Interfaith Activism: Pros and Cons

I’ve written about why I don’t consider myself a secular activist. I do consider myself an interfaith activist, among other things, and I think it’s important to explain why.

First, let me preface with some background: As an ex-fundamentalist, my interactions with Christianity have been overwhelmingly negative. I found peace outside the confines of the church. Interfaith activism isn’t a natural fit for me, but I value it because I think it has the potential to thwart fundamentalism. Fundamentalists avoid other points of view. They have to, because different perspectives–even different interpretations of the same religion–are considered blasphemous. It’s sin by association. You’re supposed to be in the world, not of it. 

I think that atheism is often subject to the same problems. If blasphemy’s defined as a violation of certain established standards, then the evangelistic approach to atheism that I’ve criticized in previous posts is just as limited as its religious counterpart. It’s just as sectarian, and for this reason, I think it ought to be avoided. 

So I see interfaith activism is a potential antidote to sectarianism, and in this post, I’m going to break down what I see as the positives and negatives of participation in this field. Full disclosure: I interned with the Three Faiths Forum (3FF) in London, England as an open atheist, so my perspective on the subject is influenced by 3FF’s approach to interfaith work. 

Religious Literacy

Fellow atheists, I know you love to cite the Pew study showing that we’re more religiously literate than the religious themselves. But keep in mind that this study measured religious literacy by a limited standard. Religious literacy is more than understanding the facts of a religious system; it should encompass an understanding of a believer’s emotional connection to the faith. What does faith really mean? How does it influence a person’s daily life? The answers to these questions won’t be found in encyclopedia entries, but in dialogue. I think it’s impossible to truly understand what faith means to the believer simply from reading about it. It’s necessary to see it in action.

Conversely, the same applies to non-theism. What does humanism mean to an individual humanist? That answer is going to vary from person to person, and unless a believer is exposed that variance, it’s easy for them to reduce humanism, or atheism, or any other non-theist perspective to a monolithic entity. We want to move past stereotypes and stigma. Interfaith activism is a way to do that. 

Anti-extremism

Neither side of the culture war is free from extremism. It’s certainly true that in the United States, religious extremists have thus far proven themselves more prone to physical violence. As a counterpoint, though, I’d like to remind everyone that certain elements within atheism have no problem making regular death and rape threats to those they believe are corrupting the movement. I don’t know if that trend will escalate into physical violence. I would be surprised if it didn’t. And although I can’t reasonably speculate as to when or why it would happen, I think the problem should be noted.

Extremists are ideological purists, and ideological purists can be dangerous. Interfaith work is a threat to ideological purity. It’s messy, challenging activism. You’ll be forced to confront your stereotypes of the Other, and so will your fellow activists. The point is to develop a more nuanced, more realistic perspective on how other people practice belief or non-belief. And while I don’t think that interfaith activism alone is capable of eliminating extremism, I think it helps. 

Limitations

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a feminist. Gender equality is a non-negotiable issue to me. If your belief system does not make equal space for women, I don’t think it deserves my respect, and the same is true for traditions that are anti-gay. I also don’t think it’s my responsibility to educate the privileged about marginalization. 

Ideally, interfaith settings should establish clear parameters for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. A Christian fundamentalist shouldn’t show up and demand I quit my job and content myself with housework, and I don’t think that an evangelistic atheist should show up and demand religious people deconvert. There can be some use to confronting bigoted beliefs directly, but you should do this if, and only if, you feel you have the emotional energy to do it. There have to be limits on the accommodations afforded to any one belief system, and those accommodations should never come at the cost of dehumanizing someone who doesn’t share those beliefs.

On a final note: I value interfaith activism because I live in an interfaith world. My parents are Christians. I have Christian friends and Muslim friends, Buddhist friends and Pagan friends. And I like that. That’s the sort of world my upbringing denied. I’m a better person for regularly interacting with different beliefs and perspectives. That interaction continually forces me to interrogate my own beliefs, and after twenty-one years in fundamentalism, that’s a welcome change. I do not ever want to feel that complacent again. And I want to conduct my life in a way that makes space for experiences that are different from my own. 

Dear Eric Fromm

Thank you for having the courage I lacked at your age.

Northwest Christian University isn’t as strict as my own alma mater, Cedarville, and I’m glad you won’t be expelled for your views. But you’re now a visible minority on a small and overwhelmingly Christian campus, and that means you’re in for a difficult time. You already know that, I’m sure, because this is not a decision anyone makes lightly. You wrote that you’re already the subject of rumors, and after this, you’ll probably lose more friends. But then, you’ve probably been losing friends ever since you started asking questions.

By the time I lost my religion, I’d already spent several years fending off harassment and abuse from classmates and faculty for political views only slightly to the left of center. There were always rumors about my faith, too, and I hated that. Sometimes I think I held onto Christianity for as long as I did just to spite everyone who called me a heretic.

Spite isn’t a particularly good reason to identify as anything, Christian or otherwise, so kudos for making a different choice. You were honest in public, itself a radical act. You used your position as student body president for good. And because of that, Northwest’s non-Christian students finally have representation on campus.

I often hear people, atheist people, mainstream people, characterize anyone who attends Christian college as ignorant and backwards. I hope that because of what you’ve done, people will actually listen when I tell them that these campuses are more diverse than they think. There were atheists at my college, too. There were Christians with doubts and questions.  And we stay at these schools for so many reasons. I stayed out of fear: I would have been expelled immediately and I knew I couldn’t count on my family for support at the time. That’s such a common story, and even though yours is different, I want you to know how much you’ve helped marginalized students at colleges like ours.

You’ve showed them that it’s ok.

You’re an atheist and your world didn’t end. There was no lightning bolt. You’ve lost some friends and you’re the target of rumors, but you have supporters, too, and you’ll live to fight another day.  I didn’t have that example. I wish I had, because my years at Cedarville wouldn’t have been nearly as lonely as they were. At these schools, doubt’s a fight you have with yourself, not a conversation you share with other people.

Fundamentalism and evangelicalism both encourage followers to compartmentalize themselves. The Christian isn’t really a whole person; she’s continually at war with her ‘sin nature,’ an aspect of the human condition that she can’t hope to discard. Even after salvation, this war with the sin nature continues, trapping the Christian into a dual identity. All my questions, all my objections and concerns, got subsumed into this sin nature, so I fought them. I awarded my ‘sin nature’ an almost supernatural strength and I wrestled with it like Isaac wrestled with God. And also like Isaac, I lost my wrestling match. Doubt pinned me, and when I finally faced it, I realized that I’d just been fighting myself all along.

I don’t think this is something that anyone should ever have to experience on their own, and yet so many of us do because we’re convinced that we’re alone.

So I’ll close with a challenge: keep using your position for good. Be a safe person for your fellow students. When they come to you with their stories, listen. Provide practical, reasonable support, and let them come to their own conclusions. You might be the first person who’s ever treated their questions with respect.

And thanks again for doing what so many of us couldn’t.

So Much For Personhood

For a brief but glorious moment this afternoon, I had faith in our democratic process.

I owe Michael Farris for this moment. I owe Michael Farris and the movement he represents lots of things, none of them good, so I’ll take this as my due. And in any case, it came at his expense. Today, Farris appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to explain exactly why they should not ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). And in response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee destroyed him.

Well, most of them.  Leave it to Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to be Michael Farris’ strongest ally.

Fortunately, most of the members saw through Farris’ fear-mongering. According to Farris (and, on this count, Corker) ratification of the treaty would subject the United States to foreign law, and in a neat trick, would somehow simultaneously expand the powers of the federal government to a dangerous degree. Farris views this as a threat to the rights of homeschooling parents, and via HSLDA he’s assured them that the treaty would deprive them of decision-making rights for their children.

