Today’s guest blogger is Nicholas Lang, an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. He’s previously written for NonProphet Status about his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:

HereafterA couple weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Faith Project with my friend, Miranda. We sat in the back, in close proximity to the tasty treats, and listened to amazing religious people talk about how their backgrounds inspire them to fight for justice and equality for all. Although we stood in solidarity with these interfaith activists, Ms. Hovemeyer and I came from a far different perspective than our religious compatriots did. We both identify as agnostics, and together, we help make up the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago.

And as I expected, one puzzled audience member interrogated us as to our involvement in interfaith. As an agnostic passionate about work erroneously perceived as only involving religious people, I get questions like his all the time: Why do you care about religious work?

And another personal favorite: Aren’t you guys against religion?

A: We’re not.

In fact, Miranda and I both label ourselves as People of Faith, although that faith happens to be an indefinite one. As a Humanist with a Unitarian Universalist background, Miranda’s tradition taught that religions share more commonality than difference. In her understanding, this overlap has the power to unite disparate communities.

Working both in interfaith and within the queer community showed me that we have a duty to build these bridges ourselves. The only way to create tolerance and religious plurality in society is by actively working toward it. I might not have a label to describe what tradition I ascribe to, but I believe in the power of people.

I believe in us.

At an interfaith event that Miranda and I helped moderate last week, we once again stood surrounded by religious people. Organized by the DePaul A.V. Club and DePaul Interfaith, this “Dinner and a Movie with Interfaith” utilized art as dialogue to start a discussion around religious difference. Our screening of the Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter” drew around 50 guests, from an incredible diversity of campus religious groups. Among many others, I stood with Protestants from DePaul InterVarsity, Catholics from University Ministry, Muslims from DePaul’s UMMA organization.

But more importantly, non-religious people joined us at the forefront of this discussion. That evening, we welcomed guests from the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, our university’s organization for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Also known as DAFT, the group is just over a year old and new to interfaith dialogue on campus. The evening’s discussion centered on perspectives on life and the afterlife, and in joining the conversation, I sensed a lot of hurt and resentment from my non-religious friends. As an agnostic, I understood exactly where they were coming from.

I would be lying to you if I told you that religion is always good, that faith always acts as a tool for empowerment. Scott, the evening’s most vocal DAFT member, lamented the damage that religion can inflict when he pointed out that any discussion of a religious afterlife meant little to him. As a gay man, he believed his Catholic background had already condemned him to Hell.

However, something incredible can happen when religion does help people to heal the divides that ail them. Although many of us disagreed about what happens to us when we die, we found out that the value our traditions place on death tells us each something about how to live. For many agnostics and atheists, nothing awaits us after our death, and this reality acts as a powerful incentive to live life to its fullest now. Our school’s UMMA representatives discussed the role of our others in keeping the memory of the departed alive after they die. According to their tradition, we spiritually live on in those we impact in our lifetime.

Whether we were discussing Heaven or a “fluffy Soul Cloud in the sky,” we were articulating the same needs in our lives: the need for purpose, for community, for connectedness. We all desired to find something, whether in this life or this next.

All of us have a role in creating conversations in our lives that work towards creating common ground. At the end of the discussion, Scott asked if those around him felt that all of us could truly be friends, despite our stark ideological divides. The room resoundingly answered yes.

At moments like these, I know that non-religious folks belong in the interfaith movement. If faith is to unite build bridges across faith lines, skeptics have a key role in ensuring that religion acts as a force for good in the world. Although this was not the case when he began working in interfaith, Huffington Post columnist Chris Stedman recently mentioned that we agnostics and atheists are now “hard to miss.” That’s because we have a unique perspective that is increasingly impossible to ignore, even if what we bring to the table can sometimes be difficult to talk about.

And if last week’s event showed anything, there’s another reason that today’s non-religious folks stand out in interfaith work:

We’re helping lead it.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.

