Today’s installment in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Ryan Linstrom, a humanist who has studies International Development and Human Rights. His guest piece is a personal reflection the hot topic of conflict in the Middle East, the ramifications of leaving religion out of the conversation, and the nuances of religion as a force for evil and a force for good. Offering an interfaith way forward, Ryan’s piece is a powerful, wise and timely read — check it out!

alaqsamosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque - The Dome of the Rock

My first experience of the Middle East was in the Fall of 2005. Though I met with countless numbers of people during the 3 month study abroad program, the interactions that stuck with me most were the meetings with angry Palestinian Refugees, radical Israeli settlers, fundamentalist Christians, and the racist Jewish Rabbis who would take the long way around the Old City of Jerusalem to avoid going through the “Arab part of town.” Needless to say, the trip left me disillusioned, some may even say, bitter.  I ended the trip like most people who have seen the horrors of conflict: convinced that “Religion is the greatest source of evil the world has ever known.”

To an extent, part of me still believes it. Religion has inspired more hate, more intolerance, and more conflict than any other organization known to man. But, it would be presumptuous to end there. To assume that religion has only played a negative role throughout history is to ignore the great good that religion has given us – The Ghandis, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s, the Mother Theresas. Yet, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve ignored the religious aspects of the conflict and attempted to bring peace in purely secular terms. As one scholar suggests, this has been fairly unsuccessful:

Since the peace effort has been led by secularists, peace itself has become identified in Israel with (the) secular left, religiously committed people that feel threatened by it. They may not be against peace or compromise, but they see this effort linked to increased secularism. ¹

Now, I think most rational people would agree that religion has played a significant negative role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For those of us who saw the religious-infused hate and racism, a secular solution makes a lot of sense. So what’s the problem?

I’m glad you asked.

Here’s how I see it:

1. Powerful narratives exist here.
The negative religious narratives that support the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are successful for a reason: they are deeply intertwined with the sense of identity of the inhabitants of the region. The truth is, religion, geography, history and identity are all so intricately woven together that it probably takes more effort to ignore religion in a solution to this conflict than it does to include it.

2. Extremists roam free.
You’ve seen them on the nightly news: Hamas members burning flags chanting “Death to Jews”, Radical Jewish settlers whispering obscenities at Arab women. Extremists on all sides have been allowed, unopposed, to propagate hateful, intolerant messages using cherished religious histories. Without any serious challenges, these hateful messages have become the norm, leaving people with a terrible taste in their mouth towards both peace and religion. Many of those involved, or no longer involved in this conflict have nothing left to fight for. That brings us to #3:

3. Moderates are given no incentive to engage.
As with all religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide a framework that can help to make sense of the tragedy of conflict. When radicals hi-jack the predominate religious narrative, moderates have little incentive to participate in the pursuit of peace. Without an alternative story to connect to, the Jewish man living in Jerusalem has to choose between being a “good Jew”, and working towards peace. Similarly, the Evangelical Christian in the U.S. has little choice: What Would Jesus Do? Well, he would support Israel, of course. No Matter What. Jesus was Jewish, ya’ know…

I’ve recently started attending a mutli-religious Sunday service at a Unitarian Universalist Church here in L.A. Mingled within the many banners and flags that populate the stage is one that says, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I’ll admit, it’s cheesy, and there is an undertone of idealism that may make the realists in the room groan just a bit, but it’s a principle that this conflict needs to find a way to embrace.

What we need is an inclusive, interfaith narrative that takes seriously the religious stories from each affected group. If there is to be any progress towards peace, we need to find a common story that allows us to stop identifying each other as the negation of the other: Not-a-Muslim, Not-a-Jew, Non-Christian.

A couple examples of inclusive narrative-change comes to mind:

My second trip to Jerusalem left a far better taste in my mouth. As an intern for the Rabbis for Human Rights, I was highly impressed with their mission to positively redefine the term, “Zionist”. Though the word is commonly used pejoratively among peace activists, the Rabbi’s were firm in their conviction that true “Zionists” took care of the “foreigner in their midst”. They work daily to reclaim the religious narrative, interpreting Jewish scriptures in support of human rights and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.

Another example is that of the Melkite Catholic Priest, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who builds common ground with Christians, Muslims, and Jews by pointing to a shared religious history. In his book, “Blood Brothers”, he says, “We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God”. His school in the Galilee area has become a beacon of hope, for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students that attend, and for the conflict as a whole.

