Why “faitheist” Chris Stedman is so obnoxious

I said I wasn’t going to say any more about Chris Stedman, but Hemant recently posted an exclusive excerpt with an intro that I feel needs a response:

Chris Stedman is an atheist.

He works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, where he is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain, and blogs at NonProphet Status.

And he’s the subject of a hell of a lot of negative blogposts… mostly because he believes strongly in the interfaith movement and that atheists ought to participate in it — and that the kind of “New Atheism” that tears down and mocks religion without offering anything in its place is bad for our movement as a whole. (I know, I know, how dare he suggest we find common ground with religious people without compromising our own values? Criticize ideas instead of people?! Ridiculous.)

I haven’t followed Stedman and his critics super-closely, but you don’t have to have seen much of the debate to realize this is a crude caricature of Stedman’s critics. To take just the issue of interfaith, here’s JT on Stedman’s interfaith work:

I have no issue with Chris’s interest in Interfaith (my personal misgivings about the enterprise, which pretty much mirror those of PZ Myers, aside).  My gripes are precisely what I said: I feel he shields religion.  Contrary to what Conrad said, I do not care if Chris Stedman criticizes religion.  I do not care because I do not demand that others criticize religion.  What I do expect is for those on my side not to play sentinel when others do make valid criticisms of religion.

You can read more of JT’s criticisms of Stedman here and here. Or, look at this post by Jen McCreight, which criticizes the “interfaith” label, but doesn’t remotely oppose finding common ground with religious people. Frankly, I’m surprised at Hemant, and think he owes Stedman’s critics some apologies.

But since Hemant isn’t the only atheist who can’t understand why Stedman is so disliked, I think it’s worth saying a it more about that. I’m just going to focus on what’s been posted in the excerpts from his new book, starting with a sentence from this excerpt that I had overlooked when I first read it: “With divisive religious fundamentalism on the rise, reactionary atheism that fixates on making antireligious proclamations is creating even more division.”

Now what is this saying? “Antireligious proclamations” calls up an image of rhetorical pomposity on the atheist’s part, but I don’t think pomposity is a particular sin of popular atheism. That suggests all Stedman really means by the phrase “making antireligious proclamations” is “saying things critical of religion.”

And “fixates” makes it sound like an unhealthy obsession that gets in the way of doing other things, but who does that describe? Dawkins had a three-decade career as a science writer before The God Delusion and went on to write more great science books after it. Harris got his start with two anti-religion books, but has since gone on to write books about philosophy and neuroscience (three so far, with more I suspect on the way). Even PZ Myers takes time off from bashing religion to post science cartoons and cephalopods.

So it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that by “fixates” Stedman means “does quite a bit,” and “fixates on making antireligious proclamations” means “frequently says things critical of religion.” Hemant, you agree there’s nothing wrong with that, right? Stedman appears to think there is. That… or he’s complaining about how everything is being ruined by a category of atheists that doesn’t actually exist.

This is one of the frustrations of reading a certain kind of anti-atheist literature. The critic starts out by saying how those horrible atheists are ruining everything… and then when you point out their argument wouldn’t be a fair criticism of any prominent atheist you can think of, it turns out that it’s some other, totally unknown, atheists who are ruining everything. (How a small group of atheists no one has ever heard of could have the power to ruin everything is never clear.)

Out of the excerpt posted on Hemant’s blog, there’s one paragraph in particular I want to pick on: 

When I go out and speak with religious individuals and communities about atheism, the most common feedback I get is that many people have had very negative experiences with atheists. I hasten to reassure them that the majority of atheists are just like everyone else — kind, generous, interested in living lives of meaning and purpose — and that the image of atheists as mean-spirited, nihilistic, and intolerant is a stereotype. But the increasingly vocal and vitriolic subset of the atheist community has made my work of persuading people to abandon their negative preconceptions of atheists a lot more difficult, and it makes it possible for religious people who don’t know many or any atheists to tokenize me and others doing similar work — to see us as the exceptions, to see me as the “one good atheist.” This is the opposite of what I and others are trying to accomplish, and it frustrates me that some atheists enable and perpetuate the widespread mistrust of atheists.

Has Stedman been paying attention? We live in a country where many religious believers think it’s “offensive” for atheists to publicly announce our existence, and “intolerance” if they get criticized for opposing gay rights or thinking all Jews are going to burn in Hell. Once, I participated in a campus atheist group’s “ask an atheist” day, and one guy came up to us and informed us we were being “militant” by giving people a chance to ask us questions. When believers complain about their bad experiences with atheists, this is something that can’t be taken at face value.

As for being tokenized as the “one good atheist,” Stedman should know that that’s happened to me too, even though I don’t hold back at all in my criticism of religion. And here’s a quote from the first comment from that post:

My favorite example is how the Times of London praised Stephen Hawking’s recent remarks about a godless universe by contrasting him to Dawkins. The slam on Dawkins was unnecessary and gratuitous, of course, but look at it another way: A famous physicist came out and publicly said that one of the most cherished beliefs of billions of people was silly and unnecessary, and the relatively conservative Times praised him for it — but only because they could contrast him with their punching bag Dawkins.

What’s going on here is just this: it’s not, contrary to what Stedman implies, that most atheists (or even most atheists that believers have contact with) are bad. It’s that religious believers have prejudices about atheists that they want to justify, and if it’s convenient to acknowledge one atheist as “the good atheist” to better bash other atheists by contrast, they’ll do that, even if there’s no meaningful difference between their chosen token and the atheists they’re bashing. I’ve seen Bretrand freaking Russell used in the “good atheist” role, for crying out loud! Russel! (For those who don’t know, he once called religion “a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”)

When Stedman uncritically repeats the statements of religious believers about those nasty “New Atheists,” he does far more to perpetuate stereotypes about atheists than Dawkins has ever done.