better togetherMy new Huffington Post Religion article on my recent trip to D.C. was just published, and is currently being featured at the top of the Religion page. This one is extra special to me because it is heavily comprised of other people’s words; those of the amazing students and staff I met at the recent IFYC / Georgetown / White House institute I helped with and spoke at. Their perspectives are truly awesome. Check out the first part below; it can be read in full at The Huffington Post:

Atheists are leading the charge for interfaith cooperation. If that sounds contradictory, allow me to confirm: I just saw it with my own eyes.

Last weekend, more than 200 college students and 100 faculty and staff from across the United States converged in Washington, D.C. for five days of interfaith training. Students and campus staff participated in two consecutive Interfaith Leadership Institutes, planned and run by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), where they received intensive training that prepared them to take the lead in a national movement for interfaith cooperation and social action.

The Interfaith Leadership Institutes, co-hosted by the Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, consisted of a series of trainings, speeches and events intended to equip hundreds of student leaders and campus allies with the vision, knowledge and skills necessary to lead interfaith and community service initiatives on their campuses. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships hosted a session for each institute, and then participants spent two days at Georgetown being trained and equipped.

I was honored to join these students and their staff and faculty allies as a speaker and volunteer IFYC Alumni Coach for the institutes. I was amazed by the enthusiasm and compassion modeled by everyone I met, but as a secular humanist and interfaith activist, the number of nonreligious participants present is perhaps what excited me the most. Continue reading at The Huffington Post.

yale posterHey all! Sorry for the lack of substantive posts — our ongoing series of guest contributors is still happening, and I’ve been doing some other writing that’s kept me busy. Some of this will see the light of day soon, I promise. In the meantime, I have some exciting information about my speaking and travel this month — in case you wanted to stalk me, I guess!

This Sunday, October 10th, I will be heading to Boston, MA for a few days to hang out with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, do some work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and have a few other (oh so top secret!) meetings.

Then, this coming Thursday, October 14th, I will be speaking at the invitation of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale and facilitating a conversation around the issue I recently wrote about in The New Humanism: “Should the Nonreligious Join in Interfaith Work?” Please email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com for more information on this event. I’m honored to help host what I am sure will be an engaging conversation around a difficult issue! [Update: RSVP on Facebook here.]

christian-muslim-titleThe following Friday, October 22nd, I will be in Pittsburgh, PA speaking at the Duquesne University Christian-Muslim Dialogue Symposium about my work with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and about the role of the nonreligious in interfaith work. You can find more information about the event on their website; it’s a thrill to be invited and I’m excited to both share and learn.

Immediately after that, I will be heading to Washington, D.C. to help facilitate the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in partnership with the White House! Talk about an exciting opportunity. More information on that to come.

White House PictureInterested in having me speak? I love talking to groups and conferences of all sizes and have experience speaking on variety of issues related to religion, atheism, interfaith work, storytelling, new media, blogging, and queer issues. For more on my speaking and travel, and to inquire about having me speak or host a workshop, please check out the Speaking Gigs page.

Want to stay up to date on all of my travel — including for non-work related stuff like weddings? (Man, are fall weddings popular this year or what?!) Follow me on Twitter.

Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite a unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

Today’s guest post in the current lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Lewis Marshall, the  president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. Lewis reflects on how AHA! became one of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR) and the subsequent interfaith alliances they built. This is a really great resource for any non-religious students interested in interfaith campus work. Without further ado:

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey speaking on secularism in the Stanford Memorial Church.

I had the honor of being on a panel discussion about operating an atheist student group in an interfaith organization at the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference this summer. I had a great time, and it was nice to meet the other panelists (Hemant Mehta, Chris Stedman, and Jonathan Weyer). Chris has graciously invited me to share more of my experiences with getting involved in interfaith work. I hope this context helps to explain why I think atheist groups should be involved in interfaith organizations. I’m also going to share a few lessons I’ve learned that may help those starting this process.

There may be dissent from your own organization

In the spring of 2009, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!) applied to become a member of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). The main sticking point in becoming a member of the SAR was discomfort inside our group about the pledge that is required of SAR groups. In part, it reads: “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.”

That single word, “spiritual,” was a major source of argument in deciding whether to join the SAR. Many people believed that joining this organization would compromise our values. Others thought that we shouldn’t join because we are not technically a “religion.”

In the end, we joined, and with our application included a memorandum of understanding, which read in part:

Though its participants generally do not consider themselves religious, AHA! reconciles its purpose with a broad interpretation of the term “religion,” and of the pledge by all SAR organizations to promote “spiritual growth” …with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!’s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.

Looking back now, the initial argument was overblown. Being part of the SAR has not affected the daily life of our group, or forced us to compromise our mission. We’ve still been able to do controversial events and we’ve still been able to run our group as we see fit. In my mind, the practical outcomes are more important than any hang-up over labels.

There may be less backlash from religious organizations than you expect.

In part, we wrote the memorandum of understanding for ourselves, to show that we had a clear vision for our involvement with the SAR. In another sense, it was a way of preparing for objections from religious organizations. We were concerned that religious organizations would question our place in a community that pledges to promote spiritual growth.

In reality, we’ve had virtually no comment from religious organizations on our involvement with the SAR. No one objected to us when we joined, no one has showed surprise at seeing our banner at events. It has been a complete non-issue.

We anticipated some criticism participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad day. In particular, the rules of the SAR require that we inform religious organizations of events critical of their religion. We did not receive any response from Muslim student groups over this event, the only criticism was in anonymous comments on our website.

In my mind the take-away lesson is this: If you act like you belong in an interfaith organization, people will treat you like you belong in an interfaith organization. Be kind and confident, and you might be surprised by the reaction.

There may be more material benefits to joining an interfaith organization than you realize.

When we joined the SAR, we anticipated that it would be a mainly symbolic gesture. In reality, we’ve received a number of material benefits that we never considered.

Incoming freshmen at Stanford are asked to fill out a religious preference card letting the Office of Religoius life know their religious affiliation. Each year, we get a list of over 100 incoming freshmen who listed themselves as atheists, agnostics, or something uncommon like like “Jedi” or “Discordian.”

Being on the SAR mailing list has led us to many event opportunities. While we always table at the major activity fairs, we now have the opportunity to participate in discussions and tabling events specifically for religious organizations. We currently have a list of about five events catering to the religious needs of incoming freshmen this fall.

We now have access to a number of meeting spaces we would not otherwise have, including the Stanford Memorial Church. This year, we were able to host Austin Dacey in the church at the regional SSA conference at no cost to ourselves.

Religious organizations are likely to need the same sorts of infrastructure as an atheist student group. Interfaith organizations can help you tap into that infrastructure and make organizing your group that much easier.

You may find some natural allies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the very helpful people we’ve met in Stanford’s religious community. The Progressive Christians have been some of our best friends at Stanford.  They were particularly helpful in setting up a discussion with Hemant Mehta and their campus minister, Geoff Browning. The Hare Krishnas facilitated one of the most vigorous discussions we’ve had about the existence of God. We’ve also had contact with the Quaker and Buddhist communities. These two groups contain atheists and I think they could make great allies.

I think it’s important to build ties to partner organizations like this, because it’s one of the quickest ways of changing perceptions about atheists. Some of these communities were hesitant to work with us, but after holding events together I think we have a solid relationship and a real understanding.

So why join an interfaith organization?

In my mind, this is like asking, “Why join the SSA? Why join the Center for Inquiry?” All of these organizations have resources that can help your group. They have connections to interesting, involved people. If you can find a way to use those resources, you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping to build a meaningful, diverse community.

P.S.  That’s great, Lewis, but it doesn’t really help me…

I realize that many of you live in areas more conservative than the Stanford, and you might not find your religious organizations as welcoming as we did. I’ve certainly talked to people still getting a cold shoulder from religious organizations. I can only speak from my experience, but I think this will get better. Religious students attend meetings and share ideas cross-country too. As more and more atheist groups enter interfaith communities, I think it will start to seem more normal. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Lewis MarshallLewis Marshall is the former publicist and current president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. He was previously a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota. Lewis is currently a third-year Ph.D. student of chemical engineering at Stanford and received his B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2008.

A Call to (Open) Arms

August 23, 2010

goodcopbadcopThe first in our series of guest posts by some other NonProphets comes from secular student superstar Lucy Gubbins. Lucy, a personal hero of mine and co-founder of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists (which was recently given the “Best Community” Award by the Secular Student Alliance), tackles the question of whether religion-tolerant atheists are truly welcome in the secular movement. Take it away, Lucy!

Firebrands and diplomats. “Accommodationists” and “New Atheists.” When the question of religious tolerance comes up in a group of nonbelievers, whether it’s a keynote address or a conversation among friends, nothing gets tempers rising quite like the question: In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?

As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both.

If you take a look at any American secular organization, any of the best-selling atheist authors, or any popular atheist blog, it’s easy to see that the “Bad Cop” side is pretty well represented. Go to any atheist-centered conference and it’s a matter of course to have your eyes and ears filled with snarky remarks from the MCs and speakers, and presentations entirely built on forced religious mockeries. Scour the shelves in the Religion section of any bookstore and find the imperious titles of all the trendy atheist books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Fighters of delusion and drawers of Mohammed, rejoice! — we’ve got you covered.

What happens, though, when the “Good Cops” start showing up? What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?

Everyone is always eager to say that in the secular community, both “firebrands” and “diplomats” are needed. But the truth is that the “diplomats,” the “accommodationists” — the atheists who don’t view religious people as delusional imbeciles, and who are willing to be respectful of faith — aren’t so sexy. Drop the names “Heidi Anderson” or “Chris Stedman” in a room full of atheists, and you’re guaranteed at least 3 simultaneous diatribes that could each go on for hours (much to my deep chagrin, I know this via personal experience). Even when I try to talk about the philosophy of the student group I co-founded and led for two years, the Alliance of Happy Atheists, listeners’ eyes seem to glaze over until they have a chance to say: “Well, what you do is cute. But we need the angry atheists, too.”

To be frank, I’m undecided on this point — I continually find myself disconnected and disheartened by the way members of what I once thought to be “my” movement approach the topic of religious tolerance. However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.

That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. When they’re the sole individuals encouraging polite, snark-less conversation with the faithful, let’s try to not storm out of the room in a huff. Like it or not, atheism desperately needs an image change, and this will only occur through the works of people willing to put anger aside and learn how to interact with religious people in a positive manner. Yes, we need the angry atheists too — but in my opinion, at a time of surplus in one area, let’s look to what we’re lacking in another.

So let’s make this movement the best it can possibly be. Let’s make sure all secular people — the lovers of confrontation, accommodation, and everyone in between — are welcomed with open arms into our community. And let’s make sure we’re empowering and supporting each other to do whatever we can to create a world where a secular humanist philosophy is seen as viable, moral, and maybe even normal.

And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers. And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything.

LucyGubbinsLucy Gubbins was born in east Tennessee and is a junior at the University of Oregon, where she co-founded the Alliance of Happy Atheists. AHA! is one of the largest and most active clubs on the UO campus, with a mission to humanize the image of nonbelief, create fellowship among secular students, and bridge the divide between faith and skepticism. Lucy studies linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology, and greatly hopes to find more support for interfaith work within the secular movement in the future.

While I was in Minnesota last week for a wedding, the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) posted a video of the panel I was on at their National Conference last month. Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist blogger, was also on the panel (along with Jonathan Weyer, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics) and posted the video to his blog. I checked out his post today and the majority of the comments aren’t exactly, well, friendly. Per Friendly Atheist readers, I am “an insufferable moron” who uses “weasel language” and “has no fucking clue.”

A bit scathing, eh? I’ll let you be the judge and watch the video for yourself (though be warned, it is very long):

Reflecting on the panel, I feel that I did a good job representing what I believe and standing my ground on the issue of interfaith cooperation despite being in the minority and finding myself on the receiving end of some very pointed questions (as one Friendly Atheist commenter kindly stated: “I have to say Chris took the heckling with dignity“) …and, you know, having seen a dead body just an hour before.

Each time I speak on this apparently contentious issue, I become better at articulating what I believe. At 23 years old I still have a lot of learning to do, so I appreciate the opportunities I get to articulate and refine my stance. I’m not just interested in writing about this issue – I want to actively discuss it with people and so I am glad that we are able to, even when we find ourselves in profound disagreement.

It seems we won’t be coming to a consensus any time soon, but I am glad we are at least discussing it in a civil manner (the above blog comments aside, I guess). We’re not all going to agree on this issue, but I appreciate those who have offered constructive critiques rather than just mean-spirited criticisms. I have definitely taken the pushback I’ve gotten into consideration as I weigh how to offer my opinions, just as I have the positive feedback I got from a handful of participants, including one who cited me as her inspiration (a very heartwarming moment for me, to be sure!). In all I do, I try to learn — to me, this is a key part of being a Secular Humanist. And this is what drives me to interfaith instead of so-called “aggressive” Atheism: a desire to learn from others instead of set out to “prove wrong” those who disagree with me.

The bottom line: many, many thanks to the SSA and to all the folks who asked clarifying questions during the Q&A for listening respectfully and engaging my perspective – I look forward to continued dialogue!

"9/11 was a faith-based initiative"I’ve gotten to the point in my work with other Atheists where I’m not often shocked by the ignorant ways many talk about religion. Still, sometimes I’ll hear something so inflammatory that I’m left floored.

In a recent post on The Friendly Atheist, blogger Hemant Mehta shared a video of the Secular Student Alliance National Conference (where I spoke on a panel) keynote address by Atheist blogger Greta Christina on what Atheists can learn from the LGBT movement. I’ve heard her give this talk before, but it was Hemant’s conversation with her about it that caught my attention:

I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen? […]

So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?

9/11.

As a queer person, I am mortified by this comparison. The riots at Stonewall, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, were the first major instance that queer folks, long persecuted in the United States, decided to fight back and defend themselves. Stonewall is hugely symbolic for the queer community; to summon it as a parallel to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – a moment when, per Greta, many Atheists decided to start being vocally opposed to religion – is not just inappropriate, but a gross distortion of what those riots represented.

9/11 was not a moment that catalyzed a community to stand up for equality; co-opting the tragic events of 9/11 to make a case against religion strikes me as simply malicious and manipulative, just as the extremists who co-opted Islam on 9/11 manipulated their tradition.

The comparison of 9/11 to the Stonewall riots offends me personally as a queer person, it offends me intellectually as a rationalist, and it offends me as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It is truly a sad day for our community when we sound more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.

mosque protest

Protests at mosques around America are increasing, and they are using the same anti-Muslim rhetoric Atheists do.

This comparison is merely a symptom of a larger problem: our fundamentally flawed approach to religion, and more specifically to Islam. At least once a week I hear Atheists say: “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against the terrorists who claim their tradition? Maybe if they did that, then I’d see a difference between the two.”

First, who are we to dictate what a Muslim should or shouldn’t do? They shouldn’t be expected to help us understand why they are different than extremists who also claim that identity. We wouldn’t want others demanding that we explain how we’re different from violent Atheists like Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer (who said “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”), and others, right? I don’t see many Christians running around apologizing for Fred Phelps. It’s because they don’t have to – most of us just get that there is an ideological chasm between the clan who stands with “God Hates Fags” placards and the majority of mainstream Christians.

Second, Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? ThereAre. SoMany. That. I. Can’tLink. To. Them. All (but those eleven are a good start).

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

We need to start seeking out different stories. When we look for the worst in religion, that’s what we’re going to find. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: the mainstream media totally ignored when a mosque in Florida was bombed earlier this year – imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church. The press also ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim.

Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on it. As a community that boasts critical thinking and reason as our primary concerns, we shouldn’t be so quick to swallow the inaccurate portrayal of Islam narrated by our biased news media.

mosque protestFor too long, Islamophobia has been given a free pass in the United States, and the Atheist community has been a willing accomplice. Atheism is supposed to be a pillar of reason, yet many Atheists talk about Islam in the same problematic way as right-wing conservatives (just one example: “Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive“). We claim to be progressive and enlightened but, in the same breath, espouse an oversimplified and uninformed view of Islam.

The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives.

In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the country: “they have fear because they don’t know [Muslims].” The same is true of many Atheists. We must know our neighbors before we make qualitative judgments about what they believe. Besides – c’mon, is this really the company with which we want to cast our lot?

Atheists are quick to tout that America was not formed a Christian nation but on the principle of religious freedom. And yet, to quote from the Huffington Post‘s report on Akbar Ahmed’s recent appearance on The Daily Show, “unlike today’s attitudes of intolerance and suspicion, Ahmed observes that the founding fathers maintained a deep respect for Islam.”

We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is threatened. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity.

The only “wall” such comparisons construct is yet another division. Let’s stop building walls and start breaking them down, like the rioters at Stonewall did – brick by brick, piece by piece. And we can start by inviting Muslims to help us understand Islam instead of calling them guilty by association.

“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” – Carl Sagan, Wonder & Skepticism

“Holy shit,” he said. “That is a dead body underneath that tarp.”

It was a Sunday morning. The air was quiet; many Columbus residents, I imagine, were seated in church pews. Nat and I were leaving the hotel where we’d spent the weekend and headed to the Ohio State University for the final day of the 2010 Secular Student Alliance (SSA) National Conference. We were in a hurry – conference proceedings were to begin at 10:30 AM with a panel on interfaith, and I was on said panel.

We were very glad to be leaving this particular hotel. Our room smelled like a wet dog, the carpet was sticky, and every available piece of fabric was stained. We aren’t high maintenance – just last month we slept on the ground for five days while camping in the mountains – but this place was something else. To cope with the horror we felt about being stuck there, we spent the weekend jokingly referring to it as the “Murder 8.” As we packed our things and went to check out, we made one last joke to bid the hotel farewell and alleviate the nervousness I experience anytime I do public speaking. “Bye bye, Murder 8,” we chuckled.

Boy, did we eat our words when we stepped into that rainy Sunday morning and saw yellow police tape outside our room’s window, crime scene investigators busily snapping shots, and a single hand protruding from beneath a blue plastic sheet.

Neither of us knew what to do. There was nothing to do, really, except get in the car. Man, I spend too much time worrying about minute things, I mused as we drove away, sick to our stomachs.

Trying to put the image out of my mind, I readied myself to talk about secular participation in the interfaith movement. The panel was comprised of myself, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work with Atheists named Jonathan Weyer, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics. During the panel, I spoke strongly in favor of interfaith cooperation and why I think it is important for secular folks to engage with religious communities in a respectful manner. I thought it went really well, but I admit I was surprised at the end when a significant number of the questions during the Q&A were directed only at me and seemed a bit pointed.

After the panel was done and the panelists had all shaken hands and expressed our mutual gratitude, several students approached me and asked me to denounce things some of my interfaith allies have said about Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). I said that I could not – and then everyone was asked to be seated for the next session. I never got the chance to reconnect with these students as I had to catch an early flight home. I can’t help but feel bad about the anger they expressed and my inability to offer anything to soothe them.

Noticing a trend here? Humor, shock, nervousness, anger: experiences get processed through emotions. They were the cornerstone of the conference experience; both my own – the friendships I built, the anxiety I felt before speaking, the shock of a random death – and those of others – the impassioned questions, the anger and hurt of some students, and the community constructed. Whatever we do, emotions narrate our experiences and guide our actions.

Perhaps it is useful at this point to share an illuminating conversation I had with a man I now count as a personal friend: Jesse Galef, Communications Director for the SSA, adjunct blogger for The Friendly Atheist, and stellar breakdancer. Ours has been an evolving dialogue: it started at the SSA New England Leadership Summit I attended this past April, continued during a conference call we were both on around EDMD, and most recently extended before an audience at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference last month where we were on a panel together.

During a break in the conference schedule Jesse and I returned to this ongoing conversation on our different approaches – what are often caricatured as “aggressive” Atheism and “accommodationism” – and why we practice them. At one point in the conversation, Jesse identified his number one goal as working toward a world rooted in “rationality.” I’m not sure why I didn’t fully recognize this before, but that is not a goal we share. I’m more interested in cultivating communities and relationships that develop broad coalitions of solidarity across identified lines of difference. Relationships of mutuality and respect. Relationships that account for – you guessed it – emotion.

Our approaches are different because our end goals are different. We both believe we are being pragmatic; it’s just that I pragmatically don’t think a solely “rational” world is achievable. Nor, emotionally, do I think it is preferable. Emotions do and always will play a sizable role in the decisions we make, and I think that when we try to divorce our actions from our emotions and rest entirely on “reason,” we end up making pretty irrational decisions.

panel

Three fourths of the interfaith panel. (photo c/o Roy Natian)

Take, for example, a recent blog post by my fellow panelist Hemant Mehta, who is also on the SSA’s Board of Directors. Writing about Anne Rice’s declaration that, though she still believes in Christ, she can no longer identify as a Christian due to the tradition’s historical bigotry, Hemant dismissed her statement and said he’d “pay more attention” if she abandoned her religious beliefs altogether. As Skeptigirl’s response post wisely notes, Hemant displays zero compassion in this reflection. There’s no sign of sympathy or even a practical appreciation for the ways in which her move advances our cause. There’s no emotion there, only superiority.

I love the Secular Student Alliance because they empower young people to create communities. They do such important work, and I am honored to be a member, contribute to the eMpirical, and speak at their conference. I celebrate where our ambitions overlap – I too want to see more secular students be vocal about our identity and actively create communities. But where we diverge is that I worry about the identity we model when engaging in things like EDMD, a contentious issue that came up several times throughout the conference and repeatedly in our interfaith panel.

I walked away from the conference solid in my conviction that things like EDMD and Blasphemy Day are bad for our community because they symbolize our worst characteristics and attempts at emotion-denying: a tendency toward intellectual superiority and a struggle to empathize with different experiences and identities (these go hand in hand). We say “it’s just humor” as if everyone should be expected to see the joke in how we mock their central tenants. I can’t help but notice in this a stark difference between humor that elucidates a truth and humor that just dehumanizes.

I’m proud of my non-religious identity but I also know that secularism is a sign of profound privilege, and we ought to exercise caution in how we navigate this reality. As Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry, keynote speaker Greta Christina, and others rightly noted, our movement is dominated by upper-class, educated, heterosexual white men. Why is this? Most people do not have the luxury of sitting around debating the existence of God, let alone taking an entire weekend to attend a conference on secularism, because they are preoccupied by just trying to live, to eat, to survive. Some reconcile the struggles and challenges of their existence with a belief in God.

I don’t think we need to treat “believing something different” and “sharing in humanity” as mutually exclusive entities. Our secularism needn’t deprive those who do not share in it of their dignity. We have the luxury of being able to devote our time to critical thinking and inquiry, so let’s use them for good. Let’s stop seeing the world in dichotomies of black and white, right and wrong, rational and emotional, secular and “delusional.” They just aren’t very useful; the world is full of information and we shouldn’t close ourselves off from any of it by thinking we’ve reached “the truth” while boasting that others haven’t. We must always aim for empathy and humility, not unabashed assuredness. If we cannot, we are just as guilty of what we accuse the evangelical religious of – exclusive truth claims that promote oppression.

Instead of cracking so many jokes at another’s expense, let’s listen to more stories, like the one my mother shared on this blog about how she learned to embrace the legitimacy of choices that differed from her own. As Eboo Patel, April Kunze and Noah Silverman write in Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work: “Personal storytelling moves the encounter from competing notions of ‘Truth’ to varied human experiences of life, which possess the unique quality of being both infinite and common.” If we tell our stories and listen to those of others, we’re likely to learn a lot.

We may not believe in souls but we can be soulful. Let’s stop focusing so much energy on how we are “right” and on “promoting rationality,” lest we forget about our hearts. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive either. To quote from something I’ve written before:

My mom occasionally recounts a story about me as a child, a time I corrected a kid at a birthday party for calling sherbet “ice cream.” She always laughs when she tells it… As you might guess, in my youth being “right” held ultimacy. I corrected everyone who I felt was “wrong.” With age and experience, my perspective has shifted. I do believe it is better to be “good” than to be “right.”

I may not always get this right, but I’m trying to practice what I preach the best that I can. It helps me to ask in any given situation that begins to move into conflict: isn’t being loving more important than being “right”? A quick perusal of human history shows that when one person’s idea of “rationality” trumps basic human decency for others, we all suffer. Let’s learn from our mutual past.

Today I am not spending my time worrying about the folks who offered negative appraisal of my comments during the interfaith panel. I think instead of the family of that nameless person killed outside of my hotel.

I wonder how they are coping; I wonder if they are praying. I could understand if that family was appealing to a God in the face of such tragedy – I remember only too well the times I turned to God when experiencing loss.

Ask yourself this: if they are turning to God to process this experience, would you go up to them and tell them that they are wrong? Foolish? Deluded?

I shudder at that thought almost as much as I do the unshakable image of that blue tarp with a single hand exposed, reaching out for something. What he was reaching for we cannot know, but we can feel it if we try.

If you read this blog, you’re familiar with Cambridge Broxterman. She was one of the women who did “Back in Their Burkas Again” at the American Atheist Convention this last spring; after I wrote about my experience there, Cambridge read my blog and offered an impassioned video response. We then got into an exchange that prompted her to post another video about me, which I then responded to here on NonProphet Status.

Sure enough, we were both at the Secular Student Alliance National Conference this last weekend, and — surprise, surprise — she decided to make a video about it. Please make sure to watch this one the whole way through:

Gods, Gays and Goodbyes

July 22, 2010

beersLast night I was out with my good buddy Ben, celebrating my impending move across the country and commiserating about how much we would miss one another. Ben, who I met in my post-Master’s Spiritual Direction studies at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, is one of my closest friends in Chicago. We have a lot in common: a love for the outdoors, a passion for music, a propensity to wrestle with deep ethical questions — not to mention we both grew up in Minnesota. Ben’s been gone for a lot of the summer, working on his next album, so this was both an opportunity for us to both catch up and “say goodbye” (though we’ll be reuniting in August for some good ol’ Minnesota camping).

We decided to hit up our favorite spot, a little hole in the wall called The Anvil on Granville. As residents of Rogers Park, Ben and I frequented The Anvil a lot this year. It’s truly a neighborhood bar; a place that seems to have changed very little in the last 40 years, dimly lit and without a sign outside, a nook primarily populated by people who live within a mile of it. The Anvil is also a gay bar. For this reason it is especially fun to go to The Anvil with Ben, a straight man, and witness the cross-cultural confusion that ensues.

Though I can’t speak to how he operates when I’m not around, Ben seems to be terribly comfortable around gay men. Or, at least, he is terribly gracious. Every time Ben and I go to the Anvil, he gets hit on. A lot more than I do, I should add. Often aggressively: it wasn’t until a week after the first time we went there that Ben informed me that the man who’d been hanging around him that entire night had stuck his tongue in Ben’s ear. Ben had played it cool, not wanting to make a scene. His patience for situations that would make the average person uncomfortable and his willingness to engage contexts outside his own continue to inspire the work I do in facilitating religious and secular dialogue.

But back to last night. We were off to a good start: ten minutes in and Ben’s inner ear was still unmolested. We picked a spot on the back patio and got comfortable. As we lifted our mugs of miraculously cheap beer and clinked to my move and our friendship, we were approached by a man who began to compliment my tattoos, my feet (“can I touch them?”), my stretched earlobes and my smile. Well, guess I’m taking the bullet tonight, I thought, at which point he immediately directed his attention at Ben. We were both patient, but I had immediately dismissed this man in my mind. I’m not here to get hit on, I thought impatiently, I’m here to say goodbye to a close friend.

I closed myself off, but Ben had other plans. In his unending kindness, Ben continued conversation with this stranger. He asked if we lived in the area, and Ben said we did but that I was moving. The man inquired why and I explained that I’m relocating to continue my work facilitating secular and religious engagement. He asked me to clarify. I replied: “Basically? I encourage people of all faiths and no faith at all to not just tolerate one another’s existence — which itself would be an improvement — but to engage one another’s deepest motivations and move into collaborative action around identifiable shared values despite religious differences.” He asked if I believed in God, and I replied with a strong and swift: “no.” He quickly took me in his arms and squeezed me tight. “God will reveal himself to you,” he said. “I’ll pray it so.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in my life. But instead of getting insulted — instead of closing myself off even more — I smiled and said “thank you.” You see, what this man didn’t know is that God reveals him(or her)self to me every day.

For the last year that I’ve worked at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the Gods of my co-workers have had a sizable impact on me. Whether it’s the Christian God of my supervisor, Cassie, giving her the compassion to forgive my latest screw-up, or the Muslim God of my boss, IFYC founder and White House advisor Eboo Patel, inspiring him to invite a Secular Humanist such as myself to contribute to the public discourse on religion, I would not have had the opportunities I have if it weren’t for their passionate religious beliefs. And I wouldn’t have the wonderful relationships that I formed with them — or with Ben, or even with the man who stroked my feet at The Anvil — if I had refused to engage their beliefs. I may not share in them, but they still matter to me.

After a bout of friendly dialogue, the man asked me: “Okay, but tell me this Mr. Atheist: where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” I answered honestly: “I’m not a scientist, you know, but I can perhaps best describe it as some incredible series of random events. But to be honest that question doesn’t really matter to me. I could care less how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?” He clutched his chest, hugged me again and grinned, nodding his solid agreement. I’m so glad that Ben’s kindness inspired me to give this man a chance.

What will we do? I hope that we’ll engage one another’s deepest values with at least as much patience as Ben in a gay bar.

[That’s a wrap, folks: I’ll be at the Secular Student Alliance national conference this weekend speaking on a panel about interfaith cooperation. Check back next week, when I’ll try to have a report on that — though I’m moving across the country a week from today, so it may be difficult. I haven’t the words to express how much I’ll miss this city, so this post will have to do as my general goodbye. And if I don’t get around to posting something next week, be sure you check out Tim Brauhn’s amazing guest post from this morning in the meantime, which was featured on the front page of WordPress today!]

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