Today’s guest post is by Joshua Stanton, a man I am lucky to call both a good friend and a colleague at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue in my work as the Managing Director of State of Formation. In this post, Josh offers a thoughtful, personal reflection on why it is essential for the interfaith movement to stand up against anti-atheist rhetoric and action in the way that it does when particular religious communities come under fire. As an atheist, I couldn’t appreciate this post more. Many thanks to Josh for his important perspective, and for using his voice to advocate for people like me. Without further ado:

better togetherThe interfaith movement is beginning to rack up successes. While outbursts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (among other expressions of prejudice against religious communities) are nothing new, the growing and remarkably diverse chorus of voices trying to drown bigots out certainly is.

To take but one recent example, when the Park51 Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan was subjected to undue criticism this past summer, the groups that gathered behind closed doors to support its besmirched but beloved leaders included atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and more. It was heartening — as were the rallies led by Religious Freedom USA and New York Neighbors for American Values, which drew thousands to the streets to support the rights of all religious communities to assemble on private property. You could feel the interfaith movement surging forward on its remarkable course.

But I am uncertain, if not outright skeptical, that members of the interfaith movement would equally protect non-religious communities that come under similar scrutiny. To take a personal (and rather confessional) example, when a friend was excluded from an interfaith peace-building initiative because of being non-religious, people told him they were sorry. But nobody refused to continue participating in the group. It just didn’t seem like a reason to protest the decision or leave the group altogether.

I am among those guilty of not speaking up — cowed by diffusion of responsibility and the glow of opportunity that the group provided. I am certain, based on the numerous stories my humanist and atheist friends have told me, that this was not an isolated occurrence, nor an unusually cowardly reaction on my part. Yet it is something for which I am still performing teshuvah — answering as a Jew and human being for wrongdoing to my friend, in this case through wrongful inaction.

Why is it that when someone criticizes or excludes atheists, it feels like the interfaith movement forgets its identity, if only for a split second? Why is it that well-meaning interfaith leaders defy their identities and fail to speak out against those who threaten or undermine the status of the non-religious? Individually, we may comfort our friends, but by and large we are not sticking our necks out, writing op-eds, holding protests and publicly condemning those who single out the non-religious.

In part, I would suggest that members of the interfaith movement have not yet developed reflexes for protecting the non-religious. There is somewhat less of a history of hatred for atheists in the West (and even less education about the hatred that has been made manifest), so it does not always register in our minds when someone speaks ill of atheists in a way that it would if someone spoke similarly about people of a particular religious group.

But guilt for the repeated historical failure of Western countries to protect religious minorities is hardly an excuse for inaction in the present to protect the non-religious. It is time that we, most especially in the interfaith movement, recognize, denounce and speak out against anti-atheist bigotry.

Admittedly, many religious individuals feel intellectually and theologically challenged by atheists. But this challenge is one we must greet and learn from, rather than respond to with aggression, passive and active alike. If God is truly powerful, non-believers can hardly break our belief, much less the Divine we believe in. If God is loving, then why should we hate — or ignore hatred directed towards others? If God is a Creator, how can we allow others to speak ill of the atheists and non-believers God gave life to? Non-belief is a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the religious can hardly condemn atheists without running into contradictions rendered by their faith.

If religious affiliation is a protected category in our laws, our minds and our actions, so too must non-affiliation and atheism. The interfaith movement must lead the way, and so too must its believing members. They — we — cannot allow this double-standard to persist.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post Religion.

stantonJoshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

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God, We Need Atheists

January 19, 2011

Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:

bizarrojerkThe discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.

I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.

I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.

What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.

While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.

So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.

Not sure where to start?  Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity.  While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.

frankFrank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.

Today’s guest blog, the latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors, comes from Stephen Goeman and Bruce Wang, members of Tufts Freethought Society. It is a reflection on pluralism and its ramifications for several contemporary social issues, written from the perspective of two up-and-coming nonreligious student leaders. Initially produced for the Tufts Roundtable, it is a thorough and compelling call for pluralism — please check it out:

ingodwetrustA fundamental challenge is confronting America’s modern religiosity: a nation once considered primarily Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian, is getting a taste of secular values. The National Day of Prayer, first started in 1952, has been challenged by a federal judge, LGBT teen suicides have many reconsidering their stance on homosexuality, and Muslims are fighting to build Islamic centers wherever they please—regardless of their proximity to Ground Zero. These examples characterize a push against the fundamentalist stances of religious America—the push of pluralism—or the idea that peace in a modern society depends on allowing all lifestances to thrive. While fundamentalism threatens to divide members of various communities, enforcers of pluralism seek to unite these beliefs in order to maintain the progression of civilized debate and inclusive cooperation.

