A response to Conrad – why I criticize Chris Stedman

In a post a couple of days ago, I sniped at Chris Stedman.  My primary gripe with Stedman is his stance that religion should be protected from offense, and in this way he nurtures and protects something I believe to be poisonous to humanity.

Then a friend of mine, Conrad Hudson, whose opinion I respect, came into the comments and left this.

If we are actually committed to the multiple approaches concept then whether he’s willing to criticize religion matters about as much as whether you’re willing to do interfaith.

As I pointed out to Conrad, I have no issue with Chris’s interest in Interfaith (my personal misgivings about the enterprise, which pretty much mirror those of PZ Myers, aside).  My gripes are precisely what I said: I feel he shields religion.  Contrary to what Conrad said, I do not care if Chris Stedman criticizes religion.  I do not care because I do not demand that others criticize religion.  What I do expect is for those on my side not to play sentinel when others do make valid criticisms of religion.  Therein lies an important distinction.

But it got me thinking.  I am committed to the idea that our movement requires many types of activists.  It cannot thrive without the militant ones like myself, PZ Myers, and Greta Christina.  Nor can it do well without the soft, community-building diplomats (Lucy Gubbins comes to mind).  One thing I frequently harp on is how the majority of the most aggressive atheists will scarcely ever accuse the diplomats of harming our movement – a courtesy we are rarely returned.  We generally support the diplomats!  We want the Chris Stedmans of the world out being nice – in fact, we want them to stop wasting time complaining about the firebrands being a liability, which we clearly aren’t, and go fill their role as the nice guys.  They’d get a lot more accomplished.

Yet here I was in a post hammering on another atheist for their tactics.  Why was I doing this if I supported a multilateral approach to social change?  It took me a moment to identify the disconnect.  In short, I stand by my assessment: that our movement needs many types of activism, it simply does not need all types of activism.

Our movement contains a series of goals, one of which is a world where atheists are free of discrimination from religious people. This is a goal shared by virtually every atheist in the movement, and it is a goal for which a multitude of approaches works.  It needs the diplomats convincing people that atheists are kind, and it needs the firebrands forcing the hand of political change.  I think it is this goal that leaps to mind when people utter the phrase ‘the atheist movement’.

But we do not hold that goal to the exclusion of others.  Another goal, not necessarily shared by all of us (no goal is held universally in this movement), is to convince religious people that they are in error.  Both sides of the spectrum also contribute to this – the diplomats just tend to focus on correcting the error that atheists are evil while the firebrands tend to focus on changing their minds about all the unsupported garbage people believe about god (we tend to adopt the position that the idea that atheists are monsters will evaporate at that point).  There is also the difference in tone, but we’re all going about it in our own ways and all of those ways work (even if the degree to which they work will forever be in debate).

Anyway, the problem arises when our goals do not match up in critical ways.  I believe that irrationality is the cause of a large amount of senseless inhumanity and that religion preserves irrationality, even elevating faith as something of which to be proud rather than a point of embarrassment.  It is my not my goal to coexist with such ideas, but to actively work to eliminate them from the face of our species.  This means that anybody who views religion as beautiful or healing to humanity is unlikely to be my ally on this front.  They can be my ally for a host of other goals, and even in the atheist movement on the whole, but not on this.

It is here that I must go after Chris Stedman and the few like him who, I believe, take the concept of diplomacy to such an extreme that tact takes a back seat to deference.  It is a good thing that this criticism is being made.  One of the glories of this movement is that (ideally) we treat all ideas with the same expectations for soundness.  This is something we have so right that religion has so wrong.  Imagine if we never had to keep an eye on the Catholic church because they were competent at policing their own!  So when Chris or any other atheist is in error, we shouldn’t feel guilt born of some false sense of allegiance when we point it out.  My allegiance is to rationality, not atheism.

So go ahead: tell religious people that I’m a big, hulking meanie.  Tell them that not all atheists are so cruel as I.  Tell them that non-believers are nice, and good, and sweet.  Mop up whoever we don’t mow down.  This does not pick my pocket in the least.  I obviously have no issue being the bad guy and letting the religious people run to the ‘nice’ atheists for comfort after we’ve just reduced their beliefs to their component atoms.

But if you’re telling religious people that their offense is justified when we draw cartoons in response to the leaders of their religion threatening our lives for doing so, that’s a different story.  Chris Stedman has done this.  I was on a panel in Buffalo a year ago watching him do this.  This extends beyond offering sympathy for hurt feelings or treating religious people with kindness and becomes aiding in the protection of ideas that drive these kind of human rights abuses.  Criticize nicely if you feel so led.  Hell, don’t criticize at all if that’s your cup of tea.  But don’t tell them they’re in the right for being offended if we draw cartoons just because they believe it strongly.  They’re not.

Part of why people stay religious is because it is easy to do.  I seek to make it less easy.  I seek to create a world where people cannot open their mouths to tell someone about Jesus without wondering if, without the obligatory respect to which religion has grown accustomed, the target of their evangelism will make a public fool of them.  I dream of a world where irrationality knows no sanctuary and no quarter outside the cathedral.  To the end of creating a world hostile to holding lousy ideas for bad reasons, the people kowtowing to the offense of the believers cannot be my ally.  Even though we’re fighting for some of the same goals, I need not pretend as though someone trying to coexist with religious ideas can be my cohort in creating a scathing climate for religious ideas.

Chris often wants to treat religious people like they are trying to be reasonable and simply failing (and in my experience, he’s very wishy washy on the failing part).  But religious people are not always trying to be reasonable – oftentimes their goal is simply to defend their beliefs no matter what, not to evaluate them.  I see no need to treat those people like they are trying to play fair when this happens, but to instead to try and instill the shame somebody should feel when they exhibit no care for intellectual honesty.  And if that means I need to hurt their feelings by deconstructing their errors and hanging them up for public viewing, then I will.

Now, I’ve been told in the wake of all this that Chris Stedman is willing to criticize religion and that he has done so.  I’m doubtful, but that doesn’t even matter – I don’t require him to criticize religion.  I ask very little.  I merely ask that he does not stand between religion and valid criticisms levied by others while bending to their screams of offense.  (I would be more than willing to have a dialogue with him about this (and would love to hear it from his mouth), as to where he believes criticism is warranted and his defenses of that position if, as I am told, he truly believes religion should be criticized.  He even consented to a dialogue with me twice and then failed to follow through on both occasions.  Several other times he has promised clarifications and has not made them.  What is a well-meaning firebrand to do?)

Anyway, in summation, does the atheist movement need all types?  No.  It needs firebrands, it needs moderates, it needs diplomats, and it needs everybody in between.  It needs people who will give a shoulder to religious people after the aggressors have reduced their beliefs to cinders.  It needs activists working to coexist with the believers who have swallowed the poison in sub-lethal doses.  While some people need to be bludgeoned out of belief, others need to be coaxed out, and for that we need the softies (and I do not use that term derogatorily).  The movement needs atheists treating believers as though they have good intentions as well as the ones heaping shame on believers for not taking their beliefs seriously enough.  I stand by this statement.

What it absolutely does not need is people shielding opinions from criticism simply because those opinions arose from a religious impetus or because those opinions are cherished.  It does not need people telling the believers there is an iota of truth to their opinions when there isn’t because they feel the faithful may not like us otherwise.  Many of those opinions are not only anti-atheist but anti-human rights, as we saw with the Muhammad cartoons and as we presently see with situations like the religiously motivated crusade against LGBT rights.  It is not entirely bad people responsible for these things, but largely good people contaminated by shitty ideas, and those ideas will not go away because they are stroked, petted, and protected in order to convince religious people that we are amicable.  Individually we can coexist with irrationality, but not at the societal level – the story of human history confirms this.

Even an atheist can become so protective of religion that they stop being a champion of reason and become a champion of faith (S.E. Cupp, for instance).  It is my opinion that Chris falls squarely on that side of the spectrum and should be chided fiercely for it.

I will never criticize someone for being nice, but I will break out the claws in a minute when they give refuge to the evils I’m trying to unmake.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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