In ignoring the positive contributions that religion can make in this conflict, not only are we excluding populations of passionate people of faith from a solution that they have a stake in, but we are conceding defeat to extremists and allowing “The Holy Land” to become something incredibly un-holy. The passion, community, and deeply-felt historical meaning that religion can bring to the table in this conflict is desperately needed to inspire, unite, and impassion all of those involved towards a peaceful common goal.

1. (Landau, Yehezkel. 2003. Healing the Holy Land: Religious Peacebuilding in Israel Palestine. Washington, DC: Peaceworks Series of United States Institute of Peace (USIP).)

This post originally appeared on Aware!

ryan linstromRyan Linstrom recently graduated with an M.A. in International Development and Human Rights. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he plots his next big move. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter @ryanlinstrom.

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The Gay Divide

November 8, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After that day, I never went back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It saved mine.

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

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

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.

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.

I’m a Bad Atheist

September 9, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four hours in and I was ready to get up and walk out. I couldn’t help but ask aloud with a laugh: “Why do I do this to myself?”

tatooIt was a balmy June night in Chicago a little over a week ago. I was flat on my back on the second floor of a beautifully renovated West Side house flourished by heavy drapes, portraits of dogs, and surfaces populated by countless unidentifiable trinkets. At the time all of these details were lost on me. I was preoccupied, staring at the ceiling drenched in sweat, dehydrated and delirious. I had been doing pretty well until this point — as someone who hates the actual process of being tattooed, I was surprised by how calm I’d been. But now my tolerance was wearing thin and I was beginning to squirm. Crouching over me, a woman I had met mere hours before was working up a dedicated sweat of her own, pressing ink into me and rubbing vaseline over my increasingly tender skin. As Serena went over lines she had already tattooed near my elbow for a second time, I squeezed my eyes tight and bit my lower lip. Ouch, I thought. This really, really hurts. Why exactly was I doing this anyway?

This, my sixth tattoo, is the largest one yet, stretching nearly the full outer expanse of my gangly right arm. Winding around two already existing tattoos is now a fig tree. The fruits of the tree contain symbols from a select number of world religions; the Sikh khanda, the Muslim crescent moon and star, the Christian cross, the Jewish star of David, and several others. Four and a half hours of pain is a lot to endure and, as the idiom goes, ink is forever. Getting a tattoo is a significant commitment to be sure. And so the question looms: why would an avowed secularist undergo hours of sharp and repeated needling to permanently alter his appearance with an arm full of religious symbols?

I have mixed feelings on “explaining” tattoos, particularly in writing. Part of me enjoys that they can be ambiguous; another likes to maintain them as an invitation for investigation. When someone approaches me to ask what my tattoos mean, it is an entree for dialogue. But though I hesitate to extrapolate, I’d like to take this opportunity to try to answer the aforementioned “why.”

A number of years ago I was deeply impacted by Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” In it there is a moment where the protagonist envisions herself perched in the split of a sizable fig tree, frozen by indecision; as someone who has struggled with making important choices, this sentiment resoundingly resonated. Below is said selection from the novel:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

new tattooI think this quote ably encapsulates the challenge of grappling with the age-old recognition that, to some degree, “every choice is a renunciation.” After ceding my exclusivistic Christian identity, I felt for a time that I had to select an alternate religion in its place in order to move forward in my search for “truth.” As I wrote in a column for The New Gay, I thought that “choosing to follow one spiritual path meant that I had to forsake every other.” Feeling trapped by the limitations of choice, I eventually chose none of them.

I stand by that decision today and remain steadfast in my assertion that there is (probably) no God. But my thinking on religion has evolved significantly since then. I may have selected my particular identity — Secular Humanist — but I advocate for respectful secular-religious engagement because I now understand that cutting myself off from the insights provided by the world’s numerous faith traditions is fundamentally limiting. And it is, ultimately, an impossibility for the engaged global citizen: if I am to know others in a way that takes seriously their desires and commitments, I must know the history that precedes them. Likewise, I must acknowledge my own. I am where I am today because I have grappled with the world’s wisdom traditions and the people that embody them — and I continue to.

speaking

Speaking at the Leadership Conference with fresh ink (photo courtesy of CFI / Ed Beck).

Four days after getting this tattoo I spoke at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference in Buffalo, New York. An attendee noticed the still dark, now scabbing piece of work and, pointing to the star of David, asked: “Are you Jewish?” I laughed and wondered to myself why it is that we assume that one who seriously entertains the stories and mores of a religious tradition must themselves be an adherent. It was a knowing laugh because I’ve maintained the same belief myself, and because it is inherent to the ideological shift I hope to facilitate. This new tattoo is a visual reminder of my aim for my secular community: that we find a way to respect and engage religion while maintaing our own identity. I have on many occasions acted as a public ambassador between these seemingly disparate communities (religious and secular) on behalf of the other. It is a position I stumbled into, but I’ve embraced it. To me this tattoo is a stake in the ground, a permanent nod to the public and personal gravity of this work. I hope people will continue to ask about the tattoo and that dialogue will, you know, blossom from it. (Get it? Because it’s a fig tree? Okay, moving on.) “Why [did] I do this to myself?” For the same reason I challenge secular communities to rethink the way they approach religion: Intentions matter. Commitments matter.

The decision to get a tattoo is an intimidating commitment, but it becomes easier each time I do it. As I’ve continued to develop in my approach to religion, I have found myself more and more able to make such sizable commitments in other contexts. We all bear the mark of the history the precedes us — I just made this mark literal.

I credit my history of engaging religion with equipping me to navigate the difficult choices of life; and like the religions I have encountered, this ink will always be a part of me. It is a visceral reminder that, when it comes to religion, I am now and forever — if you will — armed to engage.

(And Mom, if you’re reading this — and I’m assuming you are — yes, I got another tattoo. I’m sorry. I love you. From now on, for every new tattoo I get, you’ll get a grandchild. Deal?)

This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

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

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

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

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

Fridkis: Yup. Who isn’t?

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

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

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

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

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

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

NPS: Is your synagogue a Humanistic Jewish community?

Fridkis: No, it’s a Reconstructionist Shul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NPS: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fridkis: Right.

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

Fridkis: Exactly.

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

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

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

Fridkis: Sure.

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

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

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

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

NPS: [Laughs] Right?

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

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

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

NPS: [Laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NPS: Right.

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

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

Fridkis: Wow. That’s sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NPS: Right!

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

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

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

NPS: So, oh great and wise Kate…

Fridkis: [Laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

Fridkis: Awesome!

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

Fridkis: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fridkis: Me too! Thanks for contacting me!

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

This post is the third in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; for the second, click here.

Workshop: A Place at the Table

For the third and final workshop session of the conference, I attended “A Place at the Table: Including Atheists, Agnostics, and Secular Humanists in Interfaith Dialogue.” It shouldn’t be surprising that I was very excited about this workshop being offered, IUC_logoas this is a significant growing edge for the larger interfaith movement. Even more exciting: it was the most sizable workshop I attended, with over 45 people in the room. The session was an opportunity for people to share their experiences of secular-religious relations, air and analyze their misconceptions about secular people, and offer best practices for getting secular individuals motivated about interfaith cooperation. I ended up being invited to share a lot from the work that I do and the things that I have encountered. It was a lively conversation with a diversity of perspectives in the room and I was pleased to be a part of it.

Plenary: From Religious Extremism to Interfaith Dialogue

hirschfieldRounding out the keynote addresses at IUC was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He told the story of how he moved away from being a Jewish Zionist extremist through a relationship with someone of another faith and how he came to recognize the importance of pluralism. “We need eachother and we need each other,” said Hirschfield near the conclusion of his moving story.

During the Q&A session Hirschfield was asked about critics and, in light of the recent batch of negative appraisals of my work, I found his answer to be especially wise. “Anytime someone says you shouldn’t question the community is the time to get out,” Hirschfield said. “The more important your cause, the more important the questions are, because these questions move you toward an ethic. When I felt I was in a community where my questions were not welcome, I had to get out.” I couldn’t help but reflect in this moment how welcoming of my challenges and critiques this conference community had been, and how occasionally difficult it has been to have my questions dismissed and my character smeared by many in the Atheist community both at the AAC and in my blog work.

