“Faitheist”, the Review


Simon Davis got caught up in some of the discussion around the Salon excerpt from Chris Stedman’s Faitheist. He ended up reading the whole book, and once he was done, he asked whether I’d be interested in a review. I am, so here it is.

The recent excerpt from the first chapter of Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist in Salon.com piqued my interest. It told the story of Stedman’s attendance of his first atheist event in 2009 and how this influenced his interfaith advocacy as a nonbeliever. I had already read some of Stedman’s past blog posts discussing his disagreements with well-known atheists and their approaches to religion; however, his retelling of this personal experience was what caught my eye. To be blunt, I was not convinced that the account was accurate and wanted to investigate the facts–to the extent I could. In the process of doing so, I thought to myself “in for a penny, in for a pound” and so decided it was only fair to read the book in its entirety and offer my thoughts accordingly.

Faitheist is part memoir and part interfaith advocacy. Chapters 2-6 detail Stedman’s life from childhood all the way through graduate school and his internship at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and include his personal journey from being non-religious to Evangelical Christianity and then to no longer believing in God. Chapters 7 and 8 also contain personal anecdotes from after this but are primarily Stedman’s arguments for interfaith engagement by nonbelievers. Stedman was 24 when he wrote the book (p. 159).

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 is entitled “There’s Nothing Worse Than a Faitheist”. The main thrust of the chapter including the context for this quote is in the Salon.com excerpt mentioned previously. In reading this it’s hard not to sympathize with Stedman. As a newcomer at an atheist event, he tells the story of being spoken to in a plainly derisive manner for expressing a perfectly respectable opinion.

To me, this is not acceptable behavior. As someone who organizes dozens of events large and small on a regular basis in the DC area for nonbelievers I wanted to know if this was indicative of a larger problem. If there was a fellow organizer in Chicago who was consciously allowing this to happen I wanted to know who it was. I’ve witnessed similar cringe-worthy and awkward discussions with less dramatic language take place over the years, so I had no problem believing that a conversation along these lines may have taken place.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that in my experience of attending hundreds of atheist, skeptic, and humanist events I had never heard anyone referred to as a “faitheist”. The same held true for others I asked. Even on the much more rough-and-tumble blogosphere dialog, the fact is that “faitheist” was not a term that ever really took off. Furthermore, the story and the characters–for which he seems to recount very precise details–seemed a bit surreal to me, with no apparent acknowledgement of this by the author. After all, life can seem surreal at times.

As it happens, Stedman wrote about the event in question in a 2009 article for the Washington Post’s On Faith column just four days after it had occurred on Sunday, November 15. At the time, his byline stated that he was “writing a novel and an accompanying paper on storytelling”. There was no mention of the term “faitheist” and almost no dialogue quoted. To my knowledge, Stedman never even used the word “faitheist” in writing until February 2011 when it was the name for his speaking tour. To me it seems contradictory that someone would feel strongly enough about being called a particular word to “reclaim” it in a similar way that he has done with the word “queer” (p. 15), and yet still wait so long to write about it.

But what about the rest of the story in Chapter 1? In order to corroborate the account, I located the original listing and got in touch with the panelists. It was a volunteer-run, local CFI Chicago event.* Most of Stedman’s story was confirmed. He did attend a Sunday afternoon panel discussion hosted by a local secular group on the role of religion in a secular society. This was followed by a “social time” private event (as the host referred to it) at the residence of one of the panelists.

The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.

At the “social time”, Stedman was probably the youngest person, but the dress-code was casual, which raises questions about his claim to have been “fashionably underdressed” (p. 3). Nobody I spoke to had a recollection of hearing the term “faitheist” or any other part of the conversation that Stedman described. Likewise the description of the couple he says he had it with was not recalled, though there were about 30 attendees and there were many conversations going on. Stedman says he “sat down on the couch, carefully balancing a mint julep in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres I couldn’t name in the other” (p.3). There were no mint juleps served, only homemade pizzas, sandwiches, and cookies.

