The Gay Divide

November 8, 2010

Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes once more from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Today’s piece is a personal triumph; searing, sobering, and terribly relevant. There’s really nothing more that I can say about it, besides the fact that you must read it. Seriously. Read it:

gay-divideWhen I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I looked into the face of a stranger. I didn’t know his middle name or what he was really like, but when I heard that he had leapt off of a bridge to take his own life, I cried. When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I saw that many commentators and bloggers were confused by this sudden suicide, said that they couldn’t fathom the incredible loneliness that leads to such a drastic action.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I cried because I did understand. I cried because America is full of Tyler Clementis. I cried because I was Tyler Clementi.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I thought about the first time I pondered committing suicide.

It was 7th grade; I was in gym class, wearing shorts ten sizes too big for me and a thick gold chain with a cross at the end. Thinking about suicide was surprisingly easy.  I knew exactly which pills I would take.  I knew what my body would look like when my grandmother discovered it in the morning. I knew the words I would write to my family, knew I would take the longing looks I sent to a certain male classmate with me to my grave. I couldn’t name my feelings, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I wanted to be the same, to cover up the Agatha Christie books I read in secret, to feign interest in the bland rap songs the other students were blaring.

And if I couldn’t minimize my difference, I would execute it.

Throughout high school, I would devise a number of ways to kill myself, some melodramatic, others rather macabre; my preferred method involved a simple revolver to the head in my stepfather’s dilapidated pick-up truck. I even made it into a favorite pastime, finding myself surprisingly adept at doodling my Rube Goldergesque strategies in my notebooks. For me, suicide was the only way to sublimate the secrets I couldn’t share, to minimize the hurt of having my backpack thrown in a garbage can, to deafen the “gay jokes” of a father who had to know what he was doing to his oldest son.

When I came out in my Very Southern Baptist church at sixteen, a few of my fellow churchgoers were wildly supportive: one boasted that he had been fired from his job at a car wash because of the HRC Equality Symbol that rested proudly on his windshield. However, I was largely met with indifference or scorn, and the week after my sexuality’s unveiling, the subject of Sunday’s sermon was something akin to “San Francisco: How the 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah is Destroying Your Family.” Although all sinners were in the hands of an angry God, the head pastor sat me down that day to explain to me that God reserved his most special brimstone for us “flamers.” In particular, God was waiting for me specifically, waiting to “cut me down” like a Johnny Cash song.  God may have been loving and forgiving for normal folks, but He doomed gays to a life of ostracizion and depression.

In conclusion, my pastor sent me away with a simple homework assignment: change. He asked me to read those Bible passages about my “abomination” and gave me some helpful anti-pornography literature. With a little help from Jesus’ friends in the publishing industry, I was to turn from a sinner into a winner.

After that day, I never went back.

In my case, and in many other cases, religion was used as a tool to divide us, a way to mark “others.” For extremist Salafi Muslims, labeling fellow Muslims as “kafirs,” which translates to apostates or non-believers, allows these radicals to wage violent jihad against their own people.  In my case, labeling me a sinner allowed my co-religionists to wage spiritual violence against me, to rhetorically put me to death. I once went to a service where the pastor told us that God loved all of His weeds, but I wondered why I was labeled a “weed.” Why was my difference so pejorative, so ugly? Why was my difference always in need of heavenly forgiveness?  Everyone else seemed to agree that weeds like me needed to exterminated, that AIDS was God’s lawnmower. They were so busy telling me to die that I never got around to wondering about how to live.

Years of Pat Robertson condemning me to Hell, Jerry Falwell condemning me to Hell, my grandmother condemning me to Hell only served to further support their argument. When I read about Anita Bryant telling good, God-fearing Americans that they had to “Save the Nation” from people like me, I understand that it’s our culture that teaches LGBT kids to hate themselves. How can we truly speak of change in our society when Focus on the Family ads still proclaim to be saving Americans from us, when Bush’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage largely got him elected in 2004? We uphold the loneliness of LGBT kids when we tell them that their love doesn’t belong in this church, their love can’t go to this prom, their love isn’t legal in this state.

In his seminal book, “Acts of Faith,” Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel speaks of a “Faith Divide” that permeates today’s society, a religious intolerance that leads people of separate faiths to blow each other up. To borrow from Mr. Patel, what I see in the midst of the LGBT suicide epidemic is a Gay Divide:  One which arms good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims to destroy people they don’t know. In a letter published in the Salt LakeTribune, William Germain writes that recent events show a growing “divide in the way we treat each other, whether with religion, race, sex or politics. We have become a people of hate…It’s almost like we’re fighting a bunch of civil wars, and for no reason.”

In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Mitchell Gold likewise finds that these divides can “have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy.” Gold’s column was in response to recent remarks by media demagogue Tony Perkins, who has used the “bullying” controversy to publicly insist that it’s not society’s intolerance that leads to the suicide of kids like Tyler. Perkins affirms that what drives them to suicide is an understanding of their own immorality.

Although people like Tony Perkins, and the many others like him, many be on the front lines of this conflict, Gold seems to insist that an entire system of religious teaching and preaching is implicit in perpetuating the Gay Divide. Gold writes, During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.”

Certainly, the members of my church never stopped to consider what the effect that their condemnation would have on me, the years of psychological damage that thinking God didn’t, couldn’t possibly, love you would cause. I spent years hating God because of the bigotry of one man, and I was lucky that such sentiments didn’t have the same ultimate effect on me that it had on Tyler. Although I am no longer at the point where I call myself a believer, I know what my travails made me believe in: the power of communities to heal. In high school, I didn’t have God, but I had friends to lift me up, friends who understood what being an outcast was like.  I had the guidance of a history teacher, who was deterred from taking his own life by the kindness of a complete stranger. These allies were living proof of Dan Savage’s assertation that “It Gets Better.”

And I’m here to tell you: it does get better. I don’t believe in a God, but as a member of theVincent and Louise House, which is DePaul’s Catholic intentional living community, I have nine faithful housemates that I do believe in. As a queer man, I believe in the power of allies like these to help heal the hurt we that we share, to build bridges across social divides. At a recent DePaul vigil to honor the number of LGBT youths who have taken their lives in recent months, a mother from PFLAG came to talk about her unfailing support for her gay son, and another speaker related that their mother’s support in a time of crisis saved their life. But the incredible diversity of attendees showed that this mantle has been taken up by more than just our mothers. In the crowd, I saw teachers, students, friends and lovers standing together, people committed to a better world, committed to making America a safer place for our “weeds” to grow in.

Just as importantly, I stand in solidarity with people of faith committed to speaking about intolerance and calling for change.  Following these controversies, religious leaders like Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach preached understanding and tolerance, wrote that our congregations have a place for all people, regardless of sexuality.  But what really inspires me are the people who have come together to take action towards building a culture where people of faith and LGBT people are not seen as diametrically opposed. An ideological cousin to the “It Gets Better” project, the “Faith Gets Better” campaign, an initiative by Faith in Public Life, argues that hatred and bigotry divide us, not religion. These courageous religious folks — some queer, some allies — show us that religion can be a force for good in this conflict.

The “queer people of faith” involved in LGBT Change’s The Faith Project likewise testify to the fact that religion does have the power to affirm people of all backgrounds and sexualities. But at the initiative’s launch on Oct. 20, the evening’s speakers preached a far more important message: faith cannot get better all on its own. If we want a world where religion unites rather than divides, where LGBT kids are safe in their own communities, we have to build it.

As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, we recently launched the Better Together campaign, where we are asking people a similar question: “What If?” What world could we build if “we took action together?” I already know what this world could look like. I see it every day when people come together to dialogue around difference, when people decide that we are better than inherited hatreds.  I see it in the faces of my ever-loving brothers, who never had to work to “accept me” for who I am, whose support and solidarity was as easy as an embrace. I look in their eyes and know that this better world is there, waiting for us to fight for it.

We all have a role in building a society where we love past difference: where we teach our children not to hate each other, where we teach adults not to hate each other, where we are not alone. To be Better Together, all it takes is to be an ally to someone. So, all of you reading this — people of faith, people of no faith — tell someone today that you love them for exactly who they are. Tell them that they don’t need to die for you to stand in solidarity with them. Rather than waiting until it’s too late to honor a loved one, hold up a candle for them today. Taking action now might save a life.

It saved mine.

This post originally appeared on DePaul Interfaith and was refeatured on NonProphet Status at the author’s request.

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

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A Place at the Table

November 1, 2010

The latest in our ongoing series of guest posts is adapted from a talk given by my friend James Croft at the Congress on the Future of Faith at Harvard (which I was lucky enough to see in person). There’s so much I could say about this, but I think it speaks for itself. A monumental piece that is both important and timely. Check it out:

tableI’m James, and I’m a choirboy. You can probably tell—something about my angelic features, and the slight haze of a halo above my head. And as a kid I loved singing in Sunday Service. I loved the sense of ritual, the quiet aura of the space, but most of all I loved the singing:

[Sung]

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

I remember once going up to the altar to be blessed—something I didn’t usually do. I could see the Reverend moving down the line of children with their heads bowed, placing his hand upon their heads, the smell of incense in the air. And when he got to me, the Reverend pressed really hard, as if he was trying to squeeze God into me. And I wondered: perhaps he knows I don’t believe.

You see, I’m an Atheist. I grew up in a happy nonreligious family. My values come from the rational, pluralistic vision of Star Trek (in fact I’m convinced I’m named not after the King James Bible but after James T Kirk). I used to watch the stars with my grandfather, visit the planetarium with him, listen to Carl Sagan, and contemplate the wonder of the universe—no God included.

So it’s a little strange that I should be here, speaking with you today. I am a representative of the faithless at a gathering of the faithful. What am I doing here? This is a question that another of our attendees, Chris Stedman, an atheist and a leader in the Interfaith movement, regularly encounters.

I’m here because, in the UK, my atheism was never a problem. I debated spiritedly with people of all religious faiths, and found my position, generally, respected. I had a place at the table. Then, I came to the USA. And here, in my first few weeks at Harvard, I met a fellow graduate student in the canteen of my dorm.

“You don’t believe in God? Are you serious?” He laughed uproariously, flinging his hands into the air before slapping them down onto the table which sat between us, causing the glasses on our canteen trays to ring, our cutlery to jump. “So, what? You think that all this“—he gestured expansively, encompassing all of everything with his arms—”just sprang up out of nothing, with no reason behind it?” I wish now that I had given a more eloquent response than a surprised “Yes!”, my eyebrows raised in astonishment.

I remember my fellow Harvard graduate student prodding at my beliefs as if I was some strange, exotic curio, asking “If you don’t believe in God, where do your morals come from?”, and “Isn’t your life meaningless without an Ultimate Purpose” (the capitals were clearly indicated by the portentous way in which the words “ultimate” and “purpose” were intoned). If I were someone inclined to take offense, it strikes me that these could be seen as extremely offensive questions, implying as they do that the only route to a moral life is through religion, and that my nonreligious worldview must therefore be ethically deficient and devoid of meaning.

After four years living in the States, however, I am no longer surprised when I hear such sentiments expressed. Instead, horrifyingly, I am sometimes relieved if the worst someone has to say to me about my worldview is that it must lead to an amoral and meaningless existence. Why? Because, since then, I have come face to face with many more egregious and insidious examples of prejudice against Humanists, agnostics, and the nonreligious.

I have heard televangelists shriek that people who are not traditionally religious are responsible for social breakdown, crime, and natural disasters. I have heard news reporters casually describe nonreligious people as de-facto supporters of Stalinism and Nazism. I have noted how it seems impossible for a nonbeliever to be elected to high office in this country, and how public declarations of religious faith are required by those aiming highest.

The effect of all this hit me when I met Bill on a Secular Service trip to New Orleans. Bill attends Humanist meetings but refuses to pose for group photographs because he fears, should his atheism be revealed, that he would lose his job.

And seeing all this made me want to work harder for Humanism, brought me to Greg and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and called me to apply to become a Humanist Chaplain myself. And my relationship with the Humanist Chaplaincy has been profound: it was on the same service trip where I met Bill that I was able to resolve my struggles around my sexuality and come out as a gay man. So I have much to thank the Humanist community for, this group of atheists who helped me find myself.

Now, not all of us are atheists—in fact I imagine there are very few here! But all of us, even though we’re committed to different issues and different values, want our story to be heard. We don’t want to be dismissed. We don’t want anyone to tell us, just because of the values we espouse, or our faith. that we aren’t worth listening to.

That commitment—that everyone should be heard, and no one left out of the cultural discussion—is part of the founding principles of this country which, for now at least, we all call home. In America, we’re all part of a remarkable experiment—a country in which people can believe what they choose, can strive for their own version of the good, can pursue their idea of happiness, and will not be excluded because of their beliefs. That’s why the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and made the long, dangerous journey to these shores, landing not so far from where we stand today.

That’s why I found it so shocking when I heard Rick Warren had said, during the last presidential election, “I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says…I’m totally self-sufficient by myself. And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”

I want you to imagine that that Warren had been talking about your faith group. I could not vote for a Catholic. I could not vote for a Jew. I could not vote for a Muslim. A Hindu. A Sikh, a Buddhist or an Anglican. Can you imagine the uproar that such a statement would cause? I think that the principles which beckoned the pilgrims across the ocean, which enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to practice their faith, should protect atheists and Humanists, too.

I think that wherever we find our spiritual calling whether it’s the song of the muezzin or the lure of a star-dusted sky, we deserve to be heard. And that’s why interfaith discussion is important, and why it must include people like me.

And interfaith discussion particularly matters now, at this moment. Because, let’s face it, the dialogue around religion in this country is broken, and not just the dialogue between religious and nonreligious people.

Certainly, I think of the fact that there is, and only ever has been, one openly atheist member of Congress, and no openly atheist Senators. None.

But I also think of Pastor Terry Jones, who thought it would be a good idea to pile high copies of the Koran and set them alight, or protesters who rented decommissioned missiles and pointed them at a Muslim cultural center and mosque in New York City.

There are two potential responses to this. We could get angry, atheists tearing down religious political candidates, or Muslims burning copies of the bible, in an ever-escalating war of words and actions that brings us all down. We could all get our own missile.

Or we could get smart, and begin to engage with each other in a more respectful and productive way.

We are the perfect people to do this: in this room are the leaders of the future. Politicians, faith leaders, business leaders: people who will be in a position to influence discussions around faith in this country.

And now is the time to do this. Right here, right now, when we’re all gathered together in one room—a remarkable and rare opportunity to engage with each other, to come to know each other more deeply.

So I’m asking you to dig deep, for all our sakes. Share your story, honestly and openly, and listen to the stories of people who disagree with you, profoundly. And we will disagree—I, for my own part, am skeptical about the future for faith at Harvard. And, as a gay man, I know there are people in this room who hold beliefs I find profoundly difficult. But, instead of sitting at home and complaining, or speaking just to those who agree with me, I came here. Because I know how important it is to be involved in the discussion. So don’t hide your differences, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to give of yourself, and be brave enough to listen. If we can do this I see a future in which, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, Jains can all sit around a table, breaking bread together. No more piles of the Koran, waiting to be set alight. No more missiles pointed at mosques. And, perhaps, and atheist Senator or two.

This post originally appeared on The New Humanism.

James CroftJames Croft is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he studies Human Development. He is a vice-chair of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, where he works closely with Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy, and is an editor of the Humanist Chaplaincy’s online magazine The New Humanism.

I’m a Bad Atheist

September 9, 2010

Today’s post in NonProphet Status’ series of guest bloggers comes from Eat the Damn Cake‘s Kate Fridkis, who I “interviewed” for this blog before. Today Kate, a lay cantor at a Jewish congregation, shares the story of why she is a “bad atheist” (yes, I know, I’m posting this during Rosh Hashanah — L’shana tova, friends!). This is a wonderfully engaging story, and I’m proud to share it here. From one “bad atheist” to another: you’re up, Kate!

kate as a kidLittle kids are supposed to believe in God. I was bad at being a little kid.

For a number of reasons, really. I wore this shirt a lot that said “Brooklyn” on it. And jeans, even though I was only four. I was bulky and awkward. My best friend Emily was tiny and perfect and angelic-looking. She wore dresses and was about a foot shorter than me for a long time. When her grandfather saw me again as a teenager he squinted at me suspiciously and then said, “Wait! You were that little fat girl!” By then I was too skinny, and gangly, but still totally flat-chested. Sigh.

Emily believed in God. Easily, sometimes passionately. She was born again for a while. She told me about gold dust on her hands. She just believed. I never could. One night, when I was eight, I sat on my bed in the big room in the empty third floor of my family’s crazy contemporary farmhouse, and I tried really hard to believe in God. I’d moved upstairs by myself when I was seven. I was scared of the dark, but I felt brave, knowing that I was scared and I was doing it anyway. I was scared of the sound the toilet made when I flushed it. I ran out of the bathroom as fast as I could. I wanted to believe in something that would protect me, but the idea felt vague. The dark was more obvious.

I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine God as a light, slipping into the room. A blue light. I tried to imagine what kind of voice God would have if God spoke to me. I thought of a deep, booming voice. My eyes snapped open. That was ridiculous! God wasn’t a guy! See, I already believed in feminism.

But feminists are not supposed to decide they’d rather not call themselves a feminist anymore, even though they care a lot about all of the right issues. And when I recently stopped calling myself a feminist, and wrote a series of pieces about why, beginning with this one, a lot of women wrote to me to tell me how tragic my life must be, and how bad of a woman I am. So I’m bad at being a feminist.

And I’m bad at being an atheist, even though I didn’t believe in God from the time I could think about the idea of God (which was part of why I was so bad at being a little kid). I’m a bad atheist because I am a lay cantor. I lead Jewish religious services at an established synagogue. I stand on the bima with a rabbi and I sing a lot of ancient prayers. I initiate young adults into the community with bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. And I love all of this. I love singing liturgy. I love the gentle rumble of the congregation joining in. I love my community, and, by extension, I feel real love for the Jewish people. Not an abstract feeling — but a feeling so strong that I cry when I read an article about Jews working together to solve a problem. Or making some bagels. Or whatever.

I’m also a bad atheist because I like to listen to people talk about God. I like to listen to people describe their spirituality. I like to know what people think about these things. I don’t understand why they believe what they believe or feel what they feel, but the fact that I don’t desire the same things and still experience the same existential pull fascinates me. Which is probably why I got two degrees in religion despite the fact that in doing so I was pretty much guaranteeing my own impoverishment.

