Bruce Gorton’s Bollocks: More Straw Stedman

Some important points to note before reading this post: I am an atheist. I have been one all my life. I am an atheist activist, and I give up a whole lot of my time, for nothing, to promote greater visibility and respect for atheists around the USA. I do this because I believe that 1) no one should be denied full participation in society based on their religious beliefs; 2) atheists have been shat on for decades in an orchestrated campaign to marginalize us from public discussion; 3) the religious right is evil and must be stopped; and 4) atheism is true and the only reasonable position to hold on the god question.

Chris Stedman is a friend and colleague, which obviously affects my view of these debates – but I still make up my own mind. We do not always agree, and I’m happy to tell him when I do not, both in private and in public. I do not, as commenter “Nathaniel Freinput it over at Butterflies & Wheels, “happily circle-jerk Stedman” at every opportunity (and, haha, I see what you did there – Chris gay, me gay, we must fuck all the time lulz!).

After this post I intend to stop writing so much regarding internal disputes in the movement. We have a lot more important things to do than whacking each other over the head.

Butterflies & Wheels - a blog I quite enjoy - has a guest post by Bruce Gorton up about “Why atheists don’t respect faitheists – and you shouldn’t either“. It’s another hit-piece on Chris Stedman (the only atheist identified by name in the article), distinguished somewhat from the rest by the spectacular weakness of the argumentation and the incoherence of the prose.

I normally wouldn’t spend much time critiquing such obvious nonsense, but the appearance of so shoddy and egregious a piece on a respected blog raises questions regarding the extent to which our movement is capable of reasonable disagreement over the subject of religion, and the article itself includes pretty much every unfounded criticism which is made of atheists like Stedman, so it serves as a useful compendium of the crappy arguments used to try to draw individuals such as he outside the circle of accepted atheist voices. It also makes a series of very serious claims against him which deserve a response: claims of “unconscious racism”, of supporting religiously-sanctioned sexism, of callous disregard for the safety of other atheists, of wishing to maintain oppressive status quos, and of caring not at all for the welfare of other human beings.

These sorts of charges are not so uncommon when criticism of Stedman’s work is offered, but frequently they go without direct response because 1) Stedman does not any longer engage his critics directly online (thinking, I believe, that it is a lost cause and that no one is willing to dialogue honestly in any case) and 2) these sorts of very serious attacks on people’s character often slip under the radar as regular parts of the argy-bargy of online atheist discourse, which can be no-holds-barred at the best of times, and are shrugged-off as part of the rough-and-tumble of the atheist blogosphere.

This is compounded by the fact that Stedman’s many critics, in particular, seem peculiarly averse to actually reading and thinking about what he has written, instead preferring to respond to fantasy-Stedmans only they can see. Next they’ll be wheeling out an empty chair to dialogue with. The responses to Chris Stedmans’ recent memoir extract in Salon highlight this problem clearly, as I’ve already demonstrated. Critics can’t seem to critique what Stedman actually writes, but rather they must invent wholesale arguments – a Straw Stedman – which have not been made to fight against. And this recent post is the worst of the bunch: an unclear, unevidenced rant which is well below the quality of most of the comments on B&W, let alone most of the posts (which, as I say, I usually enjoy).

When you can make wild, damaging and intensely personal accusations against a public figure in our movement without providing evidence or solid reasoning, and no one calls you out for it, we have a very serious problem. For what’s to stop me (or anybody) from eviscerating someone I disagree with by inventing positions they never held then writing indignant blogposts about their personal failings based on my empty-chair versions of their positions? I think it worth, then, in an attempt to restore some sort of balance to the discourse, to show precisely what a crock of shit Mr. Gorton has produced, and to challenge him to defend his accusations with proper arguments.

His post is terrible from start to finish. It begins (all quotes directly copied from the original):

A faitheist is essentially an atheist who argues for “politeness”in atheist/ religious discourse, in which the polite path is essentially the atheists shut up.

Load of Bollocks 1: “Faitheists believe atheists should shut up!”

Getting past the fact I know of no individual in the movement who takes the view that atheists should “shut up” (including Chris Stedman – this is one of the most common unfounded criticisms made of those who promote productive discourse with the religious), the definition itself doesn’t make sense. Even if you put a premium on politeness you can clearly express sincere disagreements in a polite way. There is a whole range of expression between the poles “shut up” and “be polite”.

If Gorton wants me to believe that Stedman wants atheists to “shut up”, I’d like some evidence of that – a quote, an article, and some clarification on what “shut up” means would be a good start.

Load of Bollocks 2: “Faitheists are traitors to atheism who perpetuate the marginalization of their own group!”

The post continues by describing “Uncle Toms”, with the clear implication that atheists like Stedman are, essentially, traitors to oppressed atheists – another common criticism. Uncle Toms like him, apparently, are unwilling to speak up against religious injustice but rather spend their time criticizing atheists who do so, thus contributing to atheists’ continued marginalization:

“So long as religious injustice exists, there will be a market for atheists prepared to claim the problem is those who speak up against it.”

I do not disagree that there could be such a thing as an atheist “Uncle Tom”, although due to the highly emotionally-charged nature of the term (its history evincing images of the race-traitor) I would be extremely cautious before applying it to anybody at all. Chris Stedman, however, does not fit the description – and Gorton does not bother to explain how he might. There is a world of difference between principled criticism of individuals who share an identity characteristic with you and the attempt to participate in the continued marginalization of that identity group. Atheists with a public personae criticize each other all the time over a multitude of issues, often disagreeing strongly on points of principle – and that is as it should be. Not all such criticism is traitorous and self-defeating: some of it stems from genuine ethical considerations which deserve to be heard.

I see Stedman offering such a critique. He believes, rightly or wrongly, that some of the ways some atheists pursue their criticism of religion is unethical, contributing to the dehumanization of individuals and perpetuating stereotypes of already-marginalized groups. Just as I, as a gay man, try to speak out against misogyny in the gay community, Stedman, an atheist, wants to speak out against Islamophobia in the atheist community (for instance). Suggesting other gay men refrain from sexist or racist language does not, I hope, make me an “Uncle Tom” (or an “Uncle Mary”). I hope it makes me a principled human being – even though it would restrict the freedom to act of members of a community of which I am a member.

Reminding your own side of their ethical responsibilities toward other human beings – even if applying your understanding of those responsibilities would limit their freedom of action – is not the action of a traitor but of a principled person making a stand for what they think is right both for the group of which they are a member and for others. You may well disagree with where that stand has been taken – you may think, for instance, that what Stedman believes to be Islamophobic is not Islamophobic but legitimate criticism of Islam – but then the correct response is to challenge the individual case and not the principle. Calling someone an “Uncle Tom” because they wish to hold you to an ethical standard with which you do not agree is inaccurate and unhelpful.

Gorton continues with a ludicrous slur which implies that Stedman does not believe that “sexism is wrong in and of itself”. How he draws this conclusion is a mystery: no evidence is offered to support the claim. Do you have any, Bruce? Following on the heels of that bald assertion is another: that “the faitheist position is one of constantly complaining about how atheists are being quite upfront in criticizing religious ideas.” This is

Load of Bollocks 3: “Faitheists complain that atheists are upfront about criticizing religious ideas”

In my reading of Stedman, and people who think similarly to him, he is not concerned with “upfrontness”. They are quite happy with “upfront” criticism of religion, including forthright condemnation of the evil religion causes – he states so in the very extract which spurred Gorton’s post. I have never seen Stedman criticize anyone for offering the sort of scriptural criticism Gorton offers in his post (he spends some time going over some of the objectionable bits of the Bible).

What they have a problem with is the following: 1) inaccurate and unwieldy criticisms of “religion” as a whole which use definitions of “religion” tailor-made to make the case that everything about religion sucks; 2) broad-brush characterizations of particular religions which almost always prioritize readings of scriptural texts over actual religious practice and which serve to promote negative stereotypes about already-marginalized groups (this is the “Islam is a religion of hate” stuff); 3) publicity stunts and billboards and little skits and protests which display massive ignorance and cultural insensitivity to the extent that they, again, promote negative stereotypes of at-risk individuals

To put it bluntly, I think what bothers Stedman is nothing remotely to do with “upfrontness”. It is ignorant, self-satisfied, smug, superior, intellectually-incurious (even willfully uninformed) criticisms which serve to demean and dehumanize people in the name of atheist freedom of expression. And don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. Over the past three years I’ve visited numerous atheist groups and conferences and I’ve seen it. It is not the norm, it is not us at our best – in general this is an inspiring and exciting movement to be a part of – but no honest observer of the atheist movement over the past few years can possibly deny we’ve had some shoddy moments.

It sucks to be criticized for not living up to an ideal – especially if we don’t necessarily agree with the ideal – but it seems to me that the best response is to hash it out like adults instead of going in for incoherent hit pieces which misrepresent the main issues. And this business about “upfrontness” is one big misrepresentation, and I’m sick of it. No one is asking you to stop being upfront in criticizing religion.

Load of Bollocks 4: Chris Stedman is “unconsciously racist”

This one takes the cake. It’s stupefying in its combination of brazenness and tragicomic incoherence. I’m going to quote Gorton’s “argument” in full because, well, something so bad needs to be completely atomized:

I bring up Stedman for a simple reason – the man holds a degree of the basic unconscious racism that I find common in a lot of these arguments over religion.

“But how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi?”

Why do I say this is unconsciously racist? Gandhi and MLK Jnr were both fighting against social injustices they personally suffered – and they were fighting shoulder to shoulder with atheists to achieve it.

Religion, it appears, only motivates against oppression suffered by the specific religious group that is being oppressed.

History is full of religious figures that have used their religion to maintain oppression (such that Frederick Douglass remarked; “We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the relgious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”)

And what of figures like A Phillip Randolf or Jawaharlal Nehru? What of those who were not religious, yet still stood up?

I do not think religion was the motivating factor behind Martin Luther King Jnr, I think not wanting an America where the colour of his skin relegated him to third class status had a lot more to do with it. I do not think religion motivated Mahatma Gandhi, I think desiring an India free from colonial rule had a lot more to do with it.

Mr Stedman as an atheist, by definition believes religion to be factually incorrect. His question thus reveals that he also believes that in order for non-whites to stand up to injustice, they need to be fed factual inaccuracies.

But Stedman caters to that seeks order instead of justice, in which it is better to maintain the status quo than risk the “divisiveness”involved in thwarting it. He would talk of online snark, while ignoring the death threats received by the likes of Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist, he would speak of being treated dismissively while ignoring the plight of Fasil Say.

I have to admit the argument here took some unpacking on my end. I couldn’t, to begin with, work out what on earth Gorton was going on about. I have tried to recreate it formally:

P1: Chris Stedman believes that religious beliefs played a role in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to take their respective stances in favor of justice.

P2: Gandhi and MLK Jnr were both fighting against social injustices they personally suffered.

P3: Atheists were also involved in these struggles.

P4: History is full of religious figures that have used their religion to maintain oppression.

P5: Chris Stedman, as an atheist, believes religion to be false.

C1: Religion only motivates against oppression suffered by the specific religious group that is being oppressed (MLK was motivated to fight oppression only of African Americans, Gandhi only of the people of India?).

C2: Religion was less a motivating factor than the individuals’ personal experience of oppression.

C3: Chris Stedman believes that in order for non-whites to stand up to injustice, they need to be fed factual inaccuracies (i.e. believe in their faith, which Stedman believes to be false). Therefore, Chris Stedman is unconsciously racist (!?!).

C4: Chris Stedman prefers oppressive order to anything which would disrupt that order because to disrupt the order is to be “divisive”.

