Today’s guest post in the current lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Lewis Marshall, the  president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. Lewis reflects on how AHA! became one of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR) and the subsequent interfaith alliances they built. This is a really great resource for any non-religious students interested in interfaith campus work. Without further ado:

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey speaking on secularism in the Stanford Memorial Church.

I had the honor of being on a panel discussion about operating an atheist student group in an interfaith organization at the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference this summer. I had a great time, and it was nice to meet the other panelists (Hemant Mehta, Chris Stedman, and Jonathan Weyer). Chris has graciously invited me to share more of my experiences with getting involved in interfaith work. I hope this context helps to explain why I think atheist groups should be involved in interfaith organizations. I’m also going to share a few lessons I’ve learned that may help those starting this process.

There may be dissent from your own organization

In the spring of 2009, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!) applied to become a member of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). The main sticking point in becoming a member of the SAR was discomfort inside our group about the pledge that is required of SAR groups. In part, it reads: “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.”

That single word, “spiritual,” was a major source of argument in deciding whether to join the SAR. Many people believed that joining this organization would compromise our values. Others thought that we shouldn’t join because we are not technically a “religion.”

In the end, we joined, and with our application included a memorandum of understanding, which read in part:

Though its participants generally do not consider themselves religious, AHA! reconciles its purpose with a broad interpretation of the term “religion,” and of the pledge by all SAR organizations to promote “spiritual growth” …with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!’s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.

Looking back now, the initial argument was overblown. Being part of the SAR has not affected the daily life of our group, or forced us to compromise our mission. We’ve still been able to do controversial events and we’ve still been able to run our group as we see fit. In my mind, the practical outcomes are more important than any hang-up over labels.

There may be less backlash from religious organizations than you expect.

In part, we wrote the memorandum of understanding for ourselves, to show that we had a clear vision for our involvement with the SAR. In another sense, it was a way of preparing for objections from religious organizations. We were concerned that religious organizations would question our place in a community that pledges to promote spiritual growth.

In reality, we’ve had virtually no comment from religious organizations on our involvement with the SAR. No one objected to us when we joined, no one has showed surprise at seeing our banner at events. It has been a complete non-issue.

We anticipated some criticism participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad day. In particular, the rules of the SAR require that we inform religious organizations of events critical of their religion. We did not receive any response from Muslim student groups over this event, the only criticism was in anonymous comments on our website.

In my mind the take-away lesson is this: If you act like you belong in an interfaith organization, people will treat you like you belong in an interfaith organization. Be kind and confident, and you might be surprised by the reaction.

There may be more material benefits to joining an interfaith organization than you realize.

When we joined the SAR, we anticipated that it would be a mainly symbolic gesture. In reality, we’ve received a number of material benefits that we never considered.

Incoming freshmen at Stanford are asked to fill out a religious preference card letting the Office of Religoius life know their religious affiliation. Each year, we get a list of over 100 incoming freshmen who listed themselves as atheists, agnostics, or something uncommon like like “Jedi” or “Discordian.”

Being on the SAR mailing list has led us to many event opportunities. While we always table at the major activity fairs, we now have the opportunity to participate in discussions and tabling events specifically for religious organizations. We currently have a list of about five events catering to the religious needs of incoming freshmen this fall.

We now have access to a number of meeting spaces we would not otherwise have, including the Stanford Memorial Church. This year, we were able to host Austin Dacey in the church at the regional SSA conference at no cost to ourselves.

Religious organizations are likely to need the same sorts of infrastructure as an atheist student group. Interfaith organizations can help you tap into that infrastructure and make organizing your group that much easier.

You may find some natural allies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the very helpful people we’ve met in Stanford’s religious community. The Progressive Christians have been some of our best friends at Stanford.  They were particularly helpful in setting up a discussion with Hemant Mehta and their campus minister, Geoff Browning. The Hare Krishnas facilitated one of the most vigorous discussions we’ve had about the existence of God. We’ve also had contact with the Quaker and Buddhist communities. These two groups contain atheists and I think they could make great allies.

I think it’s important to build ties to partner organizations like this, because it’s one of the quickest ways of changing perceptions about atheists. Some of these communities were hesitant to work with us, but after holding events together I think we have a solid relationship and a real understanding.

So why join an interfaith organization?

In my mind, this is like asking, “Why join the SSA? Why join the Center for Inquiry?” All of these organizations have resources that can help your group. They have connections to interesting, involved people. If you can find a way to use those resources, you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping to build a meaningful, diverse community.

