Below is part three in a three part series of guest blogs on interfaith and atheism by Conrad Hudson, an inspiring student leader (besides being kind, intelligent, and a passionate advocate for atheist students, Conrad is President of the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics, or SOMA, and founder of the student-run conference Reasonfest, as well as a burgeoning interfaith service alliance). Many thanks to Conrad for his dedication to taking a thorough and balanced, in-depth look at this issue! And, in case you missed it, click here for part one and here for part two.
“Wow, I’ve never had a quiet conversation with an atheist.”
A sincere Christian made this remark after an intimate conversation about what principles we did and didn’t share when it came to ethics. Thanks to the time I spent at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) this summer, I’m happy to count that young man as one of the many new friends. However I was simultaneously touched and outraged by this statement; it really illustrated the need for atheist participation in dialog with the religious. Having mentioned that potential interfaith benefits exist on multiple levels, I’d like to outline some of the various benefits one can strive for through interfaith participation, broken down in to some broad categories
One of the great benefits about participating in interfaith dialogue is the opportunity and necessity to tell your own story in an accessible way. I’ve noticed, at least in myself, a tendency to add more and more jargon into every day discussion of religion–and, in the process, making those discussions less accessible to the everyday person. For example: when telling my de-conversion story at IFYC, I relearned how to explain the shift in thinking as a story about my search for truth, rather than an “epistemological shift from coherentism to evidentialist foundationalism.” Not only does this make my story more accessible, but it reminds me that knowing big words is neither convincing nor an assurance of accuracy. (Some have playfully labeled those who fail to realize this falatheists; however this is not to say such terms can’t be used correctly to tell a moving and coherent story.)
The IFYC’s model in particular pushes the idea of storytelling as a way to build relationships. Part of my personality, and certainly no small part in my religious skepticism, is my appreciation for facts and reason over storytelling and emotion. However, this approach, while useful in discerning various scientific truths, is not necessarily the best for communicating. Telling the story of self—who I am, where I came from, why that motivates me; the story of us—what we share, what we have in common; and the story of now—where the world is and why we must take action to improve it, are part of this storytelling model. All those stories work together to improve the secularist and atheist’s ability to communicate their place in the world and their point of view in it. I learned these approaches at IFYC, and am very grateful for that chance to grow personally.
Secular Student Group Growth
Student groups have been and will continue to be incredibly important. From their role in creating grass roots change on campus and in society, to their life-changing impact on the underclassmen that seek them out for safety and support, they should not be underestimated (nor underfunded!). Growing the size and influence of such groups should never leave the mind of secular student leaders. Here, interfaith presents some unique opportunities.
Interfaith has an incredibly strong appeal to college presidents and chancellors, which gives non-theists new and improved chances for communicating their value and positions to those in power. Diversity should be a standard talking point for a secular group looking for university support, but making that case with an already packaged program to engage that diversity makes a huge difference in terms of which doors are open and which voicemails are returned. For example, administrators who might be dismissive of a secular safe space program will be more likely to understand the need for one when it’s presented as part of a general diversity engagement program through interfaith cooperation.
In addition to the reaching those in power, participating in interfaith as a group can give opportunities for involvement to a portion of the non-religious community possibly not engaged by a group’s traditional approach to religion. This is again a multi-prong approach; whereby providing situations for non-confrontational interaction allows member of the group who fit that model to take an active role in the group. This increased participation grows the group and develops new potential leaders. There are some atheists out there who don’t think they would ever be welcome in an atheist group unless they are willing to take on a Hitchens persona, they’re even afraid of the word atheist. Interfaith work is one of many possible steps towards combatting a homogenous appearance for secular groups, which is worth doing no matter how awesome Hitchslaps can be.
Service to the Community & Increased Understanding of the Non-Religious
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of interfaith work is service to the community. Both the IFYC’s Better Together campaign and the President’s Interfaith Challenge focus on creating a lasting impact on the community and campus. That service work serves as the focal point and is surrounded by interfaith dialogue. I find this model infinitely more appealing than dialogue-only efforts. The dialogue is not useless to service either–the relationships formed through dialogue build bridges that can be easily crossed when projects arise that groups would otherwise undertake on their own, but now have the opportunity to invite cooperation on and thus increase their impact.
However, as has been pointed out many times, there is no need for interfaith cooperation in order to do service work. Atheist groups do service work on their own all the time, and the non-religious often work for the betterment of mankind and the community with no need to call attention to their views on religion. Service is a secular objective, there is nothing inherently religious about it, but there is a reason atheists often make a point to do it under the label of their atheist groups. There is a stereotype that atheists cannot have morals or are not motivated to do good work. Challenging and obliterating this false idea that only people with belief in a higher power do service work for their fellow citizens is a worthy goal.
Many would argue that countering that stereotype could be accomplished well enough by simply documenting our own service work. That would shut them up right? Yes, it certainly would–and that’s the weakness to that approach. Instead, if in that same situation we partnered with those people, served with them, formed friendships with them, not only would we destroy their unjustified bias, but they would become an advocate for us! They can begin actively correcting others who espouse false beliefs, replying with their own experience as evidence: “My friend Conrad is an atheist, and we have actually done service together, and he is motivated to do so without any belief in the super-natural what-so-ever!” It’s a good-atheist meme propagated by both the non-religious and the religious. It’s about creating advocates for non-theists among theists, who will then spread that meme and stand up against discrimination in their own social circles, where it’s needed the most.
