A Committed Christian's Atheist Heroes

September 7th, 2010 | Posted by:

Today’s post in our ongoing series of guest bloggers comes from the amazing Amber Hacker, Network Engagement Coordinator at the Interfaith Youth Core. Below, Amber reflects on a few atheists who inspire her and the kinds of honest and respectful conversations atheists and Christians can have. Take it away, Amber!

crossA few months ago I told my friend Chris Stedman, a former Christian and current atheist, that there’s nothing I’d love to see more than for him to come back to Christ.

This is true, except a part of me would be disappointed if that happened, because Chris is such an important leader in the interfaith youth movement who represents a much needed non-religious voice.

Our conversation is not a typical one between a conservative Christian and an atheist. The reason Chris and I were able to have that difficult conversation is because of the relationship we’ve built with one other through working at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

A big part of my job at IFYC is answering calls and e-mails from folks interested in getting involved in the interfaith youth movement, but aren’t sure if they have a place. I can’t tell you how often I hear “I’m really inspired by this message, but can I be involved in interfaith work if I am [insert blank here -- atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, non-religious, seeking, etc.]?”

My answer? “Yes! You absolutely have a seat at the table, and we need you in this movement.”

Let me tell you about these folks that inspire me on a daily basis – my secular/atheist/agnostic heroes.

greg-epsteinGreg Epstein, Harvard Humanist Chaplain and recent author of the bestseller “Good Without God,” is a good friend to IFYC and an important voice for those that identify as non-religious. I got to know Greg when I organized IFYC’s 2009 conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. Greg was one of our most popular conference speakers because people in this movement, both religious and non-religious, are hungry for his message — that secular humanism should have with respectful relationship with religion (and I would argue, vice-versa).

ChristinaGreta Christina, author of the widely-read Greta Christina’s Blog. While I don’t know Greta personally, she taught me that we have a lot more in common than what we have different. For example, 95 percent of what makes Greta angry makes me angry too.

Mary Ellen GiessMary Ellen Giess, an incredibly skilled staff member here at the IFYC. Mary Ellen, who is a humanist, helps me better articulate my identity as a Christian. She is such an important ally for the non-religious to this movement.

The Author

And of course, Chris Stedman, who is a dear friend and founder of NonProphet Status, one of the most talented interfaith leaders to come through the IFYC’s programs, and someone who continually inspires me on a daily basis.

Bottom line: I believe the faith divide isn’t between the religious or non-religious. For that matter, it isn’t between Christians and Jews, or Muslims and Hindus. It’s between those who believe in pluralism — that we can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty — and those who seek to dominate and divide.

We may not agree about heaven or hell (or for that matter, if there is even an afterlife). I don’t think we should gloss over these differences — Chris and I certainly haven’t. What I hope we can agree on is the importance of being in relationship with one another. And as I say on the phone to potential young non-religious interfaith leaders and what I want to say to you today:

We need you in the interfaith youth movement. Because we certainly have a lot of work to do — addressing poverty, hunger, human trafficking, the environment, you name it — and I think we can do it better together.

Amber HackerAmber Hacker is the Network Engagement Coordinator for the Interfaith Youth Core, where she organizes the organization’s biennial Conference, internship program, and alumni network. In her spare time, she works as a Youth Group Leader at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @IFYCAmber.

9/11 was the "Atheist Stonewall"?

August 9th, 2010 | Posted by:

"9/11 was a faith-based initiative"

In a recent post on The Friendly Atheist, blogger Hemant Mehta shared a video of the Secular Student Alliance National Conference (where I spoke on a panel) keynote address by atheist blogger Greta Christina on what Atheists can learn from the LGBT movement. I’ve heard her give this talk before, but it was Hemant’s conversation with her about it that caught my attention:

I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen? […]

So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?

9/11.

As a queer person, I am mortified by this comparison. The riots at Stonewall, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, were the first major instance that queer folks, long persecuted in the United States, decided to fight back and defend themselves. Stonewall is hugely symbolic for the queer community; to summon it as a parallel to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – a moment when, per Greta, many atheists decided to start being vocally opposed to religion – is not just inappropriate, but a gross distortion of what those riots represented.

9/11 was not a moment that catalyzed a community to stand up for equality; co-opting the tragic events of 9/11 to make a case against religion strikes me as simply malicious and manipulative, just as the extremists who co-opted Islam on 9/11 manipulated their tradition.

