Last year, as this blog began to take off and I was invited to begin contributing to the Huffington Post Religion, the Washington Post On Faith, and other forums, I wondered what to do with NonProphet Status.
With a book contract, a new job at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, launching and managing State of Formation (which is now under the talented and visionary supervision of Honna Eichler), and new writing gigs for other sites, I was suddenly slammed with work. But I didn’t want to abandon or neglect NPS — after all, I had founded it for a reason, had invested a lot of time and energy into building it, and had always intended for it to function as a platform for many voices — not just mine.
So I decided to revamp things a bit; it became a clearinghouse for work I wrote for other sites, but all the more it became an even more active forum for guest posts. As I met more and more people with unique insights and perspectives on the intersection of atheism, religion, and interfaith cooperation, I wanted to share this space with them, and went out of my way to encourage people to write for the site. In the process, I learned so much from the guest voices who have shared their work here.
I’m ready to learn even more. I’m honored to announce the expansion of the vision of NPS as a forum for perspectives on the intersection of atheism, religion, and interfaith work — please join me in welcoming the addition of four Panelists. NPS will continue to host one-off guest contributions (please contact me if you’re interested), but in addition to single guest posts, it will now feature recurring contributions from four Panelists!
All four Panelists bring a singular perspective to the table, and I’m overjoyed to bring them on board. Not only are they four of the most exemplary writers and thinkers I know when it comes to these issues, but they’re also kind, funny, exceptional people. To have them writing for NPS is a thrill.
To celebrate their arrival (each of these folks have written for NPS before so they’re not exactly new, but still), I’ve invited them to reflect on why they wanted to join the site, and also share a bit more about themselves (favorite books, music, foods, and what “nerd cred” they can claim, which is obviously essential in the atheist movement, haha). Check out their reflections below, and visit the About page for their full bios. Additionally, I assigned them Captain Planet doppelgängers and dug up a silly Alternate Author Photo from their Facebook pages. (For the sake of fairness, I did the same for myself.)
Now, please join me in welcoming Walker, Vlad, Serah and Chelsea. With our powers combined, we are Team NPS!
Serah Blain — “DOA: A Dialogue of Action”
One of the things that has always distressed me about human communication is the fact that, as dialogue theorist William Isaacs writes, “most words are designed to sustain our separation.” We don’t listen, we reload. We don’t dialogue, we exchange monologues. And when it comes to deep, complex disagreements such as those we have about religion, we communicate in a way that is dehumanizing and that fragments our human community. I am inspired by the way interfaith/nontheistic cooperation does quite the opposite: it provides opportunities for religious and nonreligious people to build relationships, to view one another as legitimate, to care about one another’s well-being, and to be receptive to challenging ideas about what is true.
Interfaith work goes straight to the heart of why I became involved in secular activism to begin with. I was exhausted by the religious barriers I met when I worked on social justice and human rights issues, and I felt ineffective in terms of creating meaningful change—particularly in my work on behalf of the LGBT community. It was often impossible to communicate with legislators about marriage equality for example, because the rational discussion inevitably broke down over religion. I remember meeting with a state representative in Maryland who supported employment protection laws for LGBT people, supported LGBT adoption rights, even supported LGBT domestic partnership laws, but as I pressed her on marriage, she just kept repeating, “I have to rely on my faith in God to know what’s right and wrong, and I just believe God is telling me marriage is between a man and a woman.” We got to a point where we were just talking past one another, and the conversation only became more and more polarized. What I learned from that meeting was that in order to bridge the religious/nontheistic ideological chasm in the interest of social justice, I needed to start interacting with religious people in a way that created a common pool of meaning from which to draw a common language, that built goodwill, and that ultimately would inspire generative dialogue.
Writing for NPS is a wonderful opportunity to advocate for more productive interaction between religious and nonreligious people and to share my experiences in interfaith work. Most importantly, it is an opportunity to invite the kind of radically humanizing dialogue that interfaith cooperation is capable of bringing about.
I like science books that describe the natural world in a tone of awe, wonder and celebration; I like poetry that does the same. I also love everything by my friend Chris Hollister, but you don’t know any of his work because he’s not published yet (this is a legitimate example of me liking something so obscure you’ve never heard of it).
Jon Bon Jovi because of the hair and his expert use of allegory and cliché. Also, Nick Cave because he’s so angry and hurt and women dig that shit.
I’m an ethical vegan and love to invent new and amazing dishes. I especially enjoy cooking for guests, so if you’re ever in Prescott, Arizona, come over and be fed.
My tat is a physics equation. Geek cred win.
