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Why Harvard's Humanist Chaplaincy is Announcing Two Atheist-Led Initiatives at Park51 Islamic Center

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This piece was coauthored by Chris Stedman and Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard.

With Republican debates dominating the political conversation in recent weeks, the most circulated religion-related stories have pitted the "Godly" against the "Godless." As part of a motion that passed 396-9 in favor of "reaffirming 'In God We Trust' as the official motto of the United States," Arizona Republican Congressman Trent Franks offered a bizarre -- but all too common -- defense of religious morality.

"If man is God," Franks said, "then an atheist state is as brutal as the thesis that it rests upon, and there is no longer any reason for us to gather here in this place. We should just let anarchy prevail because, after all, we're just worm food."

His comments are, of course, laughably false. They not only suggest religious people are good merely because they fear divine retribution, but also rest upon a dehumanizing assumption that the nonreligious do not desire community or support social progress.

This idea that nonreligious people do not gather, both as a moral community and in cooperation with the religious, is entirely without merit. In fact, in our work supporting Harvard's community of atheists, agnostics and Humanists, we are consistently impressed by the passion and dedication of our community members, and we often find ourselves collaborating with some pretty surprising partners.

For example: on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we organized and hosted an interfaith effort to package 10,000 meals for food-insecure children in Massachusetts. We were thrilled when nearly 200 people showed up, ready to pitch in and work together around a shared value of service. On the anniversary of a day in which extremists operated under the idea that religious differences must end in violence, we came together with a diverse group of folks to prove that our common goals are stronger than our theological differences.

On the day of that event, two student representatives from the Harvard Islamic Society arrived with a check in hand made out to the Harvard Humanists, to support the costs of the meals. Now we're planning an event with the Harvard Interfaith Collaborative for the Sunday before Thanksgiving where we'll package twice as many meals. This kind of institutional collaboration probably would not have happened even a few years ago at Harvard, but as we've been building up our own Humanist community, we've also been intentional about building relationships with other communities.

In that spirit, we are excited about our next gathering. On Tuesday, Nov. 15th at 7:00 PM we will hold a Public Event on Humanist Community and Interfaith Work, hosted by Park51 and Center for Inquiry NYC in partnership with a wide swath of NYC-based organizations, to discuss communities for the nonreligious and the role of atheists in interfaith work.

Park51 is, of course, one of the most visible interfaith spaces in the United States. Last year, it was the target of a smear campaign calling it the "Ground Zero Mosque." But they weathered the media storm, and opened earlier this year. Because of their commitment to promoting pluralism and creating a space where people of all beliefs and backgrounds can come together for conversation and cooperation, we felt their center was an ideal space for this discussion.

That night, we will be formally launching two groundbreaking new initiatives: The Humanist Community Project and Values in Action at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.

In a society where 25 percent of Americans born after 1980 identify as nonreligious (according to a recent Pew Forum study), the Humanist Community Project seeks to support the formation and growth of Humanist communities. We are convinced, based on history, sociological research, and personal experience, that the success of the Humanist and secular movement depends almost entirely on our ability to build strong local communities. And so in the coming years we intend to transform our own community into a laboratory to study the growing trend among Humanists around the country of coming together to form local groups. Such groups are bursting with new practices, including meaningful secular ceremonies for birth, marriage and death; Sunday school, parenting and youth programs teaching ethics and values beyond belief; and volunteering efforts where freethinkers seek to build ties among one another by performing charitable work together in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. When considered together, we are convinced such practices will amount to a viable, positive movement that can truly represent the spirit of the most secular generation in history.

Values in Action at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (VIA at HCH), which we have piloted for the past year, is the first ever interfaith community service program based out of a Humanist or atheist organization. The word via means "by way of" or "through," which gets at the heart of VIA at HCH's three-fold goal: to better the conditions of life for others through service to humanity, build alliances between religious and nonreligious individuals and communities and combat the misconception that the nonreligious do not contribute to society. VIA at HCH is directly related to the work of the Humanist Community Project, because we believe that strong communities for the nonreligious are well-positioned to reach out to those outside their membership and engage in meaningful collaboration.

This event will be co-sponsored by the Harvard Humanist Alumni and a coalition of major NYC-based atheist, religious and LGBT organizations: GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), New York Society for Ethical Culture, HUUmanists, The Humanist Institute, Ethical Humanist Chaplaincy at Columbia University, Reasonable New York, Faith House Manhattan, World Faith, Groundswell, Auburn Seminary, Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and the Bronx Community College Secular Humanist Club.

Working on this event with Park51, Center for Inquiry NYC, and every one of the aforementioned incredible organizations is a great honor, because each actively works to support communities for the nonreligious and/or interfaith engagement, and we see them as key partners in our work moving forward. We have no doubt that there will be some amazing conversations that night.

Rep. Franks might see no reason for diverse people to gather if God isn't in the picture, but we hope you disagree. We're eager to share some of what we've learned in our work supporting communities for the nonreligious and interfaith outreach -- and we're excited to learn from others in the process. We hope to see you soon at Park51.

Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and is author of the New York Times Bestselling book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. He sits on the executive committee of the 36-member corps Harvard Chaplains. In 2005 he received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where he studied in Jerusalem and Michigan for five years. He holds a BA (Religion and Chinese) and an MA (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School.

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