God, We Need Atheists

January 19, 2011

Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:

bizarrojerkThe discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.

I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.

I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.

What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.

While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.

So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.

Not sure where to start?  Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity.  While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.

frankFrank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.

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Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), calls out Bill Maher for his recent narrow-minded comments on Islam. All the more, it’s a call to action — and one I plan on participating in. Take it away, Frank!

maherLast Friday on Bill Maher’s show on HBO, he had an epiphany that should trouble many of us. After discovering that the various spellings of Mohamed together comprised the most popular name for baby boys in the United Kingdom, he claimed he was “alarmed” and later divulged, “I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”

Now, I know that Bill Maher has it out for all faiths. I saw his feature-length documentary, Religulous, where he found ignorant religious people to mock, and his spurn for faith leaves no religion untouched. However, I think for many religious and non-religious people alike, whose faith and intellect are not at odds, it is time to challenge Bill Maher.

I think he makes two errors that undermine the ethos of pluralism in America. Firstly, naming your child with a religious name doesn’t necessitate faithful devotion in the child’s life. I know plenty of Marys who avoid mass, Sauls who rarely go to synagogue, and yes, even Mohameds who really love bacon on their cheeseburgers.

The second issue is that Bill Maher implicitly proposes that religious observance of Islam is a threat to Western Civilization. This assumption of incapability of faith and patriotism is the same crime committed by the groups he makes a living mocking. We have an opportunity to reveal to Bill Maher that one’s religious observance is not a hindrance to patriotism.

Since Maher already made it clear that he isn’t interested in apologizing for his statements, I think we can one up him. Religious Freedom USA is announcing a campaign, asking people to email Bill Maher a story about a person you know named Mohamed. Perhaps your friend Mohamed is religious, non-observant or converted to another faith. Maybe Mohamed has an accent, whether an Indian accent, or a Brooklyn accent. Whoever your friend is, share with Bill Maher how your friend’s name has not somehow caused him to inadvertently undermine the foundation of Western Civilization, and that he’s even a productive member of society.

This is important here and now in America. Genuine Islamophobia is becoming increasingly frequent and its perpetrators unrepentant. Given the climate for such inflammatory language, this poses an opportunity to reframe the discussion on Islam in America, with a human face of our Muslim friends and neighbors.

We’ve written detailed instructions on the RFUSA website, which you can use to email and send your friends. If he gets a thousand emails from all of us, perhaps Bill Maher will rethink his sloppy analysis of Islam in America.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

frankFrank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine and Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and works as an Online Marketing Consultant.

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