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Religion Secularism

Chris Stedman’s “Faitheist” – a review

ContentImage-7471-124608-about_faitheistEven though unreason of various forms can be a dangerous thing, there are few of us who don’t occasionally take comfort in some sort of convenient fiction (or potential fiction) – whether it be that our sports team is the best, or that that the look we received was innocent, rather than evidence that the people across the room were saying nasty things about us.

There’s a range of significance to fictions, of course. If you don’t much care about what people think of you, you might simply note that look, and think little more on it. You might engage in some casual banter with a supporter of another football team, but not be the sort to have heated arguments about something as inconsequential as sports are.

That’s clearly a different level of importance by comparison to a fiction that allows you to sweep child molestation under the rug, to justify misogyny, or causes you to pray over a child while she dies, instead of rushing her to hospital. And beneath all of this, I consider it indisputable that whether something is true or not matters. It matters profoundly, because the more false things we believe, the more likely it is that we’ll make mistakes of various kinds, ranging from the trivial to the profound.

Despite the fact that organised religion is premised on mistakes of various sorts, sometimes involving social and political ones related to power and authority, and often metaphysical ones to do with what is or should be considered significant, it would be an error to ignore the value it brings to those who do participate. It would also be an error to ignore all the things that we (as nonreligious folk) might have in common with them, regardless of those core disagreements.

But when any common ground is obscured by antagonism, stereotypes and caricatures, it’s easy to forget that we most likely have more in common than not. The average religious person lives a similar life to the non-religious person – caring about their family and friends, trying to be competent or excellent at what they do, whether it’s a job or a hobby.

Much of the time, we’d be aiming for similar outcomes – less poverty, more justice, less sexism and racism, more happiness. Of course there are exceptions, and some are notable – the institutionalised “war on women’s bodies” is one, where holding life to be sacred results in opposition to abortion for many Christians. The widespread prohibition on assisted dying is another, and in both these cases the religious view can conflict with the nonreligious one. The point remains that the average religious person is less like the extremist Mullah, or the child-molester-enabling Cardinal, than she is like you and me.

So why is it, then, that the public perception of atheists is that of them being overwhelmingly anti-religious? Well, I suppose because atheism – in and of itself – does not need to concern itself with any of these other goals. It’s precisely (and only) about a lack of belief in gods. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that what people associate with atheism is merely (and repeatedly) making the point that gods don’t exist.

And, it’s often not possible to make that point without causing offence. Which means that whether they intend to come across as offensive, antagonistic, strident and so forth or not, that’s the way that atheists will often be perceived.

There’s limited value in simply making the point that gods don’t exist, though. Or rather, there are only so many ways of saying it, and saying it is only one way of changing the world for the better. And this is why most of us are more than simply atheists – some of us are also campaigners for secularism, or for science education, or for humanism.

And again, campaigning for all those things rarely involves a necessary conflict of interest with the religious. But we can – and perhaps sometimes do – assume that a necessary conflict exists, especially in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of social media and the Internet, where mass-communication in real-time seems to encourage people to be the first to say something, rather than being the first to say something considered.

We pick fights, and occasionally also pick examples to justify those fights, ignoring the possibility that the examples might be unrepresentative. The careful work of constructing a science of the sacred – what religion means to the religious, and how best to engage with it – is by and large left to the academic endeavours of a Scott Atran or Pascal Boyer, while the blogosphere happily continues picking fights with their favourite straw men.

I generalise, of course. But those of you who follow the seemingly-endless squabbles in the secular, sceptical, or atheist community will know that fighting with each other is as much a part of the game as combating religious dogma is. And this isn’t only because there can be dogmatism and unreason on the non-religious side too – which there certainly can be – but also because everyone is sometimes guilty of being more interested in being right than in making progress.

Making progress – whether it be finding a political solution to a seemingly intractable problem, or persuading the rank-and-file Catholic to join you in publicly denouncing a child-abuse-enabling Cardinal – sometimes requires collaboration rather than antagonism. And, the former is more often appropriate than the latter is, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong – there is room for anger, and there is room for the sharpest criticism. Not only because the sharp criticism can inspire others to break with a tradition or belief, or serve as a lightning rod for debate, but also because it’s sometimes deserved. So nothing that I say here should be understood to mean that harsh criticism is always out of order. I’m just not so sure that it should be the default strategy for so many of us, so much of the time.

In any area of contestation, caricatures often win out over trying to find common ground. On the pro-science and secular side (and note the false dichotomy there – as if the religious can’t be pro-science, just like pro-life invites the caricature of “anti-life”), what community there is is partly premised on a caricature of the “other”, just like religious folk can easily point to some obnoxious atheist they know and use that person as their baseline for understanding non-believers.

What I worry about in these cartoonish versions of reality is firstly the possibility that we’re forsaking opportunities to learn things – about each other, about difference, about persuasion; and second that we’re impeding progress towards what could in many instances be common goals.

A significant proportion of secular activism – at least on the web – currently consists of people mindlessly (or so it appears) sharing photographs of a Hitchens or Sagan looking thoughtful, and accompanied by an inspirational (or blasphemous) quote. Often, these images will come from Facebook groups such as “I fu**ing love science” – as if saying so makes it true.

But many (is it perhaps most?) of the folk doing the recycling of these images don’t have a much clearer grasp on the science than the average religious person. Sure, religious folk can have some gaping holes in their understanding of some aspects of science, such as evolution – but in most areas that actually impact on day-to-day existence, they are not quantifiable less well-equipped than atheists like myself are.

What sharing photographs of Sagan does, though, is to create a (false) impression of community through imagining that “the other” is an unscientific, Bronze Age-mythology believing monotheist. That “other” in turn is encouraged to construct a shibboleth of the dogmatic, immoral and cruel New Atheist. And we’re all sometimes looking through the eyes of our respective prejudices, rather than engaging with the typical believer or nonbeliever.

The reinforcing and recycling of prejudices strikes me as quite an anti-humanist activity. And for every Hitchens, who was able to marshal a hundred quotes for every occasion in the service of cutting some religious windbag down to size, there are dozens of ordinary atheists who don’t have Hitch’s intellect or breadth of knowledge. But they are nevertheless inspired towards a similar strategy, and the problem is that in less competent hands, that sort of strategy amounts to simply being maximally offensive, and trying to bully your opponent into submission.

I’ve been working with skeptics and atheists in South Africa for the last 15 or so years, and given that I teach at a university, many of the people who seek me out to talk about these issues are relatively young. And it’s fairly consistently the case that what attracts them to the atheist movement is a fair amount of anger, and a desire to express it. They feel lied to or betrayed, and feel like they have wasted much time in service of a lie.

To be honest, they sometimes even put me off, because pomposity and arrogance – especially in your average 20 year-old – is rarely pretty. But because there is a ready-made community of people out there who will validate the anger, and encourage the blasphemy, that arrogance is planted in some very fertile soil, and some atheists seem to never get past it. Which means that they can never realise that as comforting as it might be to belong to the community of those who are right, it also isn’t changing as many minds as possible, and it’s also not contributing much to changing the world.

Young atheists are to my mind given a false choice between a hard, antagonistic approach and being some sort of a sell-out or traitor if you decline opportunities to mock people of faith. Those of us who have been in the game for a while can perhaps forget what it’s like to discover this community for the first time, especially at a time of life when many of us were insecure, and therefore quite happy to find an outlet for frustrations and disappointments.

So it’s the politics, or the messaging, that I’m most concerned with here. Calling someone an accommodationist or faitheist is also a way of mocking, and serves to disincentivise that behaviour (or to make sure that people who have those views shut up about them). Yet a middle ground does exist, because of the fact that we have so many shared interests despite our disagreements on religion.

It’s a worthwhile question to ask, as Chris Stedman does in “Faitheist”, “Do we simply want to eradicate religion, or do we want to change the world?” These goals are of course not mutually exclusive, but in our eagerness to caricature each other, I worry that we lose sight of the possibility that focusing on the latter could contribute to achieving the former. More to the point, it could do so at a lower cost than entertaining caricatures of each other does, because those caricatures prevent working together towards those goals we do have in common.

That Stedman indulges in some caricaturing of his own is one of the criticisms that has been levelled at the book. From details regarding parties attended, community activism, to the tone and messages of “new atheism”, critics have protested that Stedman gets them wrong, and wilfully so. I can’t judge much of this, but nor do I think it matters as much as some reviews would have me believe.

An uncharitable reader could even assume that Stedman is lying about a significant part of the biographical detail if they chose to. This would undermine his authority, but it wouldn’t speak for or against the book’s call for more co-operation between the religious and the nonreligious, nor his claim that atheism has become more publicly known at the cost of public goodwill.

Those two propositions are the heart of chapters 7 and 8. Much of the chapters before these are biographical, and serve to provide the reader with an understanding of why Stedman turned to, then away from religion, before finding a middle ground that allowed for cooperation with the religious even while disagreeing with some of their core beliefs.

Stedman clearly doesn’t approve of how some atheists engage with religion. While he himself only mentions PZ Myers disapprovingly, he seems to endorse the Reza Aslan quote criticising the “four horsemen”, Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. Another strong attack on the horsemen can be found in the introduction, where Eboo Patel finds it unlikely that they would perform an act of compassion Stedman later describes himself engaging in, where he reads a prayer to a friend. But that was Patel speaking, rather than Stedman.

And what Patel says there is simplistic, misleading and to my mind somewhat offensive. Having met all three surviving horsemen, and having spent many hours in the company of one of them, I’m fairly confident that if in that situation they would either do just as Stedman did, or find some compassionate way of achieving the same result without having to read a prayer. Patel reinforces the stereotype of new atheists being nasty and uncompassionate, and seeing as Stedman never disagrees with his friend Patel, perhaps we’re entitled to assume that he agrees with this caricature.

So I think Stedman is wrong to help prop this particular stereotype up – first because it’s false, and second because it’s one of the items of anti-atheist propaganda used by some religious folk. And as I’ve said above, there is room for anger and antagonism in any case. But where I’m sympathetic to Stedman’s thesis is with respect to the example that is set for young atheists, where the relative loudness of the angry voices can sometimes seem to drown out the more subdued tones of something like an interfaith movement.

