January 26, 2011
Today’s guest post is by Joshua Stanton, a man I am lucky to call both a good friend and a colleague at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue in my work as the Managing Director of State of Formation. In this post, Josh offers a thoughtful, personal reflection on why it is essential for the interfaith movement to stand up against anti-atheist rhetoric and action in the way that it does when particular religious communities come under fire. As an atheist, I couldn’t appreciate this post more. Many thanks to Josh for his important perspective, and for using his voice to advocate for people like me. Without further ado:
The interfaith movement is beginning to rack up successes. While outbursts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (among other expressions of prejudice against religious communities) are nothing new, the growing and remarkably diverse chorus of voices trying to drown bigots out certainly is.
To take but one recent example, when the Park51 Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan was subjected to undue criticism this past summer, the groups that gathered behind closed doors to support its besmirched but beloved leaders included atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and more. It was heartening — as were the rallies led by Religious Freedom USA and New York Neighbors for American Values, which drew thousands to the streets to support the rights of all religious communities to assemble on private property. You could feel the interfaith movement surging forward on its remarkable course.
But I am uncertain, if not outright skeptical, that members of the interfaith movement would equally protect non-religious communities that come under similar scrutiny. To take a personal (and rather confessional) example, when a friend was excluded from an interfaith peace-building initiative because of being non-religious, people told him they were sorry. But nobody refused to continue participating in the group. It just didn’t seem like a reason to protest the decision or leave the group altogether.
I am among those guilty of not speaking up — cowed by diffusion of responsibility and the glow of opportunity that the group provided. I am certain, based on the numerous stories my humanist and atheist friends have told me, that this was not an isolated occurrence, nor an unusually cowardly reaction on my part. Yet it is something for which I am still performing teshuvah — answering as a Jew and human being for wrongdoing to my friend, in this case through wrongful inaction.
Why is it that when someone criticizes or excludes atheists, it feels like the interfaith movement forgets its identity, if only for a split second? Why is it that well-meaning interfaith leaders defy their identities and fail to speak out against those who threaten or undermine the status of the non-religious? Individually, we may comfort our friends, but by and large we are not sticking our necks out, writing op-eds, holding protests and publicly condemning those who single out the non-religious.
In part, I would suggest that members of the interfaith movement have not yet developed reflexes for protecting the non-religious. There is somewhat less of a history of hatred for atheists in the West (and even less education about the hatred that has been made manifest), so it does not always register in our minds when someone speaks ill of atheists in a way that it would if someone spoke similarly about people of a particular religious group.
But guilt for the repeated historical failure of Western countries to protect religious minorities is hardly an excuse for inaction in the present to protect the non-religious. It is time that we, most especially in the interfaith movement, recognize, denounce and speak out against anti-atheist bigotry.
Admittedly, many religious individuals feel intellectually and theologically challenged by atheists. But this challenge is one we must greet and learn from, rather than respond to with aggression, passive and active alike. If God is truly powerful, non-believers can hardly break our belief, much less the Divine we believe in. If God is loving, then why should we hate — or ignore hatred directed towards others? If God is a Creator, how can we allow others to speak ill of the atheists and non-believers God gave life to? Non-belief is a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the religious can hardly condemn atheists without running into contradictions rendered by their faith.
If religious affiliation is a protected category in our laws, our minds and our actions, so too must non-affiliation and atheism. The interfaith movement must lead the way, and so too must its believing members. They — we — cannot allow this double-standard to persist.
Joshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.