And yet, just as I was tempted to start down the path of “perhaps he’s right – perhaps my efforts in these particular Atheist communities where I’m being rebutted are futile,” he offered a reminder to remain engaged with those who disagree with you in response to the question, “How do you share the idea of interfaith cooperation with people who don’t want to hear it?” Hirschfield replied: “Before you can be anyone’s teacher, you need to be their student… Everybody, no matter how hateful, has something to teach [you].” Ultimately, the “student before teacher” philosophy is one we share. On that note, for those who may be wondering about what is going on with “Burkagate” – in the spirit of building bridges, I reached out to the young woman (one of those wearing a Burka at the American Atheist Convention) who made a YouTube video in which she called me a coward, criticized my comparison of the session to other hate exercises and decried my friend Sayira’s declaration that she found wearing hijab empowering the day after she posted the video. We are exchanging emails at this time; I’ll keep you posted if it seems relevant to do so.

In any event, Hirschfield’s story was a great conclusion to the plenary series and a stark reminder to all conference participants of the power of making relationships with religious others and how pluralism allows us to build connections without needing to sacrifice our individual religious integrity.

Closing

The closing included remarks by Daan Braveman (whose remarks from the opening I recounted in the first IUC post) and Muhammad Shafiq, Executive Director of Nazareth’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. I was invited to give a closing reflection and spoke about Huston Smith, the “strangeness” of interfaith dialogue, and its capacity for change. Two others who were recognized as “Next Generation” leaders we also invited to offer reflections.

webbThe first came from Emily Webb, a young Unitarian Universalist woman from California who is a youth advocate. She delivered a poem entitled “Engage You,” which she had written that morning in response to the conference. She’s given me permission to reproduce it here; though it is a beautiful read, hearing her speak it aloud was all the more powerful:

I saw a man float upside down on his chair

I heard an Iroquois storyteller speak in a language so ancient

she does not know the meaning of some of her words

I learned your name means the light of Ali

I bathed the Buddha in sweet tea

I felt angels underfoot

Can I get a witness?

I have embraced ten new friends

asking the question

over coffee and whiskey

How are we going to get along?

I learned another way to speak

a lexicon of 40 more words for respect and trust

Do you hear me brothers and sisters?

It is with these words these stories I construct

a humble sanctuary

for those who are

still writing letters to

Dr. King, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother T

still raising their hands in classrooms and boardrooms

asking why

still looking into the eyes of the Other

saying

how can I engage you?

alaniI spoke after Emily and was followed by Alykhan Alani, a Muslim from Rochester who is a student and social activist. He offered the following reflection, which he was given me permission to post here:

Sensei Mio told me

there is only one stream

V.V. Raman taught me to embody

Gandhi and King’s dream

From Nicole, our continued commitment

to the Earth, our mother

and from Emily-

trust and kinship we find in one another

Sister Joan awakened me

to the beauty of feminine divinity

and my friend Chris

to belief in the faith of humanity

the dynamic Eboo Patel

has empowered this movement of change

and… isn’t it strange?

that the take-away lesson here

the awakening call

is that we must have love

for one and for all.

three

L to R: Webb, me, Alani, looking like the "Next Generation Leaders" we are.

Salaam.

The closing left all involved motivated, energized, reflective and grateful. I was privileged to be in attendance for this conference, which confirmed that the interfaith movement is becoming a force to be reckoned with and is a place of great understanding and social change.

This last weekend I was in Boston for the fourth and final leg of my East Coast “Chris-cross” (credit to Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM’s Tom Herman for this term, which he used during a remote radio interview he facilitated from the conference with me, Alani, and Webb – listen to the archive here, fast forward to about 41 minutes in), where I attended both the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit and dropped by the CIRCLE National Conference 2010. Summaries on those coming soon; check out my Twitter for the conclusion of my trek and beyond.

This post is the second in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; check back tomorrow for the final installation.

Plenary: “How Water is the New Salt”

The first plenary of the second day of the conference was a pair of talks by Dr. Panchapakesa Jayaraman and Sensei Bonnie Myotai Treace titled “How Water is the New Salt: An Interfaith Language for our Time & Gandhian Interfaith Approach to Non-violence and Peace-making.” A mouthful, certainly, but a thought-provoking one.

jayaramanJayaraman, Founder and Executive Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, was up first, talking about Gandhi’s role as an interfaith leader. “Gandhi was a staunch Hindu,” Jayaraman said, “but not a fundamentalist… Though [he did not] press his religion upon others, he did express [his religious] opinions.” Jayaraman spoke about Gandhi’s life, religious beliefs and peacemaking efforts, offering a vision for interfaith leadership rooted in Gandhi’s interfaith approach to non-violence: “For the vast and broad-minded persons, the whole world is a family. We must go beyond ideology to principles and policies. Don’t hate anyone. All of us are one.” He also talked about how Henry David Thoreau influenced Gandhi, who influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrating how interfaith convictions and collaboration lead to widespread social change.

After Jayaraman, Treace, Founder and Spiritual Director of Hermitage Heart, Bodies of Water Zen, spoke from her Zen Buddhist perspective about her efforts responding to the climate crisis and how interfaith cooperation can be used to address such systemic problems:treace

One of the sloth places of the mind is a not fully [allowing for] the other… What the mind tends to do is freeze, look away, in the same way that an interpersonal crisis causes a personality change, a deadening of the full capacity of the exquisite intellect. The tradition of Gandhi and of Zen is the power of asking again, of challenging fully… [of] creating the situations… There are many who are saying the next four years are the most critical in history, [that] we have the chance to be the turning point of life on this planet, [to decide] whether it is livable. That [must be] the religious activity.

Treace, like Jayaraman, spoke passionately and knowledgably, and also incorporated a few jokes that aroused the sleepy early morning crowd. Together, their speeches offered a balance of intellectualism and emotion, history and prophecy, and humor and gravity.

Workshop: “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?”

In the afternoon of the second day I attended “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?” during the first batch of workshops. It was facilitated by Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, Founder and President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a “non-partisan, interfaith public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions” that has represented folks of nearly every faith.

Hasson spoke on something I’ve talked about time and time again – the inadequacy of mere “tolerance.” Said Hasson: “Tolerance has a dark side to it. [Many who think tolerance] it is the way to go – whether in government or civil society – [do so because] it means they have the right to be intolerant if they want to.”

hassonHe highlighted that we live in the most pluralistic society ever and offered a model for two “inauthentic” responses to religious diversity – “the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers.” He used as a case study the story of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock, saying that they “were looking for real estate; they weren’t fleeing intolerance, they were fleeing assimilation with the ‘impurities’ of their surrounding societies. They wanted to make a theocratic system of their own.” So, according to Hasson, the first inauthentic response is “to impose one mechanism in the state.”

The second response he identified is “Park Rangers,” which he classified as people who say that religion is divisive and does not belong in the public sphere. “These are the people who say that we ought to pretend that religion doesn’t exist and remove it from the public realm.” Hasson then offered his understanding of an “authentic” response: “Conscious pluralism… that is, pluralism without relativism, as relativism leads you at best to tolerance, which is inauthentic.”

Hasson, who had Parkinson’s, used humor (joking about his shaking) and a competent understanding of history to keep the session both light and highly educational. Though it was an idea I was very familiar with, it gave me a new framework through which to consider the problematic nature of mere “tolerance.”

Panel: “The Next Generation”

Eboo PatelIn the afternoon was a panel that included the prior night’s plenary speaker Sr. Joan Chittister, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) Founder and Executive Director Eboo Patel, and five young people. In this session, Chittister spoke more directly that she did in her plenary about the import of interfaith work, sharing a story from her childhood in which a Catholic Sister at her school said her father was going to Hell because he was a Protestant. She told her mom this. “I said, ‘Sister is wrong,'” Chittister shared. “My mom asked if I had said anything to Sister; I ashamedly told her no, I hadn’t. My mom said ‘It’s okay; you’re a smart little girl… You’ll tell her she’s wrong when you’re older.’ And I think I have been ever since.”

Patel talked about being a Muslim and why that encouraged him to promote interfaith cooperation, telling the story of his grandmother’s pluralistic work. “My grandma offered her essence of Islam – that mercy, compassion, and pluralism – in the way she best knew, in a mid-20th century style. So my question was: What was my expression going to be?… Our convictions can be the same… but the way we practice mercy and compassion and pluralism has to change over place and time. In a world where too many people think religion is a source of division, a bomb or barrier, we must make of it a bridge.”

chittisterThe student representatives talked about their identities, told stories regarding their respect for the beliefs of others, and asked questions of Chittister and Patel. The latter talked about the need to make interfaith cooperation mainstream, like the environmentalism movement. “We have the chance to make IF cooperation a social norm,” said Patel. He continued:

America’s the most religiously diverse nation in history, and when a critical mass of people can see success in pluralism and lead towards that, we will have accomplished our goal. We can measure it in 4 ways:

1. People’s attitudes toward religious diversity – Is it an asset? Do we ignore it? Is it bad?

2. What are our experiences? It should be important for us to create spaces for people to have positive experiences of pluralism.

