Today’s installment in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Ryan Linstrom, a humanist who has studies International Development and Human Rights. His guest piece is a personal reflection the hot topic of conflict in the Middle East, the ramifications of leaving religion out of the conversation, and the nuances of religion as a force for evil and a force for good. Offering an interfaith way forward, Ryan’s piece is a powerful, wise and timely read — check it out!

alaqsamosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque - The Dome of the Rock

My first experience of the Middle East was in the Fall of 2005. Though I met with countless numbers of people during the 3 month study abroad program, the interactions that stuck with me most were the meetings with angry Palestinian Refugees, radical Israeli settlers, fundamentalist Christians, and the racist Jewish Rabbis who would take the long way around the Old City of Jerusalem to avoid going through the “Arab part of town.” Needless to say, the trip left me disillusioned, some may even say, bitter.  I ended the trip like most people who have seen the horrors of conflict: convinced that “Religion is the greatest source of evil the world has ever known.”

To an extent, part of me still believes it. Religion has inspired more hate, more intolerance, and more conflict than any other organization known to man. But, it would be presumptuous to end there. To assume that religion has only played a negative role throughout history is to ignore the great good that religion has given us – The Ghandis, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s, the Mother Theresas. Yet, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is exactly what we’ve done. We’ve ignored the religious aspects of the conflict and attempted to bring peace in purely secular terms. As one scholar suggests, this has been fairly unsuccessful:

Since the peace effort has been led by secularists, peace itself has become identified in Israel with (the) secular left, religiously committed people that feel threatened by it. They may not be against peace or compromise, but they see this effort linked to increased secularism. ¹

Now, I think most rational people would agree that religion has played a significant negative role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For those of us who saw the religious-infused hate and racism, a secular solution makes a lot of sense. So what’s the problem?

I’m glad you asked.

Here’s how I see it:

1. Powerful narratives exist here.
The negative religious narratives that support the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are successful for a reason: they are deeply intertwined with the sense of identity of the inhabitants of the region. The truth is, religion, geography, history and identity are all so intricately woven together that it probably takes more effort to ignore religion in a solution to this conflict than it does to include it.

2. Extremists roam free.
You’ve seen them on the nightly news: Hamas members burning flags chanting “Death to Jews”, Radical Jewish settlers whispering obscenities at Arab women. Extremists on all sides have been allowed, unopposed, to propagate hateful, intolerant messages using cherished religious histories. Without any serious challenges, these hateful messages have become the norm, leaving people with a terrible taste in their mouth towards both peace and religion. Many of those involved, or no longer involved in this conflict have nothing left to fight for. That brings us to #3:

3. Moderates are given no incentive to engage.
As with all religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam provide a framework that can help to make sense of the tragedy of conflict. When radicals hi-jack the predominate religious narrative, moderates have little incentive to participate in the pursuit of peace. Without an alternative story to connect to, the Jewish man living in Jerusalem has to choose between being a “good Jew”, and working towards peace. Similarly, the Evangelical Christian in the U.S. has little choice: What Would Jesus Do? Well, he would support Israel, of course. No Matter What. Jesus was Jewish, ya’ know…

I’ve recently started attending a mutli-religious Sunday service at a Unitarian Universalist Church here in L.A. Mingled within the many banners and flags that populate the stage is one that says, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I’ll admit, it’s cheesy, and there is an undertone of idealism that may make the realists in the room groan just a bit, but it’s a principle that this conflict needs to find a way to embrace.

What we need is an inclusive, interfaith narrative that takes seriously the religious stories from each affected group. If there is to be any progress towards peace, we need to find a common story that allows us to stop identifying each other as the negation of the other: Not-a-Muslim, Not-a-Jew, Non-Christian.

A couple examples of inclusive narrative-change comes to mind:

My second trip to Jerusalem left a far better taste in my mouth. As an intern for the Rabbis for Human Rights, I was highly impressed with their mission to positively redefine the term, “Zionist”. Though the word is commonly used pejoratively among peace activists, the Rabbi’s were firm in their conviction that true “Zionists” took care of the “foreigner in their midst”. They work daily to reclaim the religious narrative, interpreting Jewish scriptures in support of human rights and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.

Another example is that of the Melkite Catholic Priest, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who builds common ground with Christians, Muslims, and Jews by pointing to a shared religious history. In his book, “Blood Brothers”, he says, “We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God”. His school in the Galilee area has become a beacon of hope, for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students that attend, and for the conflict as a whole.

In ignoring the positive contributions that religion can make in this conflict, not only are we excluding populations of passionate people of faith from a solution that they have a stake in, but we are conceding defeat to extremists and allowing “The Holy Land” to become something incredibly un-holy. The passion, community, and deeply-felt historical meaning that religion can bring to the table in this conflict is desperately needed to inspire, unite, and impassion all of those involved towards a peaceful common goal.

1. (Landau, Yehezkel. 2003. Healing the Holy Land: Religious Peacebuilding in Israel Palestine. Washington, DC: Peaceworks Series of United States Institute of Peace (USIP).)

This post originally appeared on Aware!

ryan linstromRyan Linstrom recently graduated with an M.A. in International Development and Human Rights. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he plots his next big move. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter @ryanlinstrom.

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Asshole

September 15th, 2010 | Posted by:

After Monday’s detour from the ongoing series of guest contributors, I’m excited to get back into it with a post from skeptic all-star Heidi Anderson. I first met Heidi at the Center For Inquiry (CFI) Leadership Institute this summer, where she was a keynote speaker and I a lowly panelist. Our remarks that weekend were on a similar theme — our shared belief that a little bit of niceness goes a long way when engaging with people who have different beliefs. Both of our remarks were met with a bit of opposition (okay, hers more than mine), and with the “War Over ‘Nice’” (c/o Daniel Loxton) reaching a frenzy in the secular blogosphere, I invited her to follow Lucy’s lead and weigh in here for our ongoing series of guest posters. It’s an honor to feature her on NonProphet Status. And now: Heidi!

yellingPeople generally think I am a nice person. I am chubby (like Santa!), I smile a lot, and I try to make friends wherever I go. I am an extremely loyal friend, and almost pathologically helpful. Give me a uniform and a box of cookies, and you might mistake me for a Girl Scout.

But churning beneath my bubbly exterior beats the heart of a bitch.

From an early age I have known about the horrors people inflict upon each other, and recognized the capacity in each of us for harming others. I distinctly remember the feel of biting into my cousin Sterling’s arm (sorry) at age 5 when he made me angry, and how good it felt to release the anger onto the deserving party. He certainly never tried to steal my toys again, at least not that day.

I grew up, of course, and relegated my biting to far more interesting situations. I learned how to manage my anger, something all adults do. We learn when you have a strong feeling, you need to stop, calm down, and think rationally before acting. As I used to tell kindergartners, hands are not for hitting and words are not for hurting. Grown-ups act… well, grown up!

I have been professionally involved with helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence for 16 years, and even before that, I was the one all my friends came to when in crisis. I am extremely protective of people who have been oppressed or abused, and enjoy being the one who can stand up for them. But whereas Ghandi and MLK used the power of love to affect change, I was inwardly more Malcolm X.

Once, after about two years of going to court with abused women, I was on a girl’s weekend with co-workers. Someone asked which superpower we would choose to have, and my friends chose flying, invisibility, teleportation, and other cool things.

Me? I wanted the “touch of death” — the ability to selectively touch people and have them drop dead 10 minutes later. Charming, no?

With all this righteous anger, fellow skeptics and atheists might think I am more than comfortable with the “dick” label, because, after all – it comes naturally to me! My sister and I learned from our father, a professional dick, how to verbally beat people up to get what we wanted. We were good at it too! How proud he must have been to have a daughter who once got a great deal on a truck for her husband by calling the salesman a “lazy, coke-headed, whoremonger whose lifestyle I was not paying for.”

But in the real world, the professional world, do I walk around screaming at the wife beaters and child rapists I see on a regular basis? Do I call the judge who refuses an Order of Protection to one of my clients an ignorant misogynist? Do I punch the School Principal who tells me my son is “violent” for pointing his fingers like guns? Do I strangle the male audience member at the DragonCon panel who suggests that women just need to CALM DOWN?? Ok, the last one almost happened, but it was a rough weekend.

Wise Canadian Jedi Masters once taught me that if what I have to say is important, it is important enough to make sure people hear it. Emotion can be used effectively in communicating a message, but strategic use of emotion is far more effective when used as part of a plan to achieve certain goals.

What is the goal of talking about the safety and importance of vaccinating your child? Is it to increase public support of vaccines? Is it to get people talking about it? Is it to present an alternative viewpoint with anti-vaxxers? Or is it to express our anger and frustration at those we feel are purposefully endangering children? While those feelings are certainly valid, haphazard emoting that makes us feel better is far less important than protecting future children.

I am still a bitch. I still get angry, and I still struggle with the anger beneath my skin. When I spoke to the CFI Leadership Institute this past summer, about this very issue, my presentation was unintentionally ironic in the harshness of its tone and delivery. Even this past weekend, when questioned by a member of the audience at while on a panel at DragonCon, I apparently lost my temper and looked like I wanted to eat his face. I am far from perfect.

But I have committed to using critical thinking and skepticism while I am trying to promote critical thinking and science. I want my message of rationality to outweigh my need for personal expression. If I want to be treated like and adult and treated professionally, then I must stop acting like a self-centered toddler.

Heidi AndersonHeidi Anderson is a foxy feminist, atheist, skeptic, fat chick, wife, and mom with a hard-core science fetish! She blogs at Fat One in the Middle, is the founder of She Thought, and is a regular voice on the Podcast Beyond Belief.

It’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” — today’s guest post is from Nicholas Lang, and it addresses this controversy.

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream Speech.” August 28, 1963, Washington D.C.

Dr. KingIn 2007, students at Clemson University and the University of Arizona honored the memory of the great Dr. King by holding blackface parties on MLK day. The Clemson students called their party “Living the Dream,” but campus groups and university administration quickly labeled it something else: incredibly racist. Ironically, the King speech that the students were lampooning preaches racial inclusiveness, pushing us to look past social schisms and judge others on the content of their characters. In his toil for the Civil Rights Movement and interfaith work with Gandhi, King’s own life stands as a powerful model of looking past these divides to create real societal change.

But three years after these events, two years after we elected a black president, two years after we started talking about how to create a movement for change, I must ask: how are we doing this in our own lives? Have we made America safer, stronger, more inclusive? I have seen t-shirts informing me that “Yes, We Did,” and the bumper stickers tell me we did. My mother, my family, my friends say that Yes. We did. But upon hearing the news that three different Midwest campuses championed our rights to free speech, the foundation of America’s ethos of liberty and equality, by marginalizing Muslim students on their campuses, I wonder: What did we, the people, do? And what are we doing now?

For those unfamiliar with the context, these aforementioned demonstrations are a part of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a nationwide movement to protest against the censoring of images of the Prophet Muhammad on South Park. Muhammad’s depiction was part of an episode in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, featured all of the religious prophets. In the episode, Muhammad was drawn in a bear costume. Although this was not the first time that Muhammad had been featured in the show, two bloggers from the radical site Revolution Islam warned that Stone and Parker should expect to be murdered for this particular affront against the Prophet. To support their claims, they cited the case of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated following the release of his short film “Submission,” which told the stories of four abused Muslim women.

