Tell Bill Maher About a Mohamed

November 5th, 2010 | Posted by:

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.

Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted a guest piece reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” In today’s post, Nick considers Park51 and the state of American dialogue. This one’s lengthy but is totally worth your time — take it away, Nick!

dialogueAmerica is a nation of 300 million experts.

This phenomenon is everywhere. For proof, see: news articles that ask high school students their thoughts on world affairs.  News channels composed of all talking heads and no news.

Although we may not be the nation composed of the best and brightest, as any study on public education systems will tell you, research shows that America turns out the most self-confident people in the world. We are a nation of certainty, of seemingly impenetrable ideological divides. For instance, a study by Columbia University professor Lisa Anderson showed that the September 11th attacks only served to strengthen Americans’ previously held political views. Whatever media you consumed defined how you viewed the events that transpired that day.

Thus, our ideological lenses define this certainty. We are a nation so cocksure that we will die for our beliefs. We will fight bloody, protracted wars for our beliefs. Furthermore, in the Age of the Global Media Village, we will argue endlessly on television about them. And Lindsay Lohan notwithstanding, what issue has been argued more extensively as of late than that insidious “Ground Zero Mosque?”

The Park51 (aka Cordoba House) debate seems to be the topic du jour just about every nuit, confounding the talking heads, setting the blogosphere on fire and making my “Park51” Google Alerts go crazy. If you have been living under a rock, here’s the deal: a guy named Imam Faisal wants to build an Islamic community center, which will feature a gym, a restaurant and a mosque… near Ground Zero.

This building will not be visible from Ground Zero and will revitalize the empty Burlington Coat Factory store annihilated by 9/11 debris, but this is all moot. As any lawyer can tell you: it’s not about the facts, it’s about the argumentation.

For instance, check out a recent piece by Glenn Beck and friends, thankfully available for viewing on GlennBeck.tv. What you will see is commentary on a Special Report by Keith Olbermann; however, Beck offers oddly little in the way of genuine commentary or analysis. Watch the clip and then name me five actual criticisms he has of Keith Olbermann’s actual rhetoric. Can you even name two? I watched it twice and had a hard time remembering one.

In the interests of fairness, Keith Olbermann’s program falls prey to many of the same tendencies as Beck’s: the targets just differ. While I like Olbermann considerably and find his reasoning sound and his facts to be accurate, he has a proud history of disengaging the issue. The basic structure of an Olbermann broadcast is meant to simulate discourse without the risk of actual conversation. The format runs as follows: K.O. shows a clip of someone he doesn’t agree with, talks about how he doesn’t agree with them and then brings on another person who doesn’t agree with them either. Lather, rinse, repeat ten times. Show’s over. We all get paid. Even in Special Reports like the one above, he engages in highly effective polemics, but what debate has actually taken place here?

In no case are the opponents on equal playing fields, as the end goal is not dialogue or discussion but simply to look right. As a liberal-minded chap who relishes relieving his TiVo of episodes of Real Time with Bill Maher, my poor, sweet Bill is no better. He never brings on ideological opponents he cannot crush; he never engages in a debate he cannot win. Did you see his documentary on faith, Religulous? Man, those poor religious folks were sitting ducks. Not even once did Bill interview someone who could truly engage him. Michael Moore is even worse. Are his documentaries entertaining and uncommonly riveting? Absolutely. But Moore is a filmmaker and entertainer above all else; he’s not a journalist or even much of a fact-checker.

What we can see here is not debate or dialogue but what Al Gore entitled The Assault on Reason. Focusing on the American political system, Gore writes that our American system of democracy is broken and we must fix it. In a telling passage, he writes: “When fear crowds out reason, many people feel a greater need for the comforting certainty of absolute faith. And they become more vulnerable to the appeals of… leaders who profess absolute certainty in simplistic explanations portraying all problems as manifestations of the struggle between good and evil.” In the above Glenn Beck broadcast, we can see that Beck draws the lines between good and evil, between us and them, very overtly.

In the broadcast, Beck begins with a mockery of NPR, of its perceived elite values, its perceived small audience. At first glance, these attacks seem rather inapropos to his discussion; however, his argument seems to be predicated only on these values-based attacks. The joke is that Olbermann speaks to a small, elite audience about silly, elite things, whereas Beck and his minions are the voices of the people. Fod God’s sake, Beck’s show has over 10 million listeners! Even more interestingly, his only attack on K.O. is over his track record on defending Christianity, which hardly needs defending. Note that this is a different discussion entirely, one that deals with the role the majority faith should play in a plural society. The topic at hand is about protecting minorities from religious bigotry, about Islamophobia. Glenn is disengaging the issue.

