I’ll be live-tweeting the Munk Debate on religion as a force for good in the world between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens tonight by invitation of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at 7 PM EST! Visit my Twitter page for my commentary, and if you want to see a stream of the debate, check out their live stream page.
Today’s guest post comes from Tim Brauhn, a Catholic interfaith activist. Tim, who recently finished a year as a Fellow for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation‘s FaithsAct anti-Malaria interfaith initiative, is a lovable weirdo. Tim was once an anti-Atheist schmuck but has since changed his tune. He shares why below:
My friend Ahab is an atheist. Note: his nickname, which I was kind enough to bestow upon him, has no relation to his faith orientation, so don’t go all crazy with white whale language just yet. Ahem.
I was having a chat with Ahab one night a long time ago back at Aurora University. It was snowing outside, as if that was important to the story. I asked him, “So you admit that for a god to exist it would have to be an infinite being?” His reply was a strong affirmative. “But you still don’t believe that god does, in fact, exist?” Again, he answered yes.
AHA! I knew I had him this time! I was finally going to score a point against his godless ass! ”Well then, my dear friend, you have failed! In acknowledging the necessarily infinite existence of a creator god that you don’t believe in, you have turned your disbelief into the flipside, anti-infinite version of the non-affirmation of said creator god. Therefore, even by saying that god doesn’t exist, you admit by extension that god does exist as a universal MUST! It’s all about ones and zeros! I’ve got you, you fisher king rat bastard!”
Ahab blinked, took a drag from his cigarette (typical atheist maneuver), and said, “Whatever, dude.”
I didn’t meet avowed nontheists until I arrived at college, and when I did, I tried hard to figure out what they were about. How could they not believe in some kind of… thing? Granted, at the time I was still building my own conception of the divine — a process that grows more beautiful and happy by the day. The friendly (honest!) conversation recounted above was the closest I ever came to admitting how I really felt: My brain couldn’t handle what I perceived as the irrationality of non-belief.
In time, of course, I mellowed. I realized that agnostics are capable of feeling just as much universe-rending glory as me without having to attribute it to some greater intelligence. Working and dialoguing with nontheists on issues of social concern, especially, helped me get my head on straight. But it wasn’t until I read Greta Christina’s Alternet piece “6 (Unlikely) Developments That Could Convince This Atheist To Believe In God” that I found a truly admirable and altogether frightening reality: religious people can’t be proven wrong.
I suppose that I always knew this. I’d been questioned by atheists myself and forced to defend or explain many positions. It wasn’t until reading Greta’s very plain language that I figured it out. Example: If god descended from the clouds and thundered, “I DO NOT EXIST — STOP BELIEVING IN ME!” I think my brain would literally melt in my skull and slide out through my nose. That’s a logic bomb right there.
Maybe that’s what drove me nuts back in the day. I couldn’t square my own faith-based shortcomings with atheists who seemed perfectly content to not believe in god. It was impossible to prove me wrong, which made it possible to be always right. And that’s no way to be.
I’ve stopped trying to score points against atheists, largely because I realized that even if they don’t have religion, they still have faith — often boatloads of it. Faith in humanity, faith in one another, in natural processes, or something else entirely. I learned that calling someone a non-believer made collaborative action difficult, and that regarding secularism (especially the American style) as a positive piece of our national character is a must. We’re all in this together, gods or no gods, and we’re all the stronger for it.
Tim Brauhn grew up in an agrarian Irish Catholic home in northern Illinois. He has been in the interfaith sphere for the last five years, connecting people across faith lines for mutual inspiration and common action. He drinks hellacious amounts of tea and mate and doesn’t cook his food. In addition to a bit of interfaith consulting, Tim is a Community Mobilizer with Ashoka Changemakers, where he uses the power of the WORLD WIDE WEB to connect social entrepreneurs and innovators worldwide. Tim is also RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
April 26th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Our Share Your Secular Story contest is quickly coming to an end — the period for submission closes in less than a month on May 15, so get your entry in! We wanted to give you an example of a secular story that demonstrates how one young secular individual found a way to engage with people of another religious identity, remain strong in his own, and identify shared values with others around which they were able to collaborate. Today’s guest post comes from Nate Mauger, a student at The Ohio State University and intern at the Secular Student Alliance, who shares his “secular story.” His story is a profound testament to the importance of expressing secular values and the potential significance of interfaith collaboration. We hope it inspires you to share a story of your own!
It was early in the morning — well, at least too early to be awake on one’s spring break — and our group was wandering aimlessly around the house we had been told we would be working on that day. New Orleans had been cool and sunny for the majority of the week, but today the sky was overcast and the air was hot and humid. As our group waited to get inside, we were told that the eighty year old woman who had lived in this house had died in its doorway as Hurricane Katrina swept through nearly 5 years ago. She had stayed to protect her belongings from looters and vandals, and sure enough almost everything she owned was still sitting in place where she had left it. Even a calendar on her wall was still flipped to August, 2005. To say the scene was unsettling would be an understatement. As we made our way through the house, we were told to strip out all her things and throw them in a dumpster. Then our group would rip the drywall from the walls, essentially gutting the residence down to the studs. When a house is mostly empty, doing demo work can be an invigorating experience. Seeing someone’s life laid out in front of us dampened our enthusiasm, to say the least.
The group with whom we went to New Orleans consisted of twelve Christians and twelve Atheists from the The Thomas Society (An Ohio State University Campus Ministry) and the Students for Freethought at OSU (SFF), respectively. The idea had been inspired a similar joint venture undertaken by a secular student group from the University of Illinois – Champaign Urbana. This was the second annual trip SFF and the Thomas Society had made to New Orleans together. This being my first trip, I was understandably anxious and a little apprehensive. Though the two groups had been cooperating for almost two years, and many people could testify to the respectfulness of the interaction, I still had my reservations. In a alien environment like a service trip, would members of a Christian group see the inherent intimacy of our venture as an opportunity to proselytize me? Could the Atheists avoid the temptation to attack what they see to be the many distasteful and irrational positions of the Christian faith?
Putting my fears aside, I dived in headfirst and learned a great deal about what interfaith cooperation really means, and why it can be such a valuable experience for people who hold opposing worldviews to work together to make our world a better place. I know that sounds cliché, but the service trip we took together convinced me that the altruism present in the Thomas Society isn’t all that different from the emotion a Secular Humanist feels when they see an individual in need or a community in ruins. In that moment when we were surveying the state of that elderly woman’s house, I could tell that a common chord had been struck within every member of our team. We were collectively outraged at the sustained neglect of not only this property, but of the community in general. How could this injustice be perpetuated for so long? As I looked on at the work in front of us, it occurred to me that it would be entirely irresponsible of us to focus on our differences when our common goals and ideals could be harnessed to affect a positive change in the short window of opportunity we had been given.
I should mention that while we had a singular focus as we worked on these homes, that does not mean that we ignored our differences entirely. On many nights, we had long discussions concerning the details of our differing worldviews. These were undertaken in a respectful manner, but they were not brushed under the rug in any way. In talking with the leaders of both groups extensively, I got the feeling that each group had a fierce desire to know the truth. While the approach SFF and the Thomas Society take is strikingly different, that passion is there. Disagreement and debate with faith groups are critical to freeing our minds from the excessive insularity that a group’s isolation can engender.
Of course, we didn’t forget that we were on spring break. Most nights, you could find our groups wandering the French Quarter experiencing all that this amazing city has to offer. Bourbon Street was particularly active during our visit, and one of my most vivid memories of the trip involves our encounter there with a fundamentalist evangelical Christian group holding signs condemning us for our iniquity. Naturally, the we couldn’t help but confront them and discuss their views and motivations for taking such a militant stance. As I argued for what seemed like an eternity with these people the subject turned to what we were doing down in New Orleans. We explained that we were part of a service trip involving both Atheists and Christians, and they seemed to be extremely surprised by this. As we continued to go back and forth, I noticed that some of my closest allies in this debate were the moderate Christians who accompanied us down to New Orleans. At least for the moment, we had more in common than we held in opposition.
In summary, I would encourage anyone to look into a joint service trip like the one our group decided to do over spring break. We worked with AmeriCorps and the Trinity Community Center down in New Orleans, but opportunities like this exist all around the country. Developing mutual respect for your peers of differing faiths and working to better a community can be extremely rewarding… and oh yeah, don’t be afraid to have a good time while you’re at it. I promise you, we did.
Nate Mauger is the Wintern (Winter + Intern) at the Secular Student Alliance. He is an active member of Students for Freethought at The Ohio State University where he studies Anthropology and Geography. Nate’s experience traveling with SFF and The Thomas Society to New Orleans for a service project gave him a new perspective on the benefits of cooperation with faith groups. With graduation on the horizon, Nate hopes to stave off unemployment by attending grad school to study Geographic Information Systems.
Have a secular story of your own to share? Enter our contest before May 15!
The other day I began a conversation on the Nonreligious social networking website Atheist Nexus that I (admittedly cheekily) titled “I love religion.” In my initial post, I identified what I saw as a disconcerting amount of religious prejudice taking place on the website and attempted to offer up a perfunctory defense of some of religion’s positive attributes. My intent was two-fold: primarily, I was seeking out other secularists who were sympathetic to religious aims, values, and people; secondarily, however, I hoped to prompt a thoughtful dialogue around the issue of Nonreligious attitudes toward religion. Unsurprisingly, a robust debate followed.
With a looming thesis deadline, I’ve unfortunately had to abandon the conversation. But I wanted to share some some selections from the ensuing debate. It is not my intention to give a lopsided representation of the exchanges; however, I didn’t want to just copy and paste the entire thing (because that would be extremely long). I hope these selections will give you a sense of what transpired. The portions I’ve chosen are, in my opinion, the most provocative counter-arguments to my initial post, and my responses. After the selections, I’ve offered some concluding reflections. Read the rest of this entry »
I 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 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 »