A Lengthy Response to Zach Alexander

A Lengthy Response to Zach Alexander November 14, 2012

Just a quick note: this post shouldn’t be taken as representative of Chris or his views. He’s been keeping abreast of his critics and has been thinking carefully about the points they raise. But he is also quite busy with obligations surrounding the release of his book and his work organizing this weekend’s upcoming Humanist Community at Harvard Values In Action event, which is working to pack 40,000 meals for food-insecure children. In the meantime, why not check out the project and consider donating here.

Zachary Alexander wrote a review of Chris’s book, Faitheist, and it has gotten a fair amount of attention in the online atheist community. There are a lot of nice things to say about the post, and in fact I find much of it to be a compelling personal narrative that, for the most part, is completely in line with and in support of Chris’s message and project. I’d recommend reading Dan Fincke at Camels and Hammers for a brief treatment of some relevant portions, as well as an interesting comment discussion.

As a review and as a fair, thoughtful treatment of Chris’s book, however, I think the review fails thoroughly (though, bizarrely, his Amazon review I think fares much better). And I honestly find this to be a shame, because the rest of the review—a good 80% of it—is so touching and engaging. However, I think almost all of the criticisms, both big and small, fail. They suffer from uncharitable reading, and they serve only to reinforce current misconceptions about Chris and his work. So I’d like to take this chance to recommend a read of Zach’s piece with some caveats—read it for the story but realize much of his arguments against Chris are misguided or false. Because Zach’s review is rather large, and there’s a lot I want to address, I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this post. But I think these points are important and worth addressing.

Hypocrisy and the limits of pluralism

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.

I’ve seen a lot of atheists critique this project as hostile to many atheists, and they say it is tantamount to stabbing atheists in the back. PZ Myers recently made a point like this in response to Zach’s piece (in what is actually one of the better treatments of Chris’s positions I’ve seen from PZ). But I’m still not quite sure what the problem is supposed to be. Chris has something he wants to promote, sees certain practices to be harmful, and he says as much rather respectfully.

Isn’t that exactly what antitheists do, and would have Chris do, to the religious? Isn’t it, at this point, something of atheist canon to say that honest criticism is how we show respect to those we disagree with? And isn’t a hallmark of a strong community that it can withstand internal criticism?

It’s absurd to suggest that Chris has somehow crossed a line by criticizing atheists he thinks are wrong, while showing not even a fraction of the vitriol I’ve seen poured on to the religious (or on to Chris) by some bloggers. And this strikes me as a clear double standard: should we expect Chris to play nice with antitheists, instead of criticizing them, so as not to hurt their feelings? Isn’t that exactly the attitude towards the religious (falsely) attributed to Chris and criticized so eagerly by those same bloggers?

If Chris’s arguments are wrong and pluralism is a bad thing, or his arguments against antitheism fail, then that should be the critique of his work. But the critique that Chris is at fault for criticizing atheists or not including anti-pluralists in a pluralist project is one that I have a difficult time taking seriously. And I think, ultimately, if atheists insist on dealing in criticism, they should accept it in return without crying foul.

Post-nothing, or down with secular Shibboleths.

The second criticism I find nearly as frustrating. Zach suggests that Chris doesn’t share the same epistemic values as most atheists. Chris is somehow “post-truth,” only concerned with the feelings of religious believers and not with how right they are. It is strange that Zach acts as if this idea—that Chris and other mainstream atheists diverge on certain core values—is some kind of revelation. I’m pretty sure Ophelia Benson has been saying as much for years, and the difference in values came to the forefront last December when Chris responded to Greta’s blog post detailing the values of the atheist movement—an exchange Zach references, bizarrely enough.

What’s novel, though, is that Zach isn’t claiming Chris doesn’t properly prioritize epistemic values; rather, he suggests that Chris only superficially shares them, if at all. Zach writes:

“[Chris] values compassion and social justice to a remarkable, exemplary degree, yet places almost no value on the epistemological virtues near and dear to most in the atheist movement, such as rationality, skepticism, and the scientific method.”

Zach goes so far as to compare Chris to a restaurant critic who writes exclusively about ambiance and service, leaving out any mention of how the food tasted—suggesting that the only thing atheists do and ought to care about is whether or not religious claims are true. Zach writes:

It explains why he is so hypocritical about pluralism and respect – he simply does not see much value in the epistemic goals of the “New Atheists,” seeing only the hurt feelings they cause, and the interfaith work they could be doing instead. Granted, if Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were going around offending people for no higher purpose, Chris would be right to call their work “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.” But they aren’t. And he isn’t.

But this strikes me as an extremely bizarre critique, considering right at the start of the book (pg. 13), Chris writes:

Although I believe that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs, some of these critiques have also often neglected to account for the full range of religious expression and have resulted in segregation that has parsed the religious and the secular into opposing camps.”

Chris not only expresses agreement and support with these atheists epistemically, but makes clear that he has problems with their reductive view of religion and tendency toward encouraging tribalism. Chris throughout the book makes no effort to hide that he agrees with atheist criticisms of religion or thinks that many religious claims are wrong. Whether he makes that the forefront of his engagement with the religious is another issue—Zach complains that Chris focuses too much on eliminating suffering but not ignorance, and to that I ask, if eliminating ignorance doesn’t make the world a better place then what’s the point?—but to claim that Chris is somehow post-truth because of this is absurd. Zach writes:

Perhaps I missed a blog post where Chris explains how he does, in fact, care about all these things. But until I see him wax poetic about the scientific method, or exhibit some passion for the theory of evolution, or at least confess his abiding love for Star Trek: The Next Generation– color me skeptical.

