Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted a guest piece reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” In today’s post, Nick considers Park51 and the state of American dialogue. This one’s lengthy but is totally worth your time — take it away, Nick!

dialogueAmerica is a nation of 300 million experts.

This phenomenon is everywhere. For proof, see: news articles that ask high school students their thoughts on world affairs.  News channels composed of all talking heads and no news.

Although we may not be the nation composed of the best and brightest, as any study on public education systems will tell you, research shows that America turns out the most self-confident people in the world. We are a nation of certainty, of seemingly impenetrable ideological divides. For instance, a study by Columbia University professor Lisa Anderson showed that the September 11th attacks only served to strengthen Americans’ previously held political views. Whatever media you consumed defined how you viewed the events that transpired that day.

Thus, our ideological lenses define this certainty. We are a nation so cocksure that we will die for our beliefs. We will fight bloody, protracted wars for our beliefs. Furthermore, in the Age of the Global Media Village, we will argue endlessly on television about them. And Lindsay Lohan notwithstanding, what issue has been argued more extensively as of late than that insidious “Ground Zero Mosque?”

The Park51 (aka Cordoba House) debate seems to be the topic du jour just about every nuit, confounding the talking heads, setting the blogosphere on fire and making my “Park51” Google Alerts go crazy. If you have been living under a rock, here’s the deal: a guy named Imam Faisal wants to build an Islamic community center, which will feature a gym, a restaurant and a mosque… near Ground Zero.

This building will not be visible from Ground Zero and will revitalize the empty Burlington Coat Factory store annihilated by 9/11 debris, but this is all moot. As any lawyer can tell you: it’s not about the facts, it’s about the argumentation.

For instance, check out a recent piece by Glenn Beck and friends, thankfully available for viewing on GlennBeck.tv. What you will see is commentary on a Special Report by Keith Olbermann; however, Beck offers oddly little in the way of genuine commentary or analysis. Watch the clip and then name me five actual criticisms he has of Keith Olbermann’s actual rhetoric. Can you even name two? I watched it twice and had a hard time remembering one.

In the interests of fairness, Keith Olbermann’s program falls prey to many of the same tendencies as Beck’s: the targets just differ. While I like Olbermann considerably and find his reasoning sound and his facts to be accurate, he has a proud history of disengaging the issue. The basic structure of an Olbermann broadcast is meant to simulate discourse without the risk of actual conversation. The format runs as follows: K.O. shows a clip of someone he doesn’t agree with, talks about how he doesn’t agree with them and then brings on another person who doesn’t agree with them either. Lather, rinse, repeat ten times. Show’s over. We all get paid. Even in Special Reports like the one above, he engages in highly effective polemics, but what debate has actually taken place here?

In no case are the opponents on equal playing fields, as the end goal is not dialogue or discussion but simply to look right. As a liberal-minded chap who relishes relieving his TiVo of episodes of Real Time with Bill Maher, my poor, sweet Bill is no better. He never brings on ideological opponents he cannot crush; he never engages in a debate he cannot win. Did you see his documentary on faith, Religulous? Man, those poor religious folks were sitting ducks. Not even once did Bill interview someone who could truly engage him. Michael Moore is even worse. Are his documentaries entertaining and uncommonly riveting? Absolutely. But Moore is a filmmaker and entertainer above all else; he’s not a journalist or even much of a fact-checker.

What we can see here is not debate or dialogue but what Al Gore entitled The Assault on Reason. Focusing on the American political system, Gore writes that our American system of democracy is broken and we must fix it. In a telling passage, he writes: “When fear crowds out reason, many people feel a greater need for the comforting certainty of absolute faith. And they become more vulnerable to the appeals of… leaders who profess absolute certainty in simplistic explanations portraying all problems as manifestations of the struggle between good and evil.” In the above Glenn Beck broadcast, we can see that Beck draws the lines between good and evil, between us and them, very overtly.

In the broadcast, Beck begins with a mockery of NPR, of its perceived elite values, its perceived small audience. At first glance, these attacks seem rather inapropos to his discussion; however, his argument seems to be predicated only on these values-based attacks. The joke is that Olbermann speaks to a small, elite audience about silly, elite things, whereas Beck and his minions are the voices of the people. Fod God’s sake, Beck’s show has over 10 million listeners! Even more interestingly, his only attack on K.O. is over his track record on defending Christianity, which hardly needs defending. Note that this is a different discussion entirely, one that deals with the role the majority faith should play in a plural society. The topic at hand is about protecting minorities from religious bigotry, about Islamophobia. Glenn is disengaging the issue.

And so it has been throughout the entire debate: one without compassionate middle ground.

One side frames Park51 as an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, the other a “Ground Zero Mosque.” One sees Cordoba as a symbol of interfaith cooperation, the other as a symbol of Muslim domination in the West.

I know exactly where I stand on this issue: I support Park51 and the right of peaceful Muslims to build whatever they like wherever they please. I believe in an America that works towards a building a tolerant society where my Muslim friends and neighbors don’t have to hear about their co-religionists getting stabbed in the street. But to leave the response at “I support _______ because _______” obscures too many of the underlying themes of the discussion.

In analyzing those themes, we take away from the Park51 debate the same thing we take away from Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. That words matter, what we define things as and how we talk about things matters. In a recent Salon piece, bluntly titled “The Media Duped Us,” Sept. 11 widow Alissa Torres details the way Park51 media coverage specifically intended to make victims of the tragedy experts on the debate. Torres recounts an e-mail she got from a New York reporter who was “trying to look for family members who think building a mosque at the site is a bad idea.” Clearly, the unnamed journalist was not looking for just any opinion; he wanted his lead to bleed America. Even the questionnaire Torres receives from CNN asks how she felt about the proposed site being “this close to Ground Zero?”

What is interesting here is that both outlets were looking for a certain type of expert, a pre-packaged opinion to appeal to a certain component of the discussion, mostly likely defined by their ideological target audience. Although we used to define this kind of niche creation as the “Daily Me,” the post-modern implications have become far more widespread. Our media, how we follow it and what media framings we privilege create the “Daily Us.” In internalizing our current events this way, we only educate ourselves to comprehend part of the debate. In discussing the value of dialogue in society, Al Gore states that “the superiority [of democracy] lies in the open flow of communication,” but what we are witnessing are media-created and self-enforced rhetorical divisions. The language we use to define our world matters, for our words define our thinking and our action.

As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, I’ve been tracking the progress of the Park51 debate for some time, and although the issue has died down as the media moves onto new headlines, the tone has not changed much. We may not quite live in two Americas, but we Americans are ideologically divided. And if my work around religious dialogue has taught me anything, communicating and being heard these days is hard.

In the Age of the Internet, we are bombarded with more media stimuli than we can process. We are lost, separated by a media culture that profits off of those divisions, making us all into tiny niche markets. But if we are to come to some resolution on this issue and foster the change we say we want, we need to at least come to the table democratically, as equals, and engage.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.

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I have a new blog up over at the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, The Faith Divide. This is my third piece for the them — the other two can be found here and here. The piece addresses Molly Norris and “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which I have written about several times. [Update: This piece has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.]

Below is an excerpt; it can be read in full at The Faith Divide:

Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists.

How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn’t? Poor Norris – imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.

However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.

For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: “The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out… is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.” Continue reading at the Faith Divide.

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.

A Call to (Open) Arms

August 23, 2010

goodcopbadcopThe first in our series of guest posts by some other NonProphets comes from secular student superstar Lucy Gubbins. Lucy, a personal hero of mine and co-founder of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists (which was recently given the “Best Community” Award by the Secular Student Alliance), tackles the question of whether religion-tolerant atheists are truly welcome in the secular movement. Take it away, Lucy!

Firebrands and diplomats. “Accommodationists” and “New Atheists.” When the question of religious tolerance comes up in a group of nonbelievers, whether it’s a keynote address or a conversation among friends, nothing gets tempers rising quite like the question: In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?

As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both.

If you take a look at any American secular organization, any of the best-selling atheist authors, or any popular atheist blog, it’s easy to see that the “Bad Cop” side is pretty well represented. Go to any atheist-centered conference and it’s a matter of course to have your eyes and ears filled with snarky remarks from the MCs and speakers, and presentations entirely built on forced religious mockeries. Scour the shelves in the Religion section of any bookstore and find the imperious titles of all the trendy atheist books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Fighters of delusion and drawers of Mohammed, rejoice! — we’ve got you covered.

What happens, though, when the “Good Cops” start showing up? What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?

Everyone is always eager to say that in the secular community, both “firebrands” and “diplomats” are needed. But the truth is that the “diplomats,” the “accommodationists” — the atheists who don’t view religious people as delusional imbeciles, and who are willing to be respectful of faith — aren’t so sexy. Drop the names “Heidi Anderson” or “Chris Stedman” in a room full of atheists, and you’re guaranteed at least 3 simultaneous diatribes that could each go on for hours (much to my deep chagrin, I know this via personal experience). Even when I try to talk about the philosophy of the student group I co-founded and led for two years, the Alliance of Happy Atheists, listeners’ eyes seem to glaze over until they have a chance to say: “Well, what you do is cute. But we need the angry atheists, too.”

To be frank, I’m undecided on this point — I continually find myself disconnected and disheartened by the way members of what I once thought to be “my” movement approach the topic of religious tolerance. However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.

That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. When they’re the sole individuals encouraging polite, snark-less conversation with the faithful, let’s try to not storm out of the room in a huff. Like it or not, atheism desperately needs an image change, and this will only occur through the works of people willing to put anger aside and learn how to interact with religious people in a positive manner. Yes, we need the angry atheists too — but in my opinion, at a time of surplus in one area, let’s look to what we’re lacking in another.

So let’s make this movement the best it can possibly be. Let’s make sure all secular people — the lovers of confrontation, accommodation, and everyone in between — are welcomed with open arms into our community. And let’s make sure we’re empowering and supporting each other to do whatever we can to create a world where a secular humanist philosophy is seen as viable, moral, and maybe even normal.

And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers. And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything.

LucyGubbinsLucy Gubbins was born in east Tennessee and is a junior at the University of Oregon, where she co-founded the Alliance of Happy Atheists. AHA! is one of the largest and most active clubs on the UO campus, with a mission to humanize the image of nonbelief, create fellowship among secular students, and bridge the divide between faith and skepticism. Lucy studies linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology, and greatly hopes to find more support for interfaith work within the secular movement in the future.

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!

“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:

religionevilshirt

If I wear this to the next Atheist conference, maybe then I'll fit in!

Cambridge Broxterman, she of “Burkagate” infamy, has made another YouTube video about me. I’m not surprised this time — I guess I was kind of asking for it when I recalled that we had agreed to post our email exchange and, you know, finally got around to posting it. Her tone was a lot friendlier this time, which is encouraging because it gives me hope we’ll be able to have a non-awkward conversation when our paths finally cross again (which is great because I want to talk to her about her awesome body modifications… okay, sorry, tangent).

Anyway, she raised a legitimate point in her video — one I’ve been meaning to address again for some time now. (Thanks for the reminder!) In her video, Cambridge introduced who I am by saying:

He’s a nice guy — he seems to be nice and willing and open for discussion. But his view of himself within the whole Atheist community is just really strange to me… I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish and it’s frustrating… He’s very vocal about his… wanting to be on the side of the religious, and he’s very vocal about his political correctness, but then he saves all of that energy that he could be putting towards an area where I think would help the Atheist cause… [and he’s] turing on the Atheist community… He has no problem criticizing the Atheist community, but the religious community is just taboo to him it seems like, they’re just off limits. It’s really weird and I don’t think I understand what he’s trying to accomplish and I don’t really think he does either.

