The debate over Humanist chaplains in the military continues this week with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins offering several of the most common sentiments held by those who oppose the effort to create this resource for nonreligious members of the military.
Perkins suggests that nonreligious chaplains are a “bizarre” idea, adding that “by definition, a chaplain’s duties are to offer prayer, spiritual counseling, and religious instruction.” The confusion surrounding chaplains for the nonreligious isn’t new—or especially surprising. The popular connotations of the word chaplain are clearly religious; more often than not, they are explicitly Christian.
But if you look, for example, at Harvard University—where I work as one of two Humanist chaplains alongside Greg Epstein—you will find nearly 40 chaplains representing a plethora of religious and philosophical communities, from atheism/Humanism to Zoroastrianism. For many of the traditions represented in this diverse group, the title of chaplain has little to no historical precedent, but as a group we collaboratively work to expand the definition of the word to meet the needs of Harvard’s religiously diverse community.
There was a time when only Christians were permitted to be military chaplains:
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jews could not serve as chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. When the war commenced in 1861, Jews enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. The Northern Congress adopted a bill in July of 1861 that permitted each regiment's commander, on a vote of his field officers, to appoint a regimental chaplain so long as he was "a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination."
Although Jews were permitted just a year later, it would be another 132 years before the U.S. armed forces saw its first Muslim chaplain. Definitions change, in other words.
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman, has defended the military’s lack of nonreligious chaplains by saying: “The department does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.” The implication is that explicitly nonreligious servicemen and servicewomen are free to consult with a religious chaplain. But for the same reason that a Christian may prefer a Christian chaplain over a Muslim or Jewish chaplain, nonreligious people should be free to seek out assistance from a member of their own community.
As a Humanist chaplain, I frequently hear a version of Perkins' argument (For more on what exactly I do as a chaplain, check out a short piece I wrote last year): “[Advocates] argue that nonbelievers suffer the same fear and pain that affects every service member. But isn’t that why the military has psychologists?” (A serious question: does he mean to imply that religious people don’t visit both chaplains and psychologists?)
Some students and members of our local community visit psychologists, but they come to me and my colleague Greg for different reasons. Psychologists are medical professionals who diagnose and treat behavior and mental processes; chaplains are not. Psychologists provide an important but altogether different set of services than we do. We are available to talk with members of our community about how their nonreligious values inform their actions, and how their worldview helps them respond to and process tragedy. We are there to listen, but we can also share some of our thoughts and share from our experiences—something that most psychologists do not do. We can also go to members of our community, rather than wait for them to come to us, to connect them to a community of their peers—another role a psychologist alone can’t play. Finally, and significantly: going to a psychologist is non-confidential in the military, so chaplains play an important role in that context.
So what about the debate surrounding the use of the word chaplain? Personally, I don’t feel particularly attached to it. But when it is the standard used for other community care practitioners, as it is at Harvard and in the military, then it should be applied across the board. I feel similarly about the debate over whether to call legally-recognized same-sex partnerships “marriages” or “civil unions;” when one term is normative and certain groups of people—minority groups that have historically been marginalized—are excluded from using it, then the distinction is problematic.
“Atheist chaplains are like vegetarian carnivores. They don’t exist!” Perkins writes. He’s likely just trying to be clever, but allow me to clarify: we do in fact exist, Tony, and we’re here if you’d like to talk. Hopefully that will soon be the case for members of the military, too.
For more information on Humanist chaplains in the military, click here.
Last weekend a group of around 400 Mormons marched in the Utah Pride Parade. Calling themselves “Mormons Building Bridges,” they were met with enthusiastic applause. Carrying signs with messages like “Love 1 Another” and “LDS heart LGBT,” they were there to show their support for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community and celebrate recent advancements in issues relating to LGBTQ people and Mormons, such as Bishops no longer excommunicating members who come out and the Boy Scouts of America voting to allow openly gay scouts to participate. (LGBTQ adults and atheists still cannot do so openly.)
As I read about Utah Pride in preparation for my remarks this upcoming weekend as the 2013 Boston Pride interfaith speaker, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I learned during a recent visit to Utah.
It was late in the evening when I arrived, and I knew I would be there for only 24 hours. I was met by Alasdair Ekpenyong, a college sophomore who stands at the crossroads of intersecting identities and convictions: black, LGBTQ-affirming, feminist, progressive, a lover of bowties—and deeply Mormon.
Two weeks later, he would speak calmly and decisively at an anti-discrimination rally. But in the car that evening he spoke quickly and excitedly, stumbling over his words a bit but still impressively knowledge and articulate, referencing countless texts and ideas I’d never even heard of. I asked if we could stop to pick up some food and, with french fries in our laps, he gave me a quick tour of Salt Lake City, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of the area and the people who call it home.
Alasdair, a student at Brigham Young University (a private university owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originally established in 1875), was the student organizer of “Intersecting Convictions,” the interfaith conference for which I had come to speak. The conference was held in early March at Utah Valley University, a publicly funded university in Orem, Utah, about one hour south of Salt Lake City. Audience participants and sponsors from both BYU and UVU helped bring the event into being.
During our conversation in the car en route to Orem, I confessed to Alasdair that I wasn’t sure how the event would go.
The student body at BYU is 98.5% Mormon, and UVU is 86% Mormon—the highest single-religion percentage at any public university campus in the United States of America. Atheists are already in the minority in most parts of the country, constituting a small fraction of the religiously unaffiliated in the U.S., but it seemed I was to be an especially odd one out at this event. Or, as my mother once said with a laugh when I was off to speak in Mobile, Al.: “It’s kind of hip to be a gay atheist [in Cambridge, Massachussetts]. Not so much most everywhere else.”
I was scheduled to speak in an extended dialogue with the evangelical Christian presenter—as an atheist who is also a former evangelical Christian. Additionally, I was to engage other panelists and audience members, most of whom would be religious. As a queer person and atheist, what could I—and what should I—say to people who are members of communities that, both historically and contemporarily, have played a sizable role in not only demonizing atheists and supporting anti-gay ideas, but actively working to prevent LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) equality and civil rights?
Alasdair responded by reminding me that this event was not intended to be a collection of like-minded, progressive people. He told me that he personally holds a liberal mindset alongside an abiding respect for traditional institutions, and that it was important to him to bring an ideologically diverse crowd of liberal and conservative people together for this event.
“I like what Eboo Patel has said about making sure that interfaith work includes conservative subcultures, too, and does not merely become a festival of shared liberalism,” he told me.
And sure enough, as it turned out, we had a lot of different perspectives in the room—and a lot to say to one another. I was there as a liberal queer atheist, but I was just one of four keynote speakers, the others representing Jewish, Mormon, and evangelical Christian perspectives. We offered individual remarks and engaged in an honest public dialogue with one another. Questions of difference loomed that day, and much of the discussion centered around the idea that not only do we have, surprisingly, a lot in common—an important point worth remembering and repeating in a culture that frequently lifts up conflict while ignoring harmony—but that we also carry profoundly important and seemingly irreconcilable differences.
In that sense, the conference left me (and I suspect many others) with as many questions as answers. But these questions are vital—and the idea that we can consider them together, without sacrificing our relationships or the civility that undergirds them, is radical. I certainly don’t believe that the idea of “celebrating different beliefs” should be extended to beliefs that are used to marginalize others—but that tension should be explored, not suppressed for the sake of “getting along.” And calm, compassionate interfaith dialogue can create space to unpack them constructively in a way that shouting matches ultimately cannot.
These differences, of course, exist not only between communities but also within them. The conference served as a reminder that no community is a monolith, and that those of us who wish to see a pluralistic society will need to work with people in many different communities in order to see it realized. There are certainly Mormon people and institutions that have worked against LGBTQ equality, and many continue to. But as was evident at this year’s Utah Pride, there is also a fast-growing number of Mormons who are working for change. They may be less visible—after all our society, and the media in particular, privilege polarizing perspectives—but these Mormons are there, doing difficult but important work.
Among them is Joanna Brooks, who served as the Mormon panelist at the conference. She has been an advocate for LGBTQ equality and acceptance among Mormons and more broadly (in fact, she was featured earlier this year in The Advocate’s list of “10 Pro-LGBTQ Religious Women You Should Know”), and I am glad for her work. We may not agree on certain issues, including whether or not there is a God, but she has my support. Her activism, her ideas, and her voice reach Mormons that I, as a queer atheist, might not be able to. She speaks to Mormon identity, culture, tradition, and values in ways that I do not understand, and she is a powerful force for change in a community that she is invested in. Her work is just one reason why I am not willing to write off Mormons, or any other group of people, just because some vocal members of their community paint an exclusionary picture of what it means to be a member—and why I despair when members of my own communities dismiss them as possible allies.
And in the case of people who aren’t yet LGTBQ and interfaith allies like Brooks, I cannot help but hope that the act of encounter with someone who is unfamiliar will bring new ways of thinking to light. After all, support for marriage equality more than doubles among people who know a gay person. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 14% of Americans who went from opposing to supporting gay marriage in the last decade, 37% (the largest category) did so because of “friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.” The second largest category, at 25%, said they learned more and became more aware. Only two percent said that they changed their minds because they came to believe that gay people are “born that way.” Visibility and education matter, but positive relationships across lines of difference seem to matter even more.
Whether we are in agreement or not, conversation is greatly needed. The kind of tribalism that causes people to be suspicious of those they think are not like them will be overcome through relationship-building, not through shouting matches on cable news or in online comment threads. Today I strive to build a relationship whenever I can—even with people who think that who I am is innately wrong—because if I refuse to engage, how can I hope for change?
I’m glad I had the opportunity to not only interact with nontraditional Mormons, but also with more conservative individuals and with traditional institutions like the Orem Utah LDS Institute of Religion—to not only build relationships with people and organizations that may not interact with LGBTQ individuals and atheists all that often, but to do so in a way that put my queer and atheist identities at the forefront of our encounters.
My queer identity is one of the reasons I’m passionate about religious pluralism, and advancing it through interfaith dialogue. A pluralistic society embraces all of its members. As a queer person, I reject heteronormativity. As an atheist, I reject theonormativity. But the eradication of heterosexuality or the eradication of religion are not my goals. Instead, I am concerned about privilege, and about fear of the other. Interfaith work can challenge both; it humanizes difference, allowing people to see that there are many ways of being and believing, and recognize that a just society makes space for all people.
I understand that some of this sounds a bit simple and idealistic—I know that appeals for pluralism and tolerance occasionally sound like the musings of a disconnected optimist. I don’t pretend that this work isn’t difficult, or that it will always work. But isn’t it worth trying?
There is a part of me that strongly resists sitting down with members of a community that has actively worked against my freedom. But whenever I can summon the patience to do so, I am glad that I did. This conference wasn’t the first time I have found myself in such a position; I have also spoken at several evangelical Christian colleges that require students to sign agreements that prohibit “homosexual activity” and disbelief in God. These are instituions that would likely expel me were I a student. Agreeing to visit these campuses isn’t easy, but they are communities that perhaps need open conversations about faith and diversity more than many others. Though getting there requires me to deal with my own discomfort, I have never regretted accepting an opportunity to enter into dialogue with members of communities that are discerning how to grapple with internal diversity and with how to engage the world beyond their community. Participating in these discussions may require some compromises on my part—having to part with my desire to say every single thing I might want to, or having to look people in the eye who would vote against my freedom—but it is worth it when I see the conversations that unfold, and realize that I have a chance to build a relationship with someone that could prove to be transformative.
Every day I try to challenge myself to think harder, to listen to others more deeply, to be more loving and patient. Needless to say, I frequently fail. But as an atheist, I don’t think any non-human force is going to intervene and solve our problems for us. Thus, it is up to us to make our world better. As much as I can, I want to leave a space at my table for just about anyone; to see every person as someone who is worth trying to understand, and to try to help others understand me—even when that feels impossible.
But sitting at my table means being willing to share. Some will take more than others, but there must be some give on all sides. In that respect, I am grateful for how much I was given by the people I met and learned from at the conference in Utah, and excited about the possibility for a more constructive and compassionate dialogue between people of all faiths and the nonreligious about how to build a world in which all people, including LGBTQ people, are respected and have equal rights. Though the road to a truly pluralistic society will be long, I learned in Utah that you can in fact build some significant bridges—even when you have less than 24 hours to do so—and I am glad to see that there are more and more Mormons building bridges at Utah Pride and elsewhere.
As I prepared to leave Utah, less than 24 hours after arriving, Alasdair gave me a hug and said: “I hope you’ll come back soon!”
Without hesitation and with the utmost sincerity, I agreed.
In honor of Mother's Day and moms everywhere, where sharing a few of our favorite Mom moments in Beacon books. Today's passages illustrate two beautiful gifts the authors received from their moms: for Kevin Jennings, a love of books; for Chris Stedman, a sense of gratitude. Please feel free to share your own mom memories in the comments!
My childhood was marked by simplicity and hard work and love—which is to say that it was actually quite carefree. My mother did a good job of instilling in us a deep sense of gratitude for the things we had; I didn’t really notice that we had less than other people until I was older and began to look for differences everywhere. It never seemed odd to me that we wore hand-me-down and home-spun clothing, or that we used homemade remedies like covering our hair with mayonnaise and saran wrap when we got lice from someone at school. When we were young children my mom made sure my siblings and I were well cared for—it was only later in life that I started telling myself that my story was that of “the poor kid.” The life she provided was rich, filled with complex colors of every hue, with trips to the beach in the early hours of the day before the parks became overcrowded with people desperate to escape the summer swelter, with arts and crafts and makeshift blanket forts.
Her inventiveness masked the meagerness we lived with; I never even realized until later in life that during my youngest years she had only owned two pairs of jeans and a few sweatshirts. She had an unparalleled aptitude for spinning straw into gold—our Christmases were full of hand-crafted and recycled gifts, and for birthdays she would set up elaborate party games, hanging pretzels from the ceiling with ribbon, hand-painting a bunny for cotton ball pin-the-tail-on-the-rabbit, and writing up thought-provoking trivia. My earliest years were characterized by imaginative games my siblings and I invented such as “Mean Diseased Cat,” where we manned our alert stations in anticipation of the return of a particularly feral cat that once meandered down our street; by the birthday cakes my mom painstakingly prepared; by the hand-crafted skip-its, teeter-totters, and pajamas that were our most prized possessions; by sitting down together as a family for dinner every single night, even if it was just bottom-shelf macaroni and cheese or saltine crackers topped with melted Kraft Singles, which we ate near the end of particularly tight months. I didn’t realize that you could buy Play-Doh at the store until I was nearly in middle school; we always made ours from scratch. I think we enjoyed it more that way, having concocted it ourselves before using it to build new things. We were deeply invested in everything we did, because most things were an act of creation and an act of love.
Above all, she taught me to love books and reading. Mom was a voracious reader, a trait she passed down to me. The highlight of our week would be our Saturday trips to the downtown public library in Winston-Salem—the “big one” and just about the only site that would get Mom regularly to venture out of the safety of Lewisville into “the city.” It was always just me and her, as the only thing that bored Paul more than Civil War battlefields was a library. I loved the downtown library. It was beyond a church—it was a cathedral, filled with holy objects, books, so many that I despaired that I would ever be able to read them all. The librarians were friendly and thought it was great, not weird, that I liked to read so much. I would check out as many books as I could carry, usually a stack so large I couldn’t see over them, and would devour them all during the course of the week, returning the next Saturday, eager for more. Library trips were the best. They even beat new trailer shopping.
At first I would go to the children’s section and Mom to the adult section. By fourth grade or so, I had read all the books that interested me in the children’s section and decided that the rest were too childish for this budding intellectual snob to bother with. I told Mom that I wanted to go where she went, the adult section. This created a crisis for Mom: in the adult section, there was a replica of the Venus de Milo. Mom felt it was inappropriate to have a nude statue in a public place, period, and especially inappropriate for a young boy to see it. (If she only knew...) I begged and pleaded and finally she relented, but only if I first promised not to look at the statue of the “naked lady.” Ignoring the naked lady, I raced in and returned with a forehead-high stack. I was in heaven.
Susie Bright, in addition to being a best-selling author, activist, and podcast host, is editor at large for Audible. Susie's blog, The Bright List, keeps readers and listeners apprised of new audiobooks.
“Who can we be, together? ...The goal should be neither conversion nor the destruction of religion— but rather to make a better world.”
—Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God: A Love Story
If Chris Stedman had stayed in the church, he'd be everyone's favorite closeted youth pastor.
But this Fellow from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University had the bravery to come out as gay and an atheist. He found, as he tried to reach out in the atheist world, that, as organized groups, they were often defined by what they were against, rather than what they were for.
Stedman calls for non-religious people to identify their values and work towards a positive identity. He asks the religious to move beyond their assumptions about who atheists are, and to recognize our common humanity.
Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Stedman is Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches.
In case you missed it, we are now in the month of December. That means that many of us have been enduring public displays of Christmas-affection for at least a month now, if not more. And while I admit that hearing a tinny rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” blare from the overhead speakers in a shopping mall in October is almost enough to turn my heart two sizes too small, I can’t help but feel excited that Christmas is just around the corner.
But why? You might ask. You’re an atheist. You’re not supposed to do that.
I’ve heard that argument before, and I still don’t buy it.
Christmas is perhaps my favorite holiday, as it is the one time during the year that my entire family is able to come together. Growing up, Christmas was never really about Jesus (I mean, if anything, it was about Santa) — it was about family. I’m the only person in my family who no longer lives in Minnesota, so I cherish the time I get to spend with those who have loved me the longest and the most, and the binding traditions that we share. (Including poking fun at one another incessantly – hey, who doesn’t engage in this tradition on any given holiday?)
As one example of why I have very fond associations with Christmas: the year I started to come out as gay, after several painful years of self-loathing, my mom got me a book about gay people and enclosed a special, handwritten note about how much she loved me and how proud she was of me. She hugged me tight, and I could see the lights from our Christmas tree reflecting off of the glossy tears in her eyes. Could she have given this to me on any other day? Sure, of course. And she did — throughout that year, and at many other times during my life, she has given me resources and support. But I remember that Christmas as a special moment in a year full of them, where she took the time to do something extra. And she, along with my entire family, has continued to do so — the year I moved out of the house to begin an independent life, she created a quilt made from scraps of the fabric she had used to make handsewn pajamas throughout my childhood. On the bottom side, she stitched in a note: “Pieces of memories… stitched together to wrap you in the love of your family.” I continue to pull out this Christmas gift every year to combat the December chill. As I wrote in a post earlier today, we ritualize our lives in various ways. For me, Christmas has been among the most significant.
A couple of Christmases past, my dad’s girlfriend asked me something just as I was preparing to leave home. “I know you’re an atheist,” she said, “but is it okay for me to wish you a ‘Merry Christmas’?” At first I thought it a rather silly question, as we had just spend the last day eating cookies shaped like trees and exchanging shiny boxes filled with gifts. But she explained that she had once dated an atheist, and that he had refused to join her for her family’s Christmas celebration. “As he put it, he’d never celebrate a ‘hol-lie-day’ for a made-up god,” she said to me.
The Humanist Community at Harvard offices, December 2012.
That same season, headlines roared over a new American Atheists billboard campaign, which exclaimed: “You KNOW It’s A Myth… This Season, Celebrate Reason!” In interviews, their president explained that the billboard campaign was not intended to turn Christians into atheists. Instead, he said that American Atheists wanted to encourage atheists to stop “going through the motions of celebrating Christmas.” And less than a week ago, Tom Flynn (who I met less than a week ago at the Center for Inquiry – Transnational) wrote a blog post advocating a similar sentiment — but he went a step further, suggesting that atheists should not celebrate secular seasonal holidays like HumanLight or the Winter Solstice, either. He has shared his perspective about why he doesn’t celebrate Christmas in the past, but reading his most recent post, I still found myself unpersuaded.
You see, for me, Christmas didn’t begin as a religious holiday. As I said, it was always about family — about coming together during the coldest and darkest time of the year to create a little more light and a little more warmth. That continues to be the case for me, and it is only bolstered by my increased awareness of the origins of religious narratives, and my expanding knowledge of the triumphs of human achievement — triumphs that have enabled me to live long enough to celebrate my twenty-fifth Christmas this year, achievements that ensure my ability to quickly travel through the air from Massachusetts to Minnesota in order to be reunited with my family, advances that allow me to communicate and coordinate my plans long before I am reunited with said family, and human efforts that will allow me to stay warm throughout the season. My appreciation for Christmas, and the family that I celebrate on that day, has grown in concert with my appreciation for the marvels of life and of human ability.
This year, I had to miss the Humanist Community at Harvard’s annual holiday party because I was on my book tour, and I admit that I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t be there. Our office was transformed with twinkling lights, mistletoe, and stockings hung along the room divider with care (see the image earlier in this post). People came together as a community to celebrate one another and the year that has passed, but we also used this event as an opportunity to kick off our monthlong cereal drive to benefit the Pine Street Inn — and, so far, we’ve collected over $400 worth of cereal for those in need, with more donations set to come in later this week.
So, in short: I believe that you should celebrate Christmas, or HumanLight, or Hanukkah, or the Solstice, or Festivus, or whatever you’d like. Or, you know, nothing. But the increasing politicization of Christmas — a discourse often polarized by many believers, who use Christmas as an opportunity to exclude those who don’t share in their views, but also by some atheists — doesn’t account for those of us who see Christmas as a tradition that gives us an excuse to huddle together in the face of an all-too-often cold and dark world, relishing in good food, good music, and the company of good friends and family. And as an opportunity to help make a dark, cold world just a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more inhabitable for others, through compassionate service or loving action.
There are many problems in the world that demand our concern and attention — I don’t think that some atheists celebrating Christmas should be near the top of that list. Our lives are short, and they are precious. If you have found a way to make your life and the lives of those around you that much richer, whether by celebrating Christmas or by ordering takeout that day, then I celebrate along with you.
Carolyn Meckbach is a former editorial intern for Beacon Press, where she crafted the discussion guide for Faitheist. She is studying Political Science and Gender Studies at Gordon College while directing If I Told You, a student-run journal that publishes personal narratives surrounding sexual orientation, spiritual doubt, and mental health.
Get Faitheist and all other Beacon books for 20% off if you order in December. You'll also get free shipping and support a good cause. Click here for more info.
No sooner had I found a
spot in the cramped basement of an Old Jerusalem café in Central Square than I
realized I had entirely misplaced the notes and questions I had written for an
interview with Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist:
How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. My mind reeled,
trying to remember my talking points, trying to brainstorm new ones. Chris had
just arrived back in town from a cluster of speaking gigs and was already
taking time away from work to meet with me; the least I could do was ensure I
knew what I wanted to ask him. As I grabbed my notebook and began to scrawl a
few poorly-ordered questions, I looked up to see him standing before me
smiling, arms held out as if to give me a hug. (I had never met him, but
immediately doubted he was a native New Englander: as it would turn out, he is
not.) I stood to greet him, and amid his laughter about a nearly unsuccessful
attempt to find the place, I remember him glancing down at my notes to remark:
conversational today, if that’s alright with you.”
After conversing with him
for those few hours, and in the subsequent times we’ve met, I’ve realized that his
initial request—more an invitation—pretty much sums up Chris’s entire approach
to conflict-resolution: a preference for open, personal discourse as opposed to
rigid debate. In person, what’s notable about Chris is the way he becomes immediately
familiar through quirky and humbling admissions, and the forward-leaning manner
in which he listens. It’s abundantly clear that Chris is most fulfilled when he’s
creating an opportunity for both others and himself to speak with honesty.
What follows is a highly-condensed
version of some of our conversations (also found at Patrol
Magazine) in which Chris explores his transition from Evangelical
Christianity to secular humanism – as well as the various insights which have
positioned him to share about his journey.
be frank here. You’re 25, and you’ve already written a memoir…
Ahh. More often than not, people will say to me: ‘A memoir? You must have had a really interesting life.’ I suppose I
have had an interesting life, but it’s hard for me to compare it to others
because it’s the only life I’ve ever had. Most people think their own life is
interesting, and I guess I’m no exception. But this book isn’t really about
whether my life has been sensational or not; I wrote this book because I care
about trying to improve the way that the religious and the nonreligious speak
with and about one another, because it feels to me like there is an
increasingly volatile chasm between those groups. The reason I wrote this book
as a memoir is because scholars like Marshall Ganz agree that storytelling is
one of the best avenues for reconciliation and for prompting discussion across
lines of diversity. The easiest way for me to explain why I believe this work
is urgent, and why I personally care about it so much, is by discussing it
through the lens of my own story.
sheds light on when you were 10 and encountered books like The Diary of
Anne Frank, Roots, and Hiroshima. How
instrumental were these books to your initial impulse to become involved in
I was horrified. I had no
idea I lived in a country that had recently allowed for slavery. I had no idea
that I lived in a country built on stolen land. I had no idea that, within the
last 50 years, an atomic bomb had been dropped by my own country on another. I
had no idea that WWII had happened; I knew nothing of the Holocaust. And these
books, of course, didn’t just present the facts; they were stories that personified these issues, making it easy
for me to imagine myself, or friends or loved ones, in those situations.
And how did this affect your pursuit
of a god?
Well, I was looking for a
way at a very young age of how to make sense of all that—I wondered if the
perpetrators of those crimes would be on the receiving end of some type of justice,
or if the people who had suffered at the hands of such evil individuals would
experience some kind of redemption. The Christian cosmology provided the
answers to the questions I had been asking; the theology I was presented said
that those who acted in selfish ways—ways that obscured others’ rights to live
freely in the world—would be punished for their actions, and that the innocent
individuals who suffered would be rewarded with an eternal life… if they accepted Jesus Christ as their
And that’s a big “if” that you
committed to, right?
Well, I wanted that for
myself too. Converting seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Everybody there
was, like, so excited for me, and I thought: okay, now I belong. Now I belong somewhere; I belong here. And not only
in this physical space, surrounded by these people, but in this sort of larger
cosmic structure. As in: “I am part of God’s flock now.”
How did people receive you?
So warmly. I remember the
youth pastor asking me, after I casually mentioned I had a big exam coming up,
“How did that math test go?” They were very attentive; they really seemed to
care—and that felt really nice, given the way my family was fracturing at the
time. Another factor that played into my going to church was that I wasn’t the
coolest kid around—I didn’t have trendy clothes and was a bit of a nerd, and
all the cool kids went to youth group.
Youth group was this weird mix of cool kids and the nerds they wouldn’t
associate with outside of youth group. But while you’re at youth group, you’re
all best friends. Anyway, despite all of those things that appealed to me about
church—the way it substituted the structure my family once provided, how it
compensated for my feeling like a total misfit at school, and how it provided me
a framework for making sense of injustice—it wasn’t a good thing for very long.
I soon realized it was only a safe place for some.About two months into my participation in this Evangelical
Christian community, I finally put my finger on something that I had always
sort of known. I had always felt a little, um, different. And I wasn’t
altogether sure why. I mean, everybody feels a bit different at some point. But
I just knew something was ‘off.’ Something about who I was didn’t fit what I
was supposed to be.
you’re partly referring to your sexual orientation—how would you say that you
first fully recognized this “difference”?
write about it in the book: I was watching TV and this commercial came on. It
was a low-budget ad for swim suits; there was a male model and a female model
standing next to each other, and I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Oh my God. It’s supposed to be the one on
the left drawing my eye, but it’s the one on the right.’ It was horrifying.
I was like, ‘Oh f—. I’m in big trouble.’ Because I knew this was
going to be a big problem—not just in terms of societal expectations, but
particularly within this community that I was so enamored with, that meant so
much to me.
lived in a small town in the Midwest, right?
grew up just outside of St. Paul, in a blue-collar river town. To put it in
perspective, my elementary school district was the one featured in a Rolling Stone article entitled “One
Town’s War on Gay Teens,” which investigated a recent suicide epidemic where
nine students thought to be gay killed themselves within a two-year period. So,
needless to say, I didn’t want to be gay. See—things are very different today.
There are representations of happy, healthy LGBT folks all over the place.
Ellen DeGeneres, Glee—they’re
everywhere you look. But when I was in middle school, I don’t think even Will & Grace was on the air yet. And
even by the time that show did come, they, you know, lived in these fancy New
York apartments with lives that didn’t look anything like mine. I was a dorky
Midwesterner—I could not relate to that. I didn’t personally know any gay
people, and the few things I had heard about gay people were not good. At the end of the day, though,
my being gay was just another way thing to make me feel different from the
majority of my peers.
How did the realization that you
were gay affectyour faith?
Since I didn’t really
want to be gay, I decided I was going to change my sexual orientation. I got
the idea from my Christian church, who said that homosexuality was solvable,
changeable. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for fear of being ostracized, but
I got the impression based on ideas promoted within the church that being gay
was a spiritual affliction—one that could be overcome through dutifulness to
tradition. So if I prayed and I fasted and I studied Scripture and was just
this model Christian, my ‘burden’ would be lifted. I came to see my same-sex
attractions as a test, or a punishment—one I could overcome. So I worked very hard
to do just that, but became despondent as years passed by and I didn’t see any
progress. The irony is that I had become a part of this community because I was
looking for a way to make sense of suffering and because the communal aspect of
Christianity was very appealing—but when I became increasingly serious about my
quest to change my sexual orientation for them, I ended up retreating further
and further into myself, and suffering more and more. Eventually I was just a
zombie stumbling through my own life, completely unengaged with the world
around me; focused solely on this one
You write in the book about certain
times that you were harassed by Christians. How much did those experiences
influence your break with Evangelical Christianity?
atheism wasn’t born out of the negative experiences that I had had within the
church, although I will admit that they sort of set me on a course of
self-reflection that led me to the conclusion that God probably does not exist.
As a college student, I was encouraged to turn a critical eye on my initial
conversion experience. When I did, I realized I hadn’t really converted for the
theology of the church, but for the community and the ethics and the positive
social action. But I wonder if I would’ve had the opportunity to enter into
that deep kind of reflection if I hadn’t had to question everything about who I
was for a number of years. I don’t know. I actually think those kinds of
hypotheticals are a bit silly. I am where I am now, and that’s what I know. But
it’s important for me to say that I didn’t decide that I don’t believe in an
anthropomorphized deity who is an interventionist force simply because
Christians were mean to me. I feel that’s what a lot of people think about
atheists—that they don’t believe in God because of negative experiences with
atheism is portrayed as something that is purely reactionary. For me, it was
actually more the result of critical self-reflection, which I go into in the
book. I looked at my own underlying values and beliefs and I just decided, you
know, this community isn’t my community and this Christian narrative is not my
narrative. It’s interesting to me that when I tell a very brief version of my
story of my years in the church, I’ll have Christians come up to me afterwards,
and they’ll say: “I just want to apologize on behalf of all Christians for what
you went through and you should know that not all Christians believe this. I’m
a part of a community that would welcome you without question for who you are.”
And while I really appreciate that, and I know it’s usually coming from a very
good place, part of me wonders: ‘did you
listen to the second half of what I talked about?’ My issue with
Christianity wasn’t solely because I hadn’t been entirely welcomed, though that
was a big part of it; I had to find a place where I fit. I had to find the
right language to describe the world around me. And that right language is a
humanistic, naturalistic way of seeing things.
existential problems don’t concern you as much anymore, why do you feel so
strongly that the irreligious should care about religion?
care in the sense that other people care. I recognize the significance religion
holds for so many other people. Even though the debate about the existence of
God is increasingly irrelevant to me, that doesn’t mean that it must be
irrelevant to everybody else. I have many friends and colleagues and people who
inspire me to action who are deeply motivated by their religious beliefs—and not
only isn’t that a problem to me, I actually celebrate
it, when it’s something that enriches their lives and propels them to enrich
other people’s lives. It’s not my business to say that because their source of
inspiration is different from my own and because I believe it is incorrect,
they must abandon it. If something is
a force for good in somebody else’s life, I don’t feel that it is my place to
erode that belief.
this sense, you’ve been known to deviate from the New Atheist movement.
this is where I diverge very strongly from some other atheists. A lot of other
atheists I encounter believe that the solution to the problems in our world is
to convince other people to drop “magical thinking” as they would put it—to
look at the hard, cold facts of existence and face them in the eye and just
deal with the fact that ‘we are all we
you’ve received criticism from such atheists as being “too soft” (with the
title of your book as evidence), you haven’t always been so open to the fruitful
aspects of religious belief. (After your conversion from Christianity, you
express in Faitheist
that you had been confrontational, mirroring the kind of atheism you now object
to.) What changed? What’s a key principle for you now when you’re interacting
with those who are outspokenly committed to religious beliefs that oppose your
first and foremost. It sounds backwards, but focusing on myself has enabled me
to find common ground with others. I try to be increasingly aware of my own stuff: where my own pressure-points are,
when I’m engaging in an interaction with someone else and it’s really about
something that I myself am dealing with. I think self-awareness for me has been
the key for being able to find common ground with people who believe really
different things than I do, and the key to being able to forgive the people who
perpetuated the beliefs that ultimately led me into a really difficult
I write in the book, so much of my issue in college was that I really wasn’t
self-aware. So much of what was preventing me from having those conversations
with others – so much of what led me to be confrontational – was my own lack of
self-awareness, and less what they had done. I hadn’t fully acquired a
disposition which made me want to
learn and want to listen — I had this
orientation of wanting to project and disagree, or wanting to isolate myself,
and I could sort of twist what others said. I could totally manipulate anything
anyone said into something hateful. But as I got older, I shifted into a
position of wanting to understand what I cared about the most and where my
values were. A lot of that has had to do with my education in pastoral care
work—my Masters was in Pastoral Care. My focus shifted from wanting to align
the beliefs of others with my own, or wanting to confront differences, to
wanting to live as fully into my own convictions as I could.
feel religious belief can ever become a problem?
becomes a problem when a person’s religious beliefs compel him or her to impose
those beliefs onto other people’s lives in ways that are harmful and hurtful;
when they’re used to diminish others’ liberty and dignity. Of course, I don’t
think that religious beliefs have a monopoly on dehumanization and diminishment.
The issue for me is not religion or religious beliefs as much as it is any kind
of totalitarianistic, dogmatic, exclusivistic, tribalistic way of thinking and
way of seeing the world—anything that is used to oppressive ends. If we can
reduce the prevalence that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior, we will
live in a much more peaceable world.
sheds light upon both your adolescence and early adulthood, and I know that the
work you immerse yourself in – interfaith activism—involves reaching out to a
younger crowd who oftentimes feels hesitant to validate their nonreligious,
religious, and sexual-based identities due to their age. How do you hope that
younger individuals will interact with this book?
hope that it might encourage younger people to step out into the public arena
with their stories and their beliefs. I believe young people have the capacity
to do such good work in the world, but many don’t feel they have the authority
to speak, or to act, or to influence. This is why I’m so involved with IFYC,
because I hope that other young people will see me say: ‘You know, he’s not the
smartest guy around. He’s not the most well-spoken; sure, what he’s doing
resonates with me, but I could do what he’s doing.’ Young people’s voices are
largely absent in these circles of influence, and I hope that my experience
inspires other people to be confident, to speak out, and to not feel like they
have to have everything figured out in order to participate in discussions
about religious diversity.
As with any memoir, publishing this
puts you in a vulnerable position. How do you feel you might respond to any
criticism about “not-having-all-of-your-ducks-in-a-row” – that your life is too
much in flux to be penning it down in a memoir?
[Laughing:] I’m sure that
in 5 years from now so much will have changed, but I suspect that my central
concerns will remain relatively stable. Without being apologetic about it, I
come right out in the book and try to explain that I don’t have it all figured
out. Still, I hope my striving for authenticity will come through in the
writing, and in who I am as a person. And if that doesn’t translate, then, you
know, I’ll keep trying. What I’ve learned over the years from struggling with
all of this is that every day is a new day—a chance to try again, to try it
anew, to try something else. It’s
constantly ongoing, meaning: nothing is at the end of the book. There is no
The story of a former Evangelical Christian turned openly gay atheist who now works to bridge the divide between atheists and the religious
The stunning popularity of the "New Atheist" movement—whose most famous spokesmen include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens—speaks to both the growing ranks of atheists and the widespread, vehement disdain for religion among many of them. In Faitheist, Chris Stedman tells his own story to challenge the orthodoxies of this movement and make a passionate argument that atheists should engage religious diversity respectfully.
Becoming aware of injustice, and craving community, Stedman became a "born-again" Christian in late childhood. The idea of a community bound by God's love-a love that was undeserved, unending, and guaranteed—captivated him. It was, he writes, a place to belong and a framework for making sense of suffering.
But Stedman's religious community did not embody this idea of God's love: they were staunchly homophobic at a time when he was slowly coming to realize that he was gay. The great suffering this caused him might have turned Stedman into a life-long New Atheist. But over time he came to know more open-minded Christians, and his interest in service work brought him into contact with people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. His own religious beliefs might have fallen away, but his desire to change the world for the better remained. Disdain and hostility toward religion was holding him back from engaging in meaningful work with people of faith. And it was keeping him from full relationships with them—the kinds of relationships that break down intolerance and improve the world.
In Faitheist, Stedman draws on his work organizing interfaith and secular communities, his academic study of religion, and his own experiences to argue for the necessity of bridging the growing chasm between atheists and the religious. As someone who has stood on both sides of the divide, Stedman is uniquely positioned to present a way for atheists and the religious to find common ground and work together to make this world—the one world we can all agree on—a better place.
Praise for Faitheist
“Stedman’s story is motivational, his thoughts on interreligious dialogue insightful, and in this short memoir, he proves himself an activist in the truest sense and one to watch.” —Booklist, Starred Review
“Rigid anti-theists and theists alike will be challenged as they read—challenged to greater humanity, empathy, and understanding. Wholeheartedly recommended.”—Brian D. McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
“Smart. Funny. Heartening. Inspiring. Faitheist is the perfect book for those seeking a middle path between the firm, opposing certainties of religious fundamentalism and intolerant atheism.”—Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism
“If Chris Stedman had become a pastor, he’d have a big, big church. Instead, he’s a humanist hero, a compelling writer whose efforts to build bridges between non-believers and the faithful will leave a lasting mark. Faitheist should be required reading in Sunday schools and Richard Dawkins’s house alike.”—Kevin Roose, author of The Unlikely Disciple
“The world would be a better place with more Chris Stedman’s in it and fortunately he has provided us a roadmap to just such a world.”—The Rev. William F. Schulz, President, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
“Who can we be together? Chris Stedman asks in this powerful book. Faitheist reveals that it’s not what we believe that matters, but how our beliefs shape what we do with our lives—a timely reminder for both atheists and the religious that the goal should be neither conversion nor the destruction of religion, but rather to make a better world.”—Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God: A Love Story
“The searching, intelligent account of a gay man's experiences growing away from God and into a thoughtful and humane atheist...Brave and refreshingly open-minded.”—Kirkus Reviews
About the author
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Chaplain and the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. He lives in Boston.
“Yeah?” he replied, grinning and taking a bite of his sandwich. “When?”
“Oh,” I offered, realizing I hadn't actually thought about details. “Someday...”
“When?” he said again.
“In five years? Maybe 10?”
He thought for a second, then said, “Why not start now?”
I chewed on my sub, and on his question. Why not now? I came up with several reasons immediately: I'm young; I like to write but have little formal training; I'm really young. But I swallowed those thoughts and said: “Sure. Why not? I'll start writing and see what happens.”
As soon as I started writing, I couldn't stop. Before I knew it I had a book contract, and then a finished book.
While I was writing, so was Eboo. I got a copy of his excellent new book, Sacred Ground—a vital, urgent exploration of America's dark history of both prejudice toward religious minorities but also its principled promise of religious liberty—a few weeks ago. When I read the chapter on interfaith leadership, where he describes some of the journey I share in Faitheist, I was moved.
A story about an atheist in a book like Sacred Ground is good for atheists; it demonstrates that we have a unique contribution to make to America's diverse religious landscape. And it will promote the idea of atheists as largely goodhearted people who want the same things most Americans do to people who might believe otherwise—people whose perceptions of atheists are based on caricature rather than meaningful relationships.
Storytelling can do that. It can connect and inspire us to new ways of thinking, to greater empathy and to increased familiarity with different experiences, identities and values.
I thought more about the power of narrative as I followed the news cycle last Sunday with a broken heart, when a white gunman stalked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and shot and killed six people and wounded several others. I surveyed reactions to the shooting and found they were significantly more muted than the response to the Aurora tragedy several weeks before. Perhaps people are becoming more accustomed to awful, violent outbursts such as this, but I wonder if the reactions don't say something about the way we see “others” in this country.
Upon hearing news of the shooting in a Colorado movie theater, many people likely conjured an image in their mind. They could imagine what it was like there, and they could imagine themselves in it. But how many Americans can envision a Sikh gurdwara and what goes on inside? Many people can imagine themselves in a movie theater, but how many can picture themselves, or people they love, in a gurdwara? How many people know about American Sikhs' sacred ground?
This is just one reason why Sacred Ground is such an important book—and why it is so important for people to share their stories. The day after the horror in Wisconsin, my dear friend Valarie Kaur, a longtime Sikh activist, shared her story on CNN. We tell these stories—stories of being Muslim, of being Sikh, of being an atheist and of finding common ground—with the hope that they will accomplish what Sacred Ground suggests: that familiarity with diversity changes how we think about it.
My hope is that Sacred Ground, Faitheist, Valarie's words and work, and the cumulative efforts of everyone who promotes pluralism will build a world where tragedies like the one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, never happen again. We all—Muslims, atheists, Sikhs and everyone else—have stories to tell, and sharing them with others will help make the world a place where everyone is free to proclaim their beliefs with pride and without fear of violent recourse.
I'm happy to say that we are building that world—in the last week alone, atheist friends donated to rebuild a mosque destroyed by arson in Joplin, Missouri; Muslim friends petitioned to free Alexander Aan, an atheist jailed in Indonesia; religious friends decried Pat Robertson's statement blaming atheists for the shooting in Wisconsin (following a trend of blaming atheists for tragedies such as this, an issue I explore in Faitheist); people of all different beliefs (atheists, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Pagans, Christians and others) joined me at a Sikh gurdwara for a memorial where we shed tears of mourning and of happiness. When a mosque in Illinois was shot at on Friday—just two days after Rep. Joe Walsh said at a town hall meeting just 15 minutes away that there are Muslims in Illinois towns “trying to kill Americans every week”—atheist and religious friends reached out to him and asked him to condemn this act as awful and un-American. So when naysayers claim that building bridges between different communities is impossible or a waste of time—that it is not possible for atheists to be in solidarity with those who believe in sacred ground—I am encouraged by the reality that we are improving the world through the stories and values we share and the actions we take together.
So to you, reader, I ask the question Eboo posed to me over a set of sandwiches: You have a story, and sharing it will help build a better world. Why not start now?
Recently, while talking to my mom, I used the word "queer" to describe myself. Though it wasn't the first time she had heard me use it, she paused.
"I don't really like that word," she said. "'Queer.' When I was younger, it was a slur."
"Well, when I was younger, 'gay' was an insult," I replied. "So I've had to reclaim that -- why not 'queer,' too?"
She nodded, unconvinced, and I reminded her that other aspects of who I am and what I do are commonly used in a derogatory way. "'Atheist' isn't exactly free of negative connotations," I said. "And ask some of the Muslims I work with about some of the flack they get."
"I get it," she said, "I do. But I just can't shake the negative associations I have with that word."
My mom is perhaps a bit more protective of me than she'd like to admit -- especially when it comes to my sexual orientation and how others treat me because of it. She was the reason I came out: when I was a freshman in high school, she found a journal I kept detailing my struggles over being gay and a "born-again" Christian. Unable to accept myself as gay, I was contemplating suicide, but my mother pointed me in the direction of resources that helped me embrace my sexual orientation. She's always encouraged me to chart my own course and be self-reliant, but she's also been a tireless advocate every step of the way.
My mom has always modeled tolerance and acceptance. In 1986 -- the year before I was born -- she didn't think anything of it when she went to her mother's for dinner and was greeted by three HIV-positive gay men. At that time, HIV/AIDS was incredibly taboo -- especially in Minnesota -- but my mother was raised in a home that welcomed those whom mainstream society rejected. This attitude of openness was instilled in her at a young age, and my siblings and I were raised to wear gender-neutral clothing, to play with non-gendered toys, and to think of ourselves as unrestrained by societal norms. My mother gave dolls to all three of her boys so that we might learn to be nurturing and caring; my younger brother Colton, who would go on to play football and head up his college's rugby fraternity, loved his doll more than any of us did, making blankets for it and taking it with him everywhere.
During my teen years as a "born-again" Christian, these values were eclipsed as I embraced my church's message that LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people were inferior -- that their lives were not a part of God's plan. But after my mom helped me come to accept myself, I was introduced to a different community of Christians, which welcomed, included and celebrated LGBTQ people.
Now, 10 years after my mom first helped me come to accept myself, I work as an atheist and interfaith activist. (If that seems like a bit of a jump, it is -- unfortunately, I can't fit my entire journey into this piece, which is why I'm working on a memoir.) I am frequently asked how my atheism and my interfaith activism align, just as often as I am asked why I call myself queer and gay instead of just gay.
While I can understand such questions, I believe that there is a value in identifying as queer in the same way that I believe in the importance of interfaith engagement. I call myself queer for the same reason that I split my work at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard between building up and supporting a community for the nonreligious and promoting interfaith engagement -- because I believe in constructing solidarity among diverse people around shared experiences and shared values.
One of the reasons I most love doing interfaith work is that it encourages me to be in conversation with religious people about some of the challenges that atheists and queer people face. For example, I have had deeply transformative experiences being in dialogue with the Muslim community (for more on this, check out a piece I wrote on LGBTQ-Muslim dialogue). Just as I've been able to share my experiences as a queer atheist with people from many different faith communities and encourage them to challenge their beliefs about atheists and queer people, I've been fortunate in return to learn a lot about the lives of people who believe radically different things about the world than I do. By coming together as large, diverse groups of people to engage in dialogue and common work, we are able to educate one another and, in turn, advocate for one another.
The importance of positive relationships in effecting social change cannot be overemphasized. In 2010, a Gallup poll demonstrated that people are significantly more inclined to oppose same-sex marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay. Around that same time, a Time Magazine cover story revealed that only 37 percent of Americans even know a Muslim American, and a Pew survey reported that 55 percent of Americans know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam. As Robert Wright wrote in The New York Times, the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change people's hearts and minds, and this is a model that the interfaith movement utilizes in its aim to counter the negative and often combative relationships that exist between people of different (or no) religions. Engaged diversity humanizes those we see as vastly different from ourselves; through positive and productive relationships across lines of identity, we learn that another has value, worth and the right to dignity.
I engage in interfaith work because I see my dignity and my identity as an atheist and a queer person -- my happiness, my well-being and my freedom -- as bound up in the identities of others, and their abilities to be happy and live freely. Similarly, I identify as queer because I believe that those of us who are not heterosexual, those of us who do not fit into traditional conceptions of gender expression -- and even those who do -- share common concerns, common joys and common challenges, and that we can better address those concerns, joys and challenges when we are engaged with one another.
I credit the accepting upbringing my mom provided, and the struggles I experienced around being queer, with setting the course for the work I do now. Being a member of a marginalized community helps me empathize with experiences and worldviews that are different from my own, and I believe that this has made me more compassionate. At one point in my life, being gay might have contributed to the bitterness I had toward religion and the religious, but now it informs my desire to be deeply and personally invested in active religious pluralism, or the idea that we all -- religious or not, LGBTQ or straight -- need to work to understand one another better.
The only way we'll be able to break down the walls that keep us apart -- the stereotypes and assumptions that exist about atheists, LGBTQ people and various religious communities -- is by finding avenues to discover common ground. I believe that interfaith and queer work are two of the best ways to do so.
Today's post is from Chris Stedman, author of the forthcoming book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. He is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches.
Sam Harris--I know you're a busy man, but I'd like to ask you out. Will you go to mosque with me?
I'm not trying to convert you to Islam. Like you, I'm not a Muslim. Like you, I don't believe in any gods. I'm happily, openly atheist. A queer atheist, even. Like you, I have many significant concerns about Islamic beliefs and practices. But still, I want to visit a mosque with you.
We don't have to go alone--we could go with Mustafa Abdullah, a young community organizer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who is currently campaigning against the state's proposed anti-gay Amendment One. We could attend with Najeeba Syeed-Miller, a teacher and activist who has dedicated her life to peacebuilding initiatives. Or we could go with Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, who is committed to promoting pluralism and opposing bigotry, and who regularly speaks up for atheists as a religious minority in the United States.
Why am I inviting you to visit a mosque with me and my friends? Since I'm asking you publicly (I couldn't find your phone number anywhere and I'm pretty sure this MySpace page isn't really you), I should probably give some context.
A few weeks ago I saw you speak at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Australia. Before I go on, I need to confess: your remarks blew me away. In a weekend full of incredible intellects, your frank, contemplative, eloquent speech on death, grief, and mindfulness was easily my favorite. So I was not prepared for the crushing disappointment I felt when, just a few weeks later, you published a piece called "In Defense of Profiling" in which you unequivocally stated: "We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it."
Never mind that your argument doesn't hold water--to quote my friend Hind Makki: "What does a Muslim look like? The 9/11 hijackers didn't have beards and 'dressed Western.' The shoe bomber wasn't Arab or South Asian. Sikhs wear turbans. The majority of American Muslim women don't wear hijab. The majority of Arab Americans are Christian--though they often share the same names as their Muslim counterparts. Perhaps Harris would support an initiative that required all Muslims to sew a crescent and star onto our clothes. It would make his airport security time a more pleasant experience. (Though, I suppose, it wouldn't have stopped McVeigh or Breivik.)" Though as a frequent traveler I share your frustrations with the TSA, profiling doesn't make sense as a solution to its problems.
Instead, while we're en route to mosque, I'd like to talk to you about something else. As I read your piece, which (along with the clarifying addendum you tacked on a few days later) failed to explain how you would determine who "looks... Muslim," I thought back to another moment at the Global Atheist Convention a few weeks ago. As you were speaking, rumors began to fly that a group of extremist Muslims would be protesting the convention. Sure enough, a group of less than a dozen appeared just a short while later, holding signs that said "Atheists go to hell" and shouting horrible things. But to my dismay, their hate was mirrored by hundreds of conference attendees, some of whom shouted things like "go back to the middle east, you pedophiles," tweeting "maybe the Muslim protesters [are] gay so [they] don't have wives? ... A lot are/were camel shaggers," and wearing shirts that said "Too stupid for science? Try religion." Watching the scene unfold, I was reminded of how much work there is to be done in combating prejudice between the religious and the nonreligious.
I'm not sure you share my concerns about this divide. In fact, last year you wrote this about the 2011 attacks orchestrated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway that resulted in the deaths of over 70 people:
One can only hope that the horror and outrage provoked by Breivik's behavior will temper the growing enthusiasm for right-wing, racist nationalism in Europe. However, one now fears the swing of another pendulum: We are bound to hear a lot of deluded talk about the dangers of "Islamophobia" and about the need to address the threat of "terrorism" in purely generic terms.
In the wake of an atrocity of unimaginable proportions--one perpetrated by an anti-Muslim terrorist who was influenced by anti-Muslim writers--I could not believe that you decided to write a blog suggesting that the real problem is the fight against Islamophobia.
Whether you think so or not, Sam, Islamophobia is quite real. The American Muslim community experiences disproportionately high rates of discrimination and violence, and Islamophobic rhetoric has a significant bearing on this. This from a detailed report on the network of Islamophobia in America: "According to former CIA officer and terrorism consultant Marc Sageman, just as religious extremism 'is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged,' the writings of these anti-Muslim misinformation experts are 'the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.'"
As a society, we need to acknowledge the reality of the consequences of Islamophobia. As one Norwegian Muslim recently said:
"I think it is good and healthy that this comes out," he told AFP in a telephone interview, arguing that Breivik built his ideology largely on the basis of Islam-critical writings in the media and online and rumors he has heard about violent Muslims. "This should help show people that this kind of rhetoric can be very, very dangerous. It is a wake-up call, and I think many people will moderate the way they talk about these things."
We desperately need to discuss these things. An argument I frequently hear from atheists is that if moderate Muslims really exist, they need to speak out more. The problem is that Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? There. Are. So. Many. That.I. Can't. Link. To. Them. All. (But those eleven are a good start.)
The real problem is the Islamophobic misinformation machine, supported by our conflict-driven media. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don't sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: for example, the mainstream media largely ignores violence against Muslims, such as when a mosque in Florida was bombed. (Just imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church.) The press also ignores stories of Muslim heroism, such as the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim. Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent, and imagine that an "Islam versus the West" clash of civilizations is inevitable, because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on Islam.
The feeling that we need to profile "Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim," as you wrote--that Muslim Americans are dangerous and should be viewed with suspicion--is an outgrowth of the Islamophobic misinformation that proliferates our culture. I'm proud to say that nontheist organizations like the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, and the Institute for Science and Human Values recognize this, which is why just last week they signed on to a letter (alongside many interfaith and religious organizations) decrying racial and religious profiling.
The idea that we should single out Muslims is a misguided and damaging one, and it has serious ramifications for the Muslim community. After the thwarted "Christmas tree" bombing by a young Muslim in Portland, OR, Eboo Patel wrote:
It would be perfectly understandable if, in this time of Muslim terrorism and Islamophobia, everyday Muslims tried to slink into the shadows, to hide in the mosque. But it would be a huge mistake. Now more than ever, we need Muslim community leaders to be loud and proud about Islam's glories, to inspire a new generation to follow in the footsteps of the Muslim heroes who bent the arc of the universe towards justice.
As Muslims become more and more marginalized, that will be increasingly difficult. When I posted a link to Patel's column on my Facebook page, a friend commented on the FBI's involvement in the Portland incident, and a subsequent arson attack on a Portland-area mosque: "I'm starting to wonder how any of this makes our country more secure or keeps our citizens safe. It certainly made things more dangerous for Muslims in Corvallis."
I look around and I see a country deeply divided over the place of Muslims in America's civic landscape--a nation roiling with fear and uncertainty, where hundreds of people will crowd outside of a benefit for a Muslim relief organization and scream things like "go home" and "terrorist" while waving American flags. That despicable display of anti-Muslim hate didn't really make the news either, by the way.
Profiling feeds this fear and paranoia, and it plays right into the notion held by the tiny percentage of Muslims who are extremists that all Muslims are under attack and need to be defended. It is truly dangerous territory, and not just for Muslims--the recent congressional "Muslim radicalization" hearings in the U.S. echo the anti-gay "lavender scare" and the explicitly anti-atheist undertones of the "red scare" in the 1950s. As a gay atheist, I recognize that it could just as easily be me who is targeted.
But I do have hope, Sam. I'm currently reading a wonderful book called The Young Atheist's Handbook by Alom Shaha--I could lend it to you after our mosque visit. In the book, Shaha writes about growing up Muslim and later becoming an atheist. In the fourth chapter of the book, he touches on the tragedy in Norway and delves into a lengthy, must-read exposition of the ugly reality of Islamophobia in the U.K., Australia, and the United States. In it, he points to the major role the media has played in guiding the narrative that says that Muslims are a monolithic, loathsome bloc--or as Shaha wrote, a perspective that "see[s] all Muslims as the same, and completely fail[s] to acknowledge the diversity and differences in values that are held by the millions of Muslims in the world." Shaha goes on to write:
You may wonder why, if I no longer identify as Muslim, I care so deeply about this... Although I am an atheist, I nevertheless find it distressing that people can be contemptuous of all Muslims based on their own prejudices about what it means to be Muslim. Some atheists are guilty of this ideological categorization, too, and it bothers me that some of those who really should know better feel that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot, by definition, get along. I suspect this is a point on which I differ from more-hardline atheists, but perhaps my own experience of being judged for my skin colour has made me acutely sensitive to such judgments being exercised upon others.
Shaha is definitely on to something. Over the last few years, I've watched with despair as an increasing, increasingly-less-subtle xenophobic anti-Muslim undercurrent has spread throughout the atheist movement, cloaked by intellectual arguments against Islam's metaphysical claims and practices and rallying cries in defense of free speech. Though it has been spreading throughout our broader culture, I'm especially disheartened to see it among my fellow atheists. At my first American Atheists conference, for example, I witnessed a crowd of people shout things like "show us some ankle" at three women wearing burkas for a satirical musical performance. It's one thing to critique Islam; but the glee I saw in some of their faces as people whistled and shouted "take it off" was something else.
Writing about an incident where an American Atheists State Director posted an Islamophobic rant to their official Facebook page, atheist blogger Hemant Mehta said:
It's always a touchy subject when atheists go after Islam... because people have to be very careful that they don't stereotype all followers of Islam as if they're all extremists. Our society does a terrible job of this. Atheists, especially when they're 'leaders' among us, ought to know better than to fall into that trap.
You ought to know better, Sam. Your insistence that Islamophobia isn't a problem and your willingness to play into the irrational anxieties of those who fear Muslims is irresponsible and dangerous. With your great reach, you have the opportunity to build bridges of understanding--instead, you have chosen to make the dividing lines that keep our communities apart that much thicker.
My invitation to visit a mosque isn't an argument for "political correctness." Like you, I find efforts to wallpaper over our differences abhorrent; like you, I have considerable disagreements with many tenets of Islam. You may have visited a mosque before, but I invite you to join me for a different kind of conversation--to spend some time talking to Muslims about their experiences, and working alongside them in their efforts to promote pluralism and equality in their community and in ours.
In a 2010 New York Times article about the Park51 (or "Ground Zero Mosque") controversy, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the United States: "they have fear because they don't know [Muslims]." As someone who grew up gay in a fundamentalist Christian community, and as an atheist in a largely religious culture, I know how it feels to be reviled by people who don't understand me and who see our differences as irreconcilable. This is why I promote interfaith work--because giving people the opportunity to get to know others who belong to different communities erodes distrust and suspicion and builds cooperation and respect.
Before I got to know some people who identify as Muslim, I was hugely suspicious of all Muslims. As a college student, I was an atheist and a religious studies major--I studied Islam in the classroom, but I knew very little about Muslims. It wasn't until I started to build relationships of trust and mutuality with members of the American Muslim community that I learned about their experiences and had a change of heart.
What should happen when a Muslim walks into an airport? Your answer is extremely troubling, Sam. So I return to my original question: What could happen if two atheists were to walk into a mosque? What could we learn from one another? In what ways could we work alongside Muslims to build a world that values pluralism and compassion, critical thinking and cooperation? Let me know if you want to find out.
When I was in high school, civil disobedience excited me. I participated in a school walkout in protest of the Iraq War, staged a demonstration outside of a conference for anti-gay "reparative therapy," and regularly got together with friends to make T-shirts boasting our political positions. Though the underlying political motives behind these actions were sincere, I recognize in hindsight that a big part of why I was drawn to such activism was that it hinged on solidarity and cooperation.
I was reminded of these efforts this weekend, when I decided to take my Saturday night off to check out the Occupy America (a national movement born out of Occupy Wall Street in New York City) effort in my city.
I decided to go because I have been tracking it online for some time, and many of my friends and peers have been involved from the beginning. While the participants I encountered on Saturday ranged in ages, Occupy America has frequently been referred to as a "youth-driven" movement, and the statement isn't without merit. Though participation has been and continues to be intergenerational, there seems to be a particularly strong representation from young people.
As a 24-year-old, I'm part of the Millennial Generation -- the generation following Generation Y, born in the 1980s and 1990s. We're a generation that, according to studies by Pew and others, is supposed to be unconcerned and unengaged with the political process. Yet we defied such classification by coming out in droves for the 2008 Presidential election, and I believe that the Occupy America movement is demonstrating once more that we can surprise prognosticators and muster up unanticipated energy and organization to mobilize for social change.
Still, we remain a generation that is, in some ways, defined by apathy. This is perhaps no more obvious than it is in Millennials' relationship with religion.
Some 22 percent of Americans age 18-29 report having no religion. However, only about 2 percent of Americans describe themselves with labels such as atheist, agnostic or Humanist. That suggests that the majority of nonreligious Americans consider themselves either spiritual but not religious, religious but not practicing, or irreligious and apathetic.
This certainly seems to be the case among many people I know. Many people I talk with across the country say that religion doesn't concern them and is unimportant; they claim to not even think much or care much about religion.
But what this irreligious, apathetic stance toward religion and the religious doesn't account for is the fact that we live in a world where many people do think and do care about religion -- a lot. Even in America, religious fundamentalism is experiencing a radical surge. The 2010 Pew study on American Millennials found that not only is "the intensity of [religious Millennials'] religious affiliation... as strong today as among previous generations when they were young," but that "levels of certainty of belief in God have increased" and that religious Millennials are "more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life." Sociologists once predicted that religion would decline as a result of modernization, but precisely the opposite phenomenon has occurred as religious movements have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades both in the United States and around the world. Sociologists, as such, have since changed course on those predictions. As Peter Berger recently wrote in The American Interest: "Most sociologists of religion... [have] looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory -- that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion -- does not fit the facts of the matter."
It seems that, for now anyway, religion is unlikely to become irrelevant. And in a world where religious conflict is in the headlines on a daily basis and religious illiteracy is widespread, it actually feels increasingly relevant. The dangers of acting like it isn't are clear: when fraught issues related to religion arise, being unable to contextualize them or understand their implications makes it difficult to know how to respond.
This is why I've committed myself to the cause of encouraging interfaith cooperation. Cultivating positive relationships between people of diverse religious and nonreligious identities not only helps prevent conflict by creating invested relationships -- it also combats ignorance by giving people the opportunity to educate one another about their beliefs and backgrounds.
The night I spent at Occupy Boston was eye opening. Seeing the general assembly meeting and all of the structure on site -- including my friends at the Protest Chaplains tent--was fascinating. Everyone had a role in helping things run, and everyone had a voice.
As an interfaith activist working to mobilize people from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds toward cooperation, it was an inspiring sight. The collective commitment to work together and give voice to the disempowered was a testament to the power of uniting people from different backgrounds for a common goal. Like the interfaith coalition that led the American Civil Rights movement, there was a recognition that success will require respecting the many different reasons people come to the table.
Unless we strive to understand people's religious beliefs and practices, efforts that hinge on solidarity will fail. Without knowing and understanding the spectrum of moral and religious beliefs that compel people to act, we will remain siloed. As the Occupy America movement continues to occupy our collective moral imagination, coming together to talk about our convictions, our challenges, and our values seems more important than ever.
We, as Millennials but also as Americans, must reject apathy -- about politics, yes, but also about religion.
For the last several years, my work as an interfaith activist has been largely defined by a single question: "Wait -- you do interfaith work, and you're an atheist?!"
That question, posed by religious people (to be fair, I've gotten that question from many atheists, though usually for a different reason-for more on that, check out this recent piece I wrote on atheists and interfaith work), is usually followed by a confession that the individual offering it hasn't met many atheists. I often push back on this a bit, inviting them to think about whether they truly don't know any atheists. Even after further consideration, most cannot think of a single atheist they know personally.
It isn't much of a surprise that many claim to not know any atheists; surveys demonstrate that atheists constitute an incredibly small percentage of the population. While some 15 percent of Americans report having no religion, only about 2 percent of Americans use labels such as atheist, agnostic, Humanist, and less widely-recognized identifiers like "freethinker," "bright," or "Pastafarian," to describe themselves, suggesting that the majority of nonreligious Americans don't identify as nontheists.
Because we represent such a small sliver of the American population and are often seen in a negative light, I believe that it is imperative that atheists make themselves known. A 2010 Gallup poll demonstrated something the LGBTQ community has recognized for some time: people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay. Similarly, a Time Magazine cover story last year featured revealing numbers that speak volumes about the correlation between positive relationships and civic support; per their survey, 46 percent of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths and 61 percent oppose Park51 (or the "Ground Zero Mosque"), but only 37 percent even know a Muslim American. Another survey released around the same time, by Pew, reported that 55 percent of Americans know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam. The disconnect is clear-when only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American, and 55 percent claim to know very little or nothing about Islam, the negative stereotypes about the Muslim community go unchallenged. The same logic can be extended to atheists-the fewer relationships we have with people of faith, the worse our image will be.
But it isn't enough that religious people know atheists -- the quality of the relationships that exist between atheists and the religious makes a significant difference in undoing anti-atheist attitudes. As Robert Wright wrote in the New York Times last year, the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change people's hearts and minds, and this is a model that can be applied to the issue of anti-atheist bias as well.
This is one reason I, as an atheist, believe that interfaith work is imperative. Humanizing those with different religious and philosophical worldviews is essential to ensuring that pluralism is upheld for all communities. Engaged diversity breeds the idea that all people's rights must be protected; through positive and productive relationships, we learn that another has value, worth, and the right to dignity.
Based on my experiences as an atheist and an interfaith activist, I have confidence that building diverse coalitions will alter the negative public perceptions about atheists. I'm working on a book about this, tentatively titled (F)a(i)theist: How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together (Beacon Press, 2012), and I've been fortunate enough to speak about it and the work I do at nearly twenty colleges and universities across the U.S. this year. At these speeches, I've met more religious people than I can count who've told me that they'd never considered that atheists might hold similar hopes and aspirations, and that they were going to make an effort to get to know more atheists so that they could better understand a group of people they had previously seen as radically unlike them. I'm daily inspired by the willingness of religious people I meet to challenge their beliefs about atheists, and by atheists I know who are dedicated to building constructive relationships with the religious.
The other day I had dinner with my grandma, and we got to talking about the work I do. As a progressive Christian, she has long been supportive of my queer and interfaith activism, but she's never seemed to fully understand my atheism. After some discussion, she surprised me by asking directly how I can offer the nontheist students I work with a sense of purpose and hope. I talked to her about my habit of finding a quiet outdoor spot to sit and consider the wonder of the natural world and the joy of making meaning alongside others, and the satisfaction I've gotten from sharing that practice with others. Speaking excitedly, I explained that the community of atheists I work with at The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvardis a diverse group of people interested in having a positive impact on the world and living lives of fulfillment. Sipping her tea, she smiled and said, "We may not believe the exact same things, but I think I finally get where you're coming from."
I'm sure I will continue to get questioned about my atheism as I persist in this work, but as I build more and more positive relationships with people of faith, I'm also sure that those questions will lead to increased understanding.
Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility -- to be understood, we all must work to understand. To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about "the other."
It begins with a relationship. To atheists and religious people alike: Are you willing to put yourselves out there and meet one another in the middle?
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Yesterday, we posted the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Today, we share the responses of Jay Michaelson, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, and Christopher Stedman.
Jay Michaelson is the author of the forthcoming book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is the founding director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. In 2009, Michaelson was included on the "Forward 50" list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.
The Jewish tradition is crystal clear that one is never to celebrate the downfall of one's enemies, even though the human tendency is to do so. We see this pattern again and again.
For example, Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Note that Proverbs 11:10 says that, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy," but that does not mean there should be such shouts. The two verses together suggest that while it is human nature to rejoice when our enemy suffers, we are called upon to do better.
Another example is at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the time, the Children of Israel sang the famous Song of the Sea, whose lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:4). But in The Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b), a story is told that God rebukes the angels for singing along. “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing," God says. Once again: it is human nature to rejoice, but we are called upon to do better.
Jews around the world recently concluded the Passover Seder. This entire ritual celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and part of that story is indeed the demise of the Egyptians. Yet when the ten plagues are recounted, the tradition is to spill a drop of wine for each one. Our joy is incomplete when others suffer.
Yes, it is human to fist-pump in the air when a murderer like Osama Bin Ladin is killed. But such vulgar displays of our basest emotions is precisely what religion is meant to curb.
Author photo by Sebastian Collett.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.
I find myself deeply disturbed by the death and collective responses to the death of Osama bin Laden. When I say "disturbed," I don't mean merely intellectually, but psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. I have found myself drained of energy, withdrawn. And I've had to ask myself why. Shouldn't I be happy, gratified that a monster of evil is now gone from the face of the earth? I note the celebrating crowds on television, in New York and Washington, DC, and understand their very human response, but I'm not there.
I think my disturbance comes from having to contend with conflicting values that all have their measure of truth--and yet none has the whole truth. And so I'm trying to reconcile these disparate values.
With the rest of the nation, I have witnessed the overwhelming grief of the families of the 9/11 victims. I have seen the pictures of the dead, read their stories. I have heard the goodbye messages of spouses, the children left without a father, the way victims jumped to their deaths, some holding the hand of a friend. I understand why the survivors want justice, and whatever closure they can find, and so they welcome the news of bin Laden's death.
I also understand the significance for our nation, in bin Laden's death. He has been not only the perpetrator of much suffering and death, but he had become the symbol of our impotence in failing to rid the world of terrorism. He has been thumbing his nose at us for ten years, making us fear what might happen next. The President's main job is to protect his people, and so Obama had to pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Which brings me to the next point. I have little doubt that the Seals were ordered to kill Bin Laden, whether or not he was armed, whether or not he surrendered. Taking bin Laden prisoner would have invited an international media circus for a trial that might have lasted years--and further provoked all kinds of national and international conflict. We weren't going to let that happen. He was going to be killed and then buried at sea. He was shot first in the chest, I would guess, as would be the normative first shot, and then shot in the head, to assure the death. I also understand the necessity of this decision, and if in fact I am correct, I do not fault Obama for proceeding in this way.
On the other hand, I am a minister and a wife and a mother. I abhor violence. In particular, gun violence disturbs me, for I have personally lost family members to gun violence, as have so many others in our gun-crazy country.
And then I imagine the scene in the compound that night. I imagine the fear that everyone in that compound must have felt as the Seals attacked. I expect Osama bin Laden knew he was going to die. One of his wives watched him shot to death, another identified the body. A number of his children were present in compound. What did the wives and children experience?
Still another dimension to this whole scene is that of the warriors. The Seals carried out what appears to have been an almost flawless plan in dangerous circumstances: their courage and skill are admired by all. And yet the man who killed bin Laden and whoever killed the three others will have to live with the memory of that night: the fear in the eyes of those who were killed or wounded, the gaping wounds, the blood pouring out--all this, and the knowledge that they they took a human life. This is what we ask of our warriors. To do these horrific deeds for us. We don't want to see the pictures. Obama spared us from that.
So what it comes down to, for me, is this: the terrible grayness of morality. The evil that we're all drawn into. The violence that is a part of our lives. The fallenness of us all. There are no good guys and bad guys, except in relative terms. We can only try to see as clearly as we can and act with as much integrity as we can. The Kingdom of God is not as yet at hand. Heaven help us.
Christopher Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is at work on a memoir to be published by Beacon Press.
Last Sunday night, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I’m no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it’s probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers; even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I’ve heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly ten years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the “eye for an eye” mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life – to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.