The latest in our ongoing series of guest posts is adapted from a talk given by my friend James Croft at the Congress on the Future of Faith at Harvard (which I was lucky enough to see in person). There’s so much I could say about this, but I think it speaks for itself. A monumental piece that is both important and timely. Check it out:
I’m James, and I’m a choirboy. You can probably tell—something about my angelic features, and the slight haze of a halo above my head. And as a kid I loved singing in Sunday Service. I loved the sense of ritual, the quiet aura of the space, but most of all I loved the singing:
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!
I remember once going up to the altar to be blessed—something I didn’t usually do. I could see the Reverend moving down the line of children with their heads bowed, placing his hand upon their heads, the smell of incense in the air. And when he got to me, the Reverend pressed really hard, as if he was trying to squeeze God into me. And I wondered: perhaps he knows I don’t believe.
You see, I’m an Atheist. I grew up in a happy nonreligious family. My values come from the rational, pluralistic vision of Star Trek (in fact I’m convinced I’m named not after the King James Bible but after James T Kirk). I used to watch the stars with my grandfather, visit the planetarium with him, listen to Carl Sagan, and contemplate the wonder of the universe—no God included.
So it’s a little strange that I should be here, speaking with you today. I am a representative of the faithless at a gathering of the faithful. What am I doing here? This is a question that another of our attendees, Chris Stedman, an atheist and a leader in the Interfaith movement, regularly encounters.
I’m here because, in the UK, my atheism was never a problem. I debated spiritedly with people of all religious faiths, and found my position, generally, respected. I had a place at the table. Then, I came to the USA. And here, in my first few weeks at Harvard, I met a fellow graduate student in the canteen of my dorm.
“You don’t believe in God? Are you serious?” He laughed uproariously, flinging his hands into the air before slapping them down onto the table which sat between us, causing the glasses on our canteen trays to ring, our cutlery to jump. “So, what? You think that all this“—he gestured expansively, encompassing all of everything with his arms—”just sprang up out of nothing, with no reason behind it?” I wish now that I had given a more eloquent response than a surprised “Yes!”, my eyebrows raised in astonishment.
I remember my fellow Harvard graduate student prodding at my beliefs as if I was some strange, exotic curio, asking “If you don’t believe in God, where do your morals come from?”, and “Isn’t your life meaningless without an Ultimate Purpose” (the capitals were clearly indicated by the portentous way in which the words “ultimate” and “purpose” were intoned). If I were someone inclined to take offense, it strikes me that these could be seen as extremely offensive questions, implying as they do that the only route to a moral life is through religion, and that my nonreligious worldview must therefore be ethically deficient and devoid of meaning.
After four years living in the States, however, I am no longer surprised when I hear such sentiments expressed. Instead, horrifyingly, I am sometimes relieved if the worst someone has to say to me about my worldview is that it must lead to an amoral and meaningless existence. Why? Because, since then, I have come face to face with many more egregious and insidious examples of prejudice against Humanists, agnostics, and the nonreligious.
I have heard televangelists shriek that people who are not traditionally religious are responsible for social breakdown, crime, and natural disasters. I have heard news reporters casually describe nonreligious people as de-facto supporters of Stalinism and Nazism. I have noted how it seems impossible for a nonbeliever to be elected to high office in this country, and how public declarations of religious faith are required by those aiming highest.
The effect of all this hit me when I met Bill on a Secular Service trip to New Orleans. Bill attends Humanist meetings but refuses to pose for group photographs because he fears, should his atheism be revealed, that he would lose his job.
And seeing all this made me want to work harder for Humanism, brought me to Greg and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and called me to apply to become a Humanist Chaplain myself. And my relationship with the Humanist Chaplaincy has been profound: it was on the same service trip where I met Bill that I was able to resolve my struggles around my sexuality and come out as a gay man. So I have much to thank the Humanist community for, this group of atheists who helped me find myself.
Now, not all of us are atheists—in fact I imagine there are very few here! But all of us, even though we’re committed to different issues and different values, want our story to be heard. We don’t want to be dismissed. We don’t want anyone to tell us, just because of the values we espouse, or our faith. that we aren’t worth listening to.
That commitment—that everyone should be heard, and no one left out of the cultural discussion—is part of the founding principles of this country which, for now at least, we all call home. In America, we’re all part of a remarkable experiment—a country in which people can believe what they choose, can strive for their own version of the good, can pursue their idea of happiness, and will not be excluded because of their beliefs. That’s why the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and made the long, dangerous journey to these shores, landing not so far from where we stand today.