And so it has been throughout the entire debate: one without compassionate middle ground.

One side frames Park51 as an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, the other a “Ground Zero Mosque.” One sees Cordoba as a symbol of interfaith cooperation, the other as a symbol of Muslim domination in the West.

I know exactly where I stand on this issue: I support Park51 and the right of peaceful Muslims to build whatever they like wherever they please. I believe in an America that works towards a building a tolerant society where my Muslim friends and neighbors don’t have to hear about their co-religionists getting stabbed in the street. But to leave the response at “I support _______ because _______” obscures too many of the underlying themes of the discussion.

In analyzing those themes, we take away from the Park51 debate the same thing we take away from Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. That words matter, what we define things as and how we talk about things matters. In a recent Salon piece, bluntly titled “The Media Duped Us,” Sept. 11 widow Alissa Torres details the way Park51 media coverage specifically intended to make victims of the tragedy experts on the debate. Torres recounts an e-mail she got from a New York reporter who was “trying to look for family members who think building a mosque at the site is a bad idea.” Clearly, the unnamed journalist was not looking for just any opinion; he wanted his lead to bleed America. Even the questionnaire Torres receives from CNN asks how she felt about the proposed site being “this close to Ground Zero?”

What is interesting here is that both outlets were looking for a certain type of expert, a pre-packaged opinion to appeal to a certain component of the discussion, mostly likely defined by their ideological target audience. Although we used to define this kind of niche creation as the “Daily Me,” the post-modern implications have become far more widespread. Our media, how we follow it and what media framings we privilege create the “Daily Us.” In internalizing our current events this way, we only educate ourselves to comprehend part of the debate. In discussing the value of dialogue in society, Al Gore states that “the superiority [of democracy] lies in the open flow of communication,” but what we are witnessing are media-created and self-enforced rhetorical divisions. The language we use to define our world matters, for our words define our thinking and our action.

As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, I’ve been tracking the progress of the Park51 debate for some time, and although the issue has died down as the media moves onto new headlines, the tone has not changed much. We may not quite live in two Americas, but we Americans are ideologically divided. And if my work around religious dialogue has taught me anything, communicating and being heard these days is hard.

In the Age of the Internet, we are bombarded with more media stimuli than we can process. We are lost, separated by a media culture that profits off of those divisions, making us all into tiny niche markets. But if we are to come to some resolution on this issue and foster the change we say we want, we need to at least come to the table democratically, as equals, and engage.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.

It’s been a long minute since I’ve done one of these, so I’m bringing it back. Below, some recent highlights (and lowlights) relevant to secularism, interfaith and religion:

psych todayWill Atheism replace religion? That’s the claim made by Nigel Barber over at Psychology Today. What do you think? His points are well made, but I don’t agree with all of them. Religion meets some fundamental needs and is continuing to adapt to contemporary context, as it always has. His portrayal of religion as “[requiring] slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs” does not accurately represent the way that religion functions today. That aside, a myriad of psychological studies demonstrate that religion has become an integral component to individual and communal identification for many (as I learned in my second Psychology of Religion course this last semester) and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Ultimately, the relationship between religion and psychological wish fulfillment is a bit more complex than this article would like to make it seem. As a starting point for a more well-balanced counter-argument, check out this brief introductory piece on ways in which religion is psychologically beneficial.

Everybody’s Talkin’ ’bout Chalkin’ as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD) debate continues. After my blog post on the campaign a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working closely with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) on how secular folks who penaren’t interested in engaging in this campaign can best respond in light of the awful vitriol it has inspired on the internet. The Young Turks took on IFYC’s Eboo Patel’s post that went up on the Huffington Post, Sojourners and the Washington Post (in which my blog post on the controversy was given a nod). The critiques they make of Eboo’s blog can essentially be boiled down to: “You’re offended? Get over it.” I find this operating position, which I identified as a common problem in our community in my initial post on EDMD, to be arrogant and demonstrative of a lack of personal responsibility. Additionally, The Young Turks raise the comparison of EDMD to drawing offensive images of African Americans and say that it isn’t an appropriate parallel because Blacks have faced a history of violence and subjugation in this country. But this point collapses in on itself precisely because Muslims are a minority group in America that is a frequent target of oppression. This is an important point to remember as we consider this issue. Our free speech does not occur in a vacuum; in fact, activities such as EDMD are innately and intentionally public. It is our responsibility to acknowledge context and weigh our actions in light of it. I have so much more I could say on this subject, but since I already said my peace, I’ll stop here — for now. For more information on this issue, check out IFYC’s resource (which I helped write and which borrows its title from my blog post).