Comedy Central replied to these threats by censoring subsequent episodes of the show, citing that the network’s utmost priority was the safety of its staff, but writers, artists and cartoonists across the country went further, responding with outrage. For them, the issue here was one of free speech. Our constitution endows us with the creative license to say what we want, even if our choice is to say things that offend others. Although this is a problematic position on a fraught issue, the artists’ feelings were understandable. However, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris took her anger further, by creating a national “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20 to speak out against censorship.

“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Through the power of Facebook, this idea grew into an astoundingly pervasive grassroots movement to combat Muslim extremism by drawing stick figures of Muhammad and labeling them “Muhammad.” Many of those participating feel that Little Stick Men are not offensive, although others have been more creative in their licenses. The Swedish artist Lars Vilks made Muhammad into a canine which Vilks then named “Modog.” Other drawings have shown Muhammad to be a suicide bomber, a pig, Freddy Krueger, Michael Jackson and the Kool-Aid man. One shows him engaging in sexual relations with a sheep, and in another, he is sodomized by Jesus. One of them really strives for every target possible: the artist alleges that only a “violent, illiterate pedophile” could have composed the Qu’ran. Another is much simpler, equating Islam to nothing but a piece of shit.

chalkmuhammadThis is not simply exercising an inalienable right. This is hatred and bigotry. The University of Madison-Wisconsin’s student group stated in a letter to their school’s Muslim Student Association that their “Chalking for Freedom of Expression,” in which they drew Little Stick Men on their campus sidewalks in chalk, was not meant to be offensive. Their actions were not “intended to mock or intimidate” anyone. Many bloggers have been in the same boat as the University of Madison-Wisconsin students, deciding to participate in the movement, despite its increasing tones of religious hatred. One specifically stated that she had to participate, to fight for free speech, even if she didn’t like EDMD.

However, UW-M campus’ Muslim group responded, in a wise and patient letter, informing the secular group that they were, crazily enough, offended by these drawings. And we must also remember that, as Americans have the right to engage in hurtful acts, the objects of that vitriol and their allies have the right to be offended by them. Molly Norris herself rescinded her participation in a campaign that has veered far from her satirical intent, one that has been taken over by anti-Muslim groups like Stop Islamization of America. When a movement is increasingly designed to attack our Muslim classmates, our Muslim neighbors, our Muslim friends, we have the right to speak out.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

This campaign has made every Muslim accountable for the actions of two, and many of the Muslims that the Stop Islamization of America movement and its borrowed campaign have demonized responded with tolerance and love. The Muslim Student Association from the UW-M responded by “politely” requesting that the secular group revoke its participation in EDMD and join UW-M’s Muslim students to discuss this issue. Although many Facebook users have lobbied to get all EDMD-related pages and events removed from the site, sweeping the campaign under the rug is not enough. We must do more than account for a single digit on a social networking site. We have a duty to bring this issue to our classrooms, schools and communities, many of which will be as divided as the America that the EDMD’s discordant call to action represents.

In 2008, after Obama had been elected our first black president, the collective we came together for a short while to celebrate the incredible potential of the American people. The potential we have of coming together to realize impossible dreams. We had a dream of a people united, and for a moment, we were the singular people that our forefathers addressed us as. The honeymoon may be over and Obama’s approval ratings may have fallen back to Earth, but do we have to stop dreaming? Do we have to engage in offensive, divisive acts, ones we don’t even like, when we could devise others that might help us come together? Do we have to stir up more controversy and create more hatred and misunderstand, when a simple dialogue could generate understanding and engender friendships out of assumed enemies?

This controversy underlies an America divided: one angry that, despite progress made, we still have such a long way to go. We are still segregated, we are angry, we are scared, but we still long for more, we still hope. However, in tearing down the schisms of a divided America, King urged that we do not have to wait to act, we can realize our festering dreams today. If we are going to inspire others to speak out against marginalization, we must inspire ourselves. For we, the people, have the power to come together for dialogue today. We, secularists and religious folk alike, can work with our Muslim brothers to create change today. All we have to do is dream bigger.

