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.

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Atheism’s Happy Family

October 28, 2010

The latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a wonderful submission by Jonathan S. Myerov. Jonathan’s post was a runner-up in our Share Your Secular Story contest, and it is a beautiful exposition on atheism, family, and how ultimately, in spite of our different beliefs, we must work and live together. Thank you to Jonathan for this entry!

Jon's family

Jon's family

Leo Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina by observing that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Similarly, every atheist has a unique story. Each of us becomes unhappy in religion in our own way.

Now, “unhappy in religion” deserves some explanation because it does not mean unhappy with everything or unhappy with life. On the contrary, the atheists I know are as happy as anybody. Personally, I am a happy guy, and — it may surprise some to learn — I have never felt oppressed by Judaism, the religion I was born into.

For most of my life I associated Judaism with the happiness of spending time with family. When I was growing up, I loved to pray and sing in temple alongside my father. I enjoyed being with him and hearing his beautiful tenor voice. This past winter, I brought my wife and three children to my brother’s home for Hanukkah. All of us — including my father and mother, my brothers and their families—sang together and had a delightful time. Such experiences have been typical. So many cherished moments of family togetherness in my life have happened under the pretense of Jewish observance.

But I was unhappy in religion because it yielded no satisfactory answers to my questions. If Judaism was true, why wasn’t Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? Why was God so present in the lives of Biblical people and so absent in the lives of modern people? Why did the Bible repeat itself in some places and contradict itself in others? Why did so much disagreement exist over the correct interpretation of biblical passages? Where and how were the books of the Bible written? By whom were they written, and for whom?

I wanted answers, not atheism. Yet the more I investigated, I found only one answer fitting the information before me: God and the Bible were the products of human thought and human desire. This conclusion came to me after many years and several intellectual wanderings, through graduate school and finally through a brief period when I sought to live as authentically a Jewish life as I could. During this later time, I devotedly studied the Bible and the wisdom of the Jewish sages. I prayed several times daily, and I observed the Sabbath.

Yet, I was unhappy in religion. I loved my family and treasured the heritage of my ancestors, but I could no longer pretend that Jewish belief engaged my curiosity, passion, and character. And so I began to self-identify as an atheist.

Very little has happened since then.

Wait. That’s not quite true. Some of my family members did not like pro-atheist material I posted on Facebook. My wife, still a theist, raised concerns that a rift might develop between our children and me. But these flare-ups were minor, and they settled into nothing very quickly.

Why? Because we are family. In the end, our being family and our being together has trumped everything, even our views on a supreme being of the universe. So what that I don’t think the world was literally created in six days? So what that you believe the Exodus really happened? More important is whether you’re going to come over to celebrate the two-year-old’s birthday or whether I will help you put up the drywall in your basement. The truly meaningful question is whether we see one another as family or not. The real question we all must answer is whether we will treat and appreciate one another as family.

My atheism has helped me to appreciate life as it really is, the life that happens before us every minute of the day. Every day is a holiday. Everything about us and around us is grand and miraculous. While some thank God for life, I thank people — those who have passed, are passing, and are yet to come.

We believe (in) many stories, ideas, and scenarios. We segregate ourselves in ways that are sometimes logical and sometimes curious. We have many ways to be happy and many more to be unhappy. In any case, we are the only help available to ourselves, as Carl Sagan so eloquently reminds us in Pale Blue Dot:

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

I am happier making a stand and happier in unbelief. For me, that stand begins by answering yes to atheism’s best question to the world: “Are we family or not?”

Jon MyerovJon Myerov works as a senior proposal lead for a Boston-based robotics company. He is also currently preparing a dissertation in Anglo-Saxon literature and textuality. A married father of three children, he teaches English literature and composition at Middlesex Community College. He has also helped research, write, and edit popular books on science, religion and ancient beliefs. He can be contacted via email at jbmyerov [at] hotmail [dot] com.

hpWhew. My first piece for the Huffington Post’s Religion section, “Interfaith Dialogue Must Include Atheists,” came out late Friday night and I have been just overwhelmed with gratitude by its reception. The article has, as of this posting, accumulated a whopping 3,500+ comments and was promoted on Saturday to the front page of the entire Huffington Post website! I’m so grateful that so many people decided that this issue is worth discussing. I’d love to respond to all of the comments on the piece but unfortunately there are just so many that I don’t even know where to begin, and this week is among my busiest yet. But I’ve been encouraged to see as I’ve glanced at the comments that it has spurred so much conversation. Thank you to everyone who read it, commented on it, and shared it with others.

Below is an excerpt of the piece; it can be read in full at the Huffington Post:

In my work as an interfaith activist, I’ve fought to bring an end to religious division. Lately this has increasingly meant speaking out against the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence sweeping America. As a member of the Common Ground Campaign, I’m actively working to oppose those who wish to disenfranchise the American Muslim community.

Advocating for religious people has often put me at odds with my own community. As an atheist I hear a lot of anti-religious talk from other nonreligious people, and speaking out against it has made me somewhat of an unpopular figure among some atheists. Yet it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.

Why? For one, without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn’t be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution. Not that long ago, I could not have been a public, vocal atheist at all. Continue reading at the Huffington Post.

On Godless Heathens

September 29, 2010

Today’s guest post in NonProphet Status’ ongoing series of other contributors is by freelance writer and blogger Emily L. Hauser. Emily, a Jewish woman and frequent writer on Israel/Palestine and Middle East issues, tackles something a bit personal: her marriage to an atheist. Whether you’re Jewish, an atheist, or something else altogether, this inspirational writing is a must-read. Take it away, Emily!

billboardLately Americans have been talking a lot about faith – the Muslim faith. As we grapple with the understanding of just how diverse we are as a people, Americans of good will – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims – have been striving to help their countrymen learn that we have nothing to fear from Islam. As a believing Jew, I’ve been right there in the thick of it.

But as I struggle with the fact that so many of my fellow citizens fear a belief system dear to the hearts of 1.5 billion people, I struggle also with another, far less acknowledged, fact: Even more of them fear my husband.

Because he doesn’t believe in God at all.

I pray, I keep kosher, my relationship with the Divine plays an enormous role in my life. But my husband? Not so much.

Eran is an unwavering atheist. But because he’s a Jewish atheist, and Jews do a lot that can just be about heritage, we’ve found a fairly easy middle ground. For me, lighting Shabbat candles consecrates the day; for Eran, it’s a nice thing to do with the kids. Tomato, tomahto.

Yet I will be the first to admit that the margins of the middle ground are broad, what with me seeking guidance from a Creator whom Eran believes to be all in my head – and I’ve come to realize that as broad as the margin is on my side, Eran’s is equally wide.

He’s argued with me for 18 years that there’s little room in Western culture for nonbelievers, and I say “argued” because, through he’s never been anything but supportive of me, I spent years not really taking him seriously. No room? Please. I have spiritual struggle; he gets to eat bacon.

Like a constant drip on rock, however, his comments began to wear away my ignorance, and I’ve had to take notice. Americans hold to an unspoken understanding that is so deeply ingrained, it appears to be natural law: A belief in God, we think, is the well from which all morality springs.

Consider, if you will, the word “godless.”

The cadences of Scripture run through American thought. We read that “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile” (Psalms 14:1), and our highest officials regularly make clear that they believe it.

At our dawn, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “While I claim a right to believe in one God, I yield as freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men. …” Much later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed Jefferson, saying that belief in God generates “honesty, decency, fairness.” More recently, a pre-Presidential Barack Obama, seeking to reassure nervous Red Staters, declared that we in the Blue States “believe in a mighty God.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the seminal When Bad Things Happen to Good People, took this approach to its logical conclusion in his 1995 book When Children Ask about God: “The person who is good because he believes that certain things are right … need not take literally the image of a divine person in Heaven,” he wrote. “[He] believes in God and is acting on that belief.”

That is: Even if my husband, a real peach of a guy, doesn’t believe in God – he believes in God. He’s good, isn’t he? Or, in the words of one member of my synagogue: “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll come around. They always do.”

This unease, this distrust, this sense that, really, everyone believes in something! No atheists in foxholes! and so on, this overarching attitude can be seen in cold hard numbers, as well: A 2007 Newsweek poll found that fully 62% of registered voters wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate; a 2003 study by the University of Minnesota found that 40% of Americans believe that atheists “don’t agree at all with my vision of American society”—and nearly half wouldn’t want their children to marry an atheist. Atheists, the U of M found, were the single least trusted group in the country.