Traditionally, there are few limitations on what or who is considered American: all individuals, regardless of their point of origin, creed, or identity have an equal position as American citizens. This is a tradition worth preserving. However, this basic right is under fire on America’s religious spectrum by exclusivists, who counter America’s growing religious diversity by denying outsiders the right to participate in America’s religious culture. This view has a consecrated history in everyday language through the exclusivist phrase “Christian nation.”  Exclusivism creates a unity at the expense of America’s minority opinions—opinions that need protecting.

The progressive preservation of equality comes from pluralism. Eboo Patel, President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explains that “pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus… Instead, religious pluralism is ‘energetic engagement’ that affirms the unique identity of each particular religious tradition and community, while recognizing that the well-being of each depends on the health of the whole.”

Pluralism is advanced through interfaith cooperation, the goal of which is to make knowledge of individual beliefs readily accessible through positive and productive interaction. Interestingly, nonbelievers are taking a leading role in this movement. Chris Stedman, Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, claims that “it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.” It is clear that the stereotype of atheists as desirous of conflict with religion is monstrously untrue (even the aggressive Christopher Hitchens is on record as saying that, given the chance, he would not end international religious belief).

As Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain for Harvard University, notes, “Would some atheists reject the concept of pluralism? Of course. But plenty of Christians reject it as well, and you’d hardly think of holding an interfaith meeting without Christians because of it.” Epstein believes that interfaith events which exclude the nonreligious are arbitrarily divisive and not truly pluralistic. Stedman agrees, and further argues that the religious should be willing to come to the defense of nonbelievers when individuals belittle nonreligious values. Progress is already being made in these areas; the Universal Society of Hinduism publicly defended atheists from Pope Benedict XVI’s comparison of atheists and Nazis, and even the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly has recently admitted that atheists are not immoral. If we desire the end of prejudice in America, pluralism must be advocated.

Recent legislation has called exclusivist values into question. For almost 60 years, Americans have gathered once a year to celebrate faith through the medium of unified prayer with government sponsorship. However, the legality of this event has been questioned by federal judge Barbara Crabb. Does this event actually encourage equal participation between all Americans, or does it lend itself to an unconstitutional favor of religion? Crabb asserts that the event characterizes the latter, stating that, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on an issue that must be left to individual conscience.” It is also clear that the event is not a celebration of all American religions, but instead caters exclusively to Christians. An Indiana celebration in 2003 split into two disjointed events: one for conservative Christians, and one for everyone else. In 2005, invitations to participate in the Day of Prayer in Plano, Texas were restricted to Christians. That same year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force objected to an American Hindu woman leading a prayer.

This string of events characterizes the clash of exclusivism and pluralism; Americans who seek equal representation for all citizens, regardless of their religious stance, have to contend with an exclusivist tradition. Crabb is right to contest the National Day of Prayer’s government sponsorship. America is characterized by a distinct cohesiveness which unifies greatly varying beliefs, and this is absolutely something to celebrate. However, the National Day of Prayer does not foster these pluralistic values. Our nation can do better.

The conflict between Christianity and homosexuality could also desperately use an injection of pluralist values. The issues of gay marriage and LGBT teen suicides in the last few years have been a painfully divisive wedge between fundamentalist Christian values and those advocating for progressive equality. At every gay rights rally, there are those who vehemently oppose legal equality for all LGBT-identified people on religious or moral grounds, and there are the Christian progressives reminding us that everyone falls under God’s love. If the focus is adjusted to today’s main-stream Evangelicals, the new progressives are those who fully accept homosexuality and the fundamentalists that now advocate a stance similar to the “love the sinner, not the sin” approach. While secular culture overwhelmingly continues to favor gay rights, outspoken fundamentalists have ramped up their rhetoric in order to balance against what they perceive to be antagonism towards their religious values, resulting in their radicalization.

Consider the recent controversy over censorship of high school senior Sean Simonson’s article asking students to reach out in support of LGBT youth. Administrators of Benilde- St. Margaret’s School banned the publication of Simonson’s article, offering this explanation; “this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students.” While the general response to LGBT youth suicide by the majority of Christians is that of compassion, this is merely one example of many of the widening gap  of opinion on the issue of homosexuality. Both sides want to prevent mistreatment and suicides of LGBT youth, yet one accepts their identity as morally valid while the other continues to condemn their nature as intrinsically immoral.

The questions Christians must ask themselves, regarding this issue, are: do we really want to help stop teen suicide, and does this condemnation of homosexuality further that commitment? To answer these questions definitively is vital to the reconciliation between traditional fundamentalists and a growing liberal movement, but first a plurality of opinions and stances must be accepted in order to foster civilized debate between the traditionalist and progressive communities. If the issue of homosexuality is to cease existing as a wedge, they must abandon their combative and hostile attitude regarding fundamentalist tradition and embrace a movement to bridge their differences.

