Social justice, from “firebrand” to “faitheist”

Social justice, from “firebrand” to “faitheist” September 4, 2014


The Duke Chapel, looking up. Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons

At Skepchick, Courtney Caldwell discusses how her atheism changed over the years, with a trajectory I think many readers will recognize. She writes:

When I was a newbie atheist, fresh from my first reading of The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and every amateur Xanga blog I could find, I had a firm belief that no good could possibly exist within religion.“ At its best, religion is nothing more than a lie! Even when not causing outright harm, it is a delusion on par with mental illness,” I would argue. An active frequenter of r/atheism, my so-called humanism came in the form of memes and petty jabs at religion. . .

I was a firebrand atheist, and my manifestation of that said, “I’m here, I’m an atheist, and fuck you if you aren’t!” I gleefully shared every news story about abuse at the hands of religion. Every one of those stories acted as proof that I was right, I was morally superior, and I was certainly smarter than those damned theists. My glee about those stories was in no way undone by the fact that those stories were about real people whose lives, like mine, had been affected by the negative aspects of religion.

I think it’s common to see many young or recent atheists start as firebrands — a vague term coined to loosely describe the type of antitheist who relishes in confronting religious belief and debating believers. As a young atheist, I got banned from the Myspace religion forums because, emulating famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, I would often go to pick fights with believers.

I’ve heard from a lot of atheists who have moved beyond firebrand atheism. These people are maybe less visible in atheist circles, since they often leave either because they don’t want to be associated with an antagonistic picture of atheism, or they’ve simply been driven off from abuse and bullying.[1. In the years I’ve known Chris Stedman, I’ve seen him on the receiving end of enough abuse from atheists to make me want to never associate with the term again. He and his family have been threatened. He’s been called racist for saying Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by his faith. I’ve seen big figures in atheist blogs write posts mocking him and his mother because she left a comment on his Facebook page. Posts have been written titled “Piss on Chris Stedman.” He’s been called anti-atheist and accused of throwing atheists under the bus at more or less every opportunity and for no reason I can tell other than that he criticized anti-theism. Many fatheists, I think can share similar stories, though obviously not so extreme.] Those with a more collaborative view of religious engagement—pejoratively called “faitheists” by Jerry Coyne, a term which some, like Stedman and Caldwell, have reclaimed—often aren’t represented in atheist circles.

Social justice has always been a pressing issue for the faitheist crowd, partnering with religious believers to address issues like LGBT rights, feminism, and discrimination against religious minorities. That firebrands have started to take up social justice causes seems to be only a relatively recent development, and there still remains pretty substantial resistance and pushback.

Certainly there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every religious problem, and different atheists in different contexts have unique goals and needs. Firebrand atheism only seems to make sense, though, if the most important issue to you is whether or not people believe in God. I think that’s misguided, even for social justice issues stemming from religious abuses. Deconversion is no guarantee harmful views will go away, and the existence of progressive believers serves as an example for how we might more productively engage with harmful religious beliefs. It’ll always be easier to address a specific issue like religiously based homophobia by taking “LGBT inclusive Christian” as your goal, rather than “hopefully-LGBT inclusive atheist.”

Caldwell ends her piece reflecting having been both a firebrand and a faitheist. She writes:

So where do I fall? After flirting with both sides of the Firebrand vs. Faitheist Rift, I find my own time is best spent amongst the interfaith activists. That isn’t to say that I see absolutely no use for firebrands (obligatory #NotAllFirebrands). My feminism, queer politics, and other activist ideals have been molded by the likes of Jason Thibeault, Greta Christina, PZ Myers, and others who identify as firebrand atheists. We may have differing approaches to religion, but I’m glad there are others interested in making atheism compatible with social justice

I agree, but I think it’s a shame that, on topics of social justice, firebrand atheists have distanced themselves from so many allies for so long.

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