A Committed Christian's Atheist Heroes

September 7th, 2010 | Posted by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Author

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Some Other NonProphets

August 20th, 2010 | Posted by:

peopleHey folks! I’ve got a few big projects in the works right now (how vague and ambiguous…), so, to keep NonProphet Status fresh amidst my busyness, I’ve recruited a few worthy guest bloggers to populate it with content over the next few weeks. In the past, I’ve been honored to feature some pretty incredible guest posts from the likes of Tim Brauhn, Jessica Kelley, Nick Mattos, Sayira KhokarRory Fenton, Nate Mauger, Kate FridkisAndrew FogleMiranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen Giess, Jeff PolletJoseph Varisco, Corinne Tobias, Vandana Goel LaClairNicholas Lang, and even my own Mom! We’ve also hosted original writing by Eboo Patel, August Brunsman, Hemant Mehta, Erik Roldan, and Emanuel Aguilar.

We’ve featured so many guest posters because NPS was never intended to be “Chris Stedman’s platform.” Rather, I wanted to create a forum for an alternative secular narrative. It’s why I initiated, organized and ran our first Share Your Secular Story contest. Featuring an amazing panel of judges that included the former head of Amnesty International USA and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” William Schulz, the contest inspired an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India.

In hosting the story contest and featuring so many guest bloggers, I’ve hoped to make NPS a place where a multitude of voices help define a new narrative for the secular community: one that respects the religious identities of others while remaining authentic to our own identities (be they secular, religious, or somewhere in-between).

I can’t wait to read along with you as this next diverse batch of guest bloggers continues to show us all a new way forward. I’m on the edge of my secular seat!

share your secular storyWhen we put out a call for stories just a few months ago, we received an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India. This great diversity of submissions made judging these and determining a batch of winners a difficult task for our esteemed panel of judges made up by the former Director of Amnesty International and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” Dr. William Schulz, the highly regarded author and academic Dr. Sharon Welch, the highest ranking Asian-American slam poet of all time Alvin Lau, the brilliant interfaith activist Mary Ellen Giess, the respected and poetic young West Coast writer Nick Mattos, and the renowned blogger, community activist and DJ Erik Roldan. But they rose to the occasion and the votes are in; we’re pleased to announce the winners of the Share Your Secular Story contest!

Interfaith

Winners: Jeff Pollet and Vandana Goel LaClair (tie)

Runner-Up: Rory Fenton

Moral Imagination

Winner: Corinne Tobias

Runners-Up: 1. Beatrice Marovich | 2. Jonathan S. Myerov

Youth

Winner: Joseph Blaha

Runners-Up: 1. Stephen D. Goeman, II | 2. Kyle Morgan

Congratulations to all of our honorees! You should be receiving your prizes (depending on the category, a signed book by Eboo syssPatel or Greg Epstein, a signed DVD by Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens or signed CD by Ben Lundquist, per the contest description page) soon. And a special congratulations to our winners Jeff Pollet, Vandana Goel LaClair, Corinne Tobias and Joseph Blaha — your submissions will be eligible for publication in the Washington Post Faith Divide, Killing the Buddha, and Jettison Quarterly. More information on that to come.

Thank you to everyone who submitted to our contest for demonstrating that secular stories really do matter. Thank you to our panel of judges for donating your time and wisdom, and to our partners who donated prizes and publication space. But more than anything, I cannot wait for everyone to read what our honorees have produced.

The following guest post comes from Mary Ellen Giess, a member of the Share Your Secular Story contest panel of judges. The contest closes in only 3 DAYS so don’t delay — submit your story today!
share your secular story

Why are secular stories important? Because the secular community lacks an identity. Because surveys demonstrate that when people truly know others of diverse backgrounds, they are less likely to have bigoted opinions about one another. Because secularists shouldn’t just be defined by the things they don’t believe. Because the important topics discussed on this blog (Burkagate, Chalking Muhammad) are so much more powerful when there are stories of real people behind the controversial opinions. Because the non-religious should have a chance to be president, too. Because there is a growing population of secularists who deserve to have a voice.