As for the term “faitheist” per se, it has been in existence since before 2009. It is a play on the two words “faith” and “atheist” that isn’t isn’t very difficult to arrive at. However, the origin in this context seems to have been Jerry Coyne’s blog post from July 2009, just four months before the event in question. Indeed, I could not find any documented evidence outside of Stedman’s book of use of the term in a similar fashion in an “offline” setting by anyone in the secular movement. Sufficient evidence would be mentions in secular conferences, journals of the day, or even a YouTube video of an event. Something akin to “accommodationism” which was a term used at the time and reflected in the relevant literature and conferences. It seems more like Stedman is claiming the term “faitheist” as opposed to re-claiming as he says.

Following the story on page 14, Stedman includes the following disclaimer of sorts (emphasis mine):

I’m going to do my best to tell my story honestly, but I haven’t the best head for facts, names, dates, or anniversaries. (Ask my mom how many years she has received a Mother’s Day card on time.) In other words, I’m a big-picture kind of guy; the details slip through the cracks in my floorboards. Moreover, my mom swears up and down that several of the few vivid memories I’ve retained from childhood simply didn’t happen. I’d like to believe she’s wrong, but I fear she may be right. For example, she tells me that one day in community children’s swimming lessons I earnestly informed all of my water-winged classmates that my mom had gotten pregnant with me when she was in high school; she turned to the parents standing alongside her at the side of the pool and explained, red-faced, that I suffered the deadly combination of being a wildly imaginative storyteller and having a shoddy memory. I’m not sure they believed her, but if there’s one thing my mom is not, it’s a liar—I just don’t always get things right in hindsight. Still, I will endeavor to tell it like it was. I may shift a few names or dates along the way to respect the privacy of some, but the spirit of what I write will be as true as I can muster.

With this in mind, how much should the veracity of Stedman’s account matter to the reader? Given that the incident is presented as illustrative of a wider phenomenon that he wishes to combat and that the dialogue contains the title of his book, I would say that accuracy is important. It may be be too much to ask to require an author to adhere to transcript-like precision in their memoir, especially for events from the distant past. However, if Stedman is aware of his inability to recall certain details of key events from his life where others were present, I think jogging his memory by getting in touch with others (as I did) to corroborate his recollection would have been helpful. Of course, I have no way of knowing his creative process and who he did and didn’t speak to in writing the book. But in the Chapter 1 incident he appears to have gone based on his recollection alone.

*In the interest of full disclosure: my wife is a CFI staff member and I assist in organizing events at the DC branch.

The Memoir

In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. This is also the same time that he begins to read the Bible and the Left Behind books. He quotes the numerous Biblical passages as he describes the anguish he felt reading the anti-gay passages, as well as the various inconsistencies. This causes Stedman to feel very guilty about his orientation to the point of even thinking that it was to blame for his parents’ divorce and largely isolating himself from his surroundings. After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.

He then attends a Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.

Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir. For example, even though he discusses his visit to the site of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, he doesn’t explain exactly how Romero’s religious beliefs influence his political activism. On the other hand, his mentor Eboo Patel in the book’s introduction says very directly: “Islam means to submit to the will of God, and I believe God is mercy and my Muslim-ness depends on whether I am merciful to those around me. Whatever compassion and conviction and courage I may have, I believe it comes from God.”

Stedman says that “At its core, this book isn’t about my family life; not directly, anyway. It’s about my experiences with religion. Religion was the conductor of my adolescence and early adulthood, always standing before me, motioning vigorously while I struggled to discern what I was being asked to do.” (p. 16). When it comes to Stedman’s experiences in religious settings, the memoir does not disappoint. Stedman clearly struggles to reconcile contradictory and bigoted Biblical passages with what is for him a mostly welcoming Christian community. This is something he acknowledges is the exception to the rule for most gay youth (p. 58). At the same time, he obviously wants religion to continue to play a role in his life despite his rejection of God.

As an aside, readers should be cautioned that at the beginning of each chapter in the book, Stedman includes a quote from a famous person. These are mostly not sourced and sometimes even incorrect. For example, there is the following Carl Sagan quote at the beginning of Chapter 1: “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them— the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” (p. 1). The correct quote from p. 300 of The Demon-Haunted World is:

And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us v. Them–the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive.

[Ed. note: The rest of this paragraph reads, “It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.” –SZ]

Update 11/29/2012: As pointed out in the comments, the quote used on p. 1 of Faitheist that Stedman attributes to The Demon-Haunted World is in fact from Sagan’s article “Wonder and Skepticism” in Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 19.1, February 1995. –SD

Another example is from the beginning of Chapter 4 where he attributes the quote “If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past” to Dolly Parton without further information. This is in fact from the Truvy Jones character she played in Steel Magnolias. There is also an unsourced Sartre quote at the beginning of Chapter 5 (“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” p. 82). I was unable to locate the source on my own and sent an email to Stedman on Nov. 11 requesting more information. This has so far gone unanswered.

