Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Nation's Largest Catholic School...

Pick one. Pick two, pick three, pick four, however many more.

University. College. Major. Career. DECISIONS.

When I stumbled my way through lists upon lists of universities, I initially crossed out every single college with a religious background, opting mainly for public schools. I was worried that as a young atheist, my thoughts and feelings would be disrespected and trivialized in a profoundly religious environment. Unfortunately, that didn't leave me with very many affordable and respectable options left. I slowly began to open up the doors and consider some of religiously affiliated schools in my nearby home of Chicago. I decided that in a modern city, most schools, even religiously affiliated, must have a pretty strong diversity of people.

I visited a couple schools in the city that I found to be all around lackluster. Then I got to DePaul. I was wary at first, knowing it was the nation's largest catholic university. As I would soon learn, DePaul does not hold this title because of its proportion of catholic students, but rather it's total number of students.

When I visited the campus, I fell in love. I had scheduled an over night stay. As it turned out, my host was a MAJOR supporter of GLBTQ rights, an issue that spoke strongly with me. She was wonderfully liberal and fun, and she wasn't the only one. In fact, she fell within the blissful majority at DePaul. During my overnight stay I found something endlessly appealing in the irony of a catholic school situated right next to Boystown, but I also found more: I found a community. DePaul categorizes itself as Vincentian, a particular division of the Catholic church that stresses the importance of diversity and service towards the common man. As someone who has always been in service, especially for underprivileged and marginalized groups of people, I felt like I could really fit in at DePaul, regardless of my religious identity - or rather, lack there of.

Fast forward a year. Here I am, DePaul student, having just finished my first quarter. I was right. I'm not alone on campus. There are lots of people who share parts of my identity, including my theological one. I am comfortable here, and proud of my school for supporting so many ideals that I share. I think this is the first time in my life that I'm experiencing actual school spirit. SHOCK AND HORROR!

But I mean, I'm still a minority. There is a large portion of the student body who does not identify as Catholic, but there is not nearly so large a portion who identifies as non-spiritual. DePaul doesn't discriminate towards me or force me to take part in religious/spiritual acts, for which I am grateful. But there is definitely something about the language floating around DePaul that holds a religious bias.

In one attempt to assure some classmates and I of DePaul's fondness for religious diversity, a faculty member asserted [I paraphrase] that "All faiths are welcome at DePaul. After all, if you are connected to your faith, your humanity, and your service towards others, you are connecting to God, whoever He may be, and that is all that matters."

While the sentiment of these statements was admirable and harmless, the wording really made me think. Obviously it was a pretty open-minded and accepting statement to make about other religions. But it entirely ignored even the slightest concept or idea that that other group (yanno, the atheists) could be right. I'm not really complaining since the staff in question was part of the Ministry dept. and that's sort of their dig, but it just strikes me as something that flows strongly within most of DePaul's language. DePaul is beyond accepting of all spiritualities, and it doesn't hate on atheists or anything, but I don't feel as if they are really recognized. Even most of the agnostic individuals I meet at DePaul still say they connect to some kind of unidentifiable spirituality. I think in some ways, DePaul sort of expects some kind of spirituality - and DePaul doesn't really do anything serious to indicate that not feeling spiritual is wrong, but it does sometimes lead to one feeling that maybe they are a little more alone in that field than they thought.

Atheism and a focus on science and the tangible as opposed to the romance and comfort of the intangible are just starting to rise in this world. Perhaps this is a reaction to the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the times when out-of-body and out-of-mind experiences were valued above actual ones. Or perhaps it is a reflection of the accomplishments our country continues to make in science and our expanded knowledge. Whichever you are so inclined to believe, the elements of the past linger on in even the most forward-thinking of places. I would say that DePaul is extremely progressive and hyper-sensitive to society's changing attribute and needs. But there are still hints of the nineteen-fifties-esque assumption that God is real, everyone believes in God, and those who don't are crazy old Scrooges. I'm not arguing here whether religion is right or wrong bla bla bla age old debate. But I mean, if I were to ask the professor I mentioned earlier if he meant that since service is connected to God, my service as an atheist isn't as meaningful as a christian's might be, even though his words did establish a connection between the two ideas, he would've been aghast and told me that wasn't what he meant at all. I understand that. But the wording that we use regularly, colloquially... It still has those strong ties to religion, even though specification of what religion that is appears to have grown less and less important these days.

This leads me to wonder what our language will be like in ten years. Twenty? Thirty? I feel like one of the biggest indicators society has of its own judgments towards groups is the language it uses.

