On Chris Stedman: a reply to James Croft

So Chris Stedman has a Salon article (actually an excerpt from his new book) titled “Toxic atheism drives people apart,” which got a bunch of people annoyed, which in turn got James Croft telling all the people annoyed with Stedman how wrong they are, accusing them of failing to “abide by basic standards of intellectual honesty and respond to what he actually writes.”

A lot of James’ post seems to be based around the hypothesis that maybe by “New Atheism,” Stedman means something other than “people like Dawkins and Harris and PZ and Crommunist.” Now, I think “New Atheism” is a horribly inaccurate term that I wish no one would use, but I still recognize that the established usage is “people like Dawkins and Harris and PZ and Crommunist, and James should recognize this too. There’s nothing wrong with Stedman’s critics assuming he meant what people normally mean by “New Atheism.” (Plus, the sentence immediately below the article’s title explicitly mentions Dawkins and Harris, though if I’m being charitable I can imagine that’s Salon’s fault, not Stedman’s).

Beyond that, yes, Stedman’s critics accuse him of thinking things which aren’t explicitly part of the article. But it’s not clear that they’re wrong to do so. As I say in the first chapter of the book I’m currently working on, an awful lot of people object to even mentioning atheism in public (unless it’s to condemn it). So when other people start making incoherent criticisms of atheists, even when they don’t explicitly say they want all atheists to just keep quiet, it makes a lot of sense to suspect that’s what’s going on.

For example, when people get upset about the “incivility” of stating the plain truth about certain holy texts, it’s natural to infer that they really just want to enforce a rule against saying anything bad about religion, ever. And when someone starts going on rather vaguely about how horrible those “New Atheists” are, it’s natural to infer the same thing. (ETA: or, he officially approves of criticizing religion if it’s done “right,” but is so uncomfortable about the whole business that he’s come up with a narrow notion of “doing it right” that very few criticisms of religion will ever fit.)

Soon, I hope to have out a revised version of chapter 3 of the book, which will have a section talking more about this in detail.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/against-the-new-taboo TauriqM

    I’m uncertain what it is that you’re disagreeing with. It seems that if Chris Steadman is throwing all ‘New Atheists’ (which is unhelpful as you say) under his civil bus, if Steadman really does think religion itself deserves some or automatic or greater respect, then yes. But, las Croft highlights, this doesn’t apply to Steadman (at least as conveyed in this article). I think it’s unfair to critique Steadman according to what large numbers of people are assuming he really means, as Moran did – because that’s just asking to make your own Strawman.

    Even in your response here, I’m uncertain what it is that Steadman argues, plus where he has made said argument, that you disagree with. I’d be intrigued to know because so far, I’ve not read justified criticism. As far as I can tell, Steadman is calling for treating religious people with some respect, to not view them as a monolithic entity of backward thinking, etc. If I’m wrong about Steadman’s arguments, then of course I want to know that.

    Thanks for this, Mr H.

    • Chris Hallquist

      What I disagree with? Other than that Dawkins and Harris are “toxic”? Or the (annoying and tired) line that they’re “not helping”? Or that their version of atheism “singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target”?…

      (Granted, I kinda dashed the post of quickly, based on the assumption that people have followed the conversation up to this point.)

      • http://bigthink.com/blogs/against-the-new-taboo TauriqM

        Ah! OK. See this is my problem: I didn’t read it as saying Dawkins and Harris specifically are toxic, but I don’t deny it can be read that way. I also would be against such a claim, since both are excellent and important figures. I read it as saying they’re adding to the atmosphere or something equally vague. Which ties in to the second point: I also think we can agree that if Steadman clarified what he meant by “helping”, we’d be clearer.

        The comments between Ian Cromwell and James Croft are also a good articulation of the problems both and all are having with Steadman’s piece. I actually much prefer that interaction, then any of the posts I’ve seen. Ian points out some good arguments: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2012/10/chris-stedmans-toxic-atheism/#comment-643

        I do have a problem with some of what I think is a major misreading, such as Moran’s. But thanks for replying and providing clarity on this.

  • http://goodgrieflinus.blogspot.co.uk/ Mark Jones

    Looking forward to the revised chapter, but Chris’s name is spelt ‘Stedman’ elsewhere.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Ack! I thought it was “Stedman,” but then I could have sworn I saw it spelled “Steadman” somewhere. Fix’d!

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I agree with Stedman, that we should tread lightly when speaking with believers who are genuinely interested in dialogue, but his article suggests that we shouldn’t criticize religion at atheist events or in the company of other atheists. He’s bothered that an atheist criticized Islam as a violent religion, in the company of other atheists. Stedman’s critique is also incredibly one-sided. I know he’s speaking to other atheists, but in my experience toxic Christians, who believe I’m going to Hell, are a much bigger obstacle in interfaith dialogue than new atheists. (Yes, it’s anecdotal, but so are Stedman’s examples.)

    I’m also concerned with the way this article has been used in my own social networking circles. It was a Christian friend, not an atheist, who posted this link on her facebook page. It was as if she was pointing a finger at atheists and saying, “They’re THE problem!”

    • James Croft

      “his article suggests that we shouldn’t criticize religion at atheist events or in the company of other atheists.”

      Can you say where the extract suggests this?

    • Pseudonym

      I know he’s speaking to other atheists, but in my experience toxic Christians, who believe I’m going to Hell, are a much bigger obstacle in interfaith dialogue than new atheists.

      This is also anecdotal, but in my (extensive, but not comprehensive) experience, any Christian who wants to engage in interfaith dialogue probably doesn’t believe you’re going to Hell. If that assessment is correct, then I seriously doubt that it’s a practical obstacle.

      Having said that, you’re completely right. It’s very hard to see through the forest of pointing fingers on all sides.

      This is just a suggestion, but how about we try to fix ourselves first? Are you (whoever you are) or your attitudes, or your rhetoric, or your demeanour, a barrier to interfaith/transfaith dialogue? If so, what can you do about it?

      I’ll start by lowering my finger, which is currently pointing at… well, it doesn’t actually matter who.

  • James Croft

    “A lot of James’ post seems to be based around the hypothesis that maybe by “New Atheism,” Stedman means something other than “people like Dawkins and Harris and PZ and Crommunist.” ”

    That’s not my point, no. My point is more that he specifies what behaviors he objects to in the extract and that the reasonable response is to ask whether those behaviors are objectionable or not. Further, the extract is from a memoir. Lots of the ridiculous criticism about “did the people say exactly that in exactly that way” is a very silly way to respond to something which is presented explicitly as a memoir.’

    But most galling is the irresponsibility shown by Moran and, thence, PZ: Moran pens a completely fantastical post that has nothing to do with the extract, PZ parrots it and gives it the thumbs-up. Now there’s little chance that anyone reading the extract who have come from PZ or Moran’s site will give it a fiar reading. And, given previous absurd misreadings PZ has propagated, I’m wondering if it’s an error or part of his strategy to marginalize atheist voices he, for whatever reason, has decided to dislike.

    • MNb

      Is PZ the Imperial Wizard of the New Atheist Movement or something? Last time I checked the USA had free speech. If atheist voices PZ dislikes are marginalized it’s because they let themselves get marginalized. If PZ or any other atheist pulls nonsense out if his hat by all means nail him.
      But stop whining about some imagined strategy of margenalizing. That leads nowhere.

      • James Croft

        I have no idea what PZ’s motives are in repeatedly misrepresenting atheist voices he imagines he disagrees with, but it happens frequently and, when challenged, he seems to make little effort to correct the record. If I had promoted a post as inaccurate as Moran’s I would, I think, both edit the original post and write a new post in apology to ensure my readers understood my mistake. If an analysis so wildly off-base and fantastical as this remains uncorrected on his blog one begins to question his motives.

    • Chris Hallquist


      When he’s accusing people of a behavior, you also need to ask whether those accusations are accurate or not. So it matters who he’s referring to by the term “New Atheists” because you need to know who e’s accusing.

    • eric

      So, your post made me go and read the extract, which I hadn’t done. For the record, I didn’t read PZ or Larry Moran’s review of it either.
      1. Its maudlin and poorly written. No, “its a memior” is not an excuse for an author waxing on about a hole in their sock. Umberto Eco can get away with writing for pages about trivial things like a door. But Chris Stedman is no Umberto Eco. When Stedman tries to detail how he felt about some relatively trivial event, he just sounds narcissistic, not deep.
      2. There is no actual argument for the first 3/4 of the extract. In the memoir, this might be forgivable. But he presumably picked the extract that he submitted to Salon. He presumably thought the first 3/4 of his selection was relevant to the point he was trying to make to readers. But its not – so it is perfectly fair to criticize him for making a poor argumnent in his article.
      3. Even the last 1/4 doesn’t really have an argument. Heck, it doesn’t really have any relevant anecdotes. A relevant anecdote would be: Stedman watches an interaction of a gnu with a believer, sees that this does nothing to further understanding or change minds, concludes the gnus are on the wrong track. But thats’ not what we are subjected to. We are subjected to: Stedman talks to gnus. Stedman talks to religious folk. Stedman concludes having never seen or at least never described the two interacting directly that the gnu approach is a bad one.
      4. His own personal anecdotes refute the point he’s trying to make. He wants to make the point that atheists should engage with religious folk on commonalities because discussions of their points of difference do not do anything positive. But then he relates a story about a young Catholic woman coming up and engaging him in conversation. About what? Not his social activist opinions. Not about his homosexuality. No, about his atheism. The one example of direct, positive dialogue between believers and nonbelievers in Stedman’s extract is exactly the sort of dialogue he tells us to avoid. That is a very bad argument.
      5. When he finally gets to an argument, it suffers from confirmation bias. Yes, surveys show that evangelicals are growing – but those same surveys show that the number of “unaligned” is growing too. Yet Stedman only mentions the group growth that supports his point, not the one that doesn’t. He mentions Africa as an area of growing religiosity, but does not mention Europe as an area of lessening religiosity.
      6. And finally, after all this buildup, he ends by merely asserting that gnu atheism is toxic to this dialogue. None of the data or anecdotes he’s presented before the end of the article is actually about gnu interactions with religious people. None of it is about the impact of bus ads, or Dawkins’ books, or Harris’ statements, or PZ’s blog. At the end of his long personal statement, we get nothing but an unsupported claim.

  • MNb

    I intensely dislike the Stedman article. It’s all about him, him, him and how he feels. For one thing I don’t see the problem. So what if you don’t like a bunch of radical so called “New Atheists”? Move on and find yourself a place and people you do like. That’s what I did – as an outspoken atheist I live in the very religious community of Moengo, Suriname, btw a religiously more diverse country than the USA. We have about everything here, including retard American fundies.
    If I’m a New Atheist or an accommodist, I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. I am a happy atheist where I live, that’s what counts.
    So my advise to Stedman: move on. The world is big enough and there are many way more useful things to do than whining about those nasty New Atheists.

    • James Croft

      It’s his memoir. Of course it’s about him. Are these joke criticisms? The comments get more ridiculous by the hour.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carynriswold Caryn Riswold

    I find this ‘debate’ or ‘discussion’ and the vehemence against Stedman very interesting. I’ve read the whole book in advance of next week’s publication, and wrote about it here … not that this is likely to change some people’s views, but here’s what I think about “The Many Gifts of Faitheist” … http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carynriswold/2012/10/the-many-gifts-of-faitheist/