“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Want to start a discussion for interfaith cooperation on your campus today? Then check out the Interfaith Youth Core’s resource, “Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk,” here.

NickNicholas Lang is the Social Media Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and will be the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community.

This post is the third in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; for the second, click here.

Workshop: A Place at the Table

For the third and final workshop session of the conference, I attended “A Place at the Table: Including Atheists, Agnostics, and Secular Humanists in Interfaith Dialogue.” It shouldn’t be surprising that I was very excited about this workshop being offered, IUC_logoas this is a significant growing edge for the larger interfaith movement. Even more exciting: it was the most sizable workshop I attended, with over 45 people in the room. The session was an opportunity for people to share their experiences of secular-religious relations, air and analyze their misconceptions about secular people, and offer best practices for getting secular individuals motivated about interfaith cooperation. I ended up being invited to share a lot from the work that I do and the things that I have encountered. It was a lively conversation with a diversity of perspectives in the room and I was pleased to be a part of it.

Plenary: From Religious Extremism to Interfaith Dialogue

hirschfieldRounding out the keynote addresses at IUC was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He told the story of how he moved away from being a Jewish Zionist extremist through a relationship with someone of another faith and how he came to recognize the importance of pluralism. “We need eachother and we need each other,” said Hirschfield near the conclusion of his moving story.

During the Q&A session Hirschfield was asked about critics and, in light of the recent batch of negative appraisals of my work, I found his answer to be especially wise. “Anytime someone says you shouldn’t question the community is the time to get out,” Hirschfield said. “The more important your cause, the more important the questions are, because these questions move you toward an ethic. When I felt I was in a community where my questions were not welcome, I had to get out.” I couldn’t help but reflect in this moment how welcoming of my challenges and critiques this conference community had been, and how occasionally difficult it has been to have my questions dismissed and my character smeared by many in the Atheist community both at the AAC and in my blog work.

And yet, just as I was tempted to start down the path of “perhaps he’s right – perhaps my efforts in these particular Atheist communities where I’m being rebutted are futile,” he offered a reminder to remain engaged with those who disagree with you in response to the question, “How do you share the idea of interfaith cooperation with people who don’t want to hear it?” Hirschfield replied: “Before you can be anyone’s teacher, you need to be their student… Everybody, no matter how hateful, has something to teach [you].” Ultimately, the “student before teacher” philosophy is one we share. On that note, for those who may be wondering about what is going on with “Burkagate” – in the spirit of building bridges, I reached out to the young woman (one of those wearing a Burka at the American Atheist Convention) who made a YouTube video in which she called me a coward, criticized my comparison of the session to other hate exercises and decried my friend Sayira’s declaration that she found wearing hijab empowering the day after she posted the video. We are exchanging emails at this time; I’ll keep you posted if it seems relevant to do so.

In any event, Hirschfield’s story was a great conclusion to the plenary series and a stark reminder to all conference participants of the power of making relationships with religious others and how pluralism allows us to build connections without needing to sacrifice our individual religious integrity.

Closing

The closing included remarks by Daan Braveman (whose remarks from the opening I recounted in the first IUC post) and Muhammad Shafiq, Executive Director of Nazareth’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. I was invited to give a closing reflection and spoke about Huston Smith, the “strangeness” of interfaith dialogue, and its capacity for change. Two others who were recognized as “Next Generation” leaders we also invited to offer reflections.

webbThe first came from Emily Webb, a young Unitarian Universalist woman from California who is a youth advocate. She delivered a poem entitled “Engage You,” which she had written that morning in response to the conference. She’s given me permission to reproduce it here; though it is a beautiful read, hearing her speak it aloud was all the more powerful:

I saw a man float upside down on his chair

I heard an Iroquois storyteller speak in a language so ancient

she does not know the meaning of some of her words

I learned your name means the light of Ali

I bathed the Buddha in sweet tea

I felt angels underfoot

Can I get a witness?