C5: Chris Stedman does not care about death threats leveled at young people like Jessica Ahlquist and Damon Fowler.

It is hard to know where to begin untangling such gibberish. Let’s start with the obvious: even granting the premises – every single one – none of the conclusions follow. C1 is flatly false: both MLK and Gandhi had well-developed theories of social justice and anti-oppression which sought to extend their personal experience to the experience of others. I find neither entirely satisfactory but both clearly were motivated to care for individuals who are not members of the “religious group being oppressed” – both explicitly talk about freeing their oppressors, for instance, an idea central to Gandhi’s whole outlook and to MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

C2 does not follow from the premises – as it stands it is mere assertion. Even if it were true it does not defeat Stedman’s assertion: it could be true that Gandhi and MLK’s persona; experiences of oppression were the driving force of their activism and also true that “religious beliefs played a role in motivating” the individuals in question. These are not exclusive claims. People can have multiple motivations.

C3 is just… bizarre. Gorton seems to reason as follows: “Because Stedman believes MLK’s religious beliefs had some role in encouraging his activism, he is committed to also believing that only those religious beliefs would be capable of so motivating him, or anyone, to such activism.” Of course this is piffle: it is possible that some people could be motivated in part by their understanding of their faith while others have different motivations.

C4 doesn’t work either: it’s another variant on the “Stedman wants atheists to shut up” theme (LoB1 above) and the “Stedman hates upfront criticism of religion” theme (LoB3) which goes “because Stedman objects to some types of atheist expression which is critical of religion he objects to all types of atheist expression which is critical of religion, particularly those forms I like!”

I honestly don’t see where C5 comes from myself.

It seems, at root, that Gorton is at length to deny that the religious beliefs and traditions of Gandhi and MLK played any significant role in their revolutionary work, and to extract some character flaw from the fact that Stedman believes that they did. A full consideration of what it means for someone’s religion to motivate them to do something would take many posts (perhaps an interesting venture in itself), but let’s be clear about some facts:

  • Both MLK and Gandhi saw their religious identity as central to their work as activists.
  • Both drew on the resources of their religious tradition extensively in that work.
  • Both wrote at length about the relationship of their religion to their work.
  • Both are recognized as religious leaders as well as social revolutionaries.
  • Both looked to their religious tradition for guidance not only on basic ethical questions but strategic ones as well, drawing inspiration from figures within their tradition when they did so.
  • Both explicitly stated that they believed they were doing God’s work on earth.

Now, I suppose you could construct an argument which held that all those facts were true, but still that both figures were not in any way “motivated by their religious beliefs”. But such an argument would, I think, be so tortuous as to be special pleading and, in any case, Gorton provides no argument whatsoever. Which brings us to

Load of Bollocks 5: Stedman is Obsessed with Tone and Doesn’t Care About People

This is perhaps the commonest critique of all: that people like Stedman are merely tone-trolls, endlessly concerned with “nice words”. Far more concerned with the words used in a discussion, indeed, than with serious issues relating to the harm caused by religion.

And it’s also a load of bollocks. It’s bollocks because, first, and as I’ve argued above, the criticism of some atheists by Stedman is not about “tone”, per se (let’s set aside the indisputable fact that tone is actually extremely important in any persuasive exercise, something which I stress far more than Stedman ever has done). It is about stereotyping and demeaning people. And that is a question with ethical ramifications which go way beyond the question of “tone”. The unceasing reduction of ethical concerns with certain modes of criticism to questions of “tone” is a commonplace so inaccurate – and so frequently rebutted – as to now be dishonest. When we in the movement call out  religious people over their stereotyping and demeaning of atheists, we are not whining about “tone”: we are making a moral claim against those who seek to marginalize us.

Likewise, when Stedman criticized Everybody Draw Muhammad Day he was not saying “the tone of this event troubles my digestion” or “please stop using nasty words”. He is taking a stand against what he sees to be a fundamentally unethical response to a particular issue. It was because he cared about people - a class of people particularly vulnerable in American society – that he was willing to call out his own community.

And even if you disagree with the stand he is making, it is incumbent on your to understand it as an ethical stand so that you can criticize it in a relevant and accurate way. Ironically, to mischaracterize such criticism, as Gorton does, as “hand wringing over tone and how uncomfortable they find the argument” is actually to understate the strength of Stedman’s critique, rather than overstate it. As well as to fantastically miss the central issue.

To Conclude: Please Disagree with Chris Stedman. The Real One.

In my heart I am a warrior. I like disagreement. I like a good intellectual fight. I am happy when people say they think I’m wrong. I thrive on it. I enjoy the conflict. Stedman does not, which is partly why he hasn’t written something like this. But I do. So this is not a post about how everyone should be nice to Stedman and agree with him and not write posts about how he’s full of shit.

This is a post which says, rather, that when you offer extremely fierce criticisms of an individual and their work, please actually criticize their work and not a made-up version you invented. When you make forceful claims about their moral failings, bring  your, you know, evidence with you.

When, instead, you pen garbled rants which hardly make sense on their own terms – let alone engage intelligently with any of the facts – you do a disservice to a movement which prides itself on rational, intelligent, well-informed discussion of  issues of great import. Erecting and knocking-down invented straw men and supporting character assassinations with shifty hand-waving arguments is what fundamentalists do, not rationalists and Humanists.

There is one phrase in Gorton’s post which I fully agree with: “being the same species from roughly the same culture atheists are not that much better than the religious”. This is true in so many ways, and I commend Mr. Gorton for this insight, which is too infrequently expressed. But if we are frequently not that much better, let us try not to be actually worse.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – 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.

  • John Morales

    I see you accept that Chris Stedman is a faitheist.

    (So that’s another point of agreement)

  • Gordon

    I cannot give an exact quote because it was so long ago. I can only say that I used to follow Chris Stedman on twitter and I stopped because I got tired of reading him denigrating outspoken atheists and praising the religious.

    I believe in his right to say what he wants, but not his right to my attention or interest.

    • James Croft

      “I believe in his right to say what he wants, but not his right to my attention or interest.”

      Fair enough – but how about his right to fair representation?

      • Gordon

        Well I disagree that he’s been misrepresented. He has writen pieces about how terrible “new” atheists are.

      • Rodney Nelson

        Gorton did describe him fairly. You don’t like Gorton’s description because Stedman is a friend and co-worker.

        • James Croft

          I note you don’t address any of my arguments.

  • Giliell

    “If Gorton wants me to believe that Stedman wants atheists to “shut up”, I’d like some evidence of that – a quote, an article, and some clarification on what “shut up” means would be a good start.”

    I would recommend reading this Twitter exchange on the subject: https://ja.twitter.com/AmandaMarcotte/status/243511823939272704
    You can see how Joshua Eaton uses exactly the “your criticism of religion is mean against me personally” stick and how Chris Stedman goes on to chastize Amanda Marcotte for not being “nice” and giving the guy a cookie for being OK on most social issues.
    He goes after Amanda who made a rather accurate statement about the catholic church because some theist felt mightily offended. How less “mean” and “offending” than her tweet can you be? Going after her effectively means she should shut up.

    • James Croft

      I read the exchange. I think Marcotte’s statement was rather mild and Eaton’s offense overdone – although he’s probably responding to a lot of previous statements too (notice the “in sum” which begins the captured exchange). But if you read what Chris is actually saying, it’s a ways away from “shut up”. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of criticism I said he was engaging in: he’s trying to point out that religion is a far more complex thing than simply “theism”, and that you can be “religious” without being a “theist”.

      I don’t think, myself, that Twitter is the best place to have such a discussion, but the discussion itself is important and represents an opportunity to deepen our understanding about a phenomenon we care a lot about. So where does the “shut up” come in?

    • Brian Lynchehaun

      Amanda criticized the Catholic church.

      Josh (inaccurately) broadened out her statement to be about religion as a whole. At this point, Amanda should have stuck to her guns rather than being drawn into defending a position that she didn’t assert. We all make mistakes.

      Amanda then (justly) criticized Josh’s defensiveness regarding her criticism of ‘telling people comforting lies about about magical beings’. Note: her sentence doesn’t claim that *Josh* is telling these lies, but that he is defensive about criticism of these lies.

      Stedman chimes in misrepresenting her as claiming that Josh tells people these lies. And then goes on to criticise Amanda for a position that she doesn’t hold. Yes, it’s a true fact that ‘not all religions are theistic’. Did Amanda make that point? Nope. She talked about ‘magical beings in heaven’. Does Buddhism have ‘magical beings in heaven’? Yup (depending on which sect of Buddhism we’re talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva). Stedman is talking crap in this twitter thread.

      I’m not generally anti-Stedman. I’m ambivalent about what he’s doing, and I’m not entirely clear about what he’s trying to do. I’m trying to understand him and his work as much as possible before I make a decision. But in this particular exchange on twitter, he comes across as an ignorant troll, engaging in all the standard Moving the Goalpost crap. (and no, I don’t mistakenly believe that twitter is the bulk of his work)

      • James Croft

        I can’t say what they are responding to in full because, as I mentioned in the previous comment, this is clearly an edited selection of a longer conversation to which I am not privy. Even if Stedman is “talking crap” in this Twitter thread, that is not what he is charged with in Gorton’s article and not what the thread was produced to support.

  • Laurence

    I’ll give you my take on Stedman. From everything I’ve read of Stedman’s in the public sphere, he goes out of his way to criticize all kinds of public atheists and praise all kinds of public religious people. I feel that Stedman is making it harder for people like me to make criticisms of religion or religious belief. No matter how reasoned and nice I go about it, there are people who will say something like “well, why aren’t a nice little atheist doing interfaith work like that Chris Stedman fellow.” I think his constant criticism of how people go about criticizing religion actually makes it more difficult for us to actually criticize religion. It doesn’t seem like Stedman offers any method to go about criticizing religion. It seems to me (and I know that I could be wrong about this) that he actually would rather us shut up about our criticism of religion and go do interfaith work like him and focus on our shared values. The one piece of writing on Stedman’s that speaks to me is the Sojourner thing (I know you disagree with him about that, but that doesn’t change that he said it). In that article, he explicitly said that people should shut up making legit criticisms of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners because they are trying. That’s just not good enough for me. Whenever I look at that piece or think about it, it disgusts me. Maybe I’m falling prey to bad arguments or reasoning. All I know is that whenever I see that Chris Stedman has published something new online, I brace myself for the almost inevitable bashing of public atheists and praising of his awesome interfaith work. Maybe his criticisms are true, and if they are, he should keep making them. But, everytime I see a religious friend repost something of his on Facebook, I feel that it makes me harder to criticize religion at all because I’m not living up to the super-nice atheist Chris Stedman.

    • James Croft

      I do think there is an imbalance in his public writing towards criticizing other atheists. I think he could valuable spend much more time speaking about areas of agreement with other atheists. It would do his image good at least. I think the reason why he doesn’t do that is that he assumes we agree on all the main things so it’s not worth talking about.

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

    I’m glad you made this post James, it covered just about all of my frustrations with the post.

    To reply to a few comments:

    John: Chris’s book is titled Faitheist. He identifies as a faitheist. Was that ever an issue?

    Gordon: Based on the responses to Chris’s work in recent memory, are you sure you were charitably reading Chris’s tweets? It’s evidently extraordinarily easy to read him as saying things he isn’t, since nearly every response to him seems to take him to be saying “atheists, shut up and let the good Christians and Muslims oppress us already”

    Gilliel: Is that really the best we can put together to condemn Chris? That Amanda Marcotte made what I suspect to be a factually incorrect statement (the numbers are hard to track down, but at least this Economist article puts the spending of the church at 4.1 billion to help the poor… How much do you think they spend on punishing people for having sex http://www.economist.com/node/21560536), and someone who is a fan and ally simply pointed out that with comments like that, she’s alienating her religious allies. How is that controversial at all? That seems to be a completely fair point for him to make (I agree with you and you’re attacking me for no reason), especially since the issues Amanda ostensibly cares about would be impossible without the help of liberal religious believers.

