When Atheists Attack: Reasonless Schism

Update: Jen McCreight has made it clear that her disagreement is not so much with Chris Stedman’s recent article as with interfaith activists she has encountered in the past. She has edited her post to make this clearer, and I am providing this update to let people know that she thinks deeply about these issues and has done for a long time, and that her disagreement is of a qualitatively different kind to that expressed by some commenters at Butterflies and Wheels and elsewhere.

Have you ever seen that movie “Piranha 3D”? It’s an idiotic horror film taking advantage of 3D film technology to provide jump-inducing super-piranha swarms (“they swim right at you!”) and gratuitous shots of girls in bikinis. It’s also what popped into my mind when observing the response of parts of the atheist community to an article by one of their own.

I have so far stayed out of the ridiculous battle between “firebrand” and “diplomats” – I find it wearisome and often unproductive, and consider myself quite capable of being diplomatic when necessary, and fiery when appropriate. But today the internecine conflict scraped the bottoms of barrels buried so deep in the muck that it is amazing anyone was able to find them. The catalyst? As so often, Chris Stedman, and a new article at the Huffington Post.

Full disclosure: Chris is a friend and colleague. This is both a benefit and a liability. I cannot be expected to be entirely impartial in this matter, as Chris matters to me as an individual. At the same time, I am close to his work and know his intentions in a way which many commentators are not. So I can add something to the debate.

The article in question argues that Humanists have a “obligation to serve”, and describes in detail a Humanist service trip that Chris, I and others attended during Spring Break this year (I wrote about it here). It then describes a community service project I also attended which followed the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference. All this is uncontroversial stuff – engaging, interesting, worthwhile. And it comprises about half the article.

But then Chris steps into dangerous waters – he dares to make a suggestion to other Humanists! In the context of hoping that more people will attend service events attached to Humanist conferences in the future, he asks “Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people’s mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge — but not yet enough about love and compassion.”

He then goes on to suggest that, if the Humanist community seems more interested in discussing values rather than enacting them, we will seem hypocritical when we criticize faith communities, who seem to engage in more “good works” than secular individuals (he cites good evidence for this claim). He says that “Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we’ve got no business saying that “religion poisons everything.””

Piranhas, descend! Chris has called for the abandonment of reason and the triumph of the religious sensibility! And he’s preachy and missioning to boot! Don’t tell me what to do, Stedman, with your tattoos and your ear gauges! I will be just as mean as I want to religious people and you won’t be the one to stop me!  And anyway, if it’s something called interfaith I don’t want anything to do with it! And you’re not a real atheist anyway!

This is, I’m ashamed to say, only the slightest caricature of the reaction that Chris’ post has received from some quarters. Ophelia Benson, in a rather measured post at Butterflies and Wheels, writes that service work is “not the only way to make the world a better place, and it’s not something everyone wants to do, and the reasons for that are not just laziness or callousness or worldly ambition.” And she’s absolutely right. Her commenters, however (and this is a trend that is easily observed if you browse a few posts) are less balanced.

One calls Stedman’s call for service work an act of “quiescence” to the religious. How this is the case is, as usual with such comments, left unclear. Another suggests that Chris has a “personality flaw/quirk” which drives him to “lord it over everyone else that they aren’t doing it right”.  One calls Chris a “chameleon”, and seems to seriously suggest he has bamboozled a previous critic into being an admirer with a “mind trick”.  A final example, in the most insensitive move conceivable, suggests that the idea that Humanists should demonstrate their values through service is like Jews “doing good things” to prove to Christians that they are not “greedy, body part stealing, rats”.

You couldn’t make it up.

Meanwhile, over in less febrile corners of the internet, Jen McCreight, an excellent atheist blogger, also takes issue with Chris’ stance. She has the usual problems with the term “interfaith” (it has the word “faith” in it, and atheism and Humanism are not “faiths”), but also seems to think that Chris’ article advocated that “debaters and the intellectuals need to shut up and just sing kumbaya with religion”. Only a monumental misreading of the post could give rise to this conclusion. Chris asks no one to “shut up” – he simply advocates a shift in priorities toward more action and less talk. So why the reaction, which seems to be taken as an almost personal affront? Certainly, McCreight has had dealing with Chris before, and the source of her disagreement comes from more than just this article. But this doesn’t seem to justify the strength of feeling behind the reaction.

Now don’t get me wrong – you can disagree with Chris and his concept of Humanism. Hell, I do – I’ve expressed real skepticism regarding the place of Humanists in interfaith endeavors, for example (see here and here), and I think his use of the strange neologism “rejectionist atheist” is unfortunate. I have no idea what it means, and we need no further labels, thank you. But I hope my disagreement is based on a generous understanding of what Chris actually wants and is trying to achieve, not on a bizarre, frenzied, piranhas in a blood-bath, deeply personal, knee-jerk reaction to anything that suggests that Humanists, as a movement, could do something better.

People committed to rationalism and empiricism should also be committed to evaluating different arguments fairly, in a non-judgmental manner, with a certain poise and respect for those who disagree with them. I would normally hesitate to quote the Bible, but since this nugget hails from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible, The Good Book, I’m happy to reproduce it (it’s from Plutarch, originally):

The good man is neither presumptuous or offensive, and the prudent man is not over-blunt in his speech, but in the first place he is affable and generally accessible and approachable for all, keeping his house always unlocked as a harbour of refuge for those in need, and showing his solicitude and friendliness, not only by acts of service, but also by sharing the griefs of those who fail and the joys of those who succeed.” - The Lawgiver  31:1-4

That about sums it up. Except for this (suggested for comparison by RJW at Butterflies and Wheels):

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.