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

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

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religionevilshirt

If I wear this to the next Atheist conference, maybe then I'll fit in!

Cambridge Broxterman, she of “Burkagate” infamy, has made another YouTube video about me. I’m not surprised this time — I guess I was kind of asking for it when I recalled that we had agreed to post our email exchange and, you know, finally got around to posting it. Her tone was a lot friendlier this time, which is encouraging because it gives me hope we’ll be able to have a non-awkward conversation when our paths finally cross again (which is great because I want to talk to her about her awesome body modifications… okay, sorry, tangent).

Anyway, she raised a legitimate point in her video — one I’ve been meaning to address again for some time now. (Thanks for the reminder!) In her video, Cambridge introduced who I am by saying:

He’s a nice guy — he seems to be nice and willing and open for discussion. But his view of himself within the whole Atheist community is just really strange to me… I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish and it’s frustrating… He’s very vocal about his… wanting to be on the side of the religious, and he’s very vocal about his political correctness, but then he saves all of that energy that he could be putting towards an area where I think would help the Atheist cause… [and he’s] turing on the Atheist community… He has no problem criticizing the Atheist community, but the religious community is just taboo to him it seems like, they’re just off limits. It’s really weird and I don’t think I understand what he’s trying to accomplish and I don’t really think he does either.

This is the second time this week I’ve been called nice with a caveat by someone online; earlier this week, Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance wrote over on the Friendly Atheist: “we disagree on a lot of interfaith issues, but he’s a nice guy.” (Thanks, folks! You’re nice too.) But Cambridge’s critique — that, no matter how nice I might be, religion is “off limits” to me — is one I’ve heard time and time again from other commenters on this blog, so I’d like to take this opportunity to address it.

I’ve tried to be clear on this blog that I am not some self-loathing secular pandering to religious others in an attempt to curry favor. I’m as proud to be godless as I am anything else about me. I suppose it requires a certain amount of bravery to live a publicly godless life — the idea that one can be good without God is still fairly radical in certain circles. But personally it just isn’t something I struggle with. I’m perfectly content with being a Secular Humanist, and I don’t spend a lot of time fretting about whether others think I’m a moral person or not for not believing in God.

Yet — and here’s where I may sound a bit, um, heretical — I also believe that the religious should be as celebratory about who they are as I am, and I suspect that if they are as comfortable with their identity as I am mine then they will embrace pluralism, as I have. I am then, for both of those reasons, more concerned with the way other secular folks approach the religious as across-the-board bad. I cannot help but suspect that our negative obsession with mocking religion is rooted in a lack of confidence in what we as a community have to offer, and wish to devote my energy toward working against such self-defeating antagonism. As I said in a post back in March:

NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference. And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.

Religion isn’t off limits to me, but tackling the difficult issues in religion isn’t really within the scope of NonProphet Status. I may think that religion has created a lot of problems in the world — as a former “Born Again” Christian and a queer person, I’ve experienced many of them firsthand. But point blank: this blog isn’t about critiquing religious beliefs or speaking out against harmful religious practices. It has a very specific purpose and I try my best to stick to that. NonProphet Status exists to name what I see as problematic components of the secular community and offer alternative perspectives of positive (instead of oppositional) secularism; to identify the behaviors of my fellow secularists that oppose pluralism (see a quick and helpful definition here) and to point to alternate modes of secularism that support it. I’ll let the Christians call out members of their community working against pluralism, the Muslims theirs, and so on. Ultimately, if I as a secularist condemn fundamentalist Christianity, it has a lot less power than if another Christian does it. So I want to put my energy where I believe it is best spent. And it is simply that: where I believe it is best spent. This is all just my opinion. So take it with a few grains of salt, if you will.

chris looking up

"Hey God, what's up? Oh, nothing?" - Get it?! See, I have a sense of humor... I swear to God. Oh, there I go again!