Progress on Social Issues
What about social issues? LGBTQ rights are one of the most visible issues of our time and present multiple, winnable battles that deserve vigorous support from forward-thinking organizations of all kinds. However, because of religion’s prominent role in creating opposition to progress on this front, many feel it’s not an area that interfaith groups can help with. I think that any interfaith insiders who might feel this way, and any critics of interfaith who do, are wrong to think that progress cannot be made on social issues within the context of interfaith.
An important step is recognizing the common challenges the gay community and religious minorities face. Such realizations are powerful. One of the most important interfaith connections I’ve made in my own community was with a Muslim student at my university while discussing our mutual struggle with public mistrust. Realizing these similarities should remind us that interfaith is ultimately a means to the end of a more peaceful, just, and inclusive society. With that goal in mind, it would be blatantly hypocritical to ignore the issue of gay rights.
I urge interfaith leaders and participants to go further than acknowledgement and acceptance—to be bold in taking on gay rights as issue for interfaith projects. When attempting to expand a concept such as interfaith there are of course tactical considerations about whether issues fall outside the scope of an organization’s mission or would serve as a distraction to accomplishing it. Thanks to the hard work of LGBTQ rights advocates, the time for such consideration has passed. The momentum and alignment of the two movements necessitates action. Just as some participants in interfaith need to be pushed to accept non-theists, some also need to be pushed to accept and advocate for the rights of the gay community.
However, doing so may be less divisive than some fear. In the admittedly small sample size of the IFYC participants that regularly joined me for discussion on those warm Chicago nights, I did a bit of an experiment. On the last night, after having formed friendships and established good will, I asked each person, individually, how they honestly felt about gay rights. Having touched on multiple issues of disagreement in previous discussions, I expected at least a few to take a principled stand against them. However, to my surprise, I consistently found allies—allies willing to take a stand for the rights and dignity of all their fellow citizens, whether their differences were in philosophy or biology.
Yes, some of them revered holy books which explicitly condemn homosexuality. And yet, they sat before me, basically telling me their faith motivated them to modify their faith. The implications of that may suggest to others a weakness to be exploited: that religion is in its death throes. But to me, it suggests that the time for partnership is now–to create real change in the well-being of those affected by discrimination which is so often motivated by or attributed to religion.
I believe the way forward in situations like this is not to push them to embrace atheism or Secular Humanism–but rather to provide an example of how a secular person can embody the ideals we hold in common. Now is the time to join our voices together and stand for the rights of our fellow citizens, making a statement that no religion has the right to take away another’s liberty. That’s a statement that’s louder and stronger when the background of those voices is more diverse, and it’s a key opportunity for interfaith moving forward.
Furthering Critical and Secular Thinking
Finally, I’d like to make the case that interfaith participation can both increase your ability to criticize harmful dogma and spread critical thinking and secular values. This may seem, on its face, like a disingenuous goal for an interfaith participant. However, I am not advocating for secular sabotage within interfaith; rather, I’m pointing out that with sincere, committed interfaith participation, there are side-effects which very much align with the secular movement’s goals. For example, understanding someone else’s interaction with their faith does no disservice to future criticism of that tradition–in fact, it allows it to be more accurate.
I’ve already hit on the ability of atheists involved in interfaith participation to destroy the false idea that positive, loving, ethical, and motivating values are exclusive to faith traditions. This goes beyond just reducing discrimination. By listening to someone when they tell you “The Qu’ran says not to go to bed if your neighbor is hungry; that has inspired me to work in my community to alleviate hunger,” perhaps you can understand why Islam is so important to that person, and also why even if you bring up one of the many holes you perceive in religious thought, they might be hesitant to let go.
If we allow the stereotype to be that atheists are only concerned with destroying religion, then what value do we offer those who view being right on that issue as secondary to being happy, raising moral children, and having purpose in life? I think the answer to that is providing an example of how those goals are accomplished and enriched by nontheistic philosophy, and using personal relationships to do so.
One of my goals is making atheists a part of mainstream society, more than just an aggressive group of outsiders–a demographic that reflects the positive values of those who might be persuaded to join it. We do this by giving people an example of how they can live a life without religion, and telling those stories in as many venues as possible. When those stories are accepted as authentic, then a bridge is created which allows both support and criticism to pass back and forth without breaking the connection. Secular ideals and thought can use that bridge to reach theists and be considered on their own merits–not just in the context of a preacher’s condemnation–as ideas should be.
In conclusion, the stated goals of interfaith action—in conjunction with these benefits—convince me that interfaith service and dialogue is well worth pursuing. More importantly, they motivate me to want to take a leadership role in fostering interfaith cooperation. What better way to extract the full benefit of interfaith than to lead it into its next phase, actively shaping it as it moves forward to be more inclusive of the non-religious, and more beneficial to the society you want to live in?
Put yourself at the forefront, create a program, support an existing group, co-sponsor events, and make a name for the interfaith atheist. I’ll see you out there.
Conrad Hudson is an accounting student at the University of Kansas where he serves as the President of the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA). While at KU he founded the student-run conference Reasonfest, as well as a burgeoning interfaith service alliance. His own experience with the effects of religious bigotry, as a shunned ex-member of the Christian denomination Jehovah’s Witnesses, motivates him to work tirelessly in providing community for secular youth, increasing understanding about the non-religious, developing tolerant and pragmatic relationships, peaceful and supportive communities, and combating dogmatism and ignorance through a wide variety of tactics. Beyond atheism he enjoys spreadsheets, philosophy, and working as a volunteer for youth camps, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and domestic violence centers.