hpHey everyone! Please check out my newest blog for the Huffington Post Religion. This one, like the last, ended up getting so many comments that it was promoted to the front page of the Huffington Post, and was Monday’s #1 most commented on article for the entire site. With 2,000 comments and counting, I again don’t know where to begin responding (especially during an even busier week than last!). I’m so grateful that my writing seems to be initiating a much-needed conversation, but it’s meant that things are much busier these days, making getting much else done difficult. Anyway, here’s a selection; the piece can be read in full over at the Huffington Post:

Last Friday, a New York Times headline declared: “Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be.” This ongoing debate among atheists — “Just how much should we confront the religious?” — is nowhere near resolution.

Last year when I visited Minnesota to spend the winter holidays with my family, I spoke with a Christian friend about my budding efforts as an atheist promoting religious tolerance and interfaith work. She too was excited about the idea of bringing people together around shared values in spite of religious differences, but near the end of our conversation she asked me a pointed question: “I’m a little confused. Isn’t part of being an atheist trying to talk people out of their faith?” Continue reading at the Huffington Post.

A Call to (Open) Arms

August 23, 2010

goodcopbadcopThe first in our series of guest posts by some other NonProphets comes from secular student superstar Lucy Gubbins. Lucy, a personal hero of mine and co-founder of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists (which was recently given the “Best Community” Award by the Secular Student Alliance), tackles the question of whether religion-tolerant atheists are truly welcome in the secular movement. Take it away, Lucy!

Firebrands and diplomats. “Accommodationists” and “New Atheists.” When the question of religious tolerance comes up in a group of nonbelievers, whether it’s a keynote address or a conversation among friends, nothing gets tempers rising quite like the question: In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?

As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both.

If you take a look at any American secular organization, any of the best-selling atheist authors, or any popular atheist blog, it’s easy to see that the “Bad Cop” side is pretty well represented. Go to any atheist-centered conference and it’s a matter of course to have your eyes and ears filled with snarky remarks from the MCs and speakers, and presentations entirely built on forced religious mockeries. Scour the shelves in the Religion section of any bookstore and find the imperious titles of all the trendy atheist books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Fighters of delusion and drawers of Mohammed, rejoice! — we’ve got you covered.

What happens, though, when the “Good Cops” start showing up? What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?

Everyone is always eager to say that in the secular community, both “firebrands” and “diplomats” are needed. But the truth is that the “diplomats,” the “accommodationists” — the atheists who don’t view religious people as delusional imbeciles, and who are willing to be respectful of faith — aren’t so sexy. Drop the names “Heidi Anderson” or “Chris Stedman” in a room full of atheists, and you’re guaranteed at least 3 simultaneous diatribes that could each go on for hours (much to my deep chagrin, I know this via personal experience). Even when I try to talk about the philosophy of the student group I co-founded and led for two years, the Alliance of Happy Atheists, listeners’ eyes seem to glaze over until they have a chance to say: “Well, what you do is cute. But we need the angry atheists, too.”

To be frank, I’m undecided on this point — I continually find myself disconnected and disheartened by the way members of what I once thought to be “my” movement approach the topic of religious tolerance. However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.

That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. When they’re the sole individuals encouraging polite, snark-less conversation with the faithful, let’s try to not storm out of the room in a huff. Like it or not, atheism desperately needs an image change, and this will only occur through the works of people willing to put anger aside and learn how to interact with religious people in a positive manner. Yes, we need the angry atheists too — but in my opinion, at a time of surplus in one area, let’s look to what we’re lacking in another.

So let’s make this movement the best it can possibly be. Let’s make sure all secular people — the lovers of confrontation, accommodation, and everyone in between — are welcomed with open arms into our community. And let’s make sure we’re empowering and supporting each other to do whatever we can to create a world where a secular humanist philosophy is seen as viable, moral, and maybe even normal.

And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers. And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything.

LucyGubbinsLucy Gubbins was born in east Tennessee and is a junior at the University of Oregon, where she co-founded the Alliance of Happy Atheists. AHA! is one of the largest and most active clubs on the UO campus, with a mission to humanize the image of nonbelief, create fellowship among secular students, and bridge the divide between faith and skepticism. Lucy studies linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology, and greatly hopes to find more support for interfaith work within the secular movement in the future.

rainbow unicorn

This image barely lost out in the vote on IFYC's logo, obviously.