This is not actually true, as Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his colleagues pointed out. The UNCRPD is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which as the name suggests is American and it’s been law since 1990. Ratification of the UNCRPD would therefore not impact federal law; it’s a symbolic gesture.  Farris tries to get around that by claiming it would impact state laws, and states’ rights. This is also not true, and I’m unclear why a lawyer would make such an obviously flawed argument.  Again,the UNCRPD is based on the ADA.  It does not alter the ADA. The ADA is federal law and no state is exempt from it.

That sinks the sovereignty argument as well. If ratification of the treaty does not actually mandate a change in US law, Farris can hardly claim that passing it would surrender our sovereignty to our new overlords at the United Nations.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Farris thinks the ADA is overreach, too. But that’s not the argument he made before the Senate today. Let me be very clear: the UNCRPD does not represent a new attack on American liberty. If you object to the content of the treaty, then you object to the ADA, and that’s a different discussion altogether.

It’s also possible that, similarly, he rejects the very concept of the United Nations, and would oppose the passage of any international treaty. Again, he didn’t make those arguments today, and it’s not a view that HSLDA has articulated in its campaign against the UNCRPD. Either this is a smokescreen for an ulterior agenda, or he’s remarkably illogical for someone who’s made a career in law.

And about that law career. Senator Menendez will forever be cherished in my memory for reminding the committee that while Farris’ international law degree–the very degree he claims gives him expert status on this subject–might very well be from the University of London, it’s also from a distance learning course.

(I’d like to take this moment to assure everyone that when I say attended the University of London, I’m referring to physical attendance. I sat my physical rear end in physical chairs and physical lecturers taught me postcolonial theory and global policy.)

But it’s not Farris’ specious arguments that bother me, really. I could even ignore his self-portrayal as an expert in international law, or at least laugh at it a little. Michael Farris’ arguments disgust me because I am a person with a disability.

It’s strange to write that out because I don’t really think of myself this way in my mind. People should identify themselves in whichever way is most helpful to them, and it is typically most helpful to me to focus on everything that is not my illness. But the reality is that I have a spectacularly rare genetic blood disorder. When God knit me together in my mother’s womb, his hands must have been shaking.

When I get sick, sicker than a head cold, things tend to go wrong. This actually happened a month ago. I spent five days in the hospital suffering from acute hemolytic crisis, thanks to an infection my body couldn’t quite subdue. Hemolytic crisis is, for the uninitiated, agonizing. Several of my internal organs were inflamed, so I spent most of my hospital stay in a haze of morphine and oxycodone. I didn’t eat for a week because I couldn’t keep anything down. People in hemolytic crisis have trouble breathing. In fact, they have trouble just sitting up. I’m lucky I avoided a blood transfusion.

Usually, I’m well. No exaggeration. No need to treat me like I’m about to break (seriously, don’t do that, I hate that.). I’ve never needed a transfusion, and I’ve never been quite so seriously ill before, but the possibility is always there and that possibility will never go away. The ADA was designed to protect people like me. The UNCRPD recognizes the need to protect people like me everywhere in the world. So when Michael Farris and his allies in the radical right wing argue against it, I get angry.

Only an able-bodied person could argue against this treaty. Only an able-bodied person would have the audacity to appear before a Senate committee with a disabled person in the room (Representative Tammy ‘Badass’ Duckworth, D-Ill) and whine about homeschooling. It’s absurd. To characterize this as manifestation of skewed priorities would be an incredible understatement. It’s really evidence that Michael Farris, famous too for his “pro-life” posturing, fundamentally misunderstands the concept of personhood.

If you care about personhood, you care about persons with disabilities, too. Don’t you dare demand that women carry disabled fetuses to term if you’re going to get up in front of the Senate and tell our elected officials that the disabled don’t deserve global legal protection.

I am not your political prop. I am not your token. Michael Farris, you don’t speak for me. Your obsession with parental rights has trumped what any reasonable person would acknowledge as an obvious need to protect persons with disabilities. But then again, this is HSLDA. We all know that in Farris’ Bizarro World, parental rights trump children’s rights–even when the children are disabled, and might suffer for it.

So much for personhood.

Evangelistic Atheism? No Thanks.

I’m going to try to explain, as clearly as possible, why I react the way I do to the concept of evangelistic atheism. It’s been difficult, deciding exactly how to communicate this, because it involves wading through the muck and mire of my twenty-one years in fundamentalism. But it’s exactly because of my past that I feel ethically obligated to speak out about this approach to atheism.

Simply put: no. You don’t oppose culture war by adopting the religious right’s tactics.

Let me tell you what it’s like to grow up in a culture that prioritizes evangelism.

You’ve been told, from your earliest years, that you have a mission. If you don’t carry out this mission to the best of your abilities then you let your community down–and you let the world down, too, because you’ve allowed them to wallow in terrible ignorance. Reluctance to evangelize is framed as unethical behavior. You’re lucky because you’ve found the Truth! You’ve got good news, so why wouldn’t you share it?

Every social interaction becomes an opportunity for evangelism. It becomes impossible to simply get to know a person for who they are. You’re not permitted to appreciate the differences between their perspective and yours because ultimately, they’re a project. If you establish a relationship, it’s solely for the purpose of changing their mind.

It’s a stifling and dehumanizing process, this project of establishing cultural hegemony. As a child and later as a young adult, I despised this aspect of religious life. I’ve always been opinionated, and I’ve never hesitated to act on my convictions. But there’s something about evangelism specifically that has always troubled me.

I think it’s the implied arrogance. Evangelism is deeply rooted in cultural hierarchy. You can’t evangelize unless you’re convinced, despite your human frailty, that you’ve isolated and quantified the Truth. And by Truth, I mean a comprehensive worldview.

So I experience a visceral reaction when atheists promote evangelism, and this reaction is bolstered by my own research on the subject. I know the history of the missions movement. I know exactly how conducive the evangelistic spirit is to imperialism and therefore, I feel obligated to oppose it wherever I see it. This emphasis on rationality isn’t actually new; examine the history of colonialism and you’ll see this concept deployed in defence of imperialism time and time again. We’re making them better. They’re barbarians. They’re irrational and superstitious. They should be more like us.

Historically, of course, Christians made these statements in support of imperialism. But I am concerned when atheists adopt the same rhetoric because I don’t believe that it can be divorced from its close association with oppressive action.

I don’t want an atheist world. I want a cosmopolitan or pluralistic world. Based on my upbringing and my research, I’ve come to believe that pluralism is the best counter to oppression. That includes the oppression perpetuated by religious fundamentalists.

And what do we hate about religious fundamentalism? Intolerance. We despise its hatred for women, for sexual minorities, for the poor, for other religions, and for atheism, too. And we hate its arrogance. We steadfastly oppose its attempts to impose itself on everyone else–so why on earth would we adopt the same approach to atheism? Either we support freedom of thought, or we don’t.

Because I’m an atheist, I agree that it’s rational to disbelieve the existence of god. And because I’m an ex-fundamentalist, I agree that it’s important to criticize (and fight) religious fundamentalism.

But here’s the catch, atheists: atheism might be rational, but being one doesn’t mean that overall you’re a rational person. It means that you made one rational choice over the course of your lifetime. It doesn’t mean you’re an ethical person, either. So I find the idea that I’m supposed to spread atheism as a social good to be absurd. I do not want to exchange one oppressive cultural hierarchy for another, and that’s what evangelistic atheism asks me to do.

I hope that clarifies my position.

Post inspired by this article.
Theorists that influenced the views expressed in this post: Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Talal Asad, Kwame Appiah, Jurgen Habermas.