December 13, 2010
Today’s guest blog, the latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors, comes from Stephen Goeman and Bruce Wang, members of Tufts Freethought Society. It is a reflection on pluralism and its ramifications for several contemporary social issues, written from the perspective of two up-and-coming nonreligious student leaders. Initially produced for the Tufts Roundtable, it is a thorough and compelling call for pluralism — please check it out:
A fundamental challenge is confronting America’s modern religiosity: a nation once considered primarily Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian, is getting a taste of secular values. The National Day of Prayer, first started in 1952, has been challenged by a federal judge, LGBT teen suicides have many reconsidering their stance on homosexuality, and Muslims are fighting to build Islamic centers wherever they please—regardless of their proximity to Ground Zero. These examples characterize a push against the fundamentalist stances of religious America—the push of pluralism—or the idea that peace in a modern society depends on allowing all lifestances to thrive. While fundamentalism threatens to divide members of various communities, enforcers of pluralism seek to unite these beliefs in order to maintain the progression of civilized debate and inclusive cooperation.
Traditionally, there are few limitations on what or who is considered American: all individuals, regardless of their point of origin, creed, or identity have an equal position as American citizens. This is a tradition worth preserving. However, this basic right is under fire on America’s religious spectrum by exclusivists, who counter America’s growing religious diversity by denying outsiders the right to participate in America’s religious culture. This view has a consecrated history in everyday language through the exclusivist phrase “Christian nation.” Exclusivism creates a unity at the expense of America’s minority opinions—opinions that need protecting.
The progressive preservation of equality comes from pluralism. Eboo Patel, President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explains that “pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus… Instead, religious pluralism is ‘energetic engagement’ that affirms the unique identity of each particular religious tradition and community, while recognizing that the well-being of each depends on the health of the whole.”
Pluralism is advanced through interfaith cooperation, the goal of which is to make knowledge of individual beliefs readily accessible through positive and productive interaction. Interestingly, nonbelievers are taking a leading role in this movement. Chris Stedman, Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, claims that “it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.” It is clear that the stereotype of atheists as desirous of conflict with religion is monstrously untrue (even the aggressive Christopher Hitchens is on record as saying that, given the chance, he would not end international religious belief).
As Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain for Harvard University, notes, “Would some atheists reject the concept of pluralism? Of course. But plenty of Christians reject it as well, and you’d hardly think of holding an interfaith meeting without Christians because of it.” Epstein believes that interfaith events which exclude the nonreligious are arbitrarily divisive and not truly pluralistic. Stedman agrees, and further argues that the religious should be willing to come to the defense of nonbelievers when individuals belittle nonreligious values. Progress is already being made in these areas; the Universal Society of Hinduism publicly defended atheists from Pope Benedict XVI’s comparison of atheists and Nazis, and even the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly has recently admitted that atheists are not immoral. If we desire the end of prejudice in America, pluralism must be advocated.
Recent legislation has called exclusivist values into question. For almost 60 years, Americans have gathered once a year to celebrate faith through the medium of unified prayer with government sponsorship. However, the legality of this event has been questioned by federal judge Barbara Crabb. Does this event actually encourage equal participation between all Americans, or does it lend itself to an unconstitutional favor of religion? Crabb asserts that the event characterizes the latter, stating that, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on an issue that must be left to individual conscience.” It is also clear that the event is not a celebration of all American religions, but instead caters exclusively to Christians. An Indiana celebration in 2003 split into two disjointed events: one for conservative Christians, and one for everyone else. In 2005, invitations to participate in the Day of Prayer in Plano, Texas were restricted to Christians. That same year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force objected to an American Hindu woman leading a prayer.
This string of events characterizes the clash of exclusivism and pluralism; Americans who seek equal representation for all citizens, regardless of their religious stance, have to contend with an exclusivist tradition. Crabb is right to contest the National Day of Prayer’s government sponsorship. America is characterized by a distinct cohesiveness which unifies greatly varying beliefs, and this is absolutely something to celebrate. However, the National Day of Prayer does not foster these pluralistic values. Our nation can do better.
