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.

question marksSo you might be wondering: “Where is Chris? He’s been kinda absent from the blog lately…”

Guilty as charged! I’m sorry, but I hope you’ve been enjoying the awesome commentary from guest bloggers. I’ve had a lot going on; here’s a taste of what I’ve been up to:

1. State of Formation

Over the summer, I was hired by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue to be the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders co-sponsored by Hebrew College, Andover Newton, and the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. We’ve been working hard since then to recruit amazing contributors and get the site together — and, last week, it began its rolling launch! Please check it out; I’m incredibly proud of the fantastic content by our contributors already up on the site.

2. Book deal!

This fall, I’ve been working with a publisher on a book proposal, and I was very pleased to learn that my proposal was accepted this week! I officially have a book deal! Every bloggers dream, eh? Haha. It’s been an amazing process so far, and I can’t wait to finish the book and share it with you all. I challenge you to guess what the book will be about… Ha.

3. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard

I’ve also been working with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and am so thrilled to announce that I am coming on board this year as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow! In this position, I will coach and empower Humanist students to initiate and organize community service work in partnership with faith communities at Harvard. Read the announcement on HCH website here.

4. The Common Ground Campaign

I’ve been working hard with some awesome folks on the Common Ground Campaign, a youth-led movement standing up in response to the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America. Stay tuned for several announcements about those efforts coming soon!

So that’s all for now! I’ve got more in the works, but I’ll keep it short and sweet for now. I just want to add that, as I announced some of this news over the week on Facebook, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to my news about my book and about HCH. I’m feeling especially grateful right now for all of your support, friends. It’s what got me here.

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.

Note: Below is a very brief blog I produced while working at the Interfaith Youth Core / White House Interfaith Leadership Institute, which just ended today. Whew! So much to share about the last week; stay tuned. For now, my blog:

White House PictureAs a secular humanist working to advance positive and productive dialogue and action between the religious and nonreligious, I have been so thrilled to meet several nonreligious students at both sessions of the IFYC / White House Interfaith Leadership Institute.

One such individual is Michael Anderson, a young man in the cluster I am working with as an Alumni Coach. A Junior at McKendree University in Lebanon, IL, Michael has been doing interfaith for a long time, but his secular humanist identity was something that came a bit later. Though he experiences some tension as a humanist doing interfaith work, he also said, “I’m a firm believer that if things don’t sit well, that’s probably a good thing. I also believe that if you keep at it, that feeling might settle.”

Ultimately, he sees interfaith work as a pragmatic necessity. “We’re all just human beings, and we have to come to a conclusion on how to live together.”

Another nonreligious student at the Institute is Chelsea Link, a Junior at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, who said that she does interfaith work because “there’s no way you can deny that religion is important in the world for so many people; the point of being a humanist is to find common ground in humanity, to support one another, to find meaning in life, and to work together. You can’t do that if you’re shutting out giant portions of humanity just because they believe different things than you do.”

Chelsea, who heard about the Institute through Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, said that she plans to carry everything she learned here out into the world to work to bring the religious and nonreligious together.

“When I found humanism, I felt like many humanists and atheists were detached from religious communities, and many were antagonistic toward the religious,” said Chelsea. “Meanwhile, at interfaith events, I didn’t see much of an invitation for atheists or humanists. The religious and nonreligious don’t know how to deal with each other; I’d like to see more reaching out from both sides. We shouldn’t be afraid of each other!”

After this weekend, I know there are many other amazing young leaders who agree with her.

Today’s post in our ongoing series of guest bloggers comes from the amazing Amber Hacker, Network Engagement Coordinator at the Interfaith Youth Core. Below, Amber reflects on a few atheists who inspire her and the kinds of honest and respectful conversations atheists and Christians can have. Take it away, Amber!

crossA few months ago I told my friend Chris Stedman, a former Christian and current atheist, that there’s nothing I’d love to see more than for him to come back to Christ.

This is true, except a part of me would be disappointed if that happened, because Chris is such an important leader in the interfaith youth movement who represents a much needed non-religious voice.

Our conversation is not a typical one between a conservative Christian and an atheist. The reason Chris and I were able to have that difficult conversation is because of the relationship we’ve built with one other through working at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

A big part of my job at IFYC is answering calls and e-mails from folks interested in getting involved in the interfaith youth movement, but aren’t sure if they have a place. I can’t tell you how often I hear “I’m really inspired by this message, but can I be involved in interfaith work if I am [insert blank here — atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, non-religious, seeking, etc.]?”

My answer? “Yes! You absolutely have a seat at the table, and we need you in this movement.”

Let me tell you about these folks that inspire me on a daily basis – my secular/atheist/agnostic heroes.

greg-epsteinGreg Epstein, Harvard Humanist Chaplain and recent author of the bestseller “Good Without God,” is a good friend to IFYC and an important voice for those that identify as non-religious. I got to know Greg when I organized IFYC’s 2009 conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. Greg was one of our most popular conference speakers because people in this movement, both religious and non-religious, are hungry for his message — that secular humanism should have with respectful relationship with religion (and I would argue, vice-versa).

ChristinaGreta Christina, author of the widely-read Greta Christina’s Blog. While I don’t know Greta personally, she taught me that we have a lot more in common than what we have different. For example, 95 percent of what makes Greta angry makes me angry too.

Mary Ellen GiessMary Ellen Giess, an incredibly skilled staff member here at the IFYC. Mary Ellen, who is a humanist, helps me better articulate my identity as a Christian. She is such an important ally for the non-religious to this movement.

The Author

And of course, Chris Stedman, who is a dear friend and founder of NonProphet Status, one of the most talented interfaith leaders to come through the IFYC’s programs, and someone who continually inspires me on a daily basis.

Bottom line: I believe the faith divide isn’t between the religious or non-religious. For that matter, it isn’t between Christians and Jews, or Muslims and Hindus. It’s between those who believe in pluralism — that we can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty — and those who seek to dominate and divide.

We may not agree about heaven or hell (or for that matter, if there is even an afterlife). I don’t think we should gloss over these differences — Chris and I certainly haven’t. What I hope we can agree on is the importance of being in relationship with one another. And as I say on the phone to potential young non-religious interfaith leaders and what I want to say to you today:

We need you in the interfaith youth movement. Because we certainly have a lot of work to do — addressing poverty, hunger, human trafficking, the environment, you name it — and I think we can do it better together.

Amber HackerAmber Hacker is the Network Engagement Coordinator for the Interfaith Youth Core, where she organizes the organization’s biennial Conference, internship program, and alumni network. In her spare time, she works as a Youth Group Leader at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @IFYCAmber.

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

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

share your secular storyWhen we put out a call for stories just a few months ago, we received an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India. This great diversity of submissions made judging these and determining a batch of winners a difficult task for our esteemed panel of judges made up by the former Director of Amnesty International and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” Dr. William Schulz, the highly regarded author and academic Dr. Sharon Welch, the highest ranking Asian-American slam poet of all time Alvin Lau, the brilliant interfaith activist Mary Ellen Giess, the respected and poetic young West Coast writer Nick Mattos, and the renowned blogger, community activist and DJ Erik Roldan. But they rose to the occasion and the votes are in; we’re pleased to announce the winners of the Share Your Secular Story contest!

Interfaith

Winners: Jeff Pollet and Vandana Goel LaClair (tie)

Runner-Up: Rory Fenton

Moral Imagination

Winner: Corinne Tobias

Runners-Up: 1. Beatrice Marovich | 2. Jonathan S. Myerov

Youth

Winner: Joseph Blaha

Runners-Up: 1. Stephen D. Goeman, II | 2. Kyle Morgan

Congratulations to all of our honorees! You should be receiving your prizes (depending on the category, a signed book by Eboo syssPatel or Greg Epstein, a signed DVD by Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens or signed CD by Ben Lundquist, per the contest description page) soon. And a special congratulations to our winners Jeff Pollet, Vandana Goel LaClair, Corinne Tobias and Joseph Blaha — your submissions will be eligible for publication in the Washington Post Faith Divide, Killing the Buddha, and Jettison Quarterly. More information on that to come.

Thank you to everyone who submitted to our contest for demonstrating that secular stories really do matter. Thank you to our panel of judges for donating your time and wisdom, and to our partners who donated prizes and publication space. But more than anything, I cannot wait for everyone to read what our honorees have produced.

This post is the second part of a two part report on the Secular Student Alliance‘s New England Leadership Summit. For a report on the first day, click here.

