I am not from east or west

not up from the ground

or out of the ocean

my place is placeless

a trace of the traceless

I belong to the beloved

– Rumi

His identity was subdued by crisis common to unnumbered droves of young people across the globe, an unbelonging draped like chains on the motivations and orientation of young lives like his. Where tradition tried to welcome him, he saw first the unoriginality of repetition and the boredom of which “old things”, like religion, often stink in the noses of youth. His name is Eboo Patel, and he began his exit from adolescence with myriad realizations.  One: as a second generation Indian American, from a family of devout Muslims, his youth and ascension toward manhood in America had obeyed the guidance of the privileged, of the white, and somewhere in his growing up he’d been handed the heritage of someone else, to believe it was his.  Two: to have your identity impressed upon you by anyone, let alone a culture that does not understand or appear to want to understand your people’s actual history, is unacceptable if not criminal. Three: radical things happen in the world everyday, and those events are perpetrated by those, and only those, who decide they will be a piece in the machinery of revolution. Somehow, the keystone supporting the edifice of self for Eboo remained service to others – not hatred, not intolerance or cultural totalitarianism – and as a result, Patel was able to write Acts of Faith:  The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

Patel opens Acts with a recounting of the young and terrible reign of Eric Rudolph, whose accolades include the detonation of a nail bomb in the New Woman All Women Health Care center in Birmingham, Alabama as well as the blast which rocked Atlanta in the ’96 Olympic Games. As a soldier in what he called, “the Army of God”, Rudolph represents the alternative to religious pluralism in Patel’s thesis.  Human’s grow ever better at impoverishing themselves, through the consumption of things that dilute personal identity and a lack of vantage points that gently look outward. Patel argues that, whatever the reason, young people want to be involved with what’s changing the world and so far, the precepts of intolerance and violence have put more effort into recruitment and mentorship than the peaceful and inclusive.

Patel’s chronicle is essentially the story of his Interfaith Youth Corps (also seen as “Core”), a growing movement of religiously diverse youth around the world who gather to learn from and encourage each other’s religions in order to better understand and internalize their own, all while serving their communities. They seek commonality, affirm particularity, and achieve plurality. In reading it, I have no doubt that with the right fiscal fuel and a generation of leaders to follow Patel’s, the IYC can absolutely revolutionize the place of pluralistic relationships in the religious world.  For this reason alone, I encourage anyone interested in the interface of religions or the mobilization of young people or the potential future of religious totalitarianism to read Acts thoughtfully and reflectively.  I tried, and that’s where the rest of this comes from.

——

Frankly, what overwhelmed me as I read through Eboo’s story was envy.  Not for his hardships or the wisdom they later endowed, or for his experiences unto themselves, but the identity that he rediscovered through his religion and its tradition. I am a young atheist, and though I am confident in my atheism, I realize that my fellow non-believers and me belong to a group impoverished in some unique ways. While I hold firm to my nonbelief, and readily defend it, I am not an atheist in the Dawkins/Hitchins/Harris camp. I understand their resentment for the religious world and share their frustrations over the elements of religion that defy unity, tolerance, stability, and too often, logic itself.  But more than I empathize with them over these things, I pity them in their inability to prioritize those things appropriately.

There exists a magnificent beauty in the development of true community, no matter the name under which that community gathers.  Patel’s exploration of spirituality, society, and self as a young man led him dangerously close to the doctrines of ugly theology, theology which violently rejects the prophets at the heart of so many religions and the central tenets of selflessness and community they ushered into the world. To the apostle’s of such ugly theology, the camps of Dawkins and Harris emphatically raise a single finger, and I completely understand why.

But there is a reason that Patel’s volume is not dominated by accounts of violence or repulsive transgression by zealots, but of his own religious enlightenment and the progress of others along side him. As I see it, the reason is this: if people, atheists included, focus on the inferiority of other groups and expend most of their energy scoffing at their ignorance, they have resigned themselves to the lesser treasures of our mortality. What drives my envy is that my community has yet to reach for our greater treasures, my community has yet to witness and experience the relentless desire for the betterment of others on the scale that Hindus witnessed in Ghandi, that Muslims still observe in the Aga Khan, that Christians treasure in figures as timeless as Christ or as contemporary as King. I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that atheists can’t admire or emulate these people – by no means – but the question is posed to us, can a devotion to others as radical as Christ’s exist and proliferate without a distinctly religious identity? I want our answer to be yes.  And like belief in any god, I think it is entirely a matter of choice.  But in reading about the mobilization of young people who readily pile their religious differences on the table, discuss them, learn from them, reshoulder them, and get to work transforming a broken world, I feel as though atheists risk missing the boat by writing and rearticulating The God Delusion.

On the flip-side, I’ve started asking some of my theist friends, mostly Christians, what they talk about in church, if their pastors ever mention other sects of their own religion. The answer, so far, is unanimously in the sentiment of silence toward their religion’s violent appendages: the Christian Identity movement is unmentioned; the Church’s missionaries continue to preach profoundly bigoted agendas which have started to grow roots within the law in places like Uganda; Pat Robertson continues to make an ignorant fool of the evangelical masses and the most serious response he receives from centrist believers is an eye-roll and a channel change. Movements as revolutionary as the Interfaith Youth Corps demand that those who desire peace and cooperation commit to their vision of the future as adamantly as the young men and, increasingly, young women, strapping bomb-belts to themselves and wandering into Marine bases or London subways. Bombs must be dismantled from the inside; and so must the doctrines of explosive religious sects be refuted by voices within the fold.

I see Patel & Co.’s project as a contender for the most hopeful idea currently circulating worldwide. It represents a vital dialogue, a summit on peace to which young people can be invited before the sewers of jihad or crusade can begin their demagoguery and the escalation of our parents’ wars. One might go so far as to say that its model, the heart of its existence, provides insight to possible solutions for calamities as serious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (whose solution or mitigation certainly depends on the young generations) and hope for countries whose international political relations have reached an impasse, like Iran and the United States. Theirs is a revolutionary idea, one that no person should pass over light-heartedly.

Bio: J. Erik Peterson is a graduate of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict’s Biology department. Samples of his writing can be found at jonerikpeterson.blogspot.com and beholdthesky.blogspot.com

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