The rest: First off, I can’t recommend enough a piece up over at the New Republic called “Another Kind of Atheism”  by Damon Linker. Read it and let me know what you think. After that, I’m happy to report that Bill Maher got schooled on his miss usaantagonistic Atheism – I’ll try to hide my grin. Secular Student Alliance intern Nate Mauger got interviewed by Bridge Builders about the guest piece he wrote for us on interfaith cooperation. I “interviewed” homosexuality and the Bible documentary Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens for The New Gay (part 1 went up last week, part two goes up next). On less exciting fronts, tensions are high in France as they prepare to ban the Burka. In spite of what a good story it would make, the majority of mainstream media ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber is himself a Muslim. The political Right is up in arms over Muslim Miss USA Rima Fikah. And, finally, the angry robocallers struck again last Wednesday with three calls in one night. I’m still no closer to finding out who they are and feeling more and more like I have a stalker — especially since they called me back right after I tweeted about them saying they read my tweet. So I blocked the number. What now, robocallers?

This post is the first part of a three part series of reports on the 2010 American Atheist convention.

This weekend I attended the 2010 American Atheist Convention – my first time at a meeting of the American Atheists. I was coming off a series of attack blogs against my critiques of atheistic positioning so, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. And though I had some trepidation, I also had hope. But this conference, though it had its moments of insight and inspiration, was an experience that left me feeling somewhat defeated. At one point, things got so offensive that I had to do everything in my power not to walk out of the room. But for the sake of positivity, let’s start with the good, shall we?

Paul Kurtz

kurtzThe first two talks of the conference assuaged my fears that the conference program might be a series of rants against religion across the board. It kicked off with a talk by “the father of Modern Secular Humanism” Paul Kurtz, called “A Kinder and Gentler Atheism?” Kurtz opened his talk by saying: “Atheists and Secular Humanists unite… we have nothing to lose but other people’s illusions.” Though I found that a bit off-putting in its echoing of the Atheistic obsession with terming the beliefs of others as illusory, Kurtz promptly got to challenging the participants of the conference.

“Though many of my friends and I enjoy the critique of religion, we have a far greater task than that: to present alternatives,” Kurtz said. “We’re not doing that [right now]. If god [does not exist], what do we do about that? We should be leading the way.”

Kurtz elaborated on that point at length, saying:

I think the most imp thing for the Atheist movement in the United States is to change the ways the public perceives Atheism. It is the most hated group in America, because we’re known as “angry atheists,” when we really ought to be affirmative atheists… It’s very important that we think about redefining Atheism. Most [Atheists] I meet are good people, fine citizens, dedicated to the societies in which they live, virtuous… that is why it’s important that we make that clear… In my view, atheism needs to be gentler and kinder. We have to give the impression of being a civilized, morally committed group who, on the basis of science and reason, are skeptical of claims of religion, and also demonstrate that it is possible to have moral integrity and express good will in order to reassure people that we are committed to our moral outlook. I’ve always used the soft approach. We have to demonstrate that we’re loving people above all else.

He also emphasized the significance of interreligious cooperation:

We’re facing awesome problems… we ought to work together with our religious friends about these problems. The atheist movement needs to be inclusive. We ought to be defined not by what we’re against but what we’re for. It’s important that we not be totalitarians… we need to emphasize the importance of democracy, of tolerating others’ beliefs… A lot of my colleagues have turned against me because they don’t like the positive and prefer to just lambast religion. But we need to move beyond egocentric individualism. Atheism should be affirmative, positive, constructive, and [provide] parameters and guidelines for the fullness of life.

Kurtz’s perspective wasn’t always exactly in line with what I believe, but I found his talk very inspirational. Not everyone seemed to – the first person to ask a question during the Q&A did not take well to Kurtz’s critique of Atheism’s negativity, arguing that Atheists having negative things to say is good and that it is the Atheist’s duty to educate the world, which elicited a hearty round of applause from the room. Still, I really enjoyed Kurtz’s talk – I think I took twenty pages of notes on it, but I’m not going to transcribe them all here. Though I didn’t nod my head to everything he said, I’m glad to have Kurtz as a vital voice in this movement.

Massimo Pigliucci

pigliucciImmediately following Kurtz, Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, did a talk called “What’s Atheism Got to Do with It?” His session was on how atheism does not imply the dismissal of all philosophical inquiry. Like me, Pigliucci, a former scientist and now philosopher, has been accused of being an “accomodationist” in his work. To that, Pigliucci said, “If I’m an accommodations, I’m in good company. We shouldn’t have these kinds of labels. If science brought you to atheism, great. But we shouldn’t have a litmus test to participate in this community.”

As I’ve done, Pigliucci critiqued the exclusivistic attitudes of New Atheist folks like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and even Penn and Teller in his talk, saying, “I love Bill Maher and Penn and Teller, but if we’re part of a community of reason we need to take members to task when they say things that aren’t that reasonable. And they have some unreasonable ideas.” Ultimately, Pigliucci’s perspective can be best summed up by this statement: “I don’t pretend that my position is the only reasonable one.” This pluralistic perspective was refreshing and important.

Todd Stiefel

Stiefel, who was referred to by many at the convention as an “exciting new face of Atheism,” gave a thoughtful and commanding talk on strategies for advancing the Freethought / Atheist agenda. Stiefel had a lot of say and I agreed with most of it. Early in his talk he said something I’ve been saying for a long time in almost the exact way I say it: “Religion is not going away anytime soon. Focusing on directly eliminating religion and faith will outcast us further from 80% of the population, [and] we will fail on a macro level.”

This theme reverberated through much of what he said. Stiefel articulated strategies for the movement, including that we need to “level the perception of who is ethical, marginalize fundamentalists, [and] team with theists,” comparing such a coalition to the queer rights movement and its straight allies.

“We need to stop being so divisive and unite around the things that we have in common,” said Stiefel. “We need to motivate inactive freethinkers to join the movement – why aren’t they getting involved?” I agree that this is an important question to ask and it shouldn’t surprise that I think it is because of the pervasive negativity in our community. To this end, Stiefel said that we need to “personalize freethinkers to others by ‘coming out’ and ‘living openly’… demonstrate that we do ‘believe’ in love, integrity, reason and freedom,  [and] take a positive approach whenever possible… I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing that we don’t believe in anything. We need to be positive. People don’t want to join in on an angry, bitter movement.”

He also talked about the importance of structuring a community around our values:

We need to offer a community to freethinkers… to give a sense of family. [We need to] make available guidance and emotional support as freethinkers search for hope and purpose. I know this is an Atheist convention, but let’s get over the labels and increase the study of humanism, a positive label that says more than what we don’t believe in.

Stiefel took to task those who radically oppose religion and encouraged interfaith dialogue:

[We need to] oppose fundamentalism, irrationality and dogma, but not religion in general. Take a diplomatic approach while appreciating the value of religious criticism… Contrast fundamentalist values with secular values [and] demonstrate similarities between moderate theistic values with secular values. We have to show them we may not believe in their deity but we have more in common with them than fundamentalists do.

This is the impetus behind the interfaith work I do – to help religious people see that the non-religious are just as likely to be their allies in values as their religious counterparts. This perspective hasn’t always been warmly received by some in the Atheist community and has made me feel occasionally marginalized, and Stiefel underscored that this movement will fail if those in the movement who appreciate religion are pushed aside: “Too often I hear ‘they’re an accomodationist, get them out of here…’ No. We need every voice in this movement.” This made me feel particularly good, as I’ve been labeled just that very recently.

Moreover, Stiefel said that Atheists need to stop being so black and white in their approach to religion. “We need to accept that religion can be both good and evil; we need to give tolerance [to] the good to receive tolerance. We cannot go out and say that all religion is evil or we will be alienated. We cannot be absolutist.”

I couldn’t agree more – this was, perhaps, my favorite talk of the convention. It got a mixed reaction from attendees, but it seemed many were open to what he had to say.

