Chris Stedman’s Toxic Atheism

Salon has recently published a short extract from atheist and interfaith activist Chris Stedman’s upcoming book, Faitheist, which they titled “Toxic atheism drives people apart” (I know they chose the title because Chris told me so, and because it is common practice for publishing outlets like Salon). It has provoked predictable reactions from parts of the online atheist community, who have seen it as a “defense of accommodationism” (Larry Moran), “classic accommodationism” (PZ Myers), and, most strikingly, “corny shit” (‘Crommunist’ Ian Cromwell). “[W]e’re having the “confrontation vs. accommodation” fight again” he says.

I say predictable reactions because there is an established pattern when it comes to critiquing Stedman: start with “there he goes again”, attempting to paint the new piece under discussion into a pattern, making it easier to dismiss; call it “accommodationism”, a code-word which now has so many varied uses that it has ceased to mean anything cogent; attack Stedman’s character and motives (carefully avoiding the arguments); and ignore parts of the offending post which trouble the desired narrative.

To wit: Myers claims that Stedman, in the extract, “everywhere, makes excuses for religion, while treating atheism as inexcusable.” False. He clearly states the importance of his own atheism and criticizes religion for its flaws:

I was not naïve then, nor am I now, to the atrocities committed in the name of religion around the world. I do not pretend that religion has not played a sizable role in a great many conflicts since people first began to conceive of it, or that it does not do so today. Historically, religion has been at the center of many atrocities — this is an undeniable, important fact…I believe that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs

This is not “treating atheism as inexcusable”. It is not “making excuses for religion”. It is forthrightly criticizing religion for its role in inhumanity and underlining the importance of New Atheist critiques of religion. Myers’ description of the piece is false. It is anti-factual.

Moran’s criticism is equally untethered to reality. He quotes Stedman saying “I’m not a believer any longer, but I do believe in respect. The “New Atheism” of Dawkins and Harris is simply toxic.” Now, this is a quote I have some problems with. I would never say it, I don’t agree with it. I think that, taken alone, Stedman is wrong on this. At the same time, Moran’s gloss on the quote is simply fantasy. He responds:

I’m getting awfully sick of this nonsense. What he really means is that it’s okay to passionately disagree about all kinds of social and political issues (gun control, socialism, capital punishment, quackery, political parties, abortion) but if atheists challenge the existence of god(s) that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Somehow, it’s “disrepectful” to declare that belief in supernatural beings is wrong and it means that intolerant atheists can’t, and won’t, work with anyone who disagrees with them because their position is “toxic.”

Moran presents himself as gleaning the real meaning behind Stedman’s quote: “What he really means is…”. But what he in fact does is import his own prejudices and overlay them on top of Stedman’s writing. Nowhere in the extract does Stedman discuss agreement or disagreement on “social and political issues”, or suggest “declaring that belief in supernatural beings is wrong” is “disrespectful”. Here Moran simply invents an opponent to argue against, facts be damned.

This is clearest in the following passage, in which Moran decides simply to rewrite Stedman’s article so that it makes the points he would prefer to counter:

let’s look at what Stedman is saying about the New Atheist side of the debate. He’s saying that attacks on the evils of some religions (e.g. Christian fundamentalism, Islamic extremism) are “toxic, misdirected and wasteful.” Atheist who engage in such attacks are behaving unethically, calling into question the idea that you can be good without god. He’s saying that because some New Atheists point out the evils of some religions, this contaminates the entire New Atheist movement by making atheists intolerant. Because they highlight the worst examples of religious bigotry and hypocrisy—such as shooting 14 year-old girls, or murdering doctors who perform abortions, or abusing young altar boys—this means they can’t work with their religious neighbors because they treat all theists the same.

I can find nowhere in the extract where Stedman makes any of these points. Not one. I have heard these points made, on occasion – but not by Stedman, and not in this piece. Indeed, Stedman says the opposite, himself stressing the importance of critiquing the evils of religion (in the quote above). The whole point of the extract is to ask whether there are ways to combine robust critique of the problems of religion with appreciation of its potentials and value. That is what Stedman means when he asks “Can we learn to seek out our commonalities instead of solely fixating on our differences?” [emphasis mine]. What that means is that differences are important, and so are commonalities – not, as Moran would have you believe, “don’t criticize religion because then you can’t work together with theists”.

Moran is speaking to someone who is not in the room.

So, to Crommunist. Crommunist is a good blogger and a cogent thinker, but here I think he’s got it wrong. He, like the other authors, wants to plug the extract unproblematically into the “accommodationism vs. confrontationalism” narrative, a common story in atheist circles which I find hopelessly confused. What Stedman is doing in this extract is problematizing atheist discourse around religion, seeking to add nuance to a discussion he finds totalizing and unsatisfactory. He is suggesting that “some of these [New Atheist] critiques have…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.” He is opposed to those expressions by atheists which speak in too broad, undifferentiated ways about religion, not to all criticism of religious belief. When he critiques New Atheism he is careful to delineate what precisely in it he is criticizing, even in his most forceful expression of disagreement:

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. [emphasis mine]

He is criticizing a specific type of New Atheist, a type of New Atheist he has encountered and describes in the extract, which Crommunist also has a problem with:

There was an air of self-congratulation at the Imagine No Religion 2 conference that a number of fellow attendees found quite offputting – this is not new information to us. Some people think that getting one thing right makes them (us) somehow superior beings. Those people are annoying, even to those who share their nonbelief.

It reads to me like Crommunist agrees with what Stedman wrote, but not what he imagines Stedman to have written. This is clear when he says “The part that particularly chaps my ass is this idea that religion can be repurposed for good, and therefore we mustn’t criticize it or hurt its feelings.” Nowhere does Stedman make any point remotely like this. He may believe, as I do, that there are valuable elements within religious traditions which can be of value to nonreligious people – that there are diamonds among the coal – but he doesn’t advocate silence when it comes to religious criticism, and it is wrong to suggest he does.

To be clear: these critics are not required to agree with Stedman – I do not entirely agree with him myself – but they are required to abide by basic standards of intellectual honesty and respond to what he actually writes. Why this seems so difficult to some in Stedman’s case is a mystery to me.

What really seems “toxic” – at least to a subset of atheist bloggers – is the type of thoughtful, personal, self-critical atheism that Stedman represents. No other figure in the movement – no figure not embroiled in a scandal over sexism, at least – inspires as much personal vituperation and animus as he from self-identified New Atheists [thanks to Stephanie Zvan for prompting this clarification]. It is not enough to criticize his arguments: opponents have commented on his tattoos, his dress, his way of speaking. They speculate about his psychological state and imagine (for it is fantasy) about his yearning for religious faith. His motives and character are constantly questioned, as if he is somehow immediately suspect, always under suspicion. There is a sense, on these critiques, that Stedman simply is not “one of us”. He is a traitor, a turncoat, an appeaser.

The three critiques examined above are more restrained than some, and this is a good thing. But they are still wrong, untethered to reality and, fundamentally, confused. Criticize Stedman when you think he’s wrong – as I have – but don’t invent a Toxic Stedman which doesn’t exist.

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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.


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