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!

HelveticaIn 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 ParysBryan 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.

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

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

Paul Kurtz

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

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

Kurtz elaborated on that point at length, saying:

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

He also emphasized the significance of interreligious cooperation:

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

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

Massimo Pigliucci

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

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

Todd Stiefel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Barker

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

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

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

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

Wendy Kaminer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations

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

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

Atheism is Not Enough

March 22, 2010

Bizarro AtheistsLast week, I reported on the problems with contemporary atheism as reflected by press on the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. This is something I’ve recognized for some time — and most recently wrote at length about in a response to some critiques our Share Your Secular Story contest has gotten — and I am glad to see more people noting it. In this spirit, Michael De Dora Jr. of the Center for Inquiry recently released a great blog on the problems with an Atheistic approach to the world and underscores many of the reasons that I do not call myself an Atheist even though I do not believe in God. Among the highlights, he breaks his argument down into five reasons:

1. Atheism doesn’t really say much of anything:

As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.

2. It is short-sighted and too simplistic in its critique on religion:

Atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer. As the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has noted, the larger predicament we face is uncritical adherence to ideology — a problem that spans more than just religion.

3. Atheism is often inherently closed-minded:

The third argument against the march of organized atheism is its tendency toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief, thinking that anyone who believes in God or other religious claims is stupid… there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain [parts of] of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer). This attitude has trickled down, as well: for their followers, too often pride has led to arrogance — and not arrogance about the specific position on religion, but general intellectual arrogance at that. Yet the problem isn’t necessarily the arguments, but the tone.

4. It is divisive and too limited:

This view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together. This is a symptom of the atheist-centered tendency [to] see the world through religion. It is seemingly as divisive as seeing the world as a Catholic and nothing else. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found — and kindled — more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing mostly or even entirely on theism divides us too cleanly on religious affiliation. Defining oneself as an atheist gives off the impression to those who do not define themselves as atheists that you have nothing in common. There are many good things included in religion (to be sure, they are found elsewhere and many are a product of the evolution of human nature) that cut to the core of human experience — community, fellowship, awe and wonder, a desire to transcend yourself and do collective good. To stand opposed to all religion is to give off the impression you deny these.

5. It does not suggest an alternative belief to religious ideas:

People have the tendency to see the atheist approach as “against” and not “for.” Of course, one cannot debunk or be against anything without really being for something. We are seemingly only able to critique if we have something to weigh the critiqued belief against.

He sums his claims up best near the end: “We need to move beyond and above atheism… it is too empty, too narrow-minded, and too divisive. Instead, it would seem smarter to develop something more comprehensive.” I couldn’t agree more. Atheism doesn’t get at the heart of what I believe — it is merely the notion that God doesn’t exist, nothing more. It says nothing of our worldview. This is why I call myself a Secular Humanist, even though it would probably be fair to say that I hold an atheistic belief about the divine.

Richard Dawkins at The Rise of Atheism

"In summation: religion sucks."

This last weekend, thousands of atheists convened in Melbourne, Australia for The Rise of Atheism: the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. Reports from the event indicate that it was more concerned with mocking religion than it was with focusing on building a cohesive, values-based secular movement — a seeming epidemic in secular community-building today.

Barney Zwartz, religion editor of The Age, wrote: “If it was to validate hardline atheists to themselves and give them confidence, it was a triumph. If it was to take a mature look at how to advance the cause of secularism, politically and socially, the speakers should probably have spent less time ridiculing religion and more on positive and practical ideas.”

Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun said the event was so mean-spirited that it made him want to believe in God:

“I’ve never felt more like believing in God. Especially the Christian one. My near conversion occurred because the convention’s speakers managed to confirm my worst fear. No, it’s not that God may actually exist, and be cross that I doubted. It’s that if the Christian God really is dead, then there’s not much to stop people here from being barbarians… Yes, I know godlessness need not mean good-lessness. I’m agnostic myself, yet think myself morally serious. But I’m certain both the Pope and Fielding would feel their Christian faith prevented them from vilifying Dawkins as his fellow atheists freely vilified them. So why do leading atheists, so sure of their superior morality, feel licensed to be meaner than leading Christians? Is this what morally superior people do when God has gone? In that case, bring God back.”

Melanie Phillips wrote in The Australian that the event functioned much like the religious fundamentalism it claimed to critique:

“Such indoctrination is a hallmark of the fundamentalist who knows he is not just right but righteous. So all who oppose him are by definition not just wrong but evil. Which is why alternative views must be howled down or suppressed. This is, of course, the characteristic of all totalitarian regimes, including religious inquisitions. Which is why Dawkins can lay claim to being not the most enlightened thinker on the planet, as his acolytes regard him, but instead the Savonarola of scientism and an intolerant closer of minds.”

Rachel Holkner of The Guardian reported this bit of strong anti-religiousness:

“When a Christian stood up to ask a question of Dawkins, there was a vibe not only of hostility, but impatience and frustration – even a sense of violation, as no one expected anyone with honest-to-god beliefs to pay the not-inconsiderate ticket price to learn about atheism. This was a great shame. Part of the challenge of atheism is extending our visibility and educating theists on rational thought. Continuing to play to the stereotype of being scary and intolerant will not help anyone. Atheists need to develop a reputation for patience and approachability.”

Responding to that, Gina Welch of True/Slant noted that the conference was very antagonistic to any religious presence, writing that it contained the “same fearful insularity poisoning many churches. Atheists should welcome questions and challenges from believers, shouldn’t we? Why shy away from a little repartee?”

Tim Roberts of Eureka Street wisely observed in advance of the conference that the program reflected a problematic insularity:

“Failing to include debating panels with religious moderates is a missed opportunity… Forging links with moderates against religious extremism should be the first goal of any atheist movement. Change cannot be achieved by eliminating religion, as people’s personal beliefs cannot be forcefully harangued into shape. Only by respectfully forming alliances with the moderate religious community will atheists be able to preserve the elements of society that they value most, such as freedom of enquiry and the separation of Church and State. The ego-driven, take-no-prisoners approach dooms atheism to remain an exclusive and tiny club… Despite its many worthy contributors, the convention will drown in a sea of bile unless the movement’s adherents realise that they can’t remake the world in their own image. Padding the program with snide comic relief puts the event in danger of being dismissed as a weekend of navel-gazing, rather than a genuine attempt to deal with intolerance. And that would be a pity.”

Is this really how we want to be seen? As anti-religious zealots and self-important isolationists patting ourselves on the back for our beliefs while refusing to practice the open-mindedness we preach? I sure don’t. Dick Gross of the National Times offered some shrewd counsel for the movement regarding this problem in his write-up in advance of the conference:

“For atheism to progress as a movement we need to go beyond bashing all believers and explore the common humanity which exists between the two camps. We unbelievers will never walk in harmony with those of trenchant and fundamentalist belief. That will never happen and should never happen. But our future growth lies in finding those believers with complicated notions of the deity who are tolerant and progressive. I am sick of seeing these people being bashed to bits just as I am sick of atheism remaining a marginal movement centuries after this incarnation of unbelief began.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m attending two secular conferences next month — I hope they will reflect a more open-minded desire to engage difference respectfully than this conference seemed to.

obamabfastNational Prayer Breakfast Acknowledges Those Who Don’t Pray: Obama mentioned Americans of “no faith” at the National Prayer Breakfast but in, uh, this context: “God’s grace [is expressed] by Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose, a higher purpose.” Is it just nitpick-y to criticize his language here? To his credit, his words throughout were very inclusive of people of all faiths (and “no faith,” which is again a first for an American President). But his language did at times carry some assumptions: “we all share a recognition — one as old as time — that a willingness to believe, an openness to grace, a commitment to prayer can bring sustenance to our lives.” No, Mr. President, that isn’t a recognition we all share. But then again, there was this beautiful bit: “We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.” So, like his Presidency so far, the speech had its flaws but contained significant “firsts.” (source)

Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson: Good Buddies?: The New York Times has a truly excellent op/ed on how fundamentalist Atheists use fundamentalist religious folks to drive their narrative that religion is universally extremist. Writes Ross Douthat: “the fact that Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson both disagree tells us something, important, I think, about the symbiosis between the new atheism and fundamentalism — how deeply the new atheists are invested in the idea that a mad literalism is the truest form of any faith, and how completely they depend on outbursts from fools and fanatics to confirm their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing.” Bravo!

Some Say Mother Theresa Doesn’t Deserve a Stamp: The U.S. Postal Service has come under attack from atheists for announcing its intent to issue stamps featuring Mother Theresa because she was a Catholic saint. Really — that’s the most productive place to direct your energy? In opposition to acknowledging a widely respected figure that did good work in the world as motivated by her religious beliefs? Because with that logic, stamps featuring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X should be unacceptable as well — right?

College Blocks Secular Student Club: Concordia College in Moorhead, MN (my sister is an alumni) has forbidden the formation of a Secular Students Association because they say that, while they support freedom of speech, the group’s mission is in direct opposition with the school’s identity as a college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). As a graduate of another college affiliated with the ELCA, I can tell you that religious diversity was present at my school, including many secular folks. The school’s decision is ridiculous and I hope that they will reconsider. (source)

Religion And Science Get in Bed Together: The Guardian has a fascinating piece drawing parallels between organized religion and science. It concludes: “Science and organised traditional religion have to some extent the same enemies. Both rely for their influence on society on trust in authority and that is rapidly eroding. This is obvious in the case of religion, but we can see from the progress of climate change denialism how helpless scientists are against the same kind of jeering and suspicious anti-intellectualism that some of them direct at religion.”

Sociologists See Religion in a New Light: New research from “Inside Higher Ed” describes how religion has moved from a fringe study within an academic discipline to becoming an area of study all its own. Sociologists now recognize that religion is not “only a reflection of some other socioeconomic trend, but increasingly… the factor that may be central to understanding a given group of people.”  This is reminiscent of trends seen in disciplines like economics, foreign policy, and history. (source)

Are Atheists Moral?: Beliefnet has a great piece on the question of whether Atheists can be moral — it brings in a variety of voices and does a good survey of the current conversation in light of some pretty heated issues.

Atheistic Fiction: The Boston Globe reviews the new book “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, dubbing it the story of an “Atheist with a soul.”

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

bookI recently had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Sheiman, the author of An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. His book, which came out last year, has raised eyebrows in both religious and non-religious circles for proposing that religion plays an important and perhaps even necessary role as a cultural institution — even for so-called “rational Atheists.” This is a point with which I obviously sympathize, and I’ve enjoyed his book a great deal. Bruce recently agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his book and other things, including Pat Robertson, Unitarian Universalism, hipsters, and what music he’s listening to.

NonProphet Status: Bruce, thanks again for agreeing to speak with me. Let’s start large: Why did you decide to write this book? Why is it important?

Bruce Sheiman: The debate about the existence of God is never-ending. What is not in dispute is that God exists in people’s hearts, minds and spirits. What is not in dispute is that religion is adaptive, constructive and healthful – and thereby makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Reflecting James’ pragmatic conception of belief: When we act as if religion is true, we act with greater optimism, hope and benevolence. In the end, An Atheist Defends Religion cogently explains that the most rational and definitive argument for dismissing atheism is not found in the interminable debate over the existence of God, but in elucidating the enduring value of religion itself.

NonProphet Status: That’s a great summary of your work, which I find to be very important and totally in line with my own. In other words: you’re preaching to the choir here. So since you and I are in agreement, who do you think will benefit most from reading this book?

Bruce Sheiman: This book affirms both sides of the religion debate: on the one hand I am an unbeliever; on the other I am affirming the value of religion. Thus the book appeals to moderate believers and moderate unbelievers. The book does not appeal to extremists on either side of the debate. Indeed, the book makes an explicit case against extremist fundamentalism, and asserts that fundamentalism applies to religion as well as atheism.

NonProphet Status: You say you are both an Atheist and an “aspiring theist.” Tell me more about what you mean when you say this. What makes you want to be a theist?

Bruce Sheiman: The argument I make is that religion offers many benefits (emotional, communal, psychological, moral, existential, and even physical health) that are not offered by any other cultural institution.  I view religion in the economics context of expenditures and rewards; and if we could equate these minuses and pluses, religion would offer greater “profits” than any other cultural institution, even any secular ideology.  However, I can only justify that qualitatively, not quantitatively; so maybe the issue is unanswerable.

NonProphet Status: What has the response been to this book, both by the religious and by non-religious / Atheist folks?

bruce sheimanBruce Sheiman: It should surprise no one that believers have generally reacted very favorably; they see me as on their team (except for literalists). Unbelievers surprised me in being overtly hateful; they have called me everything from “fraud” (that I am not really an atheist) to “traitor” (I am inauthentic). What became apparent in writing this book is that there are at least two distinct kinds of atheists, what Daniel Burke of Religion News Service distinguished between “Atheism 2.0” (the so-called New Atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and other extremists) and “Atheism 3.0” (those given explicit recognition for the first time as expressed in my book: a more accommodating, tolerant and kinder, gentler atheism). For more, you can see the second blog dated December 8, 2009 at my blog.

NonProphet Status: You mentioned that some Atheists see you as a traitor. I can relate to the “traitor” tag; per a comment on my WaPo op/ed: “…maybe then our young Atheist Pastoral Student will find a society waging peace in a secular society. He’s in hell and making friends with the fire fuelers. He’s complaining of all us [fire] fighters squirting water on all the theocrats and heaven bribers.” Charming, no? Why do you think our positions — which I think are pretty politically correct and inoffensive — inspire such outrage among some folks?

Bruce Sheiman: Remember, believers generally like me (except for a contingent that does not take me seriously: I am still “wrong” in the minds of these literalists because they think it is misguided to look upon religion or God in a purely utilitarian sense; and besides, “God does so exist and how dare you say otherwise.”), so it is not all “outrage.”  The reason for such expressions is that many people are only comfortable with belief systems so long as other people embrace their version of the divine truth in a totalist, literalist sense. Deviating at all generates cognitive dissonance and a backlash.

NonProphet Status: Exactly. So why do you think it is that this literalist, militant Atheism has been more successful in capturing the public’s attention than our “kinder, gentler” non-religiosity? How does your perspective explicitly differ from those being advocated by the big-name Atheist / Agnostic voices out there right now (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc)?

Bruce Sheiman: It is quite simple: the more vehement are more vociferous. They command more attention by virtue of being louder and more outrageous.

NonProphet Status: Alright, let’s move on to some possibly lighter subjects. Have you seen Bill Maher’s documentary film “Religulous”? If so, what was your response to it?

Bruce Sheiman: No, I have not seen it. Do you recommend it? Read the rest of this entry »

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