I have a good number of posts in queue for NonProphet Status — reports on MythBusters on Humanism, the Secular Student Alliance New England Leadership Summit, the 2010 National CIRCLE Conference, and the Fish Out of Water DVD Release Party among them. However, a blog went up today on Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist that I feel deserves a prompt response.

Last week, Mehta and I were both mentioned in The Washington Post’s Faith Divide, a blog managed by Eboo Patel, Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization I work with as a former intern and current adjunct trainer / speaker. I was flattered to be mentioned, both by the organization I so greatly admire and enjoy collaborating with and to be mentioned in the same sentence as the prolific Mehta. But per a post that went up on his blog today, it seems Mehta, who spoke at IFYC’s 2007 conference, has mixed feelings about being cited as an example of a secular person who is working for greater collaboration across lines of difference:

I don’t want to just “let our differences slide” or “agree to disagree.”

want to persuade religious people that they are mistaken when it comes to their mythology. Not through proselytization or trickery, but through rational, reasoned discussion.

We can work together and we can do wonderful things to help our communities and we ought to do that. But not in lieu of reasoned debate and a desire to point out the problems with the other person’s beliefs.

In this post, Mehta writes that “religion is not always a force for good,” going as far in his claim that IFYC wants to pretend it is as to call the interfaith movement “happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns/all-inclusive.”  It seems a funny point to raise since that is not even close to the idea that IFYC posits — in fact, the interfaith cooperation movement was born out of a recognition that religion is the source of many problems in our world. But I work with IFYC and the larger interfaith movement because I am not compelled to be complacent about that problem and see in interfaith cooperation a real, achievable solution.

This desire to address problems related to religion is something Mehta and I have in common, but our approaches are fundamentally different. As far as I can tell, Mehta believes that the best way to bring about the conclusion of conflicts rooted in religious identity is to completely deconstruct religious identities. On the other hand, I see this approach as a literal impossibility — per the majority of recent cultural studies, religion is not going away any time soon, and is in fact becoming an increasingly relevant force in the world marketplace. If this is true — and, well, it is — then we need a find a way to work toward bringing about the end of religious-based conflict.

I believe this is accomplished through the identification of shared values across lines of difference and the pursuit of common action that grows out of these values. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes time and time again. People in the “New Atheist” camp identify blasphemy and the deconstruction of religious paradigms as the best way to achieve this. Ironically, I believe their approach has the opposite effect, creating only more conflict and pushing fundamentalists to entrench themselves even further into their religious totalitarianism. It’s also a poor way to build community; as I’ve written on this blog before, the majority of what I hear from secular friends is that they’ve had no interest in joining an Atheist group because the negativity they observed from these groups’ attempts to deconstruct religious ideas turned them off. They think it is alienating and innately limited, and I agree.

Mehta asks, “Is there room [in the interfaith movement] for people like me who think Islam, Mormonism, and Christianity are false? And who try to tackle sacred cows like reincarnation, Heaven, and karma?” My involvement in the organization serves a resounding “yes.” I think that religious ideas are false, and have deconstructed them in my own life. I enjoy discussing this with others and promoting the idea that we can be good without God. But when Mehta goes on to write that he “want[s] people to lose their faith just as much as the New Atheists do,” our beliefs diverge.

I am not persuaded by the popular Atheist mantra that we should serve as “de-conversion” missionaries and aim to bring about the end to “religious myths.” I don’t have a strong desire to see my religious peers abandon their faiths. Why should it bother me that my neighbor believes in God, as long as that belief isn’t infringing on my freedoms? And when it does, is the best approach to try to convince them to rid themselves of the belief altogether (an often impossible task), or is it more productive to allow them to get to know me and, through our relationship, cultivate in them a desire to not only allow for my differing belief but perhaps even celebrate it? This approach strikes me as the more rational and pragmatic, and also the more empathic. You need to establish a relationship before you can move into those more difficult conversations, or else most of the people you’re talking to won’t even bother to listen and you’ll be left monologuing. And monologuers have a difficult time building the bridges required to make the world we live in a better place for all of us.

Ultimately, my pragmatism demands that I prioritize. I enjoy critiquing religious ideas, and often do, but I also know that our religious differences are much less significant than the immediate problems facing our world. My friends and I are establishing a group called Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC), and at our last meeting we all agreed that we had no interest in hosting debates with religious people, as many secular groups often do, concluding that such things often just create more division. Instead, we want to have a community of Secular Humanists who get out into the world and engage in service. We’re hoping our first project will be a collaboration with a community garden and (GASP!) an after-school program at a church and that it will lead to a greater understanding of our beliefs in that community.

Mehta and I have a professional relationship, have collaborated before, and I respect him and the work he has done to help provide a voice for Atheists and other secular folks in our society. However, as much as I admire his advocacy for the wider societal acceptance of the non-religious, I think his desire to see religious people abandon their faith does us more harm than good. In my interfaith work I have become a stronger Secular Humanist, just as I’ve watched my peers grow in their faiths. I celebrate their evolution as they do mine because we are invested in one another, working together in a way that does not “let our differences slide,” as Mehta has suggested, but recognizes that the reality of said differences is superseded by the necessity to come together in respect, mutual admiration and common action.

Oh, and happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns.

cats with lightsabers

This interblog dispute probably looks as silly as this picture, though less cute.

As I’ve written on here before, the basic premise of this blog – to build pluralism among secular and religious folks and work for an organized secular community that isn’t rooted in an oppositional identity standing against religion – has become something of a lightning rod for controversy among some contingents of the non-religious community. So it wasn’t especially surprising when a gratuitously spiteful post went up this week over at World of Weird Things. You should read it for yourself, but it can essentially be summarized by this selection:

[NonProphet Status’ perspective is] annoying, petty and a pretty clear attempt to get on the good side of religious people. By positioning themselves as nice and non-threatening to seem harmless to theists, the faitheists seem ready and willing to add to the stream of condescension and berating the religious crowd likes to lay on atheists, all while claiming to be really atheist and support the secular and humanist community with every fiber of their being. Just not when it matters.

Based on his post, it seems fairly clear to me that World of Weird Thing’s Greg Fish has mischaracterized my work. I would like to invite Fish to more thoroughly read the postings of this blog. NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference.

And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.

Erik Roldan, a judge for our Share Your Secular Story contest, ably reacted to Fish’s critique of this:

Erik RoldanIt strikes me as narrow-sighted to think that someone trying to engage with members of another group is “pandering,” as this reactionary blog has called it. Additionally, his statement that the story contest is designed to have people write the same things [Chris] did is another attempt at belittling any acknowledgement of the commonalities non-believers have. That is not only unproductive, it further serves to propogate self-definition by what you are not – your negative space – rather than what you are.

As Erik points out, the problem with atheism is that it only suggests what an individual does not believe and easily lends itself to taking an antagonistic stance toward religion – this is why I have identified a problem with it. With the Share Your Secular Story contest, we aim to help cull a canon of secular stories that go beyond saying “we don’t believe in God” to share the experiences and values of everyday secular folks.

Mary Ellen Giess, another member of the Share Your Secular Story contest panel of judges, reacted to Fish’s incorrect analysis of its aims with a wise reflection:

Mary Ellen Giess[Fish] claims that Chris laments atheists who want to “separate themselves from religious people,” but what Chris actually laments is secularists who are openly antagonistic to religious people. Fish asks: “How exactly does one establish a humanist or secular identity by complaining that all the non-theists around you are so pushy and negative in a ridiculous caricature?” The ironic thing is that this story contest is about establishing a secular identity that is not about being in conflict with other people – religious or non-religious people. So, fundamentally, the story contest is exactly what he’s arguing for. He’s listening to the first line of Chris’ argument without listening to the second. His whole third paragraph is about the fact that atheists are just normal people who are not usually that aggressive with their view. If that is true, then obviously someone has to do some PR for atheists to let the world know that they are just nice people, which is what this story contest aims to do.

As Mary Ellen has noted, his post is a dishonest assessment of the true aims of the contest. Share Your Secular Story contest judge Nick Mattos offered an elegant, precise reaction to Fish’s post that elaborates on this:

Nick MattosThe fact of the matter is that contest organizer Christopher Stedman, for all of the high regard I hold him in, is not one of the contest judges. Criticism of Mr. Stedman’s work – or allegations that he prefers to be exotic amongst religious people, or that he is “dishonest” or “cowardly” – are utterly irrelevant to the contest itself.

The huge volume of submissions we’ve received so far indicate that there is a sizeable body of secular people – articulate, rational, thoughtful people, at that – who don’t view their secularism as an oppositional identity. Virtually none are “nice, fluffy stor[ies] saying pretty much the same things [Mr. Stedman] did,” a fact that reinforces that the authors submitting are indeed rational, thoughtful people who think for themselves. I encourage the readers of the Weird Things blog to do just that: to think for themselves, and decide whether it’s in the best interest for the common good to build a canon of secular narratives, or if it is more important to knock down people and projects that seek to do so. For those of the former school of thought, myself and my fellow contest judges look forward to reading your submissions to the essay contest.

It is true that the message of this blog is not in lock-step with the dominant atheist narratives and asks secularists to think for themselves, not just subscribe to the anti-religious attitudes that flood the non-religious market. The funny thing is that Fish accuses me of being “offended and surprised by a rebuttal,” but what I am struck most by about his assessment of my work is how offended he seems. Though I have been baffled by the degree of vitriol that the idea of pluralism elicits in some people that I share many common beliefs with, it simply emphasizes the importance of this work. If the dominant narrative among atheist communities is inherently anti-religious, it shouldn’t surprise me that a different perspective ruffles some feathers. But that is not my aim, nor is it my aim to be exotic (or a “fascinating curiosity for a high minded group of theists” as he’s suggested.) Instead, I simply hope to help change the tone of the conversation about religion and secularism – an all-too-often nasty, divisive one as exemplified by his post – to a more empathic, respectful way of being in community that transcends simply tolerating the differences of others. Yes, even with religious people.

“Really, it’s ok to be religious,” Fish writes. “I hear a lot of people do it. Just don’t call yourself a devoted atheist while enjoying everything religion has to offer because that’s not fair to everyone involved.”

cats with lightsabers

Get it? It's a "catfight." Okay, I'll stop.

I have to ask: why shouldn’t I? What exactly is unfair about wanting to enjoy religion’s many positive characteristics? How can I be in community with religious people without finding a way to care about the things that matter to them?

His question points to the limitations of his outlook and, ultimately, I am grateful for Fish’s post for multiple reasons. For one, I appreciate any opportunity to receive feedback and critique, and am always open to discerning better ways of articulating my perspective. But all the more, Fish’s blog underscores the critical problems I see facing secular communities today – an occasionally bloodthirsty readiness to divide and conquer. I’d like to feel some satisfaction in this affirmation, but it merely saddens me because it reminds me that we have so much more work to do. As Nick said, I hope you will contribute to the story contest and help us build a cohesive, unified secular community that does not try to rise up by putting the religious down.

Fish may think this outlook on the world – respecting religion while staying secular – is an alienating one, but that runs contrary to my experience. It is a way to engage with religious people, of course – the vast majority of the population, in case you’ve forgotten. But it is also a way to build a healthy secular community and, in Chicago anyway, it is bringing people together. Last night, our burgeoning Secular Humanist group met for the second time. Everyone in that room has expressed distaste for the anti-religious double-speak of New Atheists, saying it has, in one way or another, kept them from secular community organizing. People who had once thought there was nowhere for them to explore and express their secular values are now building a community that does not want to isolate itself by alienating the religious. I wish Fish would join us instead of trying to further divide a community that is already too isolated from the rest of the world (or, to use his own words, trying to “alienate atheists from [our] cause” as he warned me before his post went up).

Let’s call this what it is – divisive fearmongering – and move on with our work, for it cannot wait any longer for the anti-religious to stop shouting over us.

christopher hitchensReligion Dispatches has a great piece up on Christopher Hitchens (who is, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, one of the “New Atheists” — or, as I like to say, something of a Horseman of Anti-Theism, decrying religion left and right). For anyone interested in issues of religion and non-theism, this article is a must-read, especially in its breakdown of the nuances between what Hitchens calls “religious” and what he calls “numinous.” For people like me who believe that Hitchens’ critical brush is far too wide and imprecise, this conversation is very revealing. The story picks apart an interview between Hitchens and a liberal Christian minister, concluding that “when it comes right down to it, the biggest difference between Christopher Hitchens and Marylin Sewell is not in their substantive views but in the emotive sense they attach to the word ‘religion.’ They both dig through the complex phenomenon that is religion—one searching for the jewels amidst the junk, the other lifting up the garbage and yelling out ‘See!’ But if Sewell should unearth a treasure, Hitchens may be the first of the New Atheists to acknowledge its worth. He’ll just refuse to call it ‘religion.'” A beautiful image, to be sure, and one that suggests that maybe Hitchens is beginning to realize that religion isn’t as black and white as he’s cast it. One can hope, anyway. Because c’mon, man: you’re giving the rest of us non-religious — and Christopher’s, for that matter — a bad name! Read the rest of the story here.

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