P.S.  That’s great, Lewis, but it doesn’t really help me…

I realize that many of you live in areas more conservative than the Stanford, and you might not find your religious organizations as welcoming as we did. I’ve certainly talked to people still getting a cold shoulder from religious organizations. I can only speak from my experience, but I think this will get better. Religious students attend meetings and share ideas cross-country too. As more and more atheist groups enter interfaith communities, I think it will start to seem more normal. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Lewis MarshallLewis Marshall is the former publicist and current president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. He was previously a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota. Lewis is currently a third-year Ph.D. student of chemical engineering at Stanford and received his B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2008.

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peopleHey folks! I’ve got a few big projects in the works right now (how vague and ambiguous…), so, to keep NonProphet Status fresh amidst my busyness, I’ve recruited a few worthy guest bloggers to populate it with content over the next few weeks. In the past, I’ve been honored to feature some pretty incredible guest posts from the likes of Tim Brauhn, Jessica Kelley, Nick Mattos, Sayira KhokarRory Fenton, Nate Mauger, Kate FridkisAndrew FogleMiranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen Giess, Jeff PolletJoseph Varisco, Corinne Tobias, Vandana Goel LaClairNicholas Lang, and even my own Mom! We’ve also hosted original writing by Eboo Patel, August Brunsman, Hemant Mehta, Erik Roldan, and Emanuel Aguilar.

We’ve featured so many guest posters because NPS was never intended to be “Chris Stedman’s platform.” Rather, I wanted to create a forum for an alternative secular narrative. It’s why I initiated, organized and ran our first Share Your Secular Story contest. Featuring an amazing panel of judges that included the former head of Amnesty International USA and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” William Schulz, the contest inspired 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.

In hosting the story contest and featuring so many guest bloggers, I’ve hoped to make NPS a place where a multitude of voices help define a new narrative for the secular community: one that respects the religious identities of others while remaining authentic to our own identities (be they secular, religious, or somewhere in-between).

I can’t wait to read along with you as this next diverse batch of guest bloggers continues to show us all a new way forward. I’m on the edge of my secular seat!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/11.

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

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

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

mosque protest

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

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

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

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

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

panel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray For Me?

July 15, 2010

prayerLast October I was struggling to get over a particularly stubborn cold; week after week, I’d show up for my Spiritual Direction course at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies and try for three hours to refrain from interrupting a lecture on psychology and teleology by hacking up a lung. Inevitably a sneeze would escape and I’d be immediately greeted by a chorus of “God bless you!”s.

It didn’t bother me (and not just because I once heard an unsubstantiated claim that the origins of the expression are Norwegian) because I understand that the impetus for their achoo-ed call and response was good-natured concern. Everyone in that room knew that I didn’t believe in God, yet still told me week after week that they were praying for my health. To which I would respond with a smile: “thank you!”

Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance just posted a blog over at the Friendly Atheist after seeing a tweet I published last night in which I commented that I don’t mind when religious people say a prayer for me — after all, what’s the harm? I appreciate the good intentions and kind thoughts. My tweet was a response to an article on CNN reporting on Christians who are praying for notorious Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.

It seems Jesse and I are more or less on the same page when it comes to how we internally react to prayer — he too appreciates the good intentions of those who pray — but we differ in that he also thinks it is important in such moments to assert to the individual offering prayer that it won’t work.

My first thought as a perpetual Agnostic is that we cannot say definitively that prayer never works; and there is some legitimate merit to the idea that positive thought makes a real impact (just one example, a piece from the New York Times), so until there is sufficient evidence that prayer doesn’t work 100% of the time, I don’t even want to try to make that argument.

But more importantly: why does it matter? So my classmates at Loyola think that prayer works and I remain unconvinced. Why should I try to dissuade them from that belief? Seems self-important and unnecessary to me. And, more importantly, their kind intention actually means a lot to me. We have a relationship of mutual concern and care — why would I want to go and ruin that by trying to assert my so-called “intellectual authority”? I’m a lot more interested in the fact that they care enough about me and my well-being to take a moment of their day to wish me well.

What do you folks think? Leave a comment — even if it’s just to let me know that you’re praying for me.

rainbow unicorn

This image barely lost out in the vote on IFYC's logo, obviously.

I have a good number of posts in queue for NonProphet Status — reports on MythBusters on Humanism, the Secular Student Alliance New England Leadership Summit, the 2010 National CIRCLE Conference, and the Fish Out of Water DVD Release Party among them. However, a blog went up today on Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist that I feel deserves a prompt response.

