“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.
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.
July 20th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Cambridge Broxterman, she of “Burkagate” infamy, has made another YouTube video about me. I’m not surprised this time — I guess I was kind of asking for it when I recalled that we had agreed to post our email exchange and, you know, finally got around to posting it. Her tone was a lot friendlier this time, which is encouraging because it gives me hope we’ll be able to have a non-awkward conversation when our paths finally cross again (which is great because I want to talk to her about her awesome body modifications… okay, sorry, tangent).
Anyway, she raised a legitimate point in her video — one I’ve been meaning to address again for some time now. (Thanks for the reminder!) In her video, Cambridge introduced who I am by saying:
He’s a nice guy — he seems to be nice and willing and open for discussion. But his view of himself within the whole Atheist community is just really strange to me… I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish and it’s frustrating… He’s very vocal about his… wanting to be on the side of the religious, and he’s very vocal about his political correctness, but then he saves all of that energy that he could be putting towards an area where I think would help the Atheist cause… [and he's] turing on the Atheist community… He has no problem criticizing the Atheist community, but the religious community is just taboo to him it seems like, they’re just off limits. It’s really weird and I don’t think I understand what he’s trying to accomplish and I don’t really think he does either.
This is the second time this week I’ve been called nice with a caveat by someone online; earlier this week, Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance wrote over on the Friendly Atheist: “we disagree on a lot of interfaith issues, but he’s a nice guy.” (Thanks, folks! You’re nice too.) But Cambridge’s critique — that, no matter how nice I might be, religion is “off limits” to me — is one I’ve heard time and time again from other commenters on this blog, so I’d like to take this opportunity to address it.
I’ve tried to be clear on this blog that I am not some self-loathing secular pandering to religious others in an attempt to curry favor. I’m as proud to be godless as I am anything else about me. I suppose it requires a certain amount of bravery to live a publicly godless life — the idea that one can be good without God is still fairly radical in certain circles. But personally it just isn’t something I struggle with. I’m perfectly content with being a Secular Humanist, and I don’t spend a lot of time fretting about whether others think I’m a moral person or not for not believing in God.
Yet — and here’s where I may sound a bit, um, heretical — I also believe that the religious should be as celebratory about who they are as I am, and I suspect that if they are as comfortable with their identity as I am mine then they will embrace pluralism, as I have. I am then, for both of those reasons, more concerned with the way other secular folks approach the religious as across-the-board bad. I cannot help but suspect that our negative obsession with mocking religion is rooted in a lack of confidence in what we as a community have to offer, and wish to devote my energy toward working against such self-defeating antagonism. As I said in a post back in March:
NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference. And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.
Religion isn’t off limits to me, but tackling the difficult issues in religion isn’t really within the scope of NonProphet Status. I may think that religion has created a lot of problems in the world — as a former “Born Again” Christian and a queer person, I’ve experienced many of them firsthand. But point blank: this blog isn’t about critiquing religious beliefs or speaking out against harmful religious practices. It has a very specific purpose and I try my best to stick to that. NonProphet Status exists to name what I see as problematic components of the secular community and offer alternative perspectives of positive (instead of oppositional) secularism; to identify the behaviors of my fellow secularists that oppose pluralism (see a quick and helpful definition here) and to point to alternate modes of secularism that support it. I’ll let the Christians call out members of their community working against pluralism, the Muslims theirs, and so on. Ultimately, if I as a secularist condemn fundamentalist Christianity, it has a lot less power than if another Christian does it. So I want to put my energy where I believe it is best spent. And it is simply that: where I believe it is best spent. This is all just my opinion. So take it with a few grains of salt, if you will.
Where we have the most agency as a community is in how we behave, both internally and in how we approach those outside our walls — and, for those in our community who are concerned with how others perceive us, the most effective way to change hearts and minds is through relationships. And we won’t be able to have relationships with religious folks if our top priority is mocking the things they hold dear. I believe that such behavior will fundamentally limit who our movement will appeal to and will distract us from focusing on cultivating our own uniquely secular ethics. For those and other reasons — and not simply because I have an open appreciation for select religious insights — I see such antics as lose-lose for us. That is why I critique “blasphemy” so frequently and with such, erm, fervor.
I try to walk a fine line, and perhaps I err too heavily on the side of critiquing my own community. If I’ve hurt feelings, I apologize. My aim in doing this is to push my fellow secularists to reconsider how we engage the religious other, not to alienate. I appreciate the feedback I get and try to factor it into my approach, so keep it coming. And, as always, thank you for reading.
For some past examples of explanations of why I do what I do, please check out some of these posts:
Last October I was struggling to get over a particularly stubborn cold; week after week, I’d show up for my Spiritual Direction course at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies and try for three hours to refrain from interrupting a lecture on psychology and teleology by hacking up a lung. Inevitably a sneeze would escape and I’d be immediately greeted by a chorus of “God bless you!”s.
It didn’t bother me (and not just because I once heard an unsubstantiated claim that the origins of the expression are Norwegian) because I understand that the impetus for their achoo-ed call and response was good-natured concern. Everyone in that room knew that I didn’t believe in God, yet still told me week after week that they were praying for my health. To which I would respond with a smile: “thank you!”
Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance just posted a blog over at the Friendly Atheist after seeing a tweet I published last night in which I commented that I don’t mind when religious people say a prayer for me — after all, what’s the harm? I appreciate the good intentions and kind thoughts. My tweet was a response to an article on CNN reporting on Christians who are praying for notorious Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
It seems Jesse and I are more or less on the same page when it comes to how we internally react to prayer — he too appreciates the good intentions of those who pray — but we differ in that he also thinks it is important in such moments to assert to the individual offering prayer that it won’t work.
My first thought as a perpetual Agnostic is that we cannot say definitively that prayer never works; and there is some legitimate merit to the idea that positive thought makes a real impact (just one example, a piece from the New York Times), so until there is sufficient evidence that prayer doesn’t work 100% of the time, I don’t even want to try to make that argument.
But more importantly: why does it matter? So my classmates at Loyola think that prayer works and I remain unconvinced. Why should I try to dissuade them from that belief? Seems self-important and unnecessary to me. And, more importantly, their kind intention actually means a lot to me. We have a relationship of mutual concern and care — why would I want to go and ruin that by trying to assert my so-called “intellectual authority”? I’m a lot more interested in the fact that they care enough about me and my well-being to take a moment of their day to wish me well.
What do you folks think? Leave a comment — even if it’s just to let me know that you’re praying for me.
April 30th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Interview with Greg Epstein
I first had the opportunity to meet Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, when I was working onInterfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 Conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. We exchanged several emails and had a great conversation at the event itself. We’ve since stayed in touch, and it is always great to hear him talk about his work at Harvard, so I was excited for the opportunity to do so at the Summit. Epstein discussed what he does as a Humanist Chaplain, which is working with students to achieve goals, build a sustainable community, teach and advise student research, and help provide resources for those outside the Harvard Community. He discussed his interpersonal work with students, including a conversation he frequently has with students about values: ”Once you begin to think skeptically,” Epstein said, “where do you draw the line? Where do you reconstruct a set of beliefs that says we have all kinds of natural, relative, but still very important reasons for caring about ourselves, others, and the world?”
Epstein also reveled that when he started as Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, the total budget was $28,000, which included his salary, money for programming — everything. He has since expanded it significantly. Epstein said that the small amount of funding for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard represents the struggle our movement faces as a whole: “In this career field, and in this movement in general, you have to be willing to take a risk if you want to make any kind of advance. We are starting so much further behind anything that might reasonably be considered our competition.” As usual, it was a pleasure hearing Epstein talk. For more, check out a video of the session here (and, if you turn the volume up, you can hear me ask a question about collaborating with religious chaplains near the end of the video).
Bridging the Divide — Keys to Respectful Interaction and Cooperation with Religious Groups
This session, as well as the next two to follow, where those that most directly echoed the work that I do. I was so excited to see this workshop on the list of sessions, and it did not disappoint. Nate Mauger, Secular Student Alliance intern, described his experience when his Secular Student Alliance group partnered with an on campus Christian group to go to New Orleans for a service project. You can read about his service experience in his amazing NonProphet Status guest blog from earlier this week. In his presentation he highlighted some key beliefs on why it is important to collaborate with religious organizations (beliefs I obviously share), including that it is a “great opportunity to dispel common negative stereotypes aimed at the secular movement,” that engaging with people of differing viewpoints enhances the quality of conversation, and that one is able accomplish a lot more by combining resources. Mauger also offered advice on how to reach out to a religious group, and counseled that clear communication is key and disagreement is inevitable but that you should “take time to focus on issues on which you can find common ground.” All in all it was an excellent presentation and a helpful starting point for secular folks interested in getting involved in an interfaith project.
A Secular Humanist Invocation
Andrew Lovley, Founder and Chair of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists (SMASH) and student at the University of Southern Maine, offered a reflection on the controversy that ensued after he was invited to deliver an invocation at the inauguration ceremony for new city officials in South Portland, Maine. Unsurprisingly, his invocation actually prompted less outcry from religious people than it did from those within the secular community, where he was criticized for doing something “religious.” Lovley asserted that he believes that ”Secular Humanists should do invocations and other religious practices whenever they have they have the opportunity” and use them as opportunities to “unify and inspire, not protest [religion],” saying he believed such protests are counterproductive. As a Secular Humanist who has taken a preaching class in seminary and preached several secular sermons, I agree with him on this. As Kelly Bodwin said on the first day of the Summit, we can use religious forms and apply them to our secular values, modeling our communities off the good things about religion. Lovley’s call for secularists to expand their notions of what kinds of activities secular folks should engage in resonated very strongly with me a secular interfaith dialogue facilitator and I really enjoyed hearing him speak so eloquently about his experiences and beliefs. You can read his invocation here, read a blog he did about whether Humanist’s should deliver invocations here, and see a video of his SSA Leadership Summit workshop here.
Gaining Acceptance — Lessons Learned from the Front Line
Greg R. Langer, an attorney from Los Angeles and founding chairperson of Chrysalis, a non-profit serving the homeless in L.A., lead a workshop on how to advance the secular movement’s quest for wider societal acceptance. He echoed a lot of what I’ve said in my work — the idea that demanding we be recognized as legitimate is far less efficient than demonstrating we are (show and don’t tell), saying that “claiming Atheists are victims does not engender positive responses.” Langer asserted that we will often need to meet religious people more than halfway, advising secularists to “treat each person as an individual and not as a representative of [her or his] group, even when you are not treated that way.” He acknowledged that “Atheism has baggage — it is seen as hostile,” and that “non-theism, while not as problematic, still only says what you do not believe.” For those reasons, Langer said that he prefers to identify as a Secular Humanist — this is precisely what I’ve said on this blog many times over.
Langer continued by saying that, though it may be tempting, the secular inclination to tell religious people that they are deluded is never productive. He warned that when engaging with theists one should anticipate and be prepared to address negative assumptions about the non-religious, but also said that we must “check [ourselves] for prejudices too. We will only achieve acceptance if we really hear [the religious] and empathize.” Langer also condemned the common Atheist desire to serve as a de-conversion missionary, saying that “while it might be nice [to de-convert], it is not our priority.” This echoes the interfaith idea that, while we would all love to see others come to recognize our “truth,” we know it is not the most important issue at hand. Ultimately, he said, gaining wider acceptance is about engagement — and, more specifically, changing how secularists engage. “Disdain must be replaced with empathy,” Langer said,” just as we ask them to empathize with us.” I found Langer’s speech to be a very important articulation of the message that I advocate and really enjoyed the ways in which he broke it down into specific actions secularists can take to promote wider acceptance of secular perspectives.
Building a Relationship with the White House
As great as the sessions were, my favorite part was meeting with the other attendees of the Leadership Summit. There was a broad variety of perspectives present, but we all spoke our mind without fear of disagreeing and without criticizing one another. It gave me a lot of hope for greater unity in our movement, and I was glad for the opportunity to participate.
Now that my travels are done and I am back in Chicago, I’m turning to work on the final days of the Share Your Secular Story Contest. It closes in 15 DAYS so submit now!