This may be a bit of a rambling discussion — not so much a report on the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard‘s November 15 event on Humanist Community and Interfaith Work at the Park 51 Islamic Center as an attempt to articulate how the event sits at a point where a number of issues converge for me.
The Bronx Community College Secular Humanist Club was a cosponsor of the event, along with Harvard Humanist Alumni, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Faith House Manhattan, World Faith, Groundswell, Auburn Seminary, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.
The first of the evening’s three scheduled speakers was Chelsea Link, a student leader of both the Harvard Secular Society and the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She explained that the location of the event was a particularly meaningful one for her, as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversyhad impressed upon her the degree to which Americans view one another as outsiders. “Feeling like an outsider,” she observed, “in your own family or your own country, really sucks. That’s why Interfaith work is so important to me.” It’s a connection that doesn’t sit well with everyone, but one that underscores the value of empathy, dialogue, and a search for commonalities — dimensions of humanism that are every bit as important to me as the reliance on science and reason.
Chelsea also spoke about the immediate appeal that the Humanist Chaplaincy community had held for her: the rituals, ceremonies, rites of passage, sense of belonging, even Sunday meetings — because she “always liked church, just not the supernatural stuff.” The major theme of her remarks was “how great it is to be part of a community that knows you and values you.”
The thing of it is, I never liked “the church stuff,” and not simply because I attended synagogues instead of churches in my youth. I gritted my teeth through most of the rituals, lost whatever interest I’d ever had in rites of passage shortly after my only significant one — my bar mitzvah — had finally taken place, and simply never felt the need for community that is so foundational to these conversations. If anything, from an early age I shunned the threat of community, which I typically viewed as a sort of Orwellian menace. It was a stance born as much of cultural privilege as of stubborn nonconformism, and it is only with difficulty (and, I hope, a fair measure of humility) that I have belatedly tried to nurture in myself what so much of the human race takes as a given. “Atheists aren’t joiners,” one event attendee later observed, and my deepening from atheism into secular humanism has in many ways been a slow discovery of this dimension of my own humanity.
None of which is Chelsea’s problem, nor the problem of Chris Stedman, the Humanist Chaplaincy’s Interfaith and Community Service Fellow, whom I was glad to finally meet after our previous phone and Twitter exchanges. He spoke briefly about his earlier tenure in Chicago with the Interfaith Youth Core, during which he distributed food in a neighborhood with the largest Somali population outside of Somalia (you’ve got access to Google, you figure it out); he touched on the work being done through the Values In Action (VIA) program; and he identified three key functions of the interfaith effort: performing service that betters the lives of others, building relationships and fostering communication across lines of identity, and countering the common view that nontheists lack ethics and values. These are closely mirrored in the three components of the SHC’s mission statement, and underlie most of the events and outreach we have pursued and planned.
I was still mulling over these parallels when Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, began speaking about what the diversity of New York City means to him, about how his search for “the Truth” led him from Western religion to Buddhism to rock music, and about how throughout this search “the need for community” emerged again and again. For Greg, this led to an appreciation of the value of “a religious space for the non-religious,” as well as to the discovery of richly humanistic (rather than merely atheistic) communities: people engaged in meaning-building group efforts rather than simply getting together to discuss the nonexistence of God.
During these comments, I was transported back through time three years to the inception of the SHC. That first group of students agreed that a defining emphasis on atheism would be inappropriate — partly because not everyone in the Club was, in fact, an atheist, but mainly because embracing and exploring the implications of a positive and far-reaching worldview seemed far more rewarding than focusing on a rejected premise. Performing meaningful service, engaging in productive dialogue, and countering misconceptions about nonreligious students struck everyone involved as worthwhile and even inspirational goals.
Greg developed his discussion of the “religious space for the non-religious,” suggesting that religion stands not just for belief in a God, but for belief in family, justice, art and music — in a word, community. Again my thoughts strayed, but this time to a September meeting of Center For Inquiry-NYC’s Harlem Discussion Group. The guest on that occasion was Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, whose roles are too diverse to list here, and with whose “Humanism is a religion” approach I had respectfully but genuinely struggled, along with others in attendance. “Don’t let the theists co-opt religion,” he had advised, maintaining that religion consists of the many community-based intangibles the Harvard Humanist speakers were now citing. From my work in Harlem and the Bronx, I understood the efficacy of such an approach in bringing humanism to nontheistic members of the African American community — people who may have dispensed with the faith elements of their participation in the church, but still cherish the social cohesion and personal and collective fulfillment that the black church has long represented. (I don’t claim any profound multicultural insight, or even any unusual degree of cross-cultural understanding, but it doesn’t take much when one of the first thoughts one generally has when attending the typical event concerned with atheism, skepticism, or humanism is, “This is a really white crowd.” The recognition carries and depends upon the conviction that it shouldn’t be, and needn’t be, and that something absolutely vital to the spirit and practice of humanism is being stifled when the cultural diversity of our intersecting communities is not reflected in the spaces we are creating.) Pinn has much else to say, of course, but I’ll leave the complicated questions of liberation theology for another day.
So yes, much of the actual experience of religion (at least for many) consists in the very things that humanists value — community, compassion, ethical behavior, justice, and cultural creativity — and allowing humanism into the interfaith conversation fosters some fundamental and explicit aims of humanist activism. Still, as the heated #HumanistCommunity dialogue that surged on Twitter several weeks back makes clear, the view of atheism and humanism as oppositional to faith and the resistance to adopting religious structures and titles are strong currents in our community, and possibly only serve to illustrate how necessary (and timely) a more inclusive dialogue is. “Until we have our own spaces and our own communities,” Greg points out, “we simply won’t be represented.” Just what those spaces and communities should look like (and “Who’s this ‘we,’ white man?”) will be an ongoing conversation. The Humanist Community Project at Harvard hopes to be a major catalyst for that conversation. And if we must disagree, Greg says, citing the Koran, “We can compete in good works.”