Working with People of Faith: Some Thoughts For Ex-Christians and the Non-Religious

I was standing in the hot July sun, with a few thousand other people, listening to Reverend Barber speak at the last Moral Monday I was able to attend.  And he began to wax eloquent, warming up to the subject, he started to expound on God’s presence in our midst.  And I began to get uncomfortable.  He asserted, over and over again, that we would win because God is on our side.  And I got more uncomfortable.  I didn’t have any full-on flashbacks because his rhetoric is in a very different style than I’m used to, but I recognized the concepts all the same.

“Sorry, Reverend Barber,” I wanted to say, “but we’re actually going to win because we have the power of the people on our side, not because we have the power of god on our side.”

But then I took a step back from my knee-jerk reaction.  I looked around at the crowd holding their signs for abortion rights, for LGBTQ rights, for voting rights, and I heard the reverend’s strident tones preaching a message of love and justice, of a struggle against real tangible evils like poverty and oppression and discrimination.  I was still uncomfortable with his loud insistence that invisible help from above was our best hope, but I acknowledged that it was refreshing to hear religion used to bolster an argument for good rather than an argument for bigotry and fear.

And I realized that people who are not religious, especially those who are ex-Christian and have been scarred by their past religious experiences, have to face up to the fact that religious rhetoric can turn up in important social movements.  We’ve got to know it will be there, and we’ve got to learn how to work with people of faith.

Here, I think, is a basically good principle: know your own boundaries, and be willing to learn and grow.  There are religious people you won’t be able to work with, and there are others that you will.  I know Christian people who will hijack any conversation in attempts to proselytize, meaning I stay as far away from them as possible, and others who I would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with on social justice issues any day.  I try to keep an open mind, and to not bring religion into the conversation at all if possible, but I’m not afraid to draw lines if they need to be drawn for my own protection.

Non-religious people need to be involved in activism across the board.  We can’t let religious people continue to believe their religion gives them the moral high ground.  We need to show them that we too can work for morality and justice, in the interest of humanity rather than in the interest of religious motivation.  Many religious people, especially fundamentalists (who are almost exclusively the type of people it is impossible to work with on any issue), claim that non-religious people don’t have any meaning or purpose in their lives.  Although we can’t spend all our time and energy countering fictions like that, we should be able to demonstrate when need be that yes, we do have purpose.  We do find meaning in life.  And then we should be able to lay aside the questions that divide us and work together on the important issues we agree on.

It’s important not to be turned off to a movement just because of religious rhetoric.  Reverend Barber and I certainly disagree on some fundamental issues, but we’ve got some common goals and so I can stand in the hot Carolina sun with thousands of other residents of this state, some religious and some not, and listen to a few minutes of a sermon if that’s what it takes to be part of an important movement.  And sometimes, when we who are in a privileged position get to shut up and listen to the people we’re fighting for, they may reference their own religious faith.  At that moment we have a choice: do we speak out about our own opinions on religion, or do we continue to listen to this other person’s narrative?  It may be difficult, especially for survivors of religious abuse, but sometimes it’s not actually your turn to speak, and it’s okay to stay silent.  A sense of time and place and a humble willingness to accept other peoples’ narratives of their own experience will go a long way.

This all ties back to my constant internal rant about the immorality of sacrificing people or sacrificing real-world good for the sake of ideals.  Horrible injustice has been done by the human habit of drawing ideological lines or coming up with a system of belief and then holding those imaginary or socially constructed things up as the be-all and end-all of life.  Don’t prioritize your beliefs or lack thereof over the opportunity to accomplish good in the world.

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