Saturday, September 17, 2011

Atheism out of the shadows

“The new atheism has been more than matched by the new sectarianism,” author and civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer told the nation’s religion journalists today.

Kaminer was part of a provocative panel called “Atheism Revisited” at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association, help this year in Durham, N.C.

Todd Stiefel, head of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation based in Raleigh, N.C., has as his goal to more than match the sectarian forces in America.

While acknowledging the deep prejudice in the U.S. that faces anyone who proclaims they do not believe in God or doubt the existence of a divine being, Stiefel is part of a new civil rights movement hoping to build on the increase in Americans who stand outside any of the traditional religious currents.

“We need the same passion as other movements for equality,” he said.

For New Testament scholar and best selling author Bart Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the story is more personal than societal. Still, he told how his public movement from evangelical Christianity to agnosticism has narrowed his job options, gotten him disinvited from speaking engagements and hurt the sales of textbooks he has written.

The fact that a panel on atheism was at center stage for a group whose stock in trade is writing about religion for mainstream media was notable in itself. There is a recognition that there are good stories to be told among those who reject belief as well as those who embrace it and recognition that one of the trends in American society is an increase in those trying to increase the acceptance of those who reject religion.

Kaminer, who writes for The Atlantic Monthly among many other publications, said she traces the growth in the free-thought movement to what she called “the faith-based attacks on Sept. 11.” She said that people saw “the potential viciousness in religion” and rejected religion (although she acknowledged that for religious people, the reaction was to blame people for adhering to the “wrong” religion.

She talked about the therapeutic approach that seems to have dominated a lot of the discussions of atheism in recent years. Atheist talk about “coming out,” about forming “support groups,” and self discovery and self expression. “It’s been a highly successful movement from a therapeutic standpoint,” she said. “From a political and legal perspective, it’s been less successful and the therapeutic approach may even be counterproductive.”

She said that the free-thought movement has increased the visibility of atheists, but not their clout. “It is inconceivable for anyone to run for high office as an atheist,” she noted.

But Stiefel would like to change that, saying his mission is “seeking full equality for all free-thinkers.”

He told stories of groups rejecting charitable donations from atheist groups, of proselytizing by some military chaplains, of hiring discrimination against non-believers. He told of families torn apart when a son or daughter “comes out” as an atheist or agnostic.  And he told how the fastest growth among agnostics and atheists is among those 18-25.

Stiefel also talked of plans to boost the public visibility of the movement – community service projects, celebrity endorsements and a Reason Rally next March 24 on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Ehrman talked about his own journey from a “hard-core, borderline-fundamentalist Christian” to one whose doubts about God increased as he explored the issue of suffering and where God fit in the midst of life’s tragedies.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Making a moral pitch on the economy

It does not take a lot of insight for a political scientist to say that the economy will be the most salient issue in the 2012 presidential election. But exactly how that plays out – and how religious factors affect the equation – provided good material for John Green and Laura Olson.

One important variable may be how the candidates cast the debate over the economy in moral terms.

Green is one of the nation’s pre-eminent students of the connections between religion and politics. A professor at the University of Akron, he is also a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Olson is a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. They spoke at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association on Friday in Durham, N.C.

Olson argued that the real task for both President Obama and whoever his Republican challenger is will be to mobilize the religious middle in this country – a group that constitutes about a third of the electorate.

Will the budget debate be framed around the morality of not leaving the next generation to pay the bills of this generation? Or will it be framed around protecting the least of those in society?

There are moral values underlying both of those appeals, but they have their touchstones in different religious groups.

Catholics, for instance, while identified most often with issues around abortion, may well resonate with talk about social justice, a concept deeply imbedded in the teachings they grew up with, a concept that is often framed as part of a consistent ethic of life.

Many Protestant denominations, too, have emphasized Jesus’ message of caring for others as central to their faith. And yet there are also strains of not passing on one’s burdens to others, of not forcing charity but seeing it as a voluntary good that underscores some of the conservative approaches to the economy.

Olson was one the one who articulated the moral dimensions of the budget debate most thoroughly in this discussion. Olson cautioned that part of the needle that candidates have to thread on these issues is that Americans are quite ambivalent on expressions of faith by public leaders. They want leaders to be “moral” but not too “sectarian.”

So a lot of the language around issues like the economy will be framed broadly, but with an appeal to moral values that candidates hope will make sense to the voters they are targeting.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Muslims in America: From fear to the future

The early stories are about fear.

Americans fear about Islam after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Muslims fear about what life holds for them in this nation.

The current stories are about crossing bridges, tentatively at times, but with some sense that there may be something better on the other side. Students of different faiths share service projects.  Adults begin to share their beliefs.

The stories of the future grow out of the histories of other beleaguered religious groups in this country – Catholics, Jews, Mormans.

The stories were told in many ways by many voices during a day-long seminar today at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. They were told by professors, by religious leaders, by students, by journalists.

The gathering was for members of the Religion Newswriters Association as it began its 67th annual conference. The session was hosted by Duke’s Islamic Studies Center.

First, the fear.

Eboo Patel, the founder and leader of the Interfaith Youth Corps, a dynamic voice for crossing those bridges that separate faith traditions, recalled the signs he saw at protests: “All I know about Islam I learned on Sept. 11.” They were signs reflecting the fear of Americans who knew little about Islam and who let the attackers who not only hijacked airplanes but who also hijacked Islam define this long, rich and varied religious tradition.

The fear is reflected more recently in signs opposing the use of Shariah law in America, the efforts in 16 states to ban the use of Shariah law – efforts based in a fear stoked up by those who would demonize Muslims with no basis in reality.

The fear was reflected in the experience of Nona Sherif as she arrived for classes two years ago at Duke and met a woman on her way to the bookstore who grabbed the cross around her neck and held it out towards Sherif with a look of terror on her face.

The fear was reflected in the phone call Patel received from his mother after efforts to build a Muslim community center in New York City burst in to a spasm of anti-Muslim feeling across the nation. She told Patel his kids’ names – Zane and Kalil – sounded to Islamic and he ought to Americanize them before it was too late.

Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered some facts as an antidote for Americans’ fears.

He recently published a book called The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists. He talked about the data he had gathered. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 175 arrests in this country for Muslims suspected or convicted of acts of terror. That’s not quite 18 a year … and some of those were arrested as they were headed to foreign lands like Somalia to join terrorist groups there.

Kurzman’s point is not that there are not threats from terrorists, but they are not anywhere near as overwhelming as the fear industry would have us believe. And, important in the context of this day’s discussion, they represent an infinitesimal fraction of the Muslims in this country.

Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke, does not deny that there is what he called “the cancer of Islamic terrorism” in this world. But he called for a better understanding of the roots of that terrorism not in the theology of Islam but in the political and economic actions of major world powers.

“Radicals, extremists, are not products of Islamic theology or Islamic societies,” he said. “They are products of deeply broken societies, products of American foreign policy, products of greedy economic policies.”

When someone challenged him on citing American foreign policy as a factor, he asked that as an American Muslim, he be given the same opportunity to call for a better foreign policy that other Americans have.

He also told one of the most compelling stories of the day. Last month, he was in Afghanistan, where for the first time in his life, he came face to face with Muslims who believed it is their duty to kill Christians and Jews.

“I went ballistic,” he told me later. He said he pulled a Koran out of his pocket and argued verse by verse with them. He was so shaken by the experience, he now plans to go back to Afghanistan every summer to build programs to counter that kind of ideology.

“There is a form of Islamic theology that prepares the ground for violence,” he acknowledged. “That theology is reinforced through certain foreign policies and economic policies. People who are not religious at all suddenly find resonance in that theology. It will take global efforts to eradicate this poison,” he said in explaining his hopes for this project in Afghanistan.

But in the midst of the fear, there are efforts in this country to find the bridges that will ease the fear.

Meredith Rahman, a sophomore at Duke studying French and biology, noted that the head of the Muslim Student Association on campus is not a Muslim. This is a bridge.

The other students all talked about the pressure they feel as Muslims in a largely non-Muslim environment to explain their faith, to act in proper ways, and yet they also described that as an opportunity to help shape a more pluralistic society.

Patel calls this an example of how Muslims in America are moving from “the architecture of the bubble to the architecture of the bridge.”

He noted that Muslim immigrants who came to this country initially focused on building their own institutions, on staying relatively separate from the dominant culture, much like Catholics and Jews did as their communities took root in America. That was the bubble.

The reaction to Sept. 11 changed that. Muslims came to realize that they had to engage the wider community, they had to become part of the American experience. Just as Catholics and Jews and Mormans faced deep-rooted prejudice at one time and now are part of the American mainstream, he sees that happening to Muslims as well.

“We are going to be part of the story of American opportunity and expansion,” Patel said.

(Patel and other speakers also cautioned that there are two very different Muslim experiences in the U.S. – the immigrant Muslim community that is getting most of the public attention, and the large African-American Muslim community, that has lived a very different experience in this country. He acknowledged the absence of the African-American Muslim view on this day.)

A few days with the nation's religion writers

Greetings from Durham, N.C.

I'm here with journalists from around the country who write about religion for the nation's newspapers, magazines, web sites, etc. The group is called the Religion Newswriters Association and it's one of the fine professional associations for journalists.

Today, we'll explore "Muslims in America: The Next 10 Years" in a pre-conference program at Duke University. One of the speakers willl be Eboo Patel, whose book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American the Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, is on deck for our next Friday morning book group at Memorial UCC.

Other things coming up - tonight, the author of a new book on teen sexuality; Friday, sessions on the new evangelical mega-churches that serve many sites simultaneously and are breaking new ground in the use of social media tools; a panel on religion in the 2012 elections; a briefing called "Youth in Crisis: What Everyone Should Know About Growing Up Gay;" how journalists can use social networking effectively.

Then on Saturday, breakfast with the family that inspired HBO's "Big Love" series; reports on studies of changes in American congregations; on the depth and complexity of America's religious landscape and a new study on the demographics of American Muslims. There will also be a provocative panel called "Atheism Revisited."

It promises to be a very rich few days. Stay tuned.