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.
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.