How To Make The Soft Sell To Christians

Zach Alexander is disappointed with Chris Stedman’s controversial new book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religiousdespite sharing some common ground with Chris. In a long and valuable review, Zach talks about the value of bringing some empathy to our criticisms of religious people, as Stedman models, but without also not neglecting the serious importance of epistemology as he thinks Stedman has also done.

Here Zach explains his own effective outreach to Christians at his devout alma mater:

Like Chris, my college years were dominated by a long, tortuous process of losing my evangelical faith. I stopped believing in God sometime in 2006, my last year at Gordon, the Christian liberal arts college north of Boston. The day I graduated, I tied my college ID to a rock and threw it into the Annisquam River. And I wanted nothing to do with Christianity after that.

But as time passed, I was reminded of the plight of students at Gordon and other Christian colleges who feel oppressed in the same ways I did – for not being straight enough, Christian enough, or both.

And the following year, I and two friends who were still students did something that had never been done at Gordon – we published a booklet of anonymous stories from necessarily closeted LGBTQ students, effectively giving a megaphone to people who were all but voiceless on campus before. A few years later, I helped then-current students publish further issues, including one this past spring – this time with stories from closeted atheists, agnostics, and doubters.

And the impact on the campus has been profound. Many straight students reading the first issue were consumed with remorse, recognizing in a deeper way the humanity of their queer classmates, and the pain their homophobia was causing them. At the launch of the most recent issue, one student approached me in tears, unable to find any words beyond thank you. I don’t know what her exact situation is. But I think I know how she feels, as a free-thinking person trying to survive in a stiflingly religious environment. And I’m so, so grateful we were able to make a difference for her, and others like her.

None of which may have happened had I been allergic to any engagement with any religious institution, or unwilling to collaborate with religious people of good will. My cofounders, for example, are both Christians; I presume most of the student editors since then are as well.

Equally important, the publication’s editorial tone has been consistently respectful – not haranguing the administration for being homophobic (even though it arguably is) or vilifying the students for being intolerant of nonbelievers (even though many of them are). Why? Because that would accomplish very little, beyond gratifying our sense of moral indignation. Our goal has been to increase the quality of life of marginalized students – and in this case, we think the best way to accomplish that is not pouring vitriol upon people, but appealing to the better angels of their nature.

It was in precisely that spirit that I wrote the most recent issue’s closing essay (which Chris highly praised), calling for the college to be more accepting of nonbelievers, in gentle prose more full of Biblical allusions than a Left Behind novel. Believe me – every Hitch-loving bone in my body wanted to let loose, and write a scathing indictment of the college’s unjust, discriminatory policies, and their absurd, mythological worldview. And there is a time and place for that critique. But there are also times and places for moderation, for seeking common ground instead of burning bridges. And this is one of them.

Because even though Gordon remains staunchly evangelical, I know firsthand that there are good, decent people among the faculty and administration, who don’t want any of their students feeling marginalized and persecuted. That, for what it’s worth, is meaningful common ground.

Does this mean every atheist needs to do this kind of work? Of course not. To each their own. But it’s tremendously important that some of us do it – and that we aren’t dismissed as fakes for our trouble.

 Read More.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Zach Alexander

    I appreciate that you’re highlighting the positive half of the review. As I say in the review, I think we need both firebrands and diplomats, and I’m not asking any of the firebrands to shut up. But I do think we have far, far too few diplomats at present, and that the strategic (and for that matter, moral) value of engaging people with more respect is vastly underrated.

  • B-Lar

    Very cool. A worthwhile read.

    Cheers Zach.

  • John Moriarty

    Thus swings the pendulum. I am ebbing a little in indignation after years of religious oppression. It is necessary for some or many, to let out the annoyance over being conned all of our lives. Ultimately I expect to calm down a lot . Those that fed us falsehoods are still as conned as we once were . One day, after the heat of anger dies down, there will be more understanding of the person, but always disapproval of the myth and the lie.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I think the heart of this conflict ends up being a conflation of anger with passion. To enable any movement, you need to generate passion somehow, and to generate an impression that this isn’t just some academic debate that two people can stand up at, debate over, and then shake hands and move on. Action is required, and so that requires motivation, and that requires making sure people understand that these issues matter. And one way to generate that understanding is to react with anger, because if you’re angry at the very least people know you care about the issues. But anger is the worst way to generate this, because it’s very aggressive, and so it only lends itself to an “attack” strategy … and that can work out very badly if you want or need the people you’re attacking on your side.

    Looking at this approach, it seems like it might be able to generate the “Here’s why you have to care, one way or the other” about the issue without being accusatory, and that’s the best way to get compromise.

  • smrnda

    On the anger/passion issue – I think it’s normal and healthy to be angry after being deceived, or after you feel that other people have forced you to live your life according to rules that don’t make sense and that may have hindered your personal, moral and intellectual development. At the same time, anger tends to decrease the ability for long term planning and clear thinking, even when it’s totally justified. A person might be right to be angry, but it doesn’t help their cause.

    Sometimes I feel like people need both opportunities to vent their anger and times when they try to express their thoughts as diplomatically as possible.

    • Verbose Stoic

      My take is basically this:

      I think that sort of case is understandable, but not right. So if someone who really cares about an issue expresses anger, I can understand it … but I expect them to apologize for it or at least show some embarassment over it, or at least end the discussion with something that indicates that it was the discussion that was important and there are “No hard feelings” just because we disagree. I’ve seen a ton of cases where someone explodes in a discussion because of things like that, and the argument that they make doing that usually has nothing to do with what I, at least, was saying.

  • Ken Shelton

    I followed your recent call to tone down the anti-Christian rhetoric. It was difficult at first, but I’ve since found I am able to discuss issues with the religious without venting my rage at them, and in the process I find that I and my debating opponent generally depart on friendlier terms. I still lose it sometimes, but overall it has made of me a more intelligent debater and–I think–a better person. I don’t think I’ve brought this up with you before, but if I have, permit me to express my thanks again. Like many others, I was unaware of my explosive temper on the subject of religion.

  • jose

    Well, it is gracious of him to grant that there is a time and place for Hitch-style critique.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Well ok, I need to read the full piece in detail. But here’s my general reaction. I’m polite with theistic believers because I live in a multi-religious and multi-cultural environment and think the rule of don’t s**t where you eat is a good one. I also never was strong committed to Christianity of any flavor so most of the usual apologia tends to be irrelevant instead of angering. Where I disagree is the following:

    (ii) we should be more respectful of the religious to accelerate our acceptance into the mainstream and grow our numbers.

    This is a classic tone argument because it assumes that religious people will be accepting (rather than merely tolerant) if only we used a more kindly tone. I don’t think that’s the case because of four problems I see endemic among religious liberals talking about atheists:

    1: They ideologically frame their position in the debate as morally responsible moderation between fundamentalism and atheism. The latter is only rarely qualified as “militant,” although I saw “vocal” used the other day, which made me ask, “What do you have against Verdi?”

    2: There’s a strong insistence on faith in faith. Often references or quotes are dropped to the David Foster Wallace commencement speech or some other variant on the claim that belief in some higher power is critical in order to be morally or psychologically grounded.

    3: The good atheist/bad atheist game. It gets wearisome to hear, “Why are atheists so strident?” shortly followed by, “But of course, not you.” Stedman in my opinion plays right into this.

    4: Pulling around the goalposts in discussions, aka “Spirituality/philosophy/religion for me, but not for thee.” Unitarian-Universalism and non-theistic Friends are almost exceptions to that rule, but even then you’ll find people arbitrarily moving the boundaries around to categorically invalidate the perspectives of atheists.

    Acceptance of atheists and non-theists requires that religious people be willing to change to treat atheists as peers, and I don’t see that happening.

  • Hitchslapper

    I must vociferously disagree with the basic premise here…. Through long experience, it has become very apparent that Christians possess closed minds that can neither be reached nor negotiated with…. Trying the ‘Soft Sell’ with them, will not work any more than any other method of communication that has been tried, has worked with them… We need to marginalize them and force them out of their current place influencial members of society…. They refuse to accept reality……they are against Science, or modernity, or the proven Biology of Evolution, or the Geological evidence that the Earth is more than 10,000 years old. And, personally, I don’t need them, or their primitive beliefs, to make my life be successful….We, ”non-believers” are not the problem…. they are…………

    • Zach Alexander

      Through long experience, it has become very apparent that Christians possess closed minds that can neither be reached nor negotiated with….

      I can respect that that’s been your experience, but my experience suggests this is a bit of an overgeneralization. I agree that most Christians are close-minded, but that doesn’t mean all of them are.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I agree that most Christians are close-minded, but that doesn’t mean all of them are.

      Being closed-minded in some ways does not mean closed-minded in all ways, either.