Today’s installment in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Ryan Linstrom, a humanist who has studies International Development and Human Rights. His guest piece is a personal reflection the hot topic of conflict in the Middle East, the ramifications of leaving religion out of the conversation, and the nuances of religion as a force for evil and a force for good. Offering an interfaith way forward, Ryan’s piece is a powerful, wise and timely read — check it out!

alaqsamosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque - The Dome of the Rock

My first experience of the Middle East was in the Fall of 2005. Though I met with countless numbers of people during the 3 month study abroad program, the interactions that stuck with me most were the meetings with angry Palestinian Refugees, radical Israeli settlers, fundamentalist Christians, and the racist Jewish Rabbis who would take the long way around the Old City of Jerusalem to avoid going through the “Arab part of town.” Needless to say, the trip left me disillusioned, some may even say, bitter.  I ended the trip like most people who have seen the horrors of conflict: convinced that “Religion is the greatest source of evil the world has ever known.”

To an extent, part of me still believes it. Religion has inspired more hate, more intolerance, and more conflict than any other organization known to man. But, it would be presumptuous to end there. To assume that religion has only played a negative role throughout history is to ignore the great good that religion has given us – The Ghandis, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s, the Mother Theresas. Yet, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve ignored the religious aspects of the conflict and attempted to bring peace in purely secular terms. As one scholar suggests, this has been fairly unsuccessful:

Since the peace effort has been led by secularists, peace itself has become identified in Israel with (the) secular left, religiously committed people that feel threatened by it. They may not be against peace or compromise, but they see this effort linked to increased secularism. ¹

Now, I think most rational people would agree that religion has played a significant negative role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For those of us who saw the religious-infused hate and racism, a secular solution makes a lot of sense. So what’s the problem?

I’m glad you asked.

Here’s how I see it:

1. Powerful narratives exist here.
The negative religious narratives that support the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are successful for a reason: they are deeply intertwined with the sense of identity of the inhabitants of the region. The truth is, religion, geography, history and identity are all so intricately woven together that it probably takes more effort to ignore religion in a solution to this conflict than it does to include it.

2. Extremists roam free.
You’ve seen them on the nightly news: Hamas members burning flags chanting “Death to Jews”, Radical Jewish settlers whispering obscenities at Arab women. Extremists on all sides have been allowed, unopposed, to propagate hateful, intolerant messages using cherished religious histories. Without any serious challenges, these hateful messages have become the norm, leaving people with a terrible taste in their mouth towards both peace and religion. Many of those involved, or no longer involved in this conflict have nothing left to fight for. That brings us to #3:

3. Moderates are given no incentive to engage.
As with all religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide a framework that can help to make sense of the tragedy of conflict. When radicals hi-jack the predominate religious narrative, moderates have little incentive to participate in the pursuit of peace. Without an alternative story to connect to, the Jewish man living in Jerusalem has to choose between being a “good Jew”, and working towards peace. Similarly, the Evangelical Christian in the U.S. has little choice: What Would Jesus Do? Well, he would support Israel, of course. No Matter What. Jesus was Jewish, ya’ know…

I’ve recently started attending a mutli-religious Sunday service at a Unitarian Universalist Church here in L.A. Mingled within the many banners and flags that populate the stage is one that says, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I’ll admit, it’s cheesy, and there is an undertone of idealism that may make the realists in the room groan just a bit, but it’s a principle that this conflict needs to find a way to embrace.

What we need is an inclusive, interfaith narrative that takes seriously the religious stories from each affected group. If there is to be any progress towards peace, we need to find a common story that allows us to stop identifying each other as the negation of the other: Not-a-Muslim, Not-a-Jew, Non-Christian.

A couple examples of inclusive narrative-change comes to mind:

My second trip to Jerusalem left a far better taste in my mouth. As an intern for the Rabbis for Human Rights, I was highly impressed with their mission to positively redefine the term, “Zionist”. Though the word is commonly used pejoratively among peace activists, the Rabbi’s were firm in their conviction that true “Zionists” took care of the “foreigner in their midst”. They work daily to reclaim the religious narrative, interpreting Jewish scriptures in support of human rights and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.