Islamphobia is another form of exclusivity which has gained widespread media attention through controversy stirred by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Ironically, when news of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (actual name) was first publicized, few took notice, much less opposed the project. When Daisy Khan, wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf, project leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on The O’Reily Factor, no indication of controversy was found. Ingraham, who has spoken out against radicalized Islam frequently on her radio show said, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it” and “I like what you’re trying to do”.

However, when anti-Muslim blogger and Executive Director of Stop Islamization of America Pamela Geller framed the issue as an offense to the victims of 9/11 and a ploy to spread extremism in America, exclusivists began to take notice. She pushed her position to the mainstream media through the New York Post almost half a year later, drawing the fear and prejudice of an impassioned constituent. By later distorting Feisal Abdul Rauf’s intentions, Geller was able to promulgate this needlessly divisive issue in order to advance the self-explanatory goals of Stop Islamization of America.

The damage of religious exclusivity and marginalization has been dealt: hostility, insensitivity, and mischaracterization of the Muslim minority in America has only fed the flames of extremism abroad. Feisal Abdul Rauf began the Islamic Cultural Center as an effort to promote moderate Islam and to combat violent extremism from creeping into American society, but the effort by mostly right-wing Evangelicals to suppress a religious minority in order to preserve and extol one’s own religious identity over another has undermined a genuine effort towards advancing international peace. It is an affront to our principles of equality when Muslims so willingly meet America halfway, only to be cut off by exclusivist thinking.

As religion grows in America, exclusivist doctrine must be repudiated in favor of impartial pluralism. Members of all faiths—and no faith—should work together through the interfaith movement on an equal playing field, and we should not be surprised that nonbelievers are being included.

Americans should rush to fight prejudice, even when they are not members of the group being marginalized. Through pluralism we can defend universal equality which is simply not attainable through exclusivism. The pluralist movement, secular in principle, should be encouraged to continue as the catalyst of individual and communal growth in America. By these means, we can live up to our most progressive motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), and leave the exclusionist motto, One Nation Under God, behind.

editededited2Bruce Wang is a sophomore majoring in International Relations with a minor in Film Studies. Currently he is also the Public Relations Chair of the Tufts Freethought Society. Stephen Goeman is a sophomore majoring in cognitive and brain science and philosophy. He is the community outreach representative of the Tufts Freethought Society.

hpHey everyone! Please check out my newest blog for the Huffington Post Religion. This one, like the last, ended up getting so many comments that it was promoted to the front page of the Huffington Post, and was Monday’s #1 most commented on article for the entire site. With 2,000 comments and counting, I again don’t know where to begin responding (especially during an even busier week than last!). I’m so grateful that my writing seems to be initiating a much-needed conversation, but it’s meant that things are much busier these days, making getting much else done difficult. Anyway, here’s a selection; the piece can be read in full over at the Huffington Post:

Last Friday, a New York Times headline declared: “Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be.” This ongoing debate among atheists — “Just how much should we confront the religious?” — is nowhere near resolution.

Last year when I visited Minnesota to spend the winter holidays with my family, I spoke with a Christian friend about my budding efforts as an atheist promoting religious tolerance and interfaith work. She too was excited about the idea of bringing people together around shared values in spite of religious differences, but near the end of our conversation she asked me a pointed question: “I’m a little confused. Isn’t part of being an atheist trying to talk people out of their faith?” Continue reading at the Huffington Post.

the new humanismI have two new articles up at The New Humanism, a publication of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. In the first, I wrestle with the question: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” In the second, I offer some best practices, cautionary considerations, and potential obstacles for nonreligious involvement in interfaith work.

These two articles are my attempt to offer an introductory but comprehensive consideration of the issues surrounding nonreligious involvement in the interfaith movement, and I hope they will be useful to those weighing such questions. Please visit The New Humanism to read them, comment on them with your response, and share them with others who may be interested in exploring this issue.

Below is a selection from the first article; it, and its companion piece, can be read in full at The New Humanism:

We start with our stories.

My name is Chris Stedman. I have an indiscriminate love of tattoos, a couple degrees in religious studies, and don’t believe in God. I am also an ardent advocate of interfaith cooperation.

The idea that interfaith cooperation is necessary to advance social progress was not a conclusion I came to overnight. In fact, after I stopped believing in God, I spent some time walking about decrying the “evils of religion” to anyone who would listen. I wanted nothing to do with the religious, and was sure they wanted nothing to do with me.

After reflecting on several episodes where I neglected to engage the religious identities of people I otherwise respected and admired, I realized that I had been so busy talking that I wasn’t listening. I was treating “religion” as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives. And when I started listening, something interesting happened. I realized that my approach to religion was lazy and distorted: I’d been thinking of the texts, not the practices; the stereotypes, not the people. It was only once I observed the actual practices of religious communities—and, more importantly, engaged with religious people and their stories—that I was able to see the benefits of collaborating across lines of ideology and identity differences.

