share your secular storyAs I mentioned last week, the new issue of Jettison Quarterly is out. But my article on the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)’s Takin’ It to the Streets is just the tip of the iceberg of Jettison‘s diverse content. And all the more, Jettison offered to publish the last of the amazing winning entries from our Share Your Secular Story contest in their latest issue! Joseph Blaha’s submission, “Learning to Love the Religious,” was selected by our panel of judges as the winner of the “Youth” category. Below is an excerpt of his entry; it can be read in full on pp. 46-47 of Jettison Quarterly:

Religion has always been a tricky subject for me. It always confused me that something so apparently influential could be considered almost taboo to bring up in general conversation. Because of this, other people’s theological beliefs used to rank pretty low on the long list of things I’ve spent my hours thinking about.

As I got older and began to build my own support community of other like-minded twentysomethings, I found that the people I’d become close enough with to approach the subject candidly tended to be just that; like-minded. This caused me to drift even further away from a common thread with the more dogmatic individuals I’ve encountered, making it easier to dismiss their motivations whenever our ideas seemed to clash. This misunderstanding of religious motivations more or less set my state of mind until I developed a deep enough relationship with a group of people who had religious beliefs. Continue reading at Jettison Quarterly.

jettisonMany thanks to the Jettison team for running this story. For more secular stories from our contest, check out Jeff Pollet’s submission that was featured in the Washington Post’s Faith Divide, Corinne Tobias’ entry on Killing the Buddha, Vandana Goel-LaClair’s submission on Killing The Buddha, runner-up Rory Fenton’s submission and Nate Mauger’s example story for NonProphet Status.

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

We’ve featured so many guest posters because NPS was never intended to be “Chris Stedman’s platform.” Rather, I wanted to create a forum for an alternative secular narrative. It’s why I initiated, organized and ran our first Share Your Secular Story contest. Featuring an amazing panel of judges that included the former head of Amnesty International USA and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” William Schulz, the contest inspired an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India.

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

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

share your secular storyTwo of the brilliant winning entries from our Share Your Secular Story contest have been featured on Killing the Buddha (“a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches”)! The first was by Corinne Tobias, a 20-something lost and found in Northwest Arkansas who blogs at Will Work For Food Girl. Tobias was selected by the judges as the winner of the Moral Imagination category. Below is an excerpt of her entry; it can be read in full at Killing the Buddha:

Mistakes Have Been Made, Lessons Will Be Learned

His top hat jilts to the left as we make another turn in the curvy Ozark road. Glancing cautiously at him again, I think he resembles Slash of Guns n’ Roses fame. It’s uncanny and bizarre, sitting in a pickup truck next to this character. The top hat wrapped in a skull-and-crossbones scarf isn’t where the resemblance ends. His dark hair is long and thick with curls. His skin has a sallow olive tone and his eyes are as weary as if he had spent the evening prior to this afternoon smashing things against the walls of his hotel room to impress groupies. His raspy southern accent breaks my concentration from mentally observing him. Even though I’m no longer looking at him, it makes me feel as uncomfortable as if he had caught me staring. “My mom drove us off the road right here,” he says almost optimistically.

My eyes follow the tip of his finger to a ledge with a considerable drop off. The tops of trees peek over a guardrail that I assume wasn’t present at the time of the accident. “Me and my brother. We were in the back of the truck,” he says. I brace myself for what I know is going to follow. “Call it a miracle or an act of God…” he begins, and instantly I feel myself beginning to tune him out.

I don’t want to hear him talk about Jesus or how the experience brought him to appreciate all that God gave him. I don’t want to hear about divine intervention. I start to think about something else. I can’t help but compare the mountains to the flatness of home. Continue reading at Killing the Buddha.

The second entry featured on Killing the Buddha is a submission by Vandana Goel LaClair, a Chicago-based freelance writer, filmmaker, and photographer who tied with Jeff Pollet (whose submission was featured in the Washington Post’s Faith Divide) as winner of the Interfaith category. Below is an excerpt of her entry; it can be read in full at Killing the Buddha:

The Day Mumbai Unraveled

This is a story that begins in Mumbai, India. You see, Mumbai, my birth city, is a place where cultures, religions, languages, and opinions collide as unapologetically as the wild, untamed streaks in a Jackson Pollock painting. Within this mosaic of a city, I was raised in a household where the devotional prayers we sang to Lord Krishna on his birthday were so convincing that before I knew it, I was stealing out of my covers in the middle of the night and using a stepping stool to retrieve and dive into slabs of butter with nothing more than my fingers and a strong sense of camaraderie for a god known for mischief and love of butter/buttermilk. Somewhere between being egged on to bathe the statues of gods in our mini-temple at home and living eight years away in several different places with spiritual axioms I’ve picked up along the way, I’ve found that my wide array of experiences has replaced a sense of religious affiliation with that of an equally powerful one: a love for humanity and belief in the human spirit.

My most impacting experience dates back to several years ago. Soon after I turned 8, religious fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. This set off the Mumbai riots of 1992 in which approximately one thousand Muslims and Hindus were killed. One afternoon as we were being rushed home from school, I heard a comment amidst the chatter that my neighborhood had been bombed. That afternoon we drove home in an indescribably fearful and disbelieving state of mind. There are no words to describe driving towards your home not knowing if it exists anymore. Continue reading at Killing the Buddha.

For more secular stories from our contest, check out runner-up Rory Fenton’s submission and Nate Mauger’s example story for NonProphet Status.

It’s been a long minute since I’ve done one of these, so I’m bringing it back. Below, some recent highlights (and lowlights) relevant to secularism, interfaith and religion:

psych todayWill Atheism replace religion? That’s the claim made by Nigel Barber over at Psychology Today. What do you think? His points are well made, but I don’t agree with all of them. Religion meets some fundamental needs and is continuing to adapt to contemporary context, as it always has. His portrayal of religion as “[requiring] slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs” does not accurately represent the way that religion functions today. That aside, a myriad of psychological studies demonstrate that religion has become an integral component to individual and communal identification for many (as I learned in my second Psychology of Religion course this last semester) and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Ultimately, the relationship between religion and psychological wish fulfillment is a bit more complex than this article would like to make it seem. As a starting point for a more well-balanced counter-argument, check out this brief introductory piece on ways in which religion is psychologically beneficial.

Everybody’s Talkin’ ’bout Chalkin’ as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD) debate continues. After my blog post on the campaign a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working closely with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) on how secular folks who penaren’t interested in engaging in this campaign can best respond in light of the awful vitriol it has inspired on the internet. The Young Turks took on IFYC’s Eboo Patel’s post that went up on the Huffington Post, Sojourners and the Washington Post (in which my blog post on the controversy was given a nod). The critiques they make of Eboo’s blog can essentially be boiled down to: “You’re offended? Get over it.” I find this operating position, which I identified as a common problem in our community in my initial post on EDMD, to be arrogant and demonstrative of a lack of personal responsibility. Additionally, The Young Turks raise the comparison of EDMD to drawing offensive images of African Americans and say that it isn’t an appropriate parallel because Blacks have faced a history of violence and subjugation in this country. But this point collapses in on itself precisely because Muslims are a minority group in America that is a frequent target of oppression. This is an important point to remember as we consider this issue. Our free speech does not occur in a vacuum; in fact, activities such as EDMD are innately and intentionally public. It is our responsibility to acknowledge context and weigh our actions in light of it. I have so much more I could say on this subject, but since I already said my peace, I’ll stop here — for now. For more information on this issue, check out IFYC’s resource (which I helped write and which borrows its title from my blog post).

The rest: First off, I can’t recommend enough a piece up over at the New Republic called “Another Kind of Atheism”  by Damon Linker. Read it and let me know what you think. After that, I’m happy to report that Bill Maher got schooled on his miss usaantagonistic Atheism — I’ll try to hide my grin. Secular Student Alliance intern Nate Mauger got interviewed by Bridge Builders about the guest piece he wrote for us on interfaith cooperation. I “interviewed” homosexuality and the Bible documentary Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens for The New Gay (part 1 went up last week, part two goes up next). On less exciting fronts, tensions are high in France as they prepare to ban the Burka. In spite of what a good story it would make, the majority of mainstream media ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber is himself a Muslim. The political Right is up in arms over Muslim Miss USA Rima Fikah. And, finally, the angry robocallers struck again last Wednesday with three calls in one night. I’m still no closer to finding out who they are and feeling more and more like I have a stalker — especially since they called me back right after I tweeted about them saying they read my tweet. So I blocked the number. What now, robocallers?

This post is the second part of a two part report on the Secular Student Alliance‘s New England Leadership Summit. For a report on the first day, click here.

Interview with Greg Epstein

I first had the opportunity to meet Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, when I was working onInterfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 Conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. We exchanged several emails and had a greg-epsteingreat conversation at the event itself. We’ve since stayed in touch, and it is always great to hear him talk about his work at Harvard, so I was excited for the opportunity to do so at the Summit. Epstein discussed what he does as a Humanist Chaplain, which is working with students to achieve goals, build a sustainable community, teach and advise student research, and help provide resources for those outside the Harvard Community. He discussed his interpersonal work with students, including a conversation he frequently has with students about values: “Once you begin to think skeptically,” Epstein said, “where do you draw the line? Where do you reconstruct a set of beliefs that says we have all kinds of natural, relative, but still very important reasons for caring about ourselves, others, and the world?”

Epstein also reveled that when he started as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, the total budget was $28,000, which included his salary, money for programming — everything. He has since expanded it significantly. Epstein said that the small amount of funding for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard represents the struggle our movement faces as a whole: “In this career field, and in this movement in general, you have to be willing to take a risk if you want to make any kind of advance. We are starting so much further behind anything that might reasonably be considered our competition.” As usual, it was a pleasure hearing Epstein talk. For more, check out a video of the session here (and, if you turn the volume up, you can hear me ask a question about collaborating with religious chaplains near the end of the video).

Bridging the Divide — Keys to Respectful Interaction and Cooperation with Religious Groups

This session, as well as the next two to follow, where those that most directly echoed the work that I do. I was so excited to see this workshop on the list of sessions, and it did not disappoint. Nate Mauger, Secular Student Alliance intern, described maugerhis experience when his Secular Student Alliance group partnered with an on campus Christian group to go to New Orleans for a service project. You can read about his service experience in his amazing NonProphet Status guest blog from earlier this week. In his presentation he highlighted some key beliefs on why it is important to collaborate with religious organizations (beliefs I obviously share), including that it is a “great opportunity to dispel common negative stereotypes aimed at the secular movement,” that engaging with people of differing viewpoints enhances the quality of conversation, and that one is able accomplish a lot more by combining resources. Mauger also offered advice on how to reach out to a religious group, and counseled that clear communication is key and disagreement is inevitable but that you should “take time to focus on issues on which you can find common ground.” All in all it was an excellent presentation and a helpful starting point for secular folks interested in getting involved in an interfaith project.

A Secular Humanist Invocation

Andrew Lovley, Founder and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) and student at the University of Southern Maine, offered a reflection on the controversy that ensued after he was invited to deliver an invocation at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine. Unsurprisingly, his invocation actually prompted less outcry from religious people than it did from those within the secular community, where he was criticized for doing something “religious.” Lovley asserted that he believes lovleythat “Secular Humanists should do invocations and other religious practices whenever they have they have the opportunity” and use them as opportunities to “unify and inspire, not protest [religion],” saying he believed such protests are counterproductive. As a Secular Humanist who has taken a preaching class in seminary and preached several secular sermons, I agree with him on this. As Kelly Bodwin said on the first day of the Summit, we can use religious forms and apply them to our secular values, modeling our communities off the good things about religion. Lovley’s call for secularists to expand their notions of what kinds of activities secular folks should engage in resonated very strongly with me a secular interfaith dialogue facilitator and I really enjoyed hearing him speak so eloquently about his experiences and beliefs. You can read his invocation here, read a blog he did about whether Humanist’s should deliver invocations here, and see a video of his SSA Leadership Summit workshop here.