Another example is that of the Melkite Catholic Priest, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who builds common ground with Christians, Muslims, and Jews by pointing to a shared religious history. In his book, “Blood Brothers”, he says, “We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God”. His school in the Galilee area has become a beacon of hope, for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students that attend, and for the conflict as a whole.

In ignoring the positive contributions that religion can make in this conflict, not only are we excluding populations of passionate people of faith from a solution that they have a stake in, but we are conceding defeat to extremists and allowing “The Holy Land” to become something incredibly un-holy. The passion, community, and deeply-felt historical meaning that religion can bring to the table in this conflict is desperately needed to inspire, unite, and impassion all of those involved towards a peaceful common goal.

1. (Landau, Yehezkel. 2003. Healing the Holy Land: Religious Peacebuilding in Israel Palestine. Washington, DC: Peaceworks Series of United States Institute of Peace (USIP).)

This post originally appeared on Aware!

ryan linstromRyan Linstrom recently graduated with an M.A. in International Development and Human Rights. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he plots his next big move. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter @ryanlinstrom.

Today’s entry in our series of guest posts is by Bruce Johansen, a prolific freelance writer who also happens to be my first cousin once removed! You may remember my Mom’s guest post on NPS — it’s a family affair here. To that effect, Bruce offers a poignant and illuminating look into the recent memorial service for his father and the role religion did (and didn’t) play in planning it. It’s a real honor to share this affecting and insightful writing with you today — thank you for sharing this moving piece with us, Bruce.

“There Won’t Be Anything”

I remember it vividly. We were in the kitchen doing dishes, when my father said something that I could not quite follow.

“I guess there won’t be anything for me when I’m gone.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“No funeral or service,” he clarified.

Still not sure I understood, I pressed him further: “Why wouldn’t there be a service?”

“Well,” he replied, “your mother and I haven’t belonged to a church in years.”

Bruce and father

Celebrating one of my father's last birthdays.

It was true. My parents had stopped attending church years (actually decades) ago, and at some point my father, for whom religion had once seemed most important, had drifted away from it completely. Even so, I assured my dad that having severed that relationship was no reason to think that there would be no service. We knew several people who could put together something wonderful and meaningful. It would not be religious in the traditional sense (no God language or prayer, for example) but it would serve many of the same functions.

In hindsight I wish that I had followed up with more questions. What would he like to have included in a service — readings, pieces of music, stories? I also found myself wondering what had become of the Christian beliefs that had seemed so important for much of his life, back when he prayed before holiday meals and attended church faithfully. At the time, however, I was mostly relieved that I had put his mind at ease.

When the Time Came

One night in June, a couple of years after that exchange, my father died. Since January 2008 he had suffered a series of physical setbacks, including two fractured hips and a stroke. As his health deteriorated, he often expressed his desire to die. Still, upon receiving the news, we as a family found ourselves unprepared, both emotionally and in practical ways. Suddenly we were confronted with the reality of his absence, and by numerous tasks that were new to us, many involving finances and stacks of paperwork. Fortunately we had a trusted financial advisor we could lean on for advice about that sort of thing. What was not so clear was how to mark my dad’s passing.

In families that have a strong connection to church, a funeral or memorial service is less of a quandary. The church is notified and conversations are held, hopefully with a trusted pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or someone in a comparable role. In most traditions, a service is scheduled, most often for the following week. There are certain prescribed rituals; expected music, commonly shared words. But what happens when that connection to church is lacking, and when members of the immediate family hold views about religion that range from humanist to agnostic to atheist? That was the context in which we, as a family, began our conversations about how to mark this chapter.

With few models to work with, two family members suggested that we think of the event as a “celebration of life.” Initially it was thought that this celebration would be held outdoors, in a park along the Mississippi River that in recent years had become a favorite site for family gatherings. An aunt who had planned and led two services — one for her mother who had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and the other for a dear friend who had committed suicide — could officiate. The service itself would be shaped around the sharing of stories. Most importantly, it would not be generic and impersonal.