3. Knowledge base – Do you know something positive about another religion? Do you know something in your own religion that inspires you to do interfaith cooperation?

4. Initiative – We should be looking for people to start an interfaith project with and advancing the idea that people from different religions – including no religion at all – should be coming together in ways that promote understanding and cooperation.

Near the end a young Jewish man by the name of Ethan Heilicher from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) who sat on the panel talked about the challenges he faced with secular engagement, indicating that the RIT skeptics group is huge and wondering how the interfaith group could work with them. I approached him after the session and suggested that we talk about ways of inviting secular folks to participate in interfaith engagement; he was excited about working out a way to bring the groups together to collaborate. In our exchange I felt the interfaith movement growing.

Plenary: “Acts of Faith”

Patel, who spoke earlier in the day on the Next Generation Panel, offered what was unsurprisingly the most energizing and, I believe, vital talk of the conference (full discretion: it’s possible that I am biased here, as I was once the Narrative Development and Media Training intern at IFYC, am presently a contracted adjunct trainer for the organization, and call Patel a friend). His ability to both constellate emotionally resonant stories that exemplify the necessity of interfaith cooperation and crystallize achievable strategies makes him second to none in articulating the goals and achievements of our movement. I wish I could transcribe his entire speech here, but for the sake of your time and mine I will stick to the bare-bones highlights.

patelPatel put forth four reasons why young interfaith leaders are necessary now more than ever. “First, it is a time of religious revival,” said Patel. “Fifty years ago social scientists were predicting the impending ‘demise of traditional religion,’ arguing that modernity pluralizes and inherently secularizes. They have since said they were wrong.” The second reason he offered was that we are in a time of “youth bulge” – for example, the median age in Afghanistan is 17 and there are more young people in India than the total population in the United States. These young people are particularly vulnerable to the sway of fundamentalist recruitment. Third, we are situated in the “most interactive moment in human history and it is among the most disorienting things imaginable… with the ubiquity of media, we are forced to implicitly justify things our grandparents never had to about who is right and how we will get along.” Finally, Patel noted the dramatic breakdown of socioeconomic patterns around the world and how they are contributing to religious conflict. Patel acknowledged the reality of religious conflict but said that it is not about different religions in conflict; rather, it is totalitarians versus pluralists. “I refuse to be pushed into the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Framework of Jew versus Muslim, believer versus non-believer,” said Patel, referring to political scientist Samuel P . Huntington’s pessimistic, misdirected theory. “It is not a divide between faiths but between pluralism and extremism.”

He charged the audience with building the interfaith movement, noting that “right now, the people who have built the strongest organizations are extremists” and emphasizing our need to offer a different narrative. Patel defined an interfaith leader as a person who takes religious diversity and makes it religious pluralism, asserting that “diversity is a fact; pluralism is a positive engagement of difference. The challenge for America is to embrace its differences and… [live in] equal dignity and mutual loyalty [where] identities are respected, relationships mutually inspire, and we have a commitment to the common good. Diversity can move in the direction of conflict or in the direction of cooperation. The difference lies in the direction leaders move it.”

So how do interfaith leaders change the conversation? Patel had many ideas, including the necessity of being to articulate the difference between pluralistic religiosity and extremism, having a knowledge base about your own religious or philosophical tradition and how it inspires you to do interfaith work and comparable values in other traditions, and acquiring a skill set to apply those values.

I could go on, but I can’t do Patel justice here. If you want to see him speak, check out his address to the Chautauqua Institute. After his lecture at IUC Patel spent a long time answering the questions of young conference participants. During the Q&A a student asked a question about secular participation in interfaith leadership, which resulted in a somewhat embarrassing moment for me in which Eboo called out, “Where is my friend Chris Stedman? You’re in here, right buddy?” He then asked me to stand up and talked at length about the work that I do as a “young Secular Humanist leader” in the interfaith movement. Though a bit red-faced, I was grateful for the acknowledgment and happy to serve as an example of secular participation in interfaith cooperation – especially after his powerful speech that left everyone in the audience talking about the action they would take to promote interfaith dialogue in their own communities.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over – come back Monday for the final IUC recap post, and follow me on Twitter to keep up with my secular sojourn!

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