Sometimes it bothers me how easy it is to be bad at these things. Someone must’ve written down some very strict rules about identity somewhere, and most of us seem eager to obey them. Or at least to try.

People are quick to tell me that I can’t be an atheist, since I’m a clergy member. They tell me I can’t be a smart, aware woman if I don’t call myself a feminist. They tell me I can’t be as social as I am, because I didn’t go to school as a kid. There are a lot of rules I seem to be breaking just by living my life. Just by being myself. And it gets tiring, trying to remember them all, and all of the explanations and defenses I need to offer people.

At this point, I’m ready to just be bad at everything, if that’s what it takes to be the person I am. Because if being a bad kid means being able to question things that other kids don’t think to, and being a bad woman means being able to question any label I give myself, even the supposedly positive ones, and being a bad atheist means occupying a role that lends my life so much meaning, then I’ll gladly be the worst version of all those things.

Though, if I may share a secret — privately I’ll continue to arrogantly believe that I am a perfectly fine atheist and a thoughtful woman. And that Brooklyn shirt I wore all the time as a kid — it was pretty damn cool.

kateKate Fridkis is the lay cantor at Congregation Kehilat Shalom in central NJ. She blogs at Eat the Damn Cake and for The Huffington Post. She recently received a Master’s in Religion from Columbia University and is the interViews Editor for The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.

Today’s a real special day on NonProphet Status: I have the honor of featuring a guest post by my own mother. Now I may be a bit biased, but I think this is a beautiful and really insightful reflection on parenting, individual choices, and how we regard the decisions and identities of others that — you guessed it — draws a parallel to religious pluralism.

Take it away, Mom!

mom and me

Like mother, like son.

It was 1985: a time when women were free to pursue a career and take advantage of safe and secure childcare relatively guilt free. In fact, if you were intelligent and educated it was almost expected. As a National Honor Society member, Senior Class Officer, Student Council President and academic scholarship recipient in high school, it was surely expected of me.

But I had a different plan. I knew I wanted several children and I knew I wanted to stay home with them. Actually, I believed it was best to stay home with them.

I remember my Mother-in-Law sighing with disappointment: “Oh dear, I just hate to see you limit yourself! You are so smart and talented and I hate to see that go to waste.” I also remember getting the message from my “feminist” friends and acquaintances that my choice was unacceptable.

However, my decision to be a stay-at-home parent was deeply founded in my moral convictions. I will confess I probably had a feeling of moral superiority over “working moms.” I recall thinking to myself, Oh those poor children in day care

Moral superiority aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my years at home with my children. Although my choice meant that my wardrobe was made up of two pairs of jeans and a couple sweatshirts and our diet consisted mostly of bottom shelf boxed macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it was the right choice for me. I feel confident that my children ultimately did benefit from my intelligence and talents as a stay-at-home mom, and that it was worth the sacrifices it required.

When my youngest child was in elementary school, things changed. Suddenly I was a divorced working mother of four with dwindling resources and a need to work more hours. I was confronted with the prospect of utilizing the childcare program offered by the local YMCA and, though it wasn’t my first choice, decided to use their services.

I recall observing the interactions between parents and their children as we dropped off and picked up our kids daily and having to reassess my previously held beliefs and judgments about the “right and wrong,” “good and bad” of raising children. I realized that my decision to stay home had been right for me but that it didn’t mean, given the option, that choice would be right for everyone.

My decision was right for me based on my life experiences. As I became more open to and aware of the experiences of others, I realized that people presented with the same set of facts can come to a different conclusion and that doesn’t necessarily make one “right” and one “wrong.”

My experiences as a parent were enriched by observing and appreciating another perspective. We can still have the same goal – raising healthy, happy children – and see different ways of accomplishing this.

As I have been reading this blog and responsive posts this year, I have been struck by the feelings of intolerance and lack of empathy. As his mother, I am proud of Chris’ message of tolerance and inclusiveness, as these are values I cherish as well and am so glad to share with him.

I don’t think it is “wishy-washy” to want to find areas of agreement with people we disagree with. And whether it is the decision to cover one’s head with a hijab, to believe in God or pray, or to utilize childcare while pursuing a career, I am grateful to live in a diverse and pluralistic society that allows for our differences. As a matter of fact: I celebrate them.

Even if that means my son is covered in tattoos.

momToni Stedman is a proud mother of four very different young adults (including this blogger) and is an excited new grandmother. When not working as a widely respected insurance agent that prioritizes personal relationships with her clients and strives to provide ethical service, Toni enjoys walking her dogs, catching some wind on the back of a Harley Davidson, serving on her neighborhood council, and target practicing with her rosewood handled revolver (she’s a pretty good shot!). Her youngest child is just about to move out of the house and she plans to celebrate her new “empty nest” status with a road trip west to the Grand Canyon.

Gods, Gays and Goodbyes

July 22, 2010

beersLast night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master’s Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to mention we both grew up in Minnesota. Ben’s been gone for a lot of the summer, working on his next album, so this was both an opportunity for us to both catch up and “say goodbye” (though we’ll be reuniting in August for some good ol’ Minnesota camping).

We decided to hit up our favorite spot, a little hole in the wall called The Anvil on Granville. As residents of Rogers Park, Ben and I frequented The Anvil a lot this year. It’s truly a neighborhood bar; a place that seems to have changed very little in the last 40 years, dimly lit and without a sign outside, a nook primarily populated by people who live within a mile of it. The Anvil is also a gay bar. For this reason it is especially fun to go to The Anvil with Ben, a straight man, and witness the cross-cultural confusion that ensues.

Though I can’t speak to how he operates when I’m not around, Ben seems to be terribly comfortable around gay men. Or, at least, he is terribly gracious. Every time Ben and I go to the Anvil, he gets hit on. A lot more than I do, I should add. Often aggressively: it wasn’t until a week after the first time we went there that Ben informed me that the man who’d been hanging around him that entire night had stuck his tongue in Ben’s ear. Ben had played it cool, not wanting to make a scene. His patience for situations that would make the average person uncomfortable and his willingness to engage contexts outside his own continue to inspire the work I do in facilitating religious and secular dialogue.