While we liked the spirit that my family wanted to capture, my partner and I had our share of concerns. Some were logistical. Would elderly friends and relatives be able to hear if it were held outdoors? Would people find the spot and would it be easy to navigate? What if the day happened to be rainy or overly hot? Anything was possible in Minnesota in late August. After mulling over those questions, a decision was made to hold the service in the chapel at Macalester College, my father’s alma mater.

The next decision proved trickier. While I had no doubt that my aunt would do a wonderful job preparing and officiating, I thought that there could be some wisdom in inviting friends who had professional training and experience planning such events. From services I had attended, the best helped loved ones remember the person who had died and confront some of the deeper issues and questions that all of us face about mortality and the meaning of life. After some initial hesitancy, other family members consented, and I invited the assistance of two people in addition to my aunt, Susie: a good friend, Rod, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and another, Marilaurice, who is a long-time Catholic liturgist. All three would guide us.

The Potential Gift of Religious Practice

service

Pictured (from left): Rev. Rod Richards, UU minister; Marilaurice Hemlock, Catholic liturgist; Susie Stedman, experienced service leader; Carol Johansen, the author’s mother; nieces Erin Collins and Michelle Collins Zhao, and Bruce Johansen, all of whom joined Rod Richards and Susie Stedman in reading the story of the author’s father’s life.

As planning proceeded, the main challenge was to design a celebration that would prove meaningful, while not setting off alarms for the most anti-religious among us. Some family members lump all religion together with the most literal, fundamentalist brand. As for me, I have a longstanding appreciation of humanist religions. I also know many people who identify with and derive meaning from more traditional religions, who are smart and thoughtful, and who have a negotiated relationship with their religion. They may appreciate religion in metaphorical, not literal ways, or find in some of its parables useful lessons for how to be in the world, while rejecting other texts. Many of these people seem well grounded, fight for social justice, and treat others with an inspiring compassion, kindness, and love.

Those of us who hold a more nuanced view know that while religion can be a source of great suffering and terrible violence in the world, it can also elicit the best in people. And, as this story shows, religion — including the humanist variety that I am most comfortable with — also has the capacity to help people navigate the most difficult moments and questions in their lives.

What evolved from working with three people who possessed the right blend of skills and sensitivity was exactly the kind of celebration I had envisioned, and proved to be more than what my family had hoped for. The groundwork was laid through phone calls, email exchanges, and an initial planning session that brought the minister and liturgist, my mother, partner, and me together around a table on a Saturday afternoon. That casual exchange led to many good ideas being bandied about. By the end of our session the order of service was nearly set and to everyone’s satisfaction. The following Friday, the day before the service, all of us came together as a family, with our planners, and the final details fell into place.

The service that resulted captured who my dad was, and simultaneously grappled with the big questions about life, death, and what it means to be human. Between thoughtful opening and closing words came the sharing of my dad’s life story, music, poetry, silence, and a wonderful blessing tailored to my father’s life. Photo albums, carefully prepared by my brother, enhanced the story that was told. All of the elements were respectful of the beliefs and wishes of my family.

Every person present for my dad’s celebration of life left the campus grounds that Saturday knowing more about him than when they arrived. And for those who may have entered the chapel skeptical about or even hostile toward religion, the service demonstrated the potential gift that religious practice can be in helping people mark important passages of life. To a person, members of my family were sure that my father would have been pleased with how the celebration had unfolded. While his physical being was not there, much of his spirit was present.

Stepping Back

If I could step back in time, rejoin my dad in the kitchen that day, I would assure him with much greater confidence that the service planned would be one of reflection, respect, tenderness, and love; that his absence from church these past many years would not matter one bit; that our family could learn from those among us who are more “churched” than we, and that they could learn from us as well.

bruceBruce Johansen is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in American studies. He currently does research and writes reports for the DC-based FrameWorks Institute and devotes much of his time to community development work in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. As a child, Bruce attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, and then, in his 20s, discovered Unitarianism. More recently he has found himself drawn to Ethical Culture and Buddhism as well.

This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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