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

Workshop: A Place at the Table

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

Plenary: From Religious Extremism to Interfaith Dialogue

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

I saw a man float upside down on his chair

I heard an Iroquois storyteller speak in a language so ancient

she does not know the meaning of some of her words

I learned your name means the light of Ali

I bathed the Buddha in sweet tea

I felt angels underfoot

Can I get a witness?

I have embraced ten new friends

asking the question

over coffee and whiskey

How are we going to get along?

I learned another way to speak

a lexicon of 40 more words for respect and trust

Do you hear me brothers and sisters?

It is with these words these stories I construct

a humble sanctuary

for those who are

still writing letters to

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

still raising their hands in classrooms and boardrooms

asking why

still looking into the eyes of the Other

saying

how can I engage you?

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

Sensei Mio told me

there is only one stream

V.V. Raman taught me to embody

Gandhi and King’s dream

From Nicole, our continued commitment

to the Earth, our mother

and from Emily-

trust and kinship we find in one another

Sister Joan awakened me

to the beauty of feminine divinity

and my friend Chris

to belief in the faith of humanity

the dynamic Eboo Patel

has empowered this movement of change

and… isn’t it strange?

that the take-away lesson here

the awakening call

is that we must have love

for one and for all.

three

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

Salaam.

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

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

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

Plenary: “How Water is the New Salt”

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

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

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

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

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

Workshop: “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?”

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

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

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

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

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

Panel: “The Next Generation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenary: “Acts of Faith”

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is the first in a series of three on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference. Check back over the next couple days for the others.

Coming off a generally bad experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) (see reports: 1, 2, 3), the tone of Nazareth College‘s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC) was radically and refreshingly different. I attended IUC, which was in Rochester, NY from 4/11/10 – 4/13/10, to absorb as much information about the interfaith community outside of Chicago and to be recognized as a “Next Generation” leader. Though it was populated by a hundreds-strong diversity of religious, geographic, and age demographics – “intentionally interfaith and intergenerational, combining the wisdom of one generation with the vitality and hope of the next,” as they termed it – it was an intimate community motivated by a desire to learn from diverse others and permeated with optimism and action.

Opening

duffyMayor Robert J. Duffy of Rochester was among those who kicked off the event, reflecting on his childhood and how his mother taught him not to look down on people of other faiths, Rochester’s long history of social justice and interfaith, and his hopes for the conference. Said Duffy:

When I look at [religious] divisiveness, I know it is not the [fault of] faith itself but people using it as a tool. In our world and community we have many issues and challenges [but] nothing is insurmountable. As we gain greater understanding [of one another], we pull together as community and start to see disrespect and violence dissipate through greater education and understanding.

bravemanPresident of Nazareth College Daan Braveman – a Jewish man at a college with Catholic roots – also reflected on the history of the community and the college, and what this conference could mean:

Today we have an opportunity to give back and make a difference in the world. This conference is focused on encouraging and training students on the skills that encourage interfaith dialogue… I can think of no better way that young people can make a difference in the word, [to learn to see] religious differences not as a source of division but as a source of tremendous strength.

Plenary: “The Art of Dialogue”

After these and other rousing introductions, the conference moved into interactive plenary “The Art of Dialogue: Interfaith Dialogue Across the Generations,” hosted by Dr. Leonard Swidler, Becca Hartman and Hind Makki.

Swidler, Founder and President of the Dialogue Institute at Temple University, was up first, and opened with a mantra he claimed to have used time and time again: “Nobody knows everything about anything.” He elaborated at length, acknowledging that not only is religion a complex issue but that there are many who try to simplify it:

It sounds perfectly sensible, right? What biologist would say, “I know it all”? What psychologist would say “Oh, there is nothing more for me to learn”?… And yet, the most complicated, detailed, far-reaching discipline of all is religion, because religion is an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly based on some notion and experience… [It] is the most complicated [subject]. There are 6.7 billion people on this planet, and I guarantee there are billions of them who would insist [their religious position is] the right position… Remember, nobody knows everything about anything; this includes religion. So how do we get people to take that clear and simple mantra and translate it to the most complicated field – religion? The answer, I think, is dialogue.

swidlerHe expanded on what he meant by dialogue, saying that it is, “fundamentally not just ‘blah blah blah.’ It means saying, ‘I want to talk with you because you think differently, so that I can learn from you.'” He contended that, in the scope of human history, this is a relatively new concept:

In the past, people would talk to those who think differently so they could tell them “the truth.” That is not dialogue. We humans have been engaging in monologue since the beginning of time… we have always talked with people who think like we do – or should. We don’t talk to people who think differently so that we can learn… I would argue [that dialogue] is radical in the etymological sense of the word: it goes down to the root. In most religions people want to tell you the truth – it is a good intention based in enthusiasm – but they don’t want to hear, they just want to tell. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and all we’ve gotten are bloody heads… so we’ve got to turn around [and] develop deep dialogue – not just the surface stuff – related to critical thinking. We don’t want to share our ignorances but, together, search for the truth, and with our critical thinking issue an action complimentary to cooperation.

makkiAfter Swidler’s charge, Hind Makki (who I interviewed on this blog last month) and Becca Hartman of the Interfaith Youth Core demonstrated an example of interfaith dialogue by sharing insightful testimonials of their own experiences and then had conference participants do the same. Hartman said, “Everyone here has a story, and we want you to share them with one another.” Makki elaborated, saying, “Stories bring out the essence of why people do what they do… [they] create a space in which we can look for shared values from different sources. hartmanWe are asking you to build relationships off of shared values through storytelling and community, and then from that community to build bridges and move into action.” The experience of sharing stories with one another at the opening of the conference made it clear that this event was proactive about inviting participants to air their diverse experiences and have a sense of determinist agency as participants in the burgeoning movement of interfaith cooperation. In that sense, from the get go it was much more than a series of lectures; it was a constructive exercise of empathy and progress.

Plenary: “The Divine Feminine”

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave the second keynote of the conference entitled “The Divine Feminine: The Foundation of the Abrahamic World.” Chittister was an incredible speaker, using humor and emotional mastery to deliver a message on the importance of recognizing feminine images of the divine in interfaith work. I found myself intrigued by her speech, but also found it knotty in a few places.

chittisterFor one, as someone who is not a member of an Abrahamic religion – let alone not even a theist – there wasn’t much that was applicable to my personal beliefs or to my work. The speech was clearly geared toward theists, so there wasn’t much for me to work with. Chittister said that “the way we see God is the way we see ourselves;” I understand the truth of this statement in the context of theism, but wonder what she might think it means for atheism, in which no god-image is present.

Additionally, I thought Chittister’s use of feminine versus masculine images of God was fundamentally and problematically rooted in a reliance on gender binarism and dichotomized approaches to gender. During the Q&A session, the great Rabbi Or Rose raised a similar critique – that it is too essentialistic to term the feminine as innately nurturing and loving and the masculine as aggressive and punishing. To her credit, Chittister was open to this critique and acknowledged that she was speaking on a multilayered issue in a small space of time.

Chittister is one of the world’s most prolific female Catholic speakers, with a wicked wit and a keen understanding of how to clearly and passionately articulate her worldview. Ultimately, her talk was engaging and interesting and elicited a good deal of conversation among participants, but as a non-theist it required a bit too much translation work on my part as it was fundamentally about images of God and was not as interfaith-focused as I might’ve liked.

All in all, things got off to a pretty great start at IUC – but they got even better as the conference went on. Stay tuned for the next two installations, coming soon, and follow my trek to Boston for multiple conferences on Twitter!

The following guest post comes from Nick Mattos, a member of the Share Your Secular Story contest panel of judges.

wall“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” famously asked Muriel Rukeyser. “The world would split open.” The poet Rukeyser – and countless college freshmen, gay people newly out of the closet, and confessional memoirists – assert firmly that it is honesty about individual reality that paradoxically dismantle the structures of the world and ameliorate them at the same time. One of the most potent fields, most ready for the breaking apart and the fixing, is religious life; this is perhaps why history is overwhelmed with tales of prophets who insist upon speaking their personal spirituality reality to change society at whatever cost.

Frankly, I love this sort of thing with a perverse intensity. I’m the sort of guy who dives into whatever churches are silly enough to keep their doors open during the day, glides into the Christian Science Reading Room to pick up the free magazines, gladly invites the Jehovah’s Witnesses in for a cup of tea. If it’s a personal story of people interfacing with the huge mysteries of the world and whatever may lie behind it, I probably dig it. However, I also say this as an out gay person, a fairly confessional columnist, and a one-time college freshman; phrased another way, in my day I’ve seen the world split open a time or two, and I find it fascinating to watch other people tease the faultlines.

However, in my garnering a degree in Religious Studies and my ongoing experience as a writer of religion, I began to see a great void in the literature – where were the examples of true personal narratives about Secular Humanism? There are plenty of anti-religious and counter-religious stories – one simply needs to look at the massive canon of “ex-cult” literature to see that there’s no shortage of one-time converts who are compelled to share their personal truths. However, what are not present in the discussion are religious narratives of the non-religious – secular stories.