But back to last night. We were off to a good start: ten minutes in and Ben’s inner ear was still unmolested. We picked a spot on the back patio and got comfortable. As we lifted our mugs of miraculously cheap beer and clinked to my move and our friendship, we were approached by a man who began to compliment my tattoos, my feet (“can I touch them?”), my stretched earlobes and my smile. Well, guess I’m taking the bullet tonight, I thought, at which point he immediately directed his attention at Ben. We were both patient, but I had immediately dismissed this man in my mind. I’m not here to get hit on, I thought impatiently, I’m here to say goodbye to a close friend.

I closed myself off, but Ben had other plans. In his unending kindness, Ben continued conversation with this stranger. He asked if we lived in the area, and Ben said we did but that I was moving. The man inquired why and I explained that I’m relocating to continue my work facilitating secular and religious engagement. He asked me to clarify. I replied: “Basically? I encourage people of all faiths and no faith at all to not just tolerate one another’s existence — which itself would be an improvement — but to engage one another’s deepest motivations and move into collaborative action around identifiable shared values despite religious differences.” He asked if I believed in God, and I replied with a strong and swift: “no.” He quickly took me in his arms and squeezed me tight. “God will reveal himself to you,” he said. “I’ll pray it so.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in my life. But instead of getting insulted — instead of closing myself off even more — I smiled and said “thank you.” You see, what this man didn’t know is that God reveals him(or her)self to me every day.

For the last year that I’ve worked at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the Gods of my co-workers have had a sizable impact on me. Whether it’s the Christian God of my supervisor, Cassie, giving her the compassion to forgive my latest screw-up, or the Muslim God of my boss, IFYC founder and White House advisor Eboo Patel, inspiring him to invite a Secular Humanist such as myself to contribute to the public discourse on religion, I would not have had the opportunities I have if it weren’t for their passionate religious beliefs. And I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationships that I formed with them — or with Ben, or even with the man who stroked my feet at The Anvil — if I had refused to engage their beliefs. I may not share in them, but they still matter to me.

After a bout of friendly dialogue, the man asked me: “Okay, but tell me this Mr. Atheist: where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” I answered honestly: “I’m not a scientist, you know, but I can perhaps best describe it as some incredible series of random events. But to be honest that question doesn’t really matter to me. I could care less how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?” He clutched his chest, hugged me again and grinned, nodding his solid agreement. I’m so glad that Ben’s kindness inspired me to give this man a chance.

What will we do? I hope that we’ll engage one another’s deepest values with at least as much patience as Ben in a gay bar.

[That’s a wrap, folks: I’ll be at the Secular Student Alliance national conference this weekend speaking on a panel about interfaith cooperation. Check back next week, when I’ll try to have a report on that — though I’m moving across the country a week from today, so it may be difficult. I haven’t the words to express how much I’ll miss this city, so this post will have to do as my general goodbye. And if I don’t get around to posting something next week, be sure you check out Tim Brauhn’s amazing guest post from this morning in the meantime, which was featured on the front page of WordPress today!]

Today’s guest post comes from Tim Brauhn, a Catholic interfaith activist. Tim, who recently finished a year as a Fellow for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation‘s FaithsAct anti-Malaria interfaith initiative, is a lovable weirdo. Tim was once an anti-Atheist schmuck but has since changed his tune. He shares why below:

c/o /livelyivy.com

My friend Ahab is an atheist. Note: his nickname, which I was kind enough to bestow upon him, has no relation to his faith orientation, so don’t go all crazy with white whale language just yet. Ahem.

I was having a chat with Ahab one night a long time ago back at Aurora University. It was snowing outside, as if that was important to the story. I asked him, “So you admit that for a god to exist it would have to be an infinite being?” His reply was a strong affirmative. “But you still don’t believe that god does, in fact, exist?” Again, he answered yes.

AHA! I knew I had him this time! I was finally going to score a point against his godless ass! “Well then, my dear friend, you have failed! In acknowledging the necessarily infinite existence of a creator god that you don’t believe in, you have turned your disbelief into the flipside, anti-infinite version of the non-affirmation of said creator god. Therefore, even by saying that god doesn’t exist, you admit by extension that god does exist as a universal MUST! It’s all about ones and zeros! I’ve got you, you fisher king rat bastard!”

Ahab blinked, took a drag from his cigarette (typical atheist maneuver), and said, “Whatever, dude.”

I didn’t meet avowed nontheists until I arrived at college, and when I did, I tried hard to figure out what they were about. How could they not believe in some kind of… thing? Granted, at the time I was still building my own conception of the divine — a process that grows more beautiful and happy by the day. The friendly (honest!) conversation recounted above was the closest I ever came to admitting how I really felt: My brain couldn’t handle what I perceived as the irrationality of non-belief.

In time, of course, I mellowed. I realized that agnostics are capable of feeling just as much universe-rending glory as me without having to attribute it to some greater intelligence. Working and dialoguing with nontheists on issues of social concern, especially, helped me get my head on straight. But it wasn’t until I read Greta Christina’s Alternet piece “6 (Unlikely) Developments That Could Convince This Atheist To Believe In God” that I found a truly admirable and altogether frightening reality: religious people can’t be proven wrong.

I suppose that I always knew this. I’d been questioned by atheists myself and forced to defend or explain many positions. It wasn’t until reading Greta’s very plain language that I figured it out. Example: If god descended from the clouds and thundered, “I DO NOT EXIST — STOP BELIEVING IN ME!” I think my brain would literally melt in my skull and slide out through my nose. That’s a logic bomb right there.

Maybe that’s what drove me nuts back in the day. I couldn’t square my own faith-based shortcomings with atheists who seemed perfectly content to not believe in god. It was impossible to prove me wrong, which made it possible to be always right. And that’s no way to be.

I’ve stopped trying to score points against atheists, largely because I realized that even if they don’t have religion, they still have faith — often boatloads of it. Faith in humanity, faith in one another, in natural processes, or something else entirely. I learned that calling someone a non-believer made collaborative action difficult, and that regarding secularism (especially the American style) as a positive piece of our national character is a must. We’re all in this together, gods or no gods, and we’re all the stronger for it.

timbTim Brauhn grew up in an agrarian Irish Catholic home in northern Illinois. He has been in the interfaith sphere for the last five years, connecting people across faith lines for mutual inspiration and common action. He drinks hellacious amounts of tea and mate and doesn’t cook his food. In addition to a bit of interfaith consulting, Tim is a Community Mobilizer with Ashoka Changemakers, where he uses the power of the WORLD WIDE WEB to connect social entrepreneurs and innovators worldwide. Tim is also RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

Kate Fridkis recently wrote an Op/Ed for the Huffington Post’s Religion Section titled “Atheists Can Be Stupid, Too” in which she addressed the fact that Atheism is fraught with an intellectual superiority complex. I found her piece so compelling and worthwhile that I reached out to her to see if she would be interested in having a conversation to be published here. She graciously obliged; below is a transcript of our exchange.

