The Reliability of Change: why religion matters to this humanist

Post 8 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

In my part of the world, that of urban liberal college campuses (my day job is on a campus) it seems the world is oh so gay (not meant as a pejorative for once). I’ve got LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) colleagues, friends, family members. Queer-headed families are part of the norm for me. So are pride festivals, conferences overflowing with people who bend just about any identity one can imagine. My religious community has queer folk all around raising kids, serving coffee, speaking from pulpits. I say this to show what my normal level is (which for some may seem heavenly, or Gomorrahesque depending on your outlook).

Now, one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in recent memory was one that was filled to the brim with religion, there was god language, shawls, mats, labyrinths, religious texts, smudging, calling the quarters, singing, dancing, and yes even Humanists and atheists. Not only was this one of the most religiously diverse experiences I’ve ever been in but it was also one of the queerest. At the beginning of February in Minneapolis after months of planning the national gay and lesbian task force came to Minneapolis. And not only did it bring a whole lot of LGBT folk, it packed a whole lot of spirit and faith as well. During the larger annual conference called Creating Change, another mini conference happened called Practice Spirit, Do Justice (PSDJ). There were moment when the two blurred in some amazing ways but what happened at PSDJ seemed to be somehow a special hidden area as well.

For this gay humanist it couldn’t have been more fun. I saw religious leaders both queer and allies talking about things lgbt people rarely seem to get together to talk about, god and how we as a movement in tat wit this notion. How religion is a part of our society and can hinder as well as help LGBT people achieve the equality we are working for. I met gay and gay friendly Mormons, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Native American Elders, Atheists, Quakers, Buddhists, Pagans, Wiccans, and so many more traditions during these few short days. I’ve been thinking about the LGBT families and individuals in religious spaces for a while now. I see this area of society as crucially important for us to move forward. I think we have done a lot in the secular arena very quickly, lots of amazing things that people just a little older than I couldn’t imagine happening in their lifetime and people just a little younger barely noticing as new and different.

We’ve done this great work by building some walls and opting out of spaces. Important walls that helped people who had been hurt by the religions they trusted and the families they loved. Opted out of the communities that turned their backs. We’ve built new families, communities, homes, religious groups, and spaces to heal. But I feel like things are changing, in church-time, about a decade or two after we would like. But they are changing none the less. This is something we can’t ignore or belittle, there have always been individuals and congregations here and there that have gone against the fray and opened the circle. There have been whole denominations, though they tended to be smaller ones, less “mainstream” or the ones we’ve created ourselves as LGBT people have done time and again when they couldn’t find what they need in the mainstream. But now, finally the small overtures and special rules that sometimes have allowed gay people to participate, and sometimes have taken that away are becoming something more. Clergy are able to be out; we are starting to be able to be married in places of worship and be out in religious choirs, and in the church office; and we are being recognized as being in the pews already. We aren’t those gays out there; we are the congregants already at the table.

By showing up to the table and refusing to give up our seat we do create change. Slowly, continuously, but just existing in places that sometime don’t want us or feel safe we are less the other and more just a committee member or coffee server. It isn’t always dramatic but these constant interactions where we just are start to pile up. We just are on tv, we just are at the office, we just are getting the mail. We just are. And by being in places that might not have always wanted us we are doing amazing things, life saving things.

Now, you might be wondering why a humanist cares. I gave up the Christian space long ago, as a gay man, as a nonbeliever, as someone who was left feeling betrayed by religion. I’ve found my spaces, created some, joined others, and have a life that goes over, under, and between places I don’t want to be. Why does what happens in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church matter to me when I can go about my merry gay humanist life without walking through the doors ever again? Because our communities’ children are in those places I’ve fought to opt out of, as many have. Our children or in the places next door to the MCC churches we’ve built, the liberal synagogues we’ve founded. LGBT people are unique in a lot of ways, but one way that I would argue we are different than almost any minority group in the world; we rarely create and raise the next generation of our community.

So I learned a lot about religious community, religious organizing, progressive faith, and the power of building bridges at Practice Spirit, Do Justice. But the lesson that finally hit home for me is that we truly are everywhere. And while it is true that it is pretty rare for LGBT people to be raised by LGBT people (though it does happen) it is also true that I know a lot of nontheists, religious liberals, and other people in my life that grew up in religious spaces that didn’t work and even hurt them. Most of the amazing LGBT religious leaders and our allies are not a part of the religion of their childhood either. So opting back in to religious conversation doesn’t just help LGBT youth, it helps humanists youth, atheist youth, Unitarian youth, and so many other young people that could grow up to be amazing agents of change from within the traditions we’ve left. While it is true that gay people are making change by just being who they are in spaces that might not be comfortable all the time, the same is true for those who don’t believe in god. Just being who we are as nontheists at work, school, and in conversations changes minds. Five years ago I didn’t think I would have worked three years at a church, voted for and elected an African American president, or have ten countries around the world recognize same-sex marriages as equal. That is in five short years. Now imagine how much the world could change in the next five? What if instead of arguing with so much of the world we had conversations? I’m excited to see how much my showing up time and again in religious spaces changes them. I’m betting in ways I can’t even imagine.

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Evangelical Disbelief

Post 7 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

I’m struggling with Evangelicals lately. Not Evengelical Christians, some of whom are greatly problematic for me on multiple fronts, but with Evangelical Atheists. This is something I encounter directly within the humanist/atheist/nontheist community and when I’m in multifaith settings is often the biggest hurdle to overcome to get to productive dialog. The chasm between believers and nonbelivers, where the headlines and big stories are largely Christians vs. Atheists or vice versa is something that causes me concern given that both camps have gotten more and more angry in their language and less able to have any sort of civil discourse. Sadly this sort of inability to even hear let alone consider the other side is becoming the norm in religious, political, and just about every other kind of debate leading to dangerous places. A post from a Christian perspective on this issue can be found at Meg Hitchcock’s blog.

The Background:

Yesterday a video continued to make its way around the internets with a young woman basically saying that God made the tragic events in Japan happen to show atheists he exists. It was largely an anti-atheist message tied to the Lenten Season of Christianity. It was later reported by the creator to be a troll video (something made to be intentionally upsetting or to cause chaos). Here are two posts with the original video and then the coming-clean video. The user’s youtube account was shut down as well.

While the original video seems to be a fake, the ideas behind are not. Groups that fall outside conservative Christendom are often blamed/tied to natural disasters and seen as inherently evil, corrupt, or untrustworthy – a Salon.com article about the last Presidential campaign has some nice summaries and links to other articles and this line:

Thus, white evangelical Ministers are free to advocate American wars based on Biblical mandates, rant hatefully against Islam, and argue that natural disasters occur because God hates gay people.

The view that atheists are inherently bad isn’t just held by a group of evangelical leaders that have a national podium/pulpit to speak from either. While not going as far as saying that nonbelievers are the cause of natural disasters, around half of all Americans say they would refuse to vote for a well-qualified atheist candidate for public office, more than any other minority group in the United States (source: Good Without God by Greg Epstein).

A friend of mine posted the statement “So if I wasn’t ready to say I’m an atheist before, I sure am after watching this video” along with the original troll video linked about above. Which started a firestorm of comments (currently at 52) throughout the day. The first few posts weren’t out of the ordinary with people mostly saying how out of line the post was or how her viewpoint wasn’t what Christianity was really all about. But then the below quoted post happened and I had to keep reading and then write a long (2 comments worth) of response which became this post.

Urg… I dont get what the fuss is. She is christian. This is what ALL Christians think, that its gods will. We should never be disgusted with one christian in particular was should be disgusted with all of them all of the time. Dumb Christians are nothing new. More Christians need black eyes and broken teeth. People tend to re think what they say after you punch em in the mouth.

And later:

Religion breeds willful ignorance. Some people like the warm fuzzy feeling of going to heaven so they say they believe, others kill women and children because they believe. I am as passionate on my position as the most dyed in the wool faith head, the difference between us is I’m fighting for equality and the end to the ridiculous ideas of faith. Religion is just stupid.

My Response on Facebook:

I’m sorry you’ve drawn such a firm line in the sand. I think clearly this person has had a life and childhood that I can’t imagine or may also have actual mental illness. I’m also sorry to the general facebook community for this long post, I promise I have a point. To address something brought up before, many ideas bring about death of innocent people but also save lives at the same time.

Take guns for instance, created to end lives (either of animals or people) which can be used to protect ones home, take down corrupt governments, or murder someone in cold blood. The gun isn’t inherently good or bad but a tool for doing good or bad.

Now take a more abstract idea like money. The idea that one object has some sort of value complete because we as a society say it does and that object can then be traded for other objects. I would say a lot of modern society would be difficult if not impossible to make sort without a concept of money (whole other conversations could be had about this) but lets pretend for a moment that having the ability to quickly earn and spend and trade the time we spend doing things for the resources we need or the things we want is good. Now the same concept is rife with problems, people die because of money, do and have done to them horrible things because of money. But once again these are societal or individual choices on how money is used not something inherent in the concept of money.

I think belief in god/G-d/God(s) and the supernatural in a larger sense to be similar to other concepts. Humans are able to think in the abstract and symbolize, this is what makes humans so special as a species. The idea that there are things beyond what we can see and powers out there that we can barely imagine and yes even possibly an entity that has a plan or motive of some kind isn’t inherently going to cost human life. I would say it is this great amount of imagining that led us as a species to be able to think of things like atoms, quarks, air planes, electricity, viruses, bacteria. All of them are also unperceivable to varying degrees but our obsession with what makes things happen led to our varying degrees of understanding of these and so many more amazing things in the world. And to bring it back closer to the point, the concept of a personal knowable god has led to amazing works of art, architecture, philosophy, and charitable works in the world. I like living in a world with the American Red Cross, and Hospitals in general. Yes, horrible things are done in the name of Christianity and other religions but once again it isn’t the idea that we should get together once a week in a small community of folks that believes in an invisible force that is looking out for humans that is causing these good or bad things. It is the believers that believe them, it always comes back to personal responsibility not the identities we claim, the things we believe, or the tools we employ.

My Takeaway:

As you can imagine with 52 posts and counting there was a lot of discussion around this topic which I think is the real value in this troll video happening. The debate was well underway on many websites before being revealed as a troll video but I don’t think its status as a troll video really matters in the end. Yes it was staged and yes it was offensive, but the ideas, beliefs, and prejudices behind the video and the comments are all real and something to think about and work through not as Christians and Atheists but as human beings with many differences but many more similarities.

The enemy of Humanism is not faith – the enemy of Humanism is hate, it is fear, it is ignorance, it is the darker part of man that is in every Humanist, and every person in the world… But faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something, with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers. — Joss Whedon

Good Without God – Book Review

Post 6 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

See Amazon page: http://amzn.to/foKkHb

Good Without God:
What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe

By Greg M. Epstein,
Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University

272 pages, published October 27, 2009

In Good Without God, Epstein writes an introduction to a huge population of the world – those who do not believe in God. I see this book as a great introductory text to a very large and diverse population of people. I don’t think it goes into great detail very often but instead keeps things simple and brief. That is the really great thing about this book, I really would recommend this to people who aren’t studying religions deeply or want to know every identity group within the nontheist/freethought movement and all the major historical figures that have done great deeds while not holding belief in the divine. There are many books out there that do these things but view that are actually casual reading on the humanist community and the many other names we go by.

I could see this book being used as the Humanist/Nontheist text in religious communities that teach about many of the world’s religious traditions (Neighboring Faiths in UU congregations as an example). I could see this being given to significant others/partners in mixed-religious couplings or other loved ones. This is also a great book for those who are looking for the first humanist book to begin to study on their own.

The biggest thing I enjoyed about this book was the lack of anger, the lack of attack of those that do believe. I struggle when reading other authors who seem to believe that you can convert from either a place of anger or of superiority over those “stupid enough to believe.” This book is a refreshing invitation. To hear a piece of what humanists believe. Does Greg Epstein’s words sum up each and every humanists notions of how the world works and why they are motivated to do what they do? Of course not, i doubt any book can do that for a gorup of people. I do however see this book as a great source of correct information about humanist philosophy and worldview.

People I have spoken with about humanist/atheist/freethought reading material often have had bad experiences and ended up angry after reading other popular authors. I feel confident that you will be pleasantly surprised with this book’s lack of venom. I hope this book and many more like it become the norm and not the exception in humanist writings.

I’m not this or that, I’m both and

Wordle: Theology Cloud

Click the image to see it larger.

Post 3 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

Identity politics dominate a lot of conversations. Religious conversations are no different. I’m encouraged to identify in certain ways based on the situation or even when not encouraged sometimes I shorthand things and just claim a single identity that helps people move forward in the conversation. Tonight I had the pleasure of not needing to do that as much as normal. I attended a gathering of Hamline’s Multifaith Alliance where the discussion was about Atheism and Interfaith work.

Did I shorthand things some? Yes, of course. But I was also to hear from others and share more facets of my worldview/theology/lifestance than is normally the case. It was a space of opening the conversation, sharing questions, sharing resources, and learning.

On my drive home I thought a bit about it and I thought about my primary religious identity of Humanist, more specifically Religious Humanist (I plan on blogging about this more during my Humanist Lent). I thought about my various religious identities and exploration. I also thought about how all these things, even those I’ve left behind still impact how I see the world, what I value, and my moral compass. I thought how it really isn’t a single term, or even a sentence or list of words that makes up how I see the world. Then I thought of this blog and the tag cloud, so I went online and made a Theology Cloud to summarize it in a snapshot. I didn’t spend a long time on it and I know that this would be a constantly shifting thing from moment to moment and situation to situation. It would also encompass my other identities beyond the theological/philosophical: my race, ethnicity, sexuality, sex, ability, education, geographic location, socioeconomic class, relationship status, age, parental status, and about every other conceivable piece of myself. But to make this at least conceivable for now I kept it to a short list and even that paints a complex picture. Try it out yourself (I opened Excel and in each column copied a single term differing numbers of times to get the amounts right) at www.wordle.net.