How atheists are establishing community, advocating for causes, and promoting interfaith discussions

Years before he became an author and promoter of humanist and interfaith dialogues, Chris Stedman was volunteering at a community centre in New Haven, Conn. There, a Muslim woman challenged, and changed, Stedman’s beliefs about the conversations believers and non-believers are willing to have.

The woman shared with him details of the harassment she received routinely in public while wearing a cloth head covering or hijab.

“I identified, in a way, with what she was saying because I had also been physically and verbally harassed for being gay while walking out in public,” says Stedman.

“Without realizing what I was doing, I shared that with her… I had no idea what her reaction was going to be… I had all kinds of assumptions about what she would think because she was Muslim. Instead, she really surprised me – she asked me what it is that I do in those moments when I’m afraid.”

He recalls, “realizing just how much my unwillingness to have those conversations was disrupting my ability to learn, and to be educated.”

He says that when he let go of the stereotypes and prejudices he clung to as an atheist about what others from different religions would perceive, he opened himself up to having conversations with others regardless of their beliefs and without fear of judgment. He believes this is how true understanding between people of different faiths can be reached.

Christine Shellska appeared before the United Nations’ Commission for Social Development in New York City on Feb. 10, 2015 on behalf of Atheist Alliance International. This was the first time an atheist organization addressed the U.N. Photo courtesy of Minex Guatemala, Creative CommonsStedman was involved in the inception of the new atheism movement that addresses the stereotype of the “militant atheist,” a term that captures the traditional view of atheism as hostile towards religion, and helped exchange this stigma for a more positive image, one that emphasizes its concern for and involvement in international, political and social activism.

“One thing that interfaith dialogues have is a focus on action rather than just arguing over the issue of whether God exists or not,” says Steven Engler, religious studies professor at Mount Royal University and North American editor of the academic journal Religion.

“That’s the strength of newer forms of socially committed atheism. They start with the idea that when you have a basic commitment to a certain view of the world, whether it’s religious or gets on without religion, the question is what comes next and how do you live your life on the basis of that?”

For Calgarian Christine Shellska, who grew up in a secular household, the atheism community offered her a place to get involved in social and political justice causes.

“Getting involved in the atheist community was a catalyst that compelled me to get out there and do stuff to make the world a better place,” says Shellska. “I had always been interested in social justice, but I didn’t know how to get involved.”

“One thing that interfaith dialogues have is a focus on action rather than just arguing over the issue of whether God exists or not.”
– Steven Engler

Now the president of Atheist Alliance International, Shellska had the opportunity to speak at the United Nations in New York City last year on behalf of the alliance. This was the first time an atheist organization addressed the United Nations.

This budding involvement on the world stage takes many forms. The estranged son of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kans., Nate Phelps uses his position as an atheist to help others who have lost their faith.

“I still recognize that we’re social creatures, and a lot of what religions do is to support that in us,” Phelps says. “The meetings, the community, the rituals, weddings, funerals, and all that stuff, those don’t go away because we no longer attach them to some religious component.”

Phelps speaks publicly about his experience leaving the Westboro Baptist Church on the night of his 18th birthday to provide support for others who have left their faiths. As the former director of the Centre for Inquiry’s Calgary branch, Phelps is also on the board of Recovering from Religion, a group dedicated to connecting individuals who have left their faith with resources, support and community.

Jason Droboth, founder of Mount Royal University’s Secular Humanist Society, renounced his faith when he was just 18, prompting exile from not just his religious community, but his family and friends as well. He has since found a new community of like-minded folk at university, all searching for more than just belief. Photo courtesy of Jason DrobothAfter renouncing his belief in God, Mount Royal University business student, Jason Droboth was shunned by his family and friends. Droboth says that Jehovah’s Witnesses practice mandatory shunning, which prevents them from associating with an apostate.

“They truly believe that is the best and most loving way for them to behave, to completely shun their own children,” says Droboth who was exiled from his community at age 18.

“It was extremely difficult and extremely dangerous as well because I had no family or friends. Everything was cut away from me overnight essentially and I was in no mental state to be able to stand on my own two feet.”

As an atheist, Droboth created a secular community similar to the one he grew up with. In 2014, Droboth founded Mount Royal University’s Secular Humanist Society to engage in “rationale discussions” and encourage the free exchange of ideas at their movie screenings and Pint with a Prof events. He says the group’s membership replaced the family and friends he lost when he rejected his belief in God.

“I’ve met a lot of interesting people through the society who I otherwise wouldn’t have,” says Droboth.

Today, new atheist groups give non-religious individuals a sense of community and the opportunity to be engaged in politics, public policy, social justice and human rights causes, areas traditionally associated with religious groups.

As Stedman says, “I realized what I sought from the religious community was activism, not faith.”

Thumbnail courtesy of elPadawan, Creative Commons.

amclaughlin@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca