This morning, atheist blogger and 2011 Yale graduate Leah Libresco announced on her blogging network, Patheos, that she will no longer post in the atheist section of the site. She will still be blogging, but instead as a Catholic. Several months ago, she decided to convert to Catholicism.

Drastically reversing any position—particularly a public one—is a seriously daunting thing to do. Though Leah and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many philosophical issues, especially this one, I admire her integrity. The reason for her conversion—realizing that she believes that the Moral Law is real and a Person—is hard for me to understand. Most charitably, it seems that her justification is opaque and too complicated for one blog post. At worst, it may be philosophically confused. But I’ve read enough of Leah’s writing to know she’s a smart and thoughtful person who must have good reasons for what she believes, particularly since she’s been sitting on this since April.

I’ve noticed that among atheists, the general reaction seems to be either “dafuq?” or “yeah, I guess that makes sense,” with little in between except for suggestions that she’s had a stroke or was never a “real” atheist at all (Leah has very cleverly replied to the stroke accusation here).  Since Leah describes herself in her post as “a virtue ethicist atheist whose transhumanism seems to be rooted in dualism,” it’s pretty clear to me which commenters have actually read her work (or understand any of those words).

I’m in a kind of weird spot where I’m sympathetic to a lot of her positions, but I don’t understand her rationale at all. I go back and forth between brands of consequentialism and Neo-Kantianism as my ethical theory of choice, and I’m almost certain that if the former is true, abortion is terrible and we are all awful people for spending money on vacations and pets and videogames instead of donating the vast majority of our earnings to assist the global poor. All of this goes to say that I seriously empathize with someone struggling for philosophical consistency, and I understand that it can lead you to some bizarre and unintuitive conclusions. And when faced with those conclusions, it’s frankly an unsatisfying cop-out to avoid them by simply rejecting the premises you started with. It seems that she has opted instead to bite the bullet—Catholicism must be the most consistent with her moral conclusions (and many commenters and bloggers have missed the point that this is more in reference to Aquinas than abortion).

I’m sorry to say that I can’t provide much personal insight—we belonged to very different circles while at Yale, and even our interests in Christianity split: she spent her time studying Catholicism with friends, and I explored evangelicalism with the Yale Students for Christ—so until she writes more on her conversion, I can’t begin to understand the finer points of her philosophical conclusions.

But I’ve generally found the reaction to be both predictable and disappointing, and I think it shows a serious lack of empathy and intellectual curiosity in many atheists. The most common reaction I’ve seen is just blatant incredulity, which I think not only reflects an inability to understand why anyone would convert to Catholicism, but why anyone would be a Catholic to begin with. I see the “there is no evidence for religion, all believers are brainwashed” narrative almost accepted as the default atheist position (pandered by American Atheist President Dave Silverman at just about every opportunity), but it seems so clearly absurd to me.

There are basically two options for atheists here. First: everyone is just evidence-insensitive except for us, in which case atheists are the uniquely rational group that, either upon our births or conversion, had a “rational” switch flipped on in our heads. If the evidence leads only to atheism, how could anyone else looking at the evidence believe anything else? Well, they must not be looking at the evidence, then.

I prefer the second option: that people generally believe things for good reasons (qualify “people” with “thoughtful” if you must). If it doesn’t seem like it to us, either we don’t know enough about where they’re starting from (we don’t all have the same philosophical commitments), or we don’t know enough about what evidence they’re applying (evidence, of course, is usually interpreted much more broadly than many atheists would like to admit). It’d be a failure of empathy and critical thinking to assume they’re simply brainwashed or indoctrinated.

I think it’s an inconvenient position, but some people have good reasons for believing in God. Whether or not their reasons are available to us is a different matter—I’m still not sure how Leah’s philosophical commitments lead her to Catholicism—but I don’t doubt that she’s rational enough to see the world and decide that those commitments are probably true, and that Catholicism most logically follows. If she’s made a mistake somewhere, we can certainly try to find it.

Otherwise, any argument or debate is started by assuming the other person is brainwashed or irrational, and how can that turn into anything other than a “look how smart I am!” parade? It’s not so much a conversation as a sparring match with an imaginary partner. Other than reciting your talking points while the other is left with little more than the feeling that you’ve addressed a caricature, what’s the point?

