03/01/2011 02:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Talking About Atheism and Interfaith Work at Religious Colleges

This February, as friends of mine flocked south to escape the unrelenting cold of Boston, I headed to the Midwest.

It was my first college and university speaking tour, put together in partnership with eight institutions in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa that extended invitations for me to come speak to students about my experiences as an atheist and an interfaith activist. I was beyond grateful, not only because it was a wonderful chance to try out some material from my forthcoming book and an opportunity to share my hope for greater understanding between the religious and the secular, but also because I got to see firsthand how atheism and interfaith work are not only discussed but lived on campuses in the Midwest.

The Midwest, where I grew up, isn't known as a beacon of secularism. Sure enough, all but two of the schools I visited have a particular religious affiliation. Of these, one highlight was North Park University (NPU), a school that describes itself as "distinctively Christian." My session was the first time the campus had hosted an atheist speaker, and I was humbled by the enthusiastic welcome I received.

"My hope and vision for NPU is that it will become a place where truly everyone has a spot at the table," said Erin Elisabeth Smith, a senior music major who planned and promoted my session as a part of her work with the Interfaith Youth Core and One Chicago, One Nation. "Jesus' life and teachings leave little room for doubt that he made a point of welcoming absolutely everyone, particularly those who had been 'othered.' He associated primarily with tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers -- the people who, in that time, were as categorically unpopular as atheists, Muslims and LGBT individuals are today. An institution founded on Jesus' example should also make a point of welcoming everyone, regardless of who they are or what they believe -- and to do it not just in our words, but in our actions. It starts with symbolic gestures like inviting the first atheist speaker to talk specifically about atheism to NPU, it becomes a conversation, and then it spreads and becomes part and parcel of the university culture."

While the campus cultures of each school shared some common threads -- academic rigor, an appreciation for diversity and a commitment to service -- it was clear that there were unique challenges around atheism and interfaith relations at each. For example, at several campuses, there had been tensions between secular and religious students around last year's "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" (EDMD) campaign, spearheaded by secular students. At one of these schools, Northwestern University (NU), the tensions aroused by EDMD have carried over into the new academic year. I addressed EDMD in my lecture, and offered my hope that atheist and religious students will find alternate ways to deal with fraught intercultural issues like it.

Given my vocal disagreement with tactics like EDMD, I was impressed that SHIFT (Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Freethought), the student group that organized last year's EDMD at Northwestern, went out on a limb and agreed to co-sponsor my speech. All the more, I was thrilled by the insightful questions they posed and their desire to find resolution while remaining honest about their beliefs.

"While there had been interfaith tension surrounding our participation in the stick-figure Muhammad chalkings last spring, the members of SHIFT strive to maintain our relations with and involvement in Northwestern's interfaith initiative, as we consider interfaith work to be both noble and important in our society's diverse religious landscape," said Cassy Byrne, a junior Linguistics student and President of SHIFT.

That resolve -- to find points of communion between atheists and the religious in the face of difficult disagreements -- was apparent in many places I visited. But it hasn't come easily; I heard so many stories about tensions between atheist and religious students on my tour.

One in particular has really stuck with me. I first met Josh Zuke, a senior Philosophy student and current president of Elmhurst College's Secular Students Association (SSA), at a lunch discussion on Humanism that I facilitated for the campus. During the session, he posed tough questions about whether atheists can participate in interfaith work without compromising their views.

I didn't see him again until my evening speech. Afterwards, he approached me and shared a story.

"Four years ago, SSA was -- like me -- in its first semester," Josh said. "The founder had a general vision of what he wanted SSA to be: a place where nonreligious people could feel welcomed and safe, and a voice of reason on the Elmhurst campus. We discussed at length the role of interfaith involvement, but decided that it excluded us by definition. We weren't another 'faith,' and didn't want to be seen as one."

He continued:

Looking back, one incident serves as a poignant example of how detrimental that mindset was. A Muslim student reported being the victim of a hate crime, which prompted the campus to respond overwhelmingly against such actions, fighting under the banner of 'coexistence.' After difficult deliberation, we decided not to cosign the list of organizations that supported coexistence. All of us were disgusted by the hate crime, but we believed that as long as religions existed, violence would arise from them, and that coexistence was not the answer.

What we never considered was the pragmatic impact of this. Our actions served to further isolate the nonreligious from even the best of religious movements. Because we viewed religion in a negative way, we imposed upon the religious a false choice: view your own religion as we see it, or drop it altogether. In retrospect, I would much rather have a world full of religious people who want to coexist peacefully than to insist that their religions compel violence.

We also removed our voice from any interfaith discussions. While there still remain significant intellectual disagreements that need to be addressed, how can we expect to do so if the nonreligious aren't a part of the discussion?

If I had heard that atheists can and are participating in interfaith work four years ago and reasons why we should, I would have been much more apt to identify areas where we could build bridges between ourselves and the religious, creating intentional spaces of shared values that would have enabled the SSA to share its unique perspective and to stand up against religious bigotry.

Josh's story, while striking, was not entirely unique. Northwestern and Elmhurst were not the only places where I spoke with atheist students that reflected on how they had engaged with religious groups in the past. In fact, four of my speeches were co-sponsored by secular student groups; the other four schools I spoke at did not have one. But plans are now underway at at least three of those schools to change that and establish a community for nonreligious students.

"Being nonreligious can feel really isolating, so to hear from someone about bringing people and communities together was extremely gratifying," said Carli Anderson, a first year Communications student at DePauw University, who has just signed up to be the atheist intern for DePauw's Center for Spiritual Life, a position that was previously vacant. "Now I am really interested in starting an atheist/humanist group on my campus, so that we can have representation and a place to share and discuss. I'm also excited to begin doing interfaith work, and am absolutely certain that interfaith cooperation will make tremendous strides in the future."

I do not think that productive religious-nonreligious cooperation, and communities specifically for the nonreligious, are new ideas, but many people I met on the trip indicated that my visit was the first time that they had heard anyone else articulate them. That these ideas are not frequently discussed in broader cultural conversations on religious and nonreligious identity is why I started doing this work in the first place. Now, after visiting eight Midwestern college campuses and hearing students' stories, I am more confident than ever that these conversations matter -- for both atheists and the religious.

For Aislin Bright, a junior Psychology major who is Vice President of Elmhurst's SSA, these conversations mean finding a new focus for nonreligious identity, one that is rooted in values and in finding common ground.

"The more I think about it ... the more I agree [that our] commonalities deserve the focus. Regardless of one's specific religious beliefs, people who value interfaith service feel that people of all belief systems should be respected; that our human brothers and sisters deserve to have their wants and needs met; and that religion can be used as a vessel to help realize these ideals," said Aislin. "Having identified as atheist since I was 12 years old, this year has made me reexamine my religious identity. 'Atheism' focuses on what I do not believe, but says nothing as to what is important to me ... it's time to start shifting my attention from my differences to my similarities with other religious identities and using these similarities to bring about positive change."

Students like Aislin, Josh, Carli, Cassy and Erin are just a few of the many inspiring young leaders I met that serve as salient evidence that atheists and the religious really do want to work together and are willing to try. After 12 days, 8 colleges, 7 cities, more than 1,000 students, 15 speeches and facilitated dialogues (including too many dumb jokes about Lady Gaga's egg, Chet Haze, and a shaky "Reinhold Bieber" pun), I have seen the future of atheist-religious cooperation, and it isn't a culture war of the words -- it's people of diverse beliefs coming together, sharing their stories and looking optimistically toward a different future.

So my friends can keep their February trips to warmer climates; the stories I heard from atheist and religious students in the Midwest were enough to keep me warm all winter.

Note: The claims made by Josh Zuke concerning the Elmhurst College Secular Student Association have been challenged by one of its members. I am investigating the matter and will update this comment ASAP if it becomes clear that he was willfully dishonest