Zach Alexander’s review of Faitheist

On Twitter, I mentioned that this review by Zach Alexander of Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist “has me thoroughly convinced not to read it.” Zach tweeted back asking, “did you at least agree with the more positive sections?” and I’ve decided to go ahead and give a blogpost-length reply.

Here’s the first positive bit:

Here are its most persuasive messages: (i) we should collaborate with religious people to achieve shared goals, and (ii) we should be more respectful of the religious to accelerate our acceptance into the mainstream and grow our numbers. And beyond that, it so drips with peace, love, and understanding that you can’t help coming away with an enhanced feeling of engagement and respectfulness purely on their own terms.

This is a hard sell for atheist audiences. But with the right caveats and qualifications (see below), I think these are incredibly important points, and that this is an important book for raising them.

I have no trouble endorsing (i), but the idea of outspoken atheists who oppose collaboration with the religious is, as far as I can tell, a straw man. That means (i) isn’t a hard sell at all. And (ii) might be unobjectionable, though it depends a lot on what you mean by it. There’s both the issue of what you mean by “respect” and whether it’s really true that atheists aren’t showing enough of it, and without more specifics it’s hard to comment on Zach’s claim.

Next, after pointing out some of Stedman’s flaws, Zach says that as a result of those flaws, Stedman’s reception in the atheist community has rather resembled a scene from The Spimpsons:

In an episode from season 8, the residents of Springfield are huddled on the edge of a forest, waiting in the twilight for an alleged alien that Homer had previously sighted there. Suddenly – a pale, slender, luminous figure emerges from the trees, and says in a soft, mellifluous voice:

“I bring you….. LOVE!”

The response: “It’s bringing love, don’t let it get away!” “Break its legs!”

And shamefully, some attacks on Chris are almost this unhinged – and of the calmer ones, many lack a careful reading of his actual words, as has been argued by my friend James Croft. (Who, incidentally, I was looking forward to appearing in the buff with, before the Secular Woman calendar was cancelled.) I don’t agree with James on every point – he’s too hard on Larry Moran, for example, and in general I think he reads Chris a bit more charitably, and his critics a bit less, than he would if they weren’t friends. But on the whole, he is right that there’s a concerning pattern of anti-Stedman criticism untethered from Chris’s actual words. Which reflects poorly on a movement that claims to value evidence-based reasoning.

So, to set the record straight: yes, Chris really is an atheist. No, he doesn’t think atheists should completely shut up. And yes, he really does criticize religion.

I’m curious to know the details here. Which attacks on Stedman are “almost this unhinged”? What does Zach agree with James on? What does he disagree on? Without that context, I don’t know how to respond, except to reiterate what I’ve previously said, that Stedman strikes me as someone who’s deeply uncomfortable with this whole “criticizing religion” business, and therefore always finds it horrible unless it’s done according to whatever very narrow standards make him happy.

After this, Zach talks about working with Christians to publish stories of closeted LGBTQ students at a Christian liberal arts college:

The publication’s editorial tone has been consistently respectful – not haranguing the administration for being homophobic (even though it arguably is) or vilifying the students for being intolerant of nonbelievers (even though many of them are). Why? Because that would accomplish very little, beyond gratifying our sense of moral indignation. Our goal has been to increase the quality of life of marginalized students – and in this case, we think the best way to accomplish that is not pouring vitriol upon people, but appealing to the better angels of their nature.

It was in precisely that spirit that I wrote the most recent issue’s closing essay (which Chris highly praised), calling for the college to be more accepting of nonbelievers, in gentle prose more full of Biblical allusions than a Left Behind novel. Believe me – every Hitch-loving bone in my body wanted to let loose, and write a scathing indictment of the college’s unjust, discriminatory policies, and their absurd, mythological worldview. And there is a time and place for that critique. But there are also times and places for moderation, for seeking common ground instead of burning bridges. And this is one of them.

Because even though Gordon remains staunchly evangelical, I know firsthand that there are good, decent people among the faculty and administration, who don’t want any of their students feeling marginalized and persecuted. That, for what it’s worth, is meaningful common ground.

Does this mean every atheist needs to do this kind of work? Of course not. To each their own. But it’s tremendously important that some of us do it – and that we aren’t dismissed as fakes for our trouble.

 [snip]

Rational progress takes place on multiple fronts: not just when people leave religion, but also when religious institutions and people themselves become more humane and reasonable. (And secular ones, for that matter.) Both are important – I am gladdened not only by the news that record numbers of Americans are nonreligious, but also the news that the Episcopal Church is slowly coming to support gay marriage and transgender inclusion, and that the Catholic Church has become ever-so-slightly less batshit insaneon condom use.

If you still aren’t convinced, consider the concept of harm reduction in public health. Given that opiate addiction will not be eliminated overnight, it is prudent to give addicts access to clean needles, lest they catch or transmit diseases, further harming themselves and society at large. Given that religion will be with us for the foreseeable future, it is worthwhile to work with – even within – religious communities to rein in their tendencies towards tribalism, xenophobia, and irrationality, support their more positive traits, and show them that atheists are good, normal people.

I think this is a very good point. There’s a big part of me that wants to say, “Look, the whole ‘playing along with religion’ thing may have made sense in the 16th or 17th century, but is it really necessary in this day and age? I think we’re really at the tipping point, where if we just get rid of this silly taboo against criticizing religion, we in the US can become as secular as Western Europe.”

But I have to admit, we aren’t there yet. And until we are there, this “harm reduction” approach has the potential to do a lot of good. It’s not entirely clear to me how much that has to do with Stedman’s work, though, since I mainly hear from him when he’s being obnoxious towards other atheists.

Now I’ve shown you readers all the nicer parts of the review, but on balance the review comes off as pretty negative. The subheading asks, “I should be a poster-boy for Chris Stedman’s vision of atheist-religious dialogue. So why am I so disappointed by his book?” and in places it comes off as totally scathing, for example describing Stedman as showing “signs of incipient narcissism.” That, combined with the fact that I’ve seen this show before in the form of Chris Mooney, makes me not inclined to bother with the book.

Ironically, I’m slightly more curious about the book having read Russell Blackford’s much briefer comments on his blog, which amount to “nice memoir, but it could have benefited from cutting a few pages in the editing process.” Sadly, though, my reading list is long as ever, so I’m not likely to find time for this one.

  • Nox

    The tendency to describe events by how they made Chris Stedman feel, instead of describing what happened, fits with the narcissism diagnosis.

    And no, Stedman does not criticize religion. What Stedman does is criticize the side effects of religion while endorsing their source. And complaining that anyone criticizing the institution that leads to all these problems is making it harder for him to work with christians to oppose the symptoms of christianity.

  • eric

    I think I disagree with you on taking a soft approach regarding (ii). Here’s why: IMO the real problem is not that disrespect of religion is socially unacceptable, its that a lot of people are bigoted against non-believers. Religious people publicly disrespect each other’s religions all the time. Its normal and perfectly socially acceptable for a Catholic to attack Protestanism, or a Protestant to attack Catholicism, or any flavor of christian to attack Islam – heck, that last is practically a daily news occurrence. It is simply not true that the act of attacking someone else’s religious beliefs is socially unacceptable; what matters to people is who is doing the attacking. Religious people can do it – that’s socially acceptable. Atheists cannot. That’s bigotry, plain and simple.

    Look, if Christians demanded that (only) left-handed people or brown-eyed people be respectful of their beliefs, would you say ‘yes, we should go along with that until society improves’? No, that’s sheer bigotry. Such beliefs should be brought out into the light, confronted, and discussed. Even if it makes the belief-holder uncomfortable. A subtle social rule that says righties can criticize but lefties cannot should not be accommodated. What is socially acceptable for righties to do should be socially acceptable for lefties to do, and we should fight for that equality, not accommodate the inequality. What is socially acceptable for blue-eyed people to do should be socially acceptable for brown-eyed people to do, and we should not accommodate that inequality either. What is socially acceptable for a protestant to do should be socially acceptable for an atheist to do, and – well, you know the rest. Thankfully, the first two examples are silly and fake. But the last one is not.

