Friday, November 04, 2011

Accommodation and Openness: Thoughts on Religion & Non-Belief Cooperation at the Occupy Movement

By Gary Berg-Cross

There are many voices that can be heard in the Occupy movement, but coverage sometimes simplifies it down to familiar categories often framed in false dichotomies. So it is described by Fox and right wing outlets in what seem like hot button labels such as anti-bank or anti-capitalism. Or it characterized as made up of (or controlled by) a new brand of amoral, dirty hippies. For good measure the label of atheist & secular humanist are smeared on with rigor by right wing outlets in an effort to get an emotional response from their base.

But clearly religious moments, and even events, have become part of many Occupy camps. Indeed, while a minority of what is shown, religious imagery have been common since the protests began. In New York, activist clergy carried an Old Testament-style golden calf in the shape of the Wall Street bull to decry the false idol of greed. In contrast fundamentalist & some establishment religious leaders are cautious about involvement and less visible. They seem uncomfortable with the focus on what they see as “liberal issues” and are natural allies of the powers that be. An example of this tool place in Atlanta on 10/25 when a mix of clergy stood behind Mayor Kasim Reed as he walked into Occupy Atlanta to hold a press conference. It was then not surprising that later these clergy were rebuffed when they tired to serve as intermediaries between the movement and the mayor.

What we think of as liberal and interfaith groups seem more comfortable with the movement and see it as a fight for social justice and participatory democracy. As a result these segments of the religious community have secured some role in various Occupy events and the movement itself has made room for them as part of acceptance of the 99%.

One example of this spirit was the Chicago group, Interfaith Worker Justice, publishing an interfaith prayer service guide for occupation protests nationwide. Another example is downtown Dewey Square in Boston with its fill of tents, tarps and cold weather garb. But early on organizers ensured that encampment provided room for what was called a "Sacred Space" tent. It was made clear that it accepts all faiths & spiritual traditions. That welcome was evidenced by the presence of a Buddha statue abutting a picture of Jesus, and a hand-lettered sign pointing toward Mecca. Boston reporters also noted a mix of chakras, "compassion meditation" and discussion of biblical passages.

Religion might not fit into the movement seamlessly everywhere, but back in NYC, activist Dan Sieradski has helped organize a Jewish Yom Kippur service arguing that the movement must find space for religious faith somewhere:

"We're a country full of religious people….Faith communities do need to be present and need to be welcomed in order for this to be an all-encompassing movement that embraces all sectors of society."

That all encompassing movement includes a mix of believers and non-believers and we need to avoide a superficial response, to the legitimate question, “Is Occupy largely is a predominantly secular, atheist or Humanist undertaking or is religious?” This seems hard to answer, and perhaps is too simple a formulation. Some self proclaimed atheists have written of involvement, but often in cooperation with “left-leaning”/progressive religious groups. Secular and progressive religious groups may be similar minds on some issues that OWS is stressing and tactical cooperation among many parts of the 99% may be needed to move society forward. Indeed the Occupy efforts seem to be energizing progressive, religious activism. This may allow for some convergence of secular and religious activism over humanistic values and ideals such as fairness. It is perhaps good that secularists and religions can get together focus on something larger than their movements and rally about common values. This raises some accommodationist issues, but what is clear is that there have been roaring responses when some commonality has been raised, such as when Cornell West gave a shout out to:

"the progressive agnostic and atheistic brothers and sisters"

To some this suggests that the movement might serve to point out “not just the gulf between haves and have-nots in modern America, but between the religious right and not-so-religious left.”

In earlier times some religious groups and their leaders like MLK have been at the forefront of progressive social movements. Ministers like MLK could raise the nation's conscience on some of the issues OWS represents – inequality, poverty and injustice, languishing civil and ending wars. Improved national conversations represent one target for such movements and greater social consciousness. But since the 70s the main activism has been on the fundamentalist side, whose right-wing political activism has, among other things, eroded the separation of state and church. More liberal religious denominations, like unions have lost membership, and now seem less a part of the national conversation.

The Occupy movement may be a vehicle to get a succinct, social justice message out. A chicken and egg factor is the forging of an alliance between interfaith groups, atheists and secularist humanists of like mind. It might be needed for the greater good, but would require accommodation on both sides. Religious groups might have to accept the pragmatics of having non-belivers as partners, whose moral values are as valid & acceptable as those from the faith community. The responsibility of nonbelievers towards religious believers, as expressed by John Shook, is to help the religious “accommodate themselves to the cold hard truths about naturalism and the firm political structures of secularism. “

This togetherness & accommodation idea may not play well with some religious groups nor with many new atheist/secularists, but it may be something nonbelievers may accept as part of a broader, humanist, evolutionary path for both.

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