By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby
Five years ago, atheism was all aggression. From Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins, the best selling atheists advanced a particular discourse – one that was both antagonistic and destructive. The question they always answered was, “How many ways can I find to offend religious people?” But the question we always wanted to ask them was different: “How do you bring together people from all backgrounds around equal dignity and mutual loyalty?”
And over the last five years, whenever Eboo gave speeches at interfaith conferences about the Interfaith Youth Core, atheists, secularists and agnostics kept showing up. They would ask how they could be involved – what were they supposed to do in this movement?
We understood the confusion around their role. If all you did was look at the old best-seller list on atheism, you would think that all atheists were anti-religious. But times are changing – all it takes is a glimpse at the newest hit book on atheism, Good without God by Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Epstein’s book is a turning point for atheist discourse, diving into “what a billion non-religious people do believe”, not just what they are against.
From our experience at IFYC – not only do we work with young atheists but a quarter of our own staff are secular humanist – this generation of non-religious young people are paving a new way forward . Last weekend, Nara Schoenberg affirmed this in a Chicago Tribune piece on campus atheists. She writes about what it means to be secular on college campuses – how students are organizing through Secular Student Alliances, and what they are talking about when they meet.
Hemant Mehta, chair of the Secular Student Alliance’s board of directors, reveals to her: “And, personally, if my neighbor’s religious, I don’t really care. I’m less interested in the controversy, and I’m more interested in, what can we do with the beliefs that we do share?” Indeed, a recent Pew study found that 20% of young Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or have “no religion.” As Mehta and others point out, this doesn’t mean they lack values in common with their religious peers.
Atheists today are partnering with religious groups to do service projects; dialoguing and engaging with other religious groups and organizations on campus; and changing the public discourse through blogs, like Mehta’s Friendly Atheist and Chris Stedman’s Non-Prophet Status.
Sounds a heck of a lot like interfaith leadership to me.
So these days when non-religious folks come up after a speech and ask how they can be involved we point them to one place – their peers, who are pioneering interfaith leadership as atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.