The comparison of 9/11 to the Stonewall riots offends me personally as a queer person, it offends me intellectually as a rationalist, and it offends me as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It is truly a sad day for our community when we sound more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.

mosque protest

Protests at mosques around America are increasing, and they are using the same anti-Muslim rhetoric Atheists do.

This comparison is merely a symptom of a larger problem: our fundamentally flawed approach to religion, and more specifically to Islam. At least once a week I hear atheists say: “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against the terrorists who claim their tradition? Maybe if they did that, then I’d see a difference between the two.”

First, who are we to dictate what a Muslim should or shouldn’t do? They shouldn’t be expected to help us understand why they are different than extremists who also claim that identity. We wouldn’t want others demanding that we explain how we’re different from violent atheists like Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer (who said “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”), and others, right? I don’t see many Christians running around apologizing for Fred Phelps. It’s because they don’t have to – most of us just get that there is an ideological chasm between the clan who stands with “God Hates Fags” placards and the majority of mainstream Christians.

Second, Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? ThereAre. SoMany. That. I. Can’tLink. To. Them. All (but those eleven are a good start).

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

We need to start seeking out different stories. When we look for the worst in religion, that’s what we’re going to find. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: the mainstream media totally ignored when a mosque in Florida was bombed earlier this year – imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church. The press also ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim.

Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on it. As a community that boasts critical thinking and reason as our primary concerns, we shouldn’t be so quick to swallow the inaccurate portrayal of Islam narrated by our biased news media.

mosque protestFor too long, Islamophobia has been given a free pass in the United States, and the atheist community has been a willing accomplice. Atheism is supposed to be a pillar of reason, yet many atheists talk about Islam in the same problematic way as right-wing conservatives (just one example: “Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive“). We claim to be progressive and enlightened but, in the same breath, espouse an oversimplified and uninformed view of Islam.

The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives.

In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the country: “they have fear because they don’t know [Muslims].” The same is true of many atheists. We must know our neighbors before we make qualitative judgments about what they believe. Besides – c’mon, is this really the company with which we want to cast our lot?

Atheists are quick to tout that America was not formed a Christian nation but on the principle of religious freedom. And yet, to quote from the Huffington Post‘s report on Akbar Ahmed’s recent appearance on The Daily Show, “unlike today’s attitudes of intolerance and suspicion, Ahmed observes that the founding fathers maintained a deep respect for Islam.”

We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is threatened. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity.

The only “wall” such comparisons construct is yet another division. Let’s stop building walls and start breaking them down, like the rioters at Stonewall did – brick by brick, piece by piece. And we can start by inviting Muslims to help us understand Islam instead of calling them guilty by association.

Seeking Soup for the Secular Soul

August 4th, 2010 | Posted by:

“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” - Carl Sagan, Wonder & Skepticism

“Holy shit,” he said. “That is a dead body underneath that tarp.”

It was a Sunday morning. The air was quiet; many Columbus residents, I imagine, were seated in church pews. Nat and I were leaving the hotel where we’d spent the weekend and headed to the Ohio State University for the final day of the 2010 Secular Student Alliance (SSA) National Conference. We were in a hurry – conference proceedings were to begin at 10:30 AM with a panel on interfaith, and I was on said panel.

We were very glad to be leaving this particular hotel. Our room smelled like a wet dog, the carpet was sticky, and every available piece of fabric was stained. We aren’t high maintenance – just last month we slept on the ground for five days while camping in the mountains – but this place was something else. To cope with the horror we felt about being stuck there, we spent the weekend jokingly referring to it as the “Murder 8.” As we packed our things and went to check out, we made one last joke to bid the hotel farewell and alleviate the nervousness I experience anytime I do public speaking. “Bye bye, Murder 8,” we chuckled.

Boy, did we eat our words when we stepped into that rainy Sunday morning and saw yellow police tape outside our room’s window, crime scene investigators busily snapping shots, and a single hand protruding from beneath a blue plastic sheet.

Neither of us knew what to do. There was nothing to do, really, except get in the car. Man, I spend too much time worrying about minute things, I mused as we drove away, sick to our stomachs.

Trying to put the image out of my mind, I readied myself to talk about secular participation in the interfaith movement. The panel was comprised of myself, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work with Atheists named Jonathan Weyer, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics. During the panel, I spoke strongly in favor of interfaith cooperation and why I think it is important for secular folks to engage with religious communities in a respectful manner. I thought it went really well, but I admit I was surprised at the end when a significant number of the questions during the Q&A were directed only at me and seemed a bit pointed.

After the panel was done and the panelists had all shaken hands and expressed our mutual gratitude, several students approached me and asked me to denounce things some of my interfaith allies have said about Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). I said that I could not – and then everyone was asked to be seated for the next session. I never got the chance to reconnect with these students as I had to catch an early flight home. I can’t help but feel bad about the anger they expressed and my inability to offer anything to soothe them.

Noticing a trend here? Humor, shock, nervousness, anger: experiences get processed through emotions. They were the cornerstone of the conference experience; both my own – the friendships I built, the anxiety I felt before speaking, the shock of a random death – and those of others – the impassioned questions, the anger and hurt of some students, and the community constructed. Whatever we do, emotions narrate our experiences and guide our actions.

Perhaps it is useful at this point to share an illuminating conversation I had with a man I now count as a personal friend: Jesse Galef, Communications Director for the SSA, adjunct blogger for The Friendly Atheist, and stellar breakdancer. Ours has been an evolving dialogue: it started at the SSA New England Leadership Summit I attended this past April, continued during a conference call we were both on around EDMD, and most recently extended before an audience at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference last month where we were on a panel together.

During a break in the conference schedule Jesse and I returned to this ongoing conversation on our different approaches – what are often caricatured as “aggressive” Atheism and “accommodationism” – and why we practice them. At one point in the conversation, Jesse identified his number one goal as working toward a world rooted in “rationality.” I’m not sure why I didn’t fully recognize this before, but that is not a goal we share. I’m more interested in cultivating communities and relationships that develop broad coalitions of solidarity across identified lines of difference. Relationships of mutuality and respect. Relationships that account for – you guessed it – emotion.

Our approaches are different because our end goals are different. We both believe we are being pragmatic; it’s just that I pragmatically don’t think a solely “rational” world is achievable. Nor, emotionally, do I think it is preferable. Emotions do and always will play a sizable role in the decisions we make, and I think that when we try to divorce our actions from our emotions and rest entirely on “reason,” we end up making pretty irrational decisions.

panel

Three fourths of the interfaith panel. (photo c/o Roy Natian)

Take, for example, a recent blog post by my fellow panelist Hemant Mehta, who is also on the SSA’s Board of Directors. Writing about Anne Rice’s declaration that, though she still believes in Christ, she can no longer identify as a Christian due to the tradition’s historical bigotry, Hemant dismissed her statement and said he’d “pay more attention” if she abandoned her religious beliefs altogether. As Skeptigirl’s response post wisely notes, Hemant displays zero compassion in this reflection. There’s no sign of sympathy or even a practical appreciation for the ways in which her move advances our cause. There’s no emotion there, only superiority.

I love the Secular Student Alliance because they empower young people to create communities. They do such important work, and I am honored to be a member, contribute to the eMpirical, and speak at their conference. I celebrate where our ambitions overlap – I too want to see more secular students be vocal about our identity and actively create communities. But where we diverge is that I worry about the identity we model when engaging in things like EDMD, a contentious issue that came up several times throughout the conference and repeatedly in our interfaith panel.

I walked away from the conference solid in my conviction that things like EDMD and Blasphemy Day are bad for our community because they symbolize our worst characteristics and attempts at emotion-denying: a tendency toward intellectual superiority and a struggle to empathize with different experiences and identities (these go hand in hand). We say “it’s just humor” as if everyone should be expected to see the joke in how we mock their central tenants. I can’t help but notice in this a stark difference between humor that elucidates a truth and humor that just dehumanizes.

I’m proud of my non-religious identity but I also know that secularism is a sign of profound privilege, and we ought to exercise caution in how we navigate this reality. As Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry, keynote speaker Greta Christina, and others rightly noted, our movement is dominated by upper-class, educated, heterosexual white men. Why is this? Most people do not have the luxury of sitting around debating the existence of God, let alone taking an entire weekend to attend a conference on secularism, because they are preoccupied by just trying to live, to eat, to survive. Some reconcile the struggles and challenges of their existence with a belief in God.

