I am writing a series of articles about Pathfinders Project for American Atheist magazine. The first piece, about our experiences in Cambodia, is featured in the issue currently on the racks at most Barnes and Noble and Book World stores!
12/29/2013 – Since the Fourth Quarter 2013 issue is no longer on the shelves, I’m posting the text of the article here. You can still request a copy from American Atheist magazine or subscribe and get free online access to all the archived issues!
All of the good, none of the god: Pathfinders Project spreads humanist values through service
In Cambodia, the empathy that is the driving force behind Pathfinders Project is translating well. Indeed, it requires no translation. Recently, we had the opportunity to meet the chief monk of Tramm Neak Pagoda, where Bridge of Life School offers English for beginners. The chief’s face lit up when he recognized us. ”I pray for good luck for you,” he said. “Big heart.” He then tied red, braided bracelets on our wrists, blessing us with courage and longevity. Of course, we don’t share his belief in the power of the red bracelets, but we did find significance in his gesture.
Later that week, as we were walking the muddy road past Wat Bo Pagoda, we encountered a man whose moped and trailer were stuck in the mud. We got behind the trailer and sent the man on his way. As we resumed walking, we heard clapping from the pagoda. A young monk was smiling and giving us a thumbs-up. We waved, smiled, and continued walking. Over the pagoda fence and through the trees lining the road, the monk matched our progress. Still beaming, he shouted, “Loving kindness!” He gave another thumbs-up, and then ducked into a small building. As we made our way up the muddy road, we could hear him sharing excitedly with the other monks.
“Loving kindness” is an exact translation of the values we are aiming to spread through our work. And as we acknowledge and celebrate the compassion in others, we deepen our own humanism in the process. No matter what language these residents speak or what beliefs they hold, they understand and appreciate the motivation behind our actions far better than the dual intentions of any missionary trip.
We’ve already come across some missionaries who were discomfited by our presence—at first. On our flight from Los Angeles to Cambodia, there was a large Korean-American Christian missionary group from Orange County, California. As chance would have it, I sat between the pastor and his son and had the opportunity to discuss Pathfinders Project with them. Although they were initially put off by what I told them, ultimately, they were impressed by the absence of ulterior motive in our agenda and slightly chagrined by the lack of secular service in theirs. Perhaps on their next trip, they will incorporate more service into their proselytizing. Either way, they have an altered view of Atheists and humanists as a result of learning about Pathfinders Project.
The Orange County group will not be the last missionaries we encounter, and they won’t be the last to be unsettled by our embodiment of one incredibly simple, profound fact: Atheism has something very real to offer. For us, just as for many other Atheists around the globe, meaning and fulfillment come from building connections between people and working alongside them to improve the world. These connections and this work are not seen by Atheists as a stepping stone to conversion—they are goals in and of themselves.
Why I Do This
I am a Pathfinder because I want to deepen my own humanism while encouraging reason and compassion, and I believe service is the key to doing so. I first discovered the value of service when I launched the Yale Humanist Society in 2008. My goals were to provide a safe space for the explicitly nonreligious and to improve the nature of interfaith dialogue at Yale. I found service projects to be invaluable in meeting both of these aims.
After graduating in 2010, I taught special education for three years in the Salvadoran Corridor of Los Angeles. While collaborating with dedicated Mexican-American and Salvadoran-American teachers, I confronted the reality that my well-meaning colleagues and I often failed to communicate successfully. Since our values and goals were the same, we concluded that our disagreements were a result of the different ways we carried ourselves and spoke. However, once we built up trust by working alongside one other, we began to interpret each other’s words through the lens of that trust.
Language is incredibly fallible, and our minds even more so, but shared work can provide a foundation for authentic interaction across cultural, linguistic, and religious boundaries. This sets the stage for successful verbal communication. By building mutual understanding through shared service, the Pathfinders demonstrate their humanist values and encourage the expression of the same values by nonhumanists as well. I’m concluding this first article by introducing my three fellow Pathfinders, who, in their own words, describe what this service project means to each of them.
Wendy Webber, Writer/Photographer
While studying for my Master’s degree in religion at Yale Divinity School, I worked to amplify the Atheist and agnostic voices on campus inside and outside the classroom. Now that I’ve graduated, I want to extend this work beyond the university setting. I believe interfaith dialogue and cooperation are necessary to achieving peace and equality among all people. However, the current understanding of interfaith dialogue is incomplete. True interfaith dialogue and cooperation must include those outside the major faiths, including Atheists. I believe service, more than dialogue, brings disparate people together. We can and should talk about our differences, and we should coordinate interfaith dialogue, but it is far more successful when it follows or is coupled with service. Working on common goals inspired by compassion emphasizes our shared humanity.
Currently, service is largely associated with faith and interfaith organizations. Through Pathfinders Project, I am helping Atheists, agnostics, and humanists to be associated with service as well. Pathfinders Project is an opportunity to engage Atheists, agnostics, and religious individuals in interbelief dialogue and cooperation. Moreover, it is an opportunity for authentic and caring interactions across cultural, national, religious, and language barriers.
Michelle Huey, Social Media Coordinator
Helping others has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was always doing community service in one form or another. I was a Girl Scout for twelve years. In high school and college, I joined organizations that focused on service. These organizations attract people who all have a desire to help others but have beliefs and communication styles that are wildly different. For example, I spent the past few years volunteering for a Buddhist organization where there was a total language barrier between the
adults in the organization and me. Our only form of communication was through hand gestures and body language. Despite all the issues (including the difference of religious beliefs), I feel a deep connection with them. Our shared experiences working together demonstrated more than any amount of speaking ever could. That’s why I became a Pathfinder. I want to create those bonds with others around the world, connections that can only be gained through authentic engagement with cultures that have almost nothing in common with mine. I believe that in every culture there are people who share the same basic values and who have the same compassion and desire to help others.
Ben Blanchard, Webmaster
I have wanted to help others since I was very young. Because I grew up with a parent who suffers from a chronic pain disorder, it doesn’t usually surprise people to learn that I want to be a doctor and care for terminal patients. Until, that is, they find out I am an Atheist. Unfortunately, Atheists in America are often portrayed as selfish, immoral, or just plain evil. Because of this misconception, those of us who are open about our Atheism have an incredible opportunity to show how we can be generous, compassionate, good people.
It is an uphill battle because religion is perceived as having a monopoly on service and charity. I remember being in grade school and hearing about a service trip to Mexico planned by a local church. But that trip included spreading the gospel, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to honestly participate as an Atheist. For many years, I assumed I would never be able to participate in a service trip. Then I learned about Pathfinders Project. I am incredibly excited to be a part of it because I am fulfilling my desire to do service and empowering the secular community at the same time.
Originally published in the Fourth Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought