January 21, 2011
In partnership with the PBS documentary The Calling, a campaign called What’s Your Calling? was launched to explore the topic of a “calling.” I was honored to be invited to do an interview with them; in our interview, they asked me to talk about my “calling,” so I shared a bit of my story and discussed my hope for greater nonreligious-religious dialogue and cooperation.
Using this interview, they produced the above video (full of old, embarrassing photos, haha). Please check out their page on my video, browse their site to watch other videos, and join their important conversation.
P.S. I’ve written a piece on atheism and calling / vocation; it should be out relatively soon, so stay tuned!
December 6, 2010
Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes “Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith work, about Park51 and the state of American dialogue and on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”
When looking back over the year that was 2010, I am constantly bombarded with this phrase from media analysts, news commentators and interests on all sides of the spectrum. As just about anyone with a television knows, anti-Muslim and anti-gay hate were notable presences in the final half of our calendar year. “Bullying” became the buzzword du jour, as the media scrambled to respond to an epidemic of LGBT suicides, most notably epitomized by the Tyler Clementi scandal.
However, rather than seeing bullying as uniquely targeting the queer community and queer youth, shouldn’t we also be using it to describe what’s happening to American Muslims? For me, this year showed that homophobia and Islamophobia are not so thinly divided, that hate binds us all.
In the Muslim case, we started out the year by drawing blasphemous depictions of the Prophet of Islam. Then Fox News told us “they were building a Mosque on Ground Zero,” and even that “liberal elite” New York Times scrambledto interview people who felt like that gosh darned “Mosque” didn’t belong there. Now, Newt Gingrich wants to make America safe from Shariah law and, by extension, from Muslims.
Ask yourself: Is this not bullying?
Of course, it is. This was the year of mid-term elections so bullying and demonizing minorities once again became incredibly profitable for the Right, notably the Pam Gellers and Tea Partiers of America. Islamophobia wasn’t just spreading across the country. Groups with an interest reanointing Islam the Supreme Evil had to be spreading it.
Gays understand this phenomenon well, especially those that lived through the 2004 elections. When a right-wing group wants to drum up support for their platform, that wily homosexual agenda acts as a simple scapegoat. Although linking Tinkie Winkie’s purse to 9/11 and the downfall of America may a relic of the past, the industry of homophobia is alive and well. Just ask Tony Perkins, the American Family Association or Sarah Palin’s daughter.
Although FBI data showed that actual hate crimes are decreasing, gays still remain the most retaliated againstminority group in the country, joined by Jews and, yes, Muslims. Analysts warn that gay rights victories may increase the amount of anti-gay violence across America, just as increased Muslim visibility after Park51 led to unspeakable acts of hate. After events like stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York, many Muslims stated that they had never been so scared to live in America.
Gallup data further proved that their fear is justified. A majority of Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Islam, and more than a quarter identify as extremely prejudiced against the religion.
At a time when a majority of Americans likewise still believe that homosexuality is a sin, activists like Sherry Wolf believe that our struggles make gays and Muslims natural allies. Although we surely cannot excuse the anti-gay policies of fundamentalist Islamic countries like Iran, this in no way represents all or even most Muslims, and Wolf states that we must look past these divides to find common ground. Doing so is crucially important for “any oppressed people, whether…black, LGBT [or] immigrant” to fight for equality for all.
Last Spring, a dialogue between notable Chicago Muslims, like Hind Makki of the Interfaith Youth Core, and members of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) proved that we can find the common language to be able to articulate our shared struggles. Discussing the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day controversy, the event’s Muslims and LGBTQA members of SHAC found that our perspectives were motivated by the same thing: a need to feel safe and secure in our communities.
Recently, Hind Makki put it even more succinctly. Recently, Makki devised a Twitter hash tag around the topic of “Gays and Muslims Have a Lot in Common,” and the response in the affirmative has been incredible.
As a queer activist and intern at Interfaith Youth Core, I find commonality in the struggles of Muslim allies like Hind, who chooses to wear the headscarf at a time when one simple expression of her core identity is sadly unpopular. Although choosing to lead my life as an out queer man led to some harassment and hatred, I can only imagine what life is like for Hind’s queer co-religionists.
Whether Muslim, queer or queer and Muslim, all of us just want to be true to our selves and to be respected for exactly who those people are. We want to live in a society where we aren’t wedge issues, where we have the ability to create the homes, the families and the communities we so badly want.
What this year has shown us is that we must work together to build them.
Nico Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nico just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nico sleeps.
November 8, 2010
Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes once more from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Today’s piece is a personal triumph; searing, sobering, and terribly relevant. There’s really nothing more that I can say about it, besides the fact that you must read it. Seriously. Read it:
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I looked into the face of a stranger. I didn’t know his middle name or what he was really like, but when I heard that he had leapt off of a bridge to take his own life, I cried. When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I saw that many commentators and bloggers were confused by this sudden suicide, said that they couldn’t fathom the incredible loneliness that leads to such a drastic action.
