Friday, July 29, 2016

Reflections on participating in my first public interfaith event

Photo Credit: CVIC
Last night I participated in a panel discussion on interfaith on behalf of the Hickory Humanist Alliance (HHA). The event went really well, and I look forward to additional public events in the future. My prepared remarks are included below (with references).

The only lowlight of the night was when one of the panelists (a self-described "fundamentalist" Christian) trotted out that tired old cliché about how there are supposedly "no atheists in foxholes." My initial response - a "face palm" - resulted in laughter from the audience so I just let it pass and didn't respond directly.

This was the first time I had met this speaker, but I do hope he comes to future interfaith meetings so we can educate him about the problems with this particular cliché. I'll let Hemant Mehta explain it in more detail, but if you don't have 5 minutes to watch the video consider if I had said that there are "no Christians in children's hospitals" or that there were "no Jews at Auschwitz."

Below are my prepared remarks. I did ad-lib a bit prior to these remarks, mainly noting how the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council has been very welcoming to us at HHA.

As an atheist and a secular humanist I’m often asked why I’m involved in “interfaith” - since I don’t have any faith. But I do have a lot of hope for what secular and religious people can accomplish together if we apply our collective intelligence and compassion to advance our shared goals. Humanists view “the good life” as one “inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” [i] and I believe many people of faith also share these core values. But we don’t have to agree on everything. Some of us – both religious and non-religious - also recognize that diversity makes us smarter. According to a recent article in Scientific American, “decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that simply being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.” [ii] The field of science itself depends on its diversity to facilitate specialization, invigorate problem solving, and balance biases. [iii] Diversity can be difficult and cause some discomfort, but it also enhances creativity and changes the way we think and act. Diversity enriches our lives and our communities.
And I would argue that a secular perspective in particular is necessary for any truly diverse “interfaith” dialogue. Otherwise - it seems to me - you’re just “preaching to the choir.” Roughly one in four Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, and somewhere between 12 and 21% identify as atheist or agnostic. [iv] But non-religious perspectives are just as diverse as religious perspectives, and we certainly don’t speak with one voice. Instead, we tend to embrace dissent and skepticism. However, many of us also believe in:
·       Building relationships based on mutual respect and our common humanity.
·       Recognizing and trying to understand our differences.
·       Working together to make our community a better place for all of us.
Many secular people are very concerned about the growing homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in our nation that wants to build walls between people instead of bridges. We’re disturbed by the increase in populist and extremist rhetoric that marginalizes and demonizes minorities. And we’re appalled by mean-spirited and misguided legislation that attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist by targeting transgender people who just need to pee. I watched most of the very short debate and public comments on House Bill 2 at the North Carolina General Assembly in March. One of the speakers during the public comments was a transgender woman named Madeline Goss. She’s a software engineer in the Research Triangle, but she grew up in Hickory. She told our state legislators something that we should all reflect on if we are interested in fostering a more compassionate community: “I love Hickory, but I was bullied and tortured mercilessly there. And where did it happen? It happened in the men's room. This place is a place of danger for me, and what this bill would do is send me back there. I left Hickory for places that are safe, like Charlotte and Raleigh....I can't use the men's room. I won't go back to the men's room. It is unsafe for me there. People like me die there every day.” [v]
How do we make this community a safe and welcoming place for Madeline? Several years ago a local Christian pastor made international news by proposing – from the pulpit - a “solution” to the “problem” of homosexuality – essentially, his solution involved death camps. [vi] Even in the wake of Orlando, several pastors across the nation were celebrating the “good news” that “there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world” [vii] and bemoaning the “tragedy” that “more of them didn’t die.” This type of rhetoric only emboldens those who bully, torture, and kill the Madeline’s of the world, and common decency demands that we condemn it.
The list goes on – and gets worse. We could talk about Charleston and the sudden unfurling of confederate battle flags in our area. We could talk about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Or Ferguson and Baltimore…or Dallas and Baton Rouge. Or the ongoing threats and violence across the country targeted at Muslims (or people who “look” Muslim) and several ugly recent examples of Islamophobia in a local county commission [viii] and in a paid ad last year in the Hickory Daily Record. [ix] Or we could talk about Colorado Springs and a certain local street preacher who has an image of a fetus on the side of his truck – and, as far as I know, a legal concealed carry permit. [x]
So there’s plenty of work to do. But I also want to acknowledge the great work that the other members of this interfaith council have been doing, and continue to do, in this community to help mitigate these and other issues. As a representative of the Hickory Humanist Alliance, I want to publically extend our group’s sincere thanks to all of you for your ongoing efforts - and for reaching out to us to be part of this effort.

[i] Ryan Bell. “Bertrand Russell on the good life.” Year Without God blog (February 10, 2015). Available online at
[ii] Katherine W. Phillips. “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Scientific American (October 1, 2014). Available online at
[iii] UC Berkeley. “The scientific community: Diversity makes the difference.” Available online at
[iv] Phil Zuckerman, et. al. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. Oxford University Press (2016).
[v] Human Rights Campaign. “Maddy Goss Speaks to North Carolina House Panel About Nondiscrimination Bill.” (March 28, 2016). Available online at
[vi] Cacamaymie. "N.C. Pastor Charles Worley: 'Put Gays And Lesbians In Electrified Pen To Kill Them Off.'" (May 21, 2012). Available online at
[vii] Hemant Mehta. "MIRROR: Response to Orlando Gay Bar Shooting Florida nightclub." (June 13, 2016). Available online at
[viii] Andrew Dunn. “Lincoln County commissioner walks out during Muslim prayer.” Charlotte Observer (August 4, 2015). Available online at
[ix] William Keener. “Open Letter to Local Christian Right Pastors: How to Be Better Haters of Evil.” Skeptical Poets Society blog (January 31, 2016). Available online at
[x] Phil Perry. “Lincolnton street preacher won’t back down.” Lincoln Times-News (May 29, 2015). Available online at


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I, too, did a face palm when he made the foxhole comment. To me, it served as a perfect example of why we need Humanist and/or Atheist voices in the interfaith group.

    I personally want to thank you for participating in the discussion. Everytime I hear you share I gain a different perspective on my own Christian beliefs. I appreciate that you speak your truth to power. May this journey we are on together be long and full of adventure.

  3. I,too,did a face palm when that he made the foxhole comment. To me, it served to give a perfect example of why we need Humanist and/or Atheist voices in the interfaith group.

    I personally want to thank you for participating in the discussion. Everytime I hear you share I gain a different perspective on my own Christian beliefs. I appreciate that you speak your truth to power. May this journey we are on together be long and full of adventure.