Today’s guest post is by Joshua Stanton, a man I am lucky to call both a good friend and a colleague at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue in my work as the Managing Director of State of Formation. In this post, Josh offers a thoughtful, personal reflection on why it is essential for the interfaith movement to stand up against anti-atheist rhetoric and action in the way that it does when particular religious communities come under fire. As an atheist, I couldn’t appreciate this post more. Many thanks to Josh for his important perspective, and for using his voice to advocate for people like me. Without further ado:
The interfaith movement is beginning to rack up successes. While outbursts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (among other expressions of prejudice against religious communities) are nothing new, the growing and remarkably diverse chorus of voices trying to drown bigots out certainly is.
To take but one recent example, when the Park51 Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan was subjected to undue criticism this past summer, the groups that gathered behind closed doors to support its besmirched but beloved leaders included atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and more. It was heartening — as were the rallies led by Religious Freedom USA and New York Neighbors for American Values, which drew thousands to the streets to support the rights of all religious communities to assemble on private property. You could feel the interfaith movement surging forward on its remarkable course.
But I am uncertain, if not outright skeptical, that members of the interfaith movement would equally protect non-religious communities that come under similar scrutiny. To take a personal (and rather confessional) example, when a friend was excluded from an interfaith peace-building initiative because of being non-religious, people told him they were sorry. But nobody refused to continue participating in the group. It just didn’t seem like a reason to protest the decision or leave the group altogether.
I am among those guilty of not speaking up — cowed by diffusion of responsibility and the glow of opportunity that the group provided. I am certain, based on the numerous stories my humanist and atheist friends have told me, that this was not an isolated occurrence, nor an unusually cowardly reaction on my part. Yet it is something for which I am still performing teshuvah — answering as a Jew and human being for wrongdoing to my friend, in this case through wrongful inaction.
Why is it that when someone criticizes or excludes atheists, it feels like the interfaith movement forgets its identity, if only for a split second? Why is it that well-meaning interfaith leaders defy their identities and fail to speak out against those who threaten or undermine the status of the non-religious? Individually, we may comfort our friends, but by and large we are not sticking our necks out, writing op-eds, holding protests and publicly condemning those who single out the non-religious.
In part, I would suggest that members of the interfaith movement have not yet developed reflexes for protecting the non-religious. There is somewhat less of a history of hatred for atheists in the West (and even less education about the hatred that has been made manifest), so it does not always register in our minds when someone speaks ill of atheists in a way that it would if someone spoke similarly about people of a particular religious group.
But guilt for the repeated historical failure of Western countries to protect religious minorities is hardly an excuse for inaction in the present to protect the non-religious. It is time that we, most especially in the interfaith movement, recognize, denounce and speak out against anti-atheist bigotry.
Admittedly, many religious individuals feel intellectually and theologically challenged by atheists. But this challenge is one we must greet and learn from, rather than respond to with aggression, passive and active alike. If God is truly powerful, non-believers can hardly break our belief, much less the Divine we believe in. If God is loving, then why should we hate — or ignore hatred directed towards others? If God is a Creator, how can we allow others to speak ill of the atheists and non-believers God gave life to? Non-belief is a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the religious can hardly condemn atheists without running into contradictions rendered by their faith.
If religious affiliation is a protected category in our laws, our minds and our actions, so too must non-affiliation and atheism. The interfaith movement must lead the way, and so too must its believing members. They — we — cannot allow this double-standard to persist.
Joshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.
On September 11th, 2001, I was fourteen-years-old and ignorant to a lot of what was happening in the world outside of my home of Minnesota. That day was a wake-up call to me, to be more aware of what was happening outside of my own context. To listen more and to learn more. But love was far from my heart.
Nine years later, we are experiencing another wake-up call. The call is the same: we must listen more and learn more. And, with a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes enveloping our nation, love again seems far from our collective hearts.
On Saturday, September 11th, 2010, I participated in a day of prayer and reflection. Granted, I did not pray, but I was glad to be there among those who do. On such a day, little else seems more appropriate than prayer or reflection.
On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, at that day of prayer and reflection, I listened to a woman who was in Lower Manhattan on the day of the attacks reflect on her experience. Through tears, she recounted the horror and fear she experienced that day. But she added that 9/11 was a wake-up call to her: it was a call to love more, not less. She spoke of her God’s vision of inclusion and integration for all people; it was a message I carried with me when I hit the road for New York City just an hour later to attend Religious Freedom USA‘s Liberty Walk: An Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom.
Yesterday, September 12, 2010, was a rainy day. In spite of the rain, at least 1,000 people came out to march for religious freedom in support of the Cordoba Initiative‘s Park51. We gathered at St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic church in NYC, to listen to speakers including the Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, Father Kevin Madigan, Religious Freedom USA founders Joshua Stanton and Frank Fredericks, author and environmentalist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Auburn Theological Seminary President Rev. Katharine Henderson, and Charles Wolf, who was the husband of a 9/11 victim. After being inspired by their calls for inclusion and interfaith cooperation, we took to the streets.
It was a cold and rainy day, but as a diverse group of people of all faiths and none at all walked the streets of NYC arm in arm with flags in hand, it felt like a moment of transformation. It was not “us” supporting “them” — it was all of us, together, walking in hope and mutual loyalty. We were listening. We were learning. We were loving one another.
One man stopped us and asked what we were marching for. When we explained that we were walking for religious freedom, particularly in support of the Cordoba Initiative’s Park51, he scoffed and said, “The whole country’s against you!”
In one sense, he’s right: the road to religious freedom in America has been long and it will continue to be. But he also couldn’t be more wrong: pluralism will prevail. Those of us who walked the NYC streets that day proved it.
Our nation will heal from the wounds we sustained on September 11th, 2001, but we must do so together. Let us extend the call to be more than it is. It is not enough to listen more and learn more – we must, as both a survivor of 9/11 and a crowd of people walking in interfaith solidarity taught me, love more.
The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said of his interfaith efforts for the Civil Rights movement: “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.” At the Liberty Walk, a group of people marched for religious freedom. And though I am a Secular Humanist who does not pray, truly it felt like all of our feet joined together in a common call: to listen more, learn more and, above all, to love more.