Why is it important that secular stories get shared? Part of the real importance of religious narrative is to provide examples of what it means to live out spiritual or moral truths in the world. In this way, the stories serve a didactic purpose – they take abstract moral values and demonstrate them in a way that makes them real. Remember The Book of Virtues? Almost twenty years ago, conservative pundit-slash-former Secretary of Education-slash-Catholic activist William Bennett ripped off the title of the Tao Te Ching to provide a set of stories to orient the moral compass of a new generation. Why was it vastly influential? For all of the right-wing hamfistedness of the anthology, it insisted primarily upon showing and not telling – demonstrating what ethics and morals are, rather than detailing them.

What we’re looking to do with the Share Your Secular Story contest is not to create The Atheist’s Book of Virtues. We’re not even looking to make The Agnostic’s Book of Human Folly. What we are looking to do is to make the world split open. We are looking to give a growing presence in the landscape of spirituality – Secular Humanism – a place within our society’s narrative of virtues. The stories we’re looking for are stories that illustrate Secular Humanism’s heart, yes – but they’re also stories that give Humanism a body, hands to move in society, a face. We’re looking for stories of people exploring a world made meaningful, not by tradition or dogma or mysticism, but by the stark and elegant poignancy of just being human. We’re looking for you to share your secular story.

Nick MattosNick Mattos is a freelance writer, blogger, and columnist. Described by celebrity blogger Byron Beck as “the best gay writer in Portland, if not the Pacific Northwest,” the young author’s prose and fiction work has appeared in such publications as Mercury, New Queer Media, On Uneven Ground, and Out Spirit. His column “Remember to Breathe” runs biweekly in Just Out and on justout.com. He is currently completing his first novel, tentatively titled The Place We Were Promised. A graduate of The Evergreen State College, Mr. Mattos resides in Portland, Oregon.

Chris at Vocalo

My Chicago Public Radio money shot.

Who says radio is dead? Certainly not Chicago Public Radio offshoot Vocalo.org!

I’ve been collaborating with Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM since last fall, providing religious-themed content for their on-air programming (you can sample some of these roundtables here, here and here). But today I had the privilege of appearing on the air to discuss NonProphet Status’ ongoing Share Your Secular Story contest, my personal views on secular community-building and story-sharing, the current non-religious identity crisis, why I don’t particularly care for the term “nonbeliever,” and, of course, rap outfit Three 6 Mafia and rock ensemble The Grateful Dead.

Be warned, potential listeners — with my Master’s thesis due a week from today, I was wildly sleep-deprived for this interview. (Also, I made an awkward attempt to both cast the message of religion-friendly secularism as a prophetic stance and not call myself a prophet in the process. Well, at least we had a good laugh about it.) Fortunately, my near-catatonic delivery was enlivened by Vocalo’s electric on-air personality Tom, and I was joined mid-way through by brilliant Share Your Secular Story judge panelist Nick Mattos, who woke up terribly early to get in on the fun via phone from Portland, OR because, well, flights are expensive and he’s a busy man. Nick shared some stories from his religious past and highlighted why he thinks this contest is important even though he is a Buddhist. Wrapping up the program, I highlighted some of the details of and reasons for the story contest. All told, I had a blast talking about the contest and my work and getting to hear Nick speak more about his experiences and perspective.

For those of you who couldn’t eek out of bed to creak your radio knob at 8 AM (CST) this morning, Vocalo’s already got a post up about the interview that will soon contain an MP3 of the interview alongside Tom’s typically tongue-in-cheek musings, for your listening and reading pleasure. For now, you can check out a steaming full archive of this morning’s program (just fast-forward to around the 62 minute mark). [UPDATE: “Chris Stedman, Sort of Secular Prophet” is now up.] Thanks to Tom, Mr. Mattos, and to everyone who listened! Be sure to visit the Share Your Secular story contest page to learn more about the contest, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and regularly check back to NonProphet Status for updates.

Hey folks! We’re putting together a Chicago area Secular Humanist Meet-Up and we want your input. Not sure what Secular Humanism is? Not sure if you are one? That’s fine. We’d love to have you involved.

The agenda is set for our brainstorming meeting on Wednesday, March 17th. If you’re interested in attending, please email us at nonprophetstatus@gmail.com.

Church FiresWondering what’s going on in the world of religion and secularism? Wonder no more — it’s time for your weekly religion and secular roundup! This week:

Church Burning and Atheist Learning: Reports this week on the ongoing investigation into a series of church fires in Texas prominently featured the fact that raids on one suspect’s home uncovered “books on demons and atheism.” What does it say that news reports are so strongly linking a suspect’s books on atheism to his alleged participation in church arson? Whether there is an actual correlation between the material he read and the crimes he is accused of committing, it is an unfortunate narrative on secular folks that we need work to change. Additionally, if these men are in fact guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, I’d be inclined to raise questions about what role narratives of fundamentalist anti-theism may have played in informing these actions and if anti-theistic motivations were involved. I strongly believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, but I also cannot help but fear that, if these men were in fact driven by totalitarian anti-theism to burn down religious houses of worship, their actions could have easily been prevented if only they had been exposed to a different, more pluralistic understanding of how atheists and religious folks can engage in the world.

Tiger Woods and the Need for Religious Literacy: The USA Today ran an intelligent reflection on Tiger Woods’ public apology, highlighting Woods’ appeal to his Buddhist commitments as a means for considering the controversy. The piece thoughtfully situates Woods’ apology within the larger context of American religious diversity. As Brit Hume’s controversial comments suggesting that Woods seek forgiveness in Christ exemplified, American society generally expects fallen public figures to offer Christian apologies and seek Christian redemption. Woods’ Buddhist narrative suggests that our country is in need of greater religious literacy. To quote the article: “Part of living in a multireligious society… is learning multiple religious languages. In a country where most citizens cannot name the first book of the Bible, we obviously need more Christian literacy. But to make sense of the furiously religious world in which we live, we need Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist literacy too.” This should be a keen reminder to secular folks of the importance of knowing about the religious beliefs of others. If we don’t know about the beliefs of others, how can we expect to try to understand them?

The Secularists Are Coming! The Secularists Are Coming!: This last week, representatives of the Obama administration hosted members of the secular community for the first time in American Presidential history. The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group representing secular interests, was briefed by the members of Obama administration in a White House meeting. As you might expect, this was met with shock and horror from some on the political right — Sean Hannity, for example, featured an inflammatory and outright false segment on his show about the meeting. But reports from the secular community indicate that it was a positive experience; check out Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist blog for an inside scoop. If nothing else, the meeting is an important symbolic step toward the recognition of a salient, cohesive, and growing secular community.

More Reflections on Religion and Millenials: Earlier this week I posted on the new Pew report on Millenials and its implications for Millenial secularists living in a religiously pluralistic world. I wasn’t the only one ruminating on this data — Politics Daily ran a piece called “Young Adults Doing Religion on Their Own? Blame Politics” that suggests that less Millenials are affiliated with traditional religious institutions while still retaining religious beliefs because many tend to be more politically liberal and see traditional religiosity as being aligned with political conservatism — which explains some of why religious affiliation is down among Millenials even though belief in god and that one’s own belief system is “the one true path to eternal life” are on the rise. Separately, the New York Times ran a piece by Charles M. Blow that posits that Millenials are more “spiritually thirsty than older generations.” He bases this claim in the Pew report’s finding that Millennials articulate a desire for “closeness to God” as a long term goal significantly more than previous generations have. Blow asserts that though less Millenials are religiously affiliated than members of generations that have come before, we value religious and spiritual commitments — perhaps even more so than other generations. Both pieces are well worth reading and I suggest you check them out.

Are There Secular Reasons?: The New York Times has a heady, thought-provoking opinion piece by Stanley Fish. In it, he challenges the notion that there is a distinction between “secular” motivations and “religious” motivations in public policy. He postulates: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” He makes an interesting point, and he makes it well. What do you think, fellow secularists?

Religion’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force, featuring Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, just released a new report called “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad.” You can view the full report here; the Washington Post has a good summary of it here.

Finally, if you missed them, I did my first “The Non Prophet” column for The New Gay, titled “All My Friends,” and gave a statement to Just Out Portland on the French anti-smoking ad controversy. Stay tuned to The New Gay every Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) for a new column, and thanks for reading!

The New GayHey readers – check out my new post on The New Gay, an original piece entitled “All My Friends” on secular and queer identity and interfaith cooperation. (Thank you to “all my friends” at The New Gay, and a warm welcome to any readers who were directed here from the article!) Be sure to check out The New Gay for a variety of engaging pieces on a wide spectrum of queer-related topics.

[Update: Thanks to everyone who commented on the post — it was great to read your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. I’ll be doing a weekly column for The New Gay beginning this Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) called “The Non Prophet,” so stay tuned!]

redeyeAs I usually do, I grabbed a copy of Chicago’s free Red Eye publication this morning before boarding my train. I enjoy reading the Red Eye here and there; though it’s mostly celebrity gossip and information on where to drink in Chicago, it sometimes has some intriguingly left-field stories (a few months back they ran a profile on Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel). After a quick brush of the seat with my free hand to be sure it wasn’t soaked in urine — a lesson learned the hard way en route to work one morning (ah, public transit) — I sat down and looked at my paper. The front page stared back at me with big bold letters declaring: “Millenials Exposed.”

Ah, the so-called Millenials. There’s been a lot of talk about Millennials this week — the Pew Research Center just released a new study looking at all aspects of this generation, from behaviors to values. As a 22 year old, they’re talking about me and my friends. Apparently we’re open-minded, optimistic, like the word “hope” and really like our cell phones. Reading the story, I was curious: what did this study find about our attitudes on religion? Are we just as open-minded?

What I found is that the answer isn’t exactly “yes” or “no.” Some of the data reflects previous findings about the changing face of religiosity in America, echoing a study that came out last year declaring that “young Americans [are] losing their religion.” That study reported that young Americans are significantly less likely to claim membership in a religious tradition or attend a religious service regularly than older folks. One commentator in that article raised a very interesting point: that, rather than signifying the beginning of the end for religion, this “‘stunning’ trend of young people becoming less religious could lead to America’s next great burst of religious innovation.” This resonates with my experience and what I’ve seen of the world around me.

Maybe this is because, though it is changing, the numbers in the Pew report demonstrate that religion isn’t going away anytime soon. While the report found that people aged 18-29 are “considerably less religious than older Americans” (one in four Millenials “are unaffiliated with any particular faith”) and that more religious Millenials believe that there is more than one way to interpret their own religion, there are also indications that young religious people are moving in some key ways toward greater religiosity. Pew found that not only is “the intensity of [religious Millenials’] religious affiliation… as strong today as among previous generations when they were young,”  but that “levels of certainty of belief in God have increased.” And while there are more religious people who believe that any religion can lead to eternal life than those who don’t overall, religious Millenials are “more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life.”

What are the ramifications of this study for us Millenial secularists? First, I believe this suggests that we have to work that much harder to stake our claim in the American religious milieu and make a concerted effort to come together as a community so that our perspective is not ignored in an increasingly fundamentalist society (something we here at NonProphet Status hope to contribute to with our recently announced “Share Your Secular Story” contest). If America is moving toward its next great “burst of religious innovation,” shouldn’t we at least be involved, if not leading the way? Second, I think this affirms the importance of dialoguing respectfully with people of faith. Let’s capitalize on the open-mindedness of others and give them an opportunity to get to know us and and the stories of our experiences as secular folks — and, more importantly, not forget to tap into our own open-mindedness in listening to theirs.

Below is the abstract from the Pew report:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation — so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 — are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Among Millennials who are affiliated with a religion, however, the intensity of their religious affiliation is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young. More than one-third of religiously affiliated Millennials (37%) say they are a “strong” member of their faith, the same as the 37% of Gen Xers who said this at a similar age and not significantly different than among Baby Boomers when they were young (31%).

Gallup surveys conducted over the past 30 years that use a similar measure of religion’s importance confirm that religion is somewhat less important for Millennials today than it was for members of Generation X when they were of a similar age. In Gallup surveys in the late 2000s, 40% of Millennials said religion is very important, as did 48% of Gen Xers in the late 1990s. However, young people today look very much like Baby Boomers did at a similar point in their life cycle; in a 1978 Gallup poll, 39% of Boomers said religion was very important to them.

GSS data show that Millennials’ level of belief in God resembles that seen among Gen Xers when they were roughly the same age. Just over half of Millennials in the 2008 GSS survey (53%) say they have no doubt that God exists, a figure that is very similar to that among Gen Xers in the late 1990s (55%). Levels of certainty of belief in God have increased somewhat among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in recent decades. (Data on this item stretch back only to the late 1980s, making it impossible to compare Millennials with Boomers when Boomers were at a similar point in their life cycle.)

Young people who are affiliated with a religion are more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life (though in all age groups, more people say any religions can lead to eternal life than say theirs is the one true faith). Nearly three-in-ten religiously affiliated adults under age 30 (29%) say their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, higher than the 23% of religiously affiliated people ages 30 and older who say the same. This pattern is evident among all three Protestant groups but not among Catholics. Interestingly, while more young Americans than older Americans view their faith as the single path to salvation, young adults are also more open to multiple ways of interpreting their religion. Nearly three-quarters of affiliated young adults (74%) say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, compared with 67% of affiliated adults ages 30 and older.

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