Now I see interfaith cooperation as the key to resolving the world’s great religious problems. All the more, I want my secular community to join me, to share their stories and learn from those of the religious. And, more importantly, I want us to join with the religious in working to resolve the problems that afflict our world. Together, we will accomplish so much more.

But if we are to participate in interfaith endeavors, there are some important things we must account for. Continue reading at The New Humanism.

And while we’re on the subject, The New Humanism has a lot of really great content — just a few examples of not-to-be-missed articles on there are “Oratory of Division” by Sikivu Hutchinson and “Building the Humanist Movement” by James Croft.

Finally, many thanks to The New Humanism for the invitation to write these pieces!

Today’s entry in our series of guest posts is by Bruce Johansen, a prolific freelance writer who also happens to be my first cousin once removed! You may remember my Mom’s guest post on NPS — it’s a family affair here. To that effect, Bruce offers a poignant and illuminating look into the recent memorial service for his father and the role religion did (and didn’t) play in planning it. It’s a real honor to share this affecting and insightful writing with you today — thank you for sharing this moving piece with us, Bruce.

“There Won’t Be Anything”

I remember it vividly. We were in the kitchen doing dishes, when my father said something that I could not quite follow.

“I guess there won’t be anything for me when I’m gone.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“No funeral or service,” he clarified.

Still not sure I understood, I pressed him further: “Why wouldn’t there be a service?”

“Well,” he replied, “your mother and I haven’t belonged to a church in years.”

Bruce and father

Celebrating one of my father's last birthdays.

It was true. My parents had stopped attending church years (actually decades) ago, and at some point my father, for whom religion had once seemed most important, had drifted away from it completely. Even so, I assured my dad that having severed that relationship was no reason to think that there would be no service. We knew several people who could put together something wonderful and meaningful. It would not be religious in the traditional sense (no God language or prayer, for example) but it would serve many of the same functions.

In hindsight I wish that I had followed up with more questions. What would he like to have included in a service — readings, pieces of music, stories? I also found myself wondering what had become of the Christian beliefs that had seemed so important for much of his life, back when he prayed before holiday meals and attended church faithfully. At the time, however, I was mostly relieved that I had put his mind at ease.

When the Time Came

One night in June, a couple of years after that exchange, my father died. Since January 2008 he had suffered a series of physical setbacks, including two fractured hips and a stroke. As his health deteriorated, he often expressed his desire to die. Still, upon receiving the news, we as a family found ourselves unprepared, both emotionally and in practical ways. Suddenly we were confronted with the reality of his absence, and by numerous tasks that were new to us, many involving finances and stacks of paperwork. Fortunately we had a trusted financial advisor we could lean on for advice about that sort of thing. What was not so clear was how to mark my dad’s passing.

In families that have a strong connection to church, a funeral or memorial service is less of a quandary. The church is notified and conversations are held, hopefully with a trusted pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or someone in a comparable role. In most traditions, a service is scheduled, most often for the following week. There are certain prescribed rituals; expected music, commonly shared words. But what happens when that connection to church is lacking, and when members of the immediate family hold views about religion that range from humanist to agnostic to atheist? That was the context in which we, as a family, began our conversations about how to mark this chapter.

With few models to work with, two family members suggested that we think of the event as a “celebration of life.” Initially it was thought that this celebration would be held outdoors, in a park along the Mississippi River that in recent years had become a favorite site for family gatherings. An aunt who had planned and led two services — one for her mother who had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and the other for a dear friend who had committed suicide — could officiate. The service itself would be shaped around the sharing of stories. Most importantly, it would not be generic and impersonal.

While we liked the spirit that my family wanted to capture, my partner and I had our share of concerns. Some were logistical. Would elderly friends and relatives be able to hear if it were held outdoors? Would people find the spot and would it be easy to navigate? What if the day happened to be rainy or overly hot? Anything was possible in Minnesota in late August. After mulling over those questions, a decision was made to hold the service in the chapel at Macalester College, my father’s alma mater.

The next decision proved trickier. While I had no doubt that my aunt would do a wonderful job preparing and officiating, I thought that there could be some wisdom in inviting friends who had professional training and experience planning such events. From services I had attended, the best helped loved ones remember the person who had died and confront some of the deeper issues and questions that all of us face about mortality and the meaning of life. After some initial hesitancy, other family members consented, and I invited the assistance of two people in addition to my aunt, Susie: a good friend, Rod, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and another, Marilaurice, who is a long-time Catholic liturgist. All three would guide us.

