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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A Call to Love With Our Feet

September 13, 2010

liberty walkSeptember 11th is a difficult anniversary. “Love” is perhaps the last word we might associate with that day.

On September 11th, 2001, I was fourteen-years-old and ignorant to a lot of what was happening in the world outside of my home of Minnesota. That day was a wake-up call to me, to be more aware of what was happening outside of my own context. To listen more and to learn more. But love was far from my heart.

Nine years later, we are experiencing another wake-up call. The call is the same: we must listen more and learn more. And, with a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes enveloping our nation, love again seems far from our collective hearts.

On Saturday, September 11th, 2010, I participated in a day of prayer and reflection. Granted, I did not pray, but I was glad to be there among those who do. On such a day, little else seems more appropriate than prayer or reflection.

On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, at that day of prayer and reflection, I listened to a woman who was in Lower Manhattan on the day of the attacks reflect on her experience. Through tears, she recounted the horror and fear she experienced that day. But she added that 9/11 was a wake-up call to her: it was a call to love more, not less. She spoke of her God’s vision of inclusion and integration for all people; it was a message I carried with me when I hit the road for New York City just an hour later to attend Religious Freedom USA‘s Liberty Walk: An Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Yesterday, September 12, 2010, was a rainy day. In spite of the rain, at least 1,000 people came out to march for religious freedom in support of the Cordoba Initiative‘s Park51. We gathered at St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic church in NYC, to listen to speakers including the Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Father Kevin Madigan, Religious Freedom USA founders Joshua Stanton and Frank Fredericks, author and environmentalist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Auburn Theological Seminary President Rev. Katharine Henderson, and Charles Wolf, who was the husband of a 9/11 victim. After being inspired by their calls for inclusion and interfaith cooperation, we took to the streets.

It was a cold and rainy day, but as a diverse group of people of all faiths and none at all walked the streets of NYC arm in arm with flags in hand, it felt like a moment of transformation. It was not “us” supporting “them” — it was all of us, together, walking in hope and mutual loyalty. We were listening. We were learning. We were loving one another.

One man stopped us and asked what we were marching for. When we explained that we were walking for religious freedom, particularly in support of the Cordoba Initiative’s Park51, he scoffed and said, “The whole country’s against you!”

In one sense, he’s right: the road to religious freedom in America has been long and it will continue to be. But he also couldn’t be more wrong: pluralism will prevail. Those of us who walked the NYC streets that day proved it.

liberty walk programOur nation will heal from the wounds we sustained on September 11th, 2001, but we must do so together. Let us extend the call to be more than it is. It is not enough to listen more and learn more – we must, as both a survivor of 9/11 and a crowd of people walking in interfaith solidarity taught me, love more.

The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said of his interfaith efforts for the Civil Rights movement: “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.” At the Liberty Walk, a group of people marched for religious freedom. And though I am a Secular Humanist who does not pray, truly it felt like all of our feet joined together in a common call: to listen more, learn more and, above all, to love more.

dailyshowmosqueLast night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart took on the islamophobic critics of Park51, aka the “Ground Zero” “Mosque.” Everyone needs to watch the video — you can see it here. Best line? “Why does everyone think America is divided? It appears distrust of Muslims is the only thing that goes from ‘sea to shining sea.'”

mosque

From a recent rally against the "Ground Zero Mosque."

I remember the first time I was invited to attend an Islamic prayer meeting with a friend. As I sat and observed, I closed my eyes and listened to “as-salamu ‘alaykum sound against the walls of the mosque. Though it was my first time at an Islamic prayer meeting, the words rang familiar. I was transported back to my years of Christian worship attendance before I stopped believing in God, to services that concluded with an equivalent wish: “Peace be with you.”

As most folks now know thanks to Sarah Palin’s liberal use of the english language (never thought I’d put “Sarah Palin” and “liberal” together), there is a controversy brewing in lower Manhattan. Park51, a proposed Muslim community center, is coming under significant fire for its proximity to Ground Zero. The very conservative right, once again conflating the individual actions of an extremist fringe with the larger religion of Islam, has taken to calling this Muslim community center a mosque and is demanding that the city forbid its construction.

Yesterday my friend Joshua Stanton, in collaboration with a diverse group of young leaders, launched Religious Freedom USA, a counter-movement in support of Park51. In a write-up for the Huffington Post, Josh and Frank Fredericks offered a poetic explanation of why they are establishing this initiative:

Some may wonder why a Born Again Christian and a future rabbi, both under the age of 25, are working to build support for a Muslim community center. To us it seems natural: this is not simply a Muslim issue, a Jewish issue, or a Christian issue. This is an American issue, and members of all religious communities are affected by a threat to religious freedom.

We Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, Freethinkers, Skeptics and the like should be leading the charge in support of Park51 alongside Josh and Frank. We value freedom of choice when it comes to religion — because of it, we are able to choose “none.” Which means we should rally behind the right others have to practice their religion of choice, and stand in solidarity when their right to do so is threatened.

As we well know, surveys show that the non-religious are among the most marginalized groups in this country. We understand what it is like to have our non-religious beliefs and identities diminished or dismissed. So too is Islamophobia rampant in our culture; yesterday the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee was quoted as saying that he is “not sure” if the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to Muslims, calling Islam a “cult.” Such inflammatory rhetoric should sound very familiar to our community, which is often accused of being a cultish and immoral outlier in a religious nation.

