Making the Internet Moral

November 29, 2010

workPlease check out my latest blog for the Washington Post On Faith, about the internet, morality, and State of Formation! [Update: This post has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue!] Below is a selection; it can be read in full at the Washington Post:

Is the Internet destroying our morals?

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning that the Internet was “numbing” young people and creating an “educational emergency – a challenge that we can and must respond to with creative intelligence.”

Speaking at a Vatican conference on culture, Benedict also expressed concern that “a large number of young people” are “establish[ing] forms of communication that do not increase humaneness but instead risk increasing a sense of solitude and disorientation.”

Benedict’s comments created an uproar, but he has a point. Studies show that Internet addiction is linked to depression; in 2007, the comedy website Cracked offered a surprisingly moving take on this phenomenon titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.”

It’s tempting, knowing this, to suggest that we all take a step away from our keyboards, turn off our computers, and go find a field to frolic in. Continue reading at the Washington Post.

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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.

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 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.

share your secular storyTwo of the brilliant winning entries from our Share Your Secular Story contest have been featured on Killing the Buddha (“a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches”)! The first was by Corinne Tobias, a 20-something lost and found in Northwest Arkansas who blogs at Will Work For Food Girl. Tobias was selected by the judges as the winner of the Moral Imagination category. Below is an excerpt of her entry; it can be read in full at Killing the Buddha:

Mistakes Have Been Made, Lessons Will Be Learned

His top hat jilts to the left as we make another turn in the curvy Ozark road. Glancing cautiously at him again, I think he resembles Slash of Guns n’ Roses fame. It’s uncanny and bizarre, sitting in a pickup truck next to this character. The top hat wrapped in a skull-and-crossbones scarf isn’t where the resemblance ends. His dark hair is long and thick with curls. His skin has a sallow olive tone and his eyes are as weary as if he had spent the evening prior to this afternoon smashing things against the walls of his hotel room to impress groupies. His raspy southern accent breaks my concentration from mentally observing him. Even though I’m no longer looking at him, it makes me feel as uncomfortable as if he had caught me staring. “My mom drove us off the road right here,” he says almost optimistically.

My eyes follow the tip of his finger to a ledge with a considerable drop off. The tops of trees peek over a guardrail that I assume wasn’t present at the time of the accident. “Me and my brother. We were in the back of the truck,” he says. I brace myself for what I know is going to follow. “Call it a miracle or an act of God…” he begins, and instantly I feel myself beginning to tune him out.

I don’t want to hear him talk about Jesus or how the experience brought him to appreciate all that God gave him. I don’t want to hear about divine intervention. I start to think about something else. I can’t help but compare the mountains to the flatness of home. Continue reading at Killing the Buddha.

The second entry featured on Killing the Buddha is a submission by Vandana Goel LaClair, a Chicago-based freelance writer, filmmaker, and photographer who tied with Jeff Pollet (whose submission was featured in the Washington Post’s Faith Divide) as winner of the Interfaith category. Below is an excerpt of her entry; it can be read in full at Killing the Buddha:

The Day Mumbai Unraveled

This is a story that begins in Mumbai, India. You see, Mumbai, my birth city, is a place where cultures, religions, languages, and opinions collide as unapologetically as the wild, untamed streaks in a Jackson Pollock painting. Within this mosaic of a city, I was raised in a household where the devotional prayers we sang to Lord Krishna on his birthday were so convincing that before I knew it, I was stealing out of my covers in the middle of the night and using a stepping stool to retrieve and dive into slabs of butter with nothing more than my fingers and a strong sense of camaraderie for a god known for mischief and love of butter/buttermilk. Somewhere between being egged on to bathe the statues of gods in our mini-temple at home and living eight years away in several different places with spiritual axioms I’ve picked up along the way, I’ve found that my wide array of experiences has replaced a sense of religious affiliation with that of an equally powerful one: a love for humanity and belief in the human spirit.

My most impacting experience dates back to several years ago. Soon after I turned 8, religious fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. This set off the Mumbai riots of 1992 in which approximately one thousand Muslims and Hindus were killed. One afternoon as we were being rushed home from school, I heard a comment amidst the chatter that my neighborhood had been bombed. That afternoon we drove home in an indescribably fearful and disbelieving state of mind. There are no words to describe driving towards your home not knowing if it exists anymore. Continue reading at Killing the Buddha.

For more secular stories from our contest, check out runner-up Rory Fenton’s submission and Nate Mauger’s example story for NonProphet Status.

Hey folks! Check out my latest guest blog for the Washington Post, a collaboration with Chelsea Guenther about our experience at Common Grounds (which I blogged about here and here):

Shared faith in the earth

Today’s guest bloggers are Chelsea Guenther and Chris Stedman. Chelsea is a graduate of Agnes Scott College who will be coordinating the multifaith living community for the Cal Aggie Christian Association at the University of California – Davis beginning this fall, and Chris is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School who blogs at NonProphet Status.

Images of black-coated birds and oil-filled waters have flooded our television and computer screens for two months now, and it feels as if there is no end in sight. For the first time in years, we are being bombarded daily with visceral reminders of what can happen when we take our planet for granted. For anyone concerned with ecological ethics, it is not a pretty sight.

One of us is a committed Christian, the other a Secular Humanist. We couldn’t disagree more on the idea of God or what will happen to us when our bodies expire. There is, however, one very large belief we share: The earth is our home.

Two weeks ago, in the midst of the ongoing environmental crisis in the Gulf, a religiously diverse group of students and professionals from across the United States came together at Common Ground, a retreat on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. Hosted by the chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College, and Andover-Newton Theological School, we united to discuss the role moral communities can play in advancing environmental efforts. In the beautiful woods of Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT, the fresh air, bright sun and pounding rain reminded us of the world we share in all of its natural, fragile splendor.

In our largely urban and industrial culture, we have undergone something of a collective memory loss. Though it should be obvious, it can be easy to forget about the concrete things we all have in common. We share physical space in our communities. We breathe the same air, drink water from the same tap and eat food from the same land. In short, our planet is mutual.

All we have and all that we are depend on the health of this place. Whether we got here by careful creation by a loving God or sheer luck amidst randomness, we have nowhere else that we can live. Be it a magnificent gift or a profound occurrence of chance, this planet is ours to repair or destroy. We may disagree on whether or not there is an afterlife, but we know that life in the here and now depends on our taking action together. With a Gulf full of oil and toxic chemical dispersants already impacting the livelihood of Gulf area residents, it couldn’t be clearer that taking care of ourselves means taking care of the Earth.

This is not a call to save our planet from the mess we have made although, as we know only too well, that is necessary. This is a call to open our eyes and look around – to touch the earth and know that we are a part of it because it sustains us. And it is a call to connect with one another. This relationship is reciprocal: The more we connect to the Earth, the more we will connect to one another. The same is true in reverse.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

Check out one of the winning entries from our Share Your Secular Story contest, “Walking together” by Jeff Pollet (tied winner of Interfaith category) as published this week on the Washington Post Faith Divide blog:

Walking together

Today’s guest blogger is Jeff Pollet, a technical writer who lives in Oakland, Calif. He occasionally blogs about men and feminism at Feminist Allies. Jeff’s post is one of the winning entries from NonProphet Status’ Share Your Secular Story, a contest to promote stories of secular identity and interfaith cooperation.

On a strangely warm, sunny spring day in San Francisco, I found myself part of a crowd of hundreds of people walking down the middle of the street. It was a peaceful yet passionate crowd, and we walked in solidarity. Police officers on foot and on motorcycles blocked cross traffic as we wound our way from Justin Herman Plaza through downtown, through the Mission, and right into Dolores park. I walked with a close friend, but really I felt connected to all of the hundreds of people, and as I walked I couldn’t help but feel joy and pride at what we were doing, what we all were doing together. I smiled a reverent smile, and I felt something new: I felt a sense of passionate community unlike any I had felt before. Some folks started chanting, and to my own amazement, I chanted along with them.

I’ve never been very comfortable in crowds. I suspect it’s a deeply-rooted neurological sort of thing, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the particular sort of anxiousness that a crowd causes in me. One of my earliest memories is of feeling anxious in a room full of people who were all sitting quietly, listening to one man speak. My mother had thought that it would be a good idea to expose me to some religion, even though she wasn’t religious herself. The Methodist church we tried out didn’t really grab hold of either one of us, and it mainly just made me anxious. Youth group amounted to some little bit of bible reading followed by an awful lot of touch football. I didn’t have much interest in either, and my mom, perhaps thinking a little exposure was enough, didn’t press the issue–there was always guitar lessons and Boy Scouts to take up my time.

As I grew older, for various reasons, apathy toward organized religion turned to anger. Street preachers loudly condemning my friends to hell infuriated me, and for a long time I thought my only choices in response were to ignore them, or to yell back. I mostly chose to yell back, which amused the street preachers and filled me with even more anxiety. I was the portrait of a stereotypical angry young atheist. It was when I tried to make connections with other atheists that I began to question my motives and actions. I went to meetings of atheists and certainly found some like-minded folks, but I never found a sense of community, and what community I did find seemed to be fueled by the same sort of anger that I was now, finally, tiring of.

My anger softened. It didn’t become apathy, because I became fascinated in the ways in which most folks around me go through their days quietly oblivious to religious differences–kids go to school, adults go to work; folks go to dinner and to the movies and mostly our religious differences don’t crop up. I was on the outside looking in, given that most folks say they believe in God. And as my anger began to slip away, I realized that, though I would likely be an atheist for the rest of my life, I was going to live in a world where most folks were not like me in that way. I began to wonder how I would shape my life to live in that world. And, frankly, I was coming up with nothing. I just couldn’t get into their heads, couldn’t put myself in their shoes, couldn’t fathom exactly what was going to replace my anger.

Yet I eventually found myself walking with hundreds of people, walking down the street in protest of violence against women. I was walking with these people to raise money for (and awareness about!) San Francisco Women Against Rape. I was surrounded by people of all genders, sexualities, races, classes and, yes, religions. And we were all united, in solidarity, walking in order that the world tomorrow might be a better place for all of us, a place with less sexual violence than it has today–here was something we all agreed on. We chanted with a religious fervor, even though we were all from different religions, and non-religions. I have begun to recognize that I can have a sense of community that mirrors some religious communities, made up of the myriad people who want a better world for all people, regardless of what god they do (or do not!) worship. I can walk with them, regardless of religion, and help create some good changes in this world, rather than stand on the corner yelling back.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

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