Chris Stedman is an atheist. But because he’s more interested in forming alliances with religious people so they can work together toward their common goals and less interested in arguing over their differences (and why they’re wrong), he gets a really bad rap in the atheist community. Chris doesn’t “support” faith, he doesn’t believe faith is harmless, and he has no problem criticizing faith when it’s necessary. But he’s not going out of his way to trash religious people because they happen to be wrong.
It’s one of many tactics you can choose in our movement. By taking that route, Chris has been able to get his message — that all atheists are not automatically anti-theists, that you can be good without god, etc. — to a very different audience from the one reached by many of the other public atheists out there.
Case in point: A recent article in RELEVANT (a Christian magazine) about how he reconnected with his former pastor:
It’s funny because, when he first asked me to get coffee, I hesitated. “What will he think of the work I do now?” I asked myself. “Will he feel like he failed me as a pastor? Will he want to debate theology? Will he try to bring me back into the church?”
Such hesitance was unmerited; he sat and listened as I updated him on my life, smiling and nodding as I described how I’ve come into my own as an atheist, an interfaith activist and a young man. Now, Matthew and I have a better and more honest relationship than we ever did in my youth.
It’s been a more productive one, too: in less than six months, we’ve mobilized hundreds of people to come together in interfaith coalition and donate their time and money to package more than 30,000 meals for food-insecure children in Boston. Most recently we held an event (planned with Boston University’s Interfaith Council) called HUNGERally, where more than a hundred student representatives from eight Boston-area colleges and universities spent a Saturday night learning about the problem of hunger and pledging to work together across lines of religious difference to address it.
All of this is the direct result of a partnership between an atheist and his former pastor. In light of this, I cannot help but wonder what the world would look like if we were more willing to forge unconventional alliances. What would happen if we were more radical about whom we saw as our collaborators? What would happen if we took the risk of reaching out to the unfamiliar? If atheists and Christians started seeing one another as necessary partners in making the world a better place, what might we come to understand about each other? What might we come to better understand about ourselves? What might we accomplish together?
He’s not suggesting that the pastor is anything more than a nice guy. But you can bet other atheists are going to tear him a new one for this article.
I’ve criticized Interfaith work in the past. I still do. I think they are more interested in strengthening everyone’s beliefs (even when those beliefs are wrong) and less interested (if at all) in getting to the heart of the truth. They’d rather live in Rainbow-and-Unicorn-World where everyone just gets along instead of grappling with the serious issues of why belief in nonsense is bad for all of us.
But Chris isn’t hiding from those conversations. Really. He’s a gay atheist who works within the interfaith community — those issues come up all the time and he has no problem speaking up for himself. His method of showing religious people why there’s nothing wrong with his atheism or sexuality doesn’t involve publicly trashing other people or humiliating them. He makes his point through his actions.
If you read the blog posts and Twitter comments about Chris, though, you’d think he was a religious man in atheist clothing. Or that he’s delegitimizing our work. Or that he’s undermining our goals. He’s not. He’s as much of an atheist activist as the rest of us. He just practices it by focusing on cooperation and conversation with people of faith instead of beating his chest with both fists and proclaiming his superiority.
Another atheist, Alain de Botton, has seen a similar reaction to his latest ideas. He suggested that atheists, like religious people, could use a place — an “awe-inspiring building” — where we could sit in peace and contemplate secular values like love and friendship.
He’s serious about building this “atheist temple” and that’s where he gets it wrong — it’s not worth the money (£1m). But that’s pretty much the extent of my opposition to it.
Richard Dawkins had it right when he said:
“I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”
Still, as far as ideas go, the basis behind it makes sense — We could all use some quiet time to reflect on our lives and the things that matter most to us.
de Botton later made headlines when he said “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’” WHAT?! BUT THE TRUTH IS ALL THAT MATTERS! said a bunch of atheists in response. They seemed to ignore the part where he said:
To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
Yeah, well, that kind of makes sense. God doesn’t exist. We (atheists) have answered that question to our satisfaction. Sure we’d like to convince others of that truth, but what about us? Now that we have the answer, what do we do next?
What does religion do right that we might be able to learn from? de Botton says this:
… religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.
We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.
This is where his argument falls apart… if you take it at face value.
It’s easy to counter with examples of “religious morality” that endangers women and hurts gay people, but there’s no doubt that religious people give more money to charity than atheists do — and that goes beyond tithing. Also, atheists have no problem discussing ethics. Sure religions have made use of art and architecture, but there are historical reasons for that (like the fact that religious monarchs in previous centuries were the ones with the money and power). We may not like “sermons,” but I love listening to TED Talks. We may not thank god for anything, but we can stand in awe of the power nature and evolution has in our world. We can show our gratefulness to the people close to us in our lives, whether it’s through affection or gifts or our words. We may not have temples where our communities can meet, but we communicate and share our live with each other over the Internet and through local groups. We may not go on pilgrimages, but we can dedicate our lives to various causes that have meaning for us.
He’s basically throwing secular values under the bus for the sake of making his point. But the responses (like the ones I just mentioned) are right there if you go looking for them. Why de Botton never mentions this, I don’t know.
Ok, now step back for a second. de Botton is basically saying there are some things religious people do that we ought to find a secular replacement for. He’s not wrong about that. I’m simply saying we have already found those replacements.
But the way people have attacked him, you’d think he was trying to dismantle atheism from within:
“To say something along the lines of ‘I’m an atheist; I think religions are not all bad’ has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?”
Again, he’s right about that. If you’re an atheist and you aren’t whole-heartedly anti-religious (or, dare I say it, you suggest there might be something to learn from religious people), there’s a segment of critics online who won’t stop attacking what you say until you’ve basically removed yourself from the conversation. They’ll call you names or take your statements far more literally than you intended so that you’re thoroughly humiliated in front of people who will never read your works for themselves. (Though, to be honest, if you offer an opinion of any sort online, people are going to go after you.)
Why am I saying all this? Because it’s not necessary to treat these atheists like they’re not on our side. They’re not hurting our cause. They’re with us. They’re not the enemy.
As one person on Twitter said yesterday, “I care about truth, but also cooperation, compassion & civil discourse.” Those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
While we’re on the subject, PZ Myers recently debated Greg Epstein on the question “How Should Atheists Talk About Religion?” on the Ask An Atheist podcast. I haven’t had a chance to hear it yet, but feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.