On Godless Heathens

September 29, 2010

Today’s guest post in NonProphet Status’ ongoing series of other contributors is by freelance writer and blogger Emily L. Hauser. Emily, a Jewish woman and frequent writer on Israel/Palestine and Middle East issues, tackles something a bit personal: her marriage to an atheist. Whether you’re Jewish, an atheist, or something else altogether, this inspirational writing is a must-read. Take it away, Emily!

billboardLately Americans have been talking a lot about faith – the Muslim faith. As we grapple with the understanding of just how diverse we are as a people, Americans of good will – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims – have been striving to help their countrymen learn that we have nothing to fear from Islam. As a believing Jew, I’ve been right there in the thick of it.

But as I struggle with the fact that so many of my fellow citizens fear a belief system dear to the hearts of 1.5 billion people, I struggle also with another, far less acknowledged, fact: Even more of them fear my husband.

Because he doesn’t believe in God at all.

I pray, I keep kosher, my relationship with the Divine plays an enormous role in my life. But my husband? Not so much.

Eran is an unwavering atheist. But because he’s a Jewish atheist, and Jews do a lot that can just be about heritage, we’ve found a fairly easy middle ground. For me, lighting Shabbat candles consecrates the day; for Eran, it’s a nice thing to do with the kids. Tomato, tomahto.

Yet I will be the first to admit that the margins of the middle ground are broad, what with me seeking guidance from a Creator whom Eran believes to be all in my head – and I’ve come to realize that as broad as the margin is on my side, Eran’s is equally wide.

He’s argued with me for 18 years that there’s little room in Western culture for nonbelievers, and I say “argued” because, through he’s never been anything but supportive of me, I spent years not really taking him seriously. No room? Please. I have spiritual struggle; he gets to eat bacon.

Like a constant drip on rock, however, his comments began to wear away my ignorance, and I’ve had to take notice. Americans hold to an unspoken understanding that is so deeply ingrained, it appears to be natural law: A belief in God, we think, is the well from which all morality springs.

Consider, if you will, the word “godless.”

The cadences of Scripture run through American thought. We read that “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile” (Psalms 14:1), and our highest officials regularly make clear that they believe it.

At our dawn, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “While I claim a right to believe in one God, I yield as freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men. …” Much later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed Jefferson, saying that belief in God generates “honesty, decency, fairness.” More recently, a pre-Presidential Barack Obama, seeking to reassure nervous Red Staters, declared that we in the Blue States “believe in a mighty God.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the seminal When Bad Things Happen to Good People, took this approach to its logical conclusion in his 1995 book When Children Ask about God: “The person who is good because he believes that certain things are right … need not take literally the image of a divine person in Heaven,” he wrote. “[He] believes in God and is acting on that belief.”

That is: Even if my husband, a real peach of a guy, doesn’t believe in God – he believes in God. He’s good, isn’t he? Or, in the words of one member of my synagogue: “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll come around. They always do.”

This unease, this distrust, this sense that, really, everyone believes in something! No atheists in foxholes! and so on, this overarching attitude can be seen in cold hard numbers, as well: A 2007 Newsweek poll found that fully 62% of registered voters wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate; a 2003 study by the University of Minnesota found that 40% of Americans believe that atheists “don’t agree at all with my vision of American society”—and nearly half wouldn’t want their children to marry an atheist. Atheists, the U of M found, were the single least trusted group in the country.

While there’s been some powerful water under the bridge since these surveys were conducted – the election of our first “other” President, for instance (a President who has since acknowledged “nonbelievers” on more than one occasion) as well as an apparent increase in our willingness to talk about the atheism, I think I’m safe in thinking that these numbers still broadly reflect the attitudes of believing Americans toward their non-believing brethren. If only because I hear the way my believing brethren talk.

But living with Eran, one of the most truly ethical people I know, I find I can no longer allow such bigotry to pass unremarked. Our beloved American respect for all creeds is revealed as just that: for the creed-ed only. The creed-less need not apply. Even the separation of church and state becomes suspect, as it presupposes, by definition, a church.

When pressed, Eran might allow the vague possibility that Something created the universe, but he’s certain that said Something has nothing to do with history or humanity’s ability to reach its highest ground. We live, we die, certain things are right, others are wrong – and we can find them without being told.

Recent discoveries in evolutionary biology appear to support this approach, in fact, suggesting that the faculty for developing a moral sense is a genetically designed feature of the human brain. Now, I might argue that God created that faculty in humanity – but I can’t know, in any verifiable sense, that Eran is wrong when he disagrees. That’s why we call it faith.

Like most Americans, I live my life in the belief that I’m guided and comforted by a being outside me and all human experience – but the bald truth is that I can’t know for sure.

I can, however, look to Eran’s works and see his goodness, look to his heart and see his honesty, and concede the point: There might not be a God. And my husband is no more prone to corruption and vile deeds than the next guy for thinking so.

What I do know is this: If there’s a heaven, Eran’s a shoo-in. The mighty God in whom I believe is far too great to care if my husband’s righteousness was born in Torah study or his own precious soul.

As a country, we would do better to leave matters of faith to the recesses of private hearts and measure the integrity of our fellow citizens (and elected officials) by their deeds, rather than their affiliations.

Take it from the wife of a godless man.

Emily HauserEmily L. Hauser is a freelance writer and blogger living outside of Chicago. She writes frequently about Israel/Palestine and the Middle East more broadly, but has also been known to write about everything from Winnie the Pooh to the social niceties of wearing shoes. Loud music, too. She blogs at Emily L. Hauser – In My Head; her Twitter handle is @emilylhauser.

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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.

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