    All Chris had to do with any of that was to correct Amanda’s comments about his friend. He didn’t tell her to shut up or not make comments about religion. He didn’t tell her to be nice. He asked her to be accurate and honest. What is it that you’re so offended by, exactly? This is exactly the grasping at straws that’s so obvious to me and that James seems to be addressing.

    If you’re starting out by trying to paint Chris as an atheist-hating monster, you’ll read everything he does that way.

    • Giliell

      OMG, you’Re actually defending the Catholic church as helping the poor when their policy on contraception and abortion is one of the things that ensures there are enogh people in the first place?
      Let me make one thing clear: Unless your livelyhood depends on it, being a member of the Catholic Church means that you support an organisation that protects and supports systematic child abuse, shames and blames the victims, openly welcomes Holocaust deniars and does their best to keep AIDS and poverty alive and kicking in Africa because they really can’t be having with people having fun sexytimes without punishment.
      the money they spend on feeding the hungry hordes they create (I’m wondering how much money people actually give and how much ends up in the pokets of the church. Alone the “Sternsinger” in Germany collected more than 42 million last year… It’s well known that most of the money people gave to that horrible asshole Mother Theresa ended up in the Vatican)
      If you’re offended by people pointing that out that’s your problem. I, and I guess Amanda, are absolutely not interested in allies who only stand up for what’s good and right as long as we’re nice and don’t offend their religious fee-fees. And you and Stedman think we have to give them cookies for not peeing on the floor.
      Yes, theists are factually incorrect, yes, religion is a major factor of bad things in this world and especially so organized religion. If people get personally offended by Amanda or me pointing that out it’s their problem and obviously Stedman’s.

  • Giliell

    I see I forgot to finish a sentence above:
    the money they spend on feeding the hungry hordes they create (I’m wondering how much money people actually give and how much ends up in the pokets of the church. Alone the “Sternsinger” in Germany collected more than 42 million last year… It’s well known that most of the money people gave to that horrible asshole Mother Theresa ended up in the Vatican) is a figue leave and a distraction for the gullible.

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

    This is exactly the kind of divorced reality I’m talking about. Saying “your statement isn’t right” isn’t defending Catholocism. Saying “no, catholics actually spend more effort on helping the poor than talking about sex” does not make me some Catholic fanboy.

    No one is talking about being nice or offending fee fee’s. Seriously, point out to me one instance of Chris’s tweets or my comments where we mention niceness or feelings, rather than pointing out that Amanda or you were either (i) factually incorrect or (ii) being counterproductive.

    You’re seriously just proving my point. You want to read Chris and I as saying “pat the Christians on the head and shut up mean old atheists” when we’ve said nothing of the sort.

    • Waffler

      Vlad, Amanda’s statement was: “In sum: The Catholic Church would rather have people starving in the street than people fucking without punishment. Sorry, but true. ” She was accused of being toxic. This is a blunt, but accurate statement about the effects of Catholic dogma. They (the hierarchy) know that supporting birth control would reduce population growth – and consequently, the amount of starvation. But they don’t do it. Josh Eaton chimed in to chide her about being toxic. Stedman jumped in to support Josh, throwing out irrelevancies like ‘not all religious people are theists’. None of it made sense in response to her statement. Neither of them pointed out any actual factual inaccuracies in her statement. It was all about alienating religious allies.

      So in sum, what are you on about?

      • James Croft

        Stedman’s tweets made perfect sense in response to Amanda’s response to Eaton’s criticism, though…

        • Waffler

          Not really:

          Amanda Marcotte:
          @joshua_eaton Your defensiveness of telling people comforting lies about magical beings in heaven is toxic.

          Amanda is accusing Joshua of *defending* people who tell lies about magical beings in heaven (and saying such a defense is toxic, a counter-claim to his accusation of toxicity on her part).

          Chris Stedman:
          @AmandaMarcotte @joshua_eaton Except Josh doesn’t tell people anything about magical beings in heaven…

          That doesn’t make perfect sense. Amanda doesn’t accuse Josh of telling people lies. She accuses him of defending the Catholic Church (which he does).

          • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

            Actually Amanda’s comment is a bit ambiguous, and I think it can be read both ways, because as she wrote it it’s an odd construction. It could be read as “it’s toxic to defend people telling people comforting lies” or “you’re being defensive by telling people comforting lies.” I know twitter messages are constructed and read quickly (I had to read it twice to settle on the latter reading), but I can see how it could be misunderstood/misread.

            So at best, here, we have Chris either responding appropriately or likely misreading. Nowhere is he coddling religion or telling people to be nice and respect feelings. Let alone evidence that Chris wants atheists to shut up, which is why Giliell raised the example to begin with.

          • James Croft

            That is not how I read Marcotte’s comment. I read it as directed at Eaton. But, nonetheless, it’s a long way from telling atheists to “shut up”, which is the charge under discussion.

          • Waffler

            So what you are saying is that you (Vlad) believer that Stedman was unaware of the context of Amanda’s tweet? Because with the context, it is dead obvious. And you were completely aware of the full context, yet you still claim that it was all about correcting Amanda for a “factually incorrect statement” about the Catholic Church? Nowhere did either Chris or Josh even attempt to correct something she said about the Catholic Church. That’s something you seem to have created from whole cloth — Josh criticize her tone (only) as ‘toxic’ – no facts, just tone. Chris jumps in to defend Josh. If Chris didn’t understand the context, I guess there’s some plausible deniability for him.

          • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

            This is starting to get complicatedly branched. Sorry for the ambiguous construction, it was meant to apply to both me and Chris, not to all of Chris’ tweets. I didn’t say that’s what Chris was doing with that tweet, but it was an awkward way of phrasing that point on my part.

            I disagree that context makes it any less likely to misread Amanada’s comment. I read through the entire thread and I initially read it as Chris seems to have read it, until I settled on reading it like you had.

            But again this is besides the point. Defending Josh isn’t the same as echoing Josh’s point or even endorsing it. In fact his comment seems unrelated to Josh’s original comment.

            Again, if this is the best anyone can do when pointing to how Chris tells atheists to shut up and be nice, I’m not seeing a particularly strong case.

          • Waffler

            Here:

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-stedman/atheist-activism-problems_b_1164399.html

            Chris is critical of Dave Silverman. He brings up no factual inaccuracies. He doesn’t like his rhetoric. There’s nothing inaccurate about what Silverman said, he just doesn’t like it. Indeed, he’s very clear that he doesn’t like the goal of convincing religious people to not be religious.

          • James Croft

            So he disagrees with the goal. I disagree with some of Silverman’s goals. And he’s trying, as I say in the post, to problematize and nuance the discussion over religion. He’s not saying “don’t do religious criticism”. He is quite explicitly not saying that. He is saying don’t do bad religious criticism:

            “effective criticism of religious dogmatism accounts for the diverse spectrum of religious expression. It is balanced, it is rooted in compassion, and it responds to what people actually believe and practice, not just the most extreme forms of religious thought.”

            That’s exactly what I say he’s doing, and not what Gorton says he is doing. So what’s your point? The article supports my position.

          • Waffler

            So what was bad about Dave Silverman’s criticism of the WTC cross? Why did Stedman criticize the criticism? That’s the charge of the New Atheists against Stedman: they criticize religion, and Stedman pops up and tells them they’re doing it wrong. Clearly, this is what is happening here, no? Chris is saying not to do it this way — and in fact, if your goal is to convince people that religion in general is a bad thing, not to do it at all. That’s his point. That’s what the New Atheists mean by ‘shut up’.

            Silverman’s criticism of the WTC cross doesn’t fail any of your 3 criteria for criticism, so why the criticism-of-the-criticism from Stedman, if not for tone?

            “1) inaccurate and unwieldy criticisms of “religion” as a whole which use definitions of “religion” tailor-made to make the case that everything about religion sucks; ”

            Nope, doesn’t fit. Nothing in Silverman’s statement can be taken to imply everything about religion sucks.

            “2) broad-brush characterizations of particular religions which almost always prioritize readings of scriptural texts over actual religious practice and which serve to promote negative stereotypes about already-marginalized groups (this is the “Islam is a religion of hate” stuff);”

            Nope, again, this wasn’t a broad brush characterization of Christianity – it was focused on the furor of the WTC cross. No already marginalized groups being stereotyped, either.

            “3) publicity stunts and billboards and little skits and protests which display massive ignorance and cultural insensitivity to the extent that they, again, promote negative stereotypes of at-risk individuals.”

            No massive ignorance on display — many people do believe that the WTC cross is a sign of god’s love, etc., and no promotion of a stereotype of at-risk individuals.

            So he just doesn’t like the message. This is “I wish you’d shut up”.

          • James Croft

            Thank you for providing a specific example – this makes things a lot easier to examine. The case of the 9/11 Cross is an interesting one. I think I actually wrote more about the WTC Cross than Stedman did: I wrote two long posts and engaged in an extensive Facebook conversation with American Atheists Inc. until I was banned from posting on their page (a decision which, to their credit, they later reversed – but talk about trying to make atheists shut up!).

            Again, I don’t think this is a case of asking atheists to shut up. I think Stedman believes, as I do, that the case is simply wrong in principle. I believe (and I think Stedman agrees with me here) that the cross is perfectly entitled to be put on display in a museum designed to showcase the cultural response to the 9/11 attacks. The cross is legitimately part of the cultural history of the event, and putting it in a museum exhibit designed to explore the cultural history of the event seems perfectly fine to me.

            Do you really believe that by making this argument – at length, with a lot of details, reasons, facts and evidence (and, in this case, lots of evidence which directly contradicts the statements AA made about the situation, which turned out to be flatly false) I am asking atheists to “shut up” in some general way? Not at all. I’m expressing my disagreement over a specific decision for a specific set of reasons.

            The correct response here is not to whine about people trying to shut atheists up but to engage with the case made. As so often in these discussions, hardly anyone ever bothers. If you wish to do so, here are my articles on the subject – I’ve reposted one here so you can stay on one site:

            The First:
            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2011/07/cross-with-american-atheists/

            The Second (and most extensive articulation of my position):
            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2012/11/repost-museum-or-memorial-and-why-it-matters-thoughts-on-religious-symbolism-and-the-911-cross/

            The Third:
            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2011/12/the-humanist-hour-and-the-911-cross/

    • Giliell

      You still haven’t shown that I’m factually incorrect.
      Because if the RCC actually cared about poor people they would promote contraception. Because we know that condom use decreases AIDS rates, which is a major factor in keeping many Africans poor and miserable, because not only are people dying of a horrible disease, countries also have to use huge sums of money treating it. Because we know that access to contraception reduces family size, increases women’s possibilities and individual children’s access to resources like food and education.
      Yet the RCC vehemently opposes those things because it would actually allow people to fuck without punishment. Not that the severe punishment that comes with AIDS woud have stopped them, especially since women often have no control about it at all. They are just as much punished for their husbands fucking hookers with HIV as are their children. The RCC does nothing to aleviate that suffering. The RCC actively promotes that suffering.
      As for the “money spent on fighting poverty”: Bullshit.
      People are giving them money because they honestly want to help the poor. If the RCC vanished from the face of planet earth tomorrow people wouldn’t stop, they’d just give to different organisations.
      So, no, I’m not factually wrong but you are actively promoting the goodness of a criminal organisation that systematically protects and hides child abusers.
      That’s why I can’t stand your or Stedman’s kind: Always find something nice to say about horrible people. Because if they ever didn’t kick a puppy that clearly needs to be mentioned. Pay no attention to the horrible thigs they promote over there!

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

    We can argue about the facts of the matter. That’s less important to me right now, than to point out that *we are arguing about the facts here,* and that does not constitute (1) defending the catholic church, (2) talking about how all atheists should shut up and be nice, or (3) saying that the religious fee fees are all that matter.

    And we’re not talking about kicking a puppy. We are talking about billions of dollars of aid to the poor.

    We can acknowledge responsible and accurate criticisms without diminshing the good they do. But again, that’s a separate conversation and doesn’t at all touch the fact that your initial points and criticisms about both Chris and me were wildly off base.

    • Giliell

      “And we’re not talking about kicking a puppy. We are talking about billions of dollars of aid to the poor.”
      I already pointed out that this is factual bullshit.
      The RCC doesn’t have those billions lying around and decides to give it to the poor they helped to create in the first place and do a good job on keeping them poor.
      That money is given to them as stewards with the explicit order to do something about poverty. It’s not them deciding to help the poor.
      And no, putting a band-aid on severe wounds you created in the first place is not something heroic and charitable.

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

    Okay. I honestly don’t particularly feel like arguing about the catholic church. The entire point of that comment was that it’s besides the point.

    You came in here arguing that Chris Stedman wants to tell atheists to shut up. You said “Chris Stedman goes on to chastize Amanda Marcotte for not being “nice” and giving the guy a cookie for being OK on most social issues.”

    Chris hasn’t done any of that. You haven’t shown anything of the like. And you’re going on rants about the Catholic church as if that supports your point. It doesn’t.

    You responded to my pointing that out by suggesting that Chris and I only care about being nice and respecting religions “fee fees.” I’ve asked you to show me where any of us have said that, and all you’ve done is argue with me about the Catholic church.

    That’s an important discussion but it’s a derailment and I don’t particularly care right now. What I care about is the fact that just about every thing you’ve accused Chris and me of has been off-base.

    • Giliell

      It was you who went on to defend a criminal organisation of child-rape enablers and now that you seem to run out of arguments you want to change the topic.
      “Chris hasn’t done any of that. You haven’t shown anything of the like. ”
      I’ve linked to the respective tweets. He obviously disagreed with the simple and quite accurate statement Armanda made, he went out of his way to criticise her for making it. If that isn’t an attempt to stop people making such statements I don’t know what is.
      “What I care about is the fact that just about every thing you’ve accused Chris and me of has been off-base.”
      Wrong. Chris Stedman went out of his way to go after Armanda Marcotte, you went out of your way to defend the RCC, which is frankly disgusting.

      • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

        It’s like you’re not even trying to read what I say. You can argue about facts without defending someone. You can say “the Catholic Church has done some good” all the while not ignoring the harm they do. Would you stop it with the hyperbolic “you’re defending child rapists!” nonsense.

        He didn’t criticize Amanda’s original tweet. You’re seriously grasping for straws here. He only criticized her response to Josh. And if that’s Chris “going after” Amanda Marcotte, then it’s the most mild “going after” imaginable. I hate to think what the means you’re doing to me. Obviously just silencing me and telling me to shut up, right?

  • John-Henry Beck

    Seems to me that viewpoint differences make the topic(s) difficult to discuss.
    Like whether the RCC’s $4 billion is a major effort to do good or more comparable to ‘Hitler built a great highway system!’
    Anyway, that seems to me to be where much of the disconnect starts.

    • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

      Seriously, I literally only brought it up to point out that Amanda’s statement was debatable, and that debating it didn’t constitute supporting catholicism or telling atheists to shut up. I didn’t want to derail it into a “let’s argue about Catholocism” thread.

      • Giliell

        It’s only debatable if you still think that the RCC is nice and good which they have shown time after time again they aren’t. It’s not even about what nonsense they believe, it’s about the evil they do.
        Did you know that they shut down the catholic pregnancy counselling in Germany when legislation made it possible for women to get a (still illegal) first trimester abortion? Yes, they rather stop helping pregnant women because actually they don’t give a shit about them. Endorsing condoms would save millions of lives in Africa and I’m pretty sure that their first world members would happily donate for them, yet they don’t but want a cookie for feeding AIDS orphans. And you’re willing to give it to them and tell us meanies that we’re wrong stating the obvious.
        That’s exactly the thing people criticise about Stedman and people critcise about you. You can wave your hands as long as you want, it doesn’t make those things less true.

        • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

          Again, I have no interest at all in arguing about the Catholic Church. It’s a red herring at this point.

          >That’s exactly the thing people criticise about Stedman and people critcise about you.

          I must have missed all those criticisms of me, but I listed verbatim what your criticisms of Chris were and it wasn’t his position on the Catholic Church. In fact, I’ve asked twice and you’ve done nothing to support them.

          • Giliell

            This is ridiculous.
            So, the story goes like this:
            1.) To support the criticism of Stedman by Bruce and others, I present a Twitter exchange where Stedman goes after Amanda Marcotte because she made a short and accurate tweet about the RCC.
            Note, the points of criticism are
            A) He focuses a lot on the “bad atheists”
            B) He defends religion and religious institutions against valid criticism, thereby trying to shut up those “bad atheists and lending support and credibility to religions as monsterous as Catholicism.
            2.) You come to his defense saying he was accurate because Amanda’s claim was “debatable” because look how much good the RCC does!
            3.) I argue your factual claims and include you in my criticism point B) Defense of nasty religions and their churches
            4.) Apparently running out of arguments to defend your original claim that the RCC does so much good in the world, you say that you don’t want to talk about the RCC, that the actual facts are not important and go on claiming that I have offered no transitional fossils, eh sustained criticism as if points 1 to 3 never existed.
            So, how on earth am I allowed to criticise Stedman and you if arguing about the actual claims you make is suddenly forbidden? You seem to have taken a huge leaf out of the theists’ books and then you wonder why you have a bad reputation and receive criticism.

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  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

    James, so much of this post is – as so often – you translating what Stedman says into what you would say, thus making it much more reasonable and less like saying “oh look at what that bad atheist did now.” But Stedman says what he says, not what you say.

    It’s kind of annoying, this raging at people for being critical of Stedman while also translating him into your more reasonable idiom.

    • http://nonprophetstatus.com Vlad Chituc

      Ophelia, I have a tendency to read Chris’s writing as James presents it, and find myself often equally put off by and incredulous of the reaction Chris’s writing receives. I get that Chris could be more careful to frame and phrase things in such a way that they are less receptive to the strawman James has highlighted, but I don’t think James has ever at all misrepresented what Chris has said. It might be more helpful if you pointed out where Chris’s writing and James analysis diverge?

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

        Vlad, it’s wholesale rewriting. This for instance –
        “I see Stedman offering such a critique. He believes, rightly or wrongly, that some of the ways some atheists pursue their criticism of religion is unethical, contributing to the dehumanization of individuals and perpetuating stereotypes of already-marginalized groups. Just as I, as a gay man, try to speak out against misogyny in the gay community, Stedman, an atheist, wants to speak out against Islamophobia in the atheist community (for instance). Suggesting other gay men refrain from sexist or racist language does not, I hope, make me an “Uncle Tom” (or an “Uncle Mary”). I hope it makes me a principled human being – even though it would restrict the freedom to act of members of a community of which I am a member.”
        That’s just not the way Chris puts his case. It’s unfair to blame people for responding to what Chris does say as opposed to what James would like him to have said. That’s especially true since what Chris says gets out into the world and has an influence. His writing is quite popular, as far as I can tell. People like hearing about The Bad Atheists; Chris supplies that market. We react.

    • James Croft

      This may be a fair criticism. I, of course, read Stedman through the lens of my own views, and may be doing too much “translation”. At the same time, it’s also possible that his critics are doing too much translation of their own. But whatever you think on that front, there are serious deficiencies in Gorton’s arguments which deserve to be examined.

      • Laurence

        What Ophelia says about Stedman’s articles is kind of the point that I was trying to say above. When I read Stedman, I usually a take similar to Ophelia’s. However, I don’t always disagree with what he is saying.

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

        Well, James, that may be true, but if so, you made a hash of it. Look at your Load of Bollocks 3, for instance – shouty insistence that Stedman isn’t saying “no upfront criticism of religion” along with an obviously thoroughly subjective distinction between “upfront” criticsim and “self-satisfied, smug, superior, intellectually-incurious” criticism, as if it were all self-evident. Obviously we think Stedman is indeed saying “no upfront criticism of religion” UNDER THE GUISE OF saying “no nasty mean cruel hurty criticism of religion.” He says no nasty mean but then he quotes the same three cherry-picked items over and over and over again. This exaggerates the prevalence of nasty mean to a broad audience who won’t realize he’s using the same examples over and over again. That broad audience ALREADY THINKS upfront atheism is mean nasty by definition. Stedman plays to that prejudice, and encourages it. Since we too are a “marginalized group” we consider that invidious, at best.

        So, frankly, I find your shouty shouting to be pretty damn offensive too. You shout about how mean we are to Stedman but then you present a Stedman who exists only in your head. Well fuck that. We’re not you. We don’t work with Stedman. We’re not best buddies with Stedman. We’re allowed to read what he writes as mere readers, because after all, his writing isn’t addressed only to his friends. He writes what he writes, not what you would have him write. We do get to address that rather than your version.

        • James Croft

          First, the argument you’ve presented here is way more cogent than anything Gorton presented in his post. Just as you have to respond to what Stedman wrote, I have to respond to what Gorton actually wrote – not what you were thinking when you posted it for him. He did not make the case you just made. Indeed, I think my reading of Stedman is much closer to the text than your reading of Gorton.

          Nevertheless, to your point: would it be possible, in your view, to make any criticism of how some atheists talk about religion without playing into the prejudice against upfront criticism of religion? What, in your view, would such criticism look like? I ask because if you cannot articulate what that sort of criticism would look like you are essentially asking atheists who have ethical problems with the actions of other atheists to remain silent in order that their criticism not be taken, wrongly, as a criticism of all upfront religious critique.

          • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

            Sure, of course I think that would be possible. It would look like, for instance, the book Reasonable Atheism by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. They have some articles extracted from it at 3QD. It would look like Philip Kitcher’s article on the subject (I forget the title).

          • James Croft

            Thanks – I’ll take a look!

  • Giliell

    “He is quite explicitly not saying that. He is saying don’t do bad religious criticism:

    “effective criticism of religious dogmatism accounts for the diverse spectrum of religious expression. It is balanced, it is rooted in compassion, and it responds to what people actually believe and practice, not just the most extreme forms of religious thought.”

    Unfortunately he thinks that he himself is the ultimate arbiter of good and bad criticism. I know a number of former theists who explicitely say that criticism of the Stedman-kind allowed the to keep believeing because it was treated with respect, while the harsh bullshit criticism of Gnus finally allowed them to let go. So, it seems like for some people that criticism is highly effective.
    “balanced”
    I have problems with that word. Is that like balanced news that go down as he said- she said.
    And yes, we do talk about what people actually believe in. When 40% of the US-population believes that the earth is 6000 years old then pointing out the lunacies of creationism isn’t talking about a fringe group. If millions of decent people in Germany allow themselves to be represented by people who blame gays and unmarried couples on child abuse, they are complicit in those positions. It’s like talking about moderate Republicans while a President Romney turns the USA into a theocracy.
    Faith isn’t a virtue. Faith is nonsense. If your faith leads you to hold a progressive opinion on some issue or other, it’s still based on something untrue. If it’s not the result of actual critical thinking it means you’re stuck with it.

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