This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.
Before I started doing interfaith work, I wasn’t sure whether there was a place for me in interfaith contexts as an avowed atheist. I heard people talk about the importance of people of different faiths coming together to try to better understand one another, but didn’t know if they thought atheists and the nonreligious should be a part of that equation.
Fortunately, I quickly realized how unfounded my concerns were. Not only did Interfaith Youth Core accept my application to be an intern, I soon learned that they also employed Humanists, atheists, and agnostics. Still, I heard a lot of people talk about the importance of religious identity in interfaith settings. So I decided to start speaking out about my nonreligious perspective, and why interfaith work must include atheists.
One of the first opportunities I had to speak about this before an audience was when I was invited to offer a reflection as an atheist at the opening of IFYC’s annual conference, which I helped plan. I was able to dig up what I wrote for that reflection, and here is part of it:
Some look at what we do at IFYC and call us strange. Jews and Jains, Buddhists and Bahai, Muslims and Christians, atheists and agnostics, Hindus and Humanists, Sikhs and so many others, all under one roof. How… strange, right?
In his book, “The World’s Religions,” scholar Huston Smith writes:
“What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable… How does it all sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus? We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine.”
May we always remember to listen with care, attention, and empathy to the “strange” stories of others. Right now, the world may find our fellowship strange, but through our fellowship, the world will change.
I may not believe in the divine, but I do believe in the importance of listening to — and working with — those that do. I believe that when different communities work to build strong and sustainable civic ties across lines of identity, they change the very nature of religious differences and how people understand them. But what I sometimes neglect to consider is that there are many people who fall outside of the dichotomized designations of “religious” and “nonreligious” — those who fall somewhere in between.
Fortunately, there are people who serve to remind me of this. Vatina McLaurin, a college student who works with IFYC as an interfaith coach, openly identifies as a “seeker.” Earlier this year, she came up to me at an IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute and told me that she had heard me speak at that IFYC conference years ago, and that my remarks counted as one of the first times she was able to see herself represented as a seeker in interfaith dialogue. I may not call myself a seeker, but I am glad I was able to help her locate a place for herself in interfaith work, just as the atheists and agnostics I worked with at IFYC did for me. (For more, check out a post she wrote for IFYC on being a seeker.)
In interfaith settings, and in our broader society, seekers cannot be ignored much longer. Earlier this year, a new report on the growing rate of the religiously unaffiliated found that 1 in 5 Americans — and 1 in 3 people under the age of 30 — do not identify with a religion. As I addressed in a piece I coauthored about the report with my fellow NonProphet Status panelist Vlad Chituc, not all of these folks are nontheists — in fact, many of them believe in a god, or a universal spirit, or something else. It is likely that many of the religiously unaffiliated would identify with the term seeker. We welcome seekers in our Humanist community, but we also acknowledge that many seekers don’t consider themselves nonreligious.
Sometimes seekers get written off as people who can’t make up their minds, as people who don’t know what they believe, as people who don’t believe in anything (or, alternately, as people who believe in everything) — but my experiences with seekers suggest that they hold many of the same values that I do, and that they’re looking for answers to difficult questions (just like I am). They inspire me to be more open-minded, to continue to ask questions, and to never settle for an easy answer. They are skeptical and curious, and they seek to learn whenever they can. These are good principles to remember.
Though I am an atheist, I continue to seek knowledge through dialogue with religious people, dialogue with other nonreligious people — and dialogue with those who decline to identify with either side of the religious or nonreligious binary. Their perspectives enrich my own, and their contributions to interfaith dialogue are valuable. Don’t forget to leave a seat for the seekers at your interfaith table.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and the founder of the blog NonProphet Status.