  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander

    Hi Chris,
    I want to talk more about engagement with religion as harm reduction, but first your questions:

    (i) Re: straw man – I concede you may be completely right. I’m not particularly up on the atheist blogosphere, and so in writing that, I probably had in mind some of the more meanspirited commenters at Pharyngula, for example, which aren’t representive of the considered opinions of the atheist community as a whole, nor PZ himself. In the past few days, reading reactions to the book/my review of it, and old debates, I’ve been realizing the community is actually a lot more on board with this point than I had thought, and in that sense, this part of the book isn’t a radically novel perspective – though I still think it’s an underappreciated one.

    (ii) On engaging the religious with respect, I show specific examples in the two stories I tell, although it’s true I don’t spell it out in abstract terms. I don’t think the precise meaning of respect is really the issue, though – the issue is what does “we should” mean. Chris seems to mean “everybody should always,” where I mean it more loosely, as “some of us sometimes,” and “more of us more often.”

    On unhinged attacks on Chris, I found this one pretty offensive, for the same reasons James did. Not because it’s literally saying “break his legs,” but because the author seems to be reacting so emotionally that he has taken leave of his senses and his obligation to substantiate his claims from the text, and instead hurls serious accusations (e.g. racism) based on spurious evidence. There’s plenty to disagree with Chris about without stooping this low.

    On where I agree with James more broadly, I agree first of all with the basic point I cited in the review, and elements of all four linked posts of his. If you want some specifics, I agree that “accomodationism” is a hopelessly confused term; that PZ is being hyperbolic in saying Chris “treats atheism as inexcusable” (he doesn’t; he treats antireligious atheism as inexecusable, and I disagree with him there, but those are two different things), or that he “everywhere makes excuses for religion” (many places, but not everywhere).

    If you’d like some specifics on where I disagree with James, as I said, I think he was too hard on Larry Moran here. Larry wasn’t engaging with Chris’s words as closely as I would like, but I think his basic point was still a good one: that it’s a double standard to privilege religion by claiming, as Chris seems to, that criticism of religious beliefs should only be done respectfully and in the context of relationship, while we hold political debate and aesthetic criticism to no such standard. That was Larry’s point, as I read him, and while he was a bit sloppy in his exegesis and phrasing, I think it’s a valid point. I also am unconvinced that James’s interpretation (further down in the same blog post) of Chris’s “toxic” statement is correct; the italicized phrase to me seems like Chris is simply describing the New Atheism, rather than carefully delineating a subset of it.

    All that being clarified —

    I’m glad you appreciated the “harm reduction” analogy. And I feel the same way, wishing we were at the tipping point, but knowing we aren’t there yet.

    But I think this has *plenty* to do with Chris’s work.

    Yes, you most often hear from him when he’s “being obnoxious towards other atheists,” and that’s exactly the behavior the critical half of my review was trying to talk him out of, or at least, get him to do more productively. (If it was clearer that he shared our values, and he weren’t conflating us with fundamentalists, and he were proposing we join “secular-interfaith” work instead of “interfaith” work, and so on, he would still be controversial, but I think more people would give him a more sympathetic hearing. I know I would.)

    But writing isn’t the entirety of how he spends his time. As far as I can tell, the bulk of his time at his day job is spent building bridges with religious communities, largely with the aim of engaging in service projects, like a Thanksgiving meal-packing event this weekend I’m planning to attend. I don’t know the details of what religious groups he’s interacting with, nor am I particularly interested, but I think this meshes with the “harm reduction” concept I’m talking about. To the extent that a Boston-area mosque spends its time packing Thanksgiving meals with atheists and Christians and Sikhs, doing positive work and talking with people of different perspectives, it isn’t solely dwelling on the more negative aspects of Islam that we would both be concerned about.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Oh yeah. That argument about racism was awful, I hadn’t seen it before.

      Other stuff… you may be right. I don’t know.

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  • MNb

    “we should be more respectful of the religious”
    I am as respectful of the religious as the religious are of me.
    Today someone accused atheists of lying in general and wrote about an anti-religious conspiracy. And I read a comment by an Irish bishop on the death of that woman who was denied an abortion.
    Yeah, good idea to be “more respectful” to such bigots.

  • They Live

    JT Eberhard called Stedman a “dishonest little shit” over on The “Friendly” Atheist blog.

    How ironic.

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