I think we atheists ought to consider seriously and carefully why others believe what they do, in a way that isn’t either self-congratulatory or pointless. It’s too easy and unproductive to simply wave our collective hands while vaguely appealing to psychology in order to explain why people are religious. So instead of disappointment or incredulity, I’m looking forward to Leah’s future posts with curiosity—how better to understand Catholicism than by reading about a peer’s conversion?

 

Vlad Chituc is a recent graduate of Yale University, where he studied Psychology with an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal members of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing for several campus publications. Next year, he will be a lab manager and research assistant at one of Duke’s social neuroscience labs.

Today’s guest blogger is Nicholas Lang, an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. He’s previously written for NonProphet Status about his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:

HereafterA couple weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Faith Project with my friend, Miranda. We sat in the back, in close proximity to the tasty treats, and listened to amazing religious people talk about how their backgrounds inspire them to fight for justice and equality for all. Although we stood in solidarity with these interfaith activists, Ms. Hovemeyer and I came from a far different perspective than our religious compatriots did. We both identify as agnostics, and together, we help make up the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago.

And as I expected, one puzzled audience member interrogated us as to our involvement in interfaith. As an agnostic passionate about work erroneously perceived as only involving religious people, I get questions like his all the time: Why do you care about religious work?

And another personal favorite: Aren’t you guys against religion?

A: We’re not.

In fact, Miranda and I both label ourselves as People of Faith, although that faith happens to be an indefinite one. As a Humanist with a Unitarian Universalist background, Miranda’s tradition taught that religions share more commonality than difference. In her understanding, this overlap has the power to unite disparate communities.

Working both in interfaith and within the queer community showed me that we have a duty to build these bridges ourselves. The only way to create tolerance and religious plurality in society is by actively working toward it. I might not have a label to describe what tradition I ascribe to, but I believe in the power of people.

I believe in us.

At an interfaith event that Miranda and I helped moderate last week, we once again stood surrounded by religious people. Organized by the DePaul A.V. Club and DePaul Interfaith, this “Dinner and a Movie with Interfaith” utilized art as dialogue to start a discussion around religious difference. Our screening of the Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter” drew around 50 guests, from an incredible diversity of campus religious groups. Among many others, I stood with Protestants from DePaul InterVarsity, Catholics from University Ministry, Muslims from DePaul’s UMMA organization.

But more importantly, non-religious people joined us at the forefront of this discussion. That evening, we welcomed guests from the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, our university’s organization for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Also known as DAFT, the group is just over a year old and new to interfaith dialogue on campus. The evening’s discussion centered on perspectives on life and the afterlife, and in joining the conversation, I sensed a lot of hurt and resentment from my non-religious friends. As an agnostic, I understood exactly where they were coming from.

I would be lying to you if I told you that religion is always good, that faith always acts as a tool for empowerment. Scott, the evening’s most vocal DAFT member, lamented the damage that religion can inflict when he pointed out that any discussion of a religious afterlife meant little to him. As a gay man, he believed his Catholic background had already condemned him to Hell.

However, something incredible can happen when religion does help people to heal the divides that ail them. Although many of us disagreed about what happens to us when we die, we found out that the value our traditions place on death tells us each something about how to live. For many agnostics and atheists, nothing awaits us after our death, and this reality acts as a powerful incentive to live life to its fullest now. Our school’s UMMA representatives discussed the role of our others in keeping the memory of the departed alive after they die. According to their tradition, we spiritually live on in those we impact in our lifetime.

Whether we were discussing Heaven or a “fluffy Soul Cloud in the sky,” we were articulating the same needs in our lives: the need for purpose, for community, for connectedness. We all desired to find something, whether in this life or this next.

All of us have a role in creating conversations in our lives that work towards creating common ground. At the end of the discussion, Scott asked if those around him felt that all of us could truly be friends, despite our stark ideological divides. The room resoundingly answered yes.

At moments like these, I know that non-religious folks belong in the interfaith movement. If faith is to unite build bridges across faith lines, skeptics have a key role in ensuring that religion acts as a force for good in the world. Although this was not the case when he began working in interfaith, Huffington Post columnist Chris Stedman recently mentioned that we agnostics and atheists are now “hard to miss.” That’s because we have a unique perspective that is increasingly impossible to ignore, even if what we bring to the table can sometimes be difficult to talk about.

And if last week’s event showed anything, there’s another reason that today’s non-religious folks stand out in interfaith work:

We’re helping lead it.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

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.

Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors is a re-feature from Tikkun Daily by Jorge Cino. Jorge is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern and a NonProphet Status reader, and it’s a total pleasure to refeature his work here. His post is in honor of National Coming Out Day, and though “spiritual” is a dirty word to some atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other nonreligious people, it is an important and worthwhile read about coming out and how rejecting religion impacts the queer community. Check it out — the original post can be read here — and many thanks to Jorge for offering to share his work with NonProphet Status.

umbrellasFor those of us who have come out of the closet, National Coming Out Day – which is being internationally celebrated today – is a good reminder of the spiritual journey each of us have undergone since the fateful day we decided to say, “Enough. I am who I am, and from today onwards I will live by it.”

The idea that coming out is a defining spiritual moment in a person’s life is not something you’ll find in mainstream LGBT discourse. Understandably so, of course: those who control religious discourse in America and elsewhere have done a tremendously effective job at turning gay people against organized religion. Ask a gay guy if they believe in God and an overwhelming majority of them will say, “I don’t think so,” or “No, I don’t.”

In reality, what they are rejecting is the entire cauldron of anti-gay sentiment that classmates, relatives, priests, politicians, etc. have been unloading in our ears since we were born. It is no surprise then that a lot of us in the gay community have gone as far as rejecting religion and faith all together. (The question here would be, “What has the LGBT community replaced religious virtue with?” The answers to that question would merit another post.)

It’s a clear case of blaming the sinner instead of the sin. Because we hear the Pope saying grotesque lies about homosexuality, because the Mormon Church donates exorbitant amounts of resources to statefederal, and even international anti-gay initiatives, or because many evangelicals go out of their way to vote against our rights, the majority of us get so frustrated, so infuriated, that we decide that religion as a whole is inherently wrong; a harmful man-made power tool; a below-par way of thinking.

And yet, whether we like it or not, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, and subsequently coming and living “out” in a society that by and large is still religious – those are all experiences that test our relationship with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. But why are we letting them thwart our relationship to a higher power, or a higher way of living? Why are we letting bigots strip us of our faith, whatever our faith is?

Being “out” should not necessarily mean breaking away from religion, God, or faith. On the contrary, it could be an opportunity to positively rethink your personal relationship to your god, to respectfully and fully engage in spiritual conversations with yourself and others, and to learn how to live in love and kindness. Gay people, contrary to mainstream conservative diatribe, are looking for happiness and fulfillment just like anyone else. We want equality for us and for everyone else. We defend freedom and kindness and respect for all beings. We have and continue to work hard to build a community that is supportive of those individuals who are going through special struggles, whether it be AIDS, substance abuse, depression, discrimination–you name it, we have support groups and organizations for all of them.

How much easier would it be for a gay man to go to take a good second look at the sacred text of his family’s religion and study it under this his “new” worldview? How much more quickly could we gay folks win over the religious middle if we engaged in healthy, constructive conversations with them about religion and faith, instead of antagonizing with them? Or how much easier would it be for someone who is really struggling with his coming out experience to look at it as an opportunity to test her fears and doubts, and make a commitment to be loving and kind with those people who she thinks will not accept her?

I am sure most straight Tikkun readers have reflected on these issues, but if you haven’t lately, this might be a good time to do so. How can you be more empathetic and show more support to a colleague, a child, or a neighbor who is gay? Let’s remember that they who are different depend on the “other’s” willingness to listen and engage with them. They will live a better life (including, perhaps, a more spiritual life) if you show an interest to integrate them fully into your life.

jorgeJorge M. Cino is Tikkun Daily’s current web editor intern, and a recent graduate from University of San Francisco. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he has lived in the Bay Area for the past six years. He is passionate about social justice; here, there, and everywhere.

Today’s entry in our series of guest posts is by Bruce Johansen, a prolific freelance writer who also happens to be my first cousin once removed! You may remember my Mom’s guest post on NPS — it’s a family affair here. To that effect, Bruce offers a poignant and illuminating look into the recent memorial service for his father and the role religion did (and didn’t) play in planning it. It’s a real honor to share this affecting and insightful writing with you today — thank you for sharing this moving piece with us, Bruce.

“There Won’t Be Anything”

I remember it vividly. We were in the kitchen doing dishes, when my father said something that I could not quite follow.

“I guess there won’t be anything for me when I’m gone.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“No funeral or service,” he clarified.

Still not sure I understood, I pressed him further: “Why wouldn’t there be a service?”

“Well,” he replied, “your mother and I haven’t belonged to a church in years.”

Bruce and father

Celebrating one of my father's last birthdays.

It was true. My parents had stopped attending church years (actually decades) ago, and at some point my father, for whom religion had once seemed most important, had drifted away from it completely. Even so, I assured my dad that having severed that relationship was no reason to think that there would be no service. We knew several people who could put together something wonderful and meaningful. It would not be religious in the traditional sense (no God language or prayer, for example) but it would serve many of the same functions.

In hindsight I wish that I had followed up with more questions. What would he like to have included in a service — readings, pieces of music, stories? I also found myself wondering what had become of the Christian beliefs that had seemed so important for much of his life, back when he prayed before holiday meals and attended church faithfully. At the time, however, I was mostly relieved that I had put his mind at ease.

When the Time Came

One night in June, a couple of years after that exchange, my father died. Since January 2008 he had suffered a series of physical setbacks, including two fractured hips and a stroke. As his health deteriorated, he often expressed his desire to die. Still, upon receiving the news, we as a family found ourselves unprepared, both emotionally and in practical ways. Suddenly we were confronted with the reality of his absence, and by numerous tasks that were new to us, many involving finances and stacks of paperwork. Fortunately we had a trusted financial advisor we could lean on for advice about that sort of thing. What was not so clear was how to mark my dad’s passing.

In families that have a strong connection to church, a funeral or memorial service is less of a quandary. The church is notified and conversations are held, hopefully with a trusted pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or someone in a comparable role. In most traditions, a service is scheduled, most often for the following week. There are certain prescribed rituals; expected music, commonly shared words. But what happens when that connection to church is lacking, and when members of the immediate family hold views about religion that range from humanist to agnostic to atheist? That was the context in which we, as a family, began our conversations about how to mark this chapter.

With few models to work with, two family members suggested that we think of the event as a “celebration of life.” Initially it was thought that this celebration would be held outdoors, in a park along the Mississippi River that in recent years had become a favorite site for family gatherings. An aunt who had planned and led two services — one for her mother who had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and the other for a dear friend who had committed suicide — could officiate. The service itself would be shaped around the sharing of stories. Most importantly, it would not be generic and impersonal.

While we liked the spirit that my family wanted to capture, my partner and I had our share of concerns. Some were logistical. Would elderly friends and relatives be able to hear if it were held outdoors? Would people find the spot and would it be easy to navigate? What if the day happened to be rainy or overly hot? Anything was possible in Minnesota in late August. After mulling over those questions, a decision was made to hold the service in the chapel at Macalester College, my father’s alma mater.

The next decision proved trickier. While I had no doubt that my aunt would do a wonderful job preparing and officiating, I thought that there could be some wisdom in inviting friends who had professional training and experience planning such events. From services I had attended, the best helped loved ones remember the person who had died and confront some of the deeper issues and questions that all of us face about mortality and the meaning of life. After some initial hesitancy, other family members consented, and I invited the assistance of two people in addition to my aunt, Susie: a good friend, Rod, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and another, Marilaurice, who is a long-time Catholic liturgist. All three would guide us.

The Potential Gift of Religious Practice

service

Pictured (from left): Rev. Rod Richards, UU minister; Marilaurice Hemlock, Catholic liturgist; Susie Stedman, experienced service leader; Carol Johansen, the author’s mother; nieces Erin Collins and Michelle Collins Zhao, and Bruce Johansen, all of whom joined Rod Richards and Susie Stedman in reading the story of the author’s father’s life.

As planning proceeded, the main challenge was to design a celebration that would prove meaningful, while not setting off alarms for the most anti-religious among us. Some family members lump all religion together with the most literal, fundamentalist brand. As for me, I have a longstanding appreciation of humanist religions. I also know many people who identify with and derive meaning from more traditional religions, who are smart and thoughtful, and who have a negotiated relationship with their religion. They may appreciate religion in metaphorical, not literal ways, or find in some of its parables useful lessons for how to be in the world, while rejecting other texts. Many of these people seem well grounded, fight for social justice, and treat others with an inspiring compassion, kindness, and love.

Those of us who hold a more nuanced view know that while religion can be a source of great suffering and terrible violence in the world, it can also elicit the best in people. And, as this story shows, religion — including the humanist variety that I am most comfortable with — also has the capacity to help people navigate the most difficult moments and questions in their lives.

What evolved from working with three people who possessed the right blend of skills and sensitivity was exactly the kind of celebration I had envisioned, and proved to be more than what my family had hoped for. The groundwork was laid through phone calls, email exchanges, and an initial planning session that brought the minister and liturgist, my mother, partner, and me together around a table on a Saturday afternoon. That casual exchange led to many good ideas being bandied about. By the end of our session the order of service was nearly set and to everyone’s satisfaction. The following Friday, the day before the service, all of us came together as a family, with our planners, and the final details fell into place.

The service that resulted captured who my dad was, and simultaneously grappled with the big questions about life, death, and what it means to be human. Between thoughtful opening and closing words came the sharing of my dad’s life story, music, poetry, silence, and a wonderful blessing tailored to my father’s life. Photo albums, carefully prepared by my brother, enhanced the story that was told. All of the elements were respectful of the beliefs and wishes of my family.

Every person present for my dad’s celebration of life left the campus grounds that Saturday knowing more about him than when they arrived. And for those who may have entered the chapel skeptical about or even hostile toward religion, the service demonstrated the potential gift that religious practice can be in helping people mark important passages of life. To a person, members of my family were sure that my father would have been pleased with how the celebration had unfolded. While his physical being was not there, much of his spirit was present.

Stepping Back

If I could step back in time, rejoin my dad in the kitchen that day, I would assure him with much greater confidence that the service planned would be one of reflection, respect, tenderness, and love; that his absence from church these past many years would not matter one bit; that our family could learn from those among us who are more “churched” than we, and that they could learn from us as well.

bruceBruce Johansen is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in American studies. He currently does research and writes reports for the DC-based FrameWorks Institute and devotes much of his time to community development work in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. As a child, Bruce attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, and then, in his 20s, discovered Unitarianism. More recently he has found himself drawn to Ethical Culture and Buddhism as well.

Today’s guest blog is an anonymous submission, and it wrestles with the ongoing issue of how America’s diverse Muslim community is perceived and how Atheists, Christians and others might better support it. This is a truly excellent and especially important piece and I hope that all of NonProphet Status’ readers will heed the below advice and encourage others to do the same. Without further ado:

Islamic CenterAn American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, necessary for the growing local population, that was temporarily blocked by the city council. The interviewer asks him whether Muslims should participate in U.S. politics.

He responds that when politics can reduce public harm, Muslims are obligated to participate. “Theoretically, it is very easy to say [avoid political involvement], but practically, we consider Islam as a dynamic faith… Because really, we are part of this society, we are citizens. What will harm them, will harm us, and sometimes what will harm them harms us first. So how can I isolate myself from the entire society?”

Political engagement is becoming more common in American Muslim communities today. David SchanzerCharles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa sent their overworked graduate students around the U.S. to learn how typical Muslim communities prevent radicalization of troubled individuals. The most significant of their findings may incite the xenophobic among us, but will be no surprise to many people; increasing political mobilization among American Muslims is a positive change which should be encouraged.

Through Muslims’ political activity, “grievances are brought into the public sphere and clearly articulated so they do not fester and deepen,” and “disputes are resolved through debate, compromise, and routine political procedures.” Well, of course that sounds obvious to you. Keep in mind this report was written in part for politicians, who need to be constantly reminded why we employ them.

Regardless of the side benefits to wider society, citizens and guests should be able to feel welcome in the United States. Yet Muslims here are still experiencing a surge in hate crimes, which peaked in late 2001. Citing FBI hate crime statistics, the authors report “current levels remain about five times higher than prior to 9/11.” These are only the most threatening incidents in an ongoing pattern of collective punishment.

So, what can the rest of us do to ease hostilities against American Muslims?

We should widely publicize anti-Muslim activity. Many people habitually want to imagine that biases against minorities are always a thing of the past. The media’s current attention on anti-Muslim bias will fade soon, as all news cycles do. But the collective punishment will continue in relative silence. We can at least talk to our acquaintances about these issues, and bother our local news companies regularly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has decent coverage of anti-Muslim activity. There is also Islamophobia Watch, which focuses more on the U.K. but includes some coverage of the U.S. We don’t need to agree with all the policies these organizations advocate; merely as news sources they are indispensable. I hope readers can suggest others in the comments.

We should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in public and in private, drawing on both religious and secular arguments. Much of this has gone unnoticed in the mainstream press, and many Americans wonder — erroneously — why Muslims have been silent on the subject.”

Reporters don’t like going to their jobs any more than the rest of us. If consumer pressure doesn’t tell them that when reporting on violence by Muslims, at minimum they must include Muslims condemning violence, they won’t bother. Bloggers and people active on social media can try to fill the gaps.

We should highlight the diversity of views within Muslim communities. Humans often assume that unfamiliar groups are monolithic, even while recognizing that more familiar groups are made up of individuals with their own personal views. A non-Muslim may read the Quran and think “now I know what Islam is all about.“ Though religion is not primarily about texts anyway, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who simply read the Bible and assumed they now understand Christianity would be overlooking thousands of common interpretations, and billions of individual Christian views.

If reading a text was sufficient to understand a religion, there would be no market for theology. The reason there are so many schools of Islamic theology, so many arguments about hadith, and thousands of scholars cited in arguments, is that Muslims do not agree on what Islam should mean to the individual in her or his time and place. The reality of Muslim diversity is far more complex than blanket terms of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi may suggest.

This kind of cognitive bias about unfamiliar groups was part of the reason many Americans once imagined that Catholic immigrants were a unified invading horde, not thinking for themselves but all taking orders from the Pope. This happened even though any careful observer could see multiple competing sects within the Catholic Church. Today’s fear of Muslims will one day be as embarrassing as yesterday’s anti-Catholic paranoia is now, but that day can’t come soon enough, and we should do whatever we can to speed the process along.

We should welcome American Muslim identity politics. There is a tendency among dominant groups to demand that others drop some aspect of their identity. We’ve heard this most often directed at African-Americans. But the demand comes without evidence of its practicality. Am I an atheist first, or an American first? Such questions suppose a consistency which no human actually practices. When I’m talking religion, I’m more obviously an atheist. Talking politics, I’m more obviously an American. People are not so distinct as labels may imply, and we are all capable of valuing many things at once.

This suggestion is likely to meet resistance, so I’ll quote the authors’ explanation: “Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding. A recent book offers an outspoken vision of this double identity:

This anthology is about women who don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim… We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz ‘amma (the final thirtieth [chapter] of the Qur’an) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur’anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we’ve pioneered.’”

We should learn to address the systemic problems that affect American Muslim communities. This can be difficult without listening; systemic problems involving housing, policing, education and employment may not be immediately obvious to those who aren’t experiencing them. Established communities of African-American Muslims face the same kinds of discrimination as other African-Americans do, and recent immigrant communities face challenges of their own.

We should support American Muslim community-building efforts. Involved communities, religious and secular, can provide bulwarks against crushing boredom and lonely isolation, reach out to troubled youths, direct financial and other assistance to those who are struggling in poverty, and generally make life more livable.

We’re not just talking about overtly religious efforts here. There are “charity events, dances, mixers, basketball tournaments, soccer leagues, lobbying, media-relations, voter-registration, electoral campaigns, fashion shows, religious festivals, ethnic festivals, national-heritage holidays such as Pakistan Independence Day and Iranian New Year.”

Some community-building can work to counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. These should be of special interest to government officials and politicians: “Many Muslim-American communities have the resources to build community institutions without assistance; others do not. We recommend that all levels of government make additional efforts to offer disadvantaged Muslim-American communities such community-building resources as funding for recreation centers, day care centers, public health clinics, and courses in English as a Second Language. There is a special need for these resources in isolated immigrant communities.”

That brings me to mosques. We should help build mosques, the most visible symbol of American Muslims’ presence. They generally provide both the benefits of community-building, and the serious religious training that can immunize troubled individuals against extremist propaganda on the internet.

Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities.

It’s not enough to be indifferent. It’s not enough just to speak up for First Amendment rights, though that bare minimum is important.

Government funding can’t be used, but non-Muslims should make public our efforts to support the construction and expansion of mosques, as an example of American values. Some Americans really need to be reminded right now what those values are.

By support, I mean financial or volunteering, whatever you can do. If there are any mosques planned or under construction in your area, it would help to call local politicians and tell them you support the Muslim community’s construction efforts and will only support politicians who uphold the First Amendment. Churches and atheist organizations should get in touch with local Muslim groups, and ask what they need. If our neighbors can see us taking an active role in these efforts, they may be reminded of their own better nature.

BIHThe author of this piece, BloggingIsHard, is an anonymous gay atheist. You can find him on twitter.