Toxicity and Truth: On ‘New Atheism’ and Interfaith Activism

This is a guest post by Chris Stedman. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious


In the month following the release of my book, Faitheist, I’ve been deeply grateful for the interest in and engagement with the book’s ideas. However, I’ve also noticed a few misconceptions that I’d like to address: that atheist interfaith activists work with believers at the expense of other atheists and unfairly dismiss a “New Atheist” approach; that interfaith work is unnecessary because we regularly encounter people of different religious identities simply by living in a diverse society; and that interfaith work is at odds with the promotion of truth, or that atheist interfaith activists are more concerned with people getting along than with getting at the truth.

I. Addressing “New Atheism”

The discussion around Faitheist took a turn when an excerpt from the book was published by Salon with a headline and subtitle of their choosing. One sentence in particular sparked controversy:

“I believe that this so-called New Atheism — the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target — is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.”

Some people pointed to this line to suggest that I dismiss all self-identified New Atheists, or that I’m a traitor, throwing other atheists under the bus. While I understand how my intent may have been misunderstood, I’d like to make it clear that I intended merely to point to a specific set of behaviors, not New Atheism as a whole. I agree with New Atheists on many points, as when I wrote in that excerpt: “I believe that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs.” Additionally, I observed that the behaviors and memes I’m critical of in my book are probably promoted by a highly visible minority of atheists, not by all New Atheists. I take issue with a very particular sort of New Atheist activism: I believe that an exclusive focus on religion as the source of human problems is short-sighted, and that painting religious believers with sweeping generalizations is inaccurate and unfair. (I’ll address my concerns about this more later in this piece.)

I can’t fairly dismiss all self-identified New Atheists, and I wouldn’t want to, because I work closely with many. Chelsea Link is a friend and a coworker of mine at the Humanist Community at Harvard, and she holds the prototypical values of a New Atheist. In her own words:

I wish religion would go away. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s a net negative presence in the world, and if all else were equal, I would prefer a world without religion to one with it. I agree whole-heartedly with Voltaire’s warning that… whoever has the power to make you absurd can also make you [unjust.] I fully support “persuading more people out of religion and into atheism.” I am, you might say, an evangelical atheist.

But in addition to her atheist activism — she currently sits on the board of the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports atheist, agnostic, and other nonreligious students — Chelsea has also become a leader in the interfaith movement, serving as an Interfaith Youth Core coach. Like me, Chelsea has one foot firmly planted in the atheist movement, and one in the interfaith movement.

While Chelsea is a self-identified “evangelical atheist,” she also shares my concerns about the efficacy and ethics of “confrontationalism” and the ways in which it is often carried out — and she sees great value in interfaith outreach. (For more of her thoughts, click here and here.) Though some atheists assume that interfaith dialogue demands compromising one’s atheism, Chelsea and I have discovered, as I noted in the Salon excerpt, that groundedness in one’s own identity is a prerequisite for effective interfaith work.

A few weeks ago, on a national conference call with the Secular Student Alliance and Interfaith Youth Core, I was reminded that atheists participate in and promote interfaith programs in many different ways. Some engage in spirited debates between atheists and people of faith that are built on trusting relationships and designed to create mutual understanding; others collaborate on meaningful service projects that promote human rights; still others host discussion groups where atheists are given an opportunity to explain the source of their ethics in environments that have historically been exclusively religious.

In Faitheist, I hoped to start a conversation by offering some ideas and stories from my own experiences as an atheist and interfaith activist, and I’m excited to see that conversation expand beyond the ideas I put forward. I did not intend, however, to denigrate New Atheists whose sincere desire it is to make the world a better, more rational place.

II. Why Interfaith Efforts?

A common critique that rises from this point is to question why we need interfaith efforts, specifically. Atheists work with believers every day — at work, in school, when volunteering. So why are interfaith events valuable? I lay out four primary reasons in Faitheist, so I won’t go into them in depth here, but I would like to share a particularly compelling example drawn from my experience facilitating workshops on atheism and religious diversity at colleges and universities.

At these workshops, one of the first things I do is ask participants what words or phrases come to mind when they hear the word “atheist.” Even at particularly liberal universities, the connotations are almost exclusively negative. When I ask why, participants generally cite two things: interactions with self-righteous atheists, and media messages from and/or about atheists that leave the impression that we are untrustworthy and unlikeable.

This exercise makes me cringe. As I’ve become more involved in the atheist movement over the years, I’ve heard a range of stories about how atheists are demonized and about the widespread anti-atheist bias people experience — and with each new account of exclusion and discrimination my stomach sinks. Even my mother tells me that when she visits her gym in rural Minnesota and she tells her fellow exercisers about her children, folks mostly respond without flinching to the fact that her son has written a book about his journey to self-acceptance as a gay man and that the book also advocates for American religious minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs. But when she tells them that the book is also about how and why he became an atheist, the reactions are almost universally negative.

Interfaith contexts present an opportunity to challenge atheism’s negative connotations because when atheists and people of faith meet face to face, preconceived stereotypes inevitably reveal their flaws. We then gain allies who return to their own groups and mobilize their own communities, speaking their own language.

Interfaith engagement is unique because it puts religious differences to the forefront. We can no longer be tokenized as the atheist neighbor who happens to be a good person; instead, with our atheism at the forefront, we show how our Humanist beliefs inspire us to be good people. We demonstrate not only our shared values and a sense of common humanity, but we help legitimize atheists as a moral community.

While I yearn for a more accurate label than “interfaith” to describe the work that I and other atheist-interfaith advocates promote, I believe that the language of interfaith will evolve as more atheists get involved. As I write in Faitheist, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes many times, such as when an interfaith organization called Social Action Ministries changed their name to Social Action Massachusetts in order to better accommodate the nonreligious. But before that will happen more broadly, and before we can fairly ask for it, we’ll need more atheists at the interfaith table.

III a. What About Religion?

An atheist involved in interfaith efforts will have to grapple with what attitude he or she wants to take towards the religious beliefs of other participants. In that vein, it has been suggested that interfaith work asks nonbelievers to put their beliefs aside in order to get along.

I can’t speak for all atheist interfaith activists, but this is not the case for me. The pursuit of truth matters. I believe that a naturalistic worldview that prioritizes scientific skepticism provides the best lens to consider our world. I have often relished debates about the legitimacy of religious claims. My worldview includes a commitment to critical inquiry — for example, I write in Faitheist about a conversation I had with a professor who urged me to consider using the word God when talking about justice. She argued for its symbolic weight, but I couldn’t sacrifice intellectual integrity. Ideas and words have consequences. Blind confidence in unsubstantiated beliefs can directly contribute to the problems our society faces. Well-reasoned conclusions, not faith-based dogma, ought to be the basis for public policy.

Still, I think it worth asking: When we advocate for something we think is true, what is our underlying goal? What kind of world are we working toward? Is there enough value in persuading believers out of religion if this change in their beliefs doesn’t also change their approach to other important questions? It seems to me that I have more in common with someone who believes in God and who also values scientific progress and human rights than I do with an atheist who believes that women are inferior to men, or that not all people deserve equal access to education and health care, or that (as Sam Harris has said) eliminating religion would be better than eliminating rape.

Some have argued that the best way to fight injustice is by opposing religion, claiming that a world without religion would be a more just one. This argument is often supported with a quote from theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This idea neglects to account for the fact that religion has been cited as the source of both good and bad actions, and it’s an overly simplistic assessment of a complex issue. Basically good people do evil — or at least morally questionable — acts all the time, often without any religious influence at all.

Even for atrocities that seem to be religiously motivated, the data suggests that people’s motivations are complex. Research by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research and the University of British Columbia found that (PDF) “prayer to God, an index of religious devotion, was unrelated to support for suicide attacks.” Instead, they found that attending religious services positively predicted support for suicide bombing — because it builds coalitional commitment. But this same phenomenon is present in more secular groups. For example, Sri Lanka’s nonreligious, nationalistic Tamil Tigers have used similar mechanisms to recruit support for suicide attacks — and they are responsible for more suicide bombings than any other group since the 1980s. Additionally, an important Pew Report interview with Robert A. Pape challenges the supposed link between terrorism and religious extremism: “What more than 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks since 1980 have in common is not religion, but a specific secular goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory the terrorists view as their homeland.”

According to Dr. Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism and author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, where religious forces do become most relevant is in demonizing the enemy and building out-group hostility, which supports the idea that humanizing religious diversity — one of the primary goals of interfaith work — is vital. Thus, I am skeptical of the claim that we should focus on bringing about an end to religion. Instead, we should work with religious allies to directly tackle the very real problems of dogmatism, authoritarianism, rigid tribalism, and social pressure — and focus on promoting access to education.

III b. What About The Truth?

In one discussion around Faitheist, a commentator suggested that eliminating ignorance is more important than eliminating injustice or suffering, and that if eliminating a particular ignorance resulted in greater suffering, it would still be a net positive. I cannot bring myself to agree with that. (Interestingly, I find this statement reminiscent of Mother Teresa’s view that suffering was good if it brought people closer to God — for which the late Christopher Hitchens appropriately excoriated her.)

A commitment to knowledge is important, but it is not the only important commitment. In a world full of suffering and splintered by religious disagreements, I think we should sometimes prioritize the pursuit of justice over pursuing philosophical agreement — especially because hostile arguments over matters of truth frequently do little more than convince all involved of their own correctness. In the face of hostility, few people become more open; more often than not, we become defensive.

You can be honestly and strongly critical of religious beliefs and doctrines while acknowledging each individual’s right to his or her personal beliefs, even if they seem irrational to you. To quote Christopher Hitchens: “I propose a pact with the faithful… as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy, imposed on me by violence, any of these things, you are fine by me.” This kind of attitude creates space for atheist-religious cooperation on important matters like secularism, education, and scientific and social progress, while also allowing everyone to be honest about their disagreements. I’m more concerned about whether someone shares most of my core values — such as pluralism, freedom of conscience, social cooperation, compassion, education — than whether they are religious or not. Many religious believers are at the forefront of efforts to promote human flourishing, and those shared concerns are more important to me than the fact that we don’t agree about the existence of any gods.

We shouldn’t deemphasize concerns about truth, but while we pursue truth together, we can work for justice now. While it’s unlikely that we’ll see a world without religious belief anytime soon, there are important issues of human suffering that we can work to resolve right now. By working together — religious believers and unbelievers — we can accomplish a lot more. At the same time, we can work for the destigmatization of atheists, which will eventually contribute to the decrease of ignorance. We can encourage a more civil and open dialogue about faith and reason, helping people come to terms with prejudices that might prevent them from considering alternate views.

I’d like to live in a more reasonable world, where people aren’t so defined, and divided, by religious differences. Increasing access to education and promoting critical thinking is vitally important. Critiquing unreasonable and dehumanizing beliefs and actions is an important tactic, too — but the spirit of that criticism makes a significant difference. Atheist activists and public figures who engage in generalizations and stereotypes that dismiss all (or a majority of) religious believers as roadblocks to social progress increase the divisiveness of religious differences. While I support efforts to denounce female genital mutilation in Indonesia, I oppose campaigns spearheaded by prominent atheists to characterize the entire religion of Islam as “barbaric.” Such sweeping claims are not only difficult to support — they don’t actually do much to address problematic practices in some Islamic societies, and they facilitate cultural divisions between Muslims and atheists. It’s hard to see such irresponsible generalizations as doing more than contributing to ignorance by promoting untruths (and atheists who respect and seek the truth should seek to be accurate in their pronouncements), and fueling the tribalistic divisions that inhibit inter-group communication and education.

Unfortunately, some prominent atheists wish to build the walls that divide our communities even higher — and it’s this tribalistic attitude that I critique in Faitheist. For example, PZ Myers is one of the most outspoken atheist writers and bloggers in the world. Earlier this year, he and I participated, with Leslie Cannold, in a public discussion on interfaith work for at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Australia. In our discussion, Myers declared that the religious are “a bunch of extreme assholes” who have “something wrong with their brains.” In order to build up the atheist movement, he said, we need to employ “us versus them” tactics against the religious. When he was asked when these in-group versus out-group walls would come down, he replied: “The walls will come down when religion is eradicated.” (After saying so, he paused and offered a more nuanced position, but he and others regularly point to the end of religion as their ultimate goal.)

I’ve been asked why I felt the need in Faitheist to not only put forward ideas about interfaith cooperation, but to also critique some ideas and actions promoted by other atheists. My answer is simple: some of the most visible atheist activism today, characterized by positions like Myers’, is counterproductive. In my eyes, it largely fails to advance the acceptance of rationality. It certainly makes the work of building religious-nonreligious coalitions that much harder. It is symptomatic of tribalism and totalitarianism — qualities responsible for some of the worst in religion. Worse still, it confirms the suspicions of atheism’s most ardent detractors, making it more difficult for outsiders to see atheism as a legitimate perspective. Some of our goals may be the same — reducing the harmful influence of religious fundamentalism and the unthinking totalitarian mindsets that support it — but I disagree with these methods. We need religious allies in order to further these goals, and I do not see them being won over by attitudes like Myers’.

There is, in my mind, only one word that adequately describes a vision so fixated on disagreements about truth that it violates fairness and empathy while alienating potential allies: toxic. But another kind of conversation about religion and atheism is possible — one that seeks to balance disagreement with accuracy, truth with compassion, and a focus on our very real differences with a desire to work together for a better, less tribalistic, more rational world.

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