Park51 is under attack because of how demonized Muslims are in America, plain and simple. Many Americans see nothing but godless, immoral, savage heathens when they think of Muslims. As a community comparably cast, we should empathize and come to their defense. Defending their freedom is defending our own. Josh and Frank get it just right when they write that “more extreme voices want this right to apply only to their own religious communities, and not to others. But when one group’s freedoms are threatened, the religious freedom of all Americans is at stake… This is about protecting the civil rights assured to all Americans in the Constitution.”

If we want to ensure that our non-religious freedoms are protected, we must stand up for our Muslim neighbors. This is not merely a civil imperative: it is a moral one. Our Humanistic values call us to act on behalf of the oppressed. The first Humanist Manifesto states that Humanists should “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.”

Another central value of Secular Humanism is reason; the propaganda being put forth by those who oppose Park51 is entirely irrational and unethical. We can and should call them out. Let’s join the Religious Freedom USA campaign and stand up for Park51. I can see the headline now: “Atheists and Muslims Band Together!” The political right would have a field day. It may sound farfetched but it’s happened before. It can and should happen again now.

You don’t need to be a Muslim or a Christian to wish peace, or salam, for us all. Now, let us have freedom too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s guest post, a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention, comes from Andrew Fogle, a D.C.-based cultural, social, and sexual interloper presently studying philosophy and religion at American University. He is a regular columnist for the alternative queer blog The New Gay, and can be reached at andrewf@thenewgay.net

andrewThe by-now infamous conclusion of Edwin Kagin’s 2010 AAC address on blasphemy elicited more than a few interesting responses from more than a few interesting people. Chris Stedman, seated in the audience, fought a pitched internal moral battle before deciding to do the virtuously pluralist thing and hear out a perspective he didn’t agree with, however distastefully it was presented (whether or not this makes for “cowardice” seems to depend on what value a person places on sincere efforts of mutual understanding over and above the recorded sound of his or her own voice.) Sayira Khokar was nearly brought to tears by the footage posted on skepticsresource.com, recounting in her guest piece the disquieting resonance between her memories of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the behavior of the guffawing, self-satisifed (and – did anyone else notice this? – almost exclusively white) crowd gathered for the occasion of North America’s premier atheist conference.

On seeing the YouTube video of Burkagate, I had another reaction:

“Mary, Please,” I said to myself, borrowing a phrase from the famed word-hoard of my people. “I’ve seen 300 pound Latino men in Diana Ross costumes pull off more convincing altos than these girls.”

Much (and maybe too much) virtual ink has been spilled over the “Back in Their Burkas Again” fiasco, a performance which in its comedic subtlety and technical execution seemed closer to an unorthodox PTA holiday program than an SNL skit. To the thoughtful charges already explored on this blog I would add – probably unexpectedly – one more: the American Atheist Convention is guilty of sponsoring bad theological drag. Terrible theological drag. The kind of poorly-conceived, overblown ecclesiastical cross-dressing that would be booed off the stage at any respected queer cabaret on the East Coast (more welcome would be the queen who called herself “Pope RuPaul II.”)

A religious or secular commitment – like a job, a gender, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation – isn’t a part of us in the same inert and self-contained way that, say, hardness and grayness are part of a rock, or bad cover design and overpricedness are part of a Christopher Hitchens book. We aren’t the kind of beings who simply “are”: free consciousness means that we have to “play at” the roles we assume, however natural or objective they might seem. This “play” is rarely light-hearted, to be sure – the soldier at war is doing something importantly different from the little boy having fun with Cowboys and Indians, and the work of trying to build and hold on to a sense of self that is always doomed to fail is the most frustrating, burdensome, humiliating, and for all of that, important things that human beings get up to.

Recognizing this fact, and being able to laugh at ourselves because of it, is an important part of staving off insanity for modern people. Gay people have always been good at recognizing this, because we’ve always been especially modern and especially close to insanity. Drag as a cultural institution is the highest expression of this sensibility: a gritty, sassy, localized art form that suspends and subverts the categories and hierarchies that less interesting, more powerful people use to keep us (and others) down. For hours on weekend nights, on gin-and-sweat-streaked stages in every city in this country, the systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality that keep American injustice humming are dissolved in nebulae of glitter and laser lights. Fur, vinyl, and essentialism are slipped off seductively and cast aside until audiences are confronted with the naked and jarring truth that everything we ever call ourselves isn’t given freely by God or natural selection; it is actively affirmed or denied by us in the kinds of shows we put on for ourselves and other people, every minute of every day.

Good drag doesn’t mock particular identities (e.g. “woman,” “neo-disco pop star,” “Sarah Palin.”) Good drag makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.

In the words of Liza Minnelli – the only woman other than the Virgin Mary to whom I’ve offered petitionary prayer – “Life is a Cabaret, old chum / It’s only a Cabaret.” In the 21st century, when the kinds of traditions and certainties that used to bind people to stable, directed senses of self are shattered daily like so many martini glasses under leather high-heels, the insight has never been more relevant. We, all of us – gay and straight, religious and secular – are better off embracing the terrifying responsibility of the radically free, self-directed performativity that makes us who we are and nothing more, rejecting the bad-faith securities of an all-powerful god on the one hand and an all-encompassing materialist determinism on the other. It is in this affirmative movement, and not in the resentment of blasphemy, that the prospects for a more decent world seem most bright.

Today’s guest post, a personal reflection on wearing hijab in response to the 2010 American Atheist Convention’s blasphemy session, comes from Sayira Khokhar. Sayira is graduating from Kendall College in Chicago with a B.A. in Hospitality Management, Meeting and Event Planning. She interned with the Interfaith Youth Core in the Summer and Fall of 2009 and helped organize their conference in October of 2009. She is now working for an event planning company, helping not-for-profits plan their events.

sayiraI was nearly brought to tears after seeing the video of three women donning burkas singing a radically misinformed song at the 2010 American Atheist Convention. The audacity they had to replicate something that has been rooted in tradition for centuries and to represent it in such an offensive way is shameful.

My name is Sayira – I am 21 years old and I recently started wearing the headscarf. I tried to wear it once before when I was a junior in high school. That did not work well for me; part of the reason was because I was treated horribly because of it. Some of my classmates asked if I had gotten married, if I was being forced to wear it, if my father beat me, if I was allowed to do anything on my own, if I had to marry a cousin – the foolish list goes on and on.

At the time I was not ready for what was being thrown at me. I was also dealing with teenagers that had limited exposure to different religions and cultures, and the information they did have was misconstrued. I was one of three other girls that covered her hair in a school of over 2000 students. It was not a pleasant experience, especially after 9/11. Everyone had their idea of what my religion represented – and it had nothing to do with “Peace,” which is what “Islam” literally translates into.

When I receive these questions now I cannot help but think, “gosh, people are really closed-minded.” It is as if they refuse to think logically and with empathy. Sometimes I want to give them the answer they want to hear so they can just leave me alone instead of having a look of disbelief when I say, “no, I am not oppressed and I wear the scarf by choice.”

But, as easy as it is to walk away and not stand up for my belief, I wouldn’t be doing Islam – or myself – justice. This time I was prepared. The first day I walked into work with my hijab, my co-workers had a list of questions. They knew about the symbolism and what it stood for because there were two other women that wore them. Their questions revolved around my personal choice; why I decided to wear the scarf. In Islam it is said by Allah (which literally translates into God) that women should cover their hair and their skin. At this point, I had decided that I wanted to be grow more in my identity. No one forced me: not my siblings, not my parents, not my friends, not anyone in my religion – it was all my choice and mine alone to deepen my relationship with my tradition.

Just like Atheists choose to believe that God does not exist or that religion is not necessary, I made this choice of my own free will. Of course I disagree with Atheists on God and on religion, but I will not disrespect them for having their own mind. And I would like to be treated the same way. But there is a balance – I will always express my opinon and offer friendly disagreements to not only open another’s mind but to open my own mind as well. We live in a world of great diversity and it would be hard to make our way through life without encountering people of a different belief or affiliation. At this point respect and an objective point of view play an integral role. You can only go backwards in a progressive society when you cannot open your mind and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

To say that all women who wear the headscarf or burka are oppressed is fallacious beyond belief. To say that showing skin is the only way of being free is taking away from the freedom of having the choice to be who you want to be. I can wear the hijib and cover from neck to toe yet still be free. Who is anyone to judge me? If you do not know me and the circumstance of why I cover my hair, how can you say that I am oppressed? Do you imagine that I am some timid woman dominated by male influence? What if I told you that I will be testing for my black belt in Karate within the year; would that change your mind? What if I told you that I will be graduating with a Hospitality Management degree this year, a major I chose all on my own and not something my parents decided for me – would that change your mind?

Once you see that I am just like anybody else with the slight exception that you cannot see my hair or my belly button or my midriff, will you call me free, just as you think you are free? Think about it before you turn me into a joke.

Sayira’s guest post is a response to NonProphet Status’ final report on the 2010 American Atheist Convention.

This post is the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention. For my favorite sessions from the convention, check out “The Good” post; for those that were bad but not the most offensive, check out “The Bad.”

Throughout the course of the 2010 American Atheist Convention I had extensive conversations with attendees around a single, significant question: what kind of Atheist community are we building? Some of these conversations were constructive; others weren’t. Yet even in the most productive there was considerable disagreement. How do we best assemble a community of non-belief? Is it by contrasting our identities to those of others? And if so, in what ways do we go about this? By mocking them, or by forging our own unique, singular identity based on the values we hold in esteem?

From these conversations, I have come to better understand how my “accomodationism” turns some off in the same way the blasphemy model offends my sensibilities. All the more, I gained key insight into the pragmatic problems of unifying these perspectives; just as it would be challenging to get all Christians under one roof and have every party in agreement, Atheists struggle to come to a consensus about community priorities.

Yet I still cannot help but wonder: how can we bemoan being such a hated minority, as nearly all speakers at the convention did, while practicing hate toward others? This way of community constructivism – dismantling another’s identity to build one’s own – strikes me as the easier but more fundamentally limited model, and it was out in full force at the convention. The American Atheist Convention seemed, in some ways, to aim to offend. In this respect, it hit its target with force. And one moment in particular, on the first day of the convention, left me feeling so assaulted that I nearly walked out of the room and didn’t return.

Edwin Kagin

kaginAs he was introduced it was said that, with his acts of blasphemy, American Atheist National Legal Director Edwin Kagin strikes a “fine balance of seriousness and making fun of this silly crap [religion].” Kagin’s introduction also included a rousing commemoration for his late wife, which was exceedingly moving. The fact that his wife recently passed makes it all the more difficult for me to say so, but I found his session the most offensive by a landslide – and, in hindsight, it seems clear that this was his intention.

Kagin opened by referring to Ireland’s recently passed anti-blasphemy law (as I reported on). He was understandably bothered by that, and offered an opposing definition for “blasphemy” out of his book, Baubles of Blasphemy. Per Kagin, blasphemy “is the crime of making fun of ridiculous beliefs someone else holds sacred.” With that, I had some idea where his talk was headed. But even I, with all my initial trepidation about this convention, couldn’t have predicted just how far he would go.

From the get go Kagin had little to no regard for offering ideas on how to bolster Atheistic communities or for making an intellectual case against religion – he was perfectly happy to simply shout at those in the audience about how religion ought to be brought down. “We can use their nonsense against them,” Kagin said, only offering the mocking of religious ideas and identities as a way of engaging them. “And it is nonsense, profound nonsense.”

Continuing with this theme, he quoted Martin Luther as saying “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” and referenced that Luther believed that the world was relatively young. As with every religious reference he made that day, Kagin of course did not contextualize these statement; Luther said a lot more about reason than that, and was working within a limited understanding of the world, while today we have a much greater capacity for reason and have used it to determine that the world is much older than Luther believed. But instead of using this reason to philosophize about empathy, Kagin was happier to mock the religious by turning them into caricatures, selecting the things that are easiest to critique instead of taking on the significant, worthwhile task of working to find a way to reconcile the realities of religious lives with his own reality. But this obviously wasn’t the aspiration of the man who arrogantly announced: “I don’t want to be unduly condescending to ignorant people, but I do distinguish between ignorant and stupid… You can fix ignorant but you can’t fix stupid.”

Referring to the response to these kinds of claims as made in his book Baubles of Blasphemy, Kagin took a moment to congratulate himself mid-way through his speech. “People thought I was mocking that religion… and you know what, I was,” Kagin said proudly. “Some things need to be mocked, and to not do so is an abomination. You know why? We are right and they are wrong!”

Though I will argue against the mocking that occurred there that day, to label one who chooses not to engage in such behavior an abominationist was a clear sign that my beliefs were not welcome in that room. Kagin seemed to suggest that blasphemy is a powerful political tool and that any Atheist who does not employ it is not doing his or her Atheistic duty. And in some respects he is right. Blasphemy certainly can be impactful (just ask Martin Luther). But what kind of impact do we want to have? The answer in that room seemed to be greater isolation from the rest of the world – myself included.

But what disturbed me most is that no one else in the room seemed even a little fazed. Instead, they leapt out of their chairs, rallied, cheered, and rushed forward to be “debaptized.”

That’s right – in what sounds like the punchline of a joke caricaturizing Atheists, there was a “debaptizing” ceremony in which Kagin dressed up in a costume that was supposed to resemble a Middle Eastern man and took a hair dryer to anyone interested in having their “waters of baptism” blown away while he bellowed contemptuous religious references. I spoke with several individuals after and asked them about the ceremony – what it symbolized for them and why they did it. Some indicated that they had been baptized before and wanted to essentially “take it back.” But the majority said that they participated because they found it funny.

And yet, to me, the “debaptizing” ceremony wasn’t even the most odious part. Worst of all was a nasty segment in which, immediately prior to the ceremony, Kagin blew into an animal horn and called for “his wives,” at which point a group of three young white women entered the room dressed in Burkas, or traditional religious garb for some Muslim women. They sang a song Kagin co-wrote called “Back in their Burkas Again” about women and Islam. I don’t mean to sensationalize but I couldn’t help but wonder if what I felt in that moment was akin to what it must be like to be a non-racist white person at a community meeting who suddenly realizes she or he is in fact attending a Ku Klux Klan rally, watching with frozen horror and nausea as the organizers parade men in blackface before an audience that hoots and hollers with glee.

At this point, I wanted to walk out. Hell, I wanted to storm out. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more offended to call this my community. They announced that ABC News was there to film the ceremony and my face reddened with embarrassment as I imagined how many people would witness this and feel justified in how they’ve stereotyped Atheists. “This is supposed to redeem the world?” I asked myself. “If this is what it looks like not to be religious, I’m not sure I want to call myself secular.” To quote Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun’s reflection after attending the Global Atheist Convention: “I’ve never felt more like believing in God… Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.”

conventionI stuck it out the whole time, even though – and I am terribly embarrassed to admit this because it rarely happens – I began to cry. I remained for the sake of journalistic integrity – to hear it out from start to finish to be fair before offering my account – and for the sake of a full awareness of the state of affairs of the largest Atheist group in America. It took a lot of willpower to stay fixed in my seat. I honestly can’t recall the last time I felt such shame. I felt so wholly wrong for sitting quietly in the back of the room instead of speaking up. I wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I still don’t.

Look – I have a sense of humor. I enjoy certain strains of blasphemy as much as the next secular person. Saved! and Dogma are two of my favorite movies. I spend at least half of a given day joking around with friends – yesterday, for example, I participated in a particularly debaucherous pun exchange about dinosaurs and sex that I won’t share here (but oh, how I wish I could). But Kagin’s speech was anything but funny. There is nothing humorous about hate embodied.

As his speech came to a conclusion, it became clear that Kagin wanted to light a fire beneath Atheists. He was trying to incite, using incendiary language to rally the troops. “By weakening our nation and our understanding of science, [religious people] are engaged in acts of terrorism,” Kagin boomed. “By teaching our children things are other than the way they are, they are engaged in child abuse.” Kagin predicted an upcoming American religious civil war and followed up this forecast with aggressive, anti-religious rhetoric. With talk like his, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a conflict is in fact realized. You want to avoid a religious civil war? Try respectful, engaged interfaith dialogue. All Kagin seemed to be doing was fanning the flames. “If it weren’t for these fools we’d be at the stars by now.” Funny, because I’ve never felt further from the heavens.

