How Chris Stedman’s Faitheist is Helping Me Discover a More Effective and Compassionate Atheism

This is a guest post by Marcus Mann. Marcus is a graduate student in Religion at Duke University where he studies contemporary atheist and secular humanist social movements. You can follow him on Twitter at @mannmarcus.

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Near the end of his book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman urges us, the readers, “to step boldly and defiantly across dividing lines of religious and nonreligious identity and share our experiences in hope that we might build understanding through relationships of commitment and cooperation.” Rather than write a review for this important and affective book or take part in the controversy that it has engendered, I want to take this cue from Stedman and share a bit of my own story and of how both atheism and religious pluralism became values central to my worldview. In doing so, I hope to contribute in some small way to the broader exercise of building the kind of understanding Stedman writes about.

My religious skepticism has been there about as long as I can remember, simmering under the surface ever since I learned about Judaism in the second grade. Specifically, it was the idea that there was a large group of people that didn’t worship Jesus as their Messiah and that felt as confident as any Christian in their chosen beliefs that made me doubt, for the first time in my life, what I was learning every Sunday at church.

I grew up Episcopalian. My uncle and grandfather on my mother’s side were both Lutheran pastors and theologians. As an eight-year old, the biggest take-away from hours in church and Sunday school, not to mention the Christian calling of my close relatives, had been the knowledge that you can’t enter heaven without believing in Jesus Christ. Yet, when my mother explained Judaism to me, it was in such a way that I was expected to respect Judaism as a religion just as valid as Christianity. This was confusing for a child that had already internalized and registered the Christian message. Even in my comparatively liberal Episcopalian church, everything I was being taught suggested that Jews had it wrong; that they may even go to hell. Wasn’t this a big deal? Why was everyone so calm?

However young I may have been, I do remember this as a defining moment in my religious upbringing. In order to accommodate the knowledge of these conflicting belief systems, I abandoned my eschatological concerns and instead began to think of Christianity and the weekly church service as an important aspect of my family’s history and culture. It became less the means for salvation and more a marker of my identity and heritage. An incipient unbelief carried on quite well in this arrangement and so it wasn’t until much later that I began to think more seriously about my relationship with Christianity and religion in general.

Like many other young twenty-somethings these days, I came to my atheism when I began reading the New Atheists. I picked up The God Delusion after graduating from college in 2008 and immediately it was as if Richard Dawkins had put the lid on the pot of that simmering religious doubt, turned the burner to high and roused it into a full rolling boil. It wasn’t long before I devoured the rest of the New Atheist canon including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett and began indulging in protracted monologues to any friend that would listen about the scandalously tolerant attitudes otherwise modern secular individuals displayed toward archaic religious beliefs.

My 24th birthday party was even something of a performance art piece ode to the New Atheism. I invited friends to my now wife’s and my apartment, told them to dress up, made sure I had good scotch, hors d’oeuvres, and jazz on-hand and set up laptops around the apartment which displayed various atheist lectures on Youtube, including the popular “Four Horsemen” round-table discussion between Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett. I cringe now at the pretentious pseudo-intellectual aesthetic of it all but I wanted my friends to join me in a night of discussion about religion while we (not so) slowly got drunk and then turned our attention to dancing or sing-alongs around the acoustic guitar. Of course, my use of the word “discussion” here is a euphemism. My idea of religious discussion was to rehash the arguments I had been immersing myself in at the time.

At one point in the night, I took to quoting the statistics Sam Harris ever-so-heavily leans on in The End of Faith concerning worldwide Muslim support for suicide attacks. While a couple of my friends expressed their discomfort with such wide generalizations, I responded by repeatedly jabbing the numbers on the page with my forefinger and expounding on Harris’s central thesis that religious belief leads directly to corresponding action. It was also around this time, according to Faitheist, that Chris Stedman was kicking in a glass sign outside a church in Minneapolis approximately 1,400 miles away. Booze fueled anti-religious fervor was apparently rife.

As it turns out though, the New Atheism was sparking more than just an atheistic vitriol within me. It also made me aware of my ignorance of world religions and I became determined to learn as much as I could about contemporary religion and unbelief. It was at this point that my (ir)religious journey became one marked more by intentional intellectual goals than circumstantial environmental affect; a narrative mapped as much by books and ideas as it was with the ever-present influences of family and friends.

My first excursion outside of the New Atheist echo chamber was Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. I initially gravitated to Ehrman because he was a skeptic. What I found though was a more nuanced and sympathetic reading of religious scripture than I was used to with the New Atheists. After all, Ehrman was a religious scholar unlike the New Atheists and a former evangelical Christian.

God’s Problem is the story of how Ehrman came to his agnosticism; a narrative that’s told with both a kind of nostalgia for certain elements of his Christianity that he remembers fondly and a compelling scholarly logic as to how scripture ultimately failed him in providing a moral foundation from which to approach life’s most difficult questions. The New Atheists had me convinced that such a balance could not be achieved with any kind of integrity and here I had the evidence in my hands that this was not so.

I continued reading my way through popular religious scholars like Ehrman and Stephen Prothero, eventually happening upon Gustav Neibuhr’s Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America. Here, Neibuhr notes the unprecedented level of interfaith activity following the tragedy of 9/11. While I had been preoccupied with the culture wars and the increasing visibility of atheists, a fascinating story in its own right, I (and many others) had failed to notice that interreligious cooperation was also at an all-time high.

As I read through the book, however, a marked absence made itself more apparent. While Neibuhr documented the various collaborations occurring among religious leaders intent on building a better, more peaceful and cooperative future, I was continually asking myself the same question at every turn: where were the atheists? Had Neibuhr overlooked their involvement or had he found nothing worth recording? The answer, as I was to find out later, is a little of both.

These questions among others eventually led me to the MA in Religion program in the Duke University Graduate School where I am now and which has been the most religiously diverse environment I have ever experienced. Every day I engage with professors and students that not only subscribe to their religious traditions but also count their religious heritage, practice and belief as salient aspects of their character and identity. The blanket judgments I previously espoused between sips of scotch at my 24th birthday party have become impossible to sustain now, when I can only aspire to the levels of kindness, intelligence, and thoughtfulness I have seen manifested in the religious peers around me.

My appreciation of the value of religious faith to others, though, has been complimented by my recognition that I need not sacrifice any of my own personal beliefs and values. Just because I can acknowledge that many of my peers’ admirable characters have been informed by their religious traditions does not compel me to concede that those religions are in any empirical sense as valid as atheism. It is this tension that I navigate and struggle with today and it is not always easy. As an atheist, I place a high value on empiricism and scientific truth. Such an emphasis inevitably conflicts on a regular basis with religious worldviews. The temptation to slip into either the angry atheism of my earlier years or the blissful strawberry fields of religious relativism is great indeed.

Many assume that the latter is necessarily incorporated into any conception of religious pluralism. I found the error of this assumption exposed earlier in my literary journey, however, in Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter. In this book, Prothero puts forward an argument against the popular notion that all religions are simply different paths leading up the same mountain; that, as he says in the introduction, “all religions are beautiful and true.” On can imagine the atheist echo of this simplistic view of world religion in the New Atheist thesis that all religions are ugly and false. Prothero combats this fallacy by offering short lessons in the world’s eight most influential religions and in turn is obliged to make some generalizations of his own to illustrate their profound divergences.

He boils down the fundamental theological differences between these religions in terms of their address to 1) the central problem of humankind and 2) their proposed solution. To give an example, he writes, “Christians see sin as a problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering…as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the religious goal.” In regard to Islam, he writes, “To understand the role of Islam in the world today, you need to understand its view of the problem of self-sufficiency and the solution of submission.” In the last chapter of the book, “A Brief Coda on Atheism,” he (perhaps wisely) neglects to apply this framework to the phenomenon of contemporary atheism with the same rigor. It therefore made me wonder how he would have gone about characterizing atheism in this scheme and gave me cause to reflect on the hierarchy of my own values. So let me (perhaps unwisely) attempt to sketch this out, facing the same challenge Prothero faced in his analyses, of reducing great diversity to the binary of problem and solution, and in turn, describe how I conceptualize my atheism today.

With respect only to that part of the atheist that labels herself as such, the problem is supernaturalism or superstition and the solution is reason. To put it another way, atheists care very much about being correct and that when dealing with the most daunting problems in our collective life, it is of paramount importance that we are correct about the nature of the challenges we face. Atheists exhibit this value by revering the processes (rituals?) and institutions devoted solely to this value: the scientific method, education, and debate. It’s why atheists, including myself, are obsessed with “evidence.” I care deeply about this kind of empirical correctness and accord it a lofty position among the many other values I hold dear.

But in applying Prothero’s framework of problem/solution to myself, I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind. A helpful exercise then is to ask what intellectual role, on the level of belief and theology, does salvation play for the fundamentalist Christian screaming insults at a gay couple? What intellectual role does submission play for a fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber? The answer, I propose, is that they are central ones. So too, atheists need to be wary of valuing correctness over the much more important values of kindness, sobriety, and pluralism.

Faitheist, for me, bridged the gap between the convinced atheism the New Atheists helped me find and the necessity of the kind of interfaith work that Neibuhr so rightly recognized as indispensable in the current religious and political climate. Stedman also demonstrates how, in practice, one is able to live a life as concerned with compassion as one is with truth. By sharing his own personal story, Stedman maps a landscape of valleys and peaks (to borrow a borrowed metaphor from Sam Harris) that portrays the true complexity of navigating the tension between upholding liberal values such as religious pluralism while maintaining an open and honest atheist worldview.

We see this landscape’s lowest valleys, in his book, in the form of the kind of self-negation he was forced to endure as a gay evangelical teenager, stifling an integral aspect of his identity in misguided deference to another. This self-negation was also present when Stedman felt restricted from engaging with the type of work and people he knew shared his values by what he thought were the practical contingencies of his intellectual atheistic stance. The peaks are realized when Stedman’s atheism and belief in religious pluralism are most fully expressed together, informing and strengthening one another through his community outreach and service.

The question then shouldn’t be how we fit kindness into our atheist worldview; it should be how we conceive of our atheism so that it operates most effectively within the central value of human kindness. Any other organization of these values threatens to poison the effectiveness of the atheist message of reason, the Humanist project of human flourishing, and even our minds themselves as they become subservient to abstract ideals rather than to the service of the people around us in all the dignity and reality of their flesh, bone and consciousness.

A lot of the controversy surrounding Faitheist in atheist circles has to do with the prominent role Stedman attributes to interfaith work and religious pluralism in shaping his ethical perspective. What I found notable, though, was the strength of Stedman’s atheism as he navigated the choppy waters of the largely religious interfaith world. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when he is hitching a ride with a Christian coworker at Interfaith Youth Core and she admits her concern for his salvation. While the conversation in the book is more detailed, Chris’s central response is to say, “Thank you. I mean, you could’ve kept that to yourself, but I’m glad you didn’t. And you must know that I, as an atheist, think your beliefs are probably wrong, too.” The conversation is honest, civil, and even friendly. It’s a strong atheism that doesn’t feel patronized in such an interaction and that states itself clearly and warmly. I am hoping such an atheism catches on and that this book finds itself in the hands of many more people eager to hear the story of how compassionate atheism is not only possible, but of how it’s being done.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Marcus once published a guest post on Chris Stedman’s blog, but the views expressed here are his own.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Ders

    Sometimes things like this remind me of the original Mormon episode of South Park. The Mormon family is just the nicest, friendliest family ever. The problem is that what they believe in is just incredibly unjustified. If the message you got from Sam Harris was that all religious people are awful, you weren’t listening. The message is that we have to stop pretending that peoples ideas are all valuable. People are valuable, ideas are fair game for debate in all instances. Interfaith cooperation is certainly better than the alternative, but some argue that we don’t even need to have these boundaries to cross in the first place.

    • James

      I totally get what you and Sam Harris are saying. What I wonder if it isn’t a little more nuanced than this, though. In order to value a person we need to value their ideas too. Isn’t attacking a religious person’s religious ideas similar to attacking a homosexual’s homosexuality? (it is an over simplification, but hopefully you understand what I mean)

      In an ideal world we could all talk about whatever issues of the day and no one would get offended and we could all be reasonable in our discussions. But we take things personally, probably because they are personal.

      • MrMoto

        Yes, too oversimplified. Homosexuals do not commit genocide in the name of a supernatural being they imagined for the purpose of justifying the genocide. Religion is a false belief system, kept in place by ignorance, for the sole purpose of making the believer feel better about their actions in life. You can’t compare to anything else without addressing that distinction.

      • Art_Vandelay

        Isn’t attacking a religious person’s religious ideas similar to
        attacking a black person because of the color of their skin?

        It’s a gross over simplification.

        In order to value a person, we need to be honest with them and if we think that their ideas are horrible, we should tell them and tell them why. Placating people isn’t valuing them. It’s disrespectful.

        • Wild Rumpus

          Do these pants make me look fat?

          • The Other Weirdo

            No. Not the pants.

      • The Other Weirdo

        No, we don’t. The only thing we need to value(apart from human life, which goes without saying even though I just said it) is the quality of other people’s ideas. If the ideas are inherently bad or indefensible, what purpose can it serve to value them? Many religious people get offended at the very idea that atheists even exist, let alone what they do nor do not do or say. Why should I value something that dehumanizes me?

        Put more precisely, why should I value the idea of the Ukrainians I lived among back in the Old Country™ who hated me(or even just mocked me) for having been born Jewish?

      • GCT

        In order to value a person we need to value their ideas too.

        No. The idea that we can’t criticize ideas without devaluing a person is born from religious privilege. The notion is there so that the majority don’t have to hear about how harmful/wrong their views are. It’s a way of silencing dissenting voices, especially atheists.

      • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

        “Isn’t attacking a religious person’s religious ideas similar to attacking a homosexual’s homosexuality?”

        No, it’s like attacking a Communist’s Communism, or a Republican’s Republicanism. It’s something they think, not something they are.

      • Greg G.

        Challenging a person’s acquired ideas is quite different than questioning one’s harmless carnal desires.

      • ortcutt

        What if their ideas aren’t true though? Should I value the idea that the planets revolve around the Earth? It’s a neat what-if, but it turns out not to be true. There either are gods or there aren’t. One or the other is true and they can’t both be true. Which claim is true also matters a good deal. Challenging someone’s claims isn’t an attack on them. It’s the first step in doing serious inquiry into the world we live in.

    • MrMoto

      The nicest family ever, who funds a campaign to take away the same-sex marriage rights of people living two states away.

      When Christopher Hitchens said “Religion poisons everything” my life experience told me he was exactly right. If religion makes good people do bad things, why do some make claims that it is beautiful? Good people will do good things without religion. I don’t get it.

      • Ders

        I agree with you. If you’ve seen that episode, you know what I’m talking about. People being “apparently” nice does not validate their ideas.

  • MrMoto

    Ok, officially reaching my limit on celebrity atheists and all the revelations on how atheists should act, or there pretense that this is all about some philosophical debate.

    Atheism for me is not a worldview, it is a conclusion, and a conclusion that requires no more action on my part than my conclusion that unicorns don’t exist. My real worldview, that led me to the conclusion of atheism, is what informs my actions, and in my world, atheism is not jazz parties and book tours. It is a daily fight against bigotry, discrimination, and religious hatred, based upon my rational belief that this is the only life we get, and we need to make the most of it.

    I wonder what the kids I have helped, who have been kicked out of their parents home for declaring their non-belief at age 16 would think if I handed them Chris Stedman’s book? Or the Planned Parenthood worker whose clinic was just fire-bombed by religious extremists? Somewhere in the various ivory towers of religious studies, I guess the abstractions seem like the kind of thing to be discussed over wine and cheese, meanwhile, I still have to deal with the gay friend who is being denied a final visit with his dying life-partner because religious parents and hospital administrators worry more about sin than love.

    I am still willing to listen, but increasingly the voices I want to here are those of local atheist organizers, not the “trying to get Dawkins to sign my book” crowd. Do I want the wisdom of someone promoting a gimmicky book, or the wisdom of someone who has successfully gotten some local atheists to act and end a city council invocation. The latter, for me.

  • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

    I think generally that atheists now tend to be a little heavy on the ridicule for religious sensibilities, but the hypothesis that sharing experiences to get religious people to understand atheism, urged by Stedman at the end of his book and at the beginning of this piece, fundamentally misunderstands faith.

    I see this attitude a lot from very liberalized Christians who see absolutely no harm in their belief structures. Perhaps there is none–at least from them–but I suspect that these people are engaging in cognitive capture. They are still supporting the bible as an important scriptural work, not merely a piece of ancient literature. They are still, as Sam Harris put it, maintaining the context that protects religious ideas from the scrutiny they need. Since this context is the specific context in which religious fundamentalism, with all of its myriad problems, arises, however these liberal Christians want to trivialize it, it is a serious issue that they are on the wrong side of–ultimately to paraphrase Harris again because they accept bad ideas for bad reasons. I haven’t parsed out yet whether or not works like Stedman’s contribute to this contextual issue, although I do recognzie the value of finding a more compassionate understanding of how to be an atheist in a faith-filled world.

    Ultimately, the criticism is on ideas, but religious ideas get tied up with identity for all kinds of interesting and complex psychological reasons. So all criticism is taken personally. To back off on criticizing the ideas is unacceptable, though, given the state of the world now (Cf. 9/11–an example of an eventuality so long as these bad ideas stand), even if it is superficially more compassionate.

  • http://twitter.com/vinimarques Vini Marques

    I’m the nicest guy. Really. I am civil, polite, and even work together with believers for humane causes… but at the end of the day, those very believers still think that I DESERVE to suffer and die in agony just because I refuse to worship their lord. Why would I willingly subject myself to such an environment, when there are much better alternatives out there? Honest question.

    • MrMoto

      Good point. You really can’t build a bridge across that divide.

    • Art_Vandelay

      Well it’s even worse than that. You don’t actually get to die…just suffer unimaginable torture for eternity. My atheism doesn’t bother most believers that I know and vice-verse, but there really is a huge pink elephant in the room, isn’t there? Of course, if you really believed in hell, and you weren’t spending every second trying to save me, that would be despicable. I don’t think they buy it. Most Christians just like calling themselves Christian to reap the social advantages of being part of a huge majority. Very few actually think about what it means.

      • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

        One of the most useful things I’ve ever read is to look at the Christianities (and by extension the religions) as big social clubs whose membership requires professing certain “beliefs.” I think there’s a little bit more to it than that on a psychological level, but the social aspect is huge.

  • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

    Another criticism of Stedman’s ideas: “religious pluralism” is a nice dream that completely ignores the reality of how religions are practiced in the world. The religions are exclusivist and claim exclusive knowledge to some absolute set of truths (that just so happen not to be true).

    Again, I cite cognitive capture among liberal believers and their nonbelieving counterparts. Some 30% of Christians in America are evangelical and/or fundamentalist. Anyone dare guess a number for Islam? Apparently even daring to do so, unless it is <1%, is enough to get you branded a racist these days. Never mind actual statistics….

    • eonL5

      And never mind that Muslim isn’t a race.

  • Jasper

    We already have a “common ground” with the religion. It’s called “reality”. Am I supposed to compromise on that? Which of their fantasy ideas am I supposed to adopt?

  • SeekerLancer

    It’s hard for me to take interfaith seriously. If everyone could empathize with everyone else and decide to live and let live it would be a wonderful thing.

    However, this is certainly not reality. As long as religion continues to be a driving force in politics and as long as believers continue to attempt to force those who think differently to believe in their version of the universe, as many religions dictate and command, I feel like the entire concept of interfaith falls flat on its face.

    How do you ultimately reach an understanding with someone whose reality flies in the face of yours without (at least) first admitting that your religion is more of a tradition than a deeply held belief? I feel like interfaith serves only to comfort more liberal, open minded believers. Those people aren’t the problem in the first place. Those people aren’t the ones who need help understanding others.

    It’s great that there are people out there like that but unless they’re winning loads of converts I’m not sure what interfaith really accomplishes. Those who want to broaden their horizons and see things from the point of view of others will do it. Those who don’t, won’t.

    Also, while I believe you should respect everyone equally, the same should not be said of their ideas.

  • no thanks

    Fuck interfaith and religious pluralism.

    • Marco Conti

      I like your later post a bit better, but at least this one has the gift of conciseness to express pretty much the same sentiment.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

    Eh, this kind of touchy-feely atheism tends to annoy me. Trust me, I’m a nice, inoffensive person. If you met me in real life, you might even think I was conservative unless you asked me about my religious and political views. However, this whole thing about appreciating and respecting what religion contributes to other people’s lives, how it informs their characters and values, etc. just doesn’t work for me. I don’t think faith is a good thing. I don’t think religious structures are a good thing. I don’t think supernaturalism is a good thing.

    If other people want to hop on board the interfaith bandwagon, that’s fine, but I don’t honestly see much value in it. And I don’t think liberal religionists (to say nothing of conservatives) are willing to change their minds about atheism being detrimental to society just because some atheists are involved in the interfaith movement. I really think those people will continue to see faith as essential, or at least better, for our culture than atheism.

    • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

      In my experience, many liberal religionists are all about some interfaith until you make a truly atheistic statement in their presence (e.g. about the lack of evidence for Christian beliefs, which is pretty innocuous). At that point, the gloves tend to come off. That implies, to me, that they’re all about pluralism until it touches their business, i.e. “shut up, atheists.”

      • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

        I’ll add to this: if they’re sufficiently liberal, and you comment about the dangers that seem to evolve too frequently from Islamic scripture taken too literally, they go berzerk on you and may call you a racist.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

          And it’s funny how so many liberals seem to give Muslims a free pass for things that they would castigate Christians for in a heartbeat. I suppose in their eagerness to be inclusive and accepting of diversity, they are willing to overlook the harmful effects of conservative religion, but only as long as it stems from a disenfranchised minority group.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

        Even UU (the most liberal of the liberal) has shown discomfort with overt atheism. I think what liberal religionists seem to want most is respect for faith. Any faith, it doesn’t matter. They want an environment where supernatural views are respected. Where prayer is seen as good, basing values on a holy book is seen as good, religious rituals are seen as good, etc.

        • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

          Totally in accordance with my experience. The psychology behind this phenomenon seems to be fascinating, but I don’t have a good grasp of it yet. In fact, neither to researchers in the field. The suggestions I’m seeing point to it being a matter of protecting their mechanisms for satisfying needs for control, esteem, and attribution, but that’s so broad a statement as to be mostly useless.

      • SeekerLancer

        This is why I think atheism really has no place at the interfaith table. What we have to add is that we think everyone else believes in myths.

        There’s not much room for discussion there. The only thing that interfaith people really want to hear from atheists is the the agnostic statement “there might be a god” and that’s really all we have to say that won’t offend them beyond maybe that they have some beautiful traditions and are good at building communities, or something.

        The negative position of atheists, by its very nature of being the negative position, is just unacceptable to even the most casually religious. It makes us look like the jerks who want to come in and ruin everyone’s fun even when we’re not necessarily trying to.

        But as I said in my earlier post it’s the liberal religious folk who don’t really need to develop an open mind. The fundamentalists who cause the problems aren’t going to sit down at the table with anyone.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          I think there’s some room for discussion: whether or not there is a God, is such-and-such “good”? While there’s some disagreement on how to get to the conclusion, most Western atheists agree with theists about it being good to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the dying, and bury the dead. (Randites aside; I’m talking about the predominant humanist progressive strains.)

          The hard part is opening the mind of the religiously devout to the notion that these ideas don’t need God’s say-so to be “good”.

          • skizzle

            >most Western atheists agree with theists about it being good to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the
            homeless, comfort the dying

            You wouldn’t know this from the way theists act. Based on actions, they think it’s good to attack LGBT people and women while building multimillion dollar churches and hoarding tax-free money.

            >and bury the dead.

            This does not fit in with the rest of the things you mentioned. With finite land masses, it makes no sense to bury people and it will eventually become impossible to do so. It’s an inherently unsustainable practice that only exists because of Catholic (and other) superstitions about the need to keep one’s body intact for the End Times.

            • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

              True; some atheists have other notions on the most ecologically sound disposal. However, there’s at least a broad consensus that leaving them to rot in the streets is a bad idea.

    • I Call It Like I See It

      JT Eberhard called Stedman a “dishonest little shit” back on Nov. 7th on this blog.
      He has said other things since.
      Stedman is showing the way, and atheists like Eberhard are slowing it down.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

        Who is J.T. Eberhard, and what does that have to do with anything I wrote?

        I don’t agree that interfaith work is “showing the way.” I’m not saying it’s necessarily harmful, but my concern is that it simply props up and supports religious structures and religious privilege.

        If we want a world where “faith-based” is not considered a positive term (and I do), then I don’t think the way to make that happen is to partner with groups that see faith as a good thing.

      • GCT

        Citation please.

  • The Other Weirdo

    But in applying Prothero’s framework of problem/solution to myself, I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind. A helpful exercise then is to ask what intellectual role, on the level of belief and theology, does salvation play for the fundamentalist Christian screaming insults at a gay couple? What intellectual role does submission play for a fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber? The answer, I propose, is that they are central ones. So too, atheists need to be wary of valuing correctness over the much more important values of kindness, sobriety, and pluralism.

    I’m not really sure what your point here is. Does anybody really care what intellectual role was being fulfilled by when the KKK where stringing up blacks for the fun of it? Does it matter what role submission plays for fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber? Who cares? This sort of uber-liberalist “all cultures are inherently equal and worthy of our respect irritates my loins and they start frothing in irritation. That never leads to any good at all.

    I make it a practice to offer my respect to everyone: men, women, children, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, what have you. People are people. The moment, however, you start shrieking like a banshee about gays or strapping on a suicide vest to kill and maim as many people around as you can or burning down other people’s homes or putting bombs on airplanes, I withdraw my respect.

    That makes me the final arbiter of morality. You can be one, too, so long as you don’t try to tell me that my morality is wrong or that I must respect the reprehensible ideas of those who wish to harm others. I must respect no one’s ideas unless those ideas have merit.

    • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

      It is possible that he means this exercise to be useful in the way that Sam Harris has clearly capitalized upon, his descriptions of what it may be like to “really believe something” being clear and salient–and a clarion-call against the kind of ultra-liberalism that is problematic to its core when we give inflated respect to dangerous ideologies.

      My current project is working into understanding some of the underlying psychology behind religious beliefs, not so I can “respect” the beliefs but so I can understand why people hold them so tightly.

      • The Other Weirdo

        I appreciate your input, but I am not sure it holds up in the current context. If we were talking about concepts and generalities, I would agree with you. This article, however, is specifically exhorting us to be nice and unquestioning to religious people because we have to value their ideas and because all religions are true and beautiful. These ideas I find abhorrent.

        • SeekerLancer

          Agreed.

          The moment it stops being okay to question or criticize, we’ve lost the war for reason.

        • Marcus

          Thanks for reading my article. See above my response to GCT on this score. I’m critical of the notion that “all religions are beautiful and true” as is Prothero. My argument was against generalizations which both atheists and religious pluralists can be guilty of. Also, I don’t quite understand where in the article you found me saying that we shouldn’t question religion. Of course we should. We should question anything that doesn’t quite add up. The issue here, though, is how to be kind and effective while doing so.

          • The Other Weirdo

            Your basic thesis, and if I understand it, Stegman’s as well, is that we should be nice(r) to religious people and respect their ideas. Religious people get offended by the very thought of the idea that there might be the possibility of atheists living in their community. They are, in general and as a mass, incapable of taking criticism, no matter how mild. Therefore I have extrapolated that the only way to be nice to religious people under such circumstances is to not question religious.

            This, at least, is my reading of your article. I admit that I might be wrong.

            • The Other Weirdo

              Sorry. Stedman. Was thinking about “Payback”.

          • The Other Weirdo

            I should have also added that when I say “unquestioning”, I really meant unquestioning of believers, not necessarily of the religion they belong to.

          • MrMoto

            Again, I don’t see the generalization that is possible from atheism. I don’t believe in unicorns — does that disbelief lead to some generalization about mythical creatures.

            No. It is the other way around — my rational skepticism leads me to my disbelief in God or unicorns. Skepticism is my world view, not atheism. By saying that, I leave room for others to reach the conclusion of atheism by other means.

        • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

          I should point out, I guess, that I agree with you essentially in full. I just notice that when people talk about this, they tend to get their motivations all conflated with one another.

          • The Other Weirdo

            Well, we’re only human. :)

    • eonL5

      “frothing… loins?”

      • The Other Weirdo

        Right. No good ever comes from that. I can’t take credit for the expression, however. I stole it from the show Archer, though they were talking specifically about female loins. :)

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Well, one group that might care would be people who believe that understanding the psychology underlying the behavior may facilitate changing the behavior by altering that underlying psychology. They may be deluded, of course.

      Incidentally, what basis for partial ordering do you use for comparing one idea to another to define a relative sense of “merit”, and what reference determines the minimum threshold of an idea to give an absolute sense of having “merit”?

      • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

        That would be the project I’ve currently engaged in–attempting to get well-versed in the psychology of religion–and it’s changing my thinking rather profoundly on the matter. I’ve seen enough to know now that most religious folks won’t be persuaded by the usual means of persuasion, and they don’t care much about evidence if it contradicts or threatens their beliefs. This raises a question or two: why? what can be done with it?

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          To indirectly address your questions, I’d suggest adding Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways of Being Religious”, Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s “Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion” and “Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers”, and Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians” to your reading list.

      • The Other Weirdo

        I am sorry, but I am not up on this new fandangled thingy called “math”. I’m sure it’s just a passing fad, but can you explain to me what you are asking in layman’s terms?

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          Partial ordering refers to where you have a relation comparing A and B. A may be “more than” B, “less than” B, “equivalent to” B, or “incomparable to” B.

          Given an arbitrary set of choices, it’s easy to constructive show the existence of a set of all possible partial orderings — but if there’s more than one element in your set of choices, the set of all possible partial orderings has more than one partial ordering. Knowing that there’s an ordering is one thing, but doesn’t tell which of the possible corresponds to the word in question — here, “merit”. (Dictionaries point to other words like “good” with the same problem, so that’s little help.)

          Absolute orderings involve comparison to an implicit reference point — EG, temperature in Celsius using comparison to the freezing point of water for a zero point.

          So, I’m asking you to make explicit your implicit definition of “merit” and implicit reference point.

  • GCT

    As I read through the book, however, a marked absence made itself more apparent. While Neibuhr documented the various collaborations occurring among religious leaders intent on building a better, more peaceful and cooperative future, I was continually asking myself the same question at every turn: where were the atheists? Had Neibuhr overlooked their involvement or had he found nothing worth recording? The answer, as I was to find out later, is a little of both.

    “Interfaith” is an excuse to do at least one of two things:

    1) Exclude atheists without looking exclusionary

    2) Include atheists and then exclude them from any credit.

    In this book, Prothero puts forward an argument against the popular notion that all religions are simply different paths leading up the same mountain; that, as he says in the introduction, “all religions are beautiful and true.” On can imagine the atheist echo of this simplistic view of world religion in the New Atheist thesis that all religions are ugly and false. Prothero combats this fallacy by offering short lessons in the world’s eight most influential religions and in turn is obliged to make some generalizations of his own to illustrate their profound divergences.

    Fallacy? All religions are false. They are based on faith, which is an inherently faulty way of determining what is true about the world. They all posit things that are either not in evidence or in contradiction to the evidence we have. They are false because they are assertions that are not supported and something even falsified.

    They are also ugly. It is religion that is consistently dragged kicking and screaming to accept new moral ideas of equality. Religion is where anti-gay sentiment lives. Religion is where women are said by god to be inferior. Religion is where racists seek shelter. It is religion where atheophobic bigots strive to strip us of our civil rights. It is religion that needs to be dragged into being more moral by secularists. What is beautiful about that? What is beautiful about making up stories that don’t accord with reality? Sorry, but calling it a fallacy doesn’t quite work.

    I care deeply about this kind of empirical correctness and accord it a lofty position among the many other values I hold dear.

    But in applying Prothero’s framework of problem/solution to myself, I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind.

    It’s a false dichotomy that says one cannot be correct and also concerned with human welfare. Moreover, it’s a false (and religiously privileged idea) to assume that religion is concerned with human welfare.

    It’s a strong atheism that doesn’t feel patronized in such an interaction and that states itself clearly and warmly.

    Except it is patronizing. It is a sentiment full of religious privilege that was forced upon Stedman. It’s nice that he handled it calmly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s “strong” (whatever you mean by that). It can be just as strong to point out the religiously privileged bias that the person is operating under and show them why it does not actually help an atheist to engage in such privilege.

    • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

      Well said. All of it.

    • MrMoto

      In my community there is a very strong Interfaith group. They hold meetings, seminars, public information events, etc. The routinely claim that they also represent atheists.

      In fact, they have refused local atheist groups participation in their activities: requests to be included in meetings, or as board members, or even a seat at panel discussions have been denied. They did briefly appoint a Christian as the “atheism representative”, as that person had some involvement with the local atheist groups. That ended when the Christian decided the involvement was harming their faith.

      I can’t speak in general, but this is my personal experience in trying to bridge the gap between atheism and religion.

    • Marcus

      Hi GCT,

      Thanks for reading my article and for pointing out some areas I might be able to clarify for everyone. I just want to focus on two things:

      The “fallacy” I talk about is the overgeneralization that Prothero critiques. Both Prothero and I are critical of the “all religions are beautiful and true” thesis. Atheists can be guilty of a similar generalization when they group all religions together in the same heap. The main point here is that religiosity is incredibly diverse and we do a disservice to the discussion when we avoid the nuance. Of course I think most religions are false and indeed there’s a lot of ugliness. I’m an atheist. I swear.

      As for the “dichotomy” of correctness and kindness, I don’t think I present one. I ask “to what degree” one value might crowd others. The answer can be not at all or totally or anything in between. Of course, I am obviously suspicious that there’s some negative correlation. Perhaps I could have been more clear that it’s not “correctness” per se that might crowd out other values but the myopic focus on it.

      Thanks again!

      • The Other Weirdo

        But shouldn’t correctness be the first test?

      • GCT

        Atheists can be guilty of a similar generalization when they group all religions together in the same heap. The main point here is that religiosity is incredibly diverse and we do a disservice to the discussion when we avoid the nuance.

        We can certainly group them together on just about every single standard that matters. The main one is that all religions rely upon faith. This makes them wrong. The other standards would be how they actually work in the real world, and once again we see them working to subdue equality, humanity, etc. and how they are not in accord with reality (part of relying upon faith). It’s not an over-generalization to point this out.

        And, I don’t see the value of looking at “nuance” when that “nuance” is generally whether one should think about Genesis as a literal or figurative story. It’s false whichever way you look at it. Give me some evidence that your beliefs have some accord with reality and maybe I’ll start to worry about the nuances.

        As for the “dichotomy” of correctness and kindness, I don’t think I present one.

        I accept that you were not trying to present one, but that is how I read it. What I find is that many atheists have no issue figuring out how to strike a balance between being correct and being compassionate, caring about equality, etc. That’s because those values flow from a rational view of the world for many of us.

        There is no value, however, in faith, when it comes to these questions. What does faith do? How does it help? Anyone who decides that their faith tells them that gays should be treated as people could just as easily decide that god doesn’t want it. Being right by faith is only done by accident. Additionally, no one actually comes to their positions by faith. Just like people who pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow based on an outside influence (morality of the society around them) people pick and choose which things to believe are moral and then claim that their faith informed them. It’s backwards.

      • MrMoto

        The really bad generalization you are making here is that atheism is a world view. It is not. It is a conclusion reached based upon a diversity of world views.

        The common attribute of all atheists is that *all* religions are false, not *most*, as you say. There is no “nuances” to consider, just a false premise on the part of all religions, one that forces them into actions that are either irrelevant or harmful to humanity.

        If they are irrelevant, I don’t care, and if they are harmful, I am against them.

      • Ders

        There’s a Hitchens quote somewhere about how it’s awfully nice that religion is coming to atheists with (albeit only illusory) open arms now that they are weak. We can’t forget what they did when they were strong and dominated. Interfaith cooperation only extends far enough to ensure their own survival and ability to leverage their power against the non-believers. Maybe I’m going to far here, but it’s a point worth making.

        • GCT

          Seems spot on to me.

      • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

        “we do a disservice to the discussion when we avoid the nuance”

        You want to discuss the fine weave of the Emperor’s new clothes, their brilliant colours, the flattering cut of the cloth. You want to debate whether the detailing is pink, or cerise, whether the jacket is full length or three quarters, and what kind of hat would go best with that collar.

        No. The Emperor is naked. There is no nuance.

    • meekinheritance

      Just to be clear, there are atheists who are racists, misogynists and homophobes, just as there are religious people who are not these things. Personally, I think these issues are rooted in evolutionary biology, rather than culture.

      • GCT

        I won’t dispute that there are progressive theists, nor that there are bigoted atheists. The difference lies in the fact that religious doctrines lend themselves quite easily to bigotry, engender it really. It’s much easier to get from A to Bigot.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    There is no value in ‘interfaith’ projects beyond the value that they’d have as secular projects.

    If you want to get a bunch of people together without being religiously exclusive, then you’re acting in a secular manner, not an ‘interfaith’ one. Secularism isn’t atheist, it’s about not bringing religion into places it doesn’t need to be. The only thing added by ‘interfaith’ is the false idea that it’s good to make yourself believing nonsense without evidence.

    Interfaith is a bad thing.

  • newavocation

    From Rev. Dowd, “The New Atheists, by speaking boldly on behalf of our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality, and in condemning superstitious, otherworldly religiosity, are, paradoxically, fullfilling the traditional role of prophets. Historically, religious prophets were those who saw what was real, sensed what was emerging, and then spoke their truth-usually a word of warning. Their message typically went something like this: Align with reality or perish. Prophets in this way facilitate cultural evolution. To use religious language, they do God’s work!”

    • GCT

      Historically, religious prophets were those who saw what was real, sensed what was emerging, and then spoke their truth-usually a word of warning. Their message typically went something like this: Align with reality or perish.

      Yes, because all those prophets had science labs and did experiments and could tell the rubes that Genesis didn’t actually happen in 6 days, or that being gay is not an abomination but a natural thing, etc.

    • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

      This has been patently ridiculous ever since the concept of falsifiability emerged.
      Religious prophets saw what was real? Like the famous one who predated Jesus (Hillel?) that saw that if he drew a circle on the ground and stood in it when he petitioned God that his prayers were more likely to be answered. Give me a break.

  • jose

    Sorry, publicly opposing the bishops is what has worked in Spain. Imagine working with the bishops to reach a consensuated agreement on abortion, we would be Ireland instead of Spain.

    • GCT

      Or working with bishops to stop child abuse…yeah, that’s not gonna work.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    But in applying Prothero’s framework of problem/solution to myself, I have to ask to what degree correctness crowds out other values important to me, particularly that part of me that strives to be kind.

    I’d suggest that the atheist sense of “correctness” tends to neglect the is-ought problem; that is, grammatical, empirical correpondence, and moral orderings are different sorts of “correctness”.

    • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James Lindsay

      This is a good observation. The problem is that different sorts of “correctness” lose viability for the use of that term when they’re disconnected from real-world salience. I thought this observation to be the genius of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, but either people tend to disagree with me about it or (as seems common) misunderstood Harris, despite his clarity.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        I’d say “emotional impact” rather than “viability”, and suggest rather “abstracted from obvious real-world salience”. But that’s mostly quibbling. I also think Harris is careless on precisely this distinction of types. (Hume’s problem is hard.)

        There also seems a trade-off between ease of getting people to understand and precision of message to understand. Harris, while easier to understand, is sloppy on one of the most critical points of philosophy. While it might be useful short-term, the last round of such sloppiness a quarter millennium back seems to have resulted in the current bleating by Catholics and other Christians about gay marriage and abortion being a violation of “Natural Moral Law”. I’d prefer to try avoiding that this round.

  • A3Kr0n

    Wake me up when religion is gone.

  • Pastor Cara

    From a pastor who is a fan, thanks for a great guest post, Hemant. I’m almost afraid to say more because I know my profession, if not also my presence, may be a trigger for many readers. But in my preparations for the coming Sunday, I saw that I wiIll be engaging with one of the best lines (to me) in all of the New Testament. Right at the end of Matthew, the disciples are in the presence of Jesus and “they worshipped, but some doubted.” If doubt happens when Jesus is right in front of you, and you can participate in the community of disciples while doubting, then doubt needs to be a welcome experience in churches. At least, that’s what I’ll be talking about this weekend. I hope you have a good weekend too. Peace.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

      I’m not sure why you think your presence here would be a “trigger” (atheists don’t have PTSD when it comes to religion, LOL) but friendly believers who are interested in genuine and civil conversation are certainly welcome.

      Regarding doubt, a lot of churches say they are on board with doubt, but in my experience it appears that their support is limited to a rather particular type. If it’s the right kind of doubt, it’s supported. I haven’t really seen encouragement of doubt when it comes to most of the foundational assumptions of religion, ie: the assumption of a supernatural realm, the historicity or the morality of Jesus, the veracity of the Bible, etc.

    • GCT

      You may want to re-read that story. Thomas doubts and Jesus rebukes him for it. The message isn’t the doubt is good or even tolerated. The message is that those who don’t doubt are better and the doubters better watch out.

    • Ash

      I think it helps to make a distinction between doubt and skepticism. I suspect that most believers have some degree of doubt about certain religious claims of their faith. But this kind of doubt (which is basically a voice in one’s head saying, “I have a feeling that this might not be true”) is not the same as skepticism, which actually withholds epistemic commitment to a position until adequate evidence is available. In Matthew, Thomas wasn’t just doubtful, he was actually skeptical and demanded evidence, which Jesus then gave him. I’m curious: will you suggest to your parishioners that they follow Thomas’ example by withholding belief until they are given compelling evidence? That would indeed be a breath of fresh air!

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    I found it interesting how you described your “anti-religious fervor”. I’ve never really felt the desire to confront or argue with religious people. If that’s all there is to Stedman’s book, I would not find it helpful. If anything, I feel like I should be more passionate about fighting religion, but I can’t get worked up about it on an emotional level.

    Thanks for the post.

  • http://twitter.com/SheilaCole1989 Sheila Cole

    Has no one even considered that religious pluralism and Interfaith organizations are prime opportunities for atheist organizations to recruit people who really haven’t decided what religion they are? By being a part of these organizations, you have an opportunity to offer an alternative to those who are looking for something they haven’t found yet. I just left a our atheist booth at an Interfaith event and had several people saying that maybe this is what they’ve been looking for all along. They were shocked to know that we were a part of it, but happy.

  • Tak

    I am as interested in how ‘we’ conceive our atheism so it operates effectively within the central value of human kindness as I am in going to an atheist church, that is to put it kindly, not at all. Skepticism informs my attitude toward others and moral framework only in that it requires that I be as empirically correct as possible in my methods. Humanism is where I get my tendency to value all people based on the fact that they’re human beings. I am an atheist (not A+, not New atheist) and all that means is that I don’t believe in gods. I am utterly dismayed by faithiests who seem to think atheism, skepticism, and humanism are synonyms. I am disgusted by their preaching, I am offended by their ignorance, and I am aggravated by their fuzzy wuzzyness. It’s annoying! You want to encourage a kinder, gentler face for atheists that’s great but please appeal to actual beliefs rather than non beliefs.


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