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):

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.

  • http://majesty-of-being.blogspot.com/ Serah Blain

    Yes! I have nothing to add. Brilliant as always, James.

  • Steve

    The point was specifically on stereotypes, Jews are stereotyped a certain way, atheists are stereotyped in a certain way. The approach to combatting those stereotypes is not to say “Hey look at me I’m an atheist and I’m doing good, bet you never thought you’d see that”. Just as it would be stupid for a Jew to say, “Hey, look at me I’m a Jew and I’m poor take a look at my bank statement, bet you didn’t expect that.” and I am sure your readers will go to the original post and look at the context of the comment.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I do see your point Steve, as I said over at B&W, and I don’t disagree with it as far as it goes. The way to get rid of the stereotype that gays are child-molesters isn’t for gays to conspicuously demonstrate their lack of child-molesting but to attack it as the prejudice this is. But the problem with using the analogy is twofold:

      First, the scale of the discrimination involved in each case is so wildly different that it comes across as crass and overblown, at least to me.

      Second, it’s not an accurate analogy to the situation. Humanists THEMSELVES claim to hold a series of moral values, but often don’t do the work which would demonstrate that those values actually affect their actions – as a movement we are one of the least engaged political groups, do very little explicitly Humanist service, and have too little impact on the world. Saying “you really should try to live up to your own espoused values” is rather different than saying “you should prove that these stereotypes are false” in the absence of values espoused by the group in question.

      I do see your point, honestly, but I don’t think it’s wise or tasteful to express it using that analogy. I feel similarly about using “coming out” to describe atheists telling others about their atheism.

  • Steve

    “First, the scale of the discrimination involved in each case is so wildly different that it comes across as crass and overblown, at least to me.”

    It was an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, whether it was successful or not, I don’t know. It might be that the example was crass and overblown, or it might be just a matter of taste (this I don’t think is 100% clear to you or me), but I don’t think it’s “the most insensitive move conceivable”.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      You’re right – there are other conceivable moves which would be significantly more insensitive. My apologies.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

    If it helps anything in this debate — if only for a feel good moment — I just found out that the founder and owner of my company is an atheist. The purpose of the company is to assist developmentally disabled adults in gaining independent living skills, getting out into the community, improving their lives, and having fun. He’s big on the fun. The company also continually advocates to the legislature for the rights and needs of the disabled. Personally, it was a moment of sincere pleasure to find that out about the owner, though it would not have changed the good things this company has accomplished one bit if he was a born again Christian. This is also the first job I’ve had where I actually care about what I’m doing as more than a paycheck.

    On the other hand, I think the moment of pleasure was so intense *because* I don’t see much evidence of atheists/humanists doing service work. I do agree with Ophelia’s point that service isn’t for everyone (not sure yet that it’s for me), but it would still be nice to see more evidence of humanism in action. Could it be that we just aren’t identifying ourselves when we act, thus making it appear that we’re not acting out our values in a service oriented fashion?

    • http://sleepinginsundays.com Josh

      LucienBlack has an excellent point here. A big part of our lack of service may be a point of perception, since we’re pretty poor about attributing our action as such.

      Which is why the Humanist Chaplaincy work after AHA was so refreshing in both its commitment to action and its explicitly humanistic base. I wonder if we’d be better off if we had a secular service arm that was explicit in its humanism, much like how the Foundation Beyond Belief exists as an explicitly Humanistic approach to charity giving.

      I’ll think on that…

  • http://thepracticalhumanist.blogspot.com Paul Creeden

    Tempest in the Temple! May it always keep the air fresh!

    I do feel I am in a Temple of Humanism (note big H) when I hear our brilliant cleric at the front punctuate his argument with a quotation from new Humanist Bible. As a secular humanist (note small h) in a far back pew, I would like to point out that process of all this discussion is the essence of creative community. Consensus is too often the enemy of creative process.

    As for the sacred dictum from The Bible, I must disagree with it (or any other) as a one-size-fits-all prescription of ‘good’ behavior. I do not think that A.C. Grayling would appreciate it being seen as such either, if he is true to his words of not wanting his book to be quoted prescriptively.

    Thank goodness (and you, James) we have “The Life of Brian” to keep us all humble.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Indeed – you’re right. Ultimately these discussions will be good for the community. And you’re right too – no one-size fits all morality!

  • http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org Ophelia Benson

    So you don’t like comments at my place. Well…so what? Is that really worth a blog post? I didn’t do a post about the comments on Chris’s Huff Post article; I posted about the article.

    You think there’s too much fuss, too many piranhas, etc etc…yet you think it’s worthwhile to post about *comments* at my place. Metametametameta.

    “But I hope my disagreement is based on a generous understanding of what Chris actually wants and is trying to achieve”

    But as you point out, *you know him*. All people who don’t know him have to go on is what he writes publicly. We can’t draw on background knowledge we don’t have – no one can. I was writing about the Huff Post article.

    It’s just not very reasonable to complain because people respond to an article published on a site as public as the Huffington Post, or that people who don’t know Chris personally fail to understand what he actually wants and is trying to achieve.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi Ophelia! Thanks for stopping by. I love your butterfly avatar.

      I think it is legitimate to write about how the community reacts to certain ideas, and sometimes that means looking at comments as well as posts – you’ll see I do both here. I think how we treat each other online is important, and sometimes there seems to be a thoughtless and somewhat cruel attitude in the community at large when confronted with ideas they don’t like. I don’t see why a comment is any less legitimate data to support that idea than a post.

      Note too I don’t just talk about the comments to your post (indeed that discussion comprises precisely one paragraph of the piece). I also talk about Jen’s post and have kind words to say about your post itself. What I’m really trying to do is evidence a general trend that I have seen over a few years.

      I do accept that it is harder to understand someone’s motives and aspirations when you don’t know them. But I tend to think it is incumbent on the reader to be generous as well as critical. Frankly some of the things people post on your site are so profoundly offensive that I think they deserve to be called out. Perhaps you disagree?

      I’m not sure, finally, that I’m “complaining”. I’m expressing my view, engaging in discussion, and hopefully causing some people to consider how they interact online. I have an agenda, of course – I want the Humanist movement (note that I don’t say the “atheist movement”, which I see as somewhat distinct) to become a powerful social force in America and the world, and that will require us to develop better methods of disagreement.

      I also think there’s a broader issue here, which I move into toward the end of the post, of the irony of these sorts of responses coming from professed rationalists. Some of the responses are SO irrational that they belie the idea that atheists actually think about what they are saying. I find that a fascinating contradiction, and I think it’s worth exploring.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

    May I ask James, what you see as the distinction between the Humanist movement and atheist movement?

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi Lucien. Essentially, I see atheism as a necessary but insufficient condition for Humanism. Humanists embrace a positive, progressive ethical life-stance in addition to a naturalistic worldview. You can be an atheist and not be a Humanist – for example you could be a white supremacist atheist – but you can’t be a Humanist the way I use the term without being a freethinker of some variety.

      As for the movements, I see a difference between a movement whose goal is primarily dismantling religious privilege and a movement which primarily seeks to better humankind and provide for human flourishing (and sees dismantling religious privilege as a part of that). I think the first can be an atheist movement, but only the second will be a Humanist movement.

      Does that make sense?

      • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

        That does make sense, thank you for answering. If you can’t tell, some of this is new to me. I’ve been an atheist for years, but it’s only recently I’ve discovered that there IS such a word as “Humanism.” As I learn more about it, I am finding that the values I’ve held for years seem to be matching up quite well with it. I therefore greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the views held by those who have been a part of that community and movement for years.

        Now, what I’m wondering is how well can the humanist movement truly move forward prior to religious privilege being dismantled? Here in the states, it seems as if the religious rhetoric, especially from politicians, has been getting more prevalent in the past few years. It seems to be a rather large boulder blocking any path forward. Are there side paths that can be used to aid human flourishing while we work on breaking apart that boulder? It seems clear that Chris is attempting to forge a path around the boulder, and while I am leery of some of his choices in that regard, my bigger concern is the likelihood of success.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          This is a great question. To me, I see the process of dismantling religious privilege to be intimately connected with other forms of human emancipation – so much so that it makes little sense to disentangle them. When people are free from poverty, from fear, from hatred, I think they will turn further away from faith. Further, I think that challenging religious privilege helps emancipate people from ignorance and other limiting factors. So for me you have to do it all at once!

          • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

            This is pretty much where my thinking of the last few days had led me as well. Some of the more secular countries out there (Denmark, for example) provide evidence for that. Also, acting to improve the world can demonstrate what can be done without religious privilege, as well as being an aim in and of itself. I think Josh had an excellent idea earlier, that we need to have an explicitly humanistic service arm.

            However, I still think there need to be those specifically working towards the dismantling of faith. Even with a service arm, I’m not sure that people would recognize the problems of faith if they aren’t deliberately pointed out. This is where Ophelia’s excellent point about service not being the only way to improve the world comes into play. Not everyone is cut out for intellectual debate, and not everyone is cut out for service. Let people follow their inclinations in such things, while being sure to have avenues for those inclinations to be expressed.

          • TempleoftheFuture

            I agree with you Lucien, entirely. We have to do both things at once. I have very few real disagreements with Ophelia – she’s very smart! ;)

            One thing I am wondering about now is where to draw a line between dismantling religious privilege and attacking religion per se. I’ve been fascinated to meet recently a number of religious people who talk themselves about tackling religious privilege and call themselves allies in our cause. That’ an intriguing phenomenon. It suggests to me when might be able to remove religious privilege as a separate project to attacking religion itself. My thoughts on this aren’t well-formed yet.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com/ LucienBlack

    I suspect that any line between dismantling religious privilege and attacking religion per se will be very fuzzy indeed, or at least, it will in the case of some religions, and in many cases *any* attempt to dismantle religious privilege will be seen as an attack on religion. I can think of family members who, as far as I can tell, see any attempt to strengthen a wall of separation between church and state as an attack and persecution of Christianity. I actually had one tell me that “Christians are the ones being persecuted” after I posted something on Facebook about prejudice against an atheist group that was in the news.

    It surprises me then that you’ve encountered religious people who support dismantling their privilege. Historically, many churches during this country’s formation were worried there would NOT be a church/state separation, but I hadn’t thought to see that happen today. It’s something to think about.

  • Pingback: “More Than Half Way”: Why I’m Proud to Work With a “Faitheist”()

  • Pingback: Faitheist, heal thyself | Zach Alexander()