that account for – you guessed it – emotion.

Our approaches are different because our end goals are different. We both believe we are being pragmatic; it’s just that I pragmatically don’t think a solely “rational” world is achievable. Nor, emotionally, do I think it is preferable. Emotions do and always will play a sizable role in the decisions we make, and I think that when we try to divorce our actions from our emotions and rest entirely on “reason,” we end up making pretty irrational decisions.

panel

Three fourths of the interfaith panel. (photo c/o Roy Natian)

Take, for example, a recent blog post by my fellow panelist Hemant Mehta, who is also on the SSA’s Board of Directors. Writing about Anne Rice’s declaration that, though she still believes in Christ, she can no longer identify as a Christian due to the tradition’s historical bigotry, Hemant dismissed her statement and said he’d “pay more attention” if she abandoned her religious beliefs altogether. As Skeptigirl’s response post wisely notes, Hemant displays zero compassion in this reflection. There’s no sign of sympathy or even a practical appreciation for the ways in which her move advances our cause. There’s no emotion there, only superiority.

I love the Secular Student Alliance because they empower young people to create communities. They do such important work, and I am honored to be a member, contribute to the eMpirical, and speak at their conference. I celebrate where our ambitions overlap – I too want to see more secular students be vocal about our identity and actively create communities. But where we diverge is that I worry about the identity we model when engaging in things like EDMD, a contentious issue that came up several times throughout the conference and repeatedly in our interfaith panel.

I walked away from the conference solid in my conviction that things like EDMD and Blasphemy Day are bad for our community because they symbolize our worst characteristics and attempts at emotion-denying: a tendency toward intellectual superiority and a struggle to empathize with different experiences and identities (these go hand in hand). We say “it’s just humor” as if everyone should be expected to see the joke in how we mock their central tenants. I can’t help but notice in this a stark difference between humor that elucidates a truth and humor that just dehumanizes.

I’m proud of my non-religious identity but I also know that secularism is a sign of profound privilege, and we ought to exercise caution in how we navigate this reality. As Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry, keynote speaker Greta Christina, and others rightly noted, our movement is dominated by upper-class, educated, heterosexual white men. Why is this? Most people do not have the luxury of sitting around debating the existence of God, let alone taking an entire weekend to attend a conference on secularism, because they are preoccupied by just trying to live, to eat, to survive. Some reconcile the struggles and challenges of their existence with a belief in God.

I don’t think we need to treat “believing something different” and “sharing in humanity” as mutually exclusive entities. Our secularism needn’t deprive those who do not share in it of their dignity. We have the luxury of being able to devote our time to critical thinking and inquiry, so let’s use them for good. Let’s stop seeing the world in dichotomies of black and white, right and wrong, rational and emotional, secular and “delusional.” They just aren’t very useful; the world is full of information and we shouldn’t close ourselves off from any of it by thinking we’ve reached “the truth” while boasting that others haven’t. We must always aim for empathy and humility, not unabashed assuredness. If we cannot, we are just as guilty of what we accuse the evangelical religious of – exclusive truth claims that promote oppression.

Instead of cracking so many jokes at another’s expense, let’s listen to more stories, like the one my mother shared on this blog about how she learned to embrace the legitimacy of choices that differed from her own. As Eboo Patel, April Kunze and Noah Silverman write in Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work: “Personal storytelling moves the encounter from competing notions of ‘Truth’ to varied human experiences of life, which possess the unique quality of being both infinite and common.” If we tell our stories and listen to those of others, we’re likely to learn a lot.

We may not believe in souls but we can be soulful. Let’s stop focusing so much energy on how we are “right” and on “promoting rationality,” lest we forget about our hearts. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive either. To quote from something I’ve written before:

My mom occasionally recounts a story about me as a child, a time I corrected a kid at a birthday party for calling sherbet “ice cream.” She always laughs when she tells it… As you might guess, in my youth being “right” held ultimacy. I corrected everyone who I felt was “wrong.” With age and experience, my perspective has shifted. I do believe it is better to be “good” than to be “right.”

I may not always get this right, but I’m trying to practice what I preach the best that I can. It helps me to ask in any given situation that begins to move into conflict: isn’t being loving more important than being “right”? A quick perusal of human history shows that when one person’s idea of “rationality” trumps basic human decency for others, we all suffer. Let’s learn from our mutual past.

Today I am not spending my time worrying about the folks who offered negative appraisal of my comments during the interfaith panel. I think instead of the family of that nameless person killed outside of my hotel.

I wonder how they are coping; I wonder if they are praying. I could understand if that family was appealing to a God in the face of such tragedy – I remember only too well the times I turned to God when experiencing loss.

Ask yourself this: if they are turning to God to process this experience, would you go up to them and tell them that they are wrong? Foolish? Deluded?

I shudder at that thought almost as much as I do the unshakable image of that blue tarp with a single hand exposed, reaching out for something. What he was reaching for we cannot know, but we can feel it if we try.

If you read this blog, you’re familiar with Cambridge Broxterman. She was one of the women who did “Back in Their Burkas Again” at the American Atheist Convention this last spring; after I wrote about my experience there, Cambridge read my blog and offered an impassioned video response. We then got into an exchange that prompted her to post another video about me, which I then responded to here on NonProphet Status.

Sure enough, we were both at the Secular Student Alliance National Conference this last weekend, and — surprise, surprise — she decided to make a video about it. Please make sure to watch this one the whole way through:

Gods, Gays and Goodbyes

July 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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