Today’s guest post is by Joshua Stanton, a man I am lucky to call both a good friend and a colleague at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue in my work as the Managing Director of State of Formation. In this post, Josh offers a thoughtful, personal reflection on why it is essential for the interfaith movement to stand up against anti-atheist rhetoric and action in the way that it does when particular religious communities come under fire. As an atheist, I couldn’t appreciate this post more. Many thanks to Josh for his important perspective, and for using his voice to advocate for people like me. Without further ado:

better togetherThe interfaith movement is beginning to rack up successes. While outbursts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (among other expressions of prejudice against religious communities) are nothing new, the growing and remarkably diverse chorus of voices trying to drown bigots out certainly is.

To take but one recent example, when the Park51 Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan was subjected to undue criticism this past summer, the groups that gathered behind closed doors to support its besmirched but beloved leaders included atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and more. It was heartening — as were the rallies led by Religious Freedom USA and New York Neighbors for American Values, which drew thousands to the streets to support the rights of all religious communities to assemble on private property. You could feel the interfaith movement surging forward on its remarkable course.

But I am uncertain, if not outright skeptical, that members of the interfaith movement would equally protect non-religious communities that come under similar scrutiny. To take a personal (and rather confessional) example, when a friend was excluded from an interfaith peace-building initiative because of being non-religious, people told him they were sorry. But nobody refused to continue participating in the group. It just didn’t seem like a reason to protest the decision or leave the group altogether.

I am among those guilty of not speaking up — cowed by diffusion of responsibility and the glow of opportunity that the group provided. I am certain, based on the numerous stories my humanist and atheist friends have told me, that this was not an isolated occurrence, nor an unusually cowardly reaction on my part. Yet it is something for which I am still performing teshuvah — answering as a Jew and human being for wrongdoing to my friend, in this case through wrongful inaction.

Why is it that when someone criticizes or excludes atheists, it feels like the interfaith movement forgets its identity, if only for a split second? Why is it that well-meaning interfaith leaders defy their identities and fail to speak out against those who threaten or undermine the status of the non-religious? Individually, we may comfort our friends, but by and large we are not sticking our necks out, writing op-eds, holding protests and publicly condemning those who single out the non-religious.

In part, I would suggest that members of the interfaith movement have not yet developed reflexes for protecting the non-religious. There is somewhat less of a history of hatred for atheists in the West (and even less education about the hatred that has been made manifest), so it does not always register in our minds when someone speaks ill of atheists in a way that it would if someone spoke similarly about people of a particular religious group.

But guilt for the repeated historical failure of Western countries to protect religious minorities is hardly an excuse for inaction in the present to protect the non-religious. It is time that we, most especially in the interfaith movement, recognize, denounce and speak out against anti-atheist bigotry.

Admittedly, many religious individuals feel intellectually and theologically challenged by atheists. But this challenge is one we must greet and learn from, rather than respond to with aggression, passive and active alike. If God is truly powerful, non-believers can hardly break our belief, much less the Divine we believe in. If God is loving, then why should we hate — or ignore hatred directed towards others? If God is a Creator, how can we allow others to speak ill of the atheists and non-believers God gave life to? Non-belief is a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the religious can hardly condemn atheists without running into contradictions rendered by their faith.

If religious affiliation is a protected category in our laws, our minds and our actions, so too must non-affiliation and atheism. The interfaith movement must lead the way, and so too must its believing members. They — we — cannot allow this double-standard to persist.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post Religion.

stantonJoshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

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.

Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), calls out Bill Maher for his recent narrow-minded comments on Islam. All the more, it’s a call to action — and one I plan on participating in. Take it away, Frank!

maherLast Friday on Bill Maher’s show on HBO, he had an epiphany that should trouble many of us. After discovering that the various spellings of Mohamed together comprised the most popular name for baby boys in the United Kingdom, he claimed he was “alarmed” and later divulged, “I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”

Now, I know that Bill Maher has it out for all faiths. I saw his feature-length documentary, Religulous, where he found ignorant religious people to mock, and his spurn for faith leaves no religion untouched. However, I think for many religious and non-religious people alike, whose faith and intellect are not at odds, it is time to challenge Bill Maher.

I think he makes two errors that undermine the ethos of pluralism in America. Firstly, naming your child with a religious name doesn’t necessitate faithful devotion in the child’s life. I know plenty of Marys who avoid mass, Sauls who rarely go to synagogue, and yes, even Mohameds who really love bacon on their cheeseburgers.

The second issue is that Bill Maher implicitly proposes that religious observance of Islam is a threat to Western Civilization. This assumption of incapability of faith and patriotism is the same crime committed by the groups he makes a living mocking. We have an opportunity to reveal to Bill Maher that one’s religious observance is not a hindrance to patriotism.

Since Maher already made it clear that he isn’t interested in apologizing for his statements, I think we can one up him. Religious Freedom USA is announcing a campaign, asking people to email Bill Maher a story about a person you know named Mohamed. Perhaps your friend Mohamed is religious, non-observant or converted to another faith. Maybe Mohamed has an accent, whether an Indian accent, or a Brooklyn accent. Whoever your friend is, share with Bill Maher how your friend’s name has not somehow caused him to inadvertently undermine the foundation of Western Civilization, and that he’s even a productive member of society.

This is important here and now in America. Genuine Islamophobia is becoming increasingly frequent and its perpetrators unrepentant. Given the climate for such inflammatory language, this poses an opportunity to reframe the discussion on Islam in America, with a human face of our Muslim friends and neighbors.

We’ve written detailed instructions on the RFUSA website, which you can use to email and send your friends. If he gets a thousand emails from all of us, perhaps Bill Maher will rethink his sloppy analysis of Islam in America.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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 and 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 works as an Online Marketing Consultant.

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.

%d bloggers like this: