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.
Today’s guest post comes from Wendi Wheeler, a Creative Associate at Augsburg College, where I went for my undergraduate degree. Wendi and I met last winter when she contacted me to do a story on my work for the Augsburg Now magazine. We’ve since stayed in touch, and the other day she sent me this blog post, written for her personal blog. I’m flattered by her kind words, but the real reason I’m sharing this here (with her permission) is because I think she’s got some very valuable insights on living a meaningful life without religion, and what the transition from religious to nonreligious is like for some. I’m extremely grateful for her honesty, openness, and bravery to share this with the world.
Years ago I went out with a guy who identified as an atheist. He was a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, a Lutheran school for crying out loud, and he didn’t believe in God. I think he was a philosophy major. Go figure. When he told me he was an atheist, I expected him to also say he worshipped Satan and ate babies and stole communion wafers so that he could defile them.
I remember asking him how he knew the difference between right and wrong if he had no moral compass in the form of a God–and that God’s laws and teachings–to guide him. I remember him standing in front of the mirror, jumping up and down in order to get his tucked-into-khakis pink button down shirt to hang right, saying he used his own beliefs and ideas. I thought that was bullshit. How could that possibly work? If left to our own devices, I believed, we would all be horrible, nasty, sinful people.
We didn’t date very long. He was incredibly vain, and he would only let me have ONE Tic-Tac. Who gives a person only one Tic-Tac? The answer, I thought for a long time, is atheists. Atheists were mean in my book.
Then this winter I got connected to the work of Chris Stedman, a graduate of my school who studied religion as an undergrad, got his master’s degree in religion, and now is a big voice in the interfaith movement. Chris identifies as a secular humanist, and for the record, he doesn’t believe in God. What he does believe is that we, as people with common needs and desires and struggles and triumphs, need to work together to make our world a better place. I’m paraphrasing. You can read more about him on his website, or you can Google him. You’ll find lots of interesting stuff.
I met Chris and interviewed him for a story I wrote, and I’ve sort of fallen in love with him since then. Not in a weird “I want to date him” kind of way, but in an “I want to know more about this stuff” kind of way. I was so impressed by him and intrigued by what he writes and the people he knows and reads.
I think I am breaking up with God, and I feel like a pariah.
I am going to read Sarah Sentilles’ book, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, soon. My friend, who is studying to be a Lutheran pastor, is loaning it to me. Sentilles wrote that breaking up with God “…was like a divorce when all the friends you had as a couple are forced to choose sides and end up not choosing yours.”
Word, Sarah. I feel you.
This is what she wrote for the Huffington Post in June of this year:
“When you break up with someone, it doesn’t mean that person ceases to exist. You bump into each other around town. You see your love with other people, and it makes you jealous, makes you consider getting back together, makes you wonder if you made a mistake when you called it quits. That’s what makes breaking up so hard. The version of God I used to love is still out there in the world, hanging around in churches, showing up in people’s prayers and hearts and imaginations, playing important roles in the stories we like to tell, saving some and condemning others. But I know he’s not the right God for me. I try to remember that.”
So I am breaking up with God. Here’s the deal: I am not going to worship Satan or sacrifice babies. I am not going to start punching random people in the face or smashing my car into theirs even if they are ridiculously stupid drivers who don’t pay attention and put other people in danger. I am not going to use more swear words than I already do. I am not going to steal your lunch out of the refrigerator, and I’m not going to tell you or your impressionable children that God doesn’t exist.
I will still be compassionate toward others and help those in need and listen when someone needs to talk and give money to beggars on the street and volunteer with local organizations and bring homemade cake to work. I am pretty sure I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do still believe in good.
Wendi Wheeler is a writer, a runner, and a creator of pretty dresses for girls of all ages. She is the “Creative Associate – Editorial” (a 12-syllable way to say “I write”) in the marketing department of a Minneapolis college. She also keeps a blog, Living in Love, which started out as a way to share her ridiculous dating escapades and morphed into stories about being in love with herself, with others, and with the world. She completed her first marathon a week before she turned 40 and currently is training for her second while also coaching runners. And when she is not writing or running, she spends time in her studio crafting beautiful clothes and chasing her cat, Melvin, off the sewing table.
Today’s guest blog keeps it once again all in the family. After my first cousin once removed Bruce Johansen’s guest post, as well as one by my mom, I am excited to present one by my big sister Casi Stedman Nelson. A year — no, a year and seven months, as she loves to point out — older than me, Casi was one of my best friends in childhood. I looked up to her in many ways (so much so that I let her cut my hair with a toenail clipper when we were very young), and it’s a thrill to feature a post by her on NonProphet Status. Below, Casi reflects on the birth of her son — my first nephew! — last year, and what it will mean to raise a child in a religiously diverse world.
After ten challenging months trying to work long hours as an executive while pregnant, it was finally over. My first baby was here in my arms.
He was beautiful. That being said, after many hours of labor, I was completely exhausted. I quickly turned to my mom and said: “He and I don’t have a very good relationship right now. We are going to work on it later.” And so it began: our journey as mother and son.
It is amazing how becoming a parent changes your entire perspective on the world around you. I am responsible for this new little life and that is a daunting task in today’s world.
This is especially true when it comes to addressing the “big questions.”
Some might think it would be simple: his father and I are both Scandinavian Lutherans, so of course we should raise him that way, right?
However, I want to raise my son to be able to take in all of the information available to him and make a choice based on what he believes and what he wants to do.
The world he will be growing up in is very different from the one in which I grew up. This one is faster, more complicated. I was privileged to have a mother that encouraged me to form my own opinions (and they were usually strong ones that were contrary to hers) and not accept things at face value. Because of this I am open minded and always willing to learn. I hope for the same for my son.
He will be a part of a world in which some tie certain religions to terrorism, others are persecuted for their beliefs, and many are not well understood. A world where a great majority slips into whatever religion makes them feel comfortable; where many practice a religion without taking the time or having the opportunity to journey and explore their beliefs, or lack thereof, for themselves.
As a result of a good deal of soul-searching, I have aligned myself with the Lutheran faith. However, this does not mean I commit myself to one ridged set of beliefs. I have my own individual set of beliefs that work for me and they are ever-evolving.
As for my son: I feel that I can only do the best I can with what I have. I can raise him to think for himself, give him choices and give him tools to learn and decide what he wants. And I believe one of them most essential tools will be the ability to work with others.
I don’t like to use the word tolerance because I think we can give people more than that. We don’t always need to accept everything about everyone, as that would be impossible, but we should maintain a basic respect for others and always make an effort to understand them. I hope to teach my son to listen — and, more importantly, to listen with empathy, something I am not always good at.
Above all, I just want him to be happy. I hope in my lifetime to see a world that is not so divided, but in the meantime I will be doing my part to raise a free-thinking, empathetic young person that views the world as being more similar than different — a world full of people, not the stereotypes we so often see them as.
Casi Nelson received her B.A. in Communications and Spanish from Concordia College. She is a newlywed and first time mother. She recently resigned from her position as a Target Executive to be a full time mother and pursue other interests including, but not limited to, reading her brother’s fabulous blog. In her “free” time, Casi likes to get together with friends and family or curl up with a good book. She is looking forward to the day when her son is old enough to spend a couple nights at Grandma’s, so that she and her husband can take a trip to Mexico.
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)
- 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:
The 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.
Joshua 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.