I have embraced ten new friends

asking the question

over coffee and whiskey

How are we going to get along?

I learned another way to speak

a lexicon of 40 more words for respect and trust

Do you hear me brothers and sisters?

It is with these words these stories I construct

a humble sanctuary

for those who are

still writing letters to

Dr. King, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother T

still raising their hands in classrooms and boardrooms

asking why

still looking into the eyes of the Other

saying

how can I engage you?

alaniI spoke after Emily and was followed by Alykhan Alani, a Muslim from Rochester who is a student and social activist. He offered the following reflection, which he was given me permission to post here:

Sensei Mio told me

there is only one stream

V.V. Raman taught me to embody

Gandhi and King’s dream

From Nicole, our continued commitment

to the Earth, our mother

and from Emily-

trust and kinship we find in one another

Sister Joan awakened me

to the beauty of feminine divinity

and my friend Chris

to belief in the faith of humanity

the dynamic Eboo Patel

has empowered this movement of change

and… isn’t it strange?

that the take-away lesson here

the awakening call

is that we must have love

for one and for all.

three

L to R: Webb, me, Alani, looking like the "Next Generation Leaders" we are.

Salaam.

The closing left all involved motivated, energized, reflective and grateful. I was privileged to be in attendance for this conference, which confirmed that the interfaith movement is becoming a force to be reckoned with and is a place of great understanding and social change.

This last weekend I was in Boston for the fourth and final leg of my East Coast “Chris-cross” (credit to Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM’s Tom Herman for this term, which he used during a remote radio interview he facilitated from the conference with me, Alani, and Webb – listen to the archive here, fast forward to about 41 minutes in), where I attended both the Secular Student Alliance’s New England Leadership Summit and dropped by the CIRCLE National Conference 2010. Summaries on those coming soon; check out my Twitter for the conclusion of my trek and beyond.

This post is the second in a series of three posts on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC). For the first, click here; check back tomorrow for the final installation.

Plenary: “How Water is the New Salt”

The first plenary of the second day of the conference was a pair of talks by Dr. Panchapakesa Jayaraman and Sensei Bonnie Myotai Treace titled “How Water is the New Salt: An Interfaith Language for our Time & Gandhian Interfaith Approach to Non-violence and Peace-making.” A mouthful, certainly, but a thought-provoking one.

jayaramanJayaraman, Founder and Executive Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, was up first, talking about Gandhi’s role as an interfaith leader. “Gandhi was a staunch Hindu,” Jayaraman said, “but not a fundamentalist… Though [he did not] press his religion upon others, he did express [his religious] opinions.” Jayaraman spoke about Gandhi’s life, religious beliefs and peacemaking efforts, offering a vision for interfaith leadership rooted in Gandhi’s interfaith approach to non-violence: “For the vast and broad-minded persons, the whole world is a family. We must go beyond ideology to principles and policies. Don’t hate anyone. All of us are one.” He also talked about how Henry David Thoreau influenced Gandhi, who influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrating how interfaith convictions and collaboration lead to widespread social change.

After Jayaraman, Treace, Founder and Spiritual Director of Hermitage Heart, Bodies of Water Zen, spoke from her Zen Buddhist perspective about her efforts responding to the climate crisis and how interfaith cooperation can be used to address such systemic problems:treace

One of the sloth places of the mind is a not fully [allowing for] the other… What the mind tends to do is freeze, look away, in the same way that an interpersonal crisis causes a personality change, a deadening of the full capacity of the exquisite intellect. The tradition of Gandhi and of Zen is the power of asking again, of challenging fully… [of] creating the situations… There are many who are saying the next four years are the most critical in history, [that] we have the chance to be the turning point of life on this planet, [to decide] whether it is livable. That [must be] the religious activity.

