On Zach Alexander’s review of Chris Stedman’s book.

On Zach Alexander’s review of Chris Stedman’s book. November 14, 2012

Zach Alexander has a solid review up of Chris Stedman’s new book in which he is rightly critical in a few places and rightly praising in some others.  It’s long, but worth the read.  I’m going to touch on the parts I think are important.

The most obvious problem is that even as Chris extolls the virtues of religious pluralism, he delivers an anti-pluralist message to his fellow atheists. Not content to merely do his own work, inviting like-minded people to join him, he expects the entire herd of cats to conform to his particular temperament and interests. Rather than increasing the breadth of the movement with his unique voice, he wishes to narrow it.

Second, even as he preaches respect, he casts aspersions on the so-called New Atheism, calling it “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful” (14). This is a curious way to call for more civility. And it betrays what, on closer inspection, seems to be a rather shallow appreciation for some of the dangers of religion – dangers that arguably justify much of the sharper New Atheist rhetoric.

In short, the central irony of the book is that the person who hopes to inspire atheists towards greater respect of religious diversity is disrespectful of the diversity in his own community.

And when you flesh out this picture with several astoundingly tone-deaf statements, risibly bad arguments, and signs of incipient narcissism, the result is tragic – a book whose narrative and core messages are pure gold, delivered in a manner that virtually guarantees their widespread rejection.

Yes this.  Why do I like James Croft but despise Chris Stedman?  I get asked that a lot, and the answer is always that Croft refuses to throw other atheists under the bus to make inroads with the religious.  Croft realizes that people should stick to what they’re good at, rather than insisting everybody emulate him.  Stedman, while lauding his own humility, does the exact opposite.  Stedman also will overlook the wickedness of religion to snuggle up to it (all the while denounces the critics of wickedness) and will even insist that we treat the most egregious offenses to sanity with kindness.  Croft does no such thing, and for that he gets my respect.

This deserves being unpacked. How often do religious people ask atheists, with total sincerity, to talk about their atheism, and listen attentively? Almost never. But when you do what Chris and I are talking about, all the time. He is worth quoting at length here:

“Whether engaging Christians around my negative experiences as a former evangelical and a queer person, or challenging my religious peers to explain their beliefs rationally, I’ve found interfaith work to not only be a fruitful place for such conversations but, in fact, the ideal forum for it. I can fondly recall any number of incidents when I argued theology and philosophy with religious colleagues while doing interfaith work and now, later, they told me that they actually took my perspective seriously because we had built a trusting relationship. It made all the difference that I treated them as intellectual equals – as people with respectable goals rather than just mindless adherents of some stupid religion. They had heard positions similar to mine in the past from other atheists, but the arguments had been presented so disrespectfully that they made no impact, and in some cases closed my religious colleagues to even entertaining such ideas.” (173-174)

Showing atheist and agnostic youth that they don’t have to choose between their community and their convictions.

It seems to be implied here that the reason religious people want Chris around is because he is nice to them, and that he then uses the opportunity to gently assure them that their beliefs are wrong.  However, whenever I suffer through one of Stedman’s articles, the message is that religion is beautiful and good for people.  I suspect that his is more the reason the religious keep him close.

It is upon that point, of Chris’s message that religion is beautiful if practiced in particular ways, that I simply cannot budge.  Religion is not beautiful, nor is it good for people.  Not even close.  At its very, very best, you can rightly say that religion can get people to do good things for bad reasons, while lending tacit endorsement to the machinations of irrationality that make monsters of others.  And that is the very best you can say.

The idea of salvation through belief in the absurd is not beautiful.  The idea that it is acceptable to not make the full effort to be reasonable is not beautiful.  Ever.

We have a moral obligation to try and be reasonable, and I don’t see how it can be argued that religion does not do its best to dissuade people from that obligation.  As I’ve said before…

A few times per year you can bet that a child will fall sick with a preventable illness.  Rather than take that child to the doctor, the parents will pray and pray (and will recruit others to pray).  They will do this for weeks as their child’s condition worsens.  Their pulse will slow, their skin will lose its color, their breathing will evaporate, they will weep in pain and at no time will the parents summon an ambulance.  They will watch and pray until their child dies.

