[It might be helpful to read some previous posts that set the context for this one. Last year, I wrote about how religious I felt Creating Change to be. In November, I built upon that post, arguing that nonbelievers have become a marginalized community within the LGBT movement. And then, before attending this year's Creating Change, I noted how prevalent religious themes would again be and the fact that the atheist caucus I'd proposed would be the only space that affirmed nonbelievers.]
The opening plenary of Creating Change 2011 bridged the main conference with its subconference, Practice Spirit, Do Justice. Entitled “Hard work for our common good,” the panel featured four religious leaders with prepared statements: Bishop Yvette Flunder (City of Refuge/UCC), Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson (MCC), Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and Faisal Alam, a Muslim leader.
And while I was prepared for many faith-centric messages, I was not prepared for how erased and marginalized I would feel on the very first day of the conference. Most of the 25 who joined the atheist caucus the following evening expressed similar concerns, as did many CC veterans who could not attend but followed along on Twitter.
As an obvious start, the opening panel did not feature a Humanist, Unitarian, or nonbeliever who could speak for the experiences of those who do not identify with faith. Arguably, plenty of other worldviews also went unrepresented as well. But the language that was used, particularly by Rev. Wilson and Bishop Flunder, not so subtly erased nonbelievers from the LGBT community and movement. And while atheists and agnostics were acknowledged a time or two, we were not represented nor affirmed by the supposedly interfaith panel.
Rev. Rebecca Voelkel opened the session by declaring, “This is where we are as a movement,” celebrating that a panel of faith leaders were opening the conference. Both Rev. Wilson and Rabbi Lesser spoke to the way the LGBT movement has excluded or dismissed faith communities in the past. And then Bishop Flunder pronounced the following:
I’d like to lift up tonight the presence of faith and deep spirituality as the underpinning if most, if not all real, authentic civil rights movements. I believe that the power to endure and be courageous amid continual physical, emotional, and spiritual attack must come from a deep well that is continually filled by the divine of our understanding.
She later invoked the prophet Paul, reminding us, “If God be for us, who would dare be against us,” and then declared “We will get our God back!”
Rev. Wilson added in her follow-up remarks that “Activism, to be sustained, requires faith of some kind, maybe not religious or spiritual, but some kind of sustaining faith.” This was her introduction to her hopes for the nonreligious and religious to work together.
These are just a few of the examples of language that left me incredibly triggered, excluded from the movement and the community. I left the session taking not much else with me. I’m glad the entire video is online, because upon relistening, I found a lot of important and powerful ideas that I could respect and appreciate. I implore you: take 45 minutes and listen for yourself. And yet, the panel still makes me feel incredibly invisible, like I am not welcome to be a part of this movement—that because I do not identify with faith of any kind, I have nothing to contribute towards our queer liberation.
The atheist/nonbeliever caucus was a remarkable experience. Not everyone there identified with the a-word. There were Humanists, agnostics, and even some folks of varying degrees of spirituality. But we weren’t there to argue over vocabulary semantics; we were there to affirm each other. And one of the qualities that united most of the 25 individuals in the room was that it was the first time in their lives that they were in a room with that many other nonbelievers and the first time in their lives that they felt affirmed to come out and commune with their fellow nonbelievers.
I had proposed the caucus because I knew there was a need. I had no idea the need was so great.
Historically, there had been visibility for atheists in conferences past, but it has been many years since that was the case. If this year’s atheist caucus was any indication, we are overdue to reverse the trend of that invisibility.
The room was alive and abuzz! We committed most of the hour to creating space for each individual to speak and be affirmed. We could have easily communed and discussed issues for four or more.
In the course of the discussion, we agreed that Practice Spirit, Do Justice was not particularly welcoming or affirming for us. We also acknowledged that the intensity of faith at this year’s conference was likely unique, as Minneapolis is where The Task Force’s faith arm, The Institute for Welcome Resources, operates. Most importantly, everyone was energized to create additional inclusive spaces for atheists in future conferences.
And while I’m committed to that, I also put forth a challenge here and now to the organizers of the conference at large to create a more inclusive space for nonbelievers. Creating Change has been very proactive about offering suggestions for language use regarding other dimensions of identity, including race, gender identity, and ability. It’s time that these efforts be updated to create a truly interfaith space that does not exclude and erase nonbelievers.
In his book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, Greg Epstein offers the following suggestions for fully including Humanists and Atheists in interfaith spaces:
Don’t ask, “Can you be good without God?”
Do ask why we are motivated to be good, or to work with you.
Don’t proselytize to atheists in an interfaith context.
I hope readers can see how some of the assertions made during the plenary about the role of faith in the movement left out the motivations and experiences of those who do not identify with faith.
Do reach out specifically to atheist, secular, and Humanist groups and solicit their participation.
This has not been standard practice for Creating Change. Had I not proactively proposed the atheist caucus, there would have been no actual affirmation of nonbelievers’ contributions to the conference aside from lip service.
Don’t advertise interfaith events as for the religious only or as a way for everyone to unite, despite theological differences, around belief in God.
Practice Spirit, Do Justice and its overwhelming intersections with the conference at large clearly ran into this problem.
Do advertise as religiously pluralistic, including all religions as well as atheists, agnostics, Humanists, and the nonreligious.
To its credit, Creating Change does acknowledge nonbelievers as part of its community.
Use inclusive language: In addition to including us on your usual flyers, posters, or recruiting emails as above, try a special poster or e-mail emphasizing that interfaith includes the nonreligious too.
Include us in programs.
Learn and teach about us.
I was encouraged privately to propose atheist-centered workshops (such as an “Atheist 101″ workshop) as part of the Practice Spirit, Do Justice track, but I will confess that I did not truly feel welcome to do so. This may very well have been a failing on my part, and an opportunity I regret not seizing.
It is an interesting sort of personal irony I recognize. I wish to counteract the lack of affirmation for nonbelievers, but it’s the very lack of affirmation that inhibits me from taking too bold a step.
Still, there were individuals at our caucus who told me that I was a trailblazer, a compliment I don’t think I earned by simply creating one space. Clearly the work needs to be done, and I do feel affirmed to step up and be a leader for this community of overlapping identities.
Rev. Wilson said, “You need us to beat their agenda.” Bishop Flunder repeated several times that negative religious messages need to be met with positive religious messages. I don’t disagree with either sentiment. Still, our commitment to reclaiming faith for LGBT people should not abandon those who seek not to reclaim faith and who are perhaps quite eager to challenge it. There is a boisterous atheist community chock full of LGBT allies who are just waiting to be invited to the table.
I hope Creating Change 2012 is where we can finally make that invitation and create a balanced space that celebrates all worldviews and lifestances, from the most spiritual to the least. It is certainly my commitment to step up and make it so.