God, We Need Atheists

January 19, 2011

Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:

bizarrojerkThe discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.

I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.

I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.

What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.

While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.

So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.

Not sure where to start?  Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity.  While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.

frankFrank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.

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Recently, I was honored to receive an invitation to join the esteemed panel of the Washington Post’s On Faith. Please read and share my first piece — below is the beginning, and it can be read in full at On Faith:

megaphoneIn the wake of this national tragedy, many have speculated about whether violent rhetoric and imagery used by Sarah Palin and others directly influenced Saturday’s devastating events. We may never know if there was a direct link between Palin’s words and the tragedy in Arizona, but as Stephen Prothero eloquently argued this week, we shouldn’t hesitate to reflect on the impact of the rhetoric used by those with political influence.

As the news broke on Saturday morning, I was in the middle of writing about something Palin had written in her most recent book, America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag – specifically, her claim that “morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs.” Unlike the moral outcry inspired by her demands that “peaceful Muslims” “refudiate” the “Ground Zero Mosque,” her comments about the nonreligious were met with silence.

Sure enough, some on the political right are using this same logic to explain the actions of the alleged gunman, Jared Loughner. Said one right-wing pundit: “When God is not in your life, evil will seek to fill the void.”

Continue reading at On Faith.

Making the Internet Moral

November 29, 2010

workPlease 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.

tikkundailyPlease 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.

Below is an excerpt of the piece (which was also republished by JIRD’s InterViews here and My Out Spirit here); it can be read in full at Tikkun Daily:

“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.

bullhornI 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.

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

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey speaking on secularism in the Stanford Memorial Church.

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

There may be dissent from your own organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may find some natural allies.

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

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

So why join an interfaith organization?

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

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

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

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

Today’s a real special day on NonProphet Status: I have the honor of featuring a guest post by my own mother. Now I may be a bit biased, but I think this is a beautiful and really insightful reflection on parenting, individual choices, and how we regard the decisions and identities of others that — you guessed it — draws a parallel to religious pluralism.

Take it away, Mom!

mom and me

Like mother, like son.

It was 1985: a time when women were free to pursue a career and take advantage of safe and secure childcare relatively guilt free. In fact, if you were intelligent and educated it was almost expected. As a National Honor Society member, Senior Class Officer, Student Council President and academic scholarship recipient in high school, it was surely expected of me.

But I had a different plan. I knew I wanted several children and I knew I wanted to stay home with them. Actually, I believed it was best to stay home with them.

I remember my Mother-in-Law sighing with disappointment: “Oh dear, I just hate to see you limit yourself! You are so smart and talented and I hate to see that go to waste.” I also remember getting the message from my “feminist” friends and acquaintances that my choice was unacceptable.

However, my decision to be a stay-at-home parent was deeply founded in my moral convictions. I will confess I probably had a feeling of moral superiority over “working moms.” I recall thinking to myself, Oh those poor children in day care

Moral superiority aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my years at home with my children. Although my choice meant that my wardrobe was made up of two pairs of jeans and a couple sweatshirts and our diet consisted mostly of bottom shelf boxed macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it was the right choice for me. I feel confident that my children ultimately did benefit from my intelligence and talents as a stay-at-home mom, and that it was worth the sacrifices it required.

When my youngest child was in elementary school, things changed. Suddenly I was a divorced working mother of four with dwindling resources and a need to work more hours. I was confronted with the prospect of utilizing the childcare program offered by the local YMCA and, though it wasn’t my first choice, decided to use their services.

I recall observing the interactions between parents and their children as we dropped off and picked up our kids daily and having to reassess my previously held beliefs and judgments about the “right and wrong,” “good and bad” of raising children. I realized that my decision to stay home had been right for me but that it didn’t mean, given the option, that choice would be right for everyone.

My decision was right for me based on my life experiences. As I became more open to and aware of the experiences of others, I realized that people presented with the same set of facts can come to a different conclusion and that doesn’t necessarily make one “right” and one “wrong.”

My experiences as a parent were enriched by observing and appreciating another perspective. We can still have the same goal – raising healthy, happy children – and see different ways of accomplishing this.

As I have been reading this blog and responsive posts this year, I have been struck by the feelings of intolerance and lack of empathy. As his mother, I am proud of Chris’ message of tolerance and inclusiveness, as these are values I cherish as well and am so glad to share with him.

