Chris Stedman is an atheist.
He works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, where he is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain, and blogs at NonProphet Status.
And he’s the subject of a hell of a lot of negative blogposts… mostly because he believes strongly in the interfaith movement and that atheists ought to participate in it — and that the kind of “New Atheism” that tears down and mocks religion without offering anything in its place is bad for our movement as a whole. (I know, I know, how dare he suggest we find common ground with religious people without compromising our own values? Criticize ideas instead of people?! Ridiculous.)
Yesterday marked the release of Chris’ new book: Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012). An excerpt was published at Salon a couple of weeks ago.
Below is a different excerpt, one that fleshes out why Chris believes working together with religious people is our best option to remedy the anti-atheist stereotypes and why he believes a “take no prisoners” approach to atheism activism will backfire:
I believe that broadening the aims of the atheist movement to be more affirming [of interfaith outreach] and less antagonistic [while not neglecting legitimate, reasonable criticism] will mean that it will have more to offer people — that it will contribute something positive to their lives — and I believe that if the movement shifts in that direction, it can and will bring in folks who currently don’t feel welcome.
Indiscriminate attacks on “religion,” as if it were a single note instead of a complex chord, are a very real problem because they obscure Humanism’s larger aims — making the world a better, more rational place — with a distracting, destructive, and alienating narrative that doesn’t account for differences in belief and practice. Such behavior fundamentally limits who our movement appeals to and distracts us from focusing on cultivating our own uniquely secular ethics.
… After spending several years deeply embedded in the atheist movement, I know there is no consensus on atheism, nor do I think that the intolerance that proliferates in the atheist movement is equivalent to religious extremism. (Though whenever I hear fellow atheists defend the intolerance among atheists by saying that it pales in comparison to the violence of religious extremists, I always think to myself: “Those are pretty meager standards to hold yourself up against.”) The loudest voices are the most obvious, and it can be difficult to hear anyone else over their clamor — but the movement’s emphasis on critical thinking does allow it to escape some of the trappings of actual fundamentalism. And the problem of loud, intolerant voices eclipsing voices of moderation and inclusion isn’t one exclusive to the atheist movement.
To be sure, atheists aren’t entirely to blame for this extreme “us versus them” mentality between the religious and nonreligious. There are many among the religious who do atheists the same disservice. We’ve become the bogeymen and bogeywomen, frequently used as a rallying point for the Religious Right. Historically speaking, the term “secular humanism” was actually popularized as an epithet against atheists.
Today, atheist demonization is astoundingly common. For example, in the wake of the horrific shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in 2011, one right-wing pundit wrote: “When God is not in your life, evil will seek to fill the void.”
That same week, CNN commentator Erick Erickson attacked President Obama for making the national moment of silence in the wake of the shooting a time for “prayer or reflection.” Erickson accused the president of “accommodating atheists” and even used the example of the moment of silence as an opportunity to question Obama’s faith. “That things like this keep coming up suggests the general public is right in their skepticism of the sincerity of his faith,” said Erickson. In other words, any Christian who advocates for atheist inclusion isn’t a real Christian. No wonder few speak out against comments like Erickson’s.
Sadly, remarks like these aren’t seen by most Americans as extraordinary — in fact, they’re common currency. Not long after National Public Radio’s Juan Williams was let go for making controversial remarks about Muslims, Erickson’s remarks about atheists hardly inspired a murmur.
I hope that defending the nonreligious against rhetorical attacks like those made in the wake of this tragedy will become as instinctual as responding to those directed at our Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu neighbors. But, more generally, I hope more people will begin to act as watchdogs for rhetoric that demeans or diminishes any of our fellow humans, regardless of their religious or nonreligious identity.
So often when we talk about morality and ethics in the United States, we speak of religion in the same breath. As someone who’s been working as an interfaith activist for several years, I get invited to participate in a good number of initiatives that use a common language of “faith” to motivate people and establish the religious as somehow set apart and differently motivated than the rest of the world. While such initiatives usually have the best of intentions, they run the risk of implicitly demeaning those who do not associate with a religious tradition.
Until those of us who do not believe in God are seen as having an equal capacity to be moral, anti-atheist remarks will continue to perpetuate discrimination and atheists will be seen as less moral than the religious.
During the last several years I’ve met nontheists from all over; their stories have given me perspective on the difficulties some atheists face in day-to-day life. And yet, as sensitive as I am to these realities, they actually confirm what I believe about respectful engagement. Because there are so few atheists, because atheists are so distrusted, and because antireligious appeals currently constitute the movement’s primary form out of outreach, positive interaction with the religious is desperately needed.
When I go out and speak with religious individuals and communities about atheism, the most common feedback I get is that many people have had very negative experiences with atheists. I hasten to reassure them that the majority of atheists are just like everyone else — kind, generous, interested in living lives of meaning and purpose — and that the image of atheists as mean-spirited, nihilistic, and intolerant is a stereotype. But the increasingly vocal and vitriolic subset of the atheist community has made my work of persuading people to abandon their negative preconceptions of atheists a lot more difficult, and it makes it possible for religious people who don’t know many or any atheists to tokenize me and others doing similar work — to see us as the exceptions, to see me as the “one good atheist.” This is the opposite of what I and others are trying to accomplish, and it frustrates me that some atheists enable and perpetuate the widespread mistrust of atheists.
There are many possible answers to the question of how atheists should engage with the religious, but we will be no closer to the answer if we merely continue to debate it — and we will never answer it if we isolate ourselves from religious communities. We must engage. We may not know with certainty the best way to go about cooperation between the religious and the nonreligious, but the problems of the world are too numerous to debate it for long. We must find solidarity wherever we can — and act upon it.
Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is now available online and in bookstores.