This is the second time this week I’ve been called nice with a caveat by someone online; earlier this week, Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance wrote over on the Friendly Atheist: “we disagree on a lot of interfaith issues, but he’s a nice guy.” (Thanks, folks! You’re nice too.) But Cambridge’s critique — that, no matter how nice I might be, religion is “off limits” to me — is one I’ve heard time and time again from other commenters on this blog, so I’d like to take this opportunity to address it.

I’ve tried to be clear on this blog that I am not some self-loathing secular pandering to religious others in an attempt to curry favor. I’m as proud to be godless as I am anything else about me. I suppose it requires a certain amount of bravery to live a publicly godless life — the idea that one can be good without God is still fairly radical in certain circles. But personally it just isn’t something I struggle with. I’m perfectly content with being a Secular Humanist, and I don’t spend a lot of time fretting about whether others think I’m a moral person or not for not believing in God.

Yet — and here’s where I may sound a bit, um, heretical — I also believe that the religious should be as celebratory about who they are as I am, and I suspect that if they are as comfortable with their identity as I am mine then they will embrace pluralism, as I have. I am then, for both of those reasons, more concerned with the way other secular folks approach the religious as across-the-board bad. I cannot help but suspect that our negative obsession with mocking religion is rooted in a lack of confidence in what we as a community have to offer, and wish to devote my energy toward working against such self-defeating antagonism. As I said in a post back in March:

NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference. And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.

Religion isn’t off limits to me, but tackling the difficult issues in religion isn’t really within the scope of NonProphet Status. I may think that religion has created a lot of problems in the world — as a former “Born Again” Christian and a queer person, I’ve experienced many of them firsthand. But point blank: this blog isn’t about critiquing religious beliefs or speaking out against harmful religious practices. It has a very specific purpose and I try my best to stick to that. NonProphet Status exists to name what I see as problematic components of the secular community and offer alternative perspectives of positive (instead of oppositional) secularism; to identify the behaviors of my fellow secularists that oppose pluralism (see a quick and helpful definition here) and to point to alternate modes of secularism that support it. I’ll let the Christians call out members of their community working against pluralism, the Muslims theirs, and so on. Ultimately, if I as a secularist condemn fundamentalist Christianity, it has a lot less power than if another Christian does it. So I want to put my energy where I believe it is best spent. And it is simply that: where I believe it is best spent. This is all just my opinion. So take it with a few grains of salt, if you will.

chris looking up

"Hey God, what's up? Oh, nothing?" - Get it?! See, I have a sense of humor... I swear to God. Oh, there I go again!

Where we have the most agency as a community is in how we behave, both internally and in how we approach those outside our walls — and, for those in our community who are concerned with how others perceive us, the most effective way to change hearts and minds is through relationships. And we won’t be able to have relationships with religious folks if our top priority is mocking the things they hold dear. I believe that such behavior will fundamentally limit who our movement will appeal to and will distract us from focusing on cultivating our own uniquely secular ethics. For those and other reasons — and not simply because I have an open appreciation for select religious insights — I see such antics as lose-lose for us. That is why I critique “blasphemy” so frequently and with such, erm, fervor.

I try to walk a fine line, and perhaps I err too heavily on the side of critiquing my own community. If I’ve hurt feelings, I apologize. My aim in doing this is to push my fellow secularists to reconsider how we engage the religious other, not to alienate. I appreciate the feedback I get and try to factor it into my approach, so keep it coming. And, as always, thank you for reading.

For some past examples of explanations of why I do what I do, please check out some of these posts:

Respecting Religion, Staying Secular

Picture This: When We Draw Muhammad, We Draw a Line

What’s Wrong With Happy Smiling Rainbows and Unicorns?

Speaking Up, or How Mo’Nique Showed Me the Light

Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk: Drawing a Divide With the “Draw Muhammad” Campaign

What Are We Fighting For?

twitterOne of the things I enjoy most about my work is how often the fruits of my labor still surprise me.

In seeking to build bridges between secular and religious communities, it is sometimes easy to get distracted by the numerous vocal detractors I encounter; particularly because the majority of critiques I get come from members of my own secular community. Because the work I do is so often met with criticism — negative comments on my blog, youtube videos calling me a coward, and even threatening robocalls — I am sustained when my efforts result in the realization of coalitions between communities that, prior to dialogue, seemingly stood in opposition. These unexpected connections, like a robust dialogue event I put together between Secular Humanists and Muslims, have become a trademark of what I do. And yet I continue to find myself surprised by the unlikely people this work draws in.

Last week my opinion piece for the Secular Student Alliance on “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” caught the attention of a conservative Christian who maintains the Twitter handle “SillyLiberals.” This account lists its name as “Anti Liberal” and has the following written out under the Bio field: “Liberalism: a false religion based on false hope, concocted by a Godless people. Btw, how is that whole hopey changey thing workin’ out for ya? Nobama 2012.” It seems unlikely that we could be any more different in our political positioning. It is safe to say that I’m pretty left of center in my thinking; meanwhile, this individual recently tweeted, “My favorite oxyMORONs: ‘Prochoice Christian’, ‘Gay Pride’, ‘Prochoice Post-op Tranny’ & let’s not forget ‘Liberal Pride.’ Silly liberals.”

And yet, to my surprise, I received a tweet from SillyLiberals shortly after my piece went up saying: “Good article! You may be the most sensible secularist I know of. Aside from that whole ‘Godless’ thing, you’re alright.” After clarifying that the latter part of the tweet was semi-sarcastic, SillyLiberals added: “I really did appreciate your sensibility. That’s what’s missing in the leadership of the ‘seculars’.” I tweeted back a note of gratitude for the compliment, stating that I think the secular community has a long way to go in how it engages with difference. SillyLiberals responded: “I agree with that 100% & I appreciate your diplomatic approach. It may only prove to be futile, but don’t give up!”

I believe that SillyLiberals is wrong about the futility of what I do, and I think our exchange proves it. This work is anything but futile; it is often dizzyingly fruitful. I cannot imagine another context in which such starkly diametrical individuals would’ve established a common ground. I do think, however, that SillyLiberals’ concerns are legitimate: in its frequently antagonistic posturing toward the religious, the secular community hasn’t exactly reassured the larger American populace of its best intentions. The alienating aim of many members of the secular community creates a self-fulfilling prophecy (ironic here, I know). I constantly hear secular folks bemoaning the reality that we are a disliked minority; yet moments later, we turn around and mock those who differ from us theologically. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot.

We are still a young movement that has a lot of growing up to do. With age comes humility and, hopefully, a desire to be open to the experiences of others so that we may learn from those who are radically different from us. Diplomacy is the only way to solve the systemic problems of our time, including anti-Atheist sentiments, and we cannot “fight the good fight” alone. As I said in the aforementioned SSA piece, “we have only ourselves to blame when [those we mock] decline to advocate for us in the future.” And we have only ourselves to blame for missing out on the opportunity to forge the unlikely alliances that will facilitate the social progress we claim to seek.

I am thrilled and honored that my work is building bridges across cavernous ideological differences. I believe it is an amazing testament to the power of dialogue and the goodness of being respectfully open to the experiences of others that a queer Secular Humanist can win over a staunch conservative by defending Muslims. Now this individual, despite our profound disagreement on pretty much everything, has opened his or her mind to the legitimacy of secular morality and the possibility of respectful interfaith and secular engagement. Such incredible moments are why I do this work.

We’re living in a globalized future in which we must diplomatically engage with people who maintain distinctly different identity markers. If a hardline, anti-gay conservative gets it, why do so many of my progressive, secular peers miss the mark? It’s time to refocus; to turn our arrows away from barbed religious critiques and aim for dialogue. This is how the secular community will change hearts and minds — even when limited to 140 character tweets.

ssa empiricalLast month, I was invited to write an opinion piece for the Secular Student Alliance‘s eMpirical on “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and explain why I disagree with it so strongly. Head on over to their website to check it out!

Many thanks to the SSA for asking me to weigh in on this; I’ve been honored to work with the organization several times now, and am really looking forward to speaking at their National Conference at the end of this month. Speaking of: you should come!

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