If there are nearly 20 million Atheists in America, as Kagin suggested, it begs the question: where are they? They weren’t at this conference, which probably had a few hundred at most. I can only speculate, but I imagine (and hope) that their absence signifies that such a scene would hold little appeal to them. Atheism doesn’t have to come at the expense of respect and basic decency. Many speakers throughout the convention lamented the lack of traction Atheism has gained in America, in spite of vigorous attempts to assert itself in the public realm. After this day, the underlying reason couldn’t be any clearer. I’ve never wanted to call myself an Atheist less.

My feeling is that many in that banquet hall had been burned by religion at one point or another in their lives. I sympathize – religion has been a catalyst for significant pain in my life. But what happened in that room was painful, too. As I sat there watching three women don holy Muslim dress and sing an offensive song about a rich tradition, I understood that they had good intentions. The song was intended to call out the repression of women in some forms of Islam. But I also couldn’t help but think of a dear friend who wears the hijab because it makes her feel empowered and in touch with the tradition of her people, and how grossly this song misrepresented her. Though it perhaps intended to serve as a form of liberation, the song represented profound oppression. With all of the smart and kind people in the room, I could not believe the enthusiasm it aroused. I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again; as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This type of behavior seems like self-sabotage in Atheism’s quest for acceptance and justice.

In his talk, Eddie Tabash said “that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” I for one could not disagree more. I couldn’t help but wonder when passing a group of low-income housing units on the train en route to the conference: Why aren’t we non-religious doing more to organize and help those in need? Perhaps it is because we are too busy decrying religion –  what some Atheists see as “the root of the problem” – to deal with the pressing issues of our present reality. Meanwhile, religious efforts to help those in need far outnumber secular ones. Are these our priorities? Blowing a hair dryer in one another’s faces and laughing at how clever we are while thousands of people suffer every day and religious people are on the frontlines offering them respite?

Even as I put forth my strong critique here, I want to make it known that I didn’t come to the 2010 American Atheist Convention to pick a fight – as we recently saw on this blog, that is rarely fruitful. I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.

You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.

This post was the final installation in a series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist Convention; you can read the first two here and here. Stay tuned: this upcoming Sunday – Tuesday (4/11-4/13/2010) I will be in Rochester, NY for an Interfaith Understanding Conference, and the following weekend I will be in Boston for the Secular Student Alliance Leadership Summit. I’ll be posting reflections and reports here, and I’ll also be tweeting about my experiences. Also, check out an archive of my interview with Vocalo / 89.5 FM WBEW about my experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention, and tune in next week when I report live from Rochester.

This post is the second part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention. For a rundown of my favorite sessions from the session, check out “The Good” post.

Though in number the sessions that I would call “good” succeeded those I’d call “bad,” I’d say that, for me, overall the bad outweighed the good. The talks detailed below seemed to represent the sentiments of a majority of convention participants – they often got the heartiest rounds of applause and articulated things akin to what I heard the majority of pariticpants saying in both Q&A sessions and in my individual conversations – and, as you’ll both see below and especially in tomorrow’s “The Worst” post, their negative attitudes overshadowed the more prevalent, positive outlooks of the other presenters. As Massimo Pigliucci said in his talk (as referenced in “The Good” post), “if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable.” And so: I’d like to call out the negative (but not the worst) parts of the American Atheist Convention.

Darrel Ray

rayAfter a morning full of good, relatively inoffensive speeches that focused on Atheism’s room for growth instead of just focusing on the limitations of religion, things took a turn for the worse in the afternoon of the first day of the convention with Darrel Ray’s “Exposing the God Virus” workshop. In this session, he discussed his 2009 book The God Virus: How God Infects Our Lives and Culture.

Ray came out swinging, saying that “religion is an infection of the mind… So you need a strategy to combat it.” He said that he wasn’t opposed to people being religious, but went on to contradict himself, saying that he wanted to inform everyone of the dangers of religion and wanted to see it eliminated someday. Said Ray: “Anywhere that religion is, expect manipulation. Ask anyone about their religion, and you’ll see an observable, behavioral change [in the way they talk] as a direct result of the infection.”

To watch for this change, he suggested engaging with religious people by using “the exorcist test.” Ray said that when you talk to someone you know about religion, “you’re not talking to [your friend] anymore, you’re talking to the God virus… his [sic] personality literally changes. You’ll get 5-7 year old logic, not adult logic… Besides, [your Christian friend] doesn’t know the Bible because he hasn’t even read the Bible.”

He did a pretty offensive mimic of a Christian preacher, then said: “If you saw a guy talking like that, you’d say he needs to be institutionalized. Yet people do it every day in churches.” He deemed churches “emotional infection centers,” warning convention attendees: “If you walk into one of these, you should know that you’re entering an emotional infection zone. This is where they teach you to feel guilty for the things you do.”

Ray focused on guilt a lot in his speech. He said that religion’s message is a simple one: “You are never good enough.” He then began to sing a mocking version of “Amazing Grace,” calling it “guilt bullshit.” Ray said that “religions are looking for ways to open you up and infect you. You can’t be infected without a channel or key, and religion creates a guilt pathway.” He claimed that “religion takes things you already do and teaches you to feel guilty about it. You already eat, so let’s make you feel guilty for eating pork.” Instead of acknowledging the cultural roots of religious traditions, he used a wide brush to portray the traditional comports of religious mores as manipulation tactics; in this respect, not only was his perspective historically false, it favored being inflammatory over being intellectually honest. He tried to say that any guilt feelings we have internalized are the fault of religion. My critique is that some of our guilt feelings are culturally conditioned, certainly, but some also just occur organically or are unrelated to religion. It is simply too absolutist to approach religion and guilt as Ray did.

Ultimately, he seemed to be advocating for Atheistic isolationism:

Be careful how you communicate with this demon called the God virus when it comes out. That’s the time to back off because you’re not going anywhere with that person. Their brain’s not working anymore. Religion reorganizes the brain… his brain has been reprogrammed around that one specific thing. He might even be a scientist, but he’s been infected. Religious people don’t even know they’re infected. Remember: they’re infected, not you.

On a disturbing sidenote, a member of the audience asked Ray during the Q&A why “more women [seem to be] infected by the God virus.” Ray responded that his best guess is that it is because “women are more often ‘feelers,’ and religion is about emotions.” This essentialistic approach to gender and religious belief, though disturbing, was unsurprising after his similar approach to religion on a larger scale.

Eddie Tabash

tabashConstitutional Lawyer and Eddie Tabash gave a talk titled “Taking Atheism to the General Public, The Time is Now.” He spent a good deal of the talk saying that religion received special treatment from inquiry and should not. His argument was that people think that religious claims deserve critical isolation, which he called a double-standard, decrying the idea that religious claims deserve “respect” in response.

Said Tabash:

Too many people in our country take it for granted, as a horrible premise that is never even examined, that religious claims deserve some special insulation from critical examination and doubt. This is a vicious double standard in which folksy common culture approves of deep skepticism directed against all paranormal claims, unless those claims are safely housed in the context of religion. Then, this same common culture expects even the most outlandish claims to be met, at a minimum, with respectful silence and an artificial forfeiture of the critical examination that would automatically be applied to anything else.

While I too think that religion should be open to critique, I think that, like any critique, it should always be done respectfully.

As in the session before it, gender came up in a problematic way. Tabash said that “there can be no true equality for women as long as the majority of society deems our moral values to be undergirded by an ultimate force that has issued revelations requiring male hegemony.” This is a point in which we are in fundamental disagreement. As often as religion has served as a justification for gender hierarchy, it has functioned to deconstruct gender distinctions. For every verse in the Bible that can be used to say that men are superior, there is a verse akin to Jesus’ proclamation that there is “neither male nor female” in his community. You cannot hold contemporary religious communities accountable to their texts alone – we must instead look at how they function today. My former church had both a male and female minister; in many places, religion houses some of the most visible female leaders in the community. And at the Interfaith Youth Core, a religious leadership organization, the women on staff outnumber the men.

Again, Atheism’s superiority complex came to the foreground in Tabash’s talk. His talk of “folksy common culture” felt extremely condescending and, unlike Pigliucci’s humble claim that he doesn’t “pretend that [his] position is the only reasonable one,” Tabash said: “We represent the world’s most important philosophical revolution. [Never forget] that there is no more noble effort to be undertaken than explaining to society-at-large why no supernatural being or beings exist.” Really? There is no more noble effort? Not caring for the needy or working to end the great illnesses of the world? Tabash continued: “If we succeed, we Atheists will have dispelled the greatest falsehood to ever permeate the world and will have replaced it with the light of truth.” That sounds eerily like the language I heard when I converted to Evangelical Christianity. As a community of reason, I believe it is essential that we remain open to change and greater understanding and retain a humble spirit. This talk, in its boastful nature and absolutist narrative, represented the antithesis of that.

Near the end, Tabash declared we should offer “sympathy” to religious people – no, wait, sympathy for the religious people that we are able to convert to Atheism over the mourning they will undergo for the loss of their faith. And how should we approach those who do not leave their religion? Well, besides warning that we should prepare for “severe” and sometimes “violent”backlash, on this, Tabash was silent.

Cecil Bothwell

bothwellOpenly Atheist politician Cecil Bothwell gave a speech on his experiences getting elected to the City Council of Asheville, North Carolina, and as an investigative reporter who wrote a book on Billy Graham. He talked about how there was an archaic clause on the books in North Carolina that says one cannot be sworn into office if they do not believe in God. Bothwell won the challenge launched against his candidacy and went on to serve on the council. I thought his engaging speech was inspiring and contained some nice ideas like when he said “I think everyone is entitled to their beliefs,” but he said one problematic thing that burrowed itself under my skin and made it challenging to appreciate the rest of what he had to offer. Citing an uncovered statement by George W. Bush in which he refers to his religious beliefs as a reason for engaging in warfare with Iraq, Bothwell said that “religious beliefs are the reason that [political leaders] treat soldiers like canon fodder… Atheists might take their nations to war, but at least they don’t delude themselves with divine persuasions.” I cannot help but ask: how is that any better? Those soldiers are still “canon fodder” either way, are they not? This comment was disturbing, distracting, and again represented the moral superiority that permeated this convention.

Conversations

Though it got off to a good start, I felt less and less a part of the convention community as it progressed. When talking to participants about the need for religious literacy, both in our community and in greater society, I got a lot of comments like “I know the Bible so I can heckle believers” or “I have a Bible so I can use it to roll joints.” Most people couldn’t understand why I would be interested in interfaith work, one going so far as to call me a traitor to my face, saying that I was working against the Atheist cause and for the “other side.” At one point a man asked me about my blog on a break, saying, “So, do you use it to rant about how terrible religion is at three in the morning?” When I responded that my blog actually aims not to be anti-religious, the tone of the conversation changed swiftly. I tried to share my opinion but was talked over or ignored. It ended when he forcefully said, “I think religion needs to be done away with altogether” and turned away from me and began speaking to another person.

In my work, I’ve been accused of alienating atheists. If I am, perhaps it is because I wasn’t even allowed to speak in the first place.

Check back tomorrow for another account of the American Atheist Convention, in which I detail the incident that left me so offended that I nearly walked out and didn’t come back. For more on my adventures on the Eastern Seaboard, follow me on Twitter.

This post is the first part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention.

This weekend I attended the 2010 American Atheist Convention – my first time at a meeting of the American Atheists. I was coming off a series of attack blogs against my critiques of atheistic positioning so, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. And though I had some trepidation, I also had hope. But this conference, though it had its moments of insight and inspiration, was an experience that left me feeling somewhat defeated. At one point, things got so offensive that I had to do everything in my power not to walk out of the room. But for the sake of positivity, let’s start with the good, shall we?

Paul Kurtz

kurtzThe first two talks of the conference assuaged my fears that the conference program might be a series of rants against religion across the board. It kicked off with a talk by “the father of Modern Secular Humanism” Paul Kurtz, called “A Kinder and Gentler Atheism?” Kurtz opened his talk by saying: “Atheists and Secular Humanists unite… we have nothing to lose but other people’s illusions.” Though I found that a bit off-putting in its echoing of the Atheistic obsession with terming the beliefs of others as illusory, Kurtz promptly got to challenging the participants of the conference.

“Though many of my friends and I enjoy the critique of religion, we have a far greater task than that: to present alternatives,” Kurtz said. “We’re not doing that [right now]. If god [does not exist], what do we do about that? We should be leading the way.”

Kurtz elaborated on that point at length, saying:

I think the most imp thing for the Atheist movement in the United States is to change the ways the public perceives Atheism. It is the most hated group in America, because we’re known as “angry atheists,” when we really ought to be affirmative atheists… It’s very important that we think about redefining Atheism. Most [Atheists] I meet are good people, fine citizens, dedicated to the societies in which they live, virtuous… that is why it’s important that we make that clear… In my view, atheism needs to be gentler and kinder. We have to give the impression of being a civilized, morally committed group who, on the basis of science and reason, are skeptical of claims of religion, and also demonstrate that it is possible to have moral integrity and express good will in order to reassure people that we are committed to our moral outlook. I’ve always used the soft approach. We have to demonstrate that we’re loving people above all else.

He also emphasized the significance of interreligious cooperation:

We’re facing awesome problems… we ought to work together with our religious friends about these problems. The atheist movement needs to be inclusive. We ought to be defined not by what we’re against but what we’re for. It’s important that we not be totalitarians… we need to emphasize the importance of democracy, of tolerating others’ beliefs… A lot of my colleagues have turned against me because they don’t like the positive and prefer to just lambast religion. But we need to move beyond egocentric individualism. Atheism should be affirmative, positive, constructive, and [provide] parameters and guidelines for the fullness of life.

Kurtz’s perspective wasn’t always exactly in line with what I believe, but I found his talk very inspirational. Not everyone seemed to – the first person to ask a question during the Q&A did not take well to Kurtz’s critique of Atheism’s negativity, arguing that Atheists having negative things to say is good and that it is the Atheist’s duty to educate the world, which elicited a hearty round of applause from the room. Still, I really enjoyed Kurtz’s talk – I think I took twenty pages of notes on it, but I’m not going to transcribe them all here. Though I didn’t nod my head to everything he said, I’m glad to have Kurtz as a vital voice in this movement.

Massimo Pigliucci

pigliucciImmediately following Kurtz, Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, did a talk called “What’s Atheism Got to Do with It?” His session was on how atheism does not imply the dismissal of all philosophical inquiry. Like me, Pigliucci, a former scientist and now philosopher, has been accused of being an “accomodationist” in his work. To that, Pigliucci said, “If I’m an accommodations, I’m in good company. We shouldn’t have these kinds of labels. If science brought you to atheism, great. But we shouldn’t have a litmus test to participate in this community.”

As I’ve done, Pigliucci critiqued the exclusivistic attitudes of New Atheist folks like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and even Penn and Teller in his talk, saying, “I love Bill Maher and Penn and Teller, but if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable. And they have some unreasonable ideas.” Ultimately, Pigliucci’s perspective can be best summed up by this statement: “I don’t pretend that my position is the only reasonable one.” This pluralistic perspective was refreshing and important.

Todd Stiefel

Stiefel, who was referred to by many at the convention as an “exciting new face of Atheism,” gave a thoughtful and commanding talk on strategies for advancing the Freethought / Atheist agenda. Stiefel had a lot of say and I agreed with most of it. Early in his talk he said something I’ve been saying for a long time in almost the exact way I say it: “Religion is not going away anytime soon. Focusing on directly eliminating religion and faith will outcast us further from 80% of the population, [and] we will fail on a macro level.”

This theme reverberated through much of what he said. Stiefel articulated strategies for the movement, including that we need to “level the perception of who is ethical, marginalize fundamentalists, [and] team with theists,” comparing such a coalition to the queer rights movement and its straight allies.

“We need to stop being so divisive and unite around the things that we have in common,” said Stiefel. “We need to motivate inactive freethinkers to join the movement – why aren’t they getting involved?” I agree that this is an important question to ask and it shouldn’t surprise that I think it is because of the pervasive negativity in our community. To this end, Stiefel said that we need to “personalize freethinkers to others by ‘coming out’ and ‘living openly’… demonstrate that we do ‘believe’ in love, integrity, reason and freedom,  [and] take a positive approach whenever possible… I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing that we don’t believe in anything. We need to be positive. People don’t want to join in on an angry, bitter movement.”

He also talked about the importance of structuring a community around our values:

We need to offer a community to freethinkers… to give a sense of family. [We need to] make available guidance and emotional support as freethinkers search for hope and purpose. I know this is an Atheist convention, but let’s get over the labels and increase the study of humanism, a positive label that says more than what we don’t believe in.

Stiefel took to task those who radically oppose religion and encouraged interfaith dialogue:

[We need to] oppose fundamentalism, irrationality and dogma, but not religion in general. Take a diplomatic approach while appreciating the value of religious criticism… Contrast fundamentalist values with secular values [and] demonstrate similarities between moderate theistic values with secular values. We have to show them we may not believe in their deity but we have more in common with them than fundamentalists do.

This is the impetus behind the interfaith work I do – to help religious people see that the non-religious are just as likely to be their allies in values as their religious counterparts. This perspective hasn’t always been warmly received by some in the Atheist community and has made me feel occasionally marginalized, and Stiefel underscored that this movement will fail if those in the movement who appreciate religion are pushed aside: “Too often I hear ‘they’re an accomodationist, get them out of here…’ No. We need every voice in this movement.” This made me feel particularly good, as I’ve been labeled just that very recently.

Moreover, Stiefel said that Atheists need to stop being so black and white in their approach to religion. “We need to accept that religion can be both good and evil; we need to give tolerance [to] the good to receive tolerance. We cannot go out and say that all religion is evil or we will be alienated. We cannot be absolutist.”

I couldn’t agree more – this was, perhaps, my favorite talk of the convention. It got a mixed reaction from attendees, but it seemed many were open to what he had to say.

Dan Barker

barkerIn the afternoon on the second day of the convention, Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, spoke about his experiences as a former minister and evangelist. “I left Christianity not because I didn’t like it – in fact, I am still friends with many Christians – and not because it felt bad,” Barker said, “but because of an intellectual process I had. I thought to myself, ‘If Adam and Eve are just metaphors, maybe so is God.'”

In spite of his conculsions, Barker talked about why he doesn’t aim to convert: “My conclusions belong to me and me only – that’s what so great about the Freethrought movement. I don’t want to push my beliefs on others.”

His talk, titled “How to Talk to a Fundamentalist,” noted that “not all Christians are the same; not all fundamentalists are the same. There’s no one answer to say, ‘Here’s how you talk to a fundamentalist.’ Not all Christians are [fundamentalists] – some can see the gray areas… But fundamentalist minds are binary – everything is absolutistic. Everything is right or wrong… So if you’re ever having a conversation with a fundamentalist, remember that. Maybe you’re not speaking the same language.” His talk echoed the methodology of the Interfaith Youth Core, which recognizes religious divisions not as one religion versus another but as pluralists standing against fundamentalists / totalitarians.

Barker suggested that when talking to a Christian fundamentalist it is important to know the Bible and to be able to offer a unique take on secular morality, referring to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an Atheist who had a lot of purpose in her life. It seems Barker has a purpose of his own, and he still sounded very much like a preacher. Barker’s talk felt particularly relevant for me as a former Evangelical who also wanted to be a minister. And like listening to Christian sermons back in the day, I was inspired by his prophetic message.

Wendy Kaminer

kaminerThe final talk I attended for the American Atheist Convention was “Privileging Conscience” by Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic who is a correspondent for The Atlantic. Kaminer talked about how the Atheist movement needs to refocus its priorities in respect to legal challenges.

Kaminer discussed a case in which a woman was not allowed to read from the Bible to her child’s class when the students were invited to have their parents come in and share from their child’s favorite book, as well as prayer in schools. Kaminer asked: “Does a law that asks for a moment of silent prayer, meditation, or another silent activity privilege religion? Many of you may say yes, but I tend to disagree… There is an argument that mandatory moments of silence coerce prayer. I say: reminding [students] that they have the right to pray silently does not a theocracy make.”

She highlighted many legal cases in which moments of silence in school were legally challenged by Atheists, including one in which a “Child Psychologist testified that some might succumb to peer pressure to pray.” Kaminer’s perspective: “It takes a great leap of faith to say that moments of silence actually advance religion.”

She also talked about legal challenges to Christian student groups that have exclusive policies for membership, but raised a very important point: “You wouldn’t want the government telling the American Atheists that they couldn’t have their members sign a pledge [to the ideas of their cause]. Would you want Fundamentalist Christians on a voting panel for an Atheist group? [Of course not.] So why should a Christian group be expected to allow an Atheist to join?”

Kaminer spoke from a highly legalistic perspective, displaying a breadth of knowledge and employing years of experience following relevant cases. The audience didn’t seem to take well to her positioning – the man sitting behind me loudly uttered “bullshit” several times during her speech – and offered a flurry of combative questions during the Q&A session. One individual asked about parents who don’t want kids to be exposed to material they find offensive, suggesting that just as some parents find pornography offensive others might wish to shield their children from the Bible. I thought that was such a silly question – as an Atheist parent, wouldn’t you want your child to be aware of this book that is so influential? Children need to be aware of what other people believe, and by putting them in public education you are opening them to world of pluralism.

Kaminer’s talk may have been the most poorly received of all at the convention, but I thought it was a useful, educational moment for our community.

Conversations

I had a few really great conversations, including a particularly honest dialogue with a representative from the New York City Atheists and one from Alabama Atheists. Though there was fundamental disagreement about the best approach to take in non-religious community organizing, we did concur that there was a place for all of our perspectives in the movement. This conversation occurred as I was getting ready to leave the convention; we engaged one another’s perspectives with respect and an open spirit, and it left me feeling optimistic about further dialogue in the future.

This certainly wasn’t so for all of the convention – check back throughout the week for reports on the less encouraging moments from my experience, and be sure to follow my adventures on the Eastern Seabord on Twitter.

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