December 5th, 2011 | Posted by: Serah Blain
“Conflict can be understood as the motor of change, that which keeps relationships and social structures honest, alive, and dynamically responsive to human needs, aspirations, and growth.”
– John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation
One of the most wonderful things about being human is our capacity for growth—for having our lives enriched as a result of challenging experiences. Often this kind of challenge and growth happens though sharing personal stories—because stories enable us to really see other individuals for who they are, to genuinely hear what they have to teach us, and to find ourselves open to new ideas that may otherwise be seen as foreign and threatening. Because atheists are currently such a distrusted minority in the United States, building relationships and sharing our stories with religious people are imperative. We need for people of faith to see us, to hear us, and to open themselves to the challenges we present—and we need to do the same for them; we can use stories to make this happen.
My approach to empowering atheists and promoting secularism is one of diplomacy—and there is something of a misunderstanding in the nontheistic movement about diplomats and interfaith advocates; we are frequently charged with being unwilling to challenge religion. There is a palpable tension between diplomats, who often advocate seeking common ground with religious people in order to effect positive change, versus our counterparts, the firebrands, who seek to eradicate the harms caused by religion by directly and confrontationally drawing attention to those harms. There are frequent accusations hurled between the two camps, with firebrands regularly suggesting that diplomats capitulate to religion and enable the harm it causes and diplomats accusing firebrands of damaging the movement with their hostility. But let me be clear: I have no desire to exempt myself from criticizing religion where it underpins injustice—and where diplomats fail to confront religious injustice, firebrands are right to reprimand us. The moral imperative to speak courageously against religion where it causes suffering does not require diplomats to be firebrands—but it does require us to be bold and to not eschew conflict when it is necessary to secure justice. Adopting a narrative approach, which facilitates connection rather than emphasizing division, is one way diplomats can and do productively challenge people in the religious community to grow—to encourage the religious to be more rational, compassionate, and fair. And perhaps there are some things we can learn from our firebrand colleagues.
Sean Faircloth, for example, effectively utilizes the narrative technique in his forthcoming book, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It; Faircloth draws attention to the danger of religious intrusion in secular government by writing about religious exemptions from health and safety laws that have resulted in horrific abuse, suffering, and death for real children. By telling us the moving stories of these kids—by telling us their names, their ages, the terrible circumstances in which they needlessly lost their lives—Faircloth is able to illustrate a systemic problem while at the same time evoking the kind of empathy and association that inspire people to care and to act rather than to become defensive, combative, or entrenched. The stories Faircloth tells allow him to make clear, focused criticisms on specific harms caused by specific problems rather than making broad and unproductive attacks on religion as a whole.
Another, more intimate, example comes from Brian Wallace (a colleague with whom I have the great pleasure of working to build a new nontheistic community in Northern Arizona, the Flagstaff Freethinkers). In his Gone Apostate blog post, Religion Didn’t Destroy My Marriage, Wallace writes movingly about his recent divorce and the way Mormon indoctrination had encouraged him and his wife to build their relationship around religion rather than with one another—and how it ultimately disempowered them from having an intimate partnership. Like Faircloth, Wallace’s use of narrative illustrates a systemic problem and evokes within readers a sense that something is very wrong with this situation; through the story, we begin to feel that something needs to change when a religious institution is structured in such a way that it contributes to dehumanization in a real marriage—between two good, loving people—rather than facilitating one of the most sublime of all human experiences: romantic intimacy.
The voice we use when we tell stories, the narrative voice, is substantively different from the voice we use in debate; stories are not about logic and syllogisms—they are a way of connecting to truth and meaning through empathy and association. In his book, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs writes that the “narrative voice, the voice of storytellers, is unlike that of the rational, analytic mind. It does not break things up or categorize. It makes distinctions, but these are always seen as part of a larger weave.” People who listen to our stories are able to connect not just to us and to our personal narratives, but also, writes Isaacs, to the deeper meaning that comes through them. This process can be profoundly challenging and richly rewarding for both nontheists and people of faith; it is a way for all of us, religious and nonreligious alike, to confront one another with new ideas, with opportunities to look critically at our assumptions about what we believe, and to improve the way we interact with people who are different from us. Stories allow us to work through conflict in the most utterly humanizing way—and this kind of conflict is, as Lederbach suggests, “the motor of change.” Where religion perpetuates injustice and damages our human family, people of goodwill must challenge those who empower it to do so—but, though story, we can be challenging in a way that enriches everyone involved.
If we, as atheists, are going to change public perception of who we are and what we value, narrative is going to be one of the most useful tools at our disposal. If we want to clearly, conscientiously, and effectively criticize religion when we see it hurting people, we must begin challenging religious people with our stories in order to create space for connection and growth in a way that simply is not possible with angry rhetoric. Ultimately, by using challenging narratives as our approach to religious criticism, we facilitate the enlivening and exhilarating experience of personal growth.
Serah Blain serves on the boards of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, the Arizona Coalition of Reason, and the Prescott Pride Center. The Executive Director of QsquaredYouth, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ youth in Prescott, AZ and surrounding areas, Serah is also the organizer of the Prescott Freethinkers, a thriving community of nontheists in Northern Arizona that meets regularly for discussion, fellowship and fun. She also co-chairs the Secular Student Alliance at Prescott College where she is working on a B.A. in Engaged Humanism. Her current interfaith volunteer projects include hospice care, and faith outreach for the Prescott Pride Center. Serah has two children who are being raised to be conscientious, compassionate human beings.
Hey 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 Khokar, Rory Fenton, Nate Mauger, Kate Fridkis, Andrew Fogle, Miranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen Giess, Jeff Pollet, Joseph Varisco, Corinne Tobias, Vandana Goel LaClair, Nicholas 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!
Religion and Secular Roundup: Secularists in the White House, Church Arson, More on Tiger and Millenials
February 28th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Church Burning and Atheist Learning: Reports this week on the ongoing investigation into a series of church fires in Texas prominently featured the fact that raids on one suspect’s home uncovered “books on demons and atheism.” What does it say that news reports are so strongly linking a suspect’s books on atheism to his alleged participation in church arson? Whether there is an actual correlation between the material he read and the crimes he is accused of committing, it is an unfortunate narrative on secular folks that we need work to change. Additionally, if these men are in fact guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, I’d be inclined to raise questions about what role narratives of fundamentalist anti-theism may have played in informing these actions and if anti-theistic motivations were involved. I strongly believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, but I also cannot help but fear that, if these men were in fact driven by totalitarian anti-theism to burn down religious houses of worship, their actions could have easily been prevented if only they had been exposed to a different, more pluralistic understanding of how atheists and religious folks can engage in the world.
Tiger Woods and the Need for Religious Literacy: The USA Today ran an intelligent reflection on Tiger Woods’ public apology, highlighting Woods’ appeal to his Buddhist commitments as a means for considering the controversy. The piece thoughtfully situates Woods’ apology within the larger context of American religious diversity. As Brit Hume’s controversial comments suggesting that Woods seek forgiveness in Christ exemplified, American society generally expects fallen public figures to offer Christian apologies and seek Christian redemption. Woods’ Buddhist narrative suggests that our country is in need of greater religious literacy. To quote the article: “Part of living in a multireligious society… is learning multiple religious languages. In a country where most citizens cannot name the first book of the Bible, we obviously need more Christian literacy. But to make sense of the furiously religious world in which we live, we need Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist literacy too.” This should be a keen reminder to secular folks of the importance of knowing about the religious beliefs of others. If we don’t know about the beliefs of others, how can we expect to try to understand them?
The Secularists Are Coming! The Secularists Are Coming!: This last week, representatives of the Obama administration hosted members of the secular community for the first time in American Presidential history. The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group representing secular interests, was briefed by the members of Obama administration in a White House meeting. As you might expect, this was met with shock and horror from some on the political right — Sean Hannity, for example, featured an inflammatory and outright false segment on his show about the meeting. But reports from the secular community indicate that it was a positive experience; check out Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist blog for an inside scoop. If nothing else, the meeting is an important symbolic step toward the recognition of a salient, cohesive, and growing secular community.
More Reflections on Religion and Millenials: Earlier this week I posted on the new Pew report on Millenials and its implications for Millenial secularists living in a religiously pluralistic world. I wasn’t the only one ruminating on this data — Politics Daily ran a piece called “Young Adults Doing Religion on Their Own? Blame Politics” that suggests that less Millenials are affiliated with traditional religious institutions while still retaining religious beliefs because many tend to be more politically liberal and see traditional religiosity as being aligned with political conservatism — which explains some of why religious affiliation is down among Millenials even though belief in god and that one’s own belief system is “the one true path to eternal life” are on the rise. Separately, the New York Times ran a piece by Charles M. Blow that posits that Millenials are more “spiritually thirsty than older generations.” He bases this claim in the Pew report’s finding that Millennials articulate a desire for “closeness to God” as a long term goal significantly more than previous generations have. Blow asserts that though less Millenials are religiously affiliated than members of generations that have come before, we value religious and spiritual commitments — perhaps even more so than other generations. Both pieces are well worth reading and I suggest you check them out.
Are There Secular Reasons?: The New York Times has a heady, thought-provoking opinion piece by Stanley Fish. In it, he challenges the notion that there is a distinction between “secular” motivations and “religious” motivations in public policy. He postulates: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” He makes an interesting point, and he makes it well. What do you think, fellow secularists?
Religion’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force, featuring Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, just released a new report called “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad.” You can view the full report here; the Washington Post has a good summary of it here.
Finally, if you missed them, I did my first “The Non Prophet” column for The New Gay, titled “All My Friends,” and gave a statement to Just Out Portland on the French anti-smoking ad controversy. Stay tuned to The New Gay every Wednesday at 1 PM (CST) for a new column, and thanks for reading!