The Ritual Of The Top Ten

We would be remiss to end this month of exploring the ever-evolving ritual of the “Top Ten”. As 2014 comes to an end we all want to look back at what the year has held. We have selected ten posts, not because they are the best, or the most popular, but because they have represented some important moments from 2014. Even though we have only selected ten, we have been honored by every post and every comment. We hope each of you has found lots of wisdom, love …and even a little lint on your spiritual journey this year. Happy reading and Happy New Year!

  1. A Prayer for New Beginnings— A prayer for anyone starting a new journey
  2. Millennials Strike Back with Professions of Love— A post from Jenni Taylor about the value of Millennials
  3. Ferguson: We Are Praying— A spiritual reaction to the racism in Ferguson and across the USA
  4. Fear Vs Self Worth— A post about bullying by a former Miss Arab America and a notMyKid volunteer
  5. The Choice of Leaving Syria–A post about one woman’s choice to leave her home in Syria.
  6. For the Love of ElephantsJenni Taylor thoughts on justice for all of God’s creatures 
  7. It’s Your Church Too— Patrick Cousins,a campus minister at Saint Louis University, writes about LGBTQ justice
  8. Secular Spirituality: Is That a Thing?–Hailey Kaufman’s eloquent post on atheism and spirituality
  9. Strength To Endure–a reflection on sexism and strength after the shootings in Santa Barbara by Autumn Elizabeth 
  10. Fear and Hunger for Justice–Hafsa Mansoor writes about fear and justice as a Muslim

Changing Together

By: Autumn Elizabeth


I am the change. You are the change too. This point was proven yesterday the the People’s Climate March, which took place all around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people came together, ignored their differences, and marched to make change.

In Paris, where I was marching, the vegans weren’t throwing things at the people wearing leather shoes. Greenpeace wasn’t jostling with the World Wildlife Foundation for the best space. Christian groups weren’t bashing the Atheists.  Everyone coexisted to create change.

This coexistence for change is at the core of my faith and my life. I believe that to create a better world, to create the kin-dom of God here on this earth, in this time, we have to work together. I am not suggesting that my belief is to ignore difference, but rather that I believe we must embrace it and work together anyway.

Being the change also means supporting justice for everyone. Reproductive justice organizations like Planned Parenthood attended the People’s Climate March yesterday, because environmental justice affects reproductive justice. In the same way, men must work to end patriarchy, and white people must work to end racism. If we want change, we have to support each other.

I don’t think I would be a very good representative of Jesus, if I only wanted to help Christians nor would I be a very just feminist if I wanted to oppress men. To make change, we all have to be open. We have to be willing to embrace differences, to help one another, and to unite for global justice.

I am the change, you are the change, and together we can make change happen!


Secular Spirituality: Is That a Thing?

Today’s post comes from Hailey Kaufman, who studies philosophy, biology, and religion at Webster University in St. Louis, MO.  Her post advocates for the possibility of  spiritual awakenings of atheistic communities, and she’s not talking conversion here folks! What Hailey offers us is a great deal of wisdom, and love, and intellect, on spirituality for everyone, regardless of their beliefs. You can find more of Hailey’s work on her Tumblr and her personal blog.

Coming from a community of a non-theistic persuasion, I notice a great deal of hostility toward the word “spiritual.” Most atheists with whom I spend my time never use this term, some making a strong attempt to avoid it. Even Tim Minchin, a fantastically intelligent musical comedian, whom I admire for his gift with words, has claimed he is not spiritual at all.

What bothers me is I can tell that he is. Look at his poem “Storm” in which he revels about the vastness and beauty of the corporeal world:

Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, manmade myths and monsters?…I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon. I have one life, and it is short, and unimportant, but thanks to recent scientific advances, I get to live twice as long as my great, great, great, great uncleses and auntses. Twice as long to live this life of mine.

The last portion of “Storm” is a spirited piece of writing. Minchin obviously feels a deep connection with something larger than he is. Whether or not his worldview involves “spirits” certainly does not dilute that fact that he feels spirited about his existence.

I want to argue that the spiritual life is something every human deserves. It is a practice, a way of being, that should be pursued regardless of one’s belief in gods or the supernatural.

Writers and speakers like Pierre Hadot and Alain de Botton have argued the need for spiritual guidance and exercises even outside the realm of religion. Hadot writes that according to a  Stoic-Platonic view of therapy, the spiritual exercise can be one of an array of practices. Attention (presence in the current moment), meditation (putting information into context with the big picture), intellectual endeavors (reading, writing, listening, research), and self-improvement activities are all, according to Hadot, ways to embrace one’s own spirituality.

De Botton argues that an atheism that simply rejects supernatural claims and stops there is “too easy.” The rejection should be just the beginning on a path to a more fulfilling, spiritual life. He suggests ways the secular world can “steal” from religious traditions in order to make the secular world more welcoming to spirituality – that is, more welcoming to ideas and exercises that enliven us at our very core.

De Botton holds that secularism should not be synonymous with stolidity. I would go so far as to argue that a fulfilled secular life cannot be without its spiritual moments. Think of the feeling you get when you lie out on a moonless night and survey the Milky Way above you. Think of the last time you felt a sense of awe, a stirring feeling in your gut that you’ve just witnessed something deeply important. Mysterium tremendum: a profound terror of the large and mysterious; mysterium fascinosum: a profound fascination with the large and mysterious.

These are not emotions reserved for the religious, nor should they be, and perhaps we should encourage them more actively in the secular realm. As complexly thinking and feeling animals, we each need a way to become orientated to our inner and outer environments, and that is precisely what spirituality is. A pupil of Epicurus, quoted by Hadot, puts the sense of the spiritual potently:

The walls of the world open out, I see action going on throughout the whole world…Thereupon from all these things a sort of divine delight gets hold upon me and a shuddering, because nature thus by your power has been so manifestly laid open and unveiled in every part.

The Top 10 Tradition

We would be remiss to end this month of exploring tradition without addressing the “Top Ten” tradition. As 2013 comes to an end we all want to look back at what the year has held. We have selected ten posts, not because they are the best, or the most popular, but because they have represented some important moments from 2013. Even though we have only selected ten, (hey! it’s tradition!), the top thing to remember from 2013 that everyone’s journey is special and filled with wisdom, love …and lint.

  1. A Crazy World — A beautiful post about life and loss in war-torn Syria
  2. Mosaic — An artistic representation of the beauty and the diversity of humanity
  3. Eating our Values — A post about living one’s values through what one chooses to eat
  4. Creating Spirituality — A poignant post about religion, creativity and spiritual experiences
  5. In Defense of Prayer — A story about grief, confusion, prayer and atheism
  6. Doomsday for DOMA — A post that marks the end of the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States
  7. Heifer International and My Brother’s Gifts —  A sweet post about keeping a loved one’s spirit alive
  8. Manu Temple — A post from Jenni Taylor about a beautiful exchange in India
  9. Strangers and Angels — a post from Autumn Elizabeth about a beautiful exchange in Chicago
  10. The Proverbial Women —  the post that started it all…

The Island of Misfit Thinkers

In this guest post, Hailey Kaufman tells us about a new tradition she began at her university. For students whose belief is unbelief, this tradition provides a safe place for questioning, discussing, and brain-bending. It shows us that friendship, support, and belonging can be found for misfit thinkers, even outside the confines of traditional religion. 

Every Tuesday night, I take a few hundred steps across campus to Webster University’s shiny new business building. By this time of night I’ve given up on my cute girl disguise and thrown on something comfortable: knee socks, moccasins, and almost unfailingly a pair of breezy Thai pants. There is never much to carry with me, just my ideas and assumptions.

The building smells of paint and briefcases. Night class attendees are filtering out, heading to their cars in the parking garage across the street. I wind around the hallways until I find a handful of people lingering at the front of Room 102. They draw on the marker board, leaving blasphemous messages in the corners for students to discover the next day. They have the projector on, and they’re watching something that tickles their remorseless sense of humor – or just videos of kittens.