The Potential Gift of Religious Practice

service

Pictured (from left): Rev. Rod Richards, UU minister; Marilaurice Hemlock, Catholic liturgist; Susie Stedman, experienced service leader; Carol Johansen, the author’s mother; nieces Erin Collins and Michelle Collins Zhao, and Bruce Johansen, all of whom joined Rod Richards and Susie Stedman in reading the story of the author’s father’s life.

As planning proceeded, the main challenge was to design a celebration that would prove meaningful, while not setting off alarms for the most anti-religious among us. Some family members lump all religion together with the most literal, fundamentalist brand. As for me, I have a longstanding appreciation of humanist religions. I also know many people who identify with and derive meaning from more traditional religions, who are smart and thoughtful, and who have a negotiated relationship with their religion. They may appreciate religion in metaphorical, not literal ways, or find in some of its parables useful lessons for how to be in the world, while rejecting other texts. Many of these people seem well grounded, fight for social justice, and treat others with an inspiring compassion, kindness, and love.

Those of us who hold a more nuanced view know that while religion can be a source of great suffering and terrible violence in the world, it can also elicit the best in people. And, as this story shows, religion — including the humanist variety that I am most comfortable with — also has the capacity to help people navigate the most difficult moments and questions in their lives.

What evolved from working with three people who possessed the right blend of skills and sensitivity was exactly the kind of celebration I had envisioned, and proved to be more than what my family had hoped for. The groundwork was laid through phone calls, email exchanges, and an initial planning session that brought the minister and liturgist, my mother, partner, and me together around a table on a Saturday afternoon. That casual exchange led to many good ideas being bandied about. By the end of our session the order of service was nearly set and to everyone’s satisfaction. The following Friday, the day before the service, all of us came together as a family, with our planners, and the final details fell into place.

The service that resulted captured who my dad was, and simultaneously grappled with the big questions about life, death, and what it means to be human. Between thoughtful opening and closing words came the sharing of my dad’s life story, music, poetry, silence, and a wonderful blessing tailored to my father’s life. Photo albums, carefully prepared by my brother, enhanced the story that was told. All of the elements were respectful of the beliefs and wishes of my family.

Every person present for my dad’s celebration of life left the campus grounds that Saturday knowing more about him than when they arrived. And for those who may have entered the chapel skeptical about or even hostile toward religion, the service demonstrated the potential gift that religious practice can be in helping people mark important passages of life. To a person, members of my family were sure that my father would have been pleased with how the celebration had unfolded. While his physical being was not there, much of his spirit was present.

Stepping Back

If I could step back in time, rejoin my dad in the kitchen that day, I would assure him with much greater confidence that the service planned would be one of reflection, respect, tenderness, and love; that his absence from church these past many years would not matter one bit; that our family could learn from those among us who are more “churched” than we, and that they could learn from us as well.

bruceBruce Johansen is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in American studies. He currently does research and writes reports for the DC-based FrameWorks Institute and devotes much of his time to community development work in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. As a child, Bruce attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, and then, in his 20s, discovered Unitarianism. More recently he has found himself drawn to Ethical Culture and Buddhism as well.

Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite a unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

Today’s guest blog is an anonymous submission, and it wrestles with the ongoing issue of how America’s diverse Muslim community is perceived and how Atheists, Christians and others might better support it. This is a truly excellent and especially important piece and I hope that all of NonProphet Status’ readers will heed the below advice and encourage others to do the same. Without further ado:

Islamic CenterAn American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, necessary for the growing local population, that was temporarily blocked by the city council. The interviewer asks him whether Muslims should participate in U.S. politics.

He responds that when politics can reduce public harm, Muslims are obligated to participate. “Theoretically, it is very easy to say [avoid political involvement], but practically, we consider Islam as a dynamic faith… Because really, we are part of this society, we are citizens. What will harm them, will harm us, and sometimes what will harm them harms us first. So how can I isolate myself from the entire society?”

Political engagement is becoming more common in American Muslim communities today. David SchanzerCharles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa sent their overworked graduate students around the U.S. to learn how typical Muslim communities prevent radicalization of troubled individuals. The most significant of their findings may incite the xenophobic among us, but will be no surprise to many people; increasing political mobilization among American Muslims is a positive change which should be encouraged.

Through Muslims’ political activity, “grievances are brought into the public sphere and clearly articulated so they do not fester and deepen,” and “disputes are resolved through debate, compromise, and routine political procedures.” Well, of course that sounds obvious to you. Keep in mind this report was written in part for politicians, who need to be constantly reminded why we employ them.

Regardless of the side benefits to wider society, citizens and guests should be able to feel welcome in the United States. Yet Muslims here are still experiencing a surge in hate crimes, which peaked in late 2001. Citing FBI hate crime statistics, the authors report “current levels remain about five times higher than prior to 9/11.” These are only the most threatening incidents in an ongoing pattern of collective punishment.

So, what can the rest of us do to ease hostilities against American Muslims?

We should widely publicize anti-Muslim activity. Many people habitually want to imagine that biases against minorities are always a thing of the past. The media’s current attention on anti-Muslim bias will fade soon, as all news cycles do. But the collective punishment will continue in relative silence. We can at least talk to our acquaintances about these issues, and bother our local news companies regularly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has decent coverage of anti-Muslim activity. There is also Islamophobia Watch, which focuses more on the U.K. but includes some coverage of the U.S. We don’t need to agree with all the policies these organizations advocate; merely as news sources they are indispensable. I hope readers can suggest others in the comments.

We should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in public and in private, drawing on both religious and secular arguments. Much of this has gone unnoticed in the mainstream press, and many Americans wonder — erroneously — why Muslims have been silent on the subject.”

Reporters don’t like going to their jobs any more than the rest of us. If consumer pressure doesn’t tell them that when reporting on violence by Muslims, at minimum they must include Muslims condemning violence, they won’t bother. Bloggers and people active on social media can try to fill the gaps.

We should highlight the diversity of views within Muslim communities. Humans often assume that unfamiliar groups are monolithic, even while recognizing that more familiar groups are made up of individuals with their own personal views. A non-Muslim may read the Quran and think “now I know what Islam is all about.” Though religion is not primarily about texts anyway, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who simply read the Bible and assumed they now understand Christianity would be overlooking thousands of common interpretations, and billions of individual Christian views.

If reading a text was sufficient to understand a religion, there would be no market for theology. The reason there are so many schools of Islamic theology, so many arguments about hadith, and thousands of scholars cited in arguments, is that Muslims do not agree on what Islam should mean to the individual in her or his time and place. The reality of Muslim diversity is far more complex than blanket terms of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi may suggest.

This kind of cognitive bias about unfamiliar groups was part of the reason many Americans once imagined that Catholic immigrants were a unified invading horde, not thinking for themselves but all taking orders from the Pope. This happened even though any careful observer could see multiple competing sects within the Catholic Church. Today’s fear of Muslims will one day be as embarrassing as yesterday’s anti-Catholic paranoia is now, but that day can’t come soon enough, and we should do whatever we can to speed the process along.

We should welcome American Muslim identity politics. There is a tendency among dominant groups to demand that others drop some aspect of their identity. We’ve heard this most often directed at African-Americans. But the demand comes without evidence of its practicality. Am I an atheist first, or an American first? Such questions suppose a consistency which no human actually practices. When I’m talking religion, I’m more obviously an atheist. Talking politics, I’m more obviously an American. People are not so distinct as labels may imply, and we are all capable of valuing many things at once.

This suggestion is likely to meet resistance, so I’ll quote the authors’ explanation: “Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding. A recent book offers an outspoken vision of this double identity:

This anthology is about women who don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim… We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz ‘amma (the final thirtieth [chapter] of the Qur’an) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur’anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we’ve pioneered.'”

We should learn to address the systemic problems that affect American Muslim communities. This can be difficult without listening; systemic problems involving housing, policing, education and employment may not be immediately obvious to those who aren’t experiencing them. Established communities of African-American Muslims face the same kinds of discrimination as other African-Americans do, and recent immigrant communities face challenges of their own.

We should support American Muslim community-building efforts. Involved communities, religious and secular, can provide bulwarks against crushing boredom and lonely isolation, reach out to troubled youths, direct financial and other assistance to those who are struggling in poverty, and generally make life more livable.

We’re not just talking about overtly religious efforts here. There are “charity events, dances, mixers, basketball tournaments, soccer leagues, lobbying, media-relations, voter-registration, electoral campaigns, fashion shows, religious festivals, ethnic festivals, national-heritage holidays such as Pakistan Independence Day and Iranian New Year.”

Some community-building can work to counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. These should be of special interest to government officials and politicians: “Many Muslim-American communities have the resources to build community institutions without assistance; others do not. We recommend that all levels of government make additional efforts to offer disadvantaged Muslim-American communities such community-building resources as funding for recreation centers, day care centers, public health clinics, and courses in English as a Second Language. There is a special need for these resources in isolated immigrant communities.”

That brings me to mosques. We should help build mosques, the most visible symbol of American Muslims’ presence. They generally provide both the benefits of community-building, and the serious religious training that can immunize troubled individuals against extremist propaganda on the internet.

Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities.

It’s not enough to be indifferent. It’s not enough just to speak up for First Amendment rights, though that bare minimum is important.

Government funding can’t be used, but non-Muslims should make public our efforts to support the construction and expansion of mosques, as an example of American values. Some Americans really need to be reminded right now what those values are.

By support, I mean financial or volunteering, whatever you can do. If there are any mosques planned or under construction in your area, it would help to call local politicians and tell them you support the Muslim community’s construction efforts and will only support politicians who uphold the First Amendment. Churches and atheist organizations should get in touch with local Muslim groups, and ask what they need. If our neighbors can see us taking an active role in these efforts, they may be reminded of their own better nature.

BIHThe author of this piece, BloggingIsHard, is an anonymous gay atheist. You can find him on twitter.

Today’s guest post for our lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Josh Oxley, a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago who is the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and recently started a new blog worth checking out. Like me, Josh is a former Christian who went on to pursue additional degrees studying religion; in today’s post, he explains why it is so important for secular folks to enrich the dialogue around religion, become religiously literate, and move beyond simplistic “religion is bad” rhetoric. And away we go:

religious literacy

From Stephen Prothero's website; click to go there for helpful info on religious literacy. -Chris

There’s a beautiful diversity to the atheist community. Diversity in experience, thought, method, temperament. We’re united in our rejection of the fictional and supernatural, but almost anything else goes.

Some of us left a religious tradition in the name of freethought. Others never had a faith to leave.

Some view ethical decisions as humanists. Some are nihilists. Others, hedonists. Utilitarians. Objectivists.

I love that kind of breadth and depth. There’s power in our varied experiences, our varying approaches to this life. To come to the same place — a rejection of religion within our lives — from such different journeys and walks is a pretty powerful statement.

What we can sometimes forget, however, is the great diversity within religious traditions as well. And I think we run a great risk when we sell religion short.

You probably know many to most of the big schisms. Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox Christianity. Sunni-Shia Islam (and the Sufi question). Theravada-Mahayana Buddhism. And you know there’s a whole myriad of more minute distinctions in addition to these, across all faith traditions.

For that reason, I think it’s our job to stay the most informed, to stay literate in our understanding of religion.

Why? So many reasons come to mind. For one, our illiteracy in religious matters can make our assertions — and our check on religious overreach — less impactful. You know what it feels like when a talking head on TV gets your community’s purpose all wrong. Nothing pisses off a conversation partner quicker than misrepresenting her intellectual position. It shuts off the genuine give-and-take dialogue that life thrives on, and it makes for fast enemies. If we paint religion with too broad a brush, we run the risk of degrading the power of our message. It’s a matter of integrity.

And integrity matters. It’s damaging to the community every time we try and characterize a “Religion of Peace” or “Religion of the Sword.” No tradition is so easily described, and we should know that. I’m still annoyed with the New Atheists for taking this path — particularly Hitchens — as it makes for far too simplistic a dialogue. There are vengeful Buddhists and pacifist Muslims. Religions move from domineering to Diaspora. And yet we feed that simple, dualistic language in society that pits the “Us” and “Them” at each other’s throats. And we sell ourselves short, in a world that still is far too beholden with belief for its own good.

Religion is also a part of history, world politics, and all sorts of affairs. We’re remiss if we think we can label it all under “superstitious bunk” and think we have it figured out. American politics is particularly rife with it. The furor over gay marriage isn’t fully understood without looking to Mormon and Catholic involvement. The rise of American homeschooling has much to do with the rise of evangelical Protestants. So one could go on and on. Suffice to say, an understanding of politics devoid of religious knowledge would be a dangerously impaired grasp.

There’s a little-discussed point to mention. We have the unique opportunity to be the most thorough, critical, and exacting observers and students of religion. It’s one of the reasons why I’m still a Religious Studies student at this moment, working on my Masters degree, even though I don’t find belief compelling. Religions don’t always understand each other all that well. As a Christian in much of my undergraduate years, I could study Islam thoroughly, but I couldn’t help but be a bit uneasy. A Muslim faculty advisor, perhaps jokingly, asked me to not convert anyone I met during field work. I’d never do that, I told her. But part of my brain also told me that saving souls was more important that data collection. I was torn by that divide, but can see past that now. There are no competing masters to serve. And few would argue against helping Muslims and Christians deepen their understanding, I’d wager, if it could lead to greater peace and security in the world.

With no hell to tempt and no deity to commit sacrilege against, we can ask the pointed questions of religion as few others can. But let’s do so in honesty and charity. Let’s aim to be the well-spoken and well-read at the table. Let’s give the same respect we would ask for. That way, we can emerge as a vital community, honest in its dealings, and yet powerfully committed to seeing the world change for the better. And better understanding religion — and its practitioners throughout the world — will go a long way towards fulfilling that goal.

Josh OxleyHaving spent most of his life in Virginia, Josh Oxley is a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago, Class of 2012. He is currently the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and is a member of the Religious Advisors Council. He’s a member of the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Foundation Beyond Belief. Deeply committed to building secular community in the United States, Josh seeks to work within an interfaith role to better humanity here and now. He’s all for atheism developing a vital and positive image in the public light, and doing what he can to bring that about.

Next up to bat for “Team NonProphet” (c/o Kait Foley) is novelist and writing instructor Bryan Parys. On Monday, Lucy Gubbins addressed terminology among secular folks and how those labeled “accomodationist” are often dismissed in our community; in today’s lyrical guest post, Bryan tackles an even larger issue of language: how terminology around secular identity and interfaith dialogue can sometimes get in the way of engagement. Bryan, you’re up!

HelveticaIn the small, nondenominational Christian school that I attended K-12, I picked up a fear of the word “secular.” The way teachers pronounced it was chilling: that snake-like se that begins it, the sec that’s on its way to sex, and those first two syllables intoned like they should be a swear: Sec-u, u mother-sec-er!

I’ve since gotten over this linguistic phobia, but what continues to bother me is that the traditional “opposite” of secular is sacred. How can I — a guy typing shirtless and wearing his wife’s pink shorts — be seen in such holy terms? Particularly since I don’t see myself as opposite or even opposed to secularism.

To me, these seeming opposites are keeping many of us from doing any good in the world outside our own immediate contexts — the interfaith movement getting stuck on the dialogue and not moving into action. You can’t move forward when you’re standing on a soapbox.

“Seculars” are not, by default not-sacred, nor is one venerated to sainthood if one is not primarily secular. There is a vast, unquenchable landscape between these words, and as humans we are by nature at home in the undefined, even if we’re always trying to find new labels to separate us.

I am no expert in Derridean philosophy, but something I’ve always loved about the theory of deconstruction was the rejection of the idea that language contains within itself a morality of opposites — good and bad, black and white, right and left, night and day, and so on. Language should have “free play” Derrida argued. Once a word is written, it becomes autonomous. It doesn’t matter if an author read Richard Dawkins or C.S. Lewis the morning s/he penned a page — what’s left is the intuitive dialogue of words, a subjective audience, and what action that audience will take as a result. Dialogue, action, rinse, repeat.

In college, a religion professor said of inter-church schisms and arguments: “We should be uniting on the majors, not dividing on the minors.” Not many churches heed this advice, and so since leaving high school, I’ve hardly attended a church service. (In fact, when I started writing this it was noon on a Sunday, and instead of wearing khakis and shaking hands with the pastor as I think about where I’m going to get brunch, I’m sitting here more concerned about being accepted by atheists.

But, unfortunately, this adage doesn’t quite translate to the world of interfaith dialogue. The majors keep us separated, adhering to pre-Derridean thought in a post-Derridean world.

A coffee shop recently opened in the sleepy New Hampshire town I live in. It’s the first one in the area to offer exclusively fair trade coffee, and also happens to partner with local charities. Incidentally, their espresso tastes better than a cowboy boot, something I can’t say about the other two competitors.

A few nights ago, my cousin got very heated when he found out that a local church backs the café. It’s one of those trying-to-be-relevant congregations that meets in a cinema on Sundays and uses Helvetica on their website. As my cousin screamed, they are also “anti-gay, pro-life, and so they’re c–ts, and they’re not getting my money!”

I had known about the church, but hadn’t yet done the research to determine if they fell into the disturbingly fundamental camp. The Helvetica got to me, and so did the notion of ethical caffeine.

It doesn’t stop there. I no longer want to shop at Target/Marshalls anymore. I don’t go to the only teashop in the area that offers pu-erh and lapsang souchong because they openly support the Republican party.

Things like coffee and v-necks are minor things, but they point to major, life-threatening things.

I care more about where atheists are buying their coffee than whether or not they think there is an author to the universe. In such a hurting culture, the existence of a deity should be secondary to fighting for human rights and connecting deeply with our immediate and global urgencies.

So: we are divided on the majors. I get it. But who cares? Why are we still talking about that?

If, according to Derrida, polar opposites are extremist, unrealistic, and harmful, then dividing us into theists and atheists is actually going to stop us from achieving anything good in the world. It’s been made abundantly clear on this blog that there are heinous dissenters in both worlds. If we continue to adhere to these traditional poles, then we will always be too busy wondering if there is room for collaboration, scaling slick walls of god-sized abstractions and slipping back into the ambiguous mud of “our side.”

I’d rather not start an interfaith dialogue about where in theism I fall, because truth be told, I have no idea. Through relationship, though, I’m sure it’ll come up in conversation. Hopefully, it’ll be over a gay-affirming, fairly traded double espresso.

Bryan ParysBryan Parys recently earned his MFA in creative nonfiction and is working on a memoir called, Wake, Sleeper that is about faith, death, and how 7th grade is nothing short of soul-destroying. He currently teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire.

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