Treace, like Jayaraman, spoke passionately and knowledgably, and also incorporated a few jokes that aroused the sleepy early morning crowd. Together, their speeches offered a balance of intellectualism and emotion, history and prophecy, and humor and gravity.

Workshop: “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?”

In the afternoon of the second day I attended “Tolerance: Who Can Stand It?” during the first batch of workshops. It was facilitated by Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, Founder and President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a “non-partisan, interfaith public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions” that has represented folks of nearly every faith.

Hasson spoke on something I’ve talked about time and time again – the inadequacy of mere “tolerance.” Said Hasson: “Tolerance has a dark side to it. [Many who think tolerance] it is the way to go – whether in government or civil society – [do so because] it means they have the right to be intolerant if they want to.”

hassonHe highlighted that we live in the most pluralistic society ever and offered a model for two “inauthentic” responses to religious diversity – “the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers.” He used as a case study the story of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock, saying that they “were looking for real estate; they weren’t fleeing intolerance, they were fleeing assimilation with the ‘impurities’ of their surrounding societies. They wanted to make a theocratic system of their own.” So, according to Hasson, the first inauthentic response is “to impose one mechanism in the state.”

The second response he identified is “Park Rangers,” which he classified as people who say that religion is divisive and does not belong in the public sphere. “These are the people who say that we ought to pretend that religion doesn’t exist and remove it from the public realm.” Hasson then offered his understanding of an “authentic” response: “Conscious pluralism… that is, pluralism without relativism, as relativism leads you at best to tolerance, which is inauthentic.”

Hasson, who had Parkinson’s, used humor (joking about his shaking) and a competent understanding of history to keep the session both light and highly educational. Though it was an idea I was very familiar with, it gave me a new framework through which to consider the problematic nature of mere “tolerance.”

Panel: “The Next Generation”

Eboo PatelIn the afternoon was a panel that included the prior night’s plenary speaker Sr. Joan Chittister, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) Founder and Executive Director Eboo Patel, and five young people. In this session, Chittister spoke more directly that she did in her plenary about the import of interfaith work, sharing a story from her childhood in which a Catholic Sister at her school said her father was going to Hell because he was a Protestant. She told her mom this. “I said, ‘Sister is wrong,’” Chittister shared. “My mom asked if I had said anything to Sister; I ashamedly told her no, I hadn’t. My mom said ‘It’s okay; you’re a smart little girl… You’ll tell her she’s wrong when you’re older.’ And I think I have been ever since.”

Patel talked about being a Muslim and why that encouraged him to promote interfaith cooperation, telling the story of his grandmother’s pluralistic work. “My grandma offered her essence of Islam – that mercy, compassion, and pluralism – in the way she best knew, in a mid-20th century style. So my question was: What was my expression going to be?… Our convictions can be the same… but the way we practice mercy and compassion and pluralism has to change over place and time. In a world where too many people think religion is a source of division, a bomb or barrier, we must make of it a bridge.”

chittisterThe student representatives talked about their identities, told stories regarding their respect for the beliefs of others, and asked questions of Chittister and Patel. The latter talked about the need to make interfaith cooperation mainstream, like the environmentalism movement. “We have the chance to make IF cooperation a social norm,” said Patel. He continued:

America’s the most religiously diverse nation in history, and when a critical mass of people can see success in pluralism and lead towards that, we will have accomplished our goal. We can measure it in 4 ways:

1. People’s attitudes toward religious diversity – Is it an asset? Do we ignore it? Is it bad?

2. What are our experiences? It should be important for us to create spaces for people to have positive experiences of pluralism.

3. Knowledge base – Do you know something positive about another religion? Do you know something in your own religion that inspires you to do interfaith cooperation?

4. Initiative – We should be looking for people to start an interfaith project with and advancing the idea that people from different religions – including no religion at all – should be coming together in ways that promote understanding and cooperation.