The Case for Interfaith

In Chapters 7 and 8, Stedman details his case for interfaith involvement by non-believers. He talks about his first exposure to humanist literature while interning at IFYC, his first attempt at creating a local humanist group in Chicago, and his eventual move to Boston to join the staff of Harvard Humanist community. He goes on to discuss his perception of popular atheist discourse and his disagreements with it. In the final chapter he reflects on some of the lessons he’s learned so far and details his four main arguments for why non-believers should engage in interfaith activism as well as address two main critiques.

The discussion around involvement in interfaith precedes Faitheist and will likely continue. For those who are looking for a general overview of the main arguments, the final chapter is a good place to find them all in one place and I would recommend reading it in its entirety. Rather than go over everything in the final chapters individually, I’ll offer some thoughts on what stood out to me personally.

Stedman cites numerous articles in Chapter 7. Two of them are substantial misrepresentations. On page 145 he says: “When the majority of prominent atheist-identified thought leaders name “the end of faith” as one of the movement’s top priorities” and cites what appears to be this Beliefnet Sam Harris interview from 2005 (Stedman doesn’t provide full hyperlinks to his online sources-only each site’s homepage and the article name/date). There’s no mention of the “movement” or it’s priorities. This is simply Harris’s opinion.

Stedman also says the following (p. 155):

One study, from 2010, found that atheists in the United States are less agreeable and less conscientious than the religious— but that the factors responsible were largely cultural, and atheists’ minority position in American society played a significant role in this being so.

The source is a blog post by Tomas Rees which was indeed headlined: “Atheists are disagreeable and unconscientious”; however, the post starts: “Well, that’s the headline. To understand why this might be, you need to dig into the details of the study” and ends with (emphasis mine):

And there is one important caveat you need to bear in mind. These studies for the most part treat religion as a continuum. Although some did look at fundamentalism, none actually looked at atheism. We can suppose that the personalities of the low-religious are shared by atheists, but until the studies are done, we can’t really be sure.

More broadly, the fact that the “interfaith movement is inherently rooted in an antifundamentalism framework.” (p.166) is a huge plus in my opinion and is absolutely a common goal with the atheist/humanist movement. Religious fundamentalism is very dangerous indeed, and the opposition has to come from people both secular and religious. To the extent that interfaith undermines fundamentalist isolationism while also involving young people in community service, it would seem to be beneficial. To give a concrete example, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) groups can serve as part of an organized and diverse opposition to CRU on college campuses in coalition with other secular and religious groups.

However, my personal sense is that if the current trend of college-aged youth being increasingly less religious and more atheistic continues, the secular groups will be better placed to become the lead opposition, given that young adults are the most reliably secular demographic in the US today. Also, from looking at IFYC’s website and YouTube videos, they give me the impression that part of their marketing/PR strategy involves portraying religion as “hip”, which is probably their way of appealing to a more secular youth, though this is not by any means unique to IFYC. However, as a thirty-two-year-old professional long out of college, I will acknowledge that I’m probably not in their target group.

IFYC’s emphasis on storytelling is also a positive in my opinion. Narrative is a powerful and humbling way of communicating. Personal stories humanize often abstract concepts. However, there is a caveat. Namely, that the stories in this book–to me at least–have a religious tone. I was by no means ever religious myself so my view may not be shared, but both Stedman’s and Patel’s stories as told in Faitheist remind me of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” If IFYC wishes to make inroads into the young atheist community, they might do well to avoid relying on rhetoric that bear this resemblance.

Overall, with the exception of Chapter 1, the book reads like a sincere account of his experiences and how they influenced his advocacy. My impression is that Stedman believes strongly in the mission and methods of IFYC. The quotes he provides from their interfaith literature do seem to percolate into his writing very noticeably. He also voices considerable criticisms to the work of atheists such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. By contrast, what I didn’t find in the book was insight into how Secular Humanism influences Stedman’s activism. He does mention that he read the writings of Paul Kurtz and Robert Green Ingersoll among others and that Humanism is something he “needed to act upon” (p. 137), but how these writings are translated into his interfaith work is not explicitly articulated. Just like with religion, he doesn’t explain how the philosophy translates into positive action. If Stedman is able to incorporate this into his advocacy, I anticipate that he will become a more effective voice for his cause.

