“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.

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Sorry for the limited number of posts recently — I hit the ground running upon returning to Chicago and immediately got sick. I’m still a bit ill but have continued to work in the interim. It’s little wonder I fell sick; it was a long and winding trek. I started at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) in New York City / Newark, NJ, stopped by Washington, D.C. for some meetings, headed back north to Rochester, NY for Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference and, finally, made my was to Boston for the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit. My first conference, AAC, was a mixed bag at best (1, 2, 3). The second, IUC, was consistently excellent (1, 2, 3).

SSAHow did the SSA Summit hold up? In a way, it was like a hybrid of the previous two experiences. Like AAC, I was in significant disagreement with many who were there (as opposed to IUC, where we all rallied behind a common cause). Unlike AAC, however, I found some pretty significant allies and all present put their best foot forward, constantly working to hear the other out and take her or his idea seriously. Respectful dialogue ruled the day.

There were many sessions — 18 in total, plus the MythBusters on Humanism event — but I want to highlight a specific few that I found especially interesting:

Creating a Semester Programming Arc & Engaging Local Freethought Groups

This session was facilitated by Jim Addoms, a graduate student at Syracuse University. He talked about his experiences founding a secular student group. I thought he had an interesting story but was confused by the lengthy portion of his presentation that addressed the fact that there is a lot of interfaith going on at Syracuse and that his group developed as a critique against it. He especially focused on the COEXIST movement, which he called “silly.” Addoms spent a lot of his talk saying that he has problems with COEXIST, saying there are “real differences” between religions. I’m not certain why he saw that as opposed to interfaith; the new interfaith movement recognizes and acknowledges the reality that we have distinctly different views but pragmatically declares that we need to find a way to disagree and still live in a way that transcends tolerance and prioritizes collaboration over critiquing one another’s religious beliefs. Unfortunately, though his presentation was very professional and it sounded like they have a lot going on at Syracuse, he spent a lot of time talking about how he thinks COEXIST is stupid and I found it to be distracting from the session’s goal of actually talking about developing secular programming.

Churchless Charity and the Philosophy of Philanthropy

This session, led by Secretary of the Harvard Secular Society and Founder of National Secular Service Day Kelly Bodwin, was an excellent exposition on the importance of engaging in service work as secular individuals. She talked about “reclaiming service NSSDas a secular tradition,” saying that while secular service’s primary goal is helping others, it also facilitates a secondary goal: “helping ourselves by building community, establishing traditions, and breaking stereotypes [because] we have an image problem.”

Bodwin raised the question of what kind of community are we creating, highlighting the differences between such figureheads as Greg Epstein and Christopher Hitchens and asking: “how we can build a community that encompasses all of these perspectives and stop the infighting? Through service.” She declared that service brings people together, revealing that even her Catholic roommate came for their National Secular Service Day event. Her idea is very similar to the one propagated by the Interfaith Youth Core — that service brings together diverse people, such as the various divergent positionings in the secular community, and unites them under a common cause organized around a shared value.

She called secular service “the sincerest form of flattery,” saying “we are emulating the parts of the church we like. The church does some great things, so we should imitate these good models.” She also said that service work will serve as act of self-definition in helping to break stereotypes about the non-religious, proposing that “actions speak louder than words – we need to show that we’re good, not just tell.”

Under the Magnifying Glass

Shelley Mountjoy, Founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University, gave a helpful presentation on how to present yourself publicly if you’re in a position of leadership. She asked attendees to consider the image mountjoypresented by one’s presence in social networking forums. Asked Mountjoy: “Are you living your values? Before you an think about the image you’re conveying, think about the person that you are, about your actions and how they can be interpreted.” This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about. As someone who has taken on a public voice through this blog, speaking engagements, the workshops I lead, and so on, I’ve considered the kind of image I’m presenting on Facebook and other websites. My Twitter account is linked to this blog – when I tweet about going to a bar called “Whiskeys,” how is that being interpreted? I guess there’s only so much I can do. Those who truly know me know my lifestyle; others can only imagine. Still, I want to take stock of my priorities, discern what of me is most important to advertise, and employ discretion.

Working with Local Groups

goddardDebbie Goddard, Campus Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Inquiry, facilitated a session on ways of reaching out to other Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, Freethought, Skeptic, et al. groups, suggesting ways to collaborate in spite of possible differences in a way that reminded me some of the interfaith movement. She talked about seeking out allies, ways of reaching out, what other groups can offer and what your group can offer them, and more. She also offered keen words of advice that resonated strongly with me: “If you don’t like what’s out there, work to change it, or create something you do like!” I also really appreciated how she highlighted the need to work with what if often seen as “our opposition” or “the other side” — religious groups.

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

This session, lead by blogger and writer Greta Christina, was one of my favorites even though Christina and I disagree about many things. She began by saying, “Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.” Christina said the community has done a pretty good job of gaining visibility, but said “I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out.” Christina argued that the secular movement needs to put more energy into creating communities akin to religious ones, and on this she and I are in absolute agreement.

Christina then moved on to a very thought-provoking idea — that the secular community ought to “let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.” The idea that both positions will Christinaadvance the “secular agenda” in different ways is something I’ve heard time and time again from secular folks (unless they are telling me that my position isn’t welcome), but I’m still not totally convinced it is right. While the queer rights movement certainly benefited from having both diplomats and firebrands, the firebrands of the queer community offended by being explicit about their queer identities, and the diplomats worried about offending more popular sensibilities. This is not a perfect parallel because the firebrands of the secular movement want to see religion disappear, whereas the firebrands of the queer movement did not work to remove the presence of heterosexuality, just to make their own identities known in a radical way. The diplomats of the queer movement agreed with the firebrands in terms of core message but disagreed when it came to how to best bring about change; I on the other hand, as one who sees certain benefits to religion’s presence in the world, am on an entirely different page than secular firebrands who want to see religion done away with. I understand the point she was trying to make, but I don’t think it translates all that well.

She also raised another very interesting point — that the queer movement has succeeded in spite of differences in identification language and that the secular movement should “not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.” I agree with her; though I’ve said that “Atheist” is a problematic term, I also am fine with others who identify as such if that is what she or her prefers. We’ve more important things to address as a community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christina declared that “Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m consistently surprised by how much the secular movement is dominated by heterosexual, middle-class, white men. It isn’t that such individuals shouldn’t participate; of course they should. But as Christina said, it is important to be intentional about making the community a place where these individuals are not just allowed to participate and gain positions of leadership but a place that invites them to do so. I’ve been surprised by how few queer folks I’ve meet in the secular community, so as a queer it was great to see Christina speak about the parallels between our movements.

One thing that I would’ve liked to have seen explored was an excellent analogy Todd Stiefel made at the American Atheist Convention between the queer rights movement’s utilization of straight allies to advance queer acceptance to Atheists aligning with religious groups. I actually raised the question during the Q&A, to which Christina rebutted that, unlike queerness to heterosexuality, Atheism is innately opposed to religiosity and presents a direct negation of religious ideas. And while I understand this, I don’t think it means that religious-secular alliances are an impossibility. In my interfaith cooperation efforts I have not found that my godlessness has presented the kind of challenge to my religious collaborators that Christina has suggested it might; perhaps that is because I have not positioned myself in opposition to them.

You can find the full text of her speech here.

starkAddress from U.S. Congressman Pete Stark

Three years ago U.S. Congressman Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, filled out survey saying that he did not believe in God, making him the highest ranked politician to openly declare that he does not. His short address was a call to arms in which he said: “we hear from Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party every day; it is very important that you make your voices heard as well.”

Keynote by Rebecca Goldstein

International Academy of Humanism Laureate Rebecca Goldstein, who’s been mentioned on this blog before, gave the conference keynote, a lecture on “how to answer theists who accuse you of being unable to tell right from wrong.”

She began by declaring that “moral facts are weird. What kind of facts can ethical facts be? They seem different from other facts: they don’t describe how things are, but how things ought to be. ‘Oughtness,’ or normativity, means that ethical facts can’t lie there limp and inert but must exert some sort of ‘oomph.’ [They] must contain a motivational component.” Goldstein critiqued the oft-proclaimed Atheist mantra that there are “no moral facts,” stating: “Don’t say it because it will confirm [the religious] opinion [about you], and don’t say it because it’s wrong.” She used Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, or the question of whether something is right because the gods say so, or if the gods say something is right because it is right. Said Goldstein: “If God wants goldsteinyou to do it because it is right, then that’s the reason and reference to God’s choices is redundant. Or his choices are mere whims, caprices.” She quoted Bertrand Russel’s “Why I Am Not A Christian,” and then moved into a discussion of secular ethics, saying, “if religious grounds aren’t [going to] do it… what grounds can we offer?” Goldstein said that just as “both physics and ethics begin with intuitions,” “our moral theories begin with intuitions that, unsurprisingly, concern ourselves.”

Referencing Spinoza and Kant, Goldstein suggested that the development of ethics, then, involve a going beyond the self, a cultivation of empathy, and a recognition that members of groups outside our own have the same rights to dignity as members of our own (which, to me, sounded a lot like my impetus for interfaith advocacy). She declared that it isn’t that there is a universal but that things can be made universalizable. “Can there be a morality without god?” Goldstein asked. “It’s hard to say god would be relevant. So what is relevant? Knowing intuitively that I matter. Reason can’t be unique to me. The moral emotions endowered to us by evolution contain a folk morality including an inchoate grasp that someone else matters… but the bias toward our own selves and our own kin and kind must be corrected by reason.” Her talk was heady and important; listening to her speak, it was easy to see why Goldstein was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” prize.

Check back for my report on the second exciting day!

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