Vagueness and interfaith

December 1st, 2012 | Posted by:

One of our readers, the humanist and interfaith activist Vanessa Brake, sent us an email yesterday to point us toward an article that has been circulating online. She directed us to the following quote: “Participants at a recent interfaith conference in the nation’s capital discussed how interreligious dialogue can play an important role in establishing peace and fighting secularization in America.”

The National Catholic Register goes on:

The secular response to religious diversity is to push all religious beliefs out of public life, Bishop Knestout warned. But while this approach has become prominent in the modern era, it is dangerous to all religious beliefs and fails to respect “the reality of the spiritual dimension of life.”

Interreligious dialogue that builds and maintains relationships among different faith traditions is therefore even more important in protecting the role of religion from the secularism that threatens it, he explained.

On behalf of my fellow writers at NonProphet Status I’d just like to say that we’ve had a good run. We thought we could hide it, but it looks like the secret’s out, the jig is up, and the cat’s out of the bag. Interfaith work is and always has been a front to secretly destroy secularism, and our involvement as atheists was simply an attempt to validate faith, make nice with the religious, and throw all the smart, strong, and righteous atheists under the bus. We hope our allegiance will grant us a shred of mercy in the brutal atheist culling that will follow the coming institution of a fundamentalist theocracy. I, for one, will welcome our new interfaith overlords.

But in all seriousness: interfaith is a tricky and very broad word, and a few things should maybe be cleared up before this example starts being held up as an indicator of the evils of interfaith.

Any gathering of believers from different religions is going to technically fall under the label of “interfaith.” It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call the push to get Proposition 8 passed an interfaith effort, because from a literal standpoint it’s just as much “interfaith” as Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core—even though they argue for religious pluralism, the separation of Church and State, and the inclusion of atheists in interfaith efforts.

It would be absurd, though, to confuse support for this latter kind of interfaith as an endorsement of the former kind. So we can talk about the benefits of interfaith without saying that any interfaith effort is necessarily good, just like we can support interracial relationships without approving of the degrading and exploitative practices of interracial pornography.

It gets important, then, to clarify what we mean by interfaith and what interfaith practices we specifically support. Partly to sidestep this—and partly because it’s a broader philosophy with less knee-jerk baggage than “interfaith”—I prefer to talk about pluralism. Though pluralism itself isn’t necessarily the clearest topic (look at all the different meanings of religious pluralism!), it’s almost always necessarily secular—at least in modern political contexts. I think it’s this kind of ecumenical pluralism that is at the heart of the interfaith that atheists should be involved in. After all, the strongest historic proponents of secularism and pluralism have been religious believers. When John Locke wasn’t busy being the father of classic liberalism and the separation of church and state, he was writing essays with titles like “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” It’s important to realize that these weren’t contradictory projects.

It might not seem it based on how a lot of atheists talk about the topic, but most religious thinkers and political philosophers don’t actually want to establish a theocracy or force their beliefs on others. Joe Biden demonstrated this brilliantly in the Vice Presidential Debate (see Michael De Dora at The Moral Perspective for a nuanced discussion about the debate, secularism, and pluralism more broadly). I’m sure God wouldn’t be too impressed with mandatory worship, anyway.

It’s also worth noting that “secularism” is getting to be a vague word, too, and the kind of secularism these faith leaders got together to fight—the kind that tries to “push all religious beliefs out of public life”—isn’t a kind of secularism we should be supporting, anyway. Secularism is a government’s neutrality on religion, not abstention from it. That is to say, the government can’t discriminate against religion in the public sphere. Thus, public schools have to fund both religious and secular student groups, the government can fund both religious and secular (and blasphemous) art, public parks can house both religious and secular displays, and so on. All secularism means is that the government can’t show a preference on religion or lack thereof.

So this all just goes to say that words are very vague, and its not only on us to clarify our values but on critics to be smart enough to realize that an endorsement of some aspect of a topic as broad as interfaith, pluralism, or secularism, isn’t necessarily an endorsement of anything that might go under the name.

P.S: I’m apparently somewhat late at addressing this article. Keith Favre at The Foreshadow wrote about it yesterday.

If anything, secularism should be the goal of interfaith, because in a secular world, everyone has freedom of and from religion; the freedom to practice or not practice any religion they want, so long as doing so does not harm anyone else. Both the atheists and the religious win in a secular world.

Check it out.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

“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

Dynamic conflict sometimes inolves melodramatic hand gestures and beer

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.

Prescott Freethinkers thinking together and pondering the deeper meaning

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.

serah2Serah 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.

Announcing My February Speaking Tour!

January 27th, 2011 | Posted by:

iowaSee the expanded tour schedule here!

This has been long in the works, so I’m excited to finally share the exciting news with you all: I’m going on a speaking tour of seven Midwest colleges and universities next month! At the invitation of campus staff and student groups from the following schools, I will be going from Indiana to Illinois to Iowa to speak about the importance of religious-atheist engagement, and the experiences that led me to the work I do around this issue.

Below is my itinerary — if you’re in the area for any of the “open to the public” events, please come by. I’d love to see you there! (And if you’re a student at one of these schools, I heard a rumor that some of your professors are offering extra credit in exchange for your attendance! Grades hitting a February slump? Come sit in the audience and pretend to listen while playing “Angry Birds.”)

February 2011 Midwest Speaking Tour
(Or, “What I’m Doing Instead of Taking a Vacation!”)

2/10: DePauw University | Greencastle, IN

  • Meetings with the Interfaith group, LGBTQA group, and the Center for Spiritual Life
  • 7:30-9:30 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/11: Butler University / Indiana Campus Compact | Indianapolis, IN

  • Meeting with the Indiana Interfaith Service Corps (AmeriCorps)
  • Noon-1:30 PM | Speech / Luncheon (open to the public)

2/14: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign | Urbana-Champaign, IL

  • Meetings with student groups
  • Luncheon — Facilitated Conversation
  • Speech (open to the public)

2/15: Northwestern University | Evanston, IL

  • 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/16: Elmhurst College | Elmhurst, IL

  • Meetings with student groups
  • 11:30 AM | Luncheon – Facilitated Conversation
  • 7 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/17: DePaul University | Chicago, IL

  • 6 PM | Speech (open to the public)

2/21: Simpson College | Indianola, IA

  • Luncheon – Facilitated Conversation
  • 5-7 PM | Speech (open to the public)

Interested in having me come speak? Email me at nonprophetstatus [at] gmail [dot] com!

Today’s guest post is by Joshua Stanton, a man I am lucky to call both a good friend and a colleague at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue in my work as the Managing Director of State of Formation. In this post, Josh offers a thoughtful, personal reflection on why it is essential for the interfaith movement to stand up against anti-atheist rhetoric and action in the way that it does when particular religious communities come under fire. As an atheist, I couldn’t appreciate this post more. Many thanks to Josh for his important perspective, and for using his voice to advocate for people like me. Without further ado:

better togetherThe interfaith movement is beginning to rack up successes. While outbursts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (among other expressions of prejudice against religious communities) are nothing new, the growing and remarkably diverse chorus of voices trying to drown bigots out certainly is.

To take but one recent example, when the Park51 Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan was subjected to undue criticism this past summer, the groups that gathered behind closed doors to support its besmirched but beloved leaders included atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and more. It was heartening — as were the rallies led by Religious Freedom USA and New York Neighbors for American Values, which drew thousands to the streets to support the rights of all religious communities to assemble on private property. You could feel the interfaith movement surging forward on its remarkable course.

But I am uncertain, if not outright skeptical, that members of the interfaith movement would equally protect non-religious communities that come under similar scrutiny. To take a personal (and rather confessional) example, when a friend was excluded from an interfaith peace-building initiative because of being non-religious, people told him they were sorry. But nobody refused to continue participating in the group. It just didn’t seem like a reason to protest the decision or leave the group altogether.

I am among those guilty of not speaking up — cowed by diffusion of responsibility and the glow of opportunity that the group provided. I am certain, based on the numerous stories my humanist and atheist friends have told me, that this was not an isolated occurrence, nor an unusually cowardly reaction on my part. Yet it is something for which I am still performing teshuvah — answering as a Jew and human being for wrongdoing to my friend, in this case through wrongful inaction.

Why is it that when someone criticizes or excludes atheists, it feels like the interfaith movement forgets its identity, if only for a split second? Why is it that well-meaning interfaith leaders defy their identities and fail to speak out against those who threaten or undermine the status of the non-religious? Individually, we may comfort our friends, but by and large we are not sticking our necks out, writing op-eds, holding protests and publicly condemning those who single out the non-religious.

In part, I would suggest that members of the interfaith movement have not yet developed reflexes for protecting the non-religious. There is somewhat less of a history of hatred for atheists in the West (and even less education about the hatred that has been made manifest), so it does not always register in our minds when someone speaks ill of atheists in a way that it would if someone spoke similarly about people of a particular religious group.

But guilt for the repeated historical failure of Western countries to protect religious minorities is hardly an excuse for inaction in the present to protect the non-religious. It is time that we, most especially in the interfaith movement, recognize, denounce and speak out against anti-atheist bigotry.

Admittedly, many religious individuals feel intellectually and theologically challenged by atheists. But this challenge is one we must greet and learn from, rather than respond to with aggression, passive and active alike. If God is truly powerful, non-believers can hardly break our belief, much less the Divine we believe in. If God is loving, then why should we hate — or ignore hatred directed towards others? If God is a Creator, how can we allow others to speak ill of the atheists and non-believers God gave life to? Non-belief is a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the religious can hardly condemn atheists without running into contradictions rendered by their faith.

If religious affiliation is a protected category in our laws, our minds and our actions, so too must non-affiliation and atheism. The interfaith movement must lead the way, and so too must its believing members. They — we — cannot allow this double-standard to persist.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post Religion.

stantonJoshua Stanton serves as Program Director and Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA, which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ. He is also a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow and Weiner Education Fellow at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

god speaking

this wonderful image is from

Please check out my latest piece for the Huffington Post, currently featured at the top of their Religion section! Below is a selection; it can be read in full at the Huffington Post:

In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, musician Jack White (of the White Stripes and other bands) reflected on his “calling.”

“I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest,” said White. “Blues singers sort of have the same feelings as someone who’s called to be a priest might have.”

That he connected his sense of a calling to a career in ministry isn’t surprising. The word “calling,” or “vocation,” has explicitly religious roots; derived from the Latin vocare, or “to call,” the terms originated in the Catholic Church as a way of referring to the inclination for a religious life as a priest, monk, or nun. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther broadened the term beyond ministry to include work that serves others, but still couched it in a religious framework.

Today, “calling” has become common currency in the American parlance, its meaning expanded to refer to the realization of an individual’s passion or drive. Though the term has long had religious associations, it is used just as often to refer to secular work as it is religious.

Still, there’s something more to a calling — something almost otherworldly.

Continue reading at the Huffington Post.