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.

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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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