March 1st, 2011 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Please check out my latest piece for the Huffington Post Religion, a reflection on my February (F)a(i)theist speaking tour of the Midwest. This post is dedicated to everyone who hosted me and came out to see me speak — you all inspired me so much! Check out an excerpt below; it can be read in full at the Huffington Post Religion:
This February, as friends of mine flocked south to escape the unrelenting cold of Boston, I headed to the Midwest.
It was my first college and university speaking tour, put together in partnership with eight institutions in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa that extended invitations for me to come speak to students about my experiences as an atheist and an interfaith activist. I was beyond grateful, not only because it was a wonderful chance to try out some material from my forthcoming book and an opportunity to share my hope for greater understanding between the religious and the secular, but also because I got to see firsthand how atheism and interfaith work are not only discussed but lived on campuses in the Midwest.
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!
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.
Nicholas 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.
I have a new blog up over at the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, The Faith Divide. This is my third piece for the them — the other two can be found here and here. The piece addresses Molly Norris and “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which I have written about several times. [Update: This piece has been refeatured on Tikkun Daily and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.]
Below is an excerpt; it can be read in full at The Faith Divide:
Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists.
How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn’t? Poor Norris – imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.
However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.
For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”
I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: “The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out… is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.” Continue reading at the Faith Divide.
Today’s guest post in the current lineup of “Other NonProphets” is by Lewis Marshall, the president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. Lewis reflects on how AHA! became one of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR) and the subsequent interfaith alliances they built. This is a really great resource for any non-religious students interested in interfaith campus work. Without further ado:
I had the honor of being on a panel discussion about operating an atheist student group in an interfaith organization at the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) conference this summer. I had a great time, and it was nice to meet the other panelists (Hemant Mehta, Chris Stedman, and Jonathan Weyer). Chris has graciously invited me to share more of my experiences with getting involved in interfaith work. I hope this context helps to explain why I think atheist groups should be involved in interfaith organizations. I’m also going to share a few lessons I’ve learned that may help those starting this process.
There may be dissent from your own organization
In the spring of 2009, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford (AHA!) applied to become a member of the Stanford Associated Religions (SAR). The main sticking point in becoming a member of the SAR was discomfort inside our group about the pledge that is required of SAR groups. In part, it reads: “promote the moral and spiritual growth of the Stanford University community.”
That single word, “spiritual,” was a major source of argument in deciding whether to join the SAR. Many people believed that joining this organization would compromise our values. Others thought that we shouldn’t join because we are not technically a “religion.”
In the end, we joined, and with our application included a memorandum of understanding, which read in part:
Though its participants generally do not consider themselves religious, AHA! reconciles its purpose with a broad interpretation of the term “religion,” and of the pledge by all SAR organizations to promote “spiritual growth” …with respect to open inquiry into questions of meaning and morality, which are spiritual questions in the most comprehensive sense, AHA!’s function complements those of the other SAR organizations.
Looking back now, the initial argument was overblown. Being part of the SAR has not affected the daily life of our group, or forced us to compromise our mission. We’ve still been able to do controversial events and we’ve still been able to run our group as we see fit. In my mind, the practical outcomes are more important than any hang-up over labels.
There may be less backlash from religious organizations than you expect.
In part, we wrote the memorandum of understanding for ourselves, to show that we had a clear vision for our involvement with the SAR. In another sense, it was a way of preparing for objections from religious organizations. We were concerned that religious organizations would question our place in a community that pledges to promote spiritual growth.
In reality, we’ve had virtually no comment from religious organizations on our involvement with the SAR. No one objected to us when we joined, no one has showed surprise at seeing our banner at events. It has been a complete non-issue.
We anticipated some criticism participating in Everybody Draw Muhammad day. In particular, the rules of the SAR require that we inform religious organizations of events critical of their religion. We did not receive any response from Muslim student groups over this event, the only criticism was in anonymous comments on our website.
In my mind the take-away lesson is this: If you act like you belong in an interfaith organization, people will treat you like you belong in an interfaith organization. Be kind and confident, and you might be surprised by the reaction.
There may be more material benefits to joining an interfaith organization than you realize.
When we joined the SAR, we anticipated that it would be a mainly symbolic gesture. In reality, we’ve received a number of material benefits that we never considered.
Incoming freshmen at Stanford are asked to fill out a religious preference card letting the Office of Religoius life know their religious affiliation. Each year, we get a list of over 100 incoming freshmen who listed themselves as atheists, agnostics, or something uncommon like like “Jedi” or “Discordian.”
Being on the SAR mailing list has led us to many event opportunities. While we always table at the major activity fairs, we now have the opportunity to participate in discussions and tabling events specifically for religious organizations. We currently have a list of about five events catering to the religious needs of incoming freshmen this fall.
We now have access to a number of meeting spaces we would not otherwise have, including the Stanford Memorial Church. This year, we were able to host Austin Dacey in the church at the regional SSA conference at no cost to ourselves.