BUT I DIGRESS. Being an atheist at the nation's largest catholic university is a constantly rewarding experience. I love being exposed to things that make others happy. I love learning about the faith's of others. I have a very inquisitive nature, and even though I am fairly confident in my own beliefs, I like to observe the ways people practice theirs, and the influence on it in their lives. I fancy myself an outsider looking in sometimes, and I like that position, to look, and observe, and find little quirks about language and things that don't particularly bother me, but intrigue me. And of course, on such a big campus in such a big city, when I'm tired of being the observer and want to be the insider, it isn't hard to find a community of like minded individuals.

I feel comfortable at DePaul. It suits me intellectually, politically, motivationally, geographically... well, the list goes on. I wouldn't have my undergraduate experience any other way.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rhetorical Quidditch with Blair and Hitchens

by: Nico Lang

On Nov. 26, the world’s most famous Catholic convert, Tony Blair, faced off in a debate with our most outspoken atheist, the Christopher Hitchens. The topic: Is religion a force for good in the world?

And if you listened to the press, the former British Prime Minister got his dashing English hiney handed to him.
To say that the write-ups were grim may be the understatement of the year. Mr. Blair lost “the holy war to heathen Hitch,” according to the Herald Scotland, and the National Post felt he “made it an easy win for Hitchens.” No major publication sided with Blair and even the audience favored Mr. Hitchens by a near 2-1 split.

The conclusion: Hitchens: 1, Blair: 0.

In Mr. Blair’s defense, with the historical record of organized religion, it’s a whole lot simpler to argue against religion than for it, and as always, Hitchens did a fabulous job on capitalizing on that. His energy and wit were nothing short of impressive, especially in opening remarks where he compared religion to a “celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.”

Those familiar with the body of Hitchens work expected him to bring his full arsenal of rhetorical weaponry. Hitch may be the wiliest provocateur working today, and he came to take no religious prisoners.

In the response to Hitchens’ ubiquitous jabs, the audience waited for Mr. Blair to “land blows,” to accumulate points as if this all were a very talky game of Quidditch.

While watching Mr. Blair defend his faith, avowed Secular Humanist Roger Ebert found that Blair spent the evening running in circles around Hitchens’ points. Tony Blair came off as increasingly nervous and flustered, kind of like a British counterpart to Richard Nixon in his famous debate with John F. Kennedy.

However, like the Nixon-Kennedy debates, something very different emerges when you parse through the transcript. Cataloguing every seemingly evil of religion ever recorded, Hitchens clearly came to spill blood, but Blair came for something very different, something that doesn’t necessarily read well on YouTube.

Tony Blair didn’t come to take down Hitchens. He came to dialogue.

Almost heroically, Blair came to find compassionate middle ground with someone decidedly uncompassionate toward his views. That might not win Mr. Blair converts in the audience, but dialogue isn’t about entertainment value or proselytizing. It’s about understanding.

Throughout the debate, you can hear Tony Blair listening to Mr. Hitchens’ critiques of organized religion and attempting to work with them. Rather than lingering on Hitch’s criticisms of the church institution, Blair focused on the good that people of faith are doing now. He rightly stressed the relief work and the aid that religious people are so instrumental in providing to countries decimated by disaster, disease and poverty.

In highlighting the people ahead of the entity, many wondered why Blair seemed to run away from the topic of the church. Most especially, many viewers chided Blair for conceding that “religion can act as a force for good in the world” but does not always. Because Blair expressed doubt in the church’s universal ability to good, Hitchens must, again, have landed a major blow.

However, isn’t doubt the core of the atheist and agnostic traditions? Don’t we heathens pride ourselves on the ability to think outside the institutional box?

According to Sam Harris, non-theists should feel empowered by skepticism, by our rational ability to question everything. Agnostics and atheists can find strength in doubt and unbelief; we don’t have to have all the answers to feel secure in our core philosophical tradition.

Although we heathens may champion doubt, we do not exclusively lay claim to using reason and logic to determine our beliefs. In our belief in pragmatism and realism, we are not alone.

Blair cannot possibly answer for all of the crimes of religion or simply explain away why religion has created so much terror and brokenness in the past. Like so many things in life, the answers aren’t that simple. However, Blair does know that we have a responsibility to make religion a force for good in the present and future, as his and so many other organizations are already doing.

Believing in the power of people to transform the world: what’s more humanist than that?