I don’t think it is “wishy-washy” to want to find areas of agreement with people we disagree with. And whether it is the decision to cover one’s head with a hijab, to believe in God or pray, or to utilize childcare while pursuing a career, I am grateful to live in a diverse and pluralistic society that allows for our differences. As a matter of fact: I celebrate them.

Even if that means my son is covered in tattoos.

momToni Stedman is a proud mother of four very different young adults (including this blogger) and is an excited new grandmother. When not working as a widely respected insurance agent that prioritizes personal relationships with her clients and strives to provide ethical service, Toni enjoys walking her dogs, catching some wind on the back of a Harley Davidson, serving on her neighborhood council, and target practicing with her rosewood handled revolver (she’s a pretty good shot!). Her youngest child is just about to move out of the house and she plans to celebrate her new “empty nest” status with a road trip west to the Grand Canyon.

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

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

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

Creating a Semester Programming Arc & Engaging Local Freethought Groups

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

Churchless Charity and the Philosophy of Philanthropy

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

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

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

Under the Magnifying Glass

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

Working with Local Groups

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

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

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

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

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

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

You can find the full text of her speech here.

starkAddress from U.S. Congressman Pete Stark

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

Keynote by Rebecca Goldstein

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

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

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

Check back for my report on the second exciting day!

obamabfastNational Prayer Breakfast Acknowledges Those Who Don’t Pray: Obama mentioned Americans of “no faith” at the National Prayer Breakfast but in, uh, this context: “God’s grace [is expressed] by Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose, a higher purpose.” Is it just nitpick-y to criticize his language here? To his credit, his words throughout were very inclusive of people of all faiths (and “no faith,” which is again a first for an American President). But his language did at times carry some assumptions: “we all share a recognition — one as old as time — that a willingness to believe, an openness to grace, a commitment to prayer can bring sustenance to our lives.” No, Mr. President, that isn’t a recognition we all share. But then again, there was this beautiful bit: “We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.” So, like his Presidency so far, the speech had its flaws but contained significant “firsts.” (source)

Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson: Good Buddies?: The New York Times has a truly excellent op/ed on how fundamentalist Atheists use fundamentalist religious folks to drive their narrative that religion is universally extremist. Writes Ross Douthat: “the fact that Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson both disagree tells us something, important, I think, about the symbiosis between the new atheism and fundamentalism — how deeply the new atheists are invested in the idea that a mad literalism is the truest form of any faith, and how completely they depend on outbursts from fools and fanatics to confirm their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing.” Bravo!

Some Say Mother Theresa Doesn’t Deserve a Stamp: The U.S. Postal Service has come under attack from atheists for announcing its intent to issue stamps featuring Mother Theresa because she was a Catholic saint. Really — that’s the most productive place to direct your energy? In opposition to acknowledging a widely respected figure that did good work in the world as motivated by her religious beliefs? Because with that logic, stamps featuring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X should be unacceptable as well — right?

College Blocks Secular Student Club: Concordia College in Moorhead, MN (my sister is an alumni) has forbidden the formation of a Secular Students Association because they say that, while they support freedom of speech, the group’s mission is in direct opposition with the school’s identity as a college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). As a graduate of another college affiliated with the ELCA, I can tell you that religious diversity was present at my school, including many secular folks. The school’s decision is ridiculous and I hope that they will reconsider. (source)

Religion And Science Get in Bed Together: The Guardian has a fascinating piece drawing parallels between organized religion and science. It concludes: “Science and organised traditional religion have to some extent the same enemies. Both rely for their influence on society on trust in authority and that is rapidly eroding. This is obvious in the case of religion, but we can see from the progress of climate change denialism how helpless scientists are against the same kind of jeering and suspicious anti-intellectualism that some of them direct at religion.”

Sociologists See Religion in a New Light: New research from “Inside Higher Ed” describes how religion has moved from a fringe study within an academic discipline to becoming an area of study all its own. Sociologists now recognize that religion is not “only a reflection of some other socioeconomic trend, but increasingly… the factor that may be central to understanding a given group of people.”  This is reminiscent of trends seen in disciplines like economics, foreign policy, and history. (source)

Are Atheists Moral?: Beliefnet has a great piece on the question of whether Atheists can be moral — it brings in a variety of voices and does a good survey of the current conversation in light of some pretty heated issues.

Atheistic Fiction: The Boston Globe reviews the new book “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, dubbing it the story of an “Atheist with a soul.”

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