Today’s guest post for our lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Josh Oxley, a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago who is the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and recently started a new blog worth checking out. Like me, Josh is a former Christian who went on to pursue additional degrees studying religion; in today’s post, he explains why it is so important for secular folks to enrich the dialogue around religion, become religiously literate, and move beyond simplistic “religion is bad” rhetoric. And away we go:

religious literacy

From Stephen Prothero's website; click to go there for helpful info on religious literacy. -Chris

There’s a beautiful diversity to the atheist community. Diversity in experience, thought, method, temperament. We’re united in our rejection of the fictional and supernatural, but almost anything else goes.

Some of us left a religious tradition in the name of freethought. Others never had a faith to leave.

Some view ethical decisions as humanists. Some are nihilists. Others, hedonists. Utilitarians. Objectivists.

I love that kind of breadth and depth. There’s power in our varied experiences, our varying approaches to this life. To come to the same place — a rejection of religion within our lives — from such different journeys and walks is a pretty powerful statement.

What we can sometimes forget, however, is the great diversity within religious traditions as well. And I think we run a great risk when we sell religion short.

You probably know many to most of the big schisms. Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox Christianity. Sunni-Shia Islam (and the Sufi question). Theravada-Mahayana Buddhism. And you know there’s a whole myriad of more minute distinctions in addition to these, across all faith traditions.

For that reason, I think it’s our job to stay the most informed, to stay literate in our understanding of religion.

Why? So many reasons come to mind. For one, our illiteracy in religious matters can make our assertions — and our check on religious overreach — less impactful. You know what it feels like when a talking head on TV gets your community’s purpose all wrong. Nothing pisses off a conversation partner quicker than misrepresenting her intellectual position. It shuts off the genuine give-and-take dialogue that life thrives on, and it makes for fast enemies. If we paint religion with too broad a brush, we run the risk of degrading the power of our message. It’s a matter of integrity.

And integrity matters. It’s damaging to the community every time we try and characterize a “Religion of Peace” or “Religion of the Sword.” No tradition is so easily described, and we should know that. I’m still annoyed with the New Atheists for taking this path — particularly Hitchens — as it makes for far too simplistic a dialogue. There are vengeful Buddhists and pacifist Muslims. Religions move from domineering to Diaspora. And yet we feed that simple, dualistic language in society that pits the “Us” and “Them” at each other’s throats. And we sell ourselves short, in a world that still is far too beholden with belief for its own good.

Religion is also a part of history, world politics, and all sorts of affairs. We’re remiss if we think we can label it all under “superstitious bunk” and think we have it figured out. American politics is particularly rife with it. The furor over gay marriage isn’t fully understood without looking to Mormon and Catholic involvement. The rise of American homeschooling has much to do with the rise of evangelical Protestants. So one could go on and on. Suffice to say, an understanding of politics devoid of religious knowledge would be a dangerously impaired grasp.

There’s a little-discussed point to mention. We have the unique opportunity to be the most thorough, critical, and exacting observers and students of religion. It’s one of the reasons why I’m still a Religious Studies student at this moment, working on my Masters degree, even though I don’t find belief compelling. Religions don’t always understand each other all that well. As a Christian in much of my undergraduate years, I could study Islam thoroughly, but I couldn’t help but be a bit uneasy. A Muslim faculty advisor, perhaps jokingly, asked me to not convert anyone I met during field work. I’d never do that, I told her. But part of my brain also told me that saving souls was more important that data collection. I was torn by that divide, but can see past that now. There are no competing masters to serve. And few would argue against helping Muslims and Christians deepen their understanding, I’d wager, if it could lead to greater peace and security in the world.

With no hell to tempt and no deity to commit sacrilege against, we can ask the pointed questions of religion as few others can. But let’s do so in honesty and charity. Let’s aim to be the well-spoken and well-read at the table. Let’s give the same respect we would ask for. That way, we can emerge as a vital community, honest in its dealings, and yet powerfully committed to seeing the world change for the better. And better understanding religion — and its practitioners throughout the world — will go a long way towards fulfilling that goal.

Josh OxleyHaving spent most of his life in Virginia, Josh Oxley is a Master of Divinity student at the University of Chicago, Class of 2012. He is currently the Humanist Advisor to the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and is a member of the Religious Advisors Council. He’s a member of the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Foundation Beyond Belief. Deeply committed to building secular community in the United States, Josh seeks to work within an interfaith role to better humanity here and now. He’s all for atheism developing a vital and positive image in the public light, and doing what he can to bring that about.

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Today’s guest post is a profound and powerful essay by Rory Fenton, a young man who grew up in Belfast and now studies undergraduate Physics at Imperial College London. Fenton, 20, cofounded ICAN (Interfaith Charity Action Network), a new movement across London. This essay is his submission to our Share Your Secular Story contest; it was honored by the panel of judges with the runner-up position in the interfaith category, and Fenton has agreed to share it here. Since I was not a judge for the contest I can be as biased as I’d like and say that this amazing essay was truly among my favorite entries — I’m so honored to run it on NonProphet Status. Without further ado, take it away Rory.

roryGrowing up as a Catholic in Belfast gave me many experiences I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. I remember our car being searched by the British Army every time our family went shopping. I remember my little church being burnt down and my Catholic school petrol bombed — twice. I remember the fear when our school was closed early during riots and being in the back seat of the family car, aged 7, when a man was shot dead by the IRA outside our flat. Living in a city split in two by a 25 foot tall wall, I never really met a Protestant of my own age in my first 18 years of life and that only when studying in England.

These days I would associate my beliefs with those of Secular Humanism. It would be reasonable to assume that it was these experiences that turned me off religion, leaving me eager to ‘wash my hands’ of the whole thing; but it would be much too easy, far too tempting, to justify my disbelief by blaming the Northern Irish “Troubles” (as they are euphemistically known) on religion itself.

In truth there was neither a shot fired in the name of the Sacrament of Confession nor a petrol bomb thrown in defiance of papal authority; rather, violence was a product of people allowing religious difference to be all consuming. Here were people who believed in the same God, in the one Saviour. People who believed in common “do unto others as you would have done unto you” and “turn the other cheek.” But it was their differences, their tiny differences, that were allowed to cloud this wonderful fact of agreement, amplifying the political differences between the two sides and plunging my small country into a continuation the longest civil war in known history. But there was a time when there was no violence. Tension, yes, but the bombs and shootings had yet to come. It was here that political and religious leaders had the opportunity to quell these tensions and draw on what united the two communities but instead of reaching out to fellow Christians, to brothers in humanity, they chose to create straw men and saw only division.

Leaving home for university in London, I was eager to leave that situation behind. I was delighted to meet many more people who too were Atheist and who too shook their heads in disbelief at the dreadful conflicts caused by religion. However, I soon found that the grass wasn’t quite so much greener as I had first thought. I was encouraged by fellow non-believers to view religion and the religious as “the source of all evil” with the unanimous verdict being that unrelenting bible bashers would stop at nothing to spread unreasoning thinking and fear; people who, if they showed any real goodness, only did so in hope of reward in the hereafter. I was hearing caricatures of religion that reminded me of the most bombastic of Northern Irish political speeches. I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to the divisions and the inhuman and false caricatures of pre-Troubles Belfast.

Such a hard line approach, it seemed to me, failed to learn the lessons of the past; the lessons that I had learned firsthand. There can be clearly no reconciliation between the theological beliefs in conflict in Belfast but there is, equally clearly, more to a person than their answer to the question “What do you make of the Pope?” Likewise, it is patently obvious that Atheism and Theism are incompatible as definitions of the world, but there is infinitely more to a person than their response to the question, “Is there a God or not?” Humans are deeply more complex and varied than that — a fact that forms an essential part of my Humanism.

Today in Northern Ireland, thousands of deaths later, we find ourselves in a period of peace. Neither side has won; far from it. Neither side has been proven “right.” Perhaps the biggest and hardest lesson of the Northern Irish conflict was that no one had to be. Humanist philosopher John Gray offers an excellent definition of totalitarianism as a system in which “conflicting judgements about the human good are seen as symptoms of error.” There was no doubt in my mind that this summed up quite succinctly the worst of the religious bigotry that I had experienced firsthand — only to be conquered when people finally saw beyond their differences. If modern atheism is to play its role in securing a flourishing future for all, it is my belief that we too must reach out and see more than just the one issue. Let those of faith be seen by more than just their religions and so let us too be more than just Humanist; in this way, let us be human.

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

Workshop: A Place at the Table

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

Plenary: From Religious Extremism to Interfaith Dialogue

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

I saw a man float upside down on his chair

I heard an Iroquois storyteller speak in a language so ancient

she does not know the meaning of some of her words

I learned your name means the light of Ali

I bathed the Buddha in sweet tea

I felt angels underfoot

Can I get a witness?

I have embraced ten new friends

asking the question

over coffee and whiskey

How are we going to get along?

I learned another way to speak

a lexicon of 40 more words for respect and trust

Do you hear me brothers and sisters?

It is with these words these stories I construct

a humble sanctuary

for those who are

still writing letters to

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

still raising their hands in classrooms and boardrooms

asking why

still looking into the eyes of the Other

saying

how can I engage you?

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

Sensei Mio told me

there is only one stream

V.V. Raman taught me to embody

Gandhi and King’s dream

From Nicole, our continued commitment

to the Earth, our mother

and from Emily-

trust and kinship we find in one another

Sister Joan awakened me

to the beauty of feminine divinity

and my friend Chris

to belief in the faith of humanity

the dynamic Eboo Patel

has empowered this movement of change

and… isn’t it strange?

that the take-away lesson here

the awakening call

is that we must have love

for one and for all.

three

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

Salaam.

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

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

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

Plenary: “How Water is the New Salt”

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

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

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

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

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

Workshop: “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?”

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

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

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

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

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

Panel: “The Next Generation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenary: “Acts of Faith”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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