While there’s been some powerful water under the bridge since these surveys were conducted – the election of our first “other” President, for instance (a President who has since acknowledged “nonbelievers” on more than one occasion) as well as an apparent increase in our willingness to talk about the atheism, I think I’m safe in thinking that these numbers still broadly reflect the attitudes of believing Americans toward their non-believing brethren. If only because I hear the way my believing brethren talk.

But living with Eran, one of the most truly ethical people I know, I find I can no longer allow such bigotry to pass unremarked. Our beloved American respect for all creeds is revealed as just that: for the creed-ed only. The creed-less need not apply. Even the separation of church and state becomes suspect, as it presupposes, by definition, a church.

When pressed, Eran might allow the vague possibility that Something created the universe, but he’s certain that said Something has nothing to do with history or humanity’s ability to reach its highest ground. We live, we die, certain things are right, others are wrong – and we can find them without being told.

Recent discoveries in evolutionary biology appear to support this approach, in fact, suggesting that the faculty for developing a moral sense is a genetically designed feature of the human brain. Now, I might argue that God created that faculty in humanity – but I can’t know, in any verifiable sense, that Eran is wrong when he disagrees. That’s why we call it faith.

Like most Americans, I live my life in the belief that I’m guided and comforted by a being outside me and all human experience – but the bald truth is that I can’t know for sure.

I can, however, look to Eran’s works and see his goodness, look to his heart and see his honesty, and concede the point: There might not be a God. And my husband is no more prone to corruption and vile deeds than the next guy for thinking so.

What I do know is this: If there’s a heaven, Eran’s a shoo-in. The mighty God in whom I believe is far too great to care if my husband’s righteousness was born in Torah study or his own precious soul.

As a country, we would do better to leave matters of faith to the recesses of private hearts and measure the integrity of our fellow citizens (and elected officials) by their deeds, rather than their affiliations.

Take it from the wife of a godless man.

Emily HauserEmily L. Hauser is a freelance writer and blogger living outside of Chicago. She writes frequently about Israel/Palestine and the Middle East more broadly, but has also been known to write about everything from Winnie the Pooh to the social niceties of wearing shoes. Loud music, too. She blogs at Emily L. Hauser – In My Head; her Twitter handle is @emilylhauser.

streets

Photo by Leon Andrew Hensley.

Check out my article on the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)’s Takin’ It to the Streets in the Fall 2010 issue of Jettison Quarterly on pages 102-107. Below is an excerpt; it can be read in full at Jettison Quarterly:

It was one of the hottest days in a summer full of them, but even the blistering sun couldn’t compete with the hot rhymes blasting through Chicago’s Marquette Park.

Camped out beneath that scorching sun, the organizers of “Takin’ It To The Streets” weren’t deterred, greeting festival attendees with enthusiasm as they arrived.

Standing before an eager crowd of hip-hop lovers, one woman shouted: “Welcome everyone! How blessed are we to have this beautiful sun today?” The crowd responded with a cheer; I rubbed my already red arms, wishing I’d brought sunscreen.

Started in 1997, “Streets” is an annual summer festival organized by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN. Featuring a diverse lineup of musicians, artists, public speakers and vendors, “Streets… aims to bring the arts, spirituality, and a passion for justice together to unite diverse communities and inspire social change.”

Though “Streets” is a Muslim-led festival, its attendees were a diverse group – people of all races, religions and ages mingled in the International Bazaar, watched international graffiti artists collaborate on faith-inspired murals, listened to speeches by public figures such as U.S. House of Representatives member Keith Ellison, and applauded wildly when rappers Freeway and Brother Ali took to the stage for a surprise afternoon performance.

For Asad Jafri, one of those responsible for organizing the nation’s largest Muslim-led festival, the diverse mix couldn’t be more appropriate. Continue reading at Jettison Quarterly.

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

“There Won’t Be Anything”

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

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

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“No funeral or service,” he clarified.

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

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

Bruce and father

Celebrating one of my father's last birthdays.

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

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

When the Time Came

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

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

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

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

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

The Potential Gift of Religious Practice

service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Back

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

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

A Call to Love With Our Feet

September 13, 2010

liberty walkSeptember 11th is a difficult anniversary. “Love” is perhaps the last word we might associate with that day.

On September 11th, 2001, I was fourteen-years-old and ignorant to a lot of what was happening in the world outside of my home of Minnesota. That day was a wake-up call to me, to be more aware of what was happening outside of my own context. To listen more and to learn more. But love was far from my heart.

Nine years later, we are experiencing another wake-up call. The call is the same: we must listen more and learn more. And, with a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes enveloping our nation, love again seems far from our collective hearts.

On Saturday, September 11th, 2010, I participated in a day of prayer and reflection. Granted, I did not pray, but I was glad to be there among those who do. On such a day, little else seems more appropriate than prayer or reflection.

On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, at that day of prayer and reflection, I listened to a woman who was in Lower Manhattan on the day of the attacks reflect on her experience. Through tears, she recounted the horror and fear she experienced that day. But she added that 9/11 was a wake-up call to her: it was a call to love more, not less. She spoke of her God’s vision of inclusion and integration for all people; it was a message I carried with me when I hit the road for New York City just an hour later to attend Religious Freedom USA‘s Liberty Walk: An Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Yesterday, September 12, 2010, was a rainy day. In spite of the rain, at least 1,000 people came out to march for religious freedom in support of the Cordoba Initiative‘s Park51. We gathered at St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic church in NYC, to listen to speakers including the Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Father Kevin Madigan, Religious Freedom USA founders Joshua Stanton and Frank Fredericks, author and environmentalist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Auburn Theological Seminary President Rev. Katharine Henderson, and Charles Wolf, who was the husband of a 9/11 victim. After being inspired by their calls for inclusion and interfaith cooperation, we took to the streets.

It was a cold and rainy day, but as a diverse group of people of all faiths and none at all walked the streets of NYC arm in arm with flags in hand, it felt like a moment of transformation. It was not “us” supporting “them” — it was all of us, together, walking in hope and mutual loyalty. We were listening. We were learning. We were loving one another.

One man stopped us and asked what we were marching for. When we explained that we were walking for religious freedom, particularly in support of the Cordoba Initiative’s Park51, he scoffed and said, “The whole country’s against you!”

In one sense, he’s right: the road to religious freedom in America has been long and it will continue to be. But he also couldn’t be more wrong: pluralism will prevail. Those of us who walked the NYC streets that day proved it.

liberty walk programOur nation will heal from the wounds we sustained on September 11th, 2001, but we must do so together. Let us extend the call to be more than it is. It is not enough to listen more and learn more – we must, as both a survivor of 9/11 and a crowd of people walking in interfaith solidarity taught me, love more.

The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said of his interfaith efforts for the Civil Rights movement: “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.” At the Liberty Walk, a group of people marched for religious freedom. And though I am a Secular Humanist who does not pray, truly it felt like all of our feet joined together in a common call: to listen more, learn more and, above all, to love more.

An “Atheist Terrorist”?

September 1, 2010

leeToday James J. Lee, a self-declared atheist (per his MySpace page), took a number of people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters building in Silver Spring, Maryland. After hours of police standoff that had the nation on the edge of its seat, he was declared dead and the hostages were rescued safely.

He had a lengthy list of demands that mostly pertained to population control, immigration and environmentalism. But one in particular jumped out at me; among his demands was that the Discovery Channel expose “civilization’s… disgusting religious-cultural roots.”

Will the Discovery Channel hostage taker, an atheist who despised religion, be dubbed an “Atheist terrorist”? Let us hope not. We must move beyond such labels, just as we must stop calling the hijackers of 9/11 “Muslim extremists.” They were extremists, nothing more. Awful incidents like these just go to show that extremists come in all stripes.

Oversimplifications are not helpful, and they only serve to make people guilty by association. James J. Lee and the men responsible for 9/11 were extremists and terrorists; let us not pretend any different by assigning them additional labels.

Today, we must be bigger than them. Let’s join together in condemning the acts of those who wish violence on others, whatever their creed may be.

Update: Many in the blogosphere have taken to discussing the role his atheism might have played in his actions, pointing to his active role in atheist communities (someone who knew him reflects here). But those wishing to make a case against atheists are citing anti-religious images he posted to his facebook and digging up some videos of him saying things such as, “No, I don’t tolerate other people’s religion.” Again, I will reiterate: we must resist any attempts to make all atheists guilty by association. And we should recognize how such generalizations are often counterproductive when it comes to religion, too.

Atheist Ethicist offers a great reflection that echoes my initial claim. I also think Common Sense Atheism says it well here:

If it is bigoted to generalize about the evils of Darwinism because someone does something evil while citing Darwinian reasons, then it is bigoted to generalize about the evils of religion because someone does something evil while citing religious reasons.

Also: See the comments for a further discussion on this and some clarifying comments from me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

religious literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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