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Archive for the ‘atheism’ tag

The Free Ticket: Traveling With An Atheist to the 2012 Wild Goose Festival

Wild Goose 2012 weekend, Photo by Cathleen Falsani / Sojourners

by Bryan Parys
from Sojourners

Chris is an atheist and a humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He is the only explicitly nonreligious speaker invited to the 2012 Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, N.C.—a festival that is generally (and with exception) aimed at the liberal, often-invisible fringe members of the Christian community. Being that I theoretically fall into this group, Chris offered me his plus-one free ticket.

While it generally takes an act of God (or, “a series of convergences” Chris might say) for me to make a decision, I told him I’d go. After all, I’d been experiencing my own dark night of the soul where almost every conversation I’ve had about religion/ Christianity over the last year has been doubt-ridden and cynical. In my best mood, I hoped my attendance would put me in touch with some other cynics, believing it might relieve my cosmic guilt. What I secretly feared, however, was that I was going to Wild Goose to break up with the Christian faith I’d grown up under.

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Nontheists, Christians Meet for Dialogue, Better Mutual Understanding

by Heather Keel

A secular humanist, an agnostic and an atheist walk into a church.

That wasn’t the setup for a joke Wednesday night in Hagerstown, but for an evening of impassioned discussion hosted by the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County to encourage dialogue among people with different beliefs and ideas.

About 50 people attended the group’s “Dialogue with Non-Theists,” held at Hagerstown Church of the Brethren.

Ed Branthaver, a member of Hagerstown Freethinkers, moderated a panel discussion by secular humanist Eldon Winston, agnostic Zsun-nee Matema and atheist Brian Fields, about how their philosophies shape their beliefs about morality, the soul and what happens after death.

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Learning to Respect Religion

by Nicholas Kristof
from the New York Times

A few years ago, God seemed caught in a devil of a fight.

Atheists were firing thunderbolts suggesting that “religion poisons everything,” as Christopher Hitchens put it in the subtitle of his book, “God Is Not Great.” Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins also wrote best sellers that were scathing about God, whom Dawkins denounced as “arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction.”

Yet lately I’ve noticed a very different intellectual tide: grudging admiration for religion as an ethical and cohesive force.

The standard-bearer of this line of thinking — and a provocative text for Easter Sunday — is a new book, “Religion for Atheists,” by Alain de Botton. He argues that atheists have a great deal to learn from religion.

“One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring,” de Botton writes.

Why This Atheist Still Needs His Former Pastor

by Chris Stedman
from Relevant Magazine

“It’s been a long time, Tiffer,” he said through one of his characteristically gigantic grins. It had been nearly as long since anyone outside my family called me that name.

“It sure has, Doogie,” I said, returning his grin, imagining he hadn’t heard that nickname in a while, either. As an espresso machine rattled and steamed from across the room, Matthew informed me that he had recently left a call in parish ministry and was now in Massachusetts working for an organization called Outreach Inc. – Kids Care, which organizes meal-packaging events for churches and conferences that want to give back. In addition to coordinating these events, he donated his Sunday mornings to traveling around New England and preaching at churches, hoping to inspire them to get involved in the fight against hunger. I asked if he’d be interested in expanding his partnerships beyond churches and Christian conferences and working with an atheist organization on an interfaith program. He didn’t even hesitate.

It’s funny because, when he first asked me to get coffee, I hesitated. “What will he think of the work I do now?” I asked myself. “Will he feel like he failed me as a pastor? Will he want to debate theology? Will he try to bring me back into the church?”

Such hesitance was unmerited; he sat and listened as I updated him on my life, smiling and nodding as I described how I’ve come into my own as an atheist, an interfaith activist and a young man. Now, Matthew and I have a better and more honest relationship than we ever did in my youth.

It’s been a more productive one, too: in less than six months, we’ve mobilized hundreds of people to come together in interfaith coalition and donate their time and money to package over 30,000 meals for food-insecure children in Boston. Most recently we held an event (planned with Boston University’s Interfaith Council) called HUNGERally, where over a hundred student representatives from eight Boston-area colleges and universities spent a Saturday night learning about the problem of hunger and pledging to work together across lines of religious difference to address it.

All of this is the direct result of a partnership between an atheist and his former pastor. In light of this, I cannot help but wonder what the world would look like if we were more willing to forge unconventional alliances. What would happen if we were more radical about whom we saw as our collaborators? What would happen if we took the risk of reaching out to the unfamiliar? If atheists and Christians started seeing one another as necessary partners in making the world a better place, what might we come to understand about each other? What might we come to better understand about ourselves? What might we accomplish together?

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Religion in an Age of Science

by V. V. Raman
from the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science

The benefits that humanity has derived from scientific knowledge and its applications range from the eradication of dark-age superstitions and effective cure for diseases to never-before-imagined creature-comforts and ease of communication and travel. With all that, science’s framework is neither appreciated nor embraced whole-heartedly by the general public. Instead, there are doubts about science’s capacity for objective knowledge, suspicions about its goals, and charges to the effect that it has landed us in life-threatening environmental predicaments. There are deep concerns about its sweeping epistemology that forecloses important dimensions of traditional religious worldviews.

It is also a historical fact that many creative thinkers and scientists in all cultures have been religious. So a group of scientists and scholars founded The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) in 1954. One purpose of IRAS is “to formulate dynamic and positive relationships between the concepts developed by science and the goals and hopes of humanity expressed through religion.” Another is to foster values that have universal and cross-cultural validity.

What the founders wisely realized was that religions play important roles in human culture, and that unless they are informed and transformed by science they could stagnate and become anachronistic. The less desirable aspects of religion have provoked the New Atheist movement, while the actualization of some of the catastrophic potential of technology and the faith-devaluing proclamations of some scientists have pushed many to the fundamentalist wings of religion.

Religions are coming back to the public arena with a zest that is heartening to their followers. But some of their expressions are disturbing, such as the anti- science stance of those who, for example, call for the teaching of ancient worldviews on cosmogenesis, anthropogenesis, astrology, and the like in schools. The resurgence of religions is also of concern to many because some of its expressions are associated with bigotry, hate, and intolerance. But it would be rash to conclude from all this that religions are intrinsically maleficent enterprises. It cannot be denied that religions have been the source of wisdom and some enlightened ethics, and have contributed abundantly to art and architecture, music, poetry and sophisticated philosophy. They also give meaning to individual lives, and comfort from convictions on matters relating to the Ultimate.

There is a crying need to bridge the chasms between the opposing forces that keep us in tension everywhere. The metaphor of the bridge is to remind us that though the chasms cannot be wished away we should never forget we are interconnected, and that we can visit the islands of separation for better mutual understanding.

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Five Lessons on Faith

By Sally Quinn
From Washington Post

It was five years ago this month that we launched “On Faith.” The idea was to inform and educate about all faiths (and no faith) and to initiate an ongoing discussion about the role of religion, values and ethics in our daily lives. I hoped that after learning more, people would become more accepting of those who held different beliefs. Pluralism was the goal.

The discussions we have had over the years have far exceeded my expectations. What I find most gratifying is the inspired contributions from the subjects of our interviews, our contributing writers and our readers. From the volume of e-mails and comments, I know that others find the site as informative, provocative and entertaining as I do.

Since the time we launched I have never been so enthralled, learned so much or been so fulfilled by a subject. It has changed my perspective on life. It is clearly what I was meant to do.

Here are five things I have learned in these five years:

1. Nobody knows.

My favorite bumper sticker and the guiding wisdom for me every day is this: “I don’t know and you don’t either.”

An atheist father was trying to explain to his son that there was no such thing as God. “But Dad,” asked the boy, “how do you know?”

“You’ll just have to take it on faith,” said the father.

That says it all.

We are all taking our beliefs or lack of beliefs on faith.

Although I called myself an atheist when we started this site, I no longer do, thanks to Jon Meacham, the religious scholar and former Newsweek editor who helped launch the site. He also served as co-moderator until last year, when The Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek.

We were having an argument over whether or not I was an atheist. Finally, Jon said something that resonated. He said, “You don’t want to define yourself negatively, and you know nothing about religion.” He gave me a list of books to read and told me to go study religion. If afterward I insisted on calling myself an atheist, he argued, at least I would know what I was talking about.

I was astonished, engaged and finally enlightened by what I read and ashamed at how little I really knew about religion. I’m still reading and still learning, and it seems the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

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December 3rd, 2011 at 9:48 am

YouTube and the Language of Dialogue

by Stephen Pihlaja

If you’ve ever read comments that viewers post on YouTube videos, you know that the Internet can be a rough place for dialogue. Although online interaction between users of different backgrounds presents a unique opportunity for developing mutual understanding and empathy, it is unfortunately often marked by offence and misunderstanding. YouTube videos and comments in particular have a bad reputation for being incendiary and ugly, with users frequently forgetting that there is a face on the other side of the screen. Slurs and insults quickly consume the opportunity for dialogue, with little chance for mutual understanding.

To take an especially challenging example, in 2010, violent responses to and censorship of images of the prophet Muhammad in television and political cartoons spurred an online movement on Facebook and YouTube called ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ wherein users protested censorship of the images. These online protests had a global impact, leading Pakistan and Bangladesh to briefly ban Facebook and sparked important discussions about free speech, respect for other traditions, and religious expression in online environments.

Over the next two years, I hope to carefully investigate the language used in antagonistic interaction on YouTube during Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. I will build on previous research showing that metaphor played an important role in contributing to negative evaluations and offensive interactions between atheist and Christians users on YouTube. By analysing how language is used in videos made for and in response to ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day 2010,’ I hope to reveal the nuts and bolts of antagonism embedded in language, showing how language use contributed to perceptions of offence and misunderstanding between users.

I believe strongly that identifying moments of antagonism in language use could serve as an important resource for scholars and religious practitioners, particularly those struggling to resolve conflict around religious expression and free speech. Rather than discuss disagreements between users primarily in terms of large-scale differences in cultural or religious beliefs, I believe that starting from a small-scale perspective and looking closely at actual moments of disagreement and antagonism in interaction helps make abstract disagreements much clearer, and therefore, potentially easier to solve.

Instead of first talking about long histories of offense, I think there is value in focusing on single moments in interaction and identifying clearly in the language where misunderstanding is occurring. Once we can identify these moments where people are clearly misunderstanding one another, I think we can begin to talk about how antagonism can be diffused. Ultimately, we may be able to develop tools for positive, constructive interaction through more effective communication.

In the spirit of meaningful online dialogue, if this research sounds like it might be useful to you in your work or ministry, I would love to hear from you. Send me a message at with the subject line ‘Potential Impact’. Any and all thoughts would be welcome. Let the dialogue begin!

Stephen Pihlaja is a PhD Student a the Open University, UK

Welcome to Rural Pennsylvania

by Chris Stedman from State of Formation

“I still can’t believe this is what I do for living,” I thought to myself as I walked out of the airport in State College, Pennsylvania.

I was met by the Rev. David Witkovsky, Campus Chaplain for Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, and Juniata Campus Ministry intern Lauren Seganos. “Welcome to rural Pennsylvania,” said Lauren as the crisp April wind threatened to knock us over.

I was in the middle of my second speaking tour of 2011—this time to schools in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Like my first, I was speaking at colleges and universities about my work as an atheist and humanist community organizer and interfaith activist.

I kicked off the day by speaking in a World Religions class. After my remarks a student approached me, speaking in a small whisper. “I’m an atheist,” she said. “I feel isolated, and most of what I find online is largely about bashing religious people. I want a community, and I want to be open about my atheism. Thanks for starting this conversation here.” I was humbled by her words and promised to help her find resources.

Exchanges like that continued throughout the day—after a public discussion on secular humanism that I facilitated, during meetings with students and staff—and when it was finally time for my evening speech, the lecture hall was full to capacity. Students of all different backgrounds—atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others—came together and offered questions, challenges, and their hope for positive dialogue, community and collaboration…

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July 19th, 2011 at 10:50 am

Do Atheists Belong in the Interfaith Movement?

Chris Stedman
from State of Formation

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the organized atheist, humanist, skeptic and freethought movements about the potential benefits and drawbacks of interfaith work.

Over at Patheos, the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, recently made an excellent case that—while the terminology of “interfaith” may be problematic and there are several other important issues to grapple with—it is worth atheists’ while to get involved. At Friendly Atheist, Secular Student Alliance Communications Director Jesse Galef offered a long list of reasons atheists might participate, and how their involvement might improve some of the problems within the interfaith movement. Despite Galef and Speckhardt’s serious concerns and reservations, they have been actively involved in intentionally interfaith efforts, and I suspect their participation has informed their conclusions about the idea.

However, those speaking out against atheist involvement in the interfaith movement are, at the moment, a bit more numerous (just a couple of examples, with several others to follow). As far as I can tell based on what many atheists opposed to interfaith involvement state in their writing, a large percentage of them seem to have kept their distance from interfaith work. I understand their hesitation given the criticisms they offer, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some disconnect when those who criticize the interfaith movement the most also seem to have had little to no actual experience with it. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if someone who had been involved in interfaith work would suggest, as prominent atheist blogger P.Z. Myers did, that it “cheerfully and indiscriminately embrace[s] every faith without regard for content.”

Present in almost every atheist blog I’ve read opposed to interfaith work are perhaps the most common critiques I hear from my fellow atheists regarding interfaith work, and they’re directly related: that interfaith leaves no room for religious criticism, and that it by default excludes atheists because atheism isn’t a “faith.” Most atheists I know who reject the idea of participating in interfaith work do so in part because they assume that, in order to participate, everyone must bite his or her tongue and play nice, and that participation in this kind of movement lends our implicit approval to “faith” as a concept and rallying point.

I’d like to explain why I think these concerns may be somewhat overblown; how they might be combated where they exist, and the reality that they actually don’t apply to most situations.

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Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven,’ God is not ‘necessary’ for creation

From Washington Post

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the UK Guardian published Monday that he rejects the idea of heaven, calling it a ’fairy story’ for people afraid to die. Hawking also wrote in his 2010 book The Grand Design that he believes God was not ‘necessary’ for the creation of the universe and that ‘spontaneous creation‚’ instead explains existence. Hawking seems confident in his conclusion about God, but then again so do believers. Who is right? Can God and science co-exist?

Among the many respondents are Muqtedar Khan, Christopher Stedman, and Susan Brooks Thislethwaite.

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May 23rd, 2011 at 8:59 am