Chelsea Link — “Sound Without Fury”
I met Chris ten months ago, at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Interfaith Leadership Institute. I had never done anything “interfaith” before, but I’d been hoping the Harvard Secular Society would interact more with the religious groups on campus, and Greg Epstein suggested that the institute could help me make that happen. On the airplane from Boston to D.C., I worried about what I would say when somebody inevitably asked about my religion. How could I tell a religious person that I didn’t just disagree about God’s name or the nature of the afterlife, but was pretty sure the whole lot of it was nonsense? Weren’t my beliefs intrinsically offensive, no matter how I expressed them? Why had I decided it would be a good idea to do the unthinkable and skip two whole days of class for this!?
But when I arrived, I was welcomed, with no strings attached. My atheism was just as respected and affirmed as every other belief represented at the institute. In fact, one staffer, upon learning that I was an atheist, immediately replied, “Cool! Do you know that Chris Stedman is here? Let me introduce you!”
I’m going to be real with you: I freaked out a little bit. I had these stupid fantasies about being a critically acclaimed blogger, and changing the world with my stream-of-consciousness ramblings. And there was Chris, of NonProphet Status fame, with his badass tattoos, shaking my hand, acting totally chill, like we didn’t both know that everybody who’s anybody reads NonProphet Status. Okay, so maybe I had a slightly unrealistic idea of Chris’s international renown, but he’s pretty damn cool.
Soon after that, Chris joined the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and I’ve had the honor and the pleasure of working with him a lot this year. For some reason, he thought I had some stories worth telling, so he started letting me hijack his blog now and then. (I tried to act like it was no big deal but I was still freaking out a little bit.) I am delighted to now be a regular panelist here at NPS, where I hope to contribute to the conversation about atheism, religion, interfaith work, and how all this intersects in real people’s lives.
Being the Shakespeare nerd that I am, I was thinking about how Macbeth describes life: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I think he’s half right: life can seem really futile and absurd sometimes, especially if you believe (as I do) that it ends conclusively with death. But I don’t think it has to signify nothing, and I think it’s my job to try to fill it, as much as possible, with sound (and color and light and love) but not with fury. Hence the name “Sound Without Fury” for my column.
Favorite Books? Favorite Music? Favorite Foods? Nerd Cred?
Okay, now on to the important things. I absolutely love to read – everything from Shakespeare to popular science. My favorite book I’ve read recently is probably Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I think it really embodies a lot of Humanist values. Also I used to want to be a forensic pathologist when I grew up, but we don’t need to go there. Like all white girls in their twenties, I am a sucker for a boy with a plaid shirt and an acoustic guitar, making Colin Meloy, Bon Iver, and Elliott Smith some of my favorite musicians. I love to cook – when I’m not fantasizing about being a superblogger, I am usually fantasizing about being on Top Chef. Picking a favorite food would be like picking a favorite child, but if I had to choose the primary beneficiary for my life insurance policy, it would be key lime pie. And finally, since I was instructed to argue for my “geek cred,” I will direct you to my bio, where you will see that I was once the President of the Harvard College Crossword Society. QED.
Vlad Chituc — “When Atheists Get It Wrong”
A few weeks back, Chris was kind enough to give me a guest post to air my frustrations with the nonreligious movement, as well as plug my freshly minted blog. But after some talks with Chris and a particularly hectic few weeks (and prospective upcoming year), I think we both decided that a weekly column would be a better fit.
So here I am.
My aspirations haven’t changed much since I last wrote, so for a refresher feel free to read up a bit here. It’s not obvious how this fits in line with the mission of NonProphet Status, which I am delighted to now formally be a part of, but primarily I hope to debunk the scientifically unsupported notion that religion is a disease that is causally responsible for a lot of problems, and for those problems to be solved we need to get rid of religion.
Once you realize that religion is not the root, but merely an occasional and by no means necessary reflection of the actual problems, then it only seems natural to drop artificial barriers we construct while trying to solve these problems, be it through interfaith, transfaith (or either/or), or just people volunteering with no reference to religion at all.
I hope to flesh out that position in the coming weeks, so allow me to say a little bit about myself. My narrative voice falls regularly in the narrow space between “snarky” and “pretentious dick,” so I’m doing my best to stay civil and respectful. I also don’t consider myself a secular humanist — I find no more reason to connect my atheism and ethics than I do my atheism and metaphysics (and I don’t identify as a secular non-reductivist).
Ethics is hard, so while I’m figuring it out, I default to something like rule-Utilitarianism with a neo-Kantian bent (except when I don’t), but in practice I just try not to be a dick.
I like books: The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering and Supersense by Bruce Hood are both phenomenal introductions to the psychological study of the origins of religion and supernatural belief. I also like reading philosophy. Don’t bother reading The Moral Landscape, and instead pick up Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit. I don’t read fiction but I love Kurt Vonnegut.
I like music: Portugal. The Man has produced nothing but solid albums for the last 5 years, spanning from post-hardcore to folk to soul to baroque-pop, and their newest album is near-perfect. The new Bon Iver release has been on repeat for the last few months, and indie rap completes me.
I like food: I’m a vegetarian and when I’m not feeling lazy I love to cook, mostly for other people. Goat cheese and spinach go with everything, and I could live on salads and thrown-together soups. Quinoa is amazing, and Portobello mushrooms have replaced meat in my diet.
I have vague nerd-cred: I play way too much Starcraft II (Protoss), and am prone to rants about metaethics.
Walker Bristol — “Religion Roundup”
At heart, I’m an occasional storyteller, but mostly a story-hearer. There’s little that I find more exciting than coming to better understand someone I’ve just met — or known for a long time — by hearing their unique personal narrative.
I’ve joined the NonProphet Status panelist team primarily because I care about stories. Whatever else it is, someone’s religion is a collection of stories that inspire them. For some secular folks, challenging the validity of these stories seems to be the best way to inspire people towards harmony and to find solutions to oh-so-many problems of today. Yet, I personally feel like recounting stories of my own, and exploring what makes those of the world’s religions so compelling, can be an ever more effective technique for building a world safe for diversity, and perhaps even safer for rational thought.
What I want to see the “Religion Roundup” series I’ll be writing here at NonProphet Status accomplish is to provide a glimpse into contemporary world events through the often disregarded lens of people’s religious motivations. The stories that drive politicians to legislate, or dictators to oppress, or rebels to liberate are too often in today’s media shoveled into the shadows of broad labels that offer little to no real insight into what really provokes people to action. I hope the Religion Roundup can shine a sharper light on belief and help dispel some misperceptions people have about the world’s religious diversity and how that diversity drives us as individuals.
When I think of atheist participation in interfaith, I see myself at the Interfaith Youth Core leadership summit in July, hearing about the personal of journeys of students from all sorts of different backgrounds; I remember how I felt growing up as one of the few secularists in a sea of southern Christians in southeastern North Carolina; most of all, though, I think of a world where “atheist” isn’t a dirty word, because the nonreligious have chosen to befriend rather than belittle those whom they disagree with, even if those friendships involve spirited, honest discussion.
Favorite Books? Favorite Music? Favorite Foods? Nerd Cred?
On the fun-fact-front, you can often find me in a Tufts practice room playing (rather, trying to play) some Ben Folds on the keyboards, or reading anything by Isaac Asimov. I really love the pianist and singer Tori Amos, who incidentally often very cleverly incorporates themes of religion or commentary on religion in her songwriting. I grew up in a family-owned independent bookstore, and I’ll always consider Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to be one of my favorite representations of mental illness and social commentary anywhere in literature. I own the entire series of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica on DVD, and I’m addicted to cheesecake. And right now, I’m absolutely-positively-uber-psyched to become a part of the NonProphet Status community.
Chris Stedman — Founder
I founded NPS to be a forum for advancing the discourse on atheism, interfaith, and religion. For more on why, check out some of my writing at the Selected Writings page.
Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel and Good Without God by Greg Epstein are books that have largely inspired my work, written by people I’m now incredibly fortunate to consider my friends, mentors, and advisors. Flannery O’Connor is my all-time favorite fiction writer, and I have one tattoo for her already and another planned. I long to be half as talented with words as she was.
I’m obsessed with music. I think nearly all of my laptop’s hard drive (as well as an external hard drive) is occupied by MP3s — it’s mostly stereotypical hipster music, though it includes an increasing amount of pop music (yes, as most everyone in my life knows by now, I’m an unabashed Britney Spears fan). Also, I spend an obscene amount of time every December writing up a list of my favorite albums of the year, and the month of January is defined by frustration over discovering albums I forgot to include on said list. I’ve spent this summer completely and utterly immersed in The Weeknd‘s House of Balloons, and you should probably join me there.
If I could survive solely on coffee, spicy tuna maki, avocados, and Reece’s peanut butter cups, I would.
I love Doctor Who through and through. Also, ask me the story behind my capybara tattoo sometime; the motivation was sufficiently dorky. Despite what other people tell me, I firmly believe that hipsters can also be nerds!
Thanks again to Walker, Chelsea, Serah and Vlad for joining me in this project. Here’s to learning from and with one another, future guest bloggers, and commenters — I’m immensely grateful for each and every one of you.
In a 2010 interview with Wired magazine about his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Kevin Kelly made the claim that the best settings for creativity and innovation are diverse and collaborative. “Ideas aren’t self-contained things,” said Kelly. “They’re more like ecologies and networks.”
With their diverse experiences and areas of expertise — and the distinct angle each is operating from — clustered together, I’m so excited to see where these new voices take NonProphet Status.
Please contact me if you’re interested in contributing to NonProphet Status.