Dan Barker

barkerIn the afternoon on the second day of the convention, Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, spoke about his experiences as a former minister and evangelist. “I left Christianity not because I didn’t like it – in fact, I am still friends with many Christians – and not because it felt bad,” Barker said, “but because of an intellectual process I had. I thought to myself, ‘If Adam and Eve are just metaphors, maybe so is God.’”

In spite of his conculsions, Barker talked about why he doesn’t aim to convert: “My conclusions belong to me and me only – that’s what so great about the Freethrought movement. I don’t want to push my beliefs on others.”

His talk, titled “How to Talk to a Fundamentalist,” noted that “not all Christians are the same; not all fundamentalists are the same. There’s no one answer to say, ‘Here’s how you talk to a fundamentalist.’ Not all Christians are [fundamentalists] – some can see the gray areas… But fundamentalist minds are binary – everything is absolutistic. Everything is right or wrong… So if you’re ever having a conversation with a fundamentalist, remember that. Maybe you’re not speaking the same language.” His talk echoed the methodology of the Interfaith Youth Core, which recognizes religious divisions not as one religion versus another but as pluralists standing against fundamentalists / totalitarians.

Barker suggested that when talking to a Christian fundamentalist it is important to know the Bible and to be able to offer a unique take on secular morality, referring to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an Atheist who had a lot of purpose in her life. It seems Barker has a purpose of his own, and he still sounded very much like a preacher. Barker’s talk felt particularly relevant for me as a former Evangelical who also wanted to be a minister. And like listening to Christian sermons back in the day, I was inspired by his prophetic message.

Wendy Kaminer

kaminerThe final talk I attended for the American Atheist Convention was “Privileging Conscience” by Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic who is a correspondent for The Atlantic. Kaminer talked about how the Atheist movement needs to refocus its priorities in respect to legal challenges.

Kaminer discussed a case in which a woman was not allowed to read from the Bible to her child’s class when the students were invited to have their parents come in and share from their child’s favorite book, as well as prayer in schools. Kaminer asked: “Does a law that asks for a moment of silent prayer, meditation, or another silent activity privilege religion? Many of you may say yes, but I tend to disagree… There is an argument that mandatory moments of silence coerce prayer. I say: reminding [students] that they have the right to pray silently does not a theocracy make.”

She highlighted many legal cases in which moments of silence in school were legally challenged by Atheists, including one in which a “Child Psychologist testified that some might succumb to peer pressure to pray.” Kaminer’s perspective: “It takes a great leap of faith to say that moments of silence actually advance religion.”

She also talked about legal challenges to Christian student groups that have exclusive policies for membership, but raised a very important point: “You wouldn’t want the government telling the American Atheists that they couldn’t have their members sign a pledge [to the ideas of their cause]. Would you want Fundamentalist Christians on a voting panel for an Atheist group? [Of course not.] So why should a Christian group be expected to allow an Atheist to join?”

Kaminer spoke from a highly legalistic perspective, displaying a breadth of knowledge and employing years of experience following relevant cases. The audience didn’t seem to take well to her positioning – the man sitting behind me loudly uttered “bullshit” several times during her speech – and offered a flurry of combative questions during the Q&A session. One individual asked about parents who don’t want kids to be exposed to material they find offensive, suggesting that just as some parents find pornography offensive others might wish to shield their children from the Bible. I thought that was such a silly question – as an Atheist parent, wouldn’t you want your child to be aware of this book that is so influential? Children need to be aware of what other people believe, and by putting them in public education you are opening them to world of pluralism.

Kaminer’s talk may have been the most poorly received of all at the convention, but I thought it was a useful, educational moment for our community.

Conversations

I had a few really great conversations, including a particularly honest dialogue with a representative from the New York City Atheists and one from Alabama Atheists. Though there was fundamental disagreement about the best approach to take in non-religious community organizing, we did concur that there was a place for all of our perspectives in the movement. This conversation occurred as I was getting ready to leave the convention; we engaged one another’s perspectives with respect and an open spirit, and it left me feeling optimistic about further dialogue in the future.

This certainly wasn’t so for all of the convention – check back throughout the week for reports on the less encouraging moments from my experience, and be sure to follow my adventures on the Eastern Seabord on Twitter.

Exclusive: Bruce Sheiman Interview

January 30th, 2010 | Posted by:

bookI recently had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Sheiman, the author of An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. His book, which came out last year, has raised eyebrows in both religious and non-religious circles for proposing that religion plays an important and perhaps even necessary role as a cultural institution — even for so-called “rational Atheists.” This is a point with which I obviously sympathize, and I’ve enjoyed his book a great deal. Bruce recently agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his book and other things, including Pat Robertson, Unitarian Universalism, hipsters, and what music he’s listening to.