Religious organizations are likely to need the same sorts of infrastructure as an atheist student group. Interfaith organizations can help you tap into that infrastructure and make organizing your group that much easier.
You may find some natural allies.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the very helpful people we’ve met in Stanford’s religious community. The Progressive Christians have been some of our best friends at Stanford. They were particularly helpful in setting up a discussion with Hemant Mehta and their campus minister, Geoff Browning. The Hare Krishnas facilitated one of the most vigorous discussions we’ve had about the existence of God. We’ve also had contact with the Quaker and Buddhist communities. These two groups contain atheists and I think they could make great allies.
I think it’s important to build ties to partner organizations like this, because it’s one of the quickest ways of changing perceptions about atheists. Some of these communities were hesitant to work with us, but after holding events together I think we have a solid relationship and a real understanding.
So why join an interfaith organization?
In my mind, this is like asking, “Why join the SSA? Why join the Center for Inquiry?” All of these organizations have resources that can help your group. They have connections to interesting, involved people. If you can find a way to use those resources, you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping to build a meaningful, diverse community.
P.S. That’s great, Lewis, but it doesn’t really help me…
I realize that many of you live in areas more conservative than the Stanford, and you might not find your religious organizations as welcoming as we did. I’ve certainly talked to people still getting a cold shoulder from religious organizations. I can only speak from my experience, but I think this will get better. Religious students attend meetings and share ideas cross-country too. As more and more atheist groups enter interfaith communities, I think it will start to seem more normal. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Lewis Marshall is the former publicist and current president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) at Stanford. He was previously a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota. Lewis is currently a third-year Ph.D. student of chemical engineering at Stanford and received his B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2008.
The first in our series of guest posts by some other NonProphets comes from secular student superstar Lucy Gubbins. Lucy, a personal hero of mine and co-founder of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists (which was recently given the “Best Community” Award by the Secular Student Alliance), tackles the question of whether religion-tolerant atheists are truly welcome in the secular movement. Take it away, Lucy!
Firebrands and diplomats. “Accommodationists” and “New Atheists.” When the question of religious tolerance comes up in a group of nonbelievers, whether it’s a keynote address or a conversation among friends, nothing gets tempers rising quite like the question: In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?
As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both.
If you take a look at any American secular organization, any of the best-selling atheist authors, or any popular atheist blog, it’s easy to see that the “Bad Cop” side is pretty well represented. Go to any atheist-centered conference and it’s a matter of course to have your eyes and ears filled with snarky remarks from the MCs and speakers, and presentations entirely built on forced religious mockeries. Scour the shelves in the Religion section of any bookstore and find the imperious titles of all the trendy atheist books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Fighters of delusion and drawers of Mohammed, rejoice! — we’ve got you covered.
What happens, though, when the “Good Cops” start showing up? What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?
Everyone is always eager to say that in the secular community, both “firebrands” and “diplomats” are needed. But the truth is that the “diplomats,” the “accommodationists” — the atheists who don’t view religious people as delusional imbeciles, and who are willing to be respectful of faith — aren’t so sexy. Drop the names “Heidi Anderson” or “Chris Stedman” in a room full of atheists, and you’re guaranteed at least 3 simultaneous diatribes that could each go on for hours (much to my deep chagrin, I know this via personal experience). Even when I try to talk about the philosophy of the student group I co-founded and led for two years, the Alliance of Happy Atheists, listeners’ eyes seem to glaze over until they have a chance to say: “Well, what you do is cute. But we need the angry atheists, too.”
To be frank, I’m undecided on this point — I continually find myself disconnected and disheartened by the way members of what I once thought to be “my” movement approach the topic of religious tolerance. However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.
That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. When they’re the sole individuals encouraging polite, snark-less conversation with the faithful, let’s try to not storm out of the room in a huff. Like it or not, atheism desperately needs an image change, and this will only occur through the works of people willing to put anger aside and learn how to interact with religious people in a positive manner. Yes, we need the angry atheists too — but in my opinion, at a time of surplus in one area, let’s look to what we’re lacking in another.
So let’s make this movement the best it can possibly be. Let’s make sure all secular people — the lovers of confrontation, accommodation, and everyone in between — are welcomed with open arms into our community. And let’s make sure we’re empowering and supporting each other to do whatever we can to create a world where a secular humanist philosophy is seen as viable, moral, and maybe even normal.
And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers. And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything.
Lucy Gubbins was born in east Tennessee and is a junior at the University of Oregon, where she co-founded the Alliance of Happy Atheists. AHA! is one of the largest and most active clubs on the UO campus, with a mission to humanize the image of nonbelief, create fellowship among secular students, and bridge the divide between faith and skepticism. Lucy studies linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology, and greatly hopes to find more support for interfaith work within the secular movement in the future.