Interview with Greg Epstein

I first had the opportunity to meet Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, when I was working onInterfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 Conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. We exchanged several emails and had a greg-epsteingreat conversation at the event itself. We’ve since stayed in touch, and it is always great to hear him talk about his work at Harvard, so I was excited for the opportunity to do so at the Summit. Epstein discussed what he does as a Humanist Chaplain, which is working with students to achieve goals, build a sustainable community, teach and advise student research, and help provide resources for those outside the Harvard Community. He discussed his interpersonal work with students, including a conversation he frequently has with students about values: “Once you begin to think skeptically,” Epstein said, “where do you draw the line? Where do you reconstruct a set of beliefs that says we have all kinds of natural, relative, but still very important reasons for caring about ourselves, others, and the world?”

Epstein also reveled that when he started as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, the total budget was $28,000, which included his salary, money for programming — everything. He has since expanded it significantly. Epstein said that the small amount of funding for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard represents the struggle our movement faces as a whole: “In this career field, and in this movement in general, you have to be willing to take a risk if you want to make any kind of advance. We are starting so much further behind anything that might reasonably be considered our competition.” As usual, it was a pleasure hearing Epstein talk. For more, check out a video of the session here (and, if you turn the volume up, you can hear me ask a question about collaborating with religious chaplains near the end of the video).

Bridging the Divide — Keys to Respectful Interaction and Cooperation with Religious Groups

This session, as well as the next two to follow, where those that most directly echoed the work that I do. I was so excited to see this workshop on the list of sessions, and it did not disappoint. Nate Mauger, Secular Student Alliance intern, described maugerhis experience when his Secular Student Alliance group partnered with an on campus Christian group to go to New Orleans for a service project. You can read about his service experience in his amazing NonProphet Status guest blog from earlier this week. In his presentation he highlighted some key beliefs on why it is important to collaborate with religious organizations (beliefs I obviously share), including that it is a “great opportunity to dispel common negative stereotypes aimed at the secular movement,” that engaging with people of differing viewpoints enhances the quality of conversation, and that one is able accomplish a lot more by combining resources. Mauger also offered advice on how to reach out to a religious group, and counseled that clear communication is key and disagreement is inevitable but that you should “take time to focus on issues on which you can find common ground.” All in all it was an excellent presentation and a helpful starting point for secular folks interested in getting involved in an interfaith project.

A Secular Humanist Invocation

Andrew Lovley, Founder and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) and student at the University of Southern Maine, offered a reflection on the controversy that ensued after he was invited to deliver an invocation at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine. Unsurprisingly, his invocation actually prompted less outcry from religious people than it did from those within the secular community, where he was criticized for doing something “religious.” Lovley asserted that he believes lovleythat “Secular Humanists should do invocations and other religious practices whenever they have they have the opportunity” and use them as opportunities to “unify and inspire, not protest [religion],” saying he believed such protests are counterproductive. As a Secular Humanist who has taken a preaching class in seminary and preached several secular sermons, I agree with him on this. As Kelly Bodwin said on the first day of the Summit, we can use religious forms and apply them to our secular values, modeling our communities off the good things about religion. Lovley’s call for secularists to expand their notions of what kinds of activities secular folks should engage in resonated very strongly with me a secular interfaith dialogue facilitator and I really enjoyed hearing him speak so eloquently about his experiences and beliefs. You can read his invocation here, read a blog he did about whether Humanist’s should deliver invocations here, and see a video of his SSA Leadership Summit workshop here.

Gaining Acceptance — Lessons Learned from the Front Line

Greg R. Langer, an attorney from Los Angeles and founding chairperson of Chrysalis, a non-profit serving the homeless in L.A., lead a workshop on how to advance the secular movement’s quest for wider societal acceptance. He echoed a lot of what I’ve said in my work — the idea that demanding we be recognized as legitimate is far less efficient than demonstrating we are (show and don’t tell), saying that “claiming Atheists are victims does not engender positive responses.” Langer asserted that we will often need to meet religious people more than halfway, advising secularists to “treat each person as an individual and not as a representative of [her or his] group, even when you are not treated that way.” He acknowledged that “Atheism has baggage — it is seen as hostile,” and that “non-theism, while not as problematic, still only says what you do not believe.” For those reasons, Langer said that he prefers to identify as a Secular Humanist — this is precisely what I’ve said on this blog many times over.