The conflict between Christianity and homosexuality could also desperately use an injection of pluralist values. The issues of gay marriage and LGBT teen suicides in the last few years have been a painfully divisive wedge between fundamentalist Christian values and those advocating for progressive equality. At every gay rights rally, there are those who vehemently oppose legal equality for all LGBT-identified people on religious or moral grounds, and there are the Christian progressives reminding us that everyone falls under God’s love. If the focus is adjusted to today’s main-stream Evangelicals, the new progressives are those who fully accept homosexuality and the fundamentalists that now advocate a stance similar to the “love the sinner, not the sin” approach. While secular culture overwhelmingly continues to favor gay rights, outspoken fundamentalists have ramped up their rhetoric in order to balance against what they perceive to be antagonism towards their religious values, resulting in their radicalization.
Consider the recent controversy over censorship of high school senior Sean Simonson’s article asking students to reach out in support of LGBT youth. Administrators of Benilde- St. Margaret’s School banned the publication of Simonson’s article, offering this explanation; “this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students.” While the general response to LGBT youth suicide by the majority of Christians is that of compassion, this is merely one example of many of the widening gap of opinion on the issue of homosexuality. Both sides want to prevent mistreatment and suicides of LGBT youth, yet one accepts their identity as morally valid while the other continues to condemn their nature as intrinsically immoral.
The questions Christians must ask themselves, regarding this issue, are: do we really want to help stop teen suicide, and does this condemnation of homosexuality further that commitment? To answer these questions definitively is vital to the reconciliation between traditional fundamentalists and a growing liberal movement, but first a plurality of opinions and stances must be accepted in order to foster civilized debate between the traditionalist and progressive communities. If the issue of homosexuality is to cease existing as a wedge, they must abandon their combative and hostile attitude regarding fundamentalist tradition and embrace a movement to bridge their differences.
Islamphobia is another form of exclusivity which has gained widespread media attention through controversy stirred by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Ironically, when news of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (actual name) was first publicized, few took notice, much less opposed the project. When Daisy Khan, wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf, project leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on The O’Reily Factor, no indication of controversy was found. Ingraham, who has spoken out against radicalized Islam frequently on her radio show said, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it” and “I like what you’re trying to do”.
However, when anti-Muslim blogger and Executive Director of Stop Islamization of America Pamela Geller framed the issue as an offense to the victims of 9/11 and a ploy to spread extremism in America, exclusivists began to take notice. She pushed her position to the mainstream media through the New York Post almost half a year later, drawing the fear and prejudice of an impassioned constituent. By later distorting Feisal Abdul Rauf’s intentions, Geller was able to promulgate this needlessly divisive issue in order to advance the self-explanatory goals of Stop Islamization of America.
The damage of religious exclusivity and marginalization has been dealt: hostility, insensitivity, and mischaracterization of the Muslim minority in America has only fed the flames of extremism abroad. Feisal Abdul Rauf began the Islamic Cultural Center as an effort to promote moderate Islam and to combat violent extremism from creeping into American society, but the effort by mostly right-wing Evangelicals to suppress a religious minority in order to preserve and extol one’s own religious identity over another has undermined a genuine effort towards advancing international peace. It is an affront to our principles of equality when Muslims so willingly meet America halfway, only to be cut off by exclusivist thinking.
As religion grows in America, exclusivist doctrine must be repudiated in favor of impartial pluralism. Members of all faiths—and no faith—should work together through the interfaith movement on an equal playing field, and we should not be surprised that nonbelievers are being included.
Americans should rush to fight prejudice, even when they are not members of the group being marginalized. Through pluralism we can defend universal equality which is simply not attainable through exclusivism. The pluralist movement, secular in principle, should be encouraged to continue as the catalyst of individual and communal growth in America. By these means, we can live up to our most progressive motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), and leave the exclusionist motto, One Nation Under God, behind.
Bruce Wang is a sophomore majoring in International Relations with a minor in Film Studies. Currently he is also the Public Relations Chair of the Tufts Freethought Society. Stephen Goeman is a sophomore majoring in cognitive and brain science and philosophy. He is the community outreach representative of the Tufts Freethought Society.
“‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” So said Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, in a 2007 interview with The Atlantic. He might be right, but I can’t help but wonder: What if we could reach both the head and the heart?
It’s a question I asked myself many times over while writing my Master of Arts in Religion thesis on narrative and religion last year. Now, as the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders founded by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and run in partnership with Hebrew College, Andover Newton Theological School and collaboration with Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, I am so excited about the content that has flooded the site in its inaugural week — and how our religious and philosophical academics are using both their minds and their hearts to enter into dialogue. Continue reading at the Huffington Post.
November 29, 2010
Please check out my latest blog for the Washington Post On Faith, about the internet, morality, and State of Formation! [Update: This post has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue!] Below is a selection; it can be read in full at the Washington Post:
Is the Internet destroying our morals?
Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning that the Internet was “numbing” young people and creating an “educational emergency – a challenge that we can and must respond to with creative intelligence.”
Speaking at a Vatican conference on culture, Benedict also expressed concern that “a large number of young people” are “establish[ing] forms of communication that do not increase humaneness but instead risk increasing a sense of solitude and disorientation.”
Benedict’s comments created an uproar, but he has a point. Studies show that Internet addiction is linked to depression; in 2007, the comedy website Cracked offered a surprisingly moving take on this phenomenon titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.”
It’s tempting, knowing this, to suggest that we all take a step away from our keyboards, turn off our computers, and go find a field to frolic in. Continue reading at the Washington Post.
November 19, 2010
Guilty as charged! I’m sorry, but I hope you’ve been enjoying the awesome commentary from guest bloggers. I’ve had a lot going on; here’s a taste of what I’ve been up to:
1. State of Formation
Over the summer, I was hired by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue to be the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders co-sponsored by Hebrew College, Andover Newton, and the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. We’ve been working hard since then to recruit amazing contributors and get the site together — and, last week, it began its rolling launch! Please check it out; I’m incredibly proud of the fantastic content by our contributors already up on the site.
2. Book deal!
This fall, I’ve been working with a publisher on a book proposal, and I was very pleased to learn that my proposal was accepted this week! I officially have a book deal! Every bloggers dream, eh? Haha. It’s been an amazing process so far, and I can’t wait to finish the book and share it with you all. I challenge you to guess what the book will be about… Ha.
3. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard
I’ve also been working with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and am so thrilled to announce that I am coming on board this year as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow! In this position, I will coach and empower Humanist students to initiate and organize community service work in partnership with faith communities at Harvard. Read the announcement on HCH website here.
4. The Common Ground Campaign
I’ve been working hard with some awesome folks on the Common Ground Campaign, a youth-led movement standing up in response to the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America. Stay tuned for several announcements about those efforts coming soon!
So that’s all for now! I’ve got more in the works, but I’ll keep it short and sweet for now. I just want to add that, as I announced some of this news over the week on Facebook, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to my news about my book and about HCH. I’m feeling especially grateful right now for all of your support, friends. It’s what got me here.
October 11, 2010
Whew. 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.
October 8, 2010
Hey all! Sorry for the lack of substantive posts — our ongoing series of guest contributors is still happening, and I’ve been doing some other writing that’s kept me busy. Some of this will see the light of day soon, I promise. In the meantime, I have some exciting information about my speaking and travel this month — in case you wanted to stalk me, I guess!
This Sunday, October 10th, I will be heading to Boston, MA for a few days to hang out with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, do some work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and have a few other (oh so top secret!) meetings.
Then, this coming Thursday, October 14th, I will be speaking at the invitation of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale and facilitating a conversation around the issue I recently wrote about in The New Humanism: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” Please email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com for more information on this event. I’m honored to help host what I am sure will be an engaging conversation around a difficult issue! [Update: RSVP on Facebook here.]
The following Friday, October 22nd, I will be in Pittsburgh, PA speaking at the Duquesne University Christian-Muslim Dialogue Symposium about my work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and about the role of the nonreligious in interfaith work. You can find more information about the event on their website; it’s a thrill to be invited and I’m excited to both share and learn.
Immediately after that, I will be heading to Washington, D.C. to help facilitate the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in partnership with the White House! Talk about an exciting opportunity. More information on that to come.
Interested in having me speak? I love talking to groups and conferences of all sizes and have experience speaking on variety of issues related to religion, atheism, interfaith work, storytelling, new media, blogging, and queer issues. For more on my speaking and travel, and to inquire about having me speak or host a workshop, please check out the Speaking Gigs page.
Want to stay up to date on all of my travel — including for non-work related stuff like weddings? (Man, are fall weddings popular this year or what?!) Follow me on Twitter.
October 6, 2010
Please check out my new post over at Tikkun Daily on the new initiative I’m heading up for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD), in partnership with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The project, called State of Formation, will be a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. The deadline for nominations is October 15th, so if you are or know an emerging ethical or religious leader, please don’t hesitate to fill out the nomination form here.
“What qualifies you to do this?” I asked myself as I rode the train home one day to write my first contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith last year. I listened to the wheels rumble beneath me, looked at those sitting around me, and knew I was headed in a new direction.
I was 22-years-old, an atheist, and a seminary student. Though I don’t believe in God, I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between religious and secular communities. The summer after my first year at seminary I began interning at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that aims to mobilize a movement of young people positively engaging religious pluralism. The organization’s founder, Eboo Patel, maintained a blog for On Faith and invited me to submit a guest post for it.
At the time, I was beginning to recognize that the organized atheist movement often talked about religion in ways that created more division instead of less. As an atheist, I was frustrated by what I saw as a total lack of interest from my fellow atheists in respectfully engaging religious identities. So I sat down and wrote about it.
As I was working on my essay, I began to browse the rest of the site. On Faith features a panel of contributors that are among the most respected and knowledgeable experts in the fields of religion and ethics. But I didn’t see many blogs on their site by people who weren’t already established as authorities. I wondered if I was actually qualified to write for the website.
After my submission was posted, I started getting some unexpected feedback. “This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for saying something our community really needs to hear,” wrote another. These readers happened to be young people.
I hadn’t thought that there were others who felt the same way I did, let alone other young people. I talked to a friend who maintained a blog of his own, and he suggested I create a blog to continue sorting through this issue.
I started NonProphet Status, and suddenly became a part of a larger conversation on the issue of religion and atheism. The blog quickly began to get traction in interfaith and atheist circles, and soon I was being asked to speak at conferences, received invitations to write in other venues, and watched my blog views grow from week to week. I, a young seminary student with a small but growing vision for respectful engagement across lines of secular and religious identity, suddenly had a platform.
Emerging leaders in formation, especially young ones, deserve to have a voice. In a time defined by deep political and religious divisions, we need to hear from those who will shape our ethical future. The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders – ministers, rabbis, academics and journalists. While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the up-and-comers. Continue reading at Tikkun Daily.
Kate Fridkis recently wrote an Op/Ed for the Huffington Post’s Religion Section titled “Atheists Can Be Stupid, Too” in which she addressed the fact that Atheism is fraught with an intellectual superiority complex. I found her piece so compelling and worthwhile that I reached out to her to see if she would be interested in having a conversation to be published here. She graciously obliged; below is a transcript of our exchange.
NonProphet Status: Hey Kate! Thanks for joining me today. For those who don’t know who you are, what do you “do” besides write for the Huffington Post?
Kate Fridkis: Well, I work as a lay cantor at a synagogue in central New Jersey. For people who don’t know, that means I’m the other person standing up on the Bima with the Rabbi; the one who keeps singing in Hebrew. I also blog at eatthedamncake.com about body image and being a young woman in New York City, and sometimes about my experience as a homeschooler and how that continues to impact me. I am the Interviews Editor for the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue, teach for Interfaith Community here in the city, and I make awesome sandwiches.