Reading this and the section preceding it, it’s difficult for me not to get the impression that the real issue here is that Chris just didn’t use the word “reason” enough in his book. The problem is that Chris is seen as not acting or talking like other atheists—he hasn’t publicly expressed his appreciation for Star Trek (neither have I), he doesn’t talk at length about reason and rationality (neither do I), and he doesn’t unnecessarily praise Darwin or measure anything in KiloSagans (and neither do I). But that has absolutely nothing to do with one’s feelings about epistemology (and I have some pretty strong feelings about epistemology).

So this critique strikes me as so strange. Chris isn’t in lock-step with freethinkers’ jargon and that’s a problem? Can’t there be value in communicating our ideas in various ways, or appealing to different values for different audiences? I won’t speak for Chris, but the reason I don’t talk about Logic and Reason and skepticism or freethought is because they strike me as such obvious and vacuous Shibboleths, signaling little more than group inclusion.

It’s not often that you see an atheist who has taken a formal logic class, studied Bayesian statistics, learned basic philosophy of science and research methods, or made an effort to minimize cognitive biases. Not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s rare enough that appeals to logic, reason, and the scientific method more often than not strike me as hollow. More so, a Catholic like Leah Libresco has put in far more effort than any given atheist, I’d wager, at living out and applying those epistemic values Zach is so fond of—certainly more than I have. Which brings me to my next point: that having these as the values of atheism sends either an implicit (or in many cases a very vocal) message that believers don’t share them. Something which I hope readers will realize is obviously false.

I can’t speak to why Chris doesn’t use that language, but I hope through sharing my own case that it’s clear that, even if you think I’m wrong about my reasons, a failure to pay lip-service to the atheist establishment doesn’t suggest a neglect for epistemic values. Nor does valuing compassion primarily, either in everyday life or philosophically, suggest that someone doesn’t care about what’s true. I’ve seen nothing written by Chris anywhere to suggest that he is, as Zach suggests, a “post-truth atheist.”


I’ve covered the two main points I wanted to address, but the rest of the review struck me as having a lot of smaller errors, as well as some unnecessary cruelty. As such, this might delve into the petty and the minute, but I think it’s important to not let these little jabs go uncorrected. A lot of people are reading Zach’s blog post, seemingly in place of Chris’s book—and many, like Chris Halquist and his commenters, are walking away with the wrong impression.

On the cruelty front: in a review that James Croft praised for being “sensitive and thorough,” Zach writes that “I recommend [Chris] first master the skill of stringing words together into meaningful sentences,” based on the following quote from the book:

Until those of us who do not believe in God are seen as having an equal capacity to be moral, anti-atheist remarks will continue to perpetuate discrimination and atheists will be seen as less moral than the religious.” (pg. 152)

Zach said that “at times I felt like I was a TA again, grading a third-rate undergraduate philosophy essay,” but I hope he had enough comprehension at the time to realize that the passage taken in context, rather than being tautologous, suggests that, until we build relationships with religious believers who will then be our allies, anti-atheist prejudices will go uncorrected. And unless Zach is advocating we convince people of our morality by yelling at believers, Chris’s point strikes me as a completely normal and comprehensible one to make.

On the topic of reading comprehension, Zach criticizes Chris for being “so deeply offensive as to compare antireligious atheists to fundamentalists (pgs. 149-150)” but Chris didn’t do that. On those pages he quoted two authors expressing broader points, including the comparison, but Chris rebukes that aspect right after, saying “Neither of these writers gets it exactly right. After spending several years deeply embedded in the atheist movement, I know there is no consensus on atheism, nor do I think that the intolerance that proliferates in the atheist movement is equivalent to religious extremism.”

Zach also misreads or misrepresents Chris to paint him as expressing “incipient narcissism.” Zach criticizes Chris for calling himself humble, but Chris didn’t—the passage in question (pg. 162) says Chris’s confidence was humbled. Zach also chastises Chris for having the hubris to compare himself to Moses, a claim that’s false or at best misleading—Chris said (pg. 131) that he identified with Moses’s feeling of apprehension and insignificance at taking on a task, acknowledging that his own task was “not so immense, of course.”

Lastly, in what Zach describes as the “single most baffling, dumbfounding fact of the book,” he expresses incredulity that:

a professional atheist could, with a straight face, ask nonreligious, faithless people to engage themselves in “religious pluralism” and “interfaith work” – a hard enough sell as it is –without making the slightest attempt to find more atheist-inclusive terms for these activities. There are no words.

Actually there are a lot of words. Words that perhaps Zach skipped over when reading, because Chris addressed this point at length. So let me just quote part of the relevant passage (pgs. 174-175).

After saying that he “fully acknowledge that the language of ‘interfaith’ is imperfect, clunky, and can feel exclusive to many nonreligious people” Chris writes:

I believe that change will come from within—that by participating in interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly. This has certainly been true of my experiences in the interfaith movement. . .  When I first began to work with [an interfaith group], they went by the name Social Action Ministries. Soon, however, we began a discussion about their name. Before long, they decided to change it to Social Action Massachusetts”

So rather than being indifferent, as Zach implies, Chris is saying something along the lines of “I realize the language is problematic, but right now the action is more important. Worry about the name later, because the language has historically become more inclusive, it will become more inclusive in the future, and it will be easier to accomplish this change if we get involved.”

In sum, I think there is a lot to value in Zach’s review, but not a lot pertaining to Chris. I think a lot of Chris’s positions have been misrepresented and treated unfairly—not just by Zach but a lot of other bloggers, too. Zach’s review reinforces lazy and shallow stereotypes of Chris and his work, and I hope I have gone some way towards correcting them.


Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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