Gaining Acceptance — Lessons Learned from the Front Line

Greg R. Langer, an attorney from Los Angeles and founding chairperson of Chrysalis, a non-profit serving the homeless in L.A., lead a workshop on how to advance the secular movement’s quest for wider societal acceptance. He echoed a lot of what I’ve said in my work — the idea that demanding we be recognized as legitimate is far less efficient than demonstrating we are (show and don’t tell), saying that “claiming Atheists are victims does not engender positive responses.” Langer asserted that we will often need to meet religious people more than halfway, advising secularists to “treat each person as an individual and not as a representative of [her or his] group, even when you are not treated that way.” He acknowledged that “Atheism has baggage — it is seen as hostile,” and that “non-theism, while not as problematic, still only says what you do not believe.” For those reasons, Langer said that he prefers to identify as a Secular Humanist — this is precisely what I’ve said on this blog many times over.

Langer continued by saying that, though it may be tempting, the secular inclination to tell religious people that they are deluded is never productive. He warned that when engaging with theists one should anticipate and be prepared to address negative langerassumptions about the non-religious, but also said that we must “check [ourselves] for prejudices too. We will only achieve acceptance if we really hear [the religious] and empathize.” Langer also condemned the common Atheist desire to serve as a de-conversion missionary, saying that “while it might be nice [to de-convert], it is not our priority.” This echoes the interfaith idea that, while we would all love to see others come to recognize our “truth,” we know it is not the most important issue at hand. Ultimately, he said, gaining wider acceptance is about engagement — and, more specifically, changing how secularists engage. “Disdain must be replaced with empathy,” Langer said,” just as we ask them to empathize with us.” I found Langer’s speech to be a very important articulation of the message that I advocate and really enjoyed the ways in which he broke it down into specific actions secularists can take to promote wider acceptance of secular perspectives.

Building a Relationship with the White House

This was a fun session on the Secular Coalition For America‘s White House briefing in which participant Jesse Galef shared some of his experience. You can see a full video here.

Conversations

As great as the sessions were, my favorite part was meeting with the other attendees of the Leadership Summit. There was a broad variety of perspectives present, but we all spoke our mind without fear of disagreeing and without criticizing one another. It gave me a lot of hope for greater unity in our movement, and I was glad for the opportunity to participate.

Now that my travels are done and I am back in Chicago, I’m turning to work on the final days of the Share Your Secular Story Contest. It closes in 15 DAYS so submit now!

share your secular storyOur Share Your Secular Story contest is quickly coming to an end — the period for submission closes in less than a month on May 15, so get your entry in! We wanted to give you an example of a secular story that demonstrates how one young secular individual found a way to engage with people of another religious identity, remain strong in his own, and identify shared values with others around which they were able to collaborate. Today’s guest post comes from Nate Mauger, a student at The Ohio State University and intern at the Secular Student Alliance, who shares his “secular story.” His story is a profound testament to the importance of expressing secular values and the potential significance of interfaith collaboration. We hope it inspires you to share a story of your own!

It was early in the morning — well, at least too early to be awake on one’s spring break — and our group was wandering aimlessly around the house we had been told we would be working on that day. New Orleans had been cool and sunny for the majority of the week, but today the sky was overcast and the air was hot and humid. As our group waited to get inside, we were told that the eighty year old woman who had lived in this house had died in its doorway as Hurricane Katrina swept through nearly calendar5 years ago. She had stayed to protect her belongings from looters and vandals, and sure enough almost everything she owned was still sitting in place where she had left it. Even a calendar on her wall was still flipped to August, 2005. To say the scene was unsettling would be an understatement. As we made our way through the house, we were told to strip out all her things and throw them in a dumpster. Then our group would rip the drywall from the walls, essentially gutting the residence down to the studs. When a house is mostly empty, doing demo work can be an invigorating experience. Seeing someone’s life laid out in front of us dampened our enthusiasm, to say the least.

The group with whom we went to New Orleans consisted of twelve Christians and twelve Atheists from the The Thomas Society (An Ohio State University Campus Ministry) and the Students for Freethought at OSU (SFF), respectively. The idea had been inspired a similar joint venture undertaken by a secular student group from the University of Illinois – Champaign Urbana. This was the second annual trip SFF and the Thomas Society had made to New Orleans together. This being my first trip, I was understandably anxious and a little apprehensive. Though the two groups had been cooperating for almost two years, and many people could testify to the respectfulness of the interaction, I still had my reservations. In a alien environment like a service trip, would members of a Christian group see the inherent intimacy of our venture as an opportunity to proselytize me? Could the Atheists avoid the temptation to attack what they see to be the many distasteful and irrational positions of the Christian faith?

Putting my fears aside, I dived in headfirst and learned a great deal about what interfaith cooperation really means, and why it can be such a valuable experience for people who hold opposing worldviews to work together to make our world a better place. I IDknow that sounds cliché, but the service trip we took together convinced me that the altruism present in the Thomas Society isn’t all that different from the emotion a Secular Humanist feels when they see an individual in need or a community in ruins. In that moment when we were surveying the state of that elderly woman’s house, I could tell that a common chord had been struck within every member of our team. We were collectively outraged at the sustained neglect of not only this property, but of the community in general. How could this injustice be perpetuated for so long? As I looked on at the work in front of us, it occurred to me that it would be entirely irresponsible of us to focus on our differences when our common goals and ideals could be harnessed to affect a positive change in the short window of opportunity we had been given.

I should mention that while we had a singular focus as we worked on these homes, that does not mean that we ignored our differences entirely. On many nights, we had long discussions concerning the details of our differing worldviews. These were undertaken in a respectful manner, but they were not brushed under the rug in any way. In talking with the leaders of both groups extensively, I got the feeling that each group had a fierce desire to know the truth. While the approach SFF and the Thomas Society take is strikingly different, that passion is there. Disagreement and debate with faith groups are critical to freeing our minds from the excessive insularity that a group’s isolation can engender.

serviceOf course, we didn’t forget that we were on spring break. Most nights, you could find our groups wandering the French Quarter experiencing all that this amazing city has to offer. Bourbon Street was particularly active during our visit, and one of my most vivid memories of the trip involves our encounter there with a fundamentalist evangelical Christian group holding signs condemning us for our iniquity. Naturally, the we couldn’t help but confront them and discuss their views and motivations for taking such a militant stance. As I argued for what seemed like an eternity with these people the subject turned to what we were doing down in New Orleans. We explained that we were part of a service trip involving both Atheists and Christians, and they seemed to be extremely surprised by this. As we continued to go back and forth, I noticed that some of my closest allies in this debate were the moderate Christians who accompanied us down to New Orleans. At least for the moment, we had more in common than we held in opposition.

In summary, I would encourage anyone to look into a joint service trip like the one our group decided to do over spring break. We worked with AmeriCorps and the Trinity Community Center down in New Orleans, but opportunities like this exist all around the country. Developing mutual respect for your peers of differing faiths and working to better a community can be extremely rewarding… and oh yeah, don’t be afraid to have a good time while you’re at it. I promise you, we did.

maugerNate Mauger is the Wintern (Winter + Intern) at the Secular Student Alliance. He is an active member of Students for Freethought at The Ohio State University where he studies Anthropology and Geography. Nate’s experience traveling with SFF and The Thomas Society to New Orleans for a service project gave him a new perspective on the benefits of cooperation with faith groups. With graduation on the horizon, Nate hopes to stave off unemployment by attending grad school to study Geographic Information Systems.

Have a secular story of your own to share? Enter our contest before May 15!

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