NPS: Great! It certainly sounds like you’re busy.
Fridkis: Yup. Who isn’t?
NPS: You make awesome sandwiches; do you also make awesome cake? [Laughs]
Fridkis: [Laughs] I wish! Ironically, my fiancé is a diabetic so I don’t really bake. Though I try to order it out as much as I can.
NPS: Does that leave you eating cake alone? That’s kind of a depressing image… [Laughs]
Fridkis: No, it’s an empowering image! Read my post about ice cream…
NPS: [Laughs] Excellent reframe. I’ll get right to it. So, let’s not beat around the bush – do you believe in God? Now that’s a loaded question, eh?
NPS: Is your synagogue a Humanistic Jewish community?
Fridkis: No, it’s a Reconstructionist Shul.
NPS: Are you “out” about your non-theism in your community?
Fridkis: No, not to my congregation, which is why I was really nervous about that last HuffPo piece. It felt like “coming out.”
NPS: How do you think they would react to it?
Fridkis: I’m not sure, honestly. A congregation is just a bunch of individuals and I think they’d all have different reactions. But there’s something very sensitive about clergy being Atheistic and I’m nervous that the board wouldn’t approve.
NPS: So what made you decide to “come out” in spite of the possible ramifications you could face?
Fridkis: I’m tired of not being able to say anything. I’m tired of having to pretend that everything that I believe and am doesn’t come together to make me better, rather than weaker, as a person. I hate the implication that supposedly contradictory beliefs make someone confused and lost, rather than stronger, more honest, and more complex. The fact is there are plenty of Atheist clergy members; they just don’t talk about it. I think Daniel Dennett is writing a book about this now.
NPS: That’s perfect. I couldn’t have said it better if I tried… and I have. [Laughs] So I completely agree. But your piece for HuffPo was about more than just you coming out as an Atheist. You also offered a pretty strong critique of the idea that Atheists are intellectually superior to theists.
Fridkis: Yes; in fact, the piece wasn’t about me coming out at all. That was incidental. As, I feel, it should be.
Fridkis: I’m just one person, and I’m part of a much bigger trend, which is the point.
NPS: Yeah. I think you really underscore this at the end of your piece, and I couldn’t help but think of the work I’ve done with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) when I read it, where you say: “Maybe we need some new terms for the camps. How about this: ‘people who are willing to have a conversation, ‘ and ‘people who just want to hear themselves talk. ‘” It’s very reminiscent of IFYC’s framing of “pluralists” and “totalitarians” instead of the old “Clash of Civilizations” model.
Fridkis: Absolutely. I really think that the bifurcation is incorrectly positioned – if we need one at all! People like dualisms, though, because they like the idea of “dueling.” Sorry, that’s corny… but it’s true. That tension is very exciting: the idea that we’re on opposite sides and we’re locked in this cosmic battle.
NPS: Yeah – it’s why I utilize that IFYC model even as I acknowledge that, ultimately, even it is inadequate, as any simplification is. But we need to simplify to get ideas out there, and it’s certainly “better” or, at least, “more helpful.” It points in the right direction.
Fridkis: Totally. And I love what you’re doing.
NPS: Thanks! So we’ve got this binaristic narrative right now that is totally dominating secular community organizing that is essentially quite fundamentalistic in its critique of religious fundamentalism.
NPS: And your piece in HuffPo is kind of a call to acknowledge the gray areas of both religious and secular identity.
NPS: What inspired you to write it, besides the catharsis of “coming out” about your Atheism?
Fridkis: It’s annoying to feel as though, as an Atheist, one will immediately get lumped in with the people who dismiss religion as a whole.
NPS: Oh yeah, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. People hear I don’t believe in God and automatically assume they can start ribbing religion with me, thinking that such comments wouldn’t be hurtful to me just because I’m “not religious.”
NPS: When really, I think they should hurt anyone who has a basic respect for the dignity of all people. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got a sense of humor about religion. You have to when you work with it as much as I do. “Dogma” and “Saved!” are two of my favorite movies.