Langer continued by saying that, though it may be tempting, the secular inclination to tell religious people that they are deluded is never productive. He warned that when engaging with theists one should anticipate and be prepared to address negative langerassumptions about the non-religious, but also said that we must “check [ourselves] for prejudices too. We will only achieve acceptance if we really hear [the religious] and empathize.” Langer also condemned the common Atheist desire to serve as a de-conversion missionary, saying that “while it might be nice [to de-convert], it is not our priority.” This echoes the interfaith idea that, while we would all love to see others come to recognize our “truth,” we know it is not the most important issue at hand. Ultimately, he said, gaining wider acceptance is about engagement — and, more specifically, changing how secularists engage. “Disdain must be replaced with empathy,” Langer said,” just as we ask them to empathize with us.” I found Langer’s speech to be a very important articulation of the message that I advocate and really enjoyed the ways in which he broke it down into specific actions secularists can take to promote wider acceptance of secular perspectives.

Building a Relationship with the White House

This was a fun session on the Secular Coalition For America‘s White House briefing in which participant Jesse Galef shared some of his experience. You can see a full video here.

Conversations

As great as the sessions were, my favorite part was meeting with the other attendees of the Leadership Summit. There was a broad variety of perspectives present, but we all spoke our mind without fear of disagreeing and without criticizing one another. It gave me a lot of hope for greater unity in our movement, and I was glad for the opportunity to participate.

Now that my travels are done and I am back in Chicago, I’m turning to work on the final days of the Share Your Secular Story Contest. It closes in 15 DAYS so submit now!

Sorry for the limited number of posts recently — I hit the ground running upon returning to Chicago and immediately got sick. I’m still a bit ill but have continued to work in the interim. It’s little wonder I fell sick; it was a long and winding trek. I started at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) in New York City / Newark, NJ, stopped by Washington, D.C. for some meetings, headed back north to Rochester, NY for Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference and, finally, made my was to Boston for the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit. My first conference, AAC, was a mixed bag at best (1, 2, 3). The second, IUC, was consistently excellent (1, 2, 3).

SSAHow did the SSA Summit hold up? In a way, it was like a hybrid of the previous two experiences. Like AAC, I was in significant disagreement with many who were there (as opposed to IUC, where we all rallied behind a common cause). Unlike AAC, however, I found some pretty significant allies and all present put their best foot forward, constantly working to hear the other out and take her or his idea seriously. Respectful dialogue ruled the day.

There were many sessions — 18 in total, plus the MythBusters on Humanism event — but I want to highlight a specific few that I found especially interesting:

Creating a Semester Programming Arc & Engaging Local Freethought Groups

This session was facilitated by Jim Addoms, a graduate student at Syracuse University. He talked about his experiences founding a secular student group. I thought he had an interesting story but was confused by the lengthy portion of his presentation that addressed the fact that there is a lot of interfaith going on at Syracuse and that his group developed as a critique against it. He especially focused on the COEXIST movement, which he called “silly.” Addoms spent a lot of his talk saying that he has problems with COEXIST, saying there are “real differences” between religions. I’m not certain why he saw that as opposed to interfaith; the new interfaith movement recognizes and acknowledges the reality that we have distinctly different views but pragmatically declares that we need to find a way to disagree and still live in a way that transcends tolerance and prioritizes collaboration over critiquing one another’s religious beliefs. Unfortunately, though his presentation was very professional and it sounded like they have a lot going on at Syracuse, he spent a lot of time talking about how he thinks COEXIST is stupid and I found it to be distracting from the session’s goal of actually talking about developing secular programming.

Churchless Charity and the Philosophy of Philanthropy

This session, led by Secretary of the Harvard Secular Society and Founder of National Secular Service Day Kelly Bodwin, was an excellent exposition on the importance of engaging in service work as secular individuals. She talked about “reclaiming service NSSDas a secular tradition,” saying that while secular service’s primary goal is helping others, it also facilitates a secondary goal: “helping ourselves by building community, establishing traditions, and breaking stereotypes [because] we have an image problem.”

Bodwin raised the question of what kind of community are we creating, highlighting the differences between such figureheads as Greg Epstein and Christopher Hitchens and asking: “how we can build a community that encompasses all of these perspectives and stop the infighting? Through service.” She declared that service brings people together, revealing that even her Catholic roommate came for their National Secular Service Day event. Her idea is very similar to the one propagated by the Interfaith Youth Core — that service brings together diverse people, such as the various divergent positionings in the secular community, and unites them under a common cause organized around a shared value.