NonProphet Status: Hey Kate! Thanks for joining me today. For those who don’t know who you are, what do you “do” besides write for the Huffington Post?

Kate Fridkis: Well, I work as a lay cantor at a synagogue in central New Jersey. For people who don’t know, that means I’m the other person standing up on the Bima with the Rabbi; the one who keeps singing in Hebrew. I also blog at eatthedamncake.com about body image and being a young woman in New York City, and sometimes about my experience as a homeschooler and how that continues to impact me. I am the Interviews Editor for the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue, teach for Interfaith Community here in the city, and I make awesome sandwiches.

NPS: Great! It certainly sounds like you’re busy.

Fridkis: Yup. Who isn’t?

NPS: You make awesome sandwiches; do you also make awesome cake? [Laughs]

Fridkis: [Laughs] I wish! Ironically, my fiancé is a diabetic so I don’t really bake. Though I try to order it out as much as I can.

NPS: Does that leave you eating cake alone? That’s kind of a depressing image… [Laughs]

Fridkis: No, it’s an empowering image! Read my post about ice cream

NPS: [Laughs] Excellent reframe. I’ll get right to it. So, let’s not beat around the bush – do you believe in God? Now that’s a loaded question, eh?

kate fridkisFridkis: I don’t believe in God, and I haven’t believed in God for a really long time if I ever did.

NPS: Is your synagogue a Humanistic Jewish community?

Fridkis: No, it’s a Reconstructionist Shul.

NPS: Are you “out” about your non-theism in your community?

Fridkis: No, not to my congregation, which is why I was really nervous about that last HuffPo piece. It felt like “coming out.”

NPS: How do you think they would react to it?

Fridkis: I’m not sure, honestly. A congregation is just a bunch of individuals and I think they’d all have different reactions. But there’s something very sensitive about clergy being Atheistic and I’m nervous that the board wouldn’t approve.

NPS: So what made you decide to “come out” in spite of the possible ramifications you could face?

Fridkis: I’m tired of not being able to say anything. I’m tired of having to pretend that everything that I believe and am doesn’t come together to make me better, rather than weaker, as a person. I hate the implication that supposedly contradictory beliefs make someone confused and lost, rather than stronger, more honest, and more complex. The fact is there are plenty of Atheist clergy members; they just don’t talk about it. I think Daniel Dennett is writing a book about this now.

NPS: That’s perfect. I couldn’t have said it better if I tried… and I have. [Laughs] So I completely agree. But your piece for HuffPo was about more than just you coming out as an Atheist. You also offered a pretty strong critique of the idea that Atheists are intellectually superior to theists.

Fridkis: Yes; in fact, the piece wasn’t about me coming out at all. That was incidental. As, I feel, it should be.

NPS: Absolutely.

Fridkis: I’m just one person, and I’m part of a much bigger trend, which is the point.

NPS: Yeah. I think you really underscore this at the end of your piece, and I couldn’t help but think of the work I’ve done with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) when I read it, where you say: “Maybe we need some new terms for the camps. How about this: ‘people who are willing to have a conversation, ‘ and ‘people who just want to hear themselves talk. ‘” It’s very reminiscent of IFYC’s framing of “pluralists” and “totalitarians” instead of the old “Clash of Civilizations” model.

Fridkis: Absolutely. I really think that the bifurcation is incorrectly positioned – if we need one at all! People like dualisms, though, because they like the idea of “dueling.” Sorry, that’s corny… but it’s true. That tension is very exciting: the idea that we’re on opposite sides and we’re locked in this cosmic battle.

NPS: Yeah – it’s why I utilize that IFYC model even as I acknowledge that, ultimately, even it is inadequate, as any simplification is. But we need to simplify to get ideas out there, and it’s certainly “better” or, at least, “more helpful.” It points in the right direction.

Fridkis: Totally. And I love what you’re doing.

NPS: Thanks! So we’ve got this binaristic narrative right now that is totally dominating secular community organizing that is essentially quite fundamentalistic in its critique of religious fundamentalism.

Fridkis: Right.

NPS: And your piece in HuffPo is kind of a call to acknowledge the gray areas of both religious and secular identity.

Fridkis: Exactly.

NPS: What inspired you to write it, besides the catharsis of “coming out” about your Atheism?

Fridkis: It’s annoying to feel as though, as an Atheist, one will immediately get lumped in with the people who dismiss religion as a whole.

NPS: Oh yeah, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. People hear I don’t believe in God and automatically assume they can start ribbing religion with me, thinking that such comments wouldn’t be hurtful to me just because I’m “not religious.”

Fridkis: Sure.

NPS: When really, I think they should hurt anyone who has a basic respect for the dignity of all people. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got a sense of humor about religion. You have to when you work with it as much as I do. “Dogma” and “Saved!” are two of my favorite movies.

Fridkis: [Laughs] Exactly! I’m all for being able to make fun of everyone, really, though I try to be sensitive about it.

NPS: I guess I just think there’s a difference when you start attacking identities in a public way.

Fridkis: I couldn’t agree more. I guess what inspired me to write the piece was an endless string of conversations I’ve had with people. Some of these conversations focused on my Atheism, and people would challenge me to defend it. The idea that I had to defend it seemed ridiculous to me.

NPS: [Laughs] Right?

Fridkis: I don’t think anyone should be responsible for having mastered the intricacies of an entire tradition, unless that’s their life’s goal.

NPS: Right. It does feel like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it? To have to speak on behalf of your entire community and the history of a belief, let alone just speaking to how it functions in your own life?

Fridkis: The idea that, because I identified as an Atheist, I should be able to make these brilliant logical arguments in defense of my stance felt ridiculous. And too difficult!

NPS: [Laughs]

Fridkis: People started suggesting that the whole point of being an Atheist was that you thought you knew better than everyone else; that you used logic, and not faith, to make sense of the world. This bothered me a lot, because I don’t think there’s ever any one way to approach a state of being. People arrive there from every direction, from every background, from every set of experiences imaginable. I couldn’t explain why I was an Atheist very well – I just knew I’d never really believed in God. I also knew I was totally committed to Judaism. I love my people so much that I feel like crying anytime I see something like Jews coming together to march for peaceful causes, people lighting Shabbat candles, whatever. The New York Times does a piece on a little Jewish community somewhere, as they like to do, and I cry. It’s kind of funny. And one of the most fulfilling ways I can express my commitment to my people is through being a Jewish leader. Being a cantor feels right. But it also doesn’t feel as though it should logically exclude my Atheism, because my participation in my own religion is very people-oriented as you can probably tell. It’s not about God, it’s about community. And even if people are there for God, they’re still there as a community.

NPS: Right. That’s beautiful, and it’s why my friends and I started a Secular Humanist community here in Chicago – because we still crave some of the things that religion has historically offered: community, opportunities to give back, etc.

Fridkis: Awesome! Good for you. And, of course, I completely agree.

NPS: And, unfortunately, I see a lot of “baby with the bathwater” rejection among Atheists. Anything that seems even the least bit “tainted” by religion is dismissed as “emotional.”

Fridkis: Absolutely. And that’s also why I wrote the piece – because of my conversation with an Atheist leader who was a complete jerk.

NPS: I know a lot of Atheists who will laugh when they read that you cry over any NYT piece about a Jewish community, because it will “prove them right.” “She clings to religion for its emotional benefits,” they’ll say. To which I’d respond: “So what?!” [Laughs]

Fridkis: [Laughs] As if anything is ever divorced from emotions. That’s a ridiculous argument, and when people make it, I wonder why they’re even bothering to talk. You can’t separate being a person from having emotions.

NPS: Right.

Fridkis: This goes back to that absurd argument everyone wants to make that Atheism is about cold, hard logic and nothing else. My philosophy friends will hate me, but “logic,” as I understand it, is perfectly capable of including emotion.

NPS: Absolutely! I went to the American Atheist Convention last month and they did a blasphemy exercise where three women dressed in burkas sang a song that I found horribly offensive. It prompted me to cry. When I shared that on my blog, which felt very vulnerable to do, it was met with scoffs and scorn, including a YouTube video where one person called me a coward and smirked when she repeated that it made me cry.

Fridkis: Wow. That’s sad.

NPS: When did our community – Atheists – decide we wanted to be emotionless robots?! [Laughs]

Fridkis: Seriously! I’m so sorry you’ve gotten that response. It’s embarrassing for the Atheist community, if there really is such a cohesive thing.

NPS: Similarly – and I’m sure you’ll love this – one of the presenters at the convention was asked during a Q&A session why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” His response? “Women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.”

Fridkis: [Screams] I feel like arguments like these are pointless. They’re just like war propaganda, based on enormous, absurd claims.

NPS: Totally. And, well, I think that is because a lot of Atheists do see it as a war. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you ask if there’s a cohesive Atheist community. We’ll never be cohesive if we keep trying to deny that we want to organize as a community to fulfill emotional needs, a.k.a. for the same reason that religious people organize.

Fridkis: Obviously, everything anyone does has emotional and rational components, and to say something doesn’t is to want to oversimplify to the point where arguments are placed in the cosmic terms of things like “heaven and hell,” “good and evil,” and other dualisms that obscure the complicated reality of being human.

NPS: Right!

Fridkis: But oversimplifying feels good to people. Because, well, it makes everything easy! And because it makes them feel right without having to question themselves, and questioning oneself is scary.

NPS: But this I think is one of the integral problems facing Atheist communities right now – everything needs to be quantifiable and “scientific,” which very easily lends itself to essentializing and dichotomizing and denies the “gray.”

Fridkis: Exactly. And it’s a problem because people who just don’t believe in God, but don’t have other strong opinions about the matter, are excluded.

NPS: So, oh great and wise Kate…

Fridkis: [Laughs]

NPS: How do we construct a more cohesive secular community that doesn’t try to diminish the emotional experiences that come along with not believing in God? Think you can tackle that? [Laughs]

Fridkis: Wow. Hmm… Maybe we stop making it all about God. Sometimes I think that’s the whole debate, and it gives God too much power. Atheists give God so much power by wanting to constantly talk about how God doesn’t exist. So maybe if we just focus on whatever else we want to do as people who care about the world, and we go and do it, and when people ask us why we say, “well, this is part of my Humanism,” then that might be a start.

NPS: That’s brilliant, and totally in line with how I feel.

Fridkis: So the community that identifies as Secular Humanists can go ahead and do things in the world, rather than constantly talking about all the ways in which it’s conceptually different from theists – not that Secular Humanists aren’t already doing things, of course.

NPS: Right. The Secular Humanist group we’ve got going in Chicago has had conversations about how we’d much rather focus on expressing our Humanism through service than hosting debates with theists, like a lot of secular groups do.

Fridkis: Awesome!

NPS: We’ve actually never once had the “God debate” in our group, because what’s the point, right?

Fridkis: Exactly.

NPS: We all know that everyone in the room doesn’t believe in God, but we don’t want to get stuck there. If we keep saying “we don’t believe in God” over and over again, we’ll become rooted in this innately oppositional identity.

Fridkis: Absolutely. I’m so excited about your work!

NPS: Wow, that’s so sweet of you! Thanks. And I yours, of course. So, I think we are getting to a good spot to conclude this conversation. I guess just to wrap things up, I want to thank you for writing what I think was a very insightful and important piece for HuffPo. Do you have any final thoughts for NPS readers on how the secular community can take steps to stop being as black-and-white about things?

Fridkis: I think that people need to stop thinking in dichotomies as much as possible. If a criticism of religion is that it divides things into “good and evil,” or creates a division of people into the categories “believers and non-believers,” then that criticism should also be turned back on ourselves. We should pay close attention to the ways in which we automatically establish binaries. On a more concrete level, maybe we should initiate more humanitarian and intellectual activities between self-defined religious and secular groups, like park cleanups, poetry slams, food drives, and lecture series. People don’t have to be there to talk about their disagreements, they can just be there as representatives of different worldviews, working and learning together. Because after all, we’re doing that already. We just have to recognize it and stop pretending everyone is so fundamentally different.

NPS: I couldn’t agree more. You’ve just described the world I’m working to create – or, more precisely, the world that’s already out there, just differently understood.

Fridkis: Definitely. It’s awesome to talk with someone who thinks this way. I feel like it’s rare for someone to be so articulate about this stance, so thanks so much.

NPS: Aw! Well right back at you, for all the same reasons. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’m really excited that we’ve connected and look forward to continued collaboration.

Fridkis: Me too! Thanks for contacting me!

For more on Kate check out her blog, Eat the Damn Cake, drop by her author profile on the Huffington Post, and follow her on Twitter.

NightlineLast night a group of diverse, young Chicagoans were having the first planning meeting for a Chicago Secular Humanist meet-up. It was so inspiring to hear each individual talk about why they were in the room, and it left me feeling so excited about the possibilities of this group. But I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that our meeting coincided with a debate on ABC Nightline called “The Future of God.” I was curious to see what new ground might be covered in this well-worn debate.

Then I watched it. I was not impressed; it was just the same argument we always hear between anti-theists and theists about the legitimacy of people’s images of God — an interesting conversation to have if done respectfully with a concern for significance and intention (and I know this is possible: I just spent all morning discussing it with a room full of Christians in my Psychology of Religion class), surely, but one that needs to be transcended in the public forum. As The Atlantic pointed out in their post on the program, the program was “cliché,” introducing nothing new and sticking to “trodden ground.”

It’s time to change the conversation. Whether or not God exists is not the most pressing point for dialogue — instead, we ought to be wrestling with finding ways to do good work in the world with others who disagree with us on this idea. We’ll never come to a public consensus about God, but I believe a shared ethic of responsibility to others, with or without God, is achievable.

If you’re interested, you can read about the program — and watch video clips from it — on ABC’s website.

bookI recently had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Sheiman, the author of An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. His book, which came out last year, has raised eyebrows in both religious and non-religious circles for proposing that religion plays an important and perhaps even necessary role as a cultural institution — even for so-called “rational Atheists.” This is a point with which I obviously sympathize, and I’ve enjoyed his book a great deal. Bruce recently agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his book and other things, including Pat Robertson, Unitarian Universalism, hipsters, and what music he’s listening to.

NonProphet Status: Bruce, thanks again for agreeing to speak with me. Let’s start large: Why did you decide to write this book? Why is it important?

Bruce Sheiman: The debate about the existence of God is never-ending. What is not in dispute is that God exists in people’s hearts, minds and spirits. What is not in dispute is that religion is adaptive, constructive and healthful – and thereby makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Reflecting James’ pragmatic conception of belief: When we act as if religion is true, we act with greater optimism, hope and benevolence. In the end, An Atheist Defends Religion cogently explains that the most rational and definitive argument for dismissing atheism is not found in the interminable debate over the existence of God, but in elucidating the enduring value of religion itself.

NonProphet Status: That’s a great summary of your work, which I find to be very important and totally in line with my own. In other words: you’re preaching to the choir here. So since you and I are in agreement, who do you think will benefit most from reading this book?

Bruce Sheiman: This book affirms both sides of the religion debate: on the one hand I am an unbeliever; on the other I am affirming the value of religion. Thus the book appeals to moderate believers and moderate unbelievers. The book does not appeal to extremists on either side of the debate. Indeed, the book makes an explicit case against extremist fundamentalism, and asserts that fundamentalism applies to religion as well as atheism.

NonProphet Status: You say you are both an Atheist and an “aspiring theist.” Tell me more about what you mean when you say this. What makes you want to be a theist?

Bruce Sheiman: The argument I make is that religion offers many benefits (emotional, communal, psychological, moral, existential, and even physical health) that are not offered by any other cultural institution.  I view religion in the economics context of expenditures and rewards; and if we could equate these minuses and pluses, religion would offer greater “profits” than any other cultural institution, even any secular ideology.  However, I can only justify that qualitatively, not quantitatively; so maybe the issue is unanswerable.

NonProphet Status: What has the response been to this book, both by the religious and by non-religious / Atheist folks?

bruce sheimanBruce Sheiman: It should surprise no one that believers have generally reacted very favorably; they see me as on their team (except for literalists). Unbelievers surprised me in being overtly hateful; they have called me everything from “fraud” (that I am not really an atheist) to “traitor” (I am inauthentic). What became apparent in writing this book is that there are at least two distinct kinds of atheists, what Daniel Burke of Religion News Service distinguished between “Atheism 2.0” (the so-called New Atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and other extremists) and “Atheism 3.0” (those given explicit recognition for the first time as expressed in my book: a more accommodating, tolerant and kinder, gentler atheism). For more, you can see the second blog dated December 8, 2009 at my blog.

NonProphet Status: You mentioned that some Atheists see you as a traitor. I can relate to the “traitor” tag; per a comment on my WaPo op/ed: “…maybe then our young Atheist Pastoral Student will find a society waging peace in a secular society. He’s in hell and making friends with the fire fuelers. He’s complaining of all us [fire] fighters squirting water on all the theocrats and heaven bribers.” Charming, no? Why do you think our positions — which I think are pretty politically correct and inoffensive — inspire such outrage among some folks?

Bruce Sheiman: Remember, believers generally like me (except for a contingent that does not take me seriously: I am still “wrong” in the minds of these literalists because they think it is misguided to look upon religion or God in a purely utilitarian sense; and besides, “God does so exist and how dare you say otherwise.”), so it is not all “outrage.”  The reason for such expressions is that many people are only comfortable with belief systems so long as other people embrace their version of the divine truth in a totalist, literalist sense. Deviating at all generates cognitive dissonance and a backlash.

NonProphet Status: Exactly. So why do you think it is that this literalist, militant Atheism has been more successful in capturing the public’s attention than our “kinder, gentler” non-religiosity? How does your perspective explicitly differ from those being advocated by the big-name Atheist / Agnostic voices out there right now (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc)?

Bruce Sheiman: It is quite simple: the more vehement are more vociferous. They command more attention by virtue of being louder and more outrageous.

NonProphet Status: Alright, let’s move on to some possibly lighter subjects. Have you seen Bill Maher’s documentary film “Religulous”? If so, what was your response to it?

Bruce Sheiman: No, I have not seen it. Do you recommend it? Read the rest of this entry »

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