Giving Emerging Ethical Leaders a Voice

“What qualifies you to do this?” I asked myself as I rode the train home one day to write my first contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith last year. I listened to the wheels rumble beneath me, looked at those sitting around me, and knew I was headed in a new direction.

I was 22-years-old, an atheist, and a seminary student. Though I don’t believe in God, I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between religious and secular communities. The summer after my first year at seminary I began interning at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that aims to mobilize a movement of young people positively engaging religious pluralism. The organization’s founder, Eboo Patel, maintained a blog for On Faith and invited me to submit a guest post for it.

At the time, I was beginning to recognize that the organized atheist movement often talked about religion in ways that created more division instead of less. As an atheist, I was frustrated by what I saw as a total lack of interest from my fellow atheists in respectfully engaging religious identities. So I sat down and wrote about it.

As I was working on my essay, I began to browse the rest of the site. On Faith features a panel of contributors who are among the most respected and knowledgeable experts in the fields of religion and ethics. But I didn’t see many blogs on their site by people who weren’t already established as authorities. I wondered if I was actually qualified to write for the website.

After my submission was posted, I started getting some unexpected feedback. “This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for saying something our community really needs to hear,” wrote another. These readers happened to be young people.

I hadn’t thought that there were others who felt the same way I did, let alone other young people. I talked to a friend who maintained a blog of his own, and he suggested I create a blog to continue sorting through this issue.

I started NonProphet Status, and suddenly became a part of a larger conversation on the issue of religion and atheism. The blog quickly began to get traction in interfaith and atheist circles, and soon I was being asked to speak at conferences, received invitations to write in other venues, and watched my blog views grow from week to week. I, a young seminary student with a small but growing vision for respectful engagement across lines of secular and religious identity, suddenly had a platform.

Emerging leaders in formation, especially young ones, deserve to have a voice. In a time defined by deep political and religious divisions, we need to hear from those who will shape our ethical future. The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders – ministers, rabbis, academics and journalists. While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the up-and-comers.

To remedy this, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD) has engaged with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions to establish State of Formation, a forum for up-and-coming religious and ethical thinkers to draw upon the learning that is occurring in their academic and community work, reflect on the pressing questions of a religiously pluralistic society, and challenge existing definitions and assumptions.

State of Formation will be a community conversation between emerging leaders in formation. Together, a cohort of seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students, activists and the like – the future religious and moral leaders of tomorrow – will work to redefine the ethical discourse today.

In a recent Wired interview about his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Kevin Kelly said that the best settings for creativity and innovation are diverse and collaborative. “Ideas aren’t self-contained things,” said Kelly. “They’re more like ecologies and networks.”

Let’s cluster our ideas and make an ecology for emerging leaders. The idea that got me writing – that the religious and secular can find common ground and work together – is just one of many out there that addresses the ethical dimensions of our pluralized society.

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