All of these things point to one very important issue: Secular Humanists need to express themselves, and their deeply held personal beliefs, in a society marked by religious discourse. At the Interfaith Youth Core, we are building a movement of young people who are dedicated to religious pluralism — but that movement is not truly successful unless the secular community is involved as well. Secular stories can do so much for the secular community — all of the things I mentioned above — but in addition to all of that, secular stories can bring the secular community into conversation with religious community about the many things we can do together. Secular stories can serve the crucial function of a bridge — from the secular community to the rest of society — to begin to build relationships that will better society at large.

Mary Ellen GiessMary Ellen Giess works for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in their Strategic Partnerships program, where she works on policy initiatives and is responsible for much of IFYC’s campus outreach. She graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master’s Degree in Religion, Ethics, and Politics in 2006. Studying the intersection of religion and government through a multidisciplinary lens, Mary Ellen took classes at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School while interning at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Prior to attending HDS, Mary Ellen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in Religious Studies and Italian.

What Are We Fighting For?

March 30th, 2010 | Posted by:

cats with lightsabers

This interblog dispute probably looks as silly as this picture, though less cute.

As I’ve written on here before, the basic premise of this blog – to build pluralism among secular and religious folks and work for an organized secular community that isn’t rooted in an oppositional identity standing against religion – has become something of a lightning rod for controversy among some contingents of the non-religious community. So it wasn’t especially surprising when a gratuitously spiteful post went up this week over at World of Weird Things. You should read it for yourself, but it can essentially be summarized by this selection:

[NonProphet Status' perspective is] annoying, petty and a pretty clear attempt to get on the good side of religious people. By positioning themselves as nice and non-threatening to seem harmless to theists, the faitheists seem ready and willing to add to the stream of condescension and berating the religious crowd likes to lay on atheists, all while claiming to be really atheist and support the secular and humanist community with every fiber of their being. Just not when it matters.

Based on his post, it seems fairly clear to me that World of Weird Thing’s Greg Fish has mischaracterized my work. I would like to invite Fish to more thoroughly read the postings of this blog. 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.

Erik Roldan, a judge for our Share Your Secular Story contest, ably reacted to Fish’s critique of this:

Erik RoldanIt strikes me as narrow-sighted to think that someone trying to engage with members of another group is “pandering,” as this reactionary blog has called it. Additionally, his statement that the story contest is designed to have people write the same things [Chris] did is another attempt at belittling any acknowledgement of the commonalities non-believers have. That is not only unproductive, it further serves to propogate self-definition by what you are not – your negative space – rather than what you are.

As Erik points out, the problem with atheism is that it only suggests what an individual does not believe and easily lends itself to taking an antagonistic stance toward religion – this is why I have identified a problem with it. With the Share Your Secular Story contest, we aim to help cull a canon of secular stories that go beyond saying “we don’t believe in God” to share the experiences and values of everyday secular folks.

Mary Ellen Giess, another member of the Share Your Secular Story contest panel of judges, reacted to Fish’s incorrect analysis of its aims with a wise reflection:

Mary Ellen Giess[Fish] claims that Chris laments atheists who want to “separate themselves from religious people,” but what Chris actually laments is secularists who are openly antagonistic to religious people. Fish asks: “How exactly does one establish a humanist or secular identity by complaining that all the non-theists around you are so pushy and negative in a ridiculous caricature?” The ironic thing is that this story contest is about establishing a secular identity that is not about being in conflict with other people – religious or non-religious people. So, fundamentally, the story contest is exactly what he’s arguing for. He’s listening to the first line of Chris’ argument without listening to the second. His whole third paragraph is about the fact that atheists are just normal people who are not usually that aggressive with their view. If that is true, then obviously someone has to do some PR for atheists to let the world know that they are just nice people, which is what this story contest aims to do.

As Mary Ellen has noted, his post is a dishonest assessment of the true aims of the contest. Share Your Secular Story contest judge Nick Mattos offered an elegant, precise reaction to Fish’s post that elaborates on this:

Nick MattosThe fact of the matter is that contest organizer Christopher Stedman, for all of the high regard I hold him in, is not one of the contest judges. Criticism of Mr. Stedman’s work – or allegations that he prefers to be exotic amongst religious people, or that he is “dishonest” or “cowardly” – are utterly irrelevant to the contest itself.

The huge volume of submissions we’ve received so far indicate that there is a sizeable body of secular people – articulate, rational, thoughtful people, at that – who don’t view their secularism as an oppositional identity. Virtually none are “nice, fluffy stor[ies] saying pretty much the same things [Mr. Stedman] did,” a fact that reinforces that the authors submitting are indeed rational, thoughtful people who think for themselves. I encourage the readers of the Weird Things blog to do just that: to think for themselves, and decide whether it’s in the best interest for the common good to build a canon of secular narratives, or if it is more important to knock down people and projects that seek to do so. For those of the former school of thought, myself and my fellow contest judges look forward to reading your submissions to the essay contest.

It is true that the message of this blog is not in lock-step with the dominant atheist narratives and asks secularists to think for themselves, not just subscribe to the anti-religious attitudes that flood the non-religious market. The funny thing is that Fish accuses me of being “offended and surprised by a rebuttal,” but what I am struck most by about his assessment of my work is how offended he seems. Though I have been baffled by the degree of vitriol that the idea of pluralism elicits in some people that I share many common beliefs with, it simply emphasizes the importance of this work. If the dominant narrative among atheist communities is inherently anti-religious, it shouldn’t surprise me that a different perspective ruffles some feathers. But that is not my aim, nor is it my aim to be exotic (or a “fascinating curiosity for a high minded group of theists” as he’s suggested.) Instead, I simply hope to help change the tone of the conversation about religion and secularism – an all-too-often nasty, divisive one as exemplified by his post – to a more empathic, respectful way of being in community that transcends simply tolerating the differences of others. Yes, even with religious people.

“Really, it’s ok to be religious,” Fish writes. “I hear a lot of people do it. Just don’t call yourself a devoted atheist while enjoying everything religion has to offer because that’s not fair to everyone involved.”

cats with lightsabers

Get it? It's a "catfight." Okay, I'll stop.

I have to ask: why shouldn’t I? What exactly is unfair about wanting to enjoy religion’s many positive characteristics? How can I be in community with religious people without finding a way to care about the things that matter to them?

His question points to the limitations of his outlook and, ultimately, I am grateful for Fish’s post for multiple reasons. For one, I appreciate any opportunity to receive feedback and critique, and am always open to discerning better ways of articulating my perspective. But all the more, Fish’s blog underscores the critical problems I see facing secular communities today – an occasionally bloodthirsty readiness to divide and conquer. I’d like to feel some satisfaction in this affirmation, but it merely saddens me because it reminds me that we have so much more work to do. As Nick said, I hope you will contribute to the story contest and help us build a cohesive, unified secular community that does not try to rise up by putting the religious down.

Fish may think this outlook on the world – respecting religion while staying secular – is an alienating one, but that runs contrary to my experience. It is a way to engage with religious people, of course – the vast majority of the population, in case you’ve forgotten. But it is also a way to build a healthy secular community and, in Chicago anyway, it is bringing people together. Last night, our burgeoning Secular Humanist group met for the second time. Everyone in that room has expressed distaste for the anti-religious double-speak of New Atheists, saying it has, in one way or another, kept them from secular community organizing. People who had once thought there was nowhere for them to explore and express their secular values are now building a community that does not want to isolate itself by alienating the religious. I wish Fish would join us instead of trying to further divide a community that is already too isolated from the rest of the world (or, to use his own words, trying to “alienate atheists from [our] cause” as he warned me before his post went up).

Let’s call this what it is – divisive fearmongering – and move on with our work, for it cannot wait any longer for the anti-religious to stop shouting over us.