NonProphet Status: Bruce, thanks again for agreeing to speak with me. Let’s start large: Why did you decide to write this book? Why is it important?

Bruce Sheiman: The debate about the existence of God is never-ending. What is not in dispute is that God exists in people’s hearts, minds and spirits. What is not in dispute is that religion is adaptive, constructive and healthful – and thereby makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Reflecting James’ pragmatic conception of belief: When we act as if religion is true, we act with greater optimism, hope and benevolence. In the end, An Atheist Defends Religion cogently explains that the most rational and definitive argument for dismissing atheism is not found in the interminable debate over the existence of God, but in elucidating the enduring value of religion itself.

NonProphet Status: That’s a great summary of your work, which I find to be very important and totally in line with my own. In other words: you’re preaching to the choir here. So since you and I are in agreement, who do you think will benefit most from reading this book?

Bruce Sheiman: This book affirms both sides of the religion debate: on the one hand I am an unbeliever; on the other I am affirming the value of religion. Thus the book appeals to moderate believers and moderate unbelievers. The book does not appeal to extremists on either side of the debate. Indeed, the book makes an explicit case against extremist fundamentalism, and asserts that fundamentalism applies to religion as well as atheism.

NonProphet Status: You say you are both an Atheist and an “aspiring theist.” Tell me more about what you mean when you say this. What makes you want to be a theist?

Bruce Sheiman: The argument I make is that religion offers many benefits (emotional, communal, psychological, moral, existential, and even physical health) that are not offered by any other cultural institution.  I view religion in the economics context of expenditures and rewards; and if we could equate these minuses and pluses, religion would offer greater “profits” than any other cultural institution, even any secular ideology.  However, I can only justify that qualitatively, not quantitatively; so maybe the issue is unanswerable.

NonProphet Status: What has the response been to this book, both by the religious and by non-religious / Atheist folks?

bruce sheimanBruce Sheiman: It should surprise no one that believers have generally reacted very favorably; they see me as on their team (except for literalists). Unbelievers surprised me in being overtly hateful; they have called me everything from “fraud” (that I am not really an atheist) to “traitor” (I am inauthentic). What became apparent in writing this book is that there are at least two distinct kinds of atheists, what Daniel Burke of Religion News Service distinguished between “Atheism 2.0″ (the so-called New Atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and other extremists) and “Atheism 3.0″ (those given explicit recognition for the first time as expressed in my book: a more accommodating, tolerant and kinder, gentler atheism). For more, you can see the second blog dated December 8, 2009 at my blog.

NonProphet Status: You mentioned that some Atheists see you as a traitor. I can relate to the “traitor” tag; per a comment on my WaPo op/ed: “…maybe then our young Atheist Pastoral Student will find a society waging peace in a secular society. He’s in hell and making friends with the fire fuelers. He’s complaining of all us [fire] fighters squirting water on all the theocrats and heaven bribers.” Charming, no? Why do you think our positions — which I think are pretty politically correct and inoffensive — inspire such outrage among some folks?

Bruce Sheiman: Remember, believers generally like me (except for a contingent that does not take me seriously: I am still “wrong” in the minds of these literalists because they think it is misguided to look upon religion or God in a purely utilitarian sense; and besides, “God does so exist and how dare you say otherwise.”), so it is not all “outrage.”  The reason for such expressions is that many people are only comfortable with belief systems so long as other people embrace their version of the divine truth in a totalist, literalist sense. Deviating at all generates cognitive dissonance and a backlash.

NonProphet Status: Exactly. So why do you think it is that this literalist, militant Atheism has been more successful in capturing the public’s attention than our “kinder, gentler” non-religiosity? How does your perspective explicitly differ from those being advocated by the big-name Atheist / Agnostic voices out there right now (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc)?

Bruce Sheiman: It is quite simple: the more vehement are more vociferous. They command more attention by virtue of being louder and more outrageous.

NonProphet Status: Alright, let’s move on to some possibly lighter subjects. Have you seen Bill Maher’s documentary film “Religulous”? If so, what was your response to it?

Bruce Sheiman: No, I have not seen it. Do you recommend it? Read the rest of this entry »