Eventually we decide to discuss whatever was agreed upon, and a few tables are arranged into a cluster. We gather around them and talk. For some of us, this is the only room on campus, maybe even in our lives as a whole, where we are safe in our skepticism. We can express our most controversial doubts and revel in whatever we find moving, all without fear of scoffs or criticism for being “disrespectful”.

By the time we check our watches (if we haven’t already been kicked out of this room we never reserve) it’s eleven at night. For an hour and a half we’ve chattered, made propositions, disagreed, laughed, maybe even become angry. Some of us leave with unchanged convictions, some with notebooks full of new ideas hastily scratched in before they could escape us.

I walked into my college career determined to join a club of secular students. In the end, with the help of a news-savvy fallen Catholic, a wistful science enthusiast, and another introverted freshman looking for a community, I had to create my own.

Gradually, one person at a time, we developed a small group of regulars. A vegan punk rocker, an anglophilic rat owner, a poet with a Cheetohs addiction, a wannabe viking with a scar through his eyebrow. While I had always sought to model it after a much larger, more seasoned club elsewhere, it refused to become anything other than what it should have been: an island of misfit thinkers.

While the secular movement struggles to develop non-religious communities, young people across the country are working on a small scale, crawling into discussion burrows and talking amongst themselves. Sometimes they crawl out to broadcast their thoughts and values, but there’s something wonderful about talking in small circles. That’s where minds are changed. It’s where budding skeptics can feel true purpose, and a kind of intellectual intimacy, in the domain where religion is absent.

This has become my tradition – one of thought, humor, and camaraderie – and I wouldn’t trade it for all the free Tuesday nights in the world.

In Defense of Prayer

Today’s guest post comes from Hailey Kaufman. Hailey is a student at Webster University, and her poignant post today is about prayer, grief and confusion and is dedicated to her friends Leo and Morgan.

Even having been non-religious for several years, I still have the impulse to pray on rare occasions. It’s always when I want something deeply, but know I can’t do anything about it, and it usually has to do with other people. The impulse to reach out for something powerful and immortal hits me today, as I learn of the death of two young people in my community. It always throws my identity for a loop, and I search to understand why it happens.

The last time I remember praying was when my grandpa was in the hospital for two months, on and off a ventilator, as he picked up one infection after another. It was extremely hard on my family and me, causing tension, confusion, and a dash of insanity in all of us. I remember busting down into tears upon hearing for the fourth or fifth time that his condition was deteriorating, that he’d be on a ventilator again. I was alone screaming obscenities and fury-crying as I punched whatever cushions I could find. Every day, we all just wanted it to be over. We never expected him to recover fully, which he remarkably did.

At that point in my life, I had decided I no longer subscribed to any faith in God, calling myself an agnostic. I thought it more likely than not that there wasn’t anyone in charge of it all, but when Poppy was lying in that bed every day, growing thinner and less recognizable, while simultaneously untying my whole family from their wits, I didn’t know what else to do but pray. At least then, I would feel like I was doing something.

Recently I was sitting in a car pondering the troubles of someone I know. Despite all my thinking, I know there’s very little, if anything, I can do. It’s a helpless feeling, being aware of a problem that is meaningful to you, and not being able to reach out and fix it with your own hands.

I caught myself in a nanosecond epiphany that faded as quickly as it came: I could pray about it. This is why I have mixed feelings about prayer, even as irrational as it seems to me. If God has a plan for everything, then all the imploring in the world won’t change it; and even if he had no path laid out, what would my opinions and ideas mean compared to his? Besides, if he leaves a person’s fate in the hands of those who may or may not ask for that person’s well-being, I’m not sure I’d want anything to do with such a guy.

But I understand that feeling of helplessness, that itch in the stomach to do something, anything to alter a crappy situation. In that moment when you’re either not coming up with creative solutions or discovering that you’re truly irrelevant to the situation, there’s a panic that arises, a restlessness, and even far-fetched ideas seem worth considering. As Ze Frank said:

…When I get that feeling in my stomach – you know the feeling when all of a sudden you get a
ball of energy and it shoots down into your legs, and up into your arms, and it tells you to get up
and stand up and go to the refrigerator and get a cheese sandwich? That’s my Cheese Monster
talking. And my Cheese Monster will never be satisfied by cheddar…only the cheese of accomplishment.

Sometimes my Cheese Monster tells me to pray. I can’t fault others’ for doing the same. As long as it is recognized that proactive, real-world solutions should always be sought first – rather than having an immediate Jesus-take-the-wheel response to things you can change – my qualms with prayer are few.Whatever sets a troubled mind at ease must be at least somewhat of a positive thing. There’s certainly nothing the living can do about a lost life. What falls to us then is to take care of one another – and ourselves. To those who are mourning a death, I hope you make an extra effort to care for those you love, and I hope you are conscious of keeping yourself safe, healthy and happy.

In the meantime, if it helps rest your pain, this atheist hopes you pray it out.

Sophia, Stirring the Epistemological Soup

Today’s guest post comes from Hailey Kaufman who is writing from Thailand. Hailey is  a student at Webster University, where she studies philosophy, biology, and religious studies.  She works as a writer, a cartoonist, and a first-year-of-college booster.  Hailey’s  relationship with Sophia illuminates a wisdom that preserves and inspires. So here’s Hailey and her friend Sophia giving us wisdom, love …and lint by the spoonful…

Sophia makes herself present in my life to the extent that her name will appear on my college degree (a BA in philosophy). She weasels her way into my mundane moments, too, always asking me the hardest questions and leaving me hyper-focused on answering them, sometimes in a debilitating way. The way people talk to me sometimes, I wonder if she gets a particular kick out of poking at me while largely leaving others alone.

While I’m personifying Sophia like the other writers here, it’s likely that I conceptualize her a bit differently. Having been an atheist since high school, my understanding of logos, of wisdom and truth, is not a Biblical one.

But Sophia never left me when I renounced my belief in God. In fact, I think that’s when she found me. Setting the idea of God aside was liberating. It was as if my image of the world had been shrouded by information that had never really helped me, but of which I never felt free to let go. When I looked in the mirror and made that decision, I felt my mind running freer, my air clear and my floor swept. I was ready to consider anything.

This blank slate left me to figure out what is objective and what is subjective in this world. What are our best tools for determining what’s real? If there’s no final word on morality, how can humankind ever move beyond debating about it? Where am I finding solace despite no guardian watching over me? Who among the fallible is worthy of being a role model? Will death hurt; will it be scary, or boring; will it be joyful? Or will it be none of these things?

Many people tell me these kinds of questions scare them, but for some reason they never struck me that way. They’re like little puzzles, the handheld wooden kind that at first glance looks like it has a simple answer, but the more you stare and pull at it, the more vacuous it seems.

Still, with little steps of progress come bouts of inspiration. Sophia reminds me of that when she gives me insight. Her hints keep me feeling and twisting, digging deeper. What I found is that science offers a wealth of information in response to these questions, more than it is usually given credit for.

Sophia’s gift, when you develop a relationship with her, is that she never leaves you alone. She has all the audacity of a pioneer with the skeptical reservations of a scientist in the lab. When I picture her, I see a great, black void full of unfathomably large and complex things, glowing with vibrant colors and destructive characters. I see particles colliding and creatures decaying into new life, and I feel a tremendous balance, a safety in knowing that even if no one is watching out for me, even if I’m destined for hell, it’s all going to be okay. The cosmos will take care of itself, and we’ll all be okay. That I have the tools with which to learn about her infinitude and subtlety is reason enough to sit, be, smile, and embrace everything that makes this moment possible.

That sense of calm validated by numbers is what gets me up every day. I want to share Sophia with everyone I can, including you, but I can only do that if you know you have to look for her. If you peer into dark corners and reach for her hand, she’ll take you to new places. It’s exhausting at times, but the reward is a kind of awe that, if I could describe it, wouldn’t be worth searching for.