But just as Stedman wrongly buys in to a certain caricature of new atheism, I’d suggest that some dismissals of the position sketched by Stedman are also based on somewhat ad hominem caricatures of the author, rather than his position. There is room for various strategies, but there shouldn’t be room – in a sceptical community – for caricaturing the proponents of any of these strategies. Regardless of whether we think Stedman disingenuous, or PZ Myers obnoxious, we can independently of that make the case for shifting our engagement with the religious more towards compassion and understanding, and less towards ridicule and mockery.

The problem is of course that we have no counterfactuals allowing for the assessment of different strategies. I was, like Stedman, mortified by David Silverman and American Atheists protestations regarding the World Trade Center “cross”. But my delicate sensibilities in this regard don’t mean that the consciousness-raising effect of those campaigns is eliminated. They might, on balance, do more good than harm. I don’t know – but I do know that they don’t speak to some atheists, and therefore that other sorts of (more moderate) messages will certainly have an audience too.

I’m sympathetic to the substance of Stedman’s argument, which depends on the idea that community and a shared narrative of some sort can be helpful for combating inequality, and fighting various social justice causes. I do think that many religious people would welcome certain kinds of support from the nonreligious, and that support starts with understanding. But understanding Stedman’s book as making some novel claim, or telling us something we didn’t know, is a mistake – and I think that criticism or praise premised on that understanding is mistaken also.

Many atheists already work with religious folk in various social justice fields, and the topic of religion seldom comes up. When it does, some of us will be hostile to religious ideas, some of us not – and what I see Faitheist doing is simply offering a corrective to the fact that the hostile sort of response seems to get more attention (inside the atheist movement) than the more accommodating one does.

Of course, the role I see Faitheist playing is not necessarily the same as the role Chris Stedman sees it playing. He seems to genuinely disapprove of some atheist bloggers, and seems to genuinely want us to all engage in interfaith collaboration far more than is currently the case. And I think he over-reaches in some respects, and that he contributes to caricatures – even as the book is an extended appeal to not engage in caricaturing the religious.

Stedman himself raises the issue, in chapter 8, as to whether 24 year-olds should write memoirs. While I don’t see that as a problem in principle, I think it becomes a problem when a memoir written by a 24 year-old risks telling others that they are doing it wrong, and that they should learn from the author how to do it right.

This precociousness is part of what has resulted in some of the negative reaction, I think, but some of that reaction has gone too far in choosing to attack Stedman’s sincerity rather than try to understand that the book can be read as an inspirational call to reflection and action (of a different sort than many atheists are used to).

It is important to understand each other, so that our dialogue can be more meaningful and productive. Of course, it’s important to allow room for that dialogue itself. As atheists, we are outnumbered – and not working across “party lines”, as it were, can perhaps mean that we don’t see the opportunities to collaborate as environmentalists, feminists, or whatever-ists – regardless of our religious views.

More generally, though, Faitheist reminds us that we perhaps have more shared values than differences. And for me, it’s also a reminder that persuasion is more difficult when people don’t want to listen to you, and therefore that there is some merit in combating a negative reputation, whether it’s a deserved one or not.

None of this means we should stop asking whether beliefs are true, nor that we should stop asking people to discard untrue beliefs where possible, even if they are comforting. But no matter how often we ask those questions, they will have no effect unless someone is listening. And why should anyone listen, when it’s clear that the person asking you to listen is far more interesting in telling you you’re wrong than in conversation?

Chris Stedman’s Faitheist is imperfect, as all books are. It’s imperfect in a quite regrettable way, though, in that it seems to have antagonised exactly some of the people Stedman was presumably trying to persuade. The argument for faitheism could have been made without propping up stereotypes around new atheism, and the title does Stedman no favours either.

Despite these and other flaws, though, I think it worth reading. It’s provocative, and it’s a call to action – and even if you don’t think interfaith work is the sort of action required, I’m in agreement with Stedman that there’s plenty of common ground between the faithful and the atheists that we’re not yet fully exploiting. And, even though this isn’t quite his claim, Faitheist reminds me that for all the good that can come of making people uncomfortable with their rituals and beliefs, much good can perhaps also come from us becoming better at understanding our similarities, as well as our differences.


I’d bookmarked a whole bunch of posts on this – mostly reactions from when an excerpt from Faitheist was published at Salon – but when sitting down to write this, I realised that there was far too much there to re-read. So, if you want to get a sense of the negative reaction to date, some of these posts are good examples – but I couldn’t tell you which, or why.

Just a shy kid with holes in his socks – Butterflies and Wheels

Stedman being Stedman – Pharyngula

Chris Stedman defends accommodationism – Sandwalk

How is religion like delicious yummy corn? – Crommunist Manifesto

Chris Stedman’s toxic atheism – Temple of the Future

Why atheists don’t respect faitheists – and you shouldn’t either – Butterflies and Wheels

Bruce Gorton’s Bollocks: More Straw Stedman – Temple of the future (a response to the link above)

Thoughts on Chris Stedman’s Faitheist – Skepticblog