Stedman’s line about “singling out the religious lives of others”

There are just a couple points I want to address in this response to Zach Alexander’s review of Faitheist (which I’ve already commented on). First, Vlad suggests that I read Zach’s review in place of reading the book, which isn’t true. I had already tentatively decided not to read it based on the excerpts, because it felt like I’d seen this show before with Chris Mooney, though Zach’s review did confirm to me that that was the right decision. See these comments, made before reading Zach’s review.

More importantly, I want to respond to this part of Vlad’s post (emphasis added):

The first criticism of Chris’s work is a shallow one, and I’ve read it often enough that it warrants a response. Zach, and a few others, have suggested that Chris throws atheists under the bus, builds bridges with everyone but atheists, wants pluralism except with atheists, and so on. The basic idea is that Chris is a hypocrite. Zach writes, “The most obvious problem is that even as Chris extolls the virtues of religious pluralism, he delivers an anti-pluralist message to his fellow atheists.”

But I’ve never been quite sure where Chris goes out and does this. Near the start of the book, he praises and agrees with the religious critiques of the new atheists (pg. 13). Chris never suggests that atheists ought to be silent or refrain from religious criticism. He never tells atheists that they can’t be a part of his pluralist project. In fact, the atheists he criticizes, myself once included, are reached out to with the same hand Chris gives to the religious. I’ve only ever seen him respond with patience and kindness.

Though Chris does offer critiques of the atheist community a few times throughout Faitheist, they are of specific practices and strategies that he sees as counterproductive, and not indicative of atheists as a whole. The only thing I can think of, then, is a passage from Chris’s controversial Salon excerpt, where he says “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”

The message seems rather clear to me, and frankly not that controversial. Chris is promoting pluralism. Atheists who have as their main focus the destruction of religion are anti-pluralist. It would be bizarre to insist that pluralists work with anti-pluralists in the name of pluralism, just as it would be absurd to ask us to tolerate intolerance in the name of tolerance. These projects necessarily can’t be self-defeating, and it’s a strange critique to complain that they aren’t.

To say the claim 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” is “frankly not that controversial” is frankly kind of insulting–in a “whaddaya think you’re trying to pull?” kind of way. As I’ve pointed out, the natural interpretation of that kind of thing is that Stedman is talking about Dawkins, Harris, et al., so of course that’s going to be controversial.

And the idea of an atheism that “singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target” doesn’t describe any atheists I know of. Atheists who criticize religion generally care about the bad ideas of religion, particularly when they motivate and enable behavior that hurts people. As Greta Christina has written:

Are there secular Jews? Materialists who follow a Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice? Non-believers who participate in the Unitarian community? Yes. Of course. But — and I cannot say this strongly enough — when atheists are talking about religion, THAT’S NOT WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. Most of us don’t care about it. Light a menorah; go to a Unitarian picnic; meditate until your eyes roll back in your head. We don’t care. As long as you don’t think there’s any god, or any soul, or any afterlife, or any sort of supernatural anything… we don’t disagree with you. And we couldn’t care less. Some of us even rather like it . It’s the “belief in the supernatural” part that we think is mistaken. It’s the “belief in the supernatural” part that many of us think does harm .

As for the point about pluralism, people use that word to mean a bunch of different things, which kind of confuses the issue. But to rephrase the criticism of Stedman in without using that word, I take it the point is, “Stedman makes a big deal out of working with religious believers in spite of disagreements, but he doesn’t show as much interest in working with atheists he disagrees with–instead, he dismisses them as ‘toxic’ and caricatures their views.

  • Still Wondering

    What do you think of JT Eberhard calling Stedman a “dishonest little shit”?
    (Comment at the “Friendly Atheist” on Nov. 7)

    • B-Lar

      He isn’t particularly little…

  • eric

    It would be bizarre to insist that pluralists work with anti-pluralists in the name of pluralism, just as it would be absurd to ask us to tolerate intolerance in the name of tolerance.

    The latter is pretty much the foundation of first amendment. Free speech supporters do exactly that, and ask others to do it too. Its not absurd at all.

    Likewise, the pluralist-working-with-nonpluralists comment isn’t absurd either. It is not at all self-defeating for a pluralist to work with a non-pluralist on goals they share in common. Because I guarantee you, there will be a lot of those. For every bus sign A a non-pluralist supports which offends the pluralist, the non-pluralist probably supports signs B-E, volunteer efforts F-M, donation drives N-Z, etc.. that don’t offend the pluralist. Work together on those. If PZ promotes some Red Cross blood drive, is Stedman going to not promote it just because PZ is involved? If that’s what Vlad is suggesting, its silly.

  • Steven Carr

    I think Chris Stedman wants to work with the religious to stop them being as religious as they presently are, and revise their religiously-based opinions on certain subjects. (At least, I can’t see any other goal he has claimed to be working towards)

    Is there anything wrong with that?

    • Paul W., OM

      I don’t think anybody objects to those goals, Steven.
      What we object to is the vilification of atheists who criticize religion bluntly and broadly (including theologically and politically liberal religion).
      Stedman exaggerates the meanness and shallowness of “New Atheists,” to make himself look like the reasonable moderate guy.
      Chris doesn’t want us to say the kinds of “disrespectful” things about religion and religious people that people routinely say about political views and the people who hold them—e.g., that their ideas are stupid.
      We don’t think we should defer to religious beliefs, or “respect” religious believers except to the extent that we generally “respect” people we disagree with.
      We want to “break the spell” of “respect” for crazy religious ideas, including supernaturalism quite generally, not just fundamentalism or orthodoxy.
      Most of us think that it’s good to have people with different approaches and different degrees of “aggressiveness” about promoting atheism.


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