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Finding Common Ground With 'Sacred Ground'

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On my last day of work at Interfaith Youth Core, I had lunch with its founder, Eboo Patel. As we ate I told him that, inspired by his book "Acts of Faith," I was going to write a book of my own about atheism and interfaith work.

"Yeah?" he replied, grinning and taking a bite of his sandwich. "When?"

"Oh," I offered, realizing I hadn't actually thought about details. "Someday..."

"When?" he said again.

"In five years? Maybe 10?"

He thought for a second, then said, "Why not start now?"

I chewed on my sub, and on his question. Why not now? I came up with several reasons immediately: I'm young; I like to write but have little formal training; I'm really young. But I swallowed those thoughts and said: "Sure. Why not? I'll start writing and see what happens."

As soon as I started writing, I couldn't stop. Before I knew it I had a book contract, and then a finished book. (My book, "Faitheist," will be released Nov. 6 and is available for preorder.)

While I was writing, so was Eboo. I got a copy of his excellent new book, "Sacred Ground" -- a vital, urgent exploration of America's dark history of both prejudice toward religious minorities but also its principled promise of religious liberty -- a few weeks ago. When I read the chapter on interfaith leadership, where he describes some of the journey I share in "Faitheist," I was moved.

A story about an atheist in a book like "Sacred Ground" is good for atheists; it demonstrates that we have a unique contribution to make to America's diverse religious landscape. And it will promote the idea of atheists as largely goodhearted people who want the same things most Americans do to people who might believe otherwise -- people whose perceptions of atheists are based on caricature rather than meaningful relationships.

Storytelling can do that. It can connect and inspire us to new ways of thinking, to greater empathy and to increased familiarity with different experiences, identities and values.

I thought more about the power of narrative as I followed the news cycle last Sunday with a broken heart, when a white gunman stalked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and shot and killed six people and wounded several others. I surveyed reactions to the shooting and found they were significantly more muted than the response to the Aurora tragedy several weeks before. Perhaps people are becoming more accustomed to awful, violent outbursts such as this, but I wonder if the reactions don't say something about the way we see "others" in this country.

Upon hearing news of the shooting in a Colorado movie theater, many people likely conjured an image in their mind. They could imagine what it was like there, and they could imagine themselves in it. But how many Americans can envision a Sikh gurdwara and what goes on inside? Many people can imagine themselves in a movie theater, but how many can picture themselves, or people they love, in a gurdwara? How many people know about American Sikhs' sacred ground?

This is just one reason why "Sacred Ground" is such an important book -- and why it is so important for people to share their stories. The day after the horror in Wisconsin, my dear friend Valarie Kaur, a longtime Sikh activist, shared her story on CNN. We tell these stories -- stories of being Muslim, of being Sikh, of being an atheist and of finding common ground -- with the hope that they will accomplish what "Sacred Ground" suggests: that familiarity with diversity changes how we think about it.

My hope is that "Sacred Ground," "Faitheist," Valarie's words and work, and the cumulative efforts of everyone who promotes pluralism will build a world where tragedies like the one in Oak Creek, Wis., never happen again. We all -- Muslims, atheists, Sikhs and everyone else -- have stories to tell, and sharing them with others will help make the world a place where everyone is free to proclaim their beliefs with pride and without fear of violent recourse.

I'm happy to say that we are building that world -- in the last week alone, atheist friends donated to rebuild a mosque destroyed by arson in Joplin, Mo.; Muslim friends petitioned to free Alexander Aan, an atheist jailed in Indonesia; religious friends decried Pat Robertson's statement blaming atheists for the shooting in Wisconsin (following a trend of blaming atheists for tragedies such as this, an issue I explore in "Faitheist"); people of all different beliefs (atheists, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Pagans, Christians and others) joined me at a Sikh gurdwara for a memorial where we shed tears of mourning and of happiness. When a mosque in Illinois was shot at on Friday -- just two days after Rep. Joe Walsh said at a town hall meeting just 15 minutes away that there are Muslims in Illinois towns "trying to kill Americans every week" -- atheist and religious friends reached out to him and asked him to condemn this act as awful and un-American. So when naysayers claim that building bridges between different communities is impossible or a waste of time -- that it is not possible for atheists to be in solidarity with those who believe in sacred ground -- I am encouraged by the reality that we are improving the world through the stories and values we share and the actions we take together.

So to you, reader, I ask the question Eboo posed to me over a set of sandwiches: You have a story, and sharing it will help build a better world. Why not start now?