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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/11.

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

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

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

mosque protest

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

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

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

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

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

panel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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