If representation is homogenous, then it is inaccurate. Yet, Muslims are daily portrayed and perceived as a monolith—in spite of there being 1.6 billion Muslims spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices.
I’m a soccer addict. I love playing, watching, and following the “beautiful game” any chance I get. I inherited my love for the sport from my Egyptian father, who sat me down in our Texas home and told me what “football,” really was. He taught me about Pelé and Brazil, and of the great rivalry in his own country between the clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek. He also taught me about the World Cup and Ramadan. And we can all agree that at least one of them is of great religious importance.
The World Cup and Ramadan aren’t always mentioned in the same sentence, but this year was different. The Islamic holy month started during the tournament’s knockout stage. In some ways, this was a fitting moment for the Muslim soccer players who had made it that far. They knew the Muslim world would be watching them as they pushed their bodies to their physical limits in the greatest moment of their careers. This was certainly the case for Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira of Germany, who helped seal German soccer supremacy for the next four years.
The last time Ramadan and the World Cup crossed paths was in 1986 and 1982 respectively. I’ll never forget the summer of 1982. I was in Egypt, visiting my father’s family on a much-delayed bereavement trip. My father had died of cardiac arrest in October of 1981. We buried him in a Muslim cemetery in Houston, Texas and had to wait eight months before we could visit our relatives in Cairo. Those eight months were tough on me, a nine-year-old boy who just lost his father, soccer coach, and mentor.
When I discovered that I wanted to be a Muslim I don’t think I really knew what was involved. This was not for lack of knowledge about the religion but perhaps a lack of knowledge about myself, and a lack of knowledge generally. I knew that I would be required to kneel in submission to God five times a day, abstain from alcohol, along with a host of other minor ascetic measures. But when one actually finds himself in the throes of post-Shahada conversion, it becomes a different matter altogether.
I converted to Islam the previous spring, and spent the subsequent months in a frenzy of learning how to be a Muslim. So ensconced was I in the honeymooning phase with my new religion that one of the greatest obligations I have as a Muslim had crept up on me.
I was completely unprepared for Ramadan that first year. I had not prepared myself, physically or mentally, for the rigors of a month long fast. I was, in fact, still largely oblivious to what that entailed.
Maciej Ziembinski and the author (photo by Tomasz Cebulski)
My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.
Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past—the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.
He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu i Czemu (“For whom and what for?”). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.
After touring colleges with my second and final child this spring break, I am suddenly aware that I am approaching the end of an era. Parenting has felt like an endless and all-consuming way of being for me, a role I took on with great joy in my thirties, after years as a journalist. In motherhood, I became a PTA President, a leader in our interfaith families community, the schools columnist for the town paper, and ultimately the author of a book on religion and parenting. I was the mom that other parents called for tips on negotiating the school system, or organizing an interfaith bar mitzvah, or finding the best music teachers.
Somehow, I am only just now realizing that this excellent 20-year adventure in mothering may turn out to be, if I am lucky, only a small fraction of a long life. My grandmother lived until 98, my father is working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations at 90, my mother plays the ukulele at 83. So my own period of day-to-day mothering may only fill a quarter, or a fifth, of my lifetime.
“Is music universal?” It’s one question among many raised by S. Brent Plate in his new book A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, and a question I struggled with for some time myself.
When I first started practicing capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art informed by live music, I had trouble picking out the tinkling rhythm provided by the lead instrument. Not understanding the rhythm meant not knowing the specific set of rituals involved.
At the time, I was traveling through Japan, and my Japanese was a becoming a burden, rather than an asset. While visiting a capoeira group in Tokyo, I did not want to embarrass my mestre (teacher), or my mestre’s mestre, still leading classes in Brazil at the age of 76.
My stone collection lives in a Hard Rock Café glass on my kitchen counter. Many of them are polished gemstones, purchased at some point in a mystical gift shop or as accessories to a tabletop fountain or other faux-zen object. Some of them were gifts, like the leopard skin jasper or the sodalite, that were proposed to hold some kind of power—self-confidence, inner peace, the dissipation of fear—which would “flow around” me, granting me the ability to shed the flaws in my personality. This might be only time the phrase “mumbo jumbo” has ever been applicable for me.
We celebrated Easter last year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.
Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.
I first heard of the idea of “Polish-Jewish” reconciliation from my Zen rabbi, who often evoked the most radical commandment in Judaism in his Friday night talks: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger.”
This week, Jews are obligated to commemorate the liberation from slavery in Egypt with the Passover seder. The observance demands that we ask questions, sing songs, even argue—all in the service of keeping alive a story that we’ve told and retold through the millennia. We are asked to “enter” the story, to imagine that we ourselves were slaves, that we wandered in the desert for forty years.
The image of the Passover seder plays a central role in both my memoirs—The Souvenir and The Crooked Mirror.The Souvenir is based on my discovery, after my father passed away, of hundreds of letters my father wrote to my mother during the Pacific War, as well as my discovery in those letters of a war souvenir—a bloodied Japanese flag—which bore the name of a Japanese soldier named Yoshio Shimizu.
A companion is someone we share bread with. That’s what the word companion literally means: from com meaning “together,” and panis meaning “bread.” When company comes over, we break out the bread. Bread is a pervasive symbol of being together, of gathering, of community, a symbol that we engage, chew, taste, swallow, and digest in the presence of others. Historians of social life are clear that commensality, eating together, has been vital to ongoing political power, and peaceful coexistences, while a Moroccan proverb tells us, “By bread and salt we are united.”
When I was eighteen, I stood in the quad at my university listening to another student emphatically protesting my atheism. I rolled my eyes dismissively as he, almost comically, pointed at a tree and explained how such a thing would not be possible without Allah. I listened, and watched, half interested for the next fifteen minutes as he repeated this exercise with everything in sight.
Much to my own surprise, less than five years later, I found myself in a masjid, reciting the Shahadah in front of an Imam.
Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.
Susan Katz Miller:I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
Jewish Book Month, which originated in 1925 right here in Boston, ends tomorrow with the beginning of Hanukkah. We thought we'd commemorate the annual tradition with some never-too-late reading recommendations by a few of our authors. For more suggestions of Judaic titles to read during Hanukkah, or for any occasion, Beacon Presshas you covered.
Author photo: Stephanie Williams
Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both, offers several titles that celebrate the diversity of interfaith life:
Mixed-Up Love by Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll is important as the first memoir written by a rabbi married to a Catholic. Jon and Rabbi Michal will appear on a panel with me in March at the Jewish Community Center in Silicon Valley. They tell their story in alternating voices, providing both perspectives, which reminded me of the classic pioneering joint memoir by interfaith couple Ned and Mary Rosenbaum, Celebrating Our Differences.
This weekend, over three hundred synagogues, mosques, and Muslim and Jewish organizations, and thousands of Muslims and Jews in over thirty countries on all six continents will begin to come together to celebrate unity between the two religions. It is part of the "Weekend of Twinning" programming series, a growing effort by Jews and Muslims to confront Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities and beyond, and to replace hatred and fear with increased understanding and a sense of shared purpose. Programming will continue through the end of the year.
out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film Aftermath the
same weekend as 12 Years a Slave. Both films were an opportunity to view how
a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. Aftermath, is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, about the Jedwabne pogrom, a 1941 massacre of a
Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the US. 12 Years, based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to
Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.
are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national
self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that they were not always the
victims in World War II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance
that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human
In 2007, Somali-born Dutch author Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, an autobiography that documented her journey from repression in Muslim East Africa to the freedom of the Netherlands. To be free, Hirsi Ali claimed, Muslim women must renounce their faith and their cultures. Rife with awestruck veneration of the empowered West, Hirsi Ali's recipe for liberation for Muslim women was eagerly consumed. The book became a New York Times best-seller and its author a celebrity. Not long after, Hirsi Ali collaborated on a film that further pushed her point and featured her naked silhouette in the rituals of Muslim prayer. Extremist clerics in various parts of the Muslim world denounced her as a heretic, bolstering Hirsi Ali's royalties.
In 2013, the world is getting to know Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl from Pakistan who has become a champion for girls' education and was a favorite in betting parlors to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On Oct. 8, 2012, Malala, then 15, was a student at one of the few girls' schools in the Swat Valley, in the country's north. On an otherwise uneventful afternoon, Malala, whose family had received threats from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for continuing her education, got into the Toyota van that transported the girls to and from school. Minutes later, it was accosted by Taliban gunmen; they asked for Yousafzai by name and shot her. Her skull was fractured, and she nearly died. Her book, I Am Malala, is the story of that grim afternoon and all that came before and has come after.
When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew. Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.
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.
Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.
Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.
As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”
Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.
One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.
Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”
Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”
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.