Simon Davis is online marketing director at a health care publications company.

Comments

  1. kamsly... says

    Wait? What? So my hope of finding and befriending the group of snotty atheists who sip fancy schmancy Mint Juleps and partake of exotic culinary delights is dashed? I am disappoint.

  2. says

    My opinion of him is unchanged. And my lack of interest in further delving into his psyche is strengthened.

    Seriously, what part of this doesn’t literally scream “lonely, self-absorbed wanker”?

  3. says

    Ophelia, I assume that’s a result of grabbing the quote from the internet instead of going to the book itself. It’s all over the place in the incorrect form.

  4. says

    My evil thought for the day* is we should totally make serving canapés at skeptical/atheist gatherings a thing.

    … sort of an homage, if you will. Also, hey, they’re fun anyway.

    (/Shall I simply bring something in the category to Eschaton? Or does making it potluck canapé kind of ruin the whole meme?)

  5. melody says

    tl;dr Ha! Just kidding!

    Well done. Very thorough. Who does investigative journalism for their book reviews? I was seriously impressed.

  6. Rodney Nelson says

    In a recent discussion of Stedman at Ophelia’s blog I told one of Stedman’s minions that I was unlikely to read Faitheist. After reading Simon’s review, my opinion hasn’t changed.

    (“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” -Attributed by Stedman to Sartre

    I think this is a key to Stedman’s thinking. My armchair psychoanalysis is he has a god-shaped hole in his psyche which he’d like to fill but can’t because he intellectually rejects gods. Religion is emotionally satisfying for him but intellectually without basis. Hence his interfaith work and his criticisms of anti-theist atheists like PZ Myers and the other gnu atheists. We reject the totality of religion while he embraces the emotional (and possibly the social) aspects. He likes religion (except for the god parts) so he’s angry at those who don’t like it.

  7. Greg Peterson says

    Maybe I’m just too tolerant. Or not discerning enough. I’m about half through “Faitheist,” and OK, it is way not rocking my world so far, but it’s a perspective different from ones I’ve already encountered and I sort of like that. But then again, I see Ayn Rand getting racked over the coals and think, “Hey! I sort of like some of the things she had to say, too.” Maybe this is leftover from a childhood without access to a large pool of books, where one just learned to get something out of what was at hand. But for whatever reason, while I read everyone with utmost skeptical caution, I still manage to find much to like in books I don’t mostly agree with.

    Gag. That makes it look like, Oh, what a good boy is Greg, so tolerant and accepting;why can’t everyone be just like that. And honestly, I can be a massive a-hole to those who don’t agree with me, even on petty things. I just thinking that applying our own filter sometimes can be preferable to insisting that what we read is pristine.

  8. mandrellian says

    Shorter Stedman: “My memory isn’t very reliable and sometimes I just invent shit out of the blue (just ask my mum!) – but you must trust that everything I say to you about everything is totes exactly what happened because OMG nasty atheists are ruining it for everyone!

    Feh. My memory sucks too – that’s why I check before I present my recollections as fact, as you’d expect anyone to do if they were attempting to illustrate a community-wide problem via the depiction of a single event, regardless of the quality of their memory.

  9. says

    There is also an unsourced Sartre quote at the beginning of Chapter 5 (“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” p. 82). I was unable to locate the source on my own

    Clearly, he got it from Jonah Lehrer.

  10. simonsays says

    Similar to the Sagan quote, I’ve seen it floating around the internet on various quote sites. However they also don’t cite the source.

  11. says

    I can’t find a source for it either. I don’t see it listed on French quotation sites at all, though it’s possible it isn’t a quote that appeals to the French. It shows up in a couple of books as a Sartre quote, but it’s not sourced there either.

  12. says

    Re: “That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget…”

    … I must confess to having always felt pretty cynical about this sort of declaration. Sartre or not, it doth sound a mite… well… dramatic, to me, against what I’d expect is a more typical human reality.

    … I’m more in a “That God does not exist, I cannot deny… That I kