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!

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“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.

This post is the second part of a two part report on the Secular Student Alliance‘s New England Leadership Summit. For a report on the first day, click here.

Interview with Greg Epstein

I first had the opportunity to meet Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, when I was working onInterfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 Conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. We exchanged several emails and had a greg-epsteingreat conversation at the event itself. We’ve since stayed in touch, and it is always great to hear him talk about his work at Harvard, so I was excited for the opportunity to do so at the Summit. Epstein discussed what he does as a Humanist Chaplain, which is working with students to achieve goals, build a sustainable community, teach and advise student research, and help provide resources for those outside the Harvard Community. He discussed his interpersonal work with students, including a conversation he frequently has with students about values: “Once you begin to think skeptically,” Epstein said, “where do you draw the line? Where do you reconstruct a set of beliefs that says we have all kinds of natural, relative, but still very important reasons for caring about ourselves, others, and the world?”

Epstein also reveled that when he started as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, the total budget was $28,000, which included his salary, money for programming — everything. He has since expanded it significantly. Epstein said that the small amount of funding for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard represents the struggle our movement faces as a whole: “In this career field, and in this movement in general, you have to be willing to take a risk if you want to make any kind of advance. We are starting so much further behind anything that might reasonably be considered our competition.” As usual, it was a pleasure hearing Epstein talk. For more, check out a video of the session here (and, if you turn the volume up, you can hear me ask a question about collaborating with religious chaplains near the end of the video).

Bridging the Divide — Keys to Respectful Interaction and Cooperation with Religious Groups

This session, as well as the next two to follow, where those that most directly echoed the work that I do. I was so excited to see this workshop on the list of sessions, and it did not disappoint. Nate Mauger, Secular Student Alliance intern, described maugerhis experience when his Secular Student Alliance group partnered with an on campus Christian group to go to New Orleans for a service project. You can read about his service experience in his amazing NonProphet Status guest blog from earlier this week. In his presentation he highlighted some key beliefs on why it is important to collaborate with religious organizations (beliefs I obviously share), including that it is a “great opportunity to dispel common negative stereotypes aimed at the secular movement,” that engaging with people of differing viewpoints enhances the quality of conversation, and that one is able accomplish a lot more by combining resources. Mauger also offered advice on how to reach out to a religious group, and counseled that clear communication is key and disagreement is inevitable but that you should “take time to focus on issues on which you can find common ground.” All in all it was an excellent presentation and a helpful starting point for secular folks interested in getting involved in an interfaith project.

A Secular Humanist Invocation

Andrew Lovley, Founder and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) and student at the University of Southern Maine, offered a reflection on the controversy that ensued after he was invited to deliver an invocation at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine. Unsurprisingly, his invocation actually prompted less outcry from religious people than it did from those within the secular community, where he was criticized for doing something “religious.” Lovley asserted that he believes lovleythat “Secular Humanists should do invocations and other religious practices whenever they have they have the opportunity” and use them as opportunities to “unify and inspire, not protest [religion],” saying he believed such protests are counterproductive. As a Secular Humanist who has taken a preaching class in seminary and preached several secular sermons, I agree with him on this. As Kelly Bodwin said on the first day of the Summit, we can use religious forms and apply them to our secular values, modeling our communities off the good things about religion. Lovley’s call for secularists to expand their notions of what kinds of activities secular folks should engage in resonated very strongly with me a secular interfaith dialogue facilitator and I really enjoyed hearing him speak so eloquently about his experiences and beliefs. You can read his invocation here, read a blog he did about whether Humanist’s should deliver invocations here, and see a video of his SSA Leadership Summit workshop here.

Gaining Acceptance — Lessons Learned from the Front Line

Greg R. Langer, an attorney from Los Angeles and founding chairperson of Chrysalis, a non-profit serving the homeless in L.A., lead a workshop on how to advance the secular movement’s quest for wider societal acceptance. He echoed a lot of what I’ve said in my work — the idea that demanding we be recognized as legitimate is far less efficient than demonstrating we are (show and don’t tell), saying that “claiming Atheists are victims does not engender positive responses.” Langer asserted that we will often need to meet religious people more than halfway, advising secularists to “treat each person as an individual and not as a representative of [her or his] group, even when you are not treated that way.” He acknowledged that “Atheism has baggage — it is seen as hostile,” and that “non-theism, while not as problematic, still only says what you do not believe.” For those reasons, Langer said that he prefers to identify as a Secular Humanist — this is precisely what I’ve said on this blog many times over.

Langer continued by saying that, though it may be tempting, the secular inclination to tell religious people that they are deluded is never productive. He warned that when engaging with theists one should anticipate and be prepared to address negative langerassumptions about the non-religious, but also said that we must “check [ourselves] for prejudices too. We will only achieve acceptance if we really hear [the religious] and empathize.” Langer also condemned the common Atheist desire to serve as a de-conversion missionary, saying that “while it might be nice [to de-convert], it is not our priority.” This echoes the interfaith idea that, while we would all love to see others come to recognize our “truth,” we know it is not the most important issue at hand. Ultimately, he said, gaining wider acceptance is about engagement — and, more specifically, changing how secularists engage. “Disdain must be replaced with empathy,” Langer said,” just as we ask them to empathize with us.” I found Langer’s speech to be a very important articulation of the message that I advocate and really enjoyed the ways in which he broke it down into specific actions secularists can take to promote wider acceptance of secular perspectives.

Building a Relationship with the White House

This was a fun session on the Secular Coalition For America‘s White House briefing in which participant Jesse Galef shared some of his experience. You can see a full video here.

Conversations

As great as the sessions were, my favorite part was meeting with the other attendees of the Leadership Summit. There was a broad variety of perspectives present, but we all spoke our mind without fear of disagreeing and without criticizing one another. It gave me a lot of hope for greater unity in our movement, and I was glad for the opportunity to participate.

Now that my travels are done and I am back in Chicago, I’m turning to work on the final days of the Share Your Secular Story Contest. It closes in 15 DAYS so submit now!

share your secular storyOur Share Your Secular Story contest is quickly coming to an end — the period for submission closes in less than a month on May 15, so get your entry in! We wanted to give you an example of a secular story that demonstrates how one young secular individual found a way to engage with people of another religious identity, remain strong in his own, and identify shared values with others around which they were able to collaborate. Today’s guest post comes from Nate Mauger, a student at The Ohio State University and intern at the Secular Student Alliance, who shares his “secular story.” His story is a profound testament to the importance of expressing secular values and the potential significance of interfaith collaboration. We hope it inspires you to share a story of your own!

It was early in the morning — well, at least too early to be awake on one’s spring break — and our group was wandering aimlessly around the house we had been told we would be working on that day. New Orleans had been cool and sunny for the majority of the week, but today the sky was overcast and the air was hot and humid. As our group waited to get inside, we were told that the eighty year old woman who had lived in this house had died in its doorway as Hurricane Katrina swept through nearly calendar5 years ago. She had stayed to protect her belongings from looters and vandals, and sure enough almost everything she owned was still sitting in place where she had left it. Even a calendar on her wall was still flipped to August, 2005. To say the scene was unsettling would be an understatement. As we made our way through the house, we were told to strip out all her things and throw them in a dumpster. Then our group would rip the drywall from the walls, essentially gutting the residence down to the studs. When a house is mostly empty, doing demo work can be an invigorating experience. Seeing someone’s life laid out in front of us dampened our enthusiasm, to say the least.

The group with whom we went to New Orleans consisted of twelve Christians and twelve Atheists from the The Thomas Society (An Ohio State University Campus Ministry) and the Students for Freethought at OSU (SFF), respectively. The idea had been inspired a similar joint venture undertaken by a secular student group from the University of Illinois – Champaign Urbana. This was the second annual trip SFF and the Thomas Society had made to New Orleans together. This being my first trip, I was understandably anxious and a little apprehensive. Though the two groups had been cooperating for almost two years, and many people could testify to the respectfulness of the interaction, I still had my reservations. In a alien environment like a service trip, would members of a Christian group see the inherent intimacy of our venture as an opportunity to proselytize me? Could the Atheists avoid the temptation to attack what they see to be the many distasteful and irrational positions of the Christian faith?

Putting my fears aside, I dived in headfirst and learned a great deal about what interfaith cooperation really means, and why it can be such a valuable experience for people who hold opposing worldviews to work together to make our world a better place. I IDknow that sounds cliché, but the service trip we took together convinced me that the altruism present in the Thomas Society isn’t all that different from the emotion a Secular Humanist feels when they see an individual in need or a community in ruins. In that moment when we were surveying the state of that elderly woman’s house, I could tell that a common chord had been struck within every member of our team. We were collectively outraged at the sustained neglect of not only this property, but of the community in general. How could this injustice be perpetuated for so long? As I looked on at the work in front of us, it occurred to me that it would be entirely irresponsible of us to focus on our differences when our common goals and ideals could be harnessed to affect a positive change in the short window of opportunity we had been given.

I should mention that while we had a singular focus as we worked on these homes, that does not mean that we ignored our differences entirely. On many nights, we had long discussions concerning the details of our differing worldviews. These were undertaken in a respectful manner, but they were not brushed under the rug in any way. In talking with the leaders of both groups extensively, I got the feeling that each group had a fierce desire to know the truth. While the approach SFF and the Thomas Society take is strikingly different, that passion is there. Disagreement and debate with faith groups are critical to freeing our minds from the excessive insularity that a group’s isolation can engender.

serviceOf course, we didn’t forget that we were on spring break. Most nights, you could find our groups wandering the French Quarter experiencing all that this amazing city has to offer. Bourbon Street was particularly active during our visit, and one of my most vivid memories of the trip involves our encounter there with a fundamentalist evangelical Christian group holding signs condemning us for our iniquity. Naturally, the we couldn’t help but confront them and discuss their views and motivations for taking such a militant stance. As I argued for what seemed like an eternity with these people the subject turned to what we were doing down in New Orleans. We explained that we were part of a service trip involving both Atheists and Christians, and they seemed to be extremely surprised by this. As we continued to go back and forth, I noticed that some of my closest allies in this debate were the moderate Christians who accompanied us down to New Orleans. At least for the moment, we had more in common than we held in opposition.

In summary, I would encourage anyone to look into a joint service trip like the one our group decided to do over spring break. We worked with AmeriCorps and the Trinity Community Center down in New Orleans, but opportunities like this exist all around the country. Developing mutual respect for your peers of differing faiths and working to better a community can be extremely rewarding… and oh yeah, don’t be afraid to have a good time while you’re at it. I promise you, we did.

maugerNate Mauger is the Wintern (Winter + Intern) at the Secular Student Alliance. He is an active member of Students for Freethought at The Ohio State University where he studies Anthropology and Geography. Nate’s experience traveling with SFF and The Thomas Society to New Orleans for a service project gave him a new perspective on the benefits of cooperation with faith groups. With graduation on the horizon, Nate hopes to stave off unemployment by attending grad school to study Geographic Information Systems.

Have a secular story of your own to share? Enter our contest before May 15!

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