When we look past extremist rhetoric, we can find that heathens and the faithful have more in common than we think.

As a queer agnostic, my belief in other people likewise inspires me to fight for equality for all, whether that be for equal rights for women, full equality for LGBT persons or against injustice toward Muslims. Mr. Blair’s incredible malaria relief work with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation shows me that he, too, believes that motivated people can work for change.

Blair’s beliefs just happen to be inspired by his faith. They are motivated by his belief in the forces of pluralism, a belief that great things can happen when we look past divides to come together in order to create the change we need.
Although Hitchens brings to the table locked-and-loaded extremism, our “argument culture” doesn’t need more bitterness and partisan division: it needs common ground.

That might not be the vision that won Hitchens the debate, but it’s the one we need right now. As someone of Hitchens’ philosophical perspective, I know that humanists can’t be a force for good in the world by burning bridges with religious folks.

If we want to be better together, we have to build them.

Nico Lang is the Communications intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, acts as head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and is the new Change Coordinator for LGBT Change’s The Faith Project. Follow him on Twitter @GidgetLang.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We're Invading Poland!

Maybe that's not the best way to put it... oh well.

In today's New York Times, there is a piece detailing how Polish Catholics are upset that the uber-Catholic nation is seeing a large rise in secularism.

Poland is still an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, still conservative and still religious, especially when compared with its European neighbors. But supporters and critics of the Roman Catholic Church all acknowledge that the society is changing. They agree that church representatives in Poland have lost authority and credibility, and that much of the population is moving toward a more secular view of life, one with a greater separation between church and state, and a rejection of church mandates on individual morality.
“We are considered the European museum of Catholicism, but let me tell you we are no longer,” said Szymon Holownia, program director for Religia TV, a relatively new station that aims to convince Poles that faith can and should be relevant in modern life with programs like a cooking show led by a nun. “The relationship between faith and state is changing; it is changing dramatically in Poland,” Mr. Holownia said. “It is really huge.”

 The church is desperate to reverse this trend, and put dogma back in its all-dominant position. How do they plan to do this, you ask?

Build a gigantic statue of Jesus, of course. Remember this from a few weeks ago?

That's the 108-foot tall statue of the savior erected in the Polish countryside by Catholic benefactors.

And, apparently, this is the silver bullet that'll bring the faithful back.

The stark, white, 108-foot-high figure was erected last month in part to serve as sentry against a force already churning through Poland. “I hope this statue will become a remedy for this secularization,” said the Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, the priest who inspired the construction of the figure, which rivals the height of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

So, the church, facing an entirely reasonable tide of anticlericalism borne out of decades of abuse and exploitation, decides that the best way to fight rationalism is to build a giant statue of a Jewish zombie who might have lived 2,000 years ago.

Says it all, really.

DAFT's Holiday Potluck: A Very Merry Nontheist Christmas Party!

A big thank-you to everyone who made it out to the DAFT Potluck on Thursday, December 9. DAFT's core member base really stepped it up in terms of bringing a great array of food: squash casserole, rice pilaf, mushroom risotto, oreo balls, hummus, veggies, pizza, and a giant glazed ham courtesy of Arthur Wawrzyczek. DAFT is very lucky that many of our members are activists in other awesome DePaul organizations as well: for instance, Nick Lang is a resident of DePaul's Vincent & Louise House, while Amanda Stefanski is a member of Feminist Front. It's great that the atmosphere of the university allows us to connect with other progressive campus organizations.

One of the most important things we discussed at the 2010 Secular Student Alliance conference is the importance of creating camaraderie among the nonreligious at your campus. Nonreligious student groups--and by extension, the larger secular movement--have a hard time competing with the community provided by religious organizations when we are perceived as a herd of cats. This is a shame, because through DAFT I have met some of the most wonderful, intelligent, dynamic people on the DePaul campus. As president, one of my most important initiatives for the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought for the 2010-2011 school year was to build a better sense of community among our members. Events like the DAFT Potluck and the cookout held earlier this year have been fantastic opportunities to have fun and just hang out with our fellow members. We're a very friendly and welcoming group and have been extremely pleased to see new members like Julie H. take the leap of (non-) faith and join us. New members are always welcome.

Thanks everyone for a great holiday party. That's the most fun my apartment has seen in a long time. Stay tuned for 2011-- we've got atheist crunkaliciousness in store. Does anyone have any suggestions for events they'd like to see from DAFT? Do any other SSA affiliates have advice on building community on their campuses? Leave your feedback in the comments section!