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I cried because I did understand. I cried because America is full of Tyler Clementis. I cried because I was Tyler Clementi.
When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I thought about the first time I pondered committing suicide.
It was 7th grade; I was in gym class, wearing shorts ten sizes too big for me and a thick gold chain with a cross at the end. Thinking about suicide was surprisingly easy. I knew exactly which pills I would take. I knew what my body would look like when my grandmother discovered it in the morning. I knew the words I would write to my family, knew I would take the longing looks I sent to a certain male classmate with me to my grave. I couldn’t name my feelings, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I wanted to be the same, to cover up the Agatha Christie books I read in secret, to feign interest in the bland rap songs the other students were blaring.
And if I couldn’t minimize my difference, I would execute it.
Throughout high school, I would devise a number of ways to kill myself, some melodramatic, others rather macabre; my preferred method involved a simple revolver to the head in my stepfather’s dilapidated pick-up truck. I even made it into a favorite pastime, finding myself surprisingly adept at doodling my Rube Goldergesque strategies in my notebooks. For me, suicide was the only way to sublimate the secrets I couldn’t share, to minimize the hurt of having my backpack thrown in a garbage can, to deafen the “gay jokes” of a father who had to know what he was doing to his oldest son.
When I came out in my Very Southern Baptist church at sixteen, a few of my fellow churchgoers were wildly supportive: one boasted that he had been fired from his job at a car wash because of the HRC Equality Symbol that rested proudly on his windshield. However, I was largely met with indifference or scorn, and the week after my sexuality’s unveiling, the subject of Sunday’s sermon was something akin to “San Francisco: How the 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah is Destroying Your Family.” Although all sinners were in the hands of an angry God, the head pastor sat me down that day to explain to me that God reserved his most special brimstone for us “flamers.” In particular, God was waiting for me specifically, waiting to “cut me down” like a Johnny Cash song. God may have been loving and forgiving for normal folks, but He doomed gays to a life of ostracizion and depression.
In conclusion, my pastor sent me away with a simple homework assignment: change. He asked me to read those Bible passages about my “abomination” and gave me some helpful anti-pornography literature. With a little help from Jesus’ friends in the publishing industry, I was to turn from a sinner into a winner.
After that day, I never went back.
In my case, and in many other cases, religion was used as a tool to divide us, a way to mark “others.” For extremist Salafi Muslims, labeling fellow Muslims as “kafirs,” which translates to apostates or non-believers, allows these radicals to wage violent jihad against their own people. In my case, labeling me a sinner allowed my co-religionists to wage spiritual violence against me, to rhetorically put me to death. I once went to a service where the pastor told us that God loved all of His weeds, but I wondered why I was labeled a “weed.” Why was my difference so pejorative, so ugly? Why was my difference always in need of heavenly forgiveness? Everyone else seemed to agree that weeds like me needed to exterminated, that AIDS was God’s lawnmower. They were so busy telling me to die that I never got around to wondering about how to live.
Years of Pat Robertson condemning me to Hell, Jerry Falwell condemning me to Hell, my grandmother condemning me to Hell only served to further support their argument. When I read about Anita Bryant telling good, God-fearing Americans that they had to “Save the Nation” from people like me, I understand that it’s our culture that teaches LGBT kids to hate themselves. How can we truly speak of change in our society when Focus on the Family ads still proclaim to be saving Americans from us, when Bush’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage largely got him elected in 2004? We uphold the loneliness of LGBT kids when we tell them that their love doesn’t belong in this church, their love can’t go to this prom, their love isn’t legal in this state.
In his seminal book, “Acts of Faith,” Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel speaks of a “Faith Divide” that permeates today’s society, a religious intolerance that leads people of separate faiths to blow each other up. To borrow from Mr. Patel, what I see in the midst of the LGBT suicide epidemic is a Gay Divide: One which arms good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims to destroy people they don’t know. In a letter published in the Salt LakeTribune, William Germain writes that recent events show a growing “divide in the way we treat each other, whether with religion, race, sex or politics. We have become a people of hate…It’s almost like we’re fighting a bunch of civil wars, and for no reason.”
In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Mitchell Gold likewise finds that these divides can “have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy.” Gold’s column was in response to recent remarks by media demagogue Tony Perkins, who has used the “bullying” controversy to publicly insist that it’s not society’s intolerance that leads to the suicide of kids like Tyler. Perkins affirms that what drives them to suicide is an understanding of their own immorality.
Although people like Tony Perkins, and the many others like him, many be on the front lines of this conflict, Gold seems to insist that an entire system of religious teaching and preaching is implicit in perpetuating the Gay Divide. Gold writes, “During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.”
Certainly, the members of my church never stopped to consider what the effect that their condemnation would have on me, the years of psychological damage that thinking God didn’t, couldn’t possibly, love you would cause. I spent years hating God because of the bigotry of one man, and I was lucky that such sentiments didn’t have the same ultimate effect on me that it had on Tyler. Although I am no longer at the point where I call myself a believer, I know what my travails made me believe in: the power of communities to heal. In high school, I didn’t have God, but I had friends to lift me up, friends who understood what being an outcast was like. I had the guidance of a history teacher, who was deterred from taking his own life by the kindness of a complete stranger. These allies were living proof of Dan Savage’s assertation that “It Gets Better.”
And I’m here to tell you: it does get better. I don’t believe in a God, but as a member of theVincent and Louise House, which is DePaul’s Catholic intentional living community, I have nine faithful housemates that I do believe in. As a queer man, I believe in the power of allies like these to help heal the hurt we that we share, to build bridges across social divides. At a recent DePaul vigil to honor the number of LGBT youths who have taken their lives in recent months, a mother from PFLAG came to talk about her unfailing support for her gay son, and another speaker related that their mother’s support in a time of crisis saved their life. But the incredible diversity of attendees showed that this mantle has been taken up by more than just our mothers. In the crowd, I saw teachers, students, friends and lovers standing together, people committed to a better world, committed to making America a safer place for our “weeds” to grow in.
Just as importantly, I stand in solidarity with people of faith committed to speaking about intolerance and calling for change. Following these controversies, religious leaders like Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach preached understanding and tolerance, wrote that our congregations have a place for all people, regardless of sexuality. But what really inspires me are the people who have come together to take action towards building a culture where people of faith and LGBT people are not seen as diametrically opposed. An ideological cousin to the “It Gets Better” project, the “Faith Gets Better” campaign, an initiative by Faith in Public Life, argues that hatred and bigotry divide us, not religion. These courageous religious folks — some queer, some allies — show us that religion can be a force for good in this conflict.
The “queer people of faith” involved in LGBT Change’s The Faith Project likewise testify to the fact that religion does have the power to affirm people of all backgrounds and sexualities. But at the initiative’s launch on Oct. 20, the evening’s speakers preached a far more important message: faith cannot get better all on its own. If we want a world where religion unites rather than divides, where LGBT kids are safe in their own communities, we have to build it.
As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, we recently launched the Better Together campaign, where we are asking people a similar question: “What If?” What world could we build if “we took action together?” I already know what this world could look like. I see it every day when people come together to dialogue around difference, when people decide that we are better than inherited hatreds. I see it in the faces of my ever-loving brothers, who never had to work to “accept me” for who I am, whose support and solidarity was as easy as an embrace. I look in their eyes and know that this better world is there, waiting for us to fight for it.
We all have a role in building a society where we love past difference: where we teach our children not to hate each other, where we teach adults not to hate each other, where we are not alone. To be Better Together, all it takes is to be an ally to someone. So, all of you reading this — people of faith, people of no faith — tell someone today that you love them for exactly who they are. Tell them that they don’t need to die for you to stand in solidarity with them. Rather than waiting until it’s too late to honor a loved one, hold up a candle for them today. Taking action now might save a life.
It saved mine.
This post originally appeared on DePaul Interfaith and was refeatured on NonProphet Status at the author’s request.
Nicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.
October 13, 2010
Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a re-feature from Tikkun Daily by Jorge Cino. Jorge is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern and a NonProphet Status reader, and it’s a total pleasure to refeature his work here. His post is in honor of National Coming Out Day, and though “spiritual” is a dirty word to some atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other nonreligious people, it is an important and worthwhile read about coming out and how rejecting religion impacts the queer community. Check it out — the original post can be read here — and many thanks to Jorge for offering to share his work with NonProphet Status.
For those of us who have come out of the closet, National Coming Out Day – which is being internationally celebrated today – is a good reminder of the spiritual journey each of us have undergone since the fateful day we decided to say, “Enough. I am who I am, and from today onwards I will live by it.”
The idea that coming out is a defining spiritual moment in a person’s life is not something you’ll find in mainstream LGBT discourse. Understandably so, of course: those who control religious discourse in America and elsewhere have done a tremendously effective job at turning gay people against organized religion. Ask a gay guy if they believe in God and an overwhelming majority of them will say, “I don’t think so,” or “No, I don’t.”
In reality, what they are rejecting is the entire cauldron of anti-gay sentiment that classmates, relatives, priests, politicians, etc. have been unloading in our ears since we were born. It is no surprise then that a lot of us in the gay community have gone as far as rejecting religion and faith all together. (The question here would be, “What has the LGBT community replaced religious virtue with?” The answers to that question would merit another post.)
It’s a clear case of blaming the sinner instead of the sin. Because we hear the Pope saying grotesque lies about homosexuality, because the Mormon Church donates exorbitant amounts of resources to state, federal, and even international anti-gay initiatives, or because many evangelicals go out of their way to vote against our rights, the majority of us get so frustrated, so infuriated, that we decide that religion as a whole is inherently wrong; a harmful man-made power tool; a below-par way of thinking.
And yet, whether we like it or not, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, and subsequently coming and living “out” in a society that by and large is still religious – those are all experiences that test our relationship with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. But why are we letting them thwart our relationship to a higher power, or a higher way of living? Why are we letting bigots strip us of our faith, whatever our faith is?
Being “out” should not necessarily mean breaking away from religion, God, or faith. On the contrary, it could be an opportunity to positively rethink your personal relationship to your god, to respectfully and fully engage in spiritual conversations with yourself and others, and to learn how to live in love and kindness. Gay people, contrary to mainstream conservative diatribe, are looking for happiness and fulfillment just like anyone else. We want equality for us and for everyone else. We defend freedom and kindness and respect for all beings. We have and continue to work hard to build a community that is supportive of those individuals who are going through special struggles, whether it be AIDS, substance abuse, depression, discrimination–you name it, we have support groups and organizations for all of them.
How much easier would it be for a gay man to go to take a good second look at the sacred text of his family’s religion and study it under this his “new” worldview? How much more quickly could we gay folks win over the religious middle if we engaged in healthy, constructive conversations with them about religion and faith, instead of antagonizing with them? Or how much easier would it be for someone who is really struggling with his coming out experience to look at it as an opportunity to test her fears and doubts, and make a commitment to be loving and kind with those people who she thinks will not accept her?
I am sure most straight Tikkun readers have reflected on these issues, but if you haven’t lately, this might be a good time to do so. How can you be more empathetic and show more support to a colleague, a child, or a neighbor who is gay? Let’s remember that they who are different depend on the “other’s” willingness to listen and engage with them. They will live a better life (including, perhaps, a more spiritual life) if you show an interest to integrate them fully into your life.
Jorge M. Cino is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern, and a recent graduate from University of San Francisco. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he has lived in the Bay Area for the past six years. He is passionate about social justice; here, there, and everywhere.
August 25, 2010
Next up to bat for “Team NonProphet” (c/o Kait Foley) is novelist and writing instructor Bryan Parys. On Monday, Lucy Gubbins addressed terminology among secular folks and how those labeled “accomodationist” are often dismissed in our community; in today’s lyrical guest post, Bryan tackles an even larger issue of language: how terminology around secular identity and interfaith dialogue can sometimes get in the way of engagement. Bryan, you’re up!
In the small, nondenominational Christian school that I attended K-12, I picked up a fear of the word “secular.” The way teachers pronounced it was chilling: that snake-like se that begins it, the sec that’s on its way to sex, and those first two syllables intoned like they should be a swear: Sec-u, u mother-sec-er!
I’ve since gotten over this linguistic phobia, but what continues to bother me is that the traditional “opposite” of secular is sacred. How can I — a guy typing shirtless and wearing his wife’s pink shorts — be seen in such holy terms? Particularly since I don’t see myself as opposite or even opposed to secularism.
To me, these seeming opposites are keeping many of us from doing any good in the world outside our own immediate contexts — the interfaith movement getting stuck on the dialogue and not moving into action. You can’t move forward when you’re standing on a soapbox.
“Seculars” are not, by default not-sacred, nor is one venerated to sainthood if one is not primarily secular. There is a vast, unquenchable landscape between these words, and as humans we are by nature at home in the undefined, even if we’re always trying to find new labels to separate us.
I am no expert in Derridean philosophy, but something I’ve always loved about the theory of deconstruction was the rejection of the idea that language contains within itself a morality of opposites — good and bad, black and white, right and left, night and day, and so on. Language should have “free play” Derrida argued. Once a word is written, it becomes autonomous. It doesn’t matter if an author read Richard Dawkins or C.S. Lewis the morning s/he penned a page — what’s left is the intuitive dialogue of words, a subjective audience, and what action that audience will take as a result. Dialogue, action, rinse, repeat.
In college, a religion professor said of inter-church schisms and arguments: “We should be uniting on the majors, not dividing on the minors.” Not many churches heed this advice, and so since leaving high school, I’ve hardly attended a church service. (In fact, when I started writing this it was noon on a Sunday, and instead of wearing khakis and shaking hands with the pastor as I think about where I’m going to get brunch, I’m sitting here more concerned about being accepted by atheists.
But, unfortunately, this adage doesn’t quite translate to the world of interfaith dialogue. The majors keep us separated, adhering to pre-Derridean thought in a post-Derridean world.
A coffee shop recently opened in the sleepy New Hampshire town I live in. It’s the first one in the area to offer exclusively fair trade coffee, and also happens to partner with local charities. Incidentally, their espresso tastes better than a cowboy boot, something I can’t say about the other two competitors.
A few nights ago, my cousin got very heated when he found out that a local church backs the café. It’s one of those trying-to-be-relevant congregations that meets in a cinema on Sundays and uses Helvetica on their website. As my cousin screamed, they are also “anti-gay, pro-life, and so they’re c–ts, and they’re not getting my money!”
I had known about the church, but hadn’t yet done the research to determine if they fell into the disturbingly fundamental camp. The Helvetica got to me, and so did the notion of ethical caffeine.
It doesn’t stop there. I no longer want to shop at Target/Marshalls anymore. I don’t go to the only teashop in the area that offers pu-erh and lapsang souchong because they openly support the Republican party.
Things like coffee and v-necks are minor things, but they point to major, life-threatening things.
I care more about where atheists are buying their coffee than whether or not they think there is an author to the universe. In such a hurting culture, the existence of a deity should be secondary to fighting for human rights and connecting deeply with our immediate and global urgencies.
So: we are divided on the majors. I get it. But who cares? Why are we still talking about that?
If, according to Derrida, polar opposites are extremist, unrealistic, and harmful, then dividing us into theists and atheists is actually going to stop us from achieving anything good in the world. It’s been made abundantly clear on this blog that there are heinous dissenters in both worlds. If we continue to adhere to these traditional poles, then we will always be too busy wondering if there is room for collaboration, scaling slick walls of god-sized abstractions and slipping back into the ambiguous mud of “our side.”
I’d rather not start an interfaith dialogue about where in theism I fall, because truth be told, I have no idea. Through relationship, though, I’m sure it’ll come up in conversation. Hopefully, it’ll be over a gay-affirming, fairly traded double espresso.
Bryan Parys recently earned his MFA in creative nonfiction and is working on a memoir called, Wake, Sleeper that is about faith, death, and how 7th grade is nothing short of soul-destroying. He currently teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire.
August 9, 2010
I’ve gotten to the point in my work with other Atheists where I’m not often shocked by the ignorant ways many talk about religion. Still, sometimes I’ll hear something so inflammatory that I’m left floored.
In a recent post on The Friendly Atheist, blogger Hemant Mehta shared a video of the Secular Student Alliance National Conference (where I spoke on a panel) keynote address by Atheist blogger Greta Christina on what Atheists can learn from the LGBT movement. I’ve heard her give this talk before, but it was Hemant’s conversation with her about it that caught my attention:
I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen? […]
So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?
As a queer person, I am mortified by this comparison. The riots at Stonewall, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, were the first major instance that queer folks, long persecuted in the United States, decided to fight back and defend themselves. Stonewall is hugely symbolic for the queer community; to summon it as a parallel to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – a moment when, per Greta, many Atheists decided to start being vocally opposed to religion – is not just inappropriate, but a gross distortion of what those riots represented.
9/11 was not a moment that catalyzed a community to stand up for equality; co-opting the tragic events of 9/11 to make a case against religion strikes me as simply malicious and manipulative, just as the extremists who co-opted Islam on 9/11 manipulated their tradition.
The comparison of 9/11 to the Stonewall riots offends me personally as a queer person, it offends me intellectually as a rationalist, and it offends me as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It is truly a sad day for our community when we sound more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.
This comparison is merely a symptom of a larger problem: our fundamentally flawed approach to religion, and more specifically to Islam. At least once a week I hear Atheists say: “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against the terrorists who claim their tradition? Maybe if they did that, then I’d see a difference between the two.”
First, who are we to dictate what a Muslim should or shouldn’t do? They shouldn’t be expected to help us understand why they are different than extremists who also claim that identity. We wouldn’t want others demanding that we explain how we’re different from violent Atheists like Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer (who said “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”), and others, right? I don’t see many Christians running around apologizing for Fred Phelps. It’s because they don’t have to – most of us just get that there is an ideological chasm between the clan who stands with “God Hates Fags” placards and the majority of mainstream Christians.
Second, Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? There. Are. So. Many. That. I. Can’t. Link. To. Them. All (but those eleven are a good start).
The real problem? We’re just not listening.
We need to start seeking out different stories. When we look for the worst in religion, that’s what we’re going to find. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: the mainstream media totally ignored when a mosque in Florida was bombed earlier this year – imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church. The press also ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim.
Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on it. As a community that boasts critical thinking and reason as our primary concerns, we shouldn’t be so quick to swallow the inaccurate portrayal of Islam narrated by our biased news media.
For too long, Islamophobia has been given a free pass in the United States, and the Atheist community has been a willing accomplice. Atheism is supposed to be a pillar of reason, yet many Atheists talk about Islam in the same problematic way as right-wing conservatives (just one example: “Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive“). We claim to be progressive and enlightened but, in the same breath, espouse an oversimplified and uninformed view of Islam.
The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives.
In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the country: “they have fear because they don’t know [Muslims].” The same is true of many Atheists. We must know our neighbors before we make qualitative judgments about what they believe. Besides – c’mon, is this really the company with which we want to cast our lot?
Atheists are quick to tout that America was not formed a Christian nation but on the principle of religious freedom. And yet, to quote from the Huffington Post‘s report on Akbar Ahmed’s recent appearance on The Daily Show, “unlike today’s attitudes of intolerance and suspicion, Ahmed observes that the founding fathers maintained a deep respect for Islam.”
We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is threatened. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity.
The only “wall” such comparisons construct is yet another division. Let’s stop building walls and start breaking them down, like the rioters at Stonewall did – brick by brick, piece by piece. And we can start by inviting Muslims to help us understand Islam instead of calling them guilty by association.
August 6, 2010
Hey folks! Sorry this blog’s been a bit barren this week — I’ve got several very exciting projects in the works that have been keeping me extremely busy (not to mention I moved across the country this weekend). So, to hold you over until I’m able to return to full blogging form, I dug up this entry from my stint as a columnist for The New Gay. It’s one of my favorites and I decided to share it because one comment I got from a reader here asked for more personal stories. Since I laud storytelling frequently on this blog, I want to put my money where my mouth is. Without further ado:
Oh great – those words. Turning to meet them, I rolled my eyes as those funny, short words echoed and bounced toward me over hot summer-baked pavement. The words were intended to hurt but the insult fell flat. “I’ve heard much worse, and much more creative, fuckers,” I thought with a self-satisfied smile of superiority.
Still, I couldn’t ignore them. My friends and I were in someone’s crosshairs, singled out as needing salvation. What had started as a normal night migrating from bar to bar in search of new friends and hot beats had quickly become something of consequence. With just two words, a divide was drawn between these strangers and my cohort as cloudy and seemingly impassable as the Guinness I had just gulped.
Did this really have to happen now? I was newly 21, looking to have fun, a few drinks in and feeling a bit defensive. I wasn’t sure I was really in the mood to navigate this assault gracefully.
The battle cry had seemed to manifest out of the ether. My friends and I were between bars, enjoying our evening and ready for some spirit-ed dancing. We are not exactly a motley crew – sure, a good number of us are marked by tattoos, lightly adorned with piercings, regularly extinguishing cigarettes, and dressed in clothing that might raise a few Sunday morning eyebrows, but we are an amicable bunch and my feeling is that we do not alienate others in spite of our appearances. Yet as we approached a queer bar one humid August night and prepared to pop, lock and drop it we were confronted by several men with Bibles in hand, accusing us of maintaining an “alternative lifestyle” – a phrase that always makes me smirk, as if there were such a thing as a uniform lifestyle when you cut to the bone of things – and offered our “offensive” appearance as evidence of this.
My friends were clearly caught off guard – after all, we were just there to party – and responded in self-defense, though in all fairness I thought that some of what they had to say was not in the best taste. Slightly embarrassed, I thought to myself: “Well, politeness is not readily facilitated by beer and not easy when one feels ambushed.”
Sensing escalation, I suggested my friends move inside, recognizing that the conversation was quickly becoming aggressively didactic, not thoughtfully dialogical. They were happy to oblige – they had come to dance, not debate. A friend whispered in my ear as he passed by, “are you going to be okay?”
Though I’d had a lot of experience speaking with folks who disagreed with me, I suddenly wasn’t sure. I felt compelled to pursue a conversation with these individuals; perhaps because of a recent attempt that had gone terribly awry, or maybe just as a part of who I am. Either way, I sensed that they desired dialogue, so I went for it.
Our conversation began with a reading from the Bible, not intended to open dialogue with a graceful spirit but as a blatant attempt to proselytize. I thanked them for sharing their holy book with me, and asked if they would like to explain to me why they had chosen to spend their Friday evening on this particular street corner. They informed me that they had recently given their lives over to Jesus Christ and had been commissioned by their minister to recruit other believers. They had heard that this part of Chicago was “heavily populated by homosexuals” – you know, flooded with queers – and decided to come spread their message of reformation and repentance to a community that they believed was in need of it.
After hearing them out, I asked if I might be allowed to share my story with them. To my surprise, they nodded affirmatively. I told them of my years as a Christian and how immensely powerful they were for me – the love that I experienced, the joy I found in communion with other believers, and the inspiration Jesus Christ provided me. But there was a darker side to those years: my struggles with recognizing my sexual orientation and wrestling to reconcile it with the teachings of the tradition, the shame I felt over who I was, and the weight of what felt like living a double life. This was a very difficult time for me, and I shared with them every embarrassing, difficult detail.
When I was finished, I noticed that a quiet had overtaken the group. Finally, one member spoke up. With a gruff tone and eyes fixed down, he thanked me for sharing my story with him, saying that he had never actually known a “homosexual.” He hadn’t thought what it might be like to experience intolerance for being queer, comparing it to the xenophobia and racism he had known as a Mexican-American immigrant.
We engaged in open discourse for the next few hours with candor and respect, discussing discrimination and dancing and difference, beer and bigotry and basketball, religion and rap music and respect, fags and forgiveness and frijoles. Though we all remained fixed in our convictions, we came to understand one another as fuller human beings, not caricatures of our sexualities or religious identities.
Not all conversations go as well as this one – as I alluded to earlier, another summer night just one month prior to this incident, a friend and I found ourselves suddenly surrounded in a subway tunnel. We had been talking at length and not paying close attention to our surroundings, something my mother always warned me about, when we lifted our heads to see that we were encircled by a group of men who accused us of sin and sickness. Though I attempted peace-making and dialogue, the incident ended in violence.
I’ll never forget the night I was attacked on the Chicago Red Line; though I’d like to believe open dialogue can always overcome problematic conversations, I know that this is not true. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I have learned that there are times where personal safety is a higher priority than respectful engagement.
Yet I will also always remember my night outside a gay bar, sharing stories as bass-heavy music floated right on by me, carried away on a cool summer night’s breeze, my friends dancing just inside to a song I’d never know – I enraptured by music much sweeter in the form of dialogue despite difference with new friends who were supposed to be enemies.
Hey missionaries of the world – get at me. I’ve been burned a time or two, but I’m still your fag.
This post originally appeared on The New Gay.
July 22, 2010
Last night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master’s Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to mention we both grew up in Minnesota. Ben’s been gone for a lot of the summer, working on his next album, so this was both an opportunity for us to both catch up and “say goodbye” (though we’ll be reuniting in August for some good ol’ Minnesota camping).
We decided to hit up our favorite spot, a little hole in the wall called The Anvil on Granville. As residents of Rogers Park, Ben and I frequented The Anvil a lot this year. It’s truly a neighborhood bar; a place that seems to have changed very little in the last 40 years, dimly lit and without a sign outside, a nook primarily populated by people who live within a mile of it. The Anvil is also a gay bar. For this reason it is especially fun to go to The Anvil with Ben, a straight man, and witness the cross-cultural confusion that ensues.
Though I can’t speak to how he operates when I’m not around, Ben seems to be terribly comfortable around gay men. Or, at least, he is terribly gracious. Every time Ben and I go to the Anvil, he gets hit on. A lot more than I do, I should add. Often aggressively: it wasn’t until a week after the first time we went there that Ben informed me that the man who’d been hanging around him that entire night had stuck his tongue in Ben’s ear. Ben had played it cool, not wanting to make a scene. His patience for situations that would make the average person uncomfortable and his willingness to engage contexts outside his own continue to inspire the work I do in facilitating religious and secular dialogue.
But back to last night. We were off to a good start: ten minutes in and Ben’s inner ear was still unmolested. We picked a spot on the back patio and got comfortable. As we lifted our mugs of miraculously cheap beer and clinked to my move and our friendship, we were approached by a man who began to compliment my tattoos, my feet (“can I touch them?”), my stretched earlobes and my smile. Well, guess I’m taking the bullet tonight, I thought, at which point he immediately directed his attention at Ben. We were both patient, but I had immediately dismissed this man in my mind. I’m not here to get hit on, I thought impatiently, I’m here to say goodbye to a close friend.
I closed myself off, but Ben had other plans. In his unending kindness, Ben continued conversation with this stranger. He asked if we lived in the area, and Ben said we did but that I was moving. The man inquired why and I explained that I’m relocating to continue my work facilitating secular and religious engagement. He asked me to clarify. I replied: “Basically? I encourage people of all faiths and no faith at all to not just tolerate one another’s existence — which itself would be an improvement — but to engage one another’s deepest motivations and move into collaborative action around identifiable shared values despite religious differences.” He asked if I believed in God, and I replied with a strong and swift: “no.” He quickly took me in his arms and squeezed me tight. “God will reveal himself to you,” he said. “I’ll pray it so.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in my life. But instead of getting insulted — instead of closing myself off even more — I smiled and said “thank you.” You see, what this man didn’t know is that God reveals him(or her)self to me every day.
For the last year that I’ve worked at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the Gods of my co-workers have had a sizable impact on me. Whether it’s the Christian God of my supervisor, Cassie, giving her the compassion to forgive my latest screw-up, or the Muslim God of my boss, IFYC founder and White House advisor Eboo Patel, inspiring him to invite a Secular Humanist such as myself to contribute to the public discourse on religion, I would not have had the opportunities I have if it weren’t for their passionate religious beliefs. And I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationships that I formed with them — or with Ben, or even with the man who stroked my feet at The Anvil — if I had refused to engage their beliefs. I may not share in them, but they still matter to me.
After a bout of friendly dialogue, the man asked me: “Okay, but tell me this Mr. Atheist: where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” I answered honestly: “I’m not a scientist, you know, but I can perhaps best describe it as some incredible series of random events. But to be honest that question doesn’t really matter to me. I could care less how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?” He clutched his chest, hugged me again and grinned, nodding his solid agreement. I’m so glad that Ben’s kindness inspired me to give this man a chance.
What will we do? I hope that we’ll engage one another’s deepest values with at least as much patience as Ben in a gay bar.
[That’s a wrap, folks: I’ll be at the Secular Student Alliance national conference this weekend speaking on a panel about interfaith cooperation. Check back next week, when I’ll try to have a report on that — though I’m moving across the country a week from today, so it may be difficult. I haven’t the words to express how much I’ll miss this city, so this post will have to do as my general goodbye. And if I don’t get around to posting something next week, be sure you check out Tim Brauhn’s amazing guest post from this morning in the meantime, which was featured on the front page of WordPress today!]
Cambridge Broxterman, she of “Burkagate” infamy, has made another YouTube video about me. I’m not surprised this time — I guess I was kind of asking for it when I recalled that we had agreed to post our email exchange and, you know, finally got around to posting it. Her tone was a lot friendlier this time, which is encouraging because it gives me hope we’ll be able to have a non-awkward conversation when our paths finally cross again (which is great because I want to talk to her about her awesome body modifications… okay, sorry, tangent).
Anyway, she raised a legitimate point in her video — one I’ve been meaning to address again for some time now. (Thanks for the reminder!) In her video, Cambridge introduced who I am by saying:
He’s a nice guy — he seems to be nice and willing and open for discussion. But his view of himself within the whole Atheist community is just really strange to me… I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish and it’s frustrating… He’s very vocal about his… wanting to be on the side of the religious, and he’s very vocal about his political correctness, but then he saves all of that energy that he could be putting towards an area where I think would help the Atheist cause… [and he’s] turing on the Atheist community… He has no problem criticizing the Atheist community, but the religious community is just taboo to him it seems like, they’re just off limits. It’s really weird and I don’t think I understand what he’s trying to accomplish and I don’t really think he does either.
This is the second time this week I’ve been called nice with a caveat by someone online; earlier this week, Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance wrote over on the Friendly Atheist: “we disagree on a lot of interfaith issues, but he’s a nice guy.” (Thanks, folks! You’re nice too.) But Cambridge’s critique — that, no matter how nice I might be, religion is “off limits” to me — is one I’ve heard time and time again from other commenters on this blog, so I’d like to take this opportunity to address it.
I’ve tried to be clear on this blog that I am not some self-loathing secular pandering to religious others in an attempt to curry favor. I’m as proud to be godless as I am anything else about me. I suppose it requires a certain amount of bravery to live a publicly godless life — the idea that one can be good without God is still fairly radical in certain circles. But personally it just isn’t something I struggle with. I’m perfectly content with being a Secular Humanist, and I don’t spend a lot of time fretting about whether others think I’m a moral person or not for not believing in God.
Yet — and here’s where I may sound a bit, um, heretical — I also believe that the religious should be as celebratory about who they are as I am, and I suspect that if they are as comfortable with their identity as I am mine then they will embrace pluralism, as I have. I am then, for both of those reasons, more concerned with the way other secular folks approach the religious as across-the-board bad. I cannot help but suspect that our negative obsession with mocking religion is rooted in a lack of confidence in what we as a community have to offer, and wish to devote my energy toward working against such self-defeating antagonism. As I said in a post back in March:
NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference. And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.
Religion isn’t off limits to me, but tackling the difficult issues in religion isn’t really within the scope of NonProphet Status. I may think that religion has created a lot of problems in the world — as a former “Born Again” Christian and a queer person, I’ve experienced many of them firsthand. But point blank: this blog isn’t about critiquing religious beliefs or speaking out against harmful religious practices. It has a very specific purpose and I try my best to stick to that. NonProphet Status exists to name what I see as problematic components of the secular community and offer alternative perspectives of positive (instead of oppositional) secularism; to identify the behaviors of my fellow secularists that oppose pluralism (see a quick and helpful definition here) and to point to alternate modes of secularism that support it. I’ll let the Christians call out members of their community working against pluralism, the Muslims theirs, and so on. Ultimately, if I as a secularist condemn fundamentalist Christianity, it has a lot less power than if another Christian does it. So I want to put my energy where I believe it is best spent. And it is simply that: where I believe it is best spent. This is all just my opinion. So take it with a few grains of salt, if you will.
Where we have the most agency as a community is in how we behave, both internally and in how we approach those outside our walls — and, for those in our community who are concerned with how others perceive us, the most effective way to change hearts and minds is through relationships. And we won’t be able to have relationships with religious folks if our top priority is mocking the things they hold dear. I believe that such behavior will fundamentally limit who our movement will appeal to and will distract us from focusing on cultivating our own uniquely secular ethics. For those and other reasons — and not simply because I have an open appreciation for select religious insights — I see such antics as lose-lose for us. That is why I critique “blasphemy” so frequently and with such, erm, fervor.
I try to walk a fine line, and perhaps I err too heavily on the side of critiquing my own community. If I’ve hurt feelings, I apologize. My aim in doing this is to push my fellow secularists to reconsider how we engage the religious other, not to alienate. I appreciate the feedback I get and try to factor it into my approach, so keep it coming. And, as always, thank you for reading.
For some past examples of explanations of why I do what I do, please check out some of these posts: