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!
June 3rd, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
When 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!
Winners: Jeff Pollet and Vandana Goel LaClair (tie)
Runner-Up: Rory Fenton
Winner: Corinne Tobias
Runners-Up: 1. Beatrice Marovich | 2. Jonathan S. Myerov
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 Patel 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.
May 10th, 2010 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
Only five days remain to submit an entry to our Share Your Secular Story contest! Below, two exclusive statements from some of our collaborators:
Marketing and PR Director, Jettison Quarterly
Jettison Quarterly is an arts and culture magazine who’s mission is to provide a platform for the further development and progress of contemporary culture in Chicago. Though we primarly focus on Visual Arts, Music, and Fashion, it is our overall interest to explore an interdisciplinary practice that encounters all fields. It is our belief that true progress can only come from being informed. This is why we are ecstatic to support and be involved with NonProphet Status’ Share Your Secular Story contest. Jettison is composed of a family with various religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds and that is why we think it is important to not only support but also give a voice to all groups. Jettison is optimistic for the future, and the future is NOW.
Writer / Share Your Secular Story Panel of Judges
On my garnering a degree in Religious Studies and my ongoing experience as a writer of religion, I began to see a great void in the literature – where were the examples of true personal narratives about Secular Humanism? There are plenty of anti-religious and counter-religious stories – one simply needs to look at the massive canon of “ex-cult” literature to see that there’s no shortage of one-time converts who are compelled to share their personal truths. However, what are not present in the discussion are religious narratives of the non-religious – secular stories.
Why is it important that secular stories get shared? Part of the real importance of religious narrative is to provide examples of what it means to live out spiritual or moral truths in the world. In this way, the stories serve a didactic purpose – they take abstract moral values and demonstrate them in a way that makes them real. Remember The Book of Virtues? Almost twenty years ago, conservative pundit-slash-former Secretary of Education-slash-Catholic activist William Bennett ripped off the title of the Tao Te Ching to provide a set of stories to orient the moral compass of a new generation. Why was it vastly influential? For all of the right-wing hamfistedness of the anthology, it insisted primarily upon showing and not telling – demonstrating what ethics and morals are, rather than detailing them.
What we’re looking to do with the Share Your Secular Story contest is not to create The Atheist’s Book of Virtues. We’re not even looking to make The Agnostic’s Book of Human Folly. What we are looking to do is to make the world split open. We are looking to give a growing presence in the landscape of spirituality – Secular Humanism – a place within our society’s narrative of virtues. The stories we’re looking for are stories that illustrate Secular Humanism’s heart, yes – but they’re also stories that give Humanism a body, hands to move in society, a face. We’re looking for stories of people exploring a world made meaningful, not by tradition or dogma or mysticism, but by the stark and elegant poignancy of just being human. We’re looking for you to share your secular story.
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:
It 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:
[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:
The 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.”
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.
Earlier this week in my radio interview for Vocalo / WBEW 89.5 FM Chicago, I was asked if I agreed with Mo’Nique’s Oscar acceptance speech declaration that “sometimes you have to forgo doing what is popular in order to do what’s right.” At the time I laughed, but the inspiringly brazen lady has a point.
For all of the wonderful, positive response we’ve received for the Share Your Secular Story contest, and more generally this blog, we’ve been getting some critical feedback as well. In the spirit of my exchange on Atheist Nexus, we’ve received emails saying that religion isn’t worth respecting, that we’re really religionists disguising ourselves as secularists (aka “traitors”), that this project reflects a willingness to bend over and allow religion to do unmentionable things to us, and a batch of mocking faux submissions and condescending comments dismissing the spirit of this contest as “nicey-nice.” It isn’t that I expected this contest to be celebrated by each and every secular individual, but I can’t help but wonder when being nice became something worth condemning.
The reason for this contest is and always has been two-fold: primarily, it aims to help build a canon of secular stories, as contest judge Nick Mattos so eloquently described in his elegant, poetic guest post this week. As a growing movement, it is imperative that we advertise our stories. But those involved in the contest also hope that it will facilitate greater understanding between religious and secular folks, to help create a climate of religious pluralism in which other beliefs and identities are not just tolerated but respected. I’m unashamed that this contest is not anti-religious. I’m not ashamed that I want to be “nicey-nice” to religious people, even if I am not one. Like Mo’Nique, I don’t care that this idea runs contrary to the rampant anti-theism I’ve seen in the secular community.
I don’t mean to sound self-important, but I’ve got a bone to pick. I want to take some of my secular peers to task. I’m sorry if this sounds martyrical, but I’m entirely worn out on hearing that “religion is the worst thing that has ever happened” or that “religious people are dumb.” Comments like these offend me because they are intellectually lazy and because there are people I care deeply about that are deeply religious. For all the horror it has incited, religion has also inspired more compassion, empathy and good works than pretty much any force in history. It is not difficult to make a thoughtful case that religion does more good than it does harm. Think religious people are stupid? Many of history’s greatest intellectuals were religious. Try going toe-to-toe with Thomas Aquinas, Arianna Huffington, or Mahatma Gandhi and tell me that religious people are dumb.
The purpose of this post isn’t to construct an apologia for religion. I’m all for intellectual critique of theology — I do it daily in my religion classes — but when such conversations move from rationally discussing a belief to radically attacking an identity, I start to have a problem. The crux of the matter is that such comments aren’t just intellectually and personally insulting — they’re discriminatory. As a queer person and a secular individual, I’ve experienced my share of being dismissed or discriminated against solely because of stereotypes others hold about my identity. Why would I want to perpetuate that cycle by making blanket-judgments on religious people when they could turn out to be among my greatest allies if only I’d keep an open mind? As the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — who was, lest we forget, a deeply religious man motivated by his theological convictions to better the world — said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We secularists need to get over this antagonistic, self-defensive stance toward the religious other and embrace the reality that we live in a world of religious diversity. Religious people are everywhere; they are our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. And we need them to accomplish any vision we may have for a more unified world. We cannot be isolationists. We need to appeal to the values of religiously-minded individuals if we’re going to build broad coalitions of solidarity.
If we truly want to change hearts and minds with our secular stories, we must open our minds and our hearts to the experiences of our religious counterparts. To quote the great unifier Abraham Lincoln:
“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
The more we continue to deny empathy to those who believe differently than we do and fashion our community with an antagonistic posture toward religiosity, the more our efforts will flounder. As contest judge Erik Roldan so aptly put it, “looking at the religious as the enemy does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t help anything to simply identify the negative and try and keep away from it. If anything, isolating ourselves from the reality that the world and the United States are driven by politically powerful varieties of faith is complacent. It’s a resignation to being a voiceless minority, and what progress could that possibly result in?”
If our identities as secular individuals remain rooted in uttering “we don’t agree with religion” over and over, we will fail to say anything about our values. I try to remain patient and sympathetic to those who feel alienated by religion but, frankly, I grow weary of being called a “traitor” because I have religious friends and appreciate some religious values. I’m not an ally of the religious right — hell, they surely would look at me, a secular community organizer, as working against their cause if they were aware of my existence — and neither is the message of religion-friendly secularism.
Maybe it’s the “Minnesota nice” in me, but I’m a firm believer that “nicey-nice”ness is the quickest route to social progress. It may sound cheesy, but it’s what I believe. We secular folks need to stop wasting our time hemming and hawing over the faults of religion and start recognizing the unique perspective we have to offer; if we don’t, our community will become rooted in a definition that merely tells the world that we are not religious while saying nothing of our convictions. Well, here is one conviction I hold: today, I say “no more” to my community’s rampant anti-religious discrimination.
The thing I mourn most about the secular obsession with anti-religiosity and the way in which it prevents us from articulating our convictions is that, from engaging with my secular communities, I know we have a so many important values to impart upon the world. But in order to make them known, we’ve got a lot of work to do — work that we cannot do alone. If you’re a secular individual interested in keeping your heart and your mind open to the experiences of others and want to make your own experiences known, I hope you’ll consider submitting to the contest. We need each and every secular voice. Thanks for indulging my scowled lament, and thank you to all who have contributed so far. I treasure every “nicey-nice” response we’ve received.
This week, Mo’Nique made her voice heard — I hope you’ll do the same.
Chris Stedman, Share Your Secular Story contest organizer
P.S. After writing this post, I came across a stellar editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette that critiques the atheist movement for its mean-spirited anti-theism. This piece serves as a good reminder to our community that the world is watching our actions and that offensive, alienating behavior only delegitimizes our perspective and actually hurts our aims for greater recognition and acceptance. Wise words from someone watching on the outside.