She called secular service “the sincerest form of flattery,” saying “we are emulating the parts of the church we like. The church does some great things, so we should imitate these good models.” She also said that service work will serve as act of self-definition in helping to break stereotypes about the non-religious, proposing that “actions speak louder than words – we need to show that we’re good, not just tell.”

Under the Magnifying Glass

Shelley Mountjoy, Founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University, gave a helpful presentation on how to present yourself publicly if you’re in a position of leadership. She asked attendees to consider the image mountjoypresented by one’s presence in social networking forums. Asked Mountjoy: “Are you living your values? Before you an think about the image you’re conveying, think about the person that you are, about your actions and how they can be interpreted.” This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about. As someone who has taken on a public voice through this blog, speaking engagements, the workshops I lead, and so on, I’ve considered the kind of image I’m presenting on Facebook and other websites. My Twitter account is linked to this blog – when I tweet about going to a bar called “Whiskeys,” how is that being interpreted? I guess there’s only so much I can do. Those who truly know me know my lifestyle; others can only imagine. Still, I want to take stock of my priorities, discern what of me is most important to advertise, and employ discretion.

Working with Local Groups

goddardDebbie Goddard, Campus Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Inquiry, facilitated a session on ways of reaching out to other Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, Freethought, Skeptic, et al. groups, suggesting ways to collaborate in spite of possible differences in a way that reminded me some of the interfaith movement. She talked about seeking out allies, ways of reaching out, what other groups can offer and what your group can offer them, and more. She also offered keen words of advice that resonated strongly with me: “If you don’t like what’s out there, work to change it, or create something you do like!” I also really appreciated how she highlighted the need to work with what if often seen as “our opposition” or “the other side” — religious groups.

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

This session, lead by blogger and writer Greta Christina, was one of my favorites even though Christina and I disagree about many things. She began by saying, “Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.” Christina said the community has done a pretty good job of gaining visibility, but said “I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out.” Christina argued that the secular movement needs to put more energy into creating communities akin to religious ones, and on this she and I are in absolute agreement.

Christina then moved on to a very thought-provoking idea — that the secular community ought to “let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.” The idea that both positions will Christinaadvance the “secular agenda” in different ways is something I’ve heard time and time again from secular folks (unless they are telling me that my position isn’t welcome), but I’m still not totally convinced it is right. While the queer rights movement certainly benefited from having both diplomats and firebrands, the firebrands of the queer community offended by being explicit about their queer identities, and the diplomats worried about offending more popular sensibilities. This is not a perfect parallel because the firebrands of the secular movement want to see religion disappear, whereas the firebrands of the queer movement did not work to remove the presence of heterosexuality, just to make their own identities known in a radical way. The diplomats of the queer movement agreed with the firebrands in terms of core message but disagreed when it came to how to best bring about change; I on the other hand, as one who sees certain benefits to religion’s presence in the world, am on an entirely different page than secular firebrands who want to see religion done away with. I understand the point she was trying to make, but I don’t think it translates all that well.

She also raised another very interesting point — that the queer movement has succeeded in spite of differences in identification language and that the secular movement should “not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.” I agree with her; though I’ve said that “Atheist” is a problematic term, I also am fine with others who identify as such if that is what she or her prefers. We’ve more important things to address as a community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christina declared that “Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m consistently surprised by how much the secular movement is dominated by heterosexual, middle-class, white men. It isn’t that such individuals shouldn’t participate; of course they should. But as Christina said, it is important to be intentional about making the community a place where these individuals are not just allowed to participate and gain positions of leadership but a place that invites them to do so. I’ve been surprised by how few queer folks I’ve meet in the secular community, so as a queer it was great to see Christina speak about the parallels between our movements.

One thing that I would’ve liked to have seen explored was an excellent analogy Todd Stiefel made at the American Atheist Convention between the queer rights movement’s utilization of straight allies to advance queer acceptance to Atheists aligning with religious groups. I actually raised the question during the Q&A, to which Christina rebutted that, unlike queerness to heterosexuality, Atheism is innately opposed to religiosity and presents a direct negation of religious ideas. And while I understand this, I don’t think it means that religious-secular alliances are an impossibility. In my interfaith cooperation efforts I have not found that my godlessness has presented the kind of challenge to my religious collaborators that Christina has suggested it might; perhaps that is because I have not positioned myself in opposition to them.

