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On Atheists and Theists Together at the Interfaith Table

by Chris Stedman

The Case for Collaboration

As an interfaith activist, I’ve worked to bring an end to religious division. In recent years, this has increasingly meant speaking out against the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence sweeping America.

Advocating for religious believers has often put me at odds with my own community. As an atheist, I regularly encounter anti-religious rhetoric and activism. Speaking out against anti-pluralistic voices in my community hasn’t always been easy. Yet it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.

Why? For one, without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn’t be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution. Not that long ago, I could not have been a public, vocal atheist at all. But due to relationships with religious allies and increased atheist visibility, the times are changing.

Concordia College’s Old Main was built in 1906. Photo: WikimediaStill, this expanded freedom shouldn’t suggest that everything is coming up roses for American atheists. In 2010, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, forbade the formation of a secular student group, claiming the group’s mission was in direct opposition with the school’s identity as an institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Concordia, which recognizes a Catholic student group, refused to reconsider their decision. As a graduate of Augsburg College, another Minnesota ELCA-affiliated school, I was alarmed by this news. But Concordia’s decision received little attention. Few came to the secular students’ defense. This was not the end to the Concordia story, though, as we shall see.

What Atheists Endure

Atheists’ identities are regularly belittled or dismissed. We often hear that there are “no atheists in the foxhole” and that “atheists are parasites.” We still aren’t eligible to hold public office in several parts of this country. Where eligible, studies have shown we are the least electable group in the United States. Nearly half of American parents don’t want us marrying their children. Atheists are the most feared community in the United States; more people think that atheists “are changing this country for the worse” than any other group.

A dramatic example of marginalization and demonization followed the horrific school shooting in Connecticut last December. Shortly after the shooting, Newt Gingrich said: “When you have an anti-religious, secular bureaucracy… seeking to drive God out of public life, something fills the vacuum.” James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said this: “Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant… Believe me, that is going to have consequences … I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”

Earlier in 2012, Pat Robertson wondered if the horrific shooting at a Sikh gurdwara happened because of “people who are atheists,” who “hate God [and] hate the expression of God” and “take it out on innocent people who are worshiping God.” Elected officials and religious leaders expressed similar ideas following the mass shooting in Aurora. And in the wake of the appalling shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, where six died, CNN commentator Erick Erickson attacked President Obama for making the national moment of silence in the wake of the shooting a time for “prayer or reflection.” Erickson accused the president of “accommodating atheists,” as if it is somehow a bad thing to acknowledge the variety of ways people process and respond to unfathomable tragedies. Sadly, few people outside of the atheist community come to our defense in the face of such prejudice.

But that is changing.

Shayreen Isoli, a Muslim student at Lincoln, a Quaker girl’s school in Rhode Island, was so inspired by Chris as a gay atheist interfaith activist that she organized his visit to the school.More and more in my interfaith work I encounter religious people willing and eager to speak up on our behalf. When I write, challenging marginalization, many of the most affirmative responses are from religious people. It makes me hope that defending the nonreligious against sweeping rhetorical attacks will become as instinctual as responding to bigotry directed at our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Pagan neighbors. And I hope that more people will begin to act as watchdogs for rhetoric that demeans or diminishes any of our fellow humans, regardless of their religious or nonreligious identity.

To this end, allies of goodwill are greatly needed – more durable civic ties between atheists and the religious will decrease animus and fear on both sides. Relationships are transformative. 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 changed their mind and decided to support gay marriage in the last decade, 37% (the largest category) cited having “friends/ family/ acquaintances who are gay/ lesbian” as the primary reason. Likewise, atheists and religious believers will benefit from building relationships of cooperation and understanding with one another.

Remember Concordia? Their situation evolved considerably after 2010. A new group of secular students meets regularly now. Once again, they appealed to the administration for official recognition. This time they worked with new allies, leaders from the campus interfaith group and faculty supporters in the Religion Department. I had the great pleasure of being invited to speak at Concordia College late last year, where I appealed on behalf of secular students and had great discussions with campus allies. This month, after two years of collaborative effort, the group received official recognition from the school.

The Road Ahead

Interfaith dialogue between people of different religious backgrounds is important but incomplete. The dialogue must build to include not just religious and spiritual traditions but those who fall outside traditional religious paradigms, including the nonreligious. Secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the like must be an integral part of such conversations. What we share as human beings is so much more important than our belief systems.

Like theists, we need to remember, atheists are anything but a monolithic single-minded community. Even as those advocating for interfaith dialogue and cooperation increase, the atheist community remains divided. Much of this division stems from the fact that many atheists see themselves as “deconversion missionaries,” opposed to any efforts that would promote religious identify. I also sense, though, some legitimate resentment from not often being invited to the interfaith table.

Any discomfort religious people and the nonreligious experience with each other must be grappled with for the sake of truly inclusive interfaith collaboration. This isn’t to say that hesitancy is entirely unmerited; just as some religious individuals make it their sole mission to convert others to their faith, many atheists engage with people of faith solely in hopes of convincing them to abandon their tenets.

But there are also atheists who are content to listen and to share, to dialogue and learn. They are part of a growing population of people who don’t believe in God but still want the same things everyone else wants: meaning, community, and a better world. Atheists interested in collaboration instead of confrontation deserve to be included. We bring a unique set of experiences and insights to conversations on religion and ethics. Don’t leave us out.

Chris worked with the Humanist Community at Harvard to organize an interfaith effort raising $10,000 in a meal-packing event that generated 40,000 meals for kids in need.Once, as a Christian friend and I discussed atheism, another Christian approached us. Admitting his eavesdropping, he asked why I, as an atheist, would get involved in interfaith work. We ended up discussing a whole range of topics, but at one point he posited a question that stopped me in my tracks: “Okay, but tell me this, Mr. Atheist: Where did we come from? How did all of this get here?”

I answered: “To be honest, that question doesn’t matter all that much to me. Investigating humanity’s origins is an important endeavor, but as far as I’m concerned there’s a more urgent question. What concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?”

A year later, famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking made headlines when he said during an interview that he didn’t believe in an afterlife. But in my mind, the most pivotal moment of that interview was also the most overlooked. In a blink-and-you’ll- miss-it sentence, Hawking offered an imperative call to action: Q: So here we are. What should we do? A: We should seek the greatest value of our action.

Given that we are here, what will we do? What is the greatest value of our action? I hope, as we discern the answers to those questions collaboratively, that we will defend tolerance for all and engage one another’s deepest questions and convictions with respect and compassion, whether we are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Pagan, Buddhist, Sikh, Humanist, agnostic, atheist or any of the other ways human beings identify who we are. Despite our disagreements, significant as they are, we must build understanding across lines of religious difference and work together to improve a troubled world.

We may not agree on the existence of God or an afterlife, but surely we can agree that life in the here and now requires that we create peaceful, collaborative ways to work and live together.

An earlier version of this story was published, August 10, 2010, in Huffington Post, under the headline “Interfaith Dialogue Must Include Atheists.”