Earlier this week in my radio interview for Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM Chicago, I was asked if I agreed with Mo’Nique’s Oscar acceptance speech declaration that “sometimes you have to forgo doing what is popular in order to do what’s right.” At the time I laughed, but the inspiringly brazen lady has a point.
For all of the wonderful, positive response we’ve received for the Share Your Secular Story contest, and more generally this blog, we’ve been getting some critical feedback as well. In the spirit of my exchange on Atheist Nexus, we’ve received emails saying that religion isn’t worth respecting, that we’re really religionists disguising ourselves as secularists (aka “traitors”), that this project reflects a willingness to bend over and allow religion to do unmentionable things to us, and a batch of mocking faux submissions and condescending comments dismissing the spirit of this contest as “nicey-nice.” It isn’t that I expected this contest to be celebrated by each and every secular individual, but I can’t help but wonder when being nice became something worth condemning.
The reason for this contest is and always has been two-fold: primarily, it aims to help build a canon of secular stories, as contest judge Nick Mattos so eloquently described in his elegant, poetic guest post this week. As a growing movement, it is imperative that we advertise our stories. But those involved in the contest also hope that it will facilitate greater understanding between religious and secular folks, to help create a climate of religious pluralism in which other beliefs and identities are not just tolerated but respected. I’m unashamed that this contest is not anti-religious. I’m not ashamed that I want to be “nicey-nice” to religious people, even if I am not one. Like Mo’Nique, I don’t care that this idea runs contrary to the rampant anti-theism I’ve seen in the secular community.
I don’t mean to sound self-important, but I’ve got a bone to pick. I want to take some of my secular peers to task. I’m sorry if this sounds martyrical, but I’m entirely worn out on hearing that “religion is the worst thing that has ever happened” or that “religious people are dumb.” Comments like these offend me because they are intellectually lazy and because there are people I care deeply about that are deeply religious. For all the horror it has incited, religion has also inspired more compassion, empathy and good works than pretty much any force in history. It is not difficult to make a thoughtful case that religion does more good than it does harm. Think religious people are stupid? Many of history’s greatest intellectuals were religious. Try going toe-to-toe with Thomas Aquinas, Arianna Huffington, or Mahatma Gandhi and tell me that religious people are dumb.
The purpose of this post isn’t to construct an apologia for religion. I’m all for intellectual critique of theology — I do it daily in my religion classes — but when such conversations move from rationally discussing a belief to radically attacking an identity, I start to have a problem. The crux of the matter is that such comments aren’t just intellectually and personally insulting — they’re discriminatory. As a queer person and a secular individual, I’ve experienced my share of being dismissed or discriminated against solely because of stereotypes others hold about my identity. Why would I want to perpetuate that cycle by making blanket-judgments on religious people when they could turn out to be among my greatest allies if only I’d keep an open mind? As the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — who was, lest we forget, a deeply religious man motivated by his theological convictions to better the world — said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We secularists need to get over this antagonistic, self-defensive stance toward the religious other and embrace the reality that we live in a world of religious diversity. Religious people are everywhere; they are our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. And we need them to accomplish any vision we may have for a more unified world. We cannot be isolationists. We need to appeal to the values of religiously-minded individuals if we’re going to build broad coalitions of solidarity.
If we truly want to change hearts and minds with our secular stories, we must open our minds and our hearts to the experiences of our religious counterparts. To quote the great unifier Abraham Lincoln:
“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
The more we continue to deny empathy to those who believe differently than we do and fashion our community with an antagonistic posture toward religiosity, the more our efforts will flounder. As contest judge Erik Roldan so aptly put it, “looking at the religious as the enemy does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t help anything to simply identify the negative and try and keep away from it. If anything, isolating ourselves from the reality that the world and the United States are driven by politically powerful varieties of faith is complacent. It’s a resignation to being a voiceless minority, and what progress could that possibly result in?”
If our identities as secular individuals remain rooted in uttering “we don’t agree with religion” over and over, we will fail to say anything about our values. I try to remain patient and sympathetic to those who feel alienated by religion but, frankly, I grow weary of being called a “traitor” because I have religious friends and appreciate some religious values. I’m not an ally of the religious right — hell, they surely would look at me, a secular community organizer, as working against their cause if they were aware of my existence — and neither is the message of religion-friendly secularism.
Maybe it’s the “Minnesota nice” in me, but I’m a firm believer that “nicey-nice”ness is the quickest route to social progress. It may sound cheesy, but it’s what I believe. We secular folks need to stop wasting our time hemming and hawing over the faults of religion and start recognizing the unique perspective we have to offer; if we don’t, our community will become rooted in a definition that merely tells the world that we are not religious while saying nothing of our convictions. Well, here is one conviction I hold: today, I say “no more” to my community’s rampant anti-religious discrimination.
The thing I mourn most about the secular obsession with anti-religiosity and the way in which it prevents us from articulating our convictions is that, from engaging with my secular communities, I know we have a so many important values to impart upon the world. But in order to make them known, we’ve got a lot of work to do — work that we cannot do alone. If you’re a secular individual interested in keeping your heart and your mind open to the experiences of others and want to make your own experiences known, I hope you’ll consider submitting to the contest. We need each and every secular voice. Thanks for indulging my scowled lament, and thank you to all who have contributed so far. I treasure every “nicey-nice” response we’ve received.
This week, Mo’Nique made her voice heard — I hope you’ll do the same.
Chris Stedman, Share Your Secular Story contest organizer
P.S. After writing this post, I came across a stellar editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette that critiques the atheist movement for its mean-spirited anti-theism. This piece serves as a good reminder to our community that the world is watching our actions and that offensive, alienating behavior only delegitimizes our perspective and actually hurts our aims for greater recognition and acceptance. Wise words from someone watching on the outside.