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 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yearwithoutgod/2015/02/10/bertrand-russell-on-the-good-life/.
[ii] Katherine W. Phillips. “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Scientific American (October 1, 2014). Available online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/.
[iii] UC Berkeley. “The scientific community: Diversity makes the difference.” Available online at http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/socialsideofscience_02.
[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 https://youtu.be/R6vkGlwRy14.
[vi] Cacamaymie. "N.C. Pastor Charles Worley: 'Put Gays And Lesbians In Electrified Pen To Kill Them Off.'" (May 21, 2012). Available online at https://youtu.be/w2839yEazcs.
[vii] Hemant Mehta. "MIRROR: Response to Orlando Gay Bar Shooting Florida nightclub." (June 13, 2016). Available online at https://youtu.be/Pxj8y5ctmiE.
[viii] Andrew Dunn. “Lincoln County commissioner walks out during Muslim prayer.” Charlotte Observer (August 4, 2015). Available online at http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article29931514.html.
[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 http://skepticalpoet.blogspot.com/2016/01/open-letter-to-local-christian-right.html.
[x] Phil Perry. “Lincolnton street preacher won’t back down.” Lincoln Times-News (May 29, 2015). Available online at http://www.lincolntimesnews.com/2015/05/29/lincolnton-street-preacher-wont-back-down/.


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):

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Looking for a succinct definition of humanism?

Source: Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta
Wikipedia defines "humanism" as "a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition." The American Humanist Association defines it as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." And the International Humanist and Ethical Union defines it as "a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality." But I've always preferred Bertrand Russell's maxim that the "good life" is "one inspired by love and guided by knowledge" as the most succinct definition.

How would you define humanism?

Friday, July 1, 2016

NCGA: Want some air freshener for the outhouse?

Last night several members of the Hickory Humanist Alliance (HHA) and the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council (CVIC) attended a public dialogue on HB2 at Lenoir-Rhyne (LR) University in Hickory. The event was hosted by the Olive Branch Ministry and open to the public. It was a great discussion, but I was disappointed by the low turnout (less than a hundred) given the topic. It was refreshing to hear from a local, open atheist, transgender woman (on the panel), and several speakers talked about the harm religion does to those in the LGBT community.

Meanwhile in Raleigh, the latest news indicates that "North Carolina lawmakers will likely repeal a small piece of House Bill 2 dealing with the right to sue for wrongful termination, but they won't take up a broader rewrite of the controversial measure dealing with LGBT rights, according to [NC House Speaker Tim Moore]." The NBA probably isn't going to be happy, even without the "certificate of sex reassignment surgery" requirement that was part of a draft bill that was leaked earlier this week. The short session of the General Assembly is expected to end in days now, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens. But it looks like Kevin Siers nailed it...

Kevin Siers: The NC bathroom bill fix
Note that we also learned yesterday that the NC Senate has approved giving Governor McCrory half a million dollars from our state's disaster relief fund to defend HB2 in court. Add this to the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars we've already spent trying to fight gay marriage, defend a magistrates recusal law similar to one in Mississippi that was just ruled unconstitutional, defend unconstitutional doctor-narrated ultrasounds before abortions, and racial gerrymandering.

And so, our state's race to the bottom continues...brought to you by:

Tim Moore, Pat McCrory, Phil Berger
Update: 10:30 pm - The General Assembly just passed HB 169 with limited tort changes to HB2 (restores the right to sue for discrimination in state court) and a repeal of the restriction on pet turtle sales (among a bunch of other "regulatory reductions" - for example, on vehicle emissions in Burke, Cleveland, Robeson, Rutherford, Stanley, Stokes, Surry, and Wilkes counties).

Update: July 2 - Actually, the repeal of onerous restrictions on pet turtle sales, dumping electronics in landfills, and vehicle emission tests (in some counties) - among a bunch of other "regulatory reductions" - were apparently removed from HB 169 late last night. So the HB 2 change is all that was ratified. But don't worry - given our state legislators, I wouldn't be surprised if they revisit these assaults on our freedoms in the next session.