Near the end a young Jewish man by the name of Ethan Heilicher from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) who sat on the panel talked about the challenges he faced with secular engagement, indicating that the RIT skeptics group is huge and wondering how the interfaith group could work with them. I approached him after the session and suggested that we talk about ways of inviting secular folks to participate in interfaith engagement; he was excited about working out a way to bring the groups together to collaborate. In our exchange I felt the interfaith movement growing.

Plenary: “Acts of Faith”

Patel, who spoke earlier in the day on the Next Generation Panel, offered what was unsurprisingly the most energizing and, I believe, vital talk of the conference (full discretion: it’s possible that I am biased here, as I was once the Narrative Development and Media Training intern at IFYC, am presently a contracted adjunct trainer for the organization, and call Patel a friend). His ability to both constellate emotionally resonant stories that exemplify the necessity of interfaith cooperation and crystallize achievable strategies makes him second to none in articulating the goals and achievements of our movement. I wish I could transcribe his entire speech here, but for the sake of your time and mine I will stick to the bare-bones highlights.

patelPatel put forth four reasons why young interfaith leaders are necessary now more than ever. “First, it is a time of religious revival,” said Patel. “Fifty years ago social scientists were predicting the impending ‘demise of traditional religion,’ arguing that modernity pluralizes and inherently secularizes. They have since said they were wrong.” The second reason he offered was that we are in a time of “youth bulge” – for example, the median age in Afghanistan is 17 and there are more young people in India than the total population in the United States. These young people are particularly vulnerable to the sway of fundamentalist recruitment. Third, we are situated in the “most interactive moment in human history and it is among the most disorienting things imaginable… with the ubiquity of media, we are forced to implicitly justify things our grandparents never had to about who is right and how we will get along.” Finally, Patel noted the dramatic breakdown of socioeconomic patterns around the world and how they are contributing to religious conflict. Patel acknowledged the reality of religious conflict but said that it is not about different religions in conflict; rather, it is totalitarians versus pluralists. “I refuse to be pushed into the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Framework of Jew versus Muslim, believer versus non-believer,” said Patel, referring to political scientist Samuel P . Huntington’s pessimistic, misdirected theory. “It is not a divide between faiths but between pluralism and extremism.”

He charged the audience with building the interfaith movement, noting that “right now, the people who have built the strongest organizations are extremists” and emphasizing our need to offer a different narrative. Patel defined an interfaith leader as a person who takes religious diversity and makes it religious pluralism, asserting that “diversity is a fact; pluralism is a positive engagement of difference. The challenge for America is to embrace its differences and… [live in] equal dignity and mutual loyalty [where] identities are respected, relationships mutually inspire, and we have a commitment to the common good. Diversity can move in the direction of conflict or in the direction of cooperation. The difference lies in the direction leaders move it.”

So how do interfaith leaders change the conversation? Patel had many ideas, including the necessity of being to articulate the difference between pluralistic religiosity and extremism, having a knowledge base about your own religious or philosophical tradition and how it inspires you to do interfaith work and comparable values in other traditions, and acquiring a skill set to apply those values.

I could go on, but I can’t do Patel justice here. If you want to see him speak, check out his address to the Chautauqua Institute. After his lecture at IUC Patel spent a long time answering the questions of young conference participants. During the Q&A a student asked a question about secular participation in interfaith leadership, which resulted in a somewhat embarrassing moment for me in which Eboo called out, “Where is my friend Chris Stedman? You’re in here, right buddy?” He then asked me to stand up and talked at length about the work that I do as a “young Secular Humanist leader” in the interfaith movement. Though a bit red-faced, I was grateful for the acknowledgment and happy to serve as an example of secular participation in interfaith cooperation – especially after his powerful speech that left everyone in the audience talking about the action they would take to promote interfaith dialogue in their own communities.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over – come back Monday for the final IUC recap post, and follow me on Twitter to keep up with my secular sojourn!