You can find the full text of her speech here.

starkAddress from U.S. Congressman Pete Stark

Three years ago U.S. Congressman Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, filled out survey saying that he did not believe in God, making him the highest ranked politician to openly declare that he does not. His short address was a call to arms in which he said: “we hear from Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party every day; it is very important that you make your voices heard as well.”

Keynote by Rebecca Goldstein

International Academy of Humanism Laureate Rebecca Goldstein, who’s been mentioned on this blog before, gave the conference keynote, a lecture on “how to answer theists who accuse you of being unable to tell right from wrong.”

She began by declaring that “moral facts are weird. What kind of facts can ethical facts be? They seem different from other facts: they don’t describe how things are, but how things ought to be. ‘Oughtness,’ or normativity, means that ethical facts can’t lie there limp and inert but must exert some sort of ‘oomph.’ [They] must contain a motivational component.” Goldstein critiqued the oft-proclaimed Atheist mantra that there are “no moral facts,” stating: “Don’t say it because it will confirm [the religious] opinion [about you], and don’t say it because it’s wrong.” She used Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, or the question of whether something is right because the gods say so, or if the gods say something is right because it is right. Said Goldstein: “If God wants goldsteinyou to do it because it is right, then that’s the reason and reference to God’s choices is redundant. Or his choices are mere whims, caprices.” She quoted Bertrand Russel’s “Why I Am Not A Christian,” and then moved into a discussion of secular ethics, saying, “if religious grounds aren’t [going to] do it… what grounds can we offer?” Goldstein said that just as “both physics and ethics begin with intuitions,” “our moral theories begin with intuitions that, unsurprisingly, concern ourselves.”

Referencing Spinoza and Kant, Goldstein suggested that the development of ethics, then, involve a going beyond the self, a cultivation of empathy, and a recognition that members of groups outside our own have the same rights to dignity as members of our own (which, to me, sounded a lot like my impetus for interfaith advocacy). She declared that it isn’t that there is a universal but that things can be made universalizable. “Can there be a morality without god?” Goldstein asked. “It’s hard to say god would be relevant. So what is relevant? Knowing intuitively that I matter. Reason can’t be unique to me. The moral emotions endowered to us by evolution contain a folk morality including an inchoate grasp that someone else matters… but the bias toward our own selves and our own kin and kind must be corrected by reason.” Her talk was heady and important; listening to her speak, it was easy to see why Goldstein was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” prize.

Check back for my report on the second exciting day!

share your secular storyWe’ve been hinting that something exciting has been in the works for the past couple weeks; well, folks, the day is finally here.

We are so excited to announce the Share Your Secular Story contest, a call for stories by NonProphet Status!

We’re seeking previously unpublished personal stories written from a secular (Secular Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, et al.) perspective. The stories of secular people are scattered because we as a people are scattered. Because there is little cohesion among us, our voice is often not loud enough to be heard in the modern religious marketplace. The secular stories that do get broadcast are most often volatile – secular people taking swipes at religious people – and reflect a divisive “us versus them” mentality. What gets told less often are the stories of people, secular and religious alike, living alongside one another peacefully and secular people expressing their own values within a diverse society. We want to hear more of these stories. We want to hear your story.

PRIZES: We are thrilled to offer a wealth of exciting prizes, including a ton of signed gear (DVDs, CDs, and books) from Harvard University Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, filmmaker Ky Dickens and musician Ben Lundquist. On top of that, a couple of the winning selections will be eligible for publication in the Washington Post’s “The Faith Divide” and Jettison Quarterly. Visit the contest page to hear more about our awesome giveaways!

PANEL OF JUDGES: We are also so very enthusiastic about our esteemed panel of judges featuring Dr. William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International USA and 2000 “Humanist of the Year,” academic Dr. Sharon Welch, superstar slam poet Alvin Lau, Interfaith Youth Core’s Mary Ellen Giess, writer Nick Mattos and DJ Erik Roldan. Check out the contest page to learn more about this all-star line up!

You can access the full details of the contest here. Click here to download a PDF of contest details; you can download it as a Word Document here. The submission period opens in one week on March 1, 2010. Spread the word, and don’t hesitate to contact us at nonprophetstatus@gmail.com with any questions you may have.

Stay tuned here, at our Facebook page, and to our twitter for more updates on the contest. We can’t wait to read your stories!

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