Where we have the most agency as a community is in how we behave, both internally and in how we approach those outside our walls — and, for those in our community who are concerned with how others perceive us, the most effective way to change hearts and minds is through relationships. And we won’t be able to have relationships with religious folks if our top priority is mocking the things they hold dear. I believe that such behavior will fundamentally limit who our movement will appeal to and will distract us from focusing on cultivating our own uniquely secular ethics. For those and other reasons — and not simply because I have an open appreciation for select religious insights — I see such antics as lose-lose for us. That is why I critique “blasphemy” so frequently and with such, erm, fervor.

I try to walk a fine line, and perhaps I err too heavily on the side of critiquing my own community. If I’ve hurt feelings, I apologize. My aim in doing this is to push my fellow secularists to reconsider how we engage the religious other, not to alienate. I appreciate the feedback I get and try to factor it into my approach, so keep it coming. And, as always, thank you for reading.

For some past examples of explanations of why I do what I do, please check out some of these posts:

Respecting Religion, Staying Secular

Picture This: When We Draw Muhammad, We Draw a Line

What’s Wrong With Happy Smiling Rainbows and Unicorns?

Speaking Up, or How Mo’Nique Showed Me the Light

Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk: Drawing a Divide With the “Draw Muhammad” Campaign

What Are We Fighting For?

Last night ABC Nightline finally aired its story on the American Atheist Convention. Many in the Atheist community are very unhappy with the segment and how it portrays Atheists. Here is the video.

I actually think the segment is entirely fair. If we don’t want to be portrayed this way, perhaps we shouldn’t behave this way. You see, I was actually there. Back in April, I attended the American Atheist Convention in Newark, New Jersey. After it was over I published a series of reflections on the experience (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly).

Reflecting back on that experience now, I am so glad I was present. Even though (or perhaps precisely because) Edwin conventionKagin’s blasphemy session was among the most offensive things I’ve ever seen in person (see: The Ugly), it was a great learning moment for me. I almost didn’t go because, though I don’t believe in God, I intentionally do not identify as an Atheist because I believe it is inherently problematic. It is, to me, an oppositional identity marker. For the same reason I do not identify as “not female” or “not heterosexual,” I don’t call myself an Atheist (not a perfect parallel, but I think it works). But I decided to attend the convention because, as a Secular Humanist doing interfaith work, I wanted to see how the Atheist community was talking about religion. But even with my trepidation, I never expected it would be as bad as it was.

Nightline spent most of its segment focusing on Kagin’s blasphemy session, a moment that to me firmly underscores the oppositional nature of organized Atheism, and I understand why: I too dedicated my most impassioned writing to it. I ended my reaction as follows:

I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.

You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.

After my write-up, NonProphet Status exploded. I was totally unprepared. Suddenly a sizable portion of the Atheist community knew who I — a relatively new blogger with little understanding of how social media works — was. My friends started referring to the strong reaction my piece elicited from the Atheist community as “Burkagate” after I jokingly coined the term. I started getting emails from angry detractors and the comments section of my blog became host to a heated debate between folks of diverging opinions. Then on April 9, the day of my twenty-third birthday, a YouTube video was left in the comment section by one Cambridge Broxterman — the very same woman now featured in the above Nightline segment. Here’s the video she recorded about my reaction to the blasphemy session:

To be embarrassingly honest, her video actually wounded me (I know I shouldn’t let such things get to me, but in this instance I did). I suspect that was her goal so, you know, mission accomplished. In spite of this, I reached out to her. I really didn’t want to but decided it was important. Here is an opportunity for dialogue and to learn from one another, I thought. Reaching out across lines of radical difference isn’t easy but, as I’ve learned in my work, it is often rewarding. The more I mature the more often I do it; with age and experience I am less afraid of confrontation, less afraid of being wrong, less afraid of dialogue with difference.

Cambridge and I decided to enter into an email exchange with the idea that it would be published here on my blog at a later date. The exchange died off and I sort of forgot about it, but after seeing Nightline‘s story and how it featured Cambridge I was reminded of it. Below the jump, the back-and-forth and some concluding reflections: Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Top Music of 2009

January 4, 2010

Well, we’re 4 days into 2010 and I finally got my act together to, in breaks from writing my thesis, throw down my annual music roundup. I’m publishing it here, and while I realize this may not be especially pertinent to the nature of this blog (being that it mostly pertains to religion), I think my annual top-albums-and-songs-I-enjoyed-this-year list may be relevant because, to me, music is one of the ways I engage my “spiritual life” as a Secular Humanist… or whatever you want to call it. In any event, I hope these lists remind you of something you enjoyed this year or open you up to something you might’ve missed. Without further ado, my personal favorites.

TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2009 (PLUS 2 HONORABLE MENTIONS)

1. The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come

This album could easily be mistaken for an exclusivistic religious text, a meditation solely on Christian Scripture intended for a likeminded audience. Yet it speaks volumes about its universal accessibility that an album featuring a tracklist entirely articulated through Biblical texts would move as staunch a secularist as myself to want to believe. It has been some time since religious music has had that kind of effect on me – “To Be Alone With You,” Sufjan Steven’s Christly love poem off 2003’s Seven Swans comes to mind as the most recent example. Almost predatory in its religious persuasiveness, I can faithfully say this record saved me. I may not be a Christian, but art this honest and effective helps me understand why some are.

Download: Hebrews 11:40, Genesis 30:3, 1 John 4:16

2. Animal Collective – Meriwether Post Pavilion / Fall Be Kind [EP]

I want to dislike these two records. Animal Collective have been doing their thing for years, but suddenly they are the band du jour. My aversion for whoever is this moment’s toast of the town isn’t the only reason I’d like to reject Animal Collective’s 2009 collective output; the other is that it is messy and seemingly unstructured. I have a pop sensibility, so I feel like I should hate this. But my attraction to pop sounds is actually why this record is so appealing – it is an unabashed pop record from top to bottom. In their feral fervor, Animal Collective have crafted hook after glorious hook. Stealing the throne of indie pop kings from of Montreal (let’s be honest, their last record was weak as hell), Animal Collective put out what I’d like to not-so-boldly claim is their (subjectivity alert!) “masterpiece” with Meriwether Post Pavilion. Worth celebrating, certainly, and they’ve provided the perfect soundtrack for the party.

Download: My Girls, Lion in a Coma, Brothersport

3. St. Vincent – Actor

2009 was a great year for pop records, but Annie Clark’s approach to making pop music was the most academic. Her technique is considered and deceptively cautious – so when her songs take a left turn, the surprise packs that much more wallop. Actor takes the formula of her last release, Marry Me, and expands on it tenfold, improving her method with equal parts maniacal humor, intellect and affect. If you’re not laughing, you don’t get it. If you’re not crying – well, ditto.

Download: Marrow, The Party, Laughing With a Mouth of Blood

4. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

Bill Callahan’s voice is a compass pointing to an infinite north. Reverberating between a harsh growl and a warm and lush rust, he uses this tool to teach his listener the art of cartography, not mapping out a path himself but pointing the way. Callahan is a close second to Okkervil River’s Will Sheff for the crown of contemporary music’s most literate, poetic lyricist, and he companions his wit with measured musical prowess. Kids, take notice: this old man river has imparted a near-perfect template for tomorrow’s singer-songwriter wannabe; but, try as others might, it is one unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon. [Side note: Where The Life Of The World To Come makes me want to believe in the divine, Callahan’s album closer, “Faith/Void,” serves me as a precious secular anthem.]

Download: Too Many Birds, Eid Ma Clack Shaw, Faith/Void

5. The Antlers – Hospice

I played this album (among others on this list) for a couple family members when I went home for the winter holidays and the reaction was universal: “this sounds terrible.” Their response is actually akin to what I experienced the first time I played this record through – it took me a few spins to “get it.” Definitively eerie and initially alienating, this record doesn’t invite you in; but once you’ve forced the door open, there’s no leaving. Its gorgeously buried melodies are haunting, manifested melancholy. Some records require that you work for their thrills; this is one challenge you won’t regret taking on.

Download: Atrophy, Bear, Shiva

6. Kid Sister – Ultraviolet

In the year of Lady GaGa, Kid Sister was the cure to GaGa’s center-of-attention cancer. She doesn’t try to be larger than life – Kid Sister just is. Years delayed, the irresistibly delicious Ultraviolet sounds utterly current. Without so much as an ounce of pretension, Chicago-native Kid Sister delivers the most fun, funky disc of the year. “Daydreaming” has the highest play count of any song in my iTunes library this year; the other tracks on Ultraviolet aren’t far behind. If you’re ready to party, Kid Sister’s got you covered, double-wrapped, and delivered to dancing’s door.

Download: Daydreaming, Right Hand Hi, Switchboard

7. Joan as Policewoman – Cover

Only available for sale at shows on her 2009 European tour, this covers record is a novelty release that is, in fact, anything but. As a fan, I expected this to be a throwaway record, a slight thrown together as a special treat for devotees. To my surprise, Cover fits neatly alongside the consistently top-tier quality releases that populate Joan Wasser’s canon. It might be tempting to compare her hip-hop covers, the best of this diverse set, to other singer-songwriter’s so-called-ironic rap reimaginings, ala the cheese of Ben Folds’ “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” but that would be an injustice. Even when covering the familiar, Wasser is an innovator of the highest order. She is this generation’s best torch singer exactly because she isn’t trying to be one. Though a punk rocker in origin, by electing to sing a slow song or ten, Wasser has made of herself a woman who can take any song, original or cover, and make you forget there was ever another musician who came before her.

Download: Whatever U Like, She Watch Channel Zero, Ringleader Man

8. Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen

Lean, clean, and …a little less mean. It may not deliver the thematic wallop of last release Happy Hollow‘s take on religious Americana, but it is a significant advancement musically and has a (slightly more sympathetic) message all its own. Sure, Cursive comes hard, but they aren’t doing so just to bring the noise. Mama, I’m Swollen is the thinking man’s rock record, bringing together the seemingly immiscible elements of metallic thump and whine with careful observation and creative whim. If you’ve written off Cursive in the past, give them another chance – this is a band that has matured with each release into a truly exceptional and important voice.

Download: From The Hips, What Have I Done?, I Couldn’t Love You

9. The-Dream – Love Vs. Money

2009’s epic. With all the splendor of the R. Kelly “Trapped in the Closet” saga’s melodrama, minus the soap opera cheese and classed up by a man of real talent who doesn’t need shock value and novelty to set him apart, The-Dream’s Love Vs. Money is spectacle that will have your head bobbing and heart throbbing. There is a clear narrative current coursing through the record that elevates it above its singular sonic mastery (and on that note, it is so satisfying to see The-Dream’s production prowess serve himself!). The album really hits its climax in the four-track arc from “Love Vs. Money” through “Right Side of My Brain,” but overall it is a wild and winning ride. The songs bleed together, resulting in an album that seems in want of a radio-ready single exactly because they are all so spectacular – resulting in one of the most coherent, catchy, and dare I say lovable albums of the year.

Download: Fancy, Right Side of My Brain, Walkin’ On The Moon (featuring Kanye West)

10. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You

This is one well-rounded record. Punchy in places, solemn in others and at moments beautifully both, I And Love And You is a mainstream record that infuses the charm of earlier Avett Brothers releases with the shine of bank brought on by newfound major-label buck-banging. Their lyrics read as if they were overheard in Freud’s confessional, and its hard to find anything to complain about musically. With perhaps a bit more spunk this record might have cracked the top 5, but all said this album is both an articulate statement of a band uncovering who they are and a sign of things to come.

Download: The Perfect Space, Incomplete and Insecure, Kick Drum Heart

(continued after the jump) Read the rest of this entry »

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