Monday, July 25, 2016

The formidable gamble of dialogue


As I prepare to speak at this week's interfaith event in Hickory, I'm reading and reflecting on both the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation - and the limitations. On the latter, here's an interesting topical piece by Wendy Wall, an associate professor of 20th century American history. She points out parallels between now and the 1930s and 1940s when “unity” campaigns emerged in response to "political rancor, social division and the threat posed by 'alien' ideologies" which "sparked widespread unease." While encouraging Americans to unite around shared values these efforts, according to Wall, merely provided a "veneer of unity" which "concealed a behind-the-scenes contest over America’s core values" and "often promoted civility rather than real social change."
Such unity-building efforts did help to discredit open prejudice against both religious and racial minorities. For the most part, however, they failed to address the structural inequalities of race and class that have haunted this nation for decades. By marginalizing dissenters and casting all who disrupted national unity as somehow un-American they shored up existing power structures and left intact the social and economic status quo.
Zooming out some, here's a thoroughly depressing piece of historical prognostication about how we may be "entering another of those stupid seasons humans impose on themselves at fairly regular intervals" along with yet another uncertain appeal to emotion and another plea to build bridges:
What can we do? Well, again, looking back, probably not much. The liberal intellectuals are always in the minority...The people who see that open societies, being nice to other people, not being racist, not fighting wars, is a better way to live, they generally end up losing these fights. They don’t fight dirty. They are terrible at appealing to the populace. They are less violent, so end up in prisons, camps, and graves. We need to beware not to become divided...we need to avoid getting lost in arguing through facts and logic, and counter the populist messages of passion and anger with our own similar messages. We need to understand and use social media. We need to harness a different fear. Fear of another World War nearly stopped World War 2, but didn’t. We need to avoid our own echo chambers. Trump and Putin supporters don’t read the Guardian, so writing there is just reassuring our friends. We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides.
Reflecting on the aftermath of World War II, Albert Camus wrote in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance, that while "he who bases his hopes on human nature [may be] a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions." Interfaith dialogue is a necessary but not sufficient part of this formidable gamble in my view. Political dialogue is also needed. But dialogue alone also isn't sufficient. It's just a start...

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Hickory Interfaith Panel to Include Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Humanist Speakers

HHA Delivers an Invocation at a CVIC Meeting in May
I am participating in a interfaith panel discussion in Hickory on behalf of the Hickory Humanist Alliance (HHA) on July 28. The event is hosted by the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council (CVIC) and is open to the public. The theme for the event is "fostering a more compassionate community."

I have been serving on the Board of Directors for CVIC for a few months now, and I am looking forward to sharing a secular humanist perspective on the need for respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation and what HHA brings to the table. Please like and share CVIC's page and event on Facebook, and join us at the First Presbyterian Church in Hickory on Thursday for what should be an interesting discussion.

Note: There was an article in the print edition of today's Hickory Daily about this event. The article suggested that I disagree with being called an "atheist" and that I said "I have a strong faith" in humanity. I'm not sure where the reporter got this idea and quote - they certainly aren't mine. But since he brought it up, feel free to ask me about the threat of "conspicuous atheism" or my lack of "faith" during the Q&A.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Camus: Neither Victims Nor Executioners

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)
"There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for."

As I type, four police officers are now confirmed dead from sniper attacks on the police at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas following the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Much ink will be spilled in the coming days about these tragic events, their causes, and possible solutions. For now, my thoughts return to Camus' classic cold war essay: "Neither Victims Nor Executioners." It was written for a different time, and a different context, but his powerful words still resonate today...

Neither Victims Nor Executioners
Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from
appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which
we have elaborated in every detail--a net which threatens to strangle us.
It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has
gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its
own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression... that any
program for the future can get along without our powers of love and
indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get
men into motion and that it is hard to throw one's self into a struggle
whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis--
and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is
essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that
they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.
To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future--that is
the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It
demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity's
lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and
shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where
brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid
bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for
survival to later generations better equipped than we are.
For my part, I am fairly sure that I have made the choice. And, having
chosen, I think that I must speak out, that I must state that I will
never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder,
and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. The thing is
done, and that is as far as I can go at present....
[T]here is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping
alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a
modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will
constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life.
The essential thing is that people should carefully weight the price
they must pay....

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect
on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those
who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the
accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their
force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist,
it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five
continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to
be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in
which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success
than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his
hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circum-
stances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be
to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful
than munitions.
You can listen to a reading of a related Camus piece at a recent month-long celebration of his only visit to the US (in 1946):