Last week, Mehta and I were both mentioned in The Washington Post’s Faith Divide, a blog managed by Eboo Patel, Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization I work with as a former intern and current adjunct trainer / speaker. I was flattered to be mentioned, both by the organization I so greatly admire and enjoy collaborating with and to be mentioned in the same sentence as the prolific Mehta. But per a post that went up on his blog today, it seems Mehta, who spoke at IFYC’s 2007 conference, has mixed feelings about being cited as an example of a secular person who is working for greater collaboration across lines of difference:

I don’t want to just “let our differences slide” or “agree to disagree.”

want to persuade religious people that they are mistaken when it comes to their mythology. Not through proselytization or trickery, but through rational, reasoned discussion.

We can work together and we can do wonderful things to help our communities and we ought to do that. But not in lieu of reasoned debate and a desire to point out the problems with the other person’s beliefs.

In this post, Mehta writes that “religion is not always a force for good,” going as far in his claim that IFYC wants to pretend it is as to call the interfaith movement “happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns/all-inclusive.”  It seems a funny point to raise since that is not even close to the idea that IFYC posits — in fact, the interfaith cooperation movement was born out of a recognition that religion is the source of many problems in our world. But I work with IFYC and the larger interfaith movement because I am not compelled to be complacent about that problem and see in interfaith cooperation a real, achievable solution.

This desire to address problems related to religion is something Mehta and I have in common, but our approaches are fundamentally different. As far as I can tell, Mehta believes that the best way to bring about the conclusion of conflicts rooted in religious identity is to completely deconstruct religious identities. On the other hand, I see this approach as a literal impossibility — per the majority of recent cultural studies, religion is not going away any time soon, and is in fact becoming an increasingly relevant force in the world marketplace. If this is true — and, well, it is — then we need a find a way to work toward bringing about the end of religious-based conflict.

I believe this is accomplished through the identification of shared values across lines of difference and the pursuit of common action that grows out of these values. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes time and time again. People in the “New Atheist” camp identify blasphemy and the deconstruction of religious paradigms as the best way to achieve this. Ironically, I believe their approach has the opposite effect, creating only more conflict and pushing fundamentalists to entrench themselves even further into their religious totalitarianism. It’s also a poor way to build community; as I’ve written on this blog before, the majority of what I hear from secular friends is that they’ve had no interest in joining an Atheist group because the negativity they observed from these groups’ attempts to deconstruct religious ideas turned them off. They think it is alienating and innately limited, and I agree.

Mehta asks, “Is there room [in the interfaith movement] for people like me who think Islam, Mormonism, and Christianity are false? And who try to tackle sacred cows like reincarnation, Heaven, and karma?” My involvement in the organization serves a resounding “yes.” I think that religious ideas are false, and have deconstructed them in my own life. I enjoy discussing this with others and promoting the idea that we can be good without God. But when Mehta goes on to write that he “want[s] people to lose their faith just as much as the New Atheists do,” our beliefs diverge.

I am not persuaded by the popular Atheist mantra that we should serve as “de-conversion” missionaries and aim to bring about the end to “religious myths.” I don’t have a strong desire to see my religious peers abandon their faiths. Why should it bother me that my neighbor believes in God, as long as that belief isn’t infringing on my freedoms? And when it does, is the best approach to try to convince them to rid themselves of the belief altogether (an often impossible task), or is it more productive to allow them to get to know me and, through our relationship, cultivate in them a desire to not only allow for my differing belief but perhaps even celebrate it? This approach strikes me as the more rational and pragmatic, and also the more empathic. You need to establish a relationship before you can move into those more difficult conversations, or else most of the people you’re talking to won’t even bother to listen and you’ll be left monologuing. And monologuers have a difficult time building the bridges required to make the world we live in a better place for all of us.

Ultimately, my pragmatism demands that I prioritize. I enjoy critiquing religious ideas, and often do, but I also know that our religious differences are much less significant than the immediate problems facing our world. My friends and I are establishing a group called Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC), and at our last meeting we all agreed that we had no interest in hosting debates with religious people, as many secular groups often do, concluding that such things often just create more division. Instead, we want to have a community of Secular Humanists who get out into the world and engage in service. We’re hoping our first project will be a collaboration with a community garden and (GASP!) an after-school program at a church and that it will lead to a greater understanding of our beliefs in that community.

Mehta and I have a professional relationship, have collaborated before, and I respect him and the work he has done to help provide a voice for Atheists and other secular folks in our society. However, as much as I admire his advocacy for the wider societal acceptance of the non-religious, I think his desire to see religious people abandon their faith does us more harm than good. In my interfaith work I have become a stronger Secular Humanist, just as I’ve watched my peers grow in their faiths. I celebrate their evolution as they do mine because we are invested in one another, working together in a way that does not “let our differences slide,” as Mehta has suggested, but recognizes that the reality of said differences is superseded by the necessity to come together in respect, mutual admiration and common action.

Oh, and happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns.

Beyond Aggressive Atheism

April 14, 2010

Check out this great post by my friends at the Interfaith Youth Core Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby that went up today in the Washinton Post’s Faith Divide. They talk about aggressive Atheism, which has been covered on this blog a lot recently, and link to NonProphet Status. Full post below:

Beyond aggressive atheism

By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby

Five years ago, atheism was all aggression. From Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins, the best selling atheists advanced a particular discourse – one that was both antagonistic and destructive. The question they always answered was, “How many ways can I find to offend religious people?” But the question we always wanted to ask them was different: “How do you bring together people from all backgrounds around equal dignity and mutual loyalty?”

And over the last five years, whenever Eboo gave speeches at interfaith conferences about the Interfaith Youth Core, atheists, secularists and agnostics kept showing up. They would ask how they could be involved – what were they supposed to do in this movement?

We understood the confusion around their role. If all you did was look at the old best-seller list on atheism, you would think that all atheists were anti-religious. But times are changing – all it takes is a glimpse at the newest hit book on atheism, Good without God by Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Epstein’s book is a turning point for atheist discourse, diving into “what a billion non-religious people do believe”, not just what they are against.

From our experience at IFYC – not only do we work with young atheists but a quarter of our own staff are secular humanist – this generation of non-religious young people are paving a new way forward. Last weekend, Nara Schoenberg affirmed this in a Chicago Tribune piece on campus atheists. She writes about what it means to be secular on college campuses – how students are organizing through Secular Student Alliances, and what they are talking about when they meet.

Hemant Mehta, chair of the Secular Student Alliance’s board of directors, reveals to her: “And, personally, if my neighbor’s religious, I don’t really care. I’m less interested in the controversy, and I’m more interested in, what can we do with the beliefs that we do share?” Indeed, a recent Pew study found that 20% of young Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or have “no religion.” As Mehta and others point out, this doesn’t mean they lack values in common with their religious peers.

Atheists today are partnering with religious groups to do service projects; dialoguing and engaging with other religious groups and organizations on campus; and changing the public discourse through blogs, like Mehta’s Friendly Atheist and Chris Stedman’s Non-Prophet Status.

Sounds a heck of a lot like interfaith leadership to me.

So these days when non-religious folks come up after a speech and ask how they can be involved we point them to one place – their peers, who are pioneering interfaith leadership as atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

We recently announced the launch of our Share Your Secular Story contest, a call for stories that aims to give secular folks an opportunity to paint a picture of what their life a secular individual is like. We couldn’t be more excited about the great response the contest has gotten so far!

Today we’re thrilled to share with you exclusive statements from Hemant Mehta and Erik Roldan on the importance of this contest and why it is so necessary that secular folks give voice to their experiences — be sure to come back in the coming months for more.

Hemant MehtaHemant Mehta

Atheist Activist / Public Speaker

The Friendly Atheist

I think one of the most important things atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and the like have to do to help our movement is to “come out” about our identity. In order to get others to be open and proud, they have to know that it’s ok to say so. Telling stories about our own battles with being an atheist is a powerful way to help other atheists deal with similar situations. I encourage all atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists to share their stories, whether it’s through an essay, a blog, or Twitter. Let’s help others realize that they are surrounded by atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists everywhere.

Erik RoldanErik Roldan

DJ / Blogger

Think Pink RadioShare Your Secular Story Panel of Judges

Since becoming acquainted with Humanism and its role in interfaith work, I’ve acknowledged that political peace and common understanding is more possible when it includes an effort to organize non-believers. It wasn’t a completely natural conclusion to make – most non-religious people only take swipes at people of faith, with a default argument that religious institutions have embedded war, discrimination and isolation into our culture. There is ample horrific evidence that you can point to and say, “XX religion caused XX war, or XX deaths;” arguments  I would be not be able to disprove. However, what’s important about NonProphet’s general point of view and this contest in specific, is that looking at the religious as the enemy does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t help anything to simply identify the negative and try and keep away from it. If anything, isolating ourselves from the reality that the world and the United States are driven by politically powerful varieties of faith is complacent. It’s a resignation to being a voiceless minority, and what progress could that possibly result in? I’ve met so many artists, activists and community organizers through Think Pink Radio and would never expect any of them to be content with being a voiceless minority. The thought of that is laughable, actually… “Share Your Secular Story” is a contest that I believe will add to political progress. Whether we want it or not, non-believers have a lot in common, and it doesn’t all have to revolve around how much we hate religion.

Stay tuned to NonProphet Status for more exclusive statements on the importance of sharing secular stories, follow us on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and don’t forget to make your secular story heard with our Share Your Secular Story contest!

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