Last night ABC Nightline finally aired its story on the American Atheist Convention. Many in the Atheist community are very unhappy with the segment and how it portrays Atheists. Here is the video.

I actually think the segment is entirely fair. If we don’t want to be portrayed this way, perhaps we shouldn’t behave this way. You see, I was actually there. Back in April, I attended the American Atheist Convention in Newark, New Jersey. After it was over I published a series of reflections on the experience (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly).

Reflecting back on that experience now, I am so glad I was present. Even though (or perhaps precisely because) Edwin conventionKagin’s blasphemy session was among the most offensive things I’ve ever seen in person (see: The Ugly), it was a great learning moment for me. I almost didn’t go because, though I don’t believe in God, I intentionally do not identify as an Atheist because I believe it is inherently problematic. It is, to me, an oppositional identity marker. For the same reason I do not identify as “not female” or “not heterosexual,” I don’t call myself an Atheist (not a perfect parallel, but I think it works). But I decided to attend the convention because, as a Secular Humanist doing interfaith work, I wanted to see how the Atheist community was talking about religion. But even with my trepidation, I never expected it would be as bad as it was.

Nightline spent most of its segment focusing on Kagin’s blasphemy session, a moment that to me firmly underscores the oppositional nature of organized Atheism, and I understand why: I too dedicated my most impassioned writing to it. I ended my reaction as follows:

I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.

You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.

After my write-up, NonProphet Status exploded. I was totally unprepared. Suddenly a sizable portion of the Atheist community knew who I — a relatively new blogger with little understanding of how social media works — was. My friends started referring to the strong reaction my piece elicited from the Atheist community as “Burkagate” after I jokingly coined the term. I started getting emails from angry detractors and the comments section of my blog became host to a heated debate between folks of diverging opinions. Then on April 9, the day of my twenty-third birthday, a YouTube video was left in the comment section by one Cambridge Broxterman — the very same woman now featured in the above Nightline segment. Here’s the video she recorded about my reaction to the blasphemy session:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2Qm-4AVF7A]

To be embarrassingly honest, her video actually wounded me (I know I shouldn’t let such things get to me, but in this instance I did). I suspect that was her goal so, you know, mission accomplished. In spite of this, I reached out to her. I really didn’t want to but decided it was important. Here is an opportunity for dialogue and to learn from one another, I thought. Reaching out across lines of radical difference isn’t easy but, as I’ve learned in my work, it is often rewarding. The more I mature the more often I do it; with age and experience I am less afraid of confrontation, less afraid of being wrong, less afraid of dialogue with difference.

Cambridge and I decided to enter into an email exchange with the idea that it would be published here on my blog at a later date. The exchange died off and I sort of forgot about it, but after seeing Nightline‘s story and how it featured Cambridge I was reminded of it. Below the jump, the back-and-forth and some concluding reflections: Read the rest of this entry »

Pray For Me?

July 15th, 2010 | Posted by:

prayerLast October I was struggling to get over a particularly stubborn cold; week after week, I’d show up for my Spiritual Direction course at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies and try for three hours to refrain from interrupting a lecture on psychology and teleology by hacking up a lung. Inevitably a sneeze would escape and I’d be immediately greeted by a chorus of “God bless you!”s.

It didn’t bother me (and not just because I once heard an unsubstantiated claim that the origins of the expression are Norwegian) because I understand that the impetus for their achoo-ed call and response was good-natured concern. Everyone in that room knew that I didn’t believe in God, yet still told me week after week that they were praying for my health. To which I would respond with a smile: “thank you!”

Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance just posted a blog over at the Friendly Atheist after seeing a tweet I published last night in which I commented that I don’t mind when religious people say a prayer for me — after all, what’s the harm? I appreciate the good intentions and kind thoughts. My tweet was a response to an article on CNN reporting on Christians who are praying for notorious Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.

It seems Jesse and I are more or less on the same page when it comes to how we internally react to prayer — he too appreciates the good intentions of those who pray — but we differ in that he also thinks it is important in such moments to assert to the individual offering prayer that it won’t work.

My first thought as a perpetual Agnostic is that we cannot say definitively that prayer never works; and there is some legitimate merit to the idea that positive thought makes a real impact (just one example, a piece from the New York Times), so until there is sufficient evidence that prayer doesn’t work 100% of the time, I don’t even want to try to make that argument.

But more importantly: why does it matter? So my classmates at Loyola think that prayer works and I remain unconvinced. Why should I try to dissuade them from that belief? Seems self-important and unnecessary to me. And, more importantly, their kind intention actually means a lot to me. We have a relationship of mutual concern and care — why would I want to go and ruin that by trying to assert my so-called “intellectual authority”? I’m a lot more interested in the fact that they care enough about me and my well-being to take a moment of their day to wish me well.

What do you folks think? Leave a comment — even if it’s just to let me know that you’re praying for me.

heartsYesterday The Friendly Atheist reported that a student group, the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is engaging in a “Draw Muhammad” project today. They are not the first; other campus groups have done the same. But this group did something a little different — they reached out to the Muslim Student Association on their campus one day in advance with this letter warning that they would be drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad in chalk on their campus in response to the protests of extremist Muslims over a recent South Park episode.

