Creating an Atheist-Inclusive Creating Change and LGBT Movement

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[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.

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There are 18 Comments to "Creating an Atheist-Inclusive Creating Change and LGBT Movement"

  • Di says:

    Great post! I think you summed up the issues we had really well. Never heard of the book you’re quoting, but those suggestions are great and incredibly relevant. It seems like a tricky thing, to reimagine Practice Spirit, Do Justice as something that could possibly be affirming of nonbelievers, when I look back on the way it was executed this past year. I think following those guildelines would be a great blueprint.

    Also… maybe it could be renamed, lol.

    I’d love to see a workshop on how to have effective discussions about LGBT equality with religious people as a nonbeliever, or without relying on religious arguments. I think it’d be a good perspective for both nonbelievers and religious individuals to hear. In addition to making it easier to avoid breakdowns between religious and non-religious individuals, it could help religious people stop having conversations with each other that erase or scapegoat nonbelievers.

    • In the UK, although many people still identify as “christian” in surveys, most of the population are blessedly irreligious.

      Nevertheless, opposition to LGBTIQ equality and rights comes [exclusively?] from the small but vocal religious minority.

      Sadly, there was active support for faithists in the previous Labour goverment under Blair and Brown: and this persists in the current Conservative + “LibDem” coalition under Cameron + Clegg.

      At the [ First Church of Atheism ] you can become an ordained minister, at no cost. If church membership is still often viewed as social necessity in the USA, joining the FCA may be the church for you!

  • Brian Gerald says:

    I really enjoyed your caucus (and am one of the OMG I have never been around this many atheists).

    I think there’s a bunch of workshops waiting to happen. Here are some I’d love to see:

    * Engaging religious communities as an outsider
    * Advocating for, not against: How to work for LGBTQ inclusion without putting down other groups (atheists, pagans, sexual active, sex workers, etc)
    * Good Without God (duh)
    * Healing from religious harm on our own
    * Atheist Allies: Strategies for collaborating with atheists and other secular movements (labor, union, feminist, etc)

  • Buffy says:

    Sadly the LGBT community seems to be, to some extent, falling all over itself to prove it’s not “anti-Christian” as the bigots claim. To that end they promote their faithiness (Look! We’re as religious as you are!) and try to squelch the non-believers in their midst. But as you know atheists face as much discrimination and oppression as LGBT folk. Gaytheists face multiplied discrimination. We all have the same “enemies”, so to speak. Just think how much could be accomplished if everyone joined forces.

  • Van van der Voort says:

    No one knows we’re here if we don’t speak up and speak out! Just saying!

    Van in San Diego

  • allyson says:

    I am the President of Interweave Continental. We are the member based group for GLBTAIQ Unitarian Universalists. We welcome Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, Pagans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, HIndis, Wiccans, & just about anyone willing to respect the views of others.

    We had a vending booth at the conference. We presented a workshop on how to counter religious bullying & spiritual violence. We also held our annual meeting at Creating Change. We have a member of our board on the NGLTF’s religious round table.

    I don’t know where the communication break down occured. But we were hoping to participate in the interfaith service on Sunday & have been trying to be involved in their planning of religious events. I’m not sure if it is a conscious decision or an oversight that they often do not include us in their religious planning, or if it is simply a lack of us knowing the right people to work with.

    I too was saddened by their lack of inclusion of other faith perspectives in the main panel. I was with a fellow board member in the elevator after the panel & she was talking about how their should have been a UU voice on the panel. The Bishop from the panel was also in the elevator & agreed with us.

    Hopefully, this can be resolved next time. They do seem open to be being as inclusive as possible. But it seems obvious they need some help with that. I welcome any help to work together to bring a wider range of religious diversity to the next Creating Change.

    • ZackFord says:

      Thanks for your reply, Allyson. It sounds like ya’ll are doing some very good work. I’m sure if we all speak out and apply pressure, we can create the change we want to see.

  • Sean Santos says:

    Notes on the video:

    -A lot of the beginning just had no resonance, because they were discussing things I don’t find valuable. Managed to remain a religious leader and a lesbian? Good for you, but I feel you’d have been better off just ditching the former. It’s empowering to everyone else, but not to me.

    -Immigrant or non-white LGBTs are more often religious. But not all atheists are white North American/Europeans. The implication (made multiple times in the video) that being inclusive of religion means being inclusive of other races has an unfortunate side effect; it marginalizes irreligious immigrants or people of color. I have spoken with several African American atheists who lament that it’s seen as illegitimate or somehow contrary to being black to be an atheist.

    -Many, if not most, atheists in the U.S. are former believers. The assertion that progressive believers somehow are better able to “get” and therefore counter our religious opponents, is not always true. They have better P.R. than atheists. But an atheist from a fundagelical background often has more insight into that phenomenon than someone who has always been a moderate or progressive believer.

    -15:15 “We can infuse our worldview wherever we walk.” Again, very meaningful for very religious people, but frustrating for people who see religion injected everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.

    -Oh dear. Yvette Flunder says so many of the same things that marginalize black atheists. Black LGBT atheists are a minority in a minority in a minority; surely it can’t be considered helpful to them to be told that their civil rights are entirely based on faith and spirituality, and the implication that if they don’t hold those as personal values, they are somehow not authentically part of the civil rights movement. To put it bluntly: this is not OK. I don’t think she’s doing it knowingly, but it is quite inappropriate.

    -I understand how it has probably been uncomfortable for religious people at LGBT gatherings where people were rather bitter about traditional religion. That’s actually a useful thing to be concerned with. But to focus on integration of religious and secular movements, we need a bit of a two-way street. Irreligious people should hold all religion as an automatic enemy of LGBT rights (I like to think that most of us don’t), and we also need religious people not to say that the proper way to be a progressive activist is to be “spiritual”. Atheists and agnostics get told constantly, implicitly and explicitly, that one needs to be spiritual to be psychologically healthy, or to have faith to be good. We don’t need other social change movements to pile on the exclusionary language as well.

    -Joshua Lesser walked it back a bit, which was good. But what I like about it is mostly the invitation for feedback, because that is needed.

    -Nancy Wilson (after her own weird equivocation about everyone needing faith) also stepped back and said that she didn’t need everyone to be on board with her faith. But it feels like something offhand at the end, more CYA than something seriously considered from the start.

    -Yvette doesn’t improve that much. “We need to meet negative religious messages with positive religious messages.” She’s free to help in that way. But her “we” cannot include all of us who are not religious.

    • ZackFord says:

      You said so many of the things that I wanted to include in this post but decided not to so I could get to my point about creating inclusion. Thank you for watching the video and leaving such an insightful response.

      • Sean Santos says:

        No problem. I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people recently about how atheists are often marginalized in progressive groups. It’s very difficult at times, in part because atheists’ focus tends to be on truth claims and justification, while other progressive egalitarians tend to focus on power and domination. We have a common enemy in the religious right, but there are some starting points that are out of alignment, particularly in the tension between the atheist view that religious belief is unjustified and worthy of critique, versus the egalitarian view that different viewpoints should be respected equally. It’s possible to find a compromise between the two, but unfortunately a lot of progressives simply seem unaware or outright misinformed about how exactly atheists think.

    • Sean Santos says:

      *I meant “Irreligious people shouldn’t”

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