If the word “bad” is to have any meaningful definition, parents who watch as their child slowly and painfully dies are bad.  They are monsters.  But there is an important thing to note: these parents loved their child.  They loved their child as much as you love yours (or would love yours).  They wanted their child to get well as much as any loving parents.  The evil of these parents did not spring from the womb of malcontent.  The fault was that the parents failed to be reasonable.  That’s it.  They had bad ideas about how the universe worked that twisted their love into the murder of their offspring.

And so it is with so many who do harm to others, whether it is the Catholic church hastening the spread of AIDS or Muslims carving away at their daughters’ genitals, irrationality corrupts good intentions.  This is why if you have good intentions you have a moral obligation not only to yourself, but to those around you who are affected by your actions (which are an extension of your beliefs), to try and figure out reality to the best of your ability.  To fail to do so is to gamble with the lives of those around you.

I do not mind friendship with religious people.  I do not even abhor kindness to them.  But on the subject of reason, there should be no compromise.  They are failing themselves and they are failing their neighbors, and in a way that is not inconsequential.  We should not be telling them that this is ok or acceptable.

Zach even touches on this.

The source of the alienness felt between Chris and much of the atheist community, myself included, is this: he values compassion and social justice to a remarkable, exemplary degree, yet places almost no value on the epistemological virtues near and dear to most in the atheist movement, such as rationality, skepticism, and the scientific method.

It’s easy to miss, because he pays just enough homage to these values to pass under the radar. But once you see it, it’s unmistakeable.

I first noticed it in chapter 7, where he considers Greta Christina’s influential 2011 blog post on the goals on the atheist movement. He disputes that the demise of religion should be among them, because religion itself isn’t so much the problem as the specific negative traits it is prone to. Which, so far as it goes, is a sensible attitude to take.

Those traits are not, necessarily the product of religion.  But those negative qualities are not produced in a vacuum.  In well-intentioned human beings they are always the product of unreason.  Always.  And while there are irrationalities in any world view, there is only one institution telling the world that irrationality is alright rather than something we should be perpetually trying to root out and destroy.  That institution is religion.  When the ability to view casting reason aside as a virtue in order to embrace ridiculous ideas like resurrections and virgin births is destroyed, religion will die with it.  The lifeblood of religion, regardless of outcome, is a nurtured irrationality.

This makes religion the enemy of humankind.  You can always argue, as Chris has, that some irrationalities land people on positive values.  But this is not reason to keep religion around.  Once you open the door to doing things for bad reasons, it is undeniably obvious that people do not only do good things for bad reasons.  And if you’re endorsing the engines of irrationality by focusing on the positive outcomes, then you are oiling the cogs that give rise to well-intentioned evil.  You can’t just say “being unreasonable is ok for group A, but not for group B.”  When I criticize unreason, as I must, it’s going to hit everybody.  If Chris wants to try and coax some people out of being unreasonable, I support him in full.  But the problem is that he shields them by extolling the beauty of faith and how good it has been for some.  And when Chris shields irrationality, even in nice people, he necessarily contributes to the offenses against social justice he so abhors when the faith he defends sinks its malicious claws into an otherwise caring mind elsewhere.

In passage after passage, he rightly preaches compassion and decries injustice, but is conspicuously silent on reason. He owns up to religious “atrocities” and “conflicts” – but not the absurdities that facilitate both (8). He desires a world in which “suffering and oppression” have been eliminated – but not ignorance or superstition (11). He faults some religious beliefs for being “dehumanizing” or “intolerant” – but not for being false (84, 154). He seeks to make society “more cooperative and less conflict-oriented” – but not more evidence-based (115). His mission is to “advance equality and justice” – but not rationality or free inquiry (158).

Therein lies the problem with Chris (that is absent from people like Croft).  If you want to end atrocities and conflicts, you cannot do so by embracing only certain absurdities, as if the others flying under the same flag will die off from inattention.

And what makes it even worse is that aside from building bridges with unreason, rather than only to unreasonable people, Chris consistently paints other atheists, the ones who place a higher priority on the soundness of beliefs, as the bad guys in order to do so.  The even greater disappointment is that even though his constant assurances to religious people that faith is beautiful, rather than dehumanizing, makes our jobs more difficult, most of us would just leave Chris to be the ambassador for atheism to religious groups (since we truly realize the value of a multilateral approach) if Chris weren’t always insisting that we march to his drum.

And then he wonders why people are always rebuking him (or makes up some excuse like because he works with religious people on charity projects, as if that’s what we’re complaining about).

Now, perhaps I’m mistaken here. Perhaps I missed a blog post where Chris explains how he does, in fact, care about all these things. But until I see him wax poetic about the scientific method, or exhibit some passion for the theory of evolution, or at least confess his abiding love for Star Trek: The Next Generation – color me skeptical. I’m not asking him to be Neil deGrasse Tyson. I just fail to see how someone who gives half a fig for truth or knowledge or discovery could be asked to share his perspective about the origin of the universe, by a sincerely interested Christian in a friendly conversation, and deflect the question entirely as irrelevant (157). Say what you will about the Christian – but at least he’s not incurious.

And this disjunct in values clarifies virtually everything puzzling and maddening about the book.

I have often had this exact same frustration with Chris.

It explains why he is so hypocritcal about pluralism and respect – he simply does not see much value in the epistemic goals of the “New Atheists,” seeing only the hurt feelings they cause, and the interfaith work they could be doing instead. Granted, if Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were going around offending people for no higher purpose, Chris would be right to call their work “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.” But they aren’t. And he isn’t.

Bingo.  So often, the mere existence of atheists causes hurt feelings.  Often, no matter how gentle we are, there are hurt feelings.  Many religious people have realized that hurt feelings, or demanding their beliefs not be scrutinized under some twisted idea of respect (as if respect were the same as creating a culture of condescending one another with silence), is a way to avoid criticism.  It seems to me the problem is not that religious people’s feeling are often hurt when we say they’re wrong, or when we point out that contents of their holy books are immoral, but rather that believers have not been acclimated to hearing criticism, and so they still believe that criticism of their ideas is criticism of their good will.  Stedman is not helping us here.

I have nothing but disdain and criticism for the guy wearing this shirt.

A man wearing a shirt that reads "Jesus is a cunt."

And have said so in talks at American Atheists.  Offense is his goal, and that’s a shitty goal.

However, the goal of the atheists Chris disparages is not like the man in the picture, and we dislike getting tossed into the same basket because Chris Stedman is incapable of telling the obvious difference.  We are not out to offend, we simply reject offense as a reason to stop.  We are out to remind people that being reasonable is an obligation they have to society and to chastise those who say otherwise.  It’s just that religion is the greatest offender, and so it gets a majority of the criticism.

It explains the single most baffling, dumbfounding fact about the book. That a professional atheist could, with a straight face, ask nonreligious, faithless people to engage themselves in “religious pluralism” and “interfaith work” – a hard enough sell as it is – without making the slightest attempt to find more atheist-inclusive terms for these activities. There are no words. No, really – when I realized the full extent of this, I sat dumbstruck, staring at the page like it was the monolith at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Chris, are you kidding me? It’s like inviting bank robbers to a police convention – without making even a half-hearted attempt to make it more appealing by calling it a “bank robber/police convention.” And it’s not like it would’ve been difficult to perform a find/replace with “interfaith” and “secular-interfaith” in his manuscript. And it’s not like people haven’t been telling him this. Yet somehow, he seems wholly uncomprehending of just how big a nonstarter this is (174). But it makes total sense. Because to him, “faith” is as benign as your choice of shoes. What’s the big deal?

And it explains why some of his arguments are just so appallingly bad. In the final two chapters, at times I felt like I was a TA again, grading a third-rate undergraduate philosophy essay. I don’t mean to say Chris is unintelligent – only that it is abundantly clear he is not intellectually exerting himself when he writes a sentence like the following (emphasis mine):

Until those of us who do not believe in God are seen as having an equal capacity to be moral, anti-atheist remarks will continue to perpetuate discrimination and atheists will be seen as less moral than the religious.” (152)

In related news, until the sun comes up, it will be down; and if you only have three oranges, you don’t have four. I would gracefully overlook this, had he written an authentic memoir from his own experience and been content with that. But if he’s dying to make sweeping normative claims, throw bombs at people he disagrees with, and be taken seriously in the process, I recommend he first master the skill of stringing words together into meaningful sentences.