That’s why I found it so shocking when I heard Rick Warren had said, during the last presidential election, “I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says…I’m totally self-sufficient by myself. And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”
I want you to imagine that that Warren had been talking about your faith group. I could not vote for a Catholic. I could not vote for a Jew. I could not vote for a Muslim. A Hindu. A Sikh, a Buddhist or an Anglican. Can you imagine the uproar that such a statement would cause? I think that the principles which beckoned the pilgrims across the ocean, which enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to practice their faith, should protect atheists and Humanists, too.
I think that wherever we find our spiritual calling whether it’s the song of the muezzin or the lure of a star-dusted sky, we deserve to be heard. And that’s why interfaith discussion is important, and why it must include people like me.
And interfaith discussion particularly matters now, at this moment. Because, let’s face it, the dialogue around religion in this country is broken, and not just the dialogue between religious and nonreligious people.
Certainly, I think of the fact that there is, and only ever has been, one openly atheist member of Congress, and no openly atheist Senators. None.
But I also think of Pastor Terry Jones, who thought it would be a good idea to pile high copies of the Koran and set them alight, or protesters who rented decommissioned missiles and pointed them at a Muslim cultural center and mosque in New York City.
There are two potential responses to this. We could get angry, atheists tearing down religious political candidates, or Muslims burning copies of the bible, in an ever-escalating war of words and actions that brings us all down. We could all get our own missile.
Or we could get smart, and begin to engage with each other in a more respectful and productive way.
We are the perfect people to do this: in this room are the leaders of the future. Politicians, faith leaders, business leaders: people who will be in a position to influence discussions around faith in this country.
And now is the time to do this. Right here, right now, when we’re all gathered together in one room—a remarkable and rare opportunity to engage with each other, to come to know each other more deeply.
So I’m asking you to dig deep, for all our sakes. Share your story, honestly and openly, and listen to the stories of people who disagree with you, profoundly. And we will disagree—I, for my own part, am skeptical about the future for faith at Harvard. And, as a gay man, I know there are people in this room who hold beliefs I find profoundly difficult. But, instead of sitting at home and complaining, or speaking just to those who agree with me, I came here. Because I know how important it is to be involved in the discussion. So don’t hide your differences, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to give of yourself, and be brave enough to listen. If we can do this I see a future in which, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, Jains can all sit around a table, breaking bread together. No more piles of the Koran, waiting to be set alight. No more missiles pointed at mosques. And, perhaps, and atheist Senator or two.
James Croft is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he studies Human Development. He is a vice-chair of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, where he works closely with Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy, and is an editor of the Humanist Chaplaincy’s online magazine The New Humanism.
Today’s guest blog is an anonymous submission, and it wrestles with the ongoing issue of how America’s diverse Muslim community is perceived and how Atheists, Christians and others might better support it. This is a truly excellent and especially important piece and I hope that all of NonProphet Status’ readers will heed the below advice and encourage others to do the same. Without further ado:
An American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, necessary for the growing local population, that was temporarily blocked by the city council. The interviewer asks him whether Muslims should participate in U.S. politics.
He responds that when politics can reduce public harm, Muslims are obligated to participate. “Theoretically, it is very easy to say [avoid political involvement], but practically, we consider Islam as a dynamic faith… Because really, we are part of this society, we are citizens. What will harm them, will harm us, and sometimes what will harm them harms us first. So how can I isolate myself from the entire society?”
Political engagement is becoming more common in American Muslim communities today. David Schanzer, Charles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa sent their overworked graduate students around the U.S. to learn how typical Muslim communities prevent radicalization of troubled individuals. The most significant of their findings may incite the xenophobic among us, but will be no surprise to many people; increasing political mobilization among American Muslims is a positive change which should be encouraged.
Through Muslims’ political activity, “grievances are brought into the public sphere and clearly articulated so they do not fester and deepen,” and “disputes are resolved through debate, compromise, and routine political procedures.” Well, of course that sounds obvious to you. Keep in mind this report was written in part for politicians, who need to be constantly reminded why we employ them.
Regardless of the side benefits to wider society, citizens and guests should be able to feel welcome in the United States. Yet Muslims here are still experiencing a surge in hate crimes, which peaked in late 2001. Citing FBI hate crime statistics, the authors report “current levels remain about five times higher than prior to 9/11.” These are only the most threatening incidents in an ongoing pattern of collective punishment.
So, what can the rest of us do to ease hostilities against American Muslims?
We should widely publicize anti-Muslim activity. Many people habitually want to imagine that biases against minorities are always a thing of the past. The media’s current attention on anti-Muslim bias will fade soon, as all news cycles do. But the collective punishment will continue in relative silence. We can at least talk to our acquaintances about these issues, and bother our local news companies regularly.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has decent coverage of anti-Muslim activity. There is also Islamophobia Watch, which focuses more on the U.K. but includes some coverage of the U.S. We don’t need to agree with all the policies these organizations advocate; merely as news sources they are indispensable. I hope readers can suggest others in the comments.
We should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in public and in private, drawing on both religious and secular arguments. Much of this has gone unnoticed in the mainstream press, and many Americans wonder — erroneously — why Muslims have been silent on the subject.”
Reporters don’t like going to their jobs any more than the rest of us. If consumer pressure doesn’t tell them that when reporting on violence by Muslims, at minimum they must include Muslims condemning violence, they won’t bother. Bloggers and people active on social media can try to fill the gaps.
We should highlight the diversity of views within Muslim communities. Humans often assume that unfamiliar groups are monolithic, even while recognizing that more familiar groups are made up of individuals with their own personal views. A non-Muslim may read the Quran and think “now I know what Islam is all about.“ Though religion is not primarily about texts anyway, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who simply read the Bible and assumed they now understand Christianity would be overlooking thousands of common interpretations, and billions of individual Christian views.
If reading a text was sufficient to understand a religion, there would be no market for theology. The reason there are so many schools of Islamic theology, so many arguments about hadith, and thousands of scholars cited in arguments, is that Muslims do not agree on what Islam should mean to the individual in her or his time and place. The reality of Muslim diversity is far more complex than blanket terms of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi may suggest.
This kind of cognitive bias about unfamiliar groups was part of the reason many Americans once imagined that Catholic immigrants were a unified invading horde, not thinking for themselves but all taking orders from the Pope. This happened even though any careful observer could see multiple competing sects within the Catholic Church. Today’s fear of Muslims will one day be as embarrassing as yesterday’s anti-Catholic paranoia is now, but that day can’t come soon enough, and we should do whatever we can to speed the process along.
We should welcome American Muslim identity politics. There is a tendency among dominant groups to demand that others drop some aspect of their identity. We’ve heard this most often directed at African-Americans. But the demand comes without evidence of its practicality. Am I an atheist first, or an American first? Such questions suppose a consistency which no human actually practices. When I’m talking religion, I’m more obviously an atheist. Talking politics, I’m more obviously an American. People are not so distinct as labels may imply, and we are all capable of valuing many things at once.
This suggestion is likely to meet resistance, so I’ll quote the authors’ explanation: “Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding. A recent book offers an outspoken vision of this double identity:
‘This anthology is about women who don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim… We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz ‘amma (the final thirtieth [chapter] of the Qur’an) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur’anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we’ve pioneered.’”
We should learn to address the systemic problems that affect American Muslim communities. This can be difficult without listening; systemic problems involving housing, policing, education and employment may not be immediately obvious to those who aren’t experiencing them. Established communities of African-American Muslims face the same kinds of discrimination as other African-Americans do, and recent immigrant communities face challenges of their own.
We should support American Muslim community-building efforts. Involved communities, religious and secular, can provide bulwarks against crushing boredom and lonely isolation, reach out to troubled youths, direct financial and other assistance to those who are struggling in poverty, and generally make life more livable.
We’re not just talking about overtly religious efforts here. There are “charity events, dances, mixers, basketball tournaments, soccer leagues, lobbying, media-relations, voter-registration, electoral campaigns, fashion shows, religious festivals, ethnic festivals, national-heritage holidays such as Pakistan Independence Day and Iranian New Year.”
Some community-building can work to counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. These should be of special interest to government officials and politicians: “Many Muslim-American communities have the resources to build community institutions without assistance; others do not. We recommend that all levels of government make additional efforts to offer disadvantaged Muslim-American communities such community-building resources as funding for recreation centers, day care centers, public health clinics, and courses in English as a Second Language. There is a special need for these resources in isolated immigrant communities.”
That brings me to mosques. We should help build mosques, the most visible symbol of American Muslims’ presence. They generally provide both the benefits of community-building, and the serious religious training that can immunize troubled individuals against extremist propaganda on the internet.
Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities.
It’s not enough to be indifferent. It’s not enough just to speak up for First Amendment rights, though that bare minimum is important.
Government funding can’t be used, but non-Muslims should make public our efforts to support the construction and expansion of mosques, as an example of American values. Some Americans really need to be reminded right now what those values are.
By support, I mean financial or volunteering, whatever you can do. If there are any mosques planned or under construction in your area, it would help to call local politicians and tell them you support the Muslim community’s construction efforts and will only support politicians who uphold the First Amendment. Churches and atheist organizations should get in touch with local Muslim groups, and ask what they need. If our neighbors can see us taking an active role in these efforts, they may be reminded of their own better nature.