Respecting religion, staying secular

Today’s guest blogger is Christopher Stedman, an Outreach, Education and Training intern at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC); he also … Continued

Today’s guest blogger is Christopher Stedman, an Outreach, Education and Training intern at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC); he also facilitates IFYC’s media work with Chris is currently a candidate for a Master of Arts in Religion at Meadville Lombard Theological School, where he is writing a novel and an accompanying paper on storytelling.

Ever since I stopped going to church a number of years ago, I’ve been seeking out a community of like-minded “non-believers.” But secular folks are particularly difficult to organize; assembling Atheists, Agnostics, Secular Humanists, and all the other “non-religious” is tricky because our common thread–that we are not something–underscores only what we do not believe. That leaves a lot of room for division among what we do believe.

Last weekend, this search led me to a panel organized by a non-religious group. The topic was how secularists should approach religion. I suspected that there would be mixed feelings about religion, but I also hoped that someone might defend religion’s positive characteristics, identifying within them similar values held by Humanists. I went with optimism and excitement–as a Secular Humanist and intern for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), I felt in a particularly good position to discuss religion in the lives of non-religious folks: “Look, I work with religious people every day and my secularism is stronger than ever!”

I left the panel sorely discouraged. Throughout the program, religion was mocked, decried, and denied. I’d arrived hoping to find a community bound by Humanistic ideals. Instead, I felt isolated. When I asked a fellow attendee to consider that religious diversity fosters an environment where discourse thrives, I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost.”

The next day, I attended my weekly Spiritual Direction course at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies. I’m the only self-identified “non-religious” person in the class, and I’ve been met with many questions. Once, a Catholic classmate cornered me, proclaiming, “I’ve been dying to ask you about your atheism!” But it didn’t feel like an affront–she was genuinely curious.

Sitting in class, I realized that I felt more at home with my Catholic colleagues than the secularists from the day before. While my classmates may feel that their religious beliefs are right, they are not only willing to tolerate my beliefs, but they enthusiastically embrace and challenge them.

Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein writes in his new book, “Good Without God,” that our society must move beyond the question of if one can be good without God to how this can be accomplished. I join Greg in wanting people to move beyond wondering whether I am a moral individual, and I want to make a reciprocal demand of my Humanist brethren: Humanism must move beyond defining itself in opposition to religion. If secular folks want to be respected in a religiously diverse culture, we need to be respectful of a religiously diverse culture.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism, once wrote:

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.

Although some secularists may cringe at the “w” word, Emerson reminds us to be wary of casting our neighbors in a negative light. That negativity will color our worldview. Humanism asks us to look for the best in humanity. It’s not always easy, but we must endeavor to live up to our principles–just as we ask of the religious.

Have I had negative encounters with religion? Of course. As a gay man situated in a society shaped, to a large degree, by Judeo-Christian traditions, I’ve known religious-based persecution intimately. But if secular folks stay on the sidelines, mocking the religious, we’ll become isolated. To build a strong society, Humanism encourages me to engage. In doing so, I’m finding that the fellowship I’ve been seeking is already around me: a diverse community defined by shared values rather than shared identity.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

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    Maybe the non-believers who would join a “non-believer” club are those that are most outspoken against religion.I’m a secular humanist.I see religion as crucial to the development of tribal communities and then civilization.I see religions metaphorical language as an enlightening view of the human condition.

  • larry_carter_center

    It is too bad that this young Atheist does not get it why so many other of his Atheist peers are still shaking off the negative effects of theocracy. The hourly drumbeat of Atheists are “fools” and “reprobates” from bible broadcasters, sermonizing bigots and spewers of anti-gay marriage hate most directly affect young marriage age college environment people. When the lie “In god We Trust” is removed from the McCarthyistic money and children are no longer forced to pray to the US flag in school, maybe then our young Atheist Pastoral Student will find a society waging peace in a secular society. He’s in hell and making friends with the fire fuelers. He’s complaining of all us fight fighters squirting water on all the theocrats and heaven bribers. 843-926-1750 Dial An Atheist Larry Carter Center

  • IfonlyIknew

    Respecting religion is a theoretically potentially good and right thing to do. However, being any less obscure in practice is…well…undemonstrated, as far as I know. For instance, we all know of moral positions that people hold which are, according to them, direct and unavoidable results of their religious beliefs. Let’s take so-called gay marriage, for example. How does one respect a religion that denies others their constitutional rights? Does one pick which parts of someone else’s religion to respect? That’s insulting. Does one respect the person but not their religious position on certain issues? Also insulting and arrogant; said believer doesn’t need, nor I suspect want a positional opponent’s respect.So how does one have honest and effective engagement with another person whose beliefs one finds repugnant? I ask this for both sides of the religious/secularist debate. One might be able to have an elevator-length conversation, but long-haul interfaith work becomes nigh-on impossible unless all parties agree that their beliefs, while good for them may not be good for everyone-which would be great except such positions put some people in diametric opposition to their own religions. Damned (by God) if they do; damned (by us) if they don’t. Too bad for them. It would seem that being faithful to one’s religion while being respectful of others’ religions is impossible in many instances, which would explain why it doesn’t happen more often.

  • ThomasBaum

    Christopher StedmanSeems as if you have noticed that one does not have to believe in God to have a “holier than thou” attitude.As I have said, the True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God looks at the person, not the “label”.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • n_mcguire

    Mr. Patel is on the right track. You don’t accomplish anything by opening the dialogue with the biggest, thorniest issues. Both sides just wind up angry and more entrenched than ever. First, you find a community of open minds and kindred spirits, much like Patel’s classmates. You get to know each other by working on issues where you share commonalities: volunteering at the homeless shelter, picking up trash in the park. Learn to see each other as fellow humans, acting with good intentions, for your mutual benefit. Once that level of trust is established, then you move on to harder things. Needless to say, you don’t start out with the hard-core “my way is the only way” folks on either side of the spectrum. You might need to fight them in the legislature to keep them from doing damage to the things you value most, but keep working the common ground in the meantime. As Felix Adler said, “diversity of creed, unanimity of deed.” And by the way, I’m a religious humanist (i.e., I have a sense of the sacred without the need for an old guy in the sky), and I practice Ethical Culture (google it).

  • ralphawilson

    I agree with much of what Mr. Stedman says, but want to state the obvious: non-believers are in a minority in the U.S., one that is generally ignored and sometimes disparaged. Dealing with “one nation under God” every morning in school, and watching many churches fight against abortion rights and gay rights, don’t make for warm, positive feelings for the religious majority. Yet we have to acknowledge the courage and true humanism of many religious people who fight for justice and equality.