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.
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.
Northwestern was not the only place 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.
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.
The students I met on the tour – both atheist and religious – 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, 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.
To read a full account of many of the inspiring student stories and perspectives I encountered on tour, please click here.