Last night ABC Nightline finally aired its story on the American Atheist Convention. Many in the Atheist community are very unhappy with the segment and how it portrays Atheists. Here is the video.

I actually think the segment is entirely fair. If we don’t want to be portrayed this way, perhaps we shouldn’t behave this way. You see, I was actually there. Back in April, I attended the American Atheist Convention in Newark, New Jersey. After it was over I published a series of reflections on the experience (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly).

Reflecting back on that experience now, I am so glad I was present. Even though (or perhaps precisely because) Edwin conventionKagin’s blasphemy session was among the most offensive things I’ve ever seen in person (see: The Ugly), it was a great learning moment for me. I almost didn’t go because, though I don’t believe in God, I intentionally do not identify as an Atheist because I believe it is inherently problematic. It is, to me, an oppositional identity marker. For the same reason I do not identify as “not female” or “not heterosexual,” I don’t call myself an Atheist (not a perfect parallel, but I think it works). But I decided to attend the convention because, as a Secular Humanist doing interfaith work, I wanted to see how the Atheist community was talking about religion. But even with my trepidation, I never expected it would be as bad as it was.

Nightline spent most of its segment focusing on Kagin’s blasphemy session, a moment that to me firmly underscores the oppositional nature of organized Atheism, and I understand why: I too dedicated my most impassioned writing to it. I ended my reaction as follows:

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

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

After my write-up, NonProphet Status exploded. I was totally unprepared. Suddenly a sizable portion of the Atheist community knew who I — a relatively new blogger with little understanding of how social media works — was. My friends started referring to the strong reaction my piece elicited from the Atheist community as “Burkagate” after I jokingly coined the term. I started getting emails from angry detractors and the comments section of my blog became host to a heated debate between folks of diverging opinions. Then on April 9, the day of my twenty-third birthday, a YouTube video was left in the comment section by one Cambridge Broxterman — the very same woman now featured in the above Nightline segment. Here’s the video she recorded about my reaction to the blasphemy session:

To be embarrassingly honest, her video actually wounded me (I know I shouldn’t let such things get to me, but in this instance I did). I suspect that was her goal so, you know, mission accomplished. In spite of this, I reached out to her. I really didn’t want to but decided it was important. Here is an opportunity for dialogue and to learn from one another, I thought. Reaching out across lines of radical difference isn’t easy but, as I’ve learned in my work, it is often rewarding. The more I mature the more often I do it; with age and experience I am less afraid of confrontation, less afraid of being wrong, less afraid of dialogue with difference.

Cambridge and I decided to enter into an email exchange with the idea that it would be published here on my blog at a later date. The exchange died off and I sort of forgot about it, but after seeing Nightline‘s story and how it featured Cambridge I was reminded of it. Below the jump, the back-and-forth and some concluding reflections: Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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