And considering this gulf of difference, and all of the above problems it causes, and the fact that Chris, while preaching his message of listening, does not seem to have been listening to his own community well enough to avoid at least a few of them, yet still has the hubris to compare himself toMoses (131) – I cannot believe I have to write that – frankly, I find myself beginning to sympathize with even his most immoderate critics.

But Zach sees common ground with Stedman and ultimately doesn’t sympathize with Chris’s most immoderate critics.  I honestly share the same common ground with Chris that Zach talks about.  I think community building is hugely important (I have said so in my talks and writing and never said otherwise), I think social issues are very important (I have said so repeatedly and never said otherwise), and I also think having the conversation with religious people is important (that topic alone is what I speak about the most); so do PZ Myers and Greta Christina and pretty much every other atheist Chris gripes about.  I see no reason that we cannot demand reason from our neighbors, build communities, and focus on social issues all at the same time (since virtually all atheists do).  I will not give Chris and his ilk the monopoly for doing these things when we all do them (Skepticon, anybody?), and I will certainly not give him a pass on his other awful behavior because we have some overlap.

In the end, Zach urges us to give Chris a second chance.

So I urge the community, especially those critical of Chris’s work, to be a little more tolerant of his peculiar turn of mind, and to give his book an open-minded, sympathetic reading, with as many grains of salt (and perhaps aspirins) as you need, and see if there is something you can learn from it. I think you might be surprised.

To which I must say “no.”  I’m sorry.  Perhaps there is something to learn by rifling through Stedman’s numerous apologetics for faith (see links above), his passive-aggressive vanity, and his incessant derision of other atheist activists, but it’s simply not worth it to me.  The time I have to indulge in the thoughts of others is limited, and the things I can learn from Stedman I can almost certainly learn elsewhere without the aspirin.  Hell, I could learn more from people like Zach Alexander, and obviously so.

Zach’s conclusion is a zinger that others have been delivering for years, but I’m glad to see it coming from somebody from the more diplomatic camp.

And I urge you, Chris, if you’re reading, to consider the possibility that you give epistemic concerns too little weight. Many of us care so deeply about them because we believe ideas have consequences, and absurdities sometimes beget atrocities, or at least, facilitate them – and in fact, your own story seems replete with fresh evidence of this. We see ourselves as striking at one of the roots of injustice, rather than merely the most obvious branches. So even if you have little native passion for truth and knowledge, I think you should care about them for that reason alone.

But most of all, I urge you to take your own advice – to listen more, condemn less, make fewer blanket statements, stop projecting your own experiences onto others, and celebrate the diversity of values and temperaments among the godless as well as the religious.

And to have a bit more humility. You have so much to offer. The movement, this country, and this planet desperately need more people with your depth of compassion. But we don’t need more people who are full of themselves. You call yourself “humble” (162) – almost always a performative contradiction – and I respectfully disagree. But perhaps we can respectfully agree that, in the way you’re currently operating, you have a lot to be humble about.

I don’t reserve much optimism that Chris will listen.  For proof of Chris’s hypocrisy (which suggests why he might have a problem listening at times), look no further than his minions like Vlad Chituc.  When other atheists are derisive, it’s a teary day for Stedman.  When his friends do it (or say that they don’t mind doing it, while simultaneously trying to create trouble for those who do), Stedman gives them a platform regardless of how obviously they’re full of shit or how dickish they are to others.  Anybody who watches that circus and who has spent any amount of time watching Chris preening himself cannot help but see the lack of consistency.  And just as obliviously as he wonders why other atheists don’t like him, Chris cannot fathom why most atheists consider his blog to be, at least in part, a cult of personality, rather than an embassy to the faithful.

But, at least this review exists in case anything ever changes, cynical as I am about the prospects.

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