The MSA responded, saying that they were, in fact, offended. The MSA’s response was thoughtful and patient, pointing out that sending a warning does not absolve one of being disrespectful: “To slap someone in the face, despite warning the person in advance and assuring them of you good intentions, does not make slapping someone in the face ok.” Their letter did nothing more than point out that the AHA’s planned activity was misguided — “Why do you not direct your protest to the groups in question instead of engaging in acts that you yourself acknowledge will offend the vast majority of Muslims, on this campus and off” – and suggest that it was in violation of the campus’ discrimination policies. How did the AHA respond? By saying that the MSA was “using fear and intimidation to suppress criticism of their religion.” Did I miss the fear and intimidation buried in there somewhere?

The idea behind the campaign is to advocate for free speech. It seems to me, however, that the campaign is masking an attack on religious identity with a martyrical “free speech” claim. There are other ways to go about this that don’t knowingly target a specific belief of a particular identity. The Friendly Atheist blog wrote, “It’s a stick figure drawing. Chill. Out.” Instead of recognizing the ramifications of offensive images — let’s say they were chalking swastikas or, more specific to this issue, something anti-Atheist — we secularists seem far too keen to tell people to “just get over it.” Because that’s an effective approach, right?

chalkThe AHA at UW Madison has made an enemy where they could have had an ally. And over what? “Principle”? It seems like a way to stir up negative feelings, an immature approach to a complex situation. Why not instead reach out to the MSA and plan an activity that condemns the extremists who threatened the creators of South Park while still acknowledging that it is a complex issue? Oh, right — because then you couldn’t draw pictures of Muhammad in chalk and create controversy on your campus.

The American Atheists wrote on their “No God” blog on April 29th that “Muslims have been in the news lately with their ridiculous behavior… One thing we need to keep in mind is that Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive.” This isn’t just bad and oversimplified writing; it is lazy, dangerous, and divisive. Two entries before they too promoted “Everybody Draw Mohamed [sic] Day.” It seems so basic to ask: is this really the best use of our time and resources?

People who engage in such activities are drawing a line (or as Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel might say, a “faith divide“) between themselves and others, and it is not something as impermanent as one made in sand or etched with chalk. It cannot be so easily erased.

We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.

Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

rainbow unicorn

This image barely lost out in the vote on IFYC's logo, obviously.

I have a good number of posts in queue for NonProphet Status — reports on MythBusters on Humanism, the Secular Student Alliance New England Leadership Summit, the 2010 National CIRCLE Conference, and the Fish Out of Water DVD Release Party among them. However, a blog went up today on Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist that I feel deserves a prompt response.

Last week, Mehta and I were both mentioned in The Washington Post’s Faith Divide, a blog managed by Eboo Patel, Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization I work with as a former intern and current adjunct trainer / speaker. I was flattered to be mentioned, both by the organization I so greatly admire and enjoy collaborating with and to be mentioned in the same sentence as the prolific Mehta. But per a post that went up on his blog today, it seems Mehta, who spoke at IFYC’s 2007 conference, has mixed feelings about being cited as an example of a secular person who is working for greater collaboration across lines of difference:

I don’t want to just “let our differences slide” or “agree to disagree.”

want to persuade religious people that they are mistaken when it comes to their mythology. Not through proselytization or trickery, but through rational, reasoned discussion.

We can work together and we can do wonderful things to help our communities and we ought to do that. But not in lieu of reasoned debate and a desire to point out the problems with the other person’s beliefs.

In this post, Mehta writes that “religion is not always a force for good,” going as far in his claim that IFYC wants to pretend it is as to call the interfaith movement “happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns/all-inclusive.”  It seems a funny point to raise since that is not even close to the idea that IFYC posits — in fact, the interfaith cooperation movement was born out of a recognition that religion is the source of many problems in our world. But I work with IFYC and the larger interfaith movement because I am not compelled to be complacent about that problem and see in interfaith cooperation a real, achievable solution.

This desire to address problems related to religion is something Mehta and I have in common, but our approaches are fundamentally different. As far as I can tell, Mehta believes that the best way to bring about the conclusion of conflicts rooted in religious identity is to completely deconstruct religious identities. On the other hand, I see this approach as a literal impossibility — per the majority of recent cultural studies, religion is not going away any time soon, and is in fact becoming an increasingly relevant force in the world marketplace. If this is true — and, well, it is — then we need a find a way to work toward bringing about the end of religious-based conflict.

I believe this is accomplished through the identification of shared values across lines of difference and the pursuit of common action that grows out of these values. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes time and time again. People in the “New Atheist” camp identify blasphemy and the deconstruction of religious paradigms as the best way to achieve this. Ironically, I believe their approach has the opposite effect, creating only more conflict and pushing fundamentalists to entrench themselves even further into their religious totalitarianism. It’s also a poor way to build community; as I’ve written on this blog before, the majority of what I hear from secular friends is that they’ve had no interest in joining an Atheist group because the negativity they observed from these groups’ attempts to deconstruct religious ideas turned them off. They think it is alienating and innately limited, and I agree.

Mehta asks, “Is there room [in the interfaith movement] for people like me who think Islam, Mormonism, and Christianity are false? And who try to tackle sacred cows like reincarnation, Heaven, and karma?” My involvement in the organization serves a resounding “yes.” I think that religious ideas are false, and have deconstructed them in my own life. I enjoy discussing this with others and promoting the idea that we can be good without God. But when Mehta goes on to write that he “want[s] people to lose their faith just as much as the New Atheists do,” our beliefs diverge.

I am not persuaded by the popular Atheist mantra that we should serve as “de-conversion” missionaries and aim to bring about the end to “religious myths.” I don’t have a strong desire to see my religious peers abandon their faiths. Why should it bother me that my neighbor believes in God, as long as that belief isn’t infringing on my freedoms? And when it does, is the best approach to try to convince them to rid themselves of the belief altogether (an often impossible task), or is it more productive to allow them to get to know me and, through our relationship, cultivate in them a desire to not only allow for my differing belief but perhaps even celebrate it? This approach strikes me as the more rational and pragmatic, and also the more empathic. You need to establish a relationship before you can move into those more difficult conversations, or else most of the people you’re talking to won’t even bother to listen and you’ll be left monologuing. And monologuers have a difficult time building the bridges required to make the world we live in a better place for all of us.

Ultimately, my pragmatism demands that I prioritize. I enjoy critiquing religious ideas, and often do, but I also know that our religious differences are much less significant than the immediate problems facing our world. My friends and I are establishing a group called Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC), and at our last meeting we all agreed that we had no interest in hosting debates with religious people, as many secular groups often do, concluding that such things often just create more division. Instead, we want to have a community of Secular Humanists who get out into the world and engage in service. We’re hoping our first project will be a collaboration with a community garden and (GASP!) an after-school program at a church and that it will lead to a greater understanding of our beliefs in that community.

Mehta and I have a professional relationship, have collaborated before, and I respect him and the work he has done to help provide a voice for Atheists and other secular folks in our society. However, as much as I admire his advocacy for the wider societal acceptance of the non-religious, I think his desire to see religious people abandon their faith does us more harm than good. In my interfaith work I have become a stronger Secular Humanist, just as I’ve watched my peers grow in their faiths. I celebrate their evolution as they do mine because we are invested in one another, working together in a way that does not “let our differences slide,” as Mehta has suggested, but recognizes that the reality of said differences is superseded by the necessity to come together in respect, mutual admiration and common action.

Oh, and happy/smiling/rainbows-and-unicorns.

Beyond Aggressive Atheism

April 14th, 2010 | Posted by:

Check out this great post by my friends at the Interfaith Youth Core Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby that went up today in the Washinton Post’s Faith Divide. They talk about aggressive Atheism, which has been covered on this blog a lot recently, and link to NonProphet Status. Full post below:

Beyond aggressive atheism

By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby

Five years ago, atheism was all aggression. From Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins, the best selling atheists advanced a particular discourse – one that was both antagonistic and destructive. The question they always answered was, “How many ways can I find to offend religious people?” But the question we always wanted to ask them was different: “How do you bring together people from all backgrounds around equal dignity and mutual loyalty?”

And over the last five years, whenever Eboo gave speeches at interfaith conferences about the Interfaith Youth Core, atheists, secularists and agnostics kept showing up. They would ask how they could be involved – what were they supposed to do in this movement?

We understood the confusion around their role. If all you did was look at the old best-seller list on atheism, you would think that all atheists were anti-religious. But times are changing – all it takes is a glimpse at the newest hit book on atheism, Good without God by Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Epstein’s book is a turning point for atheist discourse, diving into “what a billion non-religious people do believe”, not just what they are against.

From our experience at IFYC – not only do we work with young atheists but a quarter of our own staff are secular humanist – this generation of non-religious young people are paving a new way forward. Last weekend, Nara Schoenberg affirmed this in a Chicago Tribune piece on campus atheists. She writes about what it means to be secular on college campuses – how students are organizing through Secular Student Alliances, and what they are talking about when they meet.

Hemant Mehta, chair of the Secular Student Alliance’s board of directors, reveals to her: “And, personally, if my neighbor’s religious, I don’t really care. I’m less interested in the controversy, and I’m more interested in, what can we do with the beliefs that we do share?” Indeed, a recent Pew study found that 20% of young Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or have “no religion.” As Mehta and others point out, this doesn’t mean they lack values in common with their religious peers.

Atheists today are partnering with religious groups to do service projects; dialoguing and engaging with other religious groups and organizations on campus; and changing the public discourse through blogs, like Mehta’s Friendly Atheist and Chris Stedman’s Non-Prophet Status.

Sounds a heck of a lot like interfaith leadership to me.

So these days when non-religious folks come up after a speech and ask how they can be involved we point them to one place – their peers, who are pioneering interfaith leadership as atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.