Fridkis: [Laughs] Exactly! I’m all for being able to make fun of everyone, really, though I try to be sensitive about it.
NPS: I guess I just think there’s a difference when you start attacking identities in a public way.
Fridkis: I couldn’t agree more. I guess what inspired me to write the piece was an endless string of conversations I’ve had with people. Some of these conversations focused on my Atheism, and people would challenge me to defend it. The idea that I had to defend it seemed ridiculous to me.
NPS: [Laughs] Right?
Fridkis: I don’t think anyone should be responsible for having mastered the intricacies of an entire tradition, unless that’s their life’s goal.
NPS: Right. It does feel like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it? To have to speak on behalf of your entire community and the history of a belief, let alone just speaking to how it functions in your own life?
Fridkis: The idea that, because I identified as an Atheist, I should be able to make these brilliant logical arguments in defense of my stance felt ridiculous. And too difficult!
Fridkis: People started suggesting that the whole point of being an Atheist was that you thought you knew better than everyone else; that you used logic, and not faith, to make sense of the world. This bothered me a lot, because I don’t think there’s ever any one way to approach a state of being. People arrive there from every direction, from every background, from every set of experiences imaginable. I couldn’t explain why I was an Atheist very well – I just knew I’d never really believed in God. I also knew I was totally committed to Judaism. I love my people so much that I feel like crying anytime I see something like Jews coming together to march for peaceful causes, people lighting Shabbat candles, whatever. The New York Times does a piece on a little Jewish community somewhere, as they like to do, and I cry. It’s kind of funny. And one of the most fulfilling ways I can express my commitment to my people is through being a Jewish leader. Being a cantor feels right. But it also doesn’t feel as though it should logically exclude my Atheism, because my participation in my own religion is very people-oriented as you can probably tell. It’s not about God, it’s about community. And even if people are there for God, they’re still there as a community.
NPS: Right. That’s beautiful, and it’s why my friends and I started a Secular Humanist community here in Chicago – because we still crave some of the things that religion has historically offered: community, opportunities to give back, etc.
Fridkis: Awesome! Good for you. And, of course, I completely agree.
NPS: And, unfortunately, I see a lot of “baby with the bathwater” rejection among Atheists. Anything that seems even the least bit “tainted” by religion is dismissed as “emotional.”
Fridkis: Absolutely. And that’s also why I wrote the piece – because of my conversation with an Atheist leader who was a complete jerk.
NPS: I know a lot of Atheists who will laugh when they read that you cry over any NYT piece about a Jewish community, because it will “prove them right.” “She clings to religion for its emotional benefits,” they’ll say. To which I’d respond: “So what?!” [Laughs]
Fridkis: [Laughs] As if anything is ever divorced from emotions. That’s a ridiculous argument, and when people make it, I wonder why they’re even bothering to talk. You can’t separate being a person from having emotions.
Fridkis: This goes back to that absurd argument everyone wants to make that Atheism is about cold, hard logic and nothing else. My philosophy friends will hate me, but “logic,” as I understand it, is perfectly capable of including emotion.
NPS: Absolutely! I went to the American Atheist Convention last month and they did a blasphemy exercise where three women dressed in burkas sang a song that I found horribly offensive. It prompted me to cry. When I shared that on my blog, which felt very vulnerable to do, it was met with scoffs and scorn, including a YouTube video where one person called me a coward and smirked when she repeated that it made me cry.
Fridkis: Wow. That’s sad.
NPS: When did our community – Atheists – decide we wanted to be emotionless robots?! [Laughs]
Fridkis: Seriously! I’m so sorry you’ve gotten that response. It’s embarrassing for the Atheist community, if there really is such a cohesive thing.
NPS: Similarly – and I’m sure you’ll love this – one of the presenters at the convention was asked during a Q&A session why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” His response? “Women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.”
Fridkis: [Screams] I feel like arguments like these are pointless. They’re just like war propaganda, based on enormous, absurd claims.
NPS: Totally. And, well, I think that is because a lot of Atheists do see it as a war. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you ask if there’s a cohesive Atheist community. We’ll never be cohesive if we keep trying to deny that we want to organize as a community to fulfill emotional needs, a.k.a. for the same reason that religious people organize.
Fridkis: Obviously, everything anyone does has emotional and rational components, and to say something doesn’t is to want to oversimplify to the point where arguments are placed in the cosmic terms of things like “heaven and hell,” “good and evil,” and other dualisms that obscure the complicated reality of being human.
Fridkis: But oversimplifying feels good to people. Because, well, it makes everything easy! And because it makes them feel right without having to question themselves, and questioning oneself is scary.
NPS: But this I think is one of the integral problems facing Atheist communities right now – everything needs to be quantifiable and “scientific,” which very easily lends itself to essentializing and dichotomizing and denies the “gray.”
Fridkis: Exactly. And it’s a problem because people who just don’t believe in God, but don’t have other strong opinions about the matter, are excluded.
NPS: So, oh great and wise Kate…
NPS: How do we construct a more cohesive secular community that doesn’t try to diminish the emotional experiences that come along with not believing in God? Think you can tackle that? [Laughs]
Fridkis: Wow. Hmm… Maybe we stop making it all about God. Sometimes I think that’s the whole debate, and it gives God too much power. Atheists give God so much power by wanting to constantly talk about how God doesn’t exist. So maybe if we just focus on whatever else we want to do as people who care about the world, and we go and do it, and when people ask us why we say, “well, this is part of my Humanism,” then that might be a start.
NPS: That’s brilliant, and totally in line with how I feel.
Fridkis: So the community that identifies as Secular Humanists can go ahead and do things in the world, rather than constantly talking about all the ways in which it’s conceptually different from theists – not that Secular Humanists aren’t already doing things, of course.
NPS: Right. The Secular Humanist group we’ve got going in Chicago has had conversations about how we’d much rather focus on expressing our Humanism through service than hosting debates with theists, like a lot of secular groups do.
NPS: We’ve actually never once had the “God debate” in our group, because what’s the point, right?
NPS: We all know that everyone in the room doesn’t believe in God, but we don’t want to get stuck there. If we keep saying “we don’t believe in God” over and over again, we’ll become rooted in this innately oppositional identity.
Fridkis: Absolutely. I’m so excited about your work!
NPS: Wow, that’s so sweet of you! Thanks. And I yours, of course. So, I think we are getting to a good spot to conclude this conversation. I guess just to wrap things up, I want to thank you for writing what I think was a very insightful and important piece for HuffPo. Do you have any final thoughts for NPS readers on how the secular community can take steps to stop being as black-and-white about things?
Fridkis: I think that people need to stop thinking in dichotomies as much as possible. If a criticism of religion is that it divides things into “good and evil,” or creates a division of people into the categories “believers and non-believers,” then that criticism should also be turned back on ourselves. We should pay close attention to the ways in which we automatically establish binaries. On a more concrete level, maybe we should initiate more humanitarian and intellectual activities between self-defined religious and secular groups, like park cleanups, poetry slams, food drives, and lecture series. People don’t have to be there to talk about their disagreements, they can just be there as representatives of different worldviews, working and learning together. Because after all, we’re doing that already. We just have to recognize it and stop pretending everyone is so fundamentally different.
NPS: I couldn’t agree more. You’ve just described the world I’m working to create – or, more precisely, the world that’s already out there, just differently understood.
Fridkis: Definitely. It’s awesome to talk with someone who thinks this way. I feel like it’s rare for someone to be so articulate about this stance, so thanks so much.
NPS: Aw! Well right back at you, for all the same reasons. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’m really excited that we’ve connected and look forward to continued collaboration.
Fridkis: Me too! Thanks for contacting me!