I don’t think we need to treat “believing something different” and “sharing in humanity” as mutually exclusive entities. Our secularism needn’t deprive those who do not share in it of their dignity. We have the luxury of being able to devote our time to critical thinking and inquiry, so let’s use them for good. Let’s stop seeing the world in dichotomies of black and white, right and wrong, rational and emotional, secular and “delusional.” They just aren’t very useful; the world is full of information and we shouldn’t close ourselves off from any of it by thinking we’ve reached “the truth” while boasting that others haven’t. We must always aim for empathy and humility, not unabashed assuredness. If we cannot, we are just as guilty of what we accuse the evangelical religious of – exclusive truth claims that promote oppression.

Instead of cracking so many jokes at another’s expense, let’s listen to more stories, like the one my mother shared on this blog about how she learned to embrace the legitimacy of choices that differed from her own. As Eboo Patel, April Kunze and Noah Silverman write in Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work: “Personal storytelling moves the encounter from competing notions of ‘Truth’ to varied human experiences of life, which possess the unique quality of being both infinite and common.” If we tell our stories and listen to those of others, we’re likely to learn a lot.

We may not believe in souls but we can be soulful. Let’s stop focusing so much energy on how we are “right” and on “promoting rationality,” lest we forget about our hearts. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive either. To quote from something I’ve written before:

My mom occasionally recounts a story about me as a child, a time I corrected a kid at a birthday party for calling sherbet “ice cream.” She always laughs when she tells it… As you might guess, in my youth being “right” held ultimacy. I corrected everyone who I felt was “wrong.” With age and experience, my perspective has shifted. I do believe it is better to be “good” than to be “right.”

I may not always get this right, but I’m trying to practice what I preach the best that I can. It helps me to ask in any given situation that begins to move into conflict: isn’t being loving more important than being “right”? A quick perusal of human history shows that when one person’s idea of “rationality” trumps basic human decency for others, we all suffer. Let’s learn from our mutual past.

Today I am not spending my time worrying about the folks who offered negative appraisal of my comments during the interfaith panel. I think instead of the family of that nameless person killed outside of my hotel.

I wonder how they are coping; I wonder if they are praying. I could understand if that family was appealing to a God in the face of such tragedy – I remember only too well the times I turned to God when experiencing loss.

Ask yourself this: if they are turning to God to process this experience, would you go up to them and tell them that they are wrong? Foolish? Deluded?

I shudder at that thought almost as much as I do the unshakable image of that blue tarp with a single hand exposed, reaching out for something. What he was reaching for we cannot know, but we can feel it if we try.

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:

c/o /livelyivy.com

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.

timbTim 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.

Sorry for the limited number of posts recently — I hit the ground running upon returning to Chicago and immediately got sick. I’m still a bit ill but have continued to work in the interim. It’s little wonder I fell sick; it was a long and winding trek. I started at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) in New York City / Newark, NJ, stopped by Washington, D.C. for some meetings, headed back north to Rochester, NY for Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference and, finally, made my was to Boston for the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit. My first conference, AAC, was a mixed bag at best (1, 2, 3). The second, IUC, was consistently excellent (1, 2, 3).

SSAHow did the SSA Summit hold up? In a way, it was like a hybrid of the previous two experiences. Like AAC, I was in significant disagreement with many who were there (as opposed to IUC, where we all rallied behind a common cause). Unlike AAC, however, I found some pretty significant allies and all present put their best foot forward, constantly working to hear the other out and take her or his idea seriously. Respectful dialogue ruled the day.

There were many sessions — 18 in total, plus the MythBusters on Humanism event — but I want to highlight a specific few that I found especially interesting:

Creating a Semester Programming Arc & Engaging Local Freethought Groups

This session was facilitated by Jim Addoms, a graduate student at Syracuse University. He talked about his experiences founding a secular student group. I thought he had an interesting story but was confused by the lengthy portion of his presentation that addressed the fact that there is a lot of interfaith going on at Syracuse and that his group developed as a critique against it. He especially focused on the COEXIST movement, which he called “silly.” Addoms spent a lot of his talk saying that he has problems with COEXIST, saying there are “real differences” between religions. I’m not certain why he saw that as opposed to interfaith; the new interfaith movement recognizes and acknowledges the reality that we have distinctly different views but pragmatically declares that we need to find a way to disagree and still live in a way that transcends tolerance and prioritizes collaboration over critiquing one another’s religious beliefs. Unfortunately, though his presentation was very professional and it sounded like they have a lot going on at Syracuse, he spent a lot of time talking about how he thinks COEXIST is stupid and I found it to be distracting from the session’s goal of actually talking about developing secular programming.

Churchless Charity and the Philosophy of Philanthropy

This session, led by Secretary of the Harvard Secular Society and Founder of National Secular Service Day Kelly Bodwin, was an excellent exposition on the importance of engaging in service work as secular individuals. She talked about “reclaiming service NSSDas a secular tradition,” saying that while secular service’s primary goal is helping others, it also facilitates a secondary goal: “helping ourselves by building community, establishing traditions, and breaking stereotypes [because] we have an image problem.”

Bodwin raised the question of what kind of community are we creating, highlighting the differences between such figureheads as Greg Epstein and Christopher Hitchens and asking: “how we can build a community that encompasses all of these perspectives and stop the infighting? Through service.” She declared that service brings people together, revealing that even her Catholic roommate came for their National Secular Service Day event. Her idea is very similar to the one propagated by the Interfaith Youth Core — that service brings together diverse people, such as the various divergent positionings in the secular community, and unites them under a common cause organized around a shared value.

She called secular service “the sincerest form of flattery,” saying “we are emulating the parts of the church we like. The church does some great things, so we should imitate these good models.” She also said that service work will serve as act of self-definition in helping to break stereotypes about the non-religious, proposing that “actions speak louder than words – we need to show that we’re good, not just tell.”

Under the Magnifying Glass

Shelley Mountjoy, Founder and President of the Secular Student Alliance at George Mason University, gave a helpful presentation on how to present yourself publicly if you’re in a position of leadership. She asked attendees to consider the image mountjoypresented by one’s presence in social networking forums. Asked Mountjoy: “Are you living your values? Before you an think about the image you’re conveying, think about the person that you are, about your actions and how they can be interpreted.” This is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about. As someone who has taken on a public voice through this blog, speaking engagements, the workshops I lead, and so on, I’ve considered the kind of image I’m presenting on Facebook and other websites. My Twitter account is linked to this blog – when I tweet about going to a bar called “Whiskeys,” how is that being interpreted? I guess there’s only so much I can do. Those who truly know me know my lifestyle; others can only imagine. Still, I want to take stock of my priorities, discern what of me is most important to advertise, and employ discretion.

Working with Local Groups

goddardDebbie Goddard, Campus Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Inquiry, facilitated a session on ways of reaching out to other Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, Freethought, Skeptic, et al. groups, suggesting ways to collaborate in spite of possible differences in a way that reminded me some of the interfaith movement. She talked about seeking out allies, ways of reaching out, what other groups can offer and what your group can offer them, and more. She also offered keen words of advice that resonated strongly with me: “If you don’t like what’s out there, work to change it, or create something you do like!” I also really appreciated how she highlighted the need to work with what if often seen as “our opposition” or “the other side” — religious groups.

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement

This session, lead by blogger and writer Greta Christina, was one of my favorites even though Christina and I disagree about many things. She began by saying, “Probably the single most important thing atheists can learn from the LGBT movement is to encourage visibility and coming out — and to work harder on making the atheist movement a safer place to come out into.” Christina said the community has done a pretty good job of gaining visibility, but said “I think we’re doing a less consistent job of making the atheist movement a safe place to land once people do come out.” Christina argued that the secular movement needs to put more energy into creating communities akin to religious ones, and on this she and I are in absolute agreement.

Christina then moved on to a very thought-provoking idea — that the secular community ought to “let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.” The idea that both positions will Christinaadvance the “secular agenda” in different ways is something I’ve heard time and time again from secular folks (unless they are telling me that my position isn’t welcome), but I’m still not totally convinced it is right. While the queer rights movement certainly benefited from having both diplomats and firebrands, the firebrands of the queer community offended by being explicit about their queer identities, and the diplomats worried about offending more popular sensibilities. This is not a perfect parallel because the firebrands of the secular movement want to see religion disappear, whereas the firebrands of the queer movement did not work to remove the presence of heterosexuality, just to make their own identities known in a radical way. The diplomats of the queer movement agreed with the firebrands in terms of core message but disagreed when it came to how to best bring about change; I on the other hand, as one who sees certain benefits to religion’s presence in the world, am on an entirely different page than secular firebrands who want to see religion done away with. I understand the point she was trying to make, but I don’t think it translates all that well.

She also raised another very interesting point — that the queer movement has succeeded in spite of differences in identification language and that the secular movement should “not waste our time squabbling about language. We need to let godless people use whatever language they want to define themselves.” I agree with her; though I’ve said that “Atheist” is a problematic term, I also am fine with others who identify as such if that is what she or her prefers. We’ve more important things to address as a community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christina declared that “Atheists need to work — now — on making our movement more diverse, and making it more welcoming and inclusive of women and people of color.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m consistently surprised by how much the secular movement is dominated by heterosexual, middle-class, white men. It isn’t that such individuals shouldn’t participate; of course they should. But as Christina said, it is important to be intentional about making the community a place where these individuals are not just allowed to participate and gain positions of leadership but a place that invites them to do so. I’ve been surprised by how few queer folks I’ve meet in the secular community, so as a queer it was great to see Christina speak about the parallels between our movements.

One thing that I would’ve liked to have seen explored was an excellent analogy Todd Stiefel made at the American Atheist Convention between the queer rights movement’s utilization of straight allies to advance queer acceptance to Atheists aligning with religious groups. I actually raised the question during the Q&A, to which Christina rebutted that, unlike queerness to heterosexuality, Atheism is innately opposed to religiosity and presents a direct negation of religious ideas. And while I understand this, I don’t think it means that religious-secular alliances are an impossibility. In my interfaith cooperation efforts I have not found that my godlessness has presented the kind of challenge to my religious collaborators that Christina has suggested it might; perhaps that is because I have not positioned myself in opposition to them.

You can find the full text of her speech here.

starkAddress from U.S. Congressman Pete Stark

Three years ago U.S. Congressman Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, filled out survey saying that he did not believe in God, making him the highest ranked politician to openly declare that he does not. His short address was a call to arms in which he said: “we hear from Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party every day; it is very important that you make your voices heard as well.”

Keynote by Rebecca Goldstein

International Academy of Humanism Laureate Rebecca Goldstein, who’s been mentioned on this blog before, gave the conference keynote, a lecture on “how to answer theists who accuse you of being unable to tell right from wrong.”

She began by declaring that “moral facts are weird. What kind of facts can ethical facts be? They seem different from other facts: they don’t describe how things are, but how things ought to be. ‘Oughtness,’ or normativity, means that ethical facts can’t lie there limp and inert but must exert some sort of ‘oomph.’ [They] must contain a motivational component.” Goldstein critiqued the oft-proclaimed Atheist mantra that there are “no moral facts,” stating: “Don’t say it because it will confirm [the religious] opinion [about you], and don’t say it because it’s wrong.” She used Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, or the question of whether something is right because the gods say so, or if the gods say something is right because it is right. Said Goldstein: “If God wants goldsteinyou to do it because it is right, then that’s the reason and reference to God’s choices is redundant. Or his choices are mere whims, caprices.” She quoted Bertrand Russel’s “Why I Am Not A Christian,” and then moved into a discussion of secular ethics, saying, “if religious grounds aren’t [going to] do it… what grounds can we offer?” Goldstein said that just as “both physics and ethics begin with intuitions,” “our moral theories begin with intuitions that, unsurprisingly, concern ourselves.”

Referencing Spinoza and Kant, Goldstein suggested that the development of ethics, then, involve a going beyond the self, a cultivation of empathy, and a recognition that members of groups outside our own have the same rights to dignity as members of our own (which, to me, sounded a lot like my impetus for interfaith advocacy). She declared that it isn’t that there is a universal but that things can be made universalizable. “Can there be a morality without god?” Goldstein asked. “It’s hard to say god would be relevant. So what is relevant? Knowing intuitively that I matter. Reason can’t be unique to me. The moral emotions endowered to us by evolution contain a folk morality including an inchoate grasp that someone else matters… but the bias toward our own selves and our own kin and kind must be corrected by reason.” Her talk was heady and important; listening to her speak, it was easy to see why Goldstein was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” prize.

Check back for my report on the second exciting day!