Where we can meet Pope Francis

May 23rd, 2013 | Posted by:

When details first emerged about Pope Francis’s liberal policies and attitude towards the nonreligious, I took a few posts to express some tentative optimism. I think recent events validate my first impression—by most accounts, Pope Francis is turning out to be pretty cool.

I don’t think anything quite so cleanly captures the new direction of the Church as the  photo above. The shift from ornate robes and traditional throne seat to Francis’s white papal robes and an unelevated, plain chair—the same chairs on the same level as given to his guests—is extraordinarily stark and compelling.

His shift to a more reserved and austere church—from denying Vatican employee their bonuses to insisting that Christians be for the poor, rather than politely discussing theology over tea 1—honestly surpasses anything I could have hoped or expected.

It seems clear that Francis is shifting his focus to the secular world, specifically to alleviating poverty and doing good works here on Earth. This is almost the picturesque example of “common ground” 2 that believers can find with atheists. I often hear atheists questioning whether they’re even welcome to work with believers, and I think it’s an issue seriously worth addressing.

Pope Francis, though, has fortunately made his acceptance and, if I might be slightly bold, esteem towards nonbelievers clear. At a recent Mass, Pope Francis said the following:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

I’ll happily agree. We may not actually be redeemed by the blood of Christ, but we’re all united around our shared commitment to making the world a better place.

I often find it distressingly narrow when atheists deny any wisdom just because it comes from a religious source. I’m happy to accept that I should focus more on moral action instead of abstract discussion, even if Francis framed this in discussing churches and theology. And I’m happy to recognize that everyone—believer or atheist—is united in doing good on this Earth, even if Francis believes this comes from our shared redemption in Jesus.

We will miss the forest for the trees if we let ourselves be distracted by such petty theological differences. If there’s one thing believers and nonbelievers can share, it’s an understanding that there’s action we need to take to help other people. Props to Pope Francis for pointing that out.

EDIT: Right after I published this, I saw that Kimberly Winston wrote for Religion News Service about atheists liking Pope Francis. Check it out. 

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Notes:

  1. I am so guilty of the secular equivalent of this like whoa.
  2. As overplayed the term may be

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Below is a link to the full original article.

The first thing I tell people about Chris Stedman’s “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” is that it made me cry, and books don’t make me cry. But there I was — in public no less — teary-eyed and puffy-cheeked as I read someone else’s encounter with conservative evangelical Christianity and subsequent deconversion. It sounded strikingly similar to my own.

Like Chris, I grew up evangelical despite my family’s relaxed attitude about religion. Like Chris, I found friends and community in my church. And, like Chris, I was devastated when I lost them. Chris and I were both driven to God because of our dedication to justice and, when we lost our faith, those convictions remained in us both. After an awkward intellectual adolescence spent hating the religious, we both gravitated toward an atheism that prioritized ending suffering and injustice over feeling cognitively superior to our religious neighbors.

These similarities — though they made me quite emotional — didn’t make me cry. What did was the vignette of a young Christian boy shaking on the floor of his shower contemplating suicide with a knife in hand, while feeling that he’d failed himself, his faith and even suicide when he couldn’t go through with it. This scene captured the darkness, loneliness and desperation that characterized my own religious doubts.

The existing literature on atheism is overwhelmingly rose-tinted: science is wonderful, the world is wonderful and being liberated from religious baggage is wonderful. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. When you have cognitive ties to religious belief but new circumstances challenge them, the experience can be petrifying and altogether consuming.

At a young age, Chris knew two things for certain: He liked boys and he believed in Christ. When these two facts seemed to be at odds with each other, there was turmoil, not liberation. Though Chris’ crisis reflected the struggle that occurs at the intersection of being queer and being Christian, it generalizes well for those who have struggled at all with their faith. For me, the scene evoked memories of the cold sweat contemplating Hell would leave me in as I wondered how I could possibly save all of my non-Christian friends in middle school. It also evoked the terror of reconciling the absolute, universal suffering of humanity with an ostensibly omnipotent God. Feeling like you can’t measure up to the standards your religion demands is not liberating. Doubting your faith is not fun. It is often emotionally and cognitively taxing in the extreme, and “Faitheist” is the first account I’ve read that doesn’t paint over this fact. This is not to say that to doubt is to be without hope. After accepting his doubts and developing his atheism, Chris, like me, found his irreligion to be a source of optimism — a base that encouraged him to live happily and help others to do the same.

Click here to read the full article!

 

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. A senior at Tufts University, he is the former president of the Tufts Freethought Society and now serves as their Community Outreach Representative. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and a member of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion, a peer education program that coordinates student responses to acts of intolerance at Tufts.

Vagueness and interfaith

December 1st, 2012 | Posted by:

One of our readers, the humanist and interfaith activist Vanessa Brake, sent us an email yesterday to point us toward an article that has been circulating online. She directed us to the following quote: “Participants at a recent interfaith conference in the nation’s capital discussed how interreligious dialogue can play an important role in establishing peace and fighting secularization in America.”

The National Catholic Register goes on:

The secular response to religious diversity is to push all religious beliefs out of public life, Bishop Knestout warned. But while this approach has become prominent in the modern era, it is dangerous to all religious beliefs and fails to respect “the reality of the spiritual dimension of life.”

Interreligious dialogue that builds and maintains relationships among different faith traditions is therefore even more important in protecting the role of religion from the secularism that threatens it, he explained.

On behalf of my fellow writers at NonProphet Status I’d just like to say that we’ve had a good run. We thought we could hide it, but it looks like the secret’s out, the jig is up, and the cat’s out of the bag. Interfaith work is and always has been a front to secretly destroy secularism, and our involvement as atheists was simply an attempt to validate faith, make nice with the religious, and throw all the smart, strong, and righteous atheists under the bus. We hope our allegiance will grant us a shred of mercy in the brutal atheist culling that will follow the coming institution of a fundamentalist theocracy. I, for one, will welcome our new interfaith overlords.

But in all seriousness: interfaith is a tricky and very broad word, and a few things should maybe be cleared up before this example starts being held up as an indicator of the evils of interfaith.

Any gathering of believers from different religions is going to technically fall under the label of “interfaith.” It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call the push to get Proposition 8 passed an interfaith effort, because from a literal standpoint it’s just as much “interfaith” as Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core—even though they argue for religious pluralism, the separation of Church and State, and the inclusion of atheists in interfaith efforts.

It would be absurd, though, to confuse support for this latter kind of interfaith as an endorsement of the former kind. So we can talk about the benefits of interfaith without saying that any interfaith effort is necessarily good, just like we can support interracial relationships without approving of the degrading and exploitative practices of interracial pornography.

It gets important, then, to clarify what we mean by interfaith and what interfaith practices we specifically support. Partly to sidestep this—and partly because it’s a broader philosophy with less knee-jerk baggage than “interfaith”—I prefer to talk about pluralism. Though pluralism itself isn’t necessarily the clearest topic (look at all the different meanings of religious pluralism!), it’s almost always necessarily secular—at least in modern political contexts. I think it’s this kind of ecumenical pluralism that is at the heart of the interfaith that atheists should be involved in. After all, the strongest historic proponents of secularism and pluralism have been religious believers. When John Locke wasn’t busy being the father of classic liberalism and the separation of church and state, he was writing essays with titles like “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” It’s important to realize that these weren’t contradictory projects.

It might not seem it based on how a lot of atheists talk about the topic, but most religious thinkers and political philosophers don’t actually want to establish a theocracy or force their beliefs on others. Joe Biden demonstrated this brilliantly in the Vice Presidential Debate (see Michael De Dora at The Moral Perspective for a nuanced discussion about the debate, secularism, and pluralism more broadly). I’m sure God wouldn’t be too impressed with mandatory worship, anyway.

It’s also worth noting that “secularism” is getting to be a vague word, too, and the kind of secularism these faith leaders got together to fight—the kind that tries to “push all religious beliefs out of public life”—isn’t a kind of secularism we should be supporting, anyway. Secularism is a government’s neutrality on religion, not abstention from it. That is to say, the government can’t discriminate against religion in the public sphere. Thus, public schools have to fund both religious and secular student groups, the government can fund both religious and secular (and blasphemous) art, public parks can house both religious and secular displays, and so on. All secularism means is that the government can’t show a preference on religion or lack thereof.

So this all just goes to say that words are very vague, and its not only on us to clarify our values but on critics to be smart enough to realize that an endorsement of some aspect of a topic as broad as interfaith, pluralism, or secularism, isn’t necessarily an endorsement of anything that might go under the name.

P.S: I’m apparently somewhat late at addressing this article. Keith Favre at The Foreshadow wrote about it yesterday.

If anything, secularism should be the goal of interfaith, because in a secular world, everyone has freedom of and from religion; the freedom to practice or not practice any religion they want, so long as doing so does not harm anyone else. Both the atheists and the religious win in a secular world.

Check it out.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

A friend of mine who was involved with the Humanists at Rutgers asked me to write a short piece about NonProphet Status and atheist involvement in pluralism more generally. A short excerpt is below, but you can read it on the Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers Blog, or on the Huffington Post.

Three years ago, Chris Stedman, my good friend and author of “Faitheist,” started the blog NonProphet Status. There was no venue for atheists to join in interreligious dialogue, so Chris created a space where believers and atheists alike could share their stories, humanize one another, and promote pluralism among conflicting voices.

I write this as someone relatively new to the idea; when I first met Chris I thought he was completely wrong. Now I write for his blog.

So allow me to briefly make a case for why atheists should engage in cooperative dialogue and action with liberal believers. You can read some of Chris’s thoughts here (and in his book), but while Chris’ roots are in outreach and service work, mine are in arguing on the Internet, so I think I can provide a subtly different perspective.

Religion isn’t going away any time soon.

Despite the rise of the “nones” – about 1 in 5 adults is now religiously unaffiliated – most are basically still religious. Even in the arch-liberal utopia, Sweden, only about 1 in 5 people actually believe that God or spiritual forces don’t exists. Even with the massive increase in nonreligious blogs, books and organizations, the last five years has seen only 2 percent more of the population identifying as an atheist and agnostic. We can do everything right, it seems, and not even come close to matching the number of believers. So even the staunchest antitheist aiming to destroy religion is left with something of a Faustian bargain on social issues; leading me to my next point:

Like it or not, we need believers.

Secularism can’t be limited to atheists. It’s not something we like to admit, but progress on any important social issue requires the help of religious believers; we just don’t have the numbers. When it comes to the separation of Church and State, equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, access to abortion and contraceptives for women, liberal believers are our necessary allies and friends. Six out of 10 Catholics support gay marriage. Believers, like pro-life Joe Biden, still value secular policies that can even contradict their religious belief.

Read more.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Below is a link to the full original article.

We’re aware of the irony: three atheists are driving from Cambridge, through Somerville, and into Medford, Massachusetts–en route to a Gurdwara while blasting Christian hymns on the radio. The church organ’s hazy echo transforms Chelsea’s stereo into a time machine, conjuring images of sweater vests and Sunday mornings past. It’s nice to have an excuse to wear a tie. I realize I don’t mind being up before noon on a weekend, a rare thought for this twenty-something.

We pull up to the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar and I am immediately struck by its simplicity. The building could easily pass for any of the restaurants it borders on Mystic Avenue. We join a group of more than 25 in front of the Gurdwara, gathered by Assistant Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman: Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Zoroastrians and atheists stand united in their support of a community recently hit with tragedy. A Sikh man bows towards the Nishan Sahib, a holy flag raised high outside the Gurdwara, before entering. A small group stands outside the building, holding posters that state their support for a community touched by tragedy. While we make small talk and wait for the last members of our group to arrive, a Sikh woman embraces a Muslim woman in our group and thanks her for coming. The love and gratitude felt by the Sikhs of Medford is palpable.

 Click here to read the full article!

 

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and Humanist. A senior at Tufts University, he is the former president of the Tufts Freethought Society and now serves as their Community Outreach Representative. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and a member of Students Promoting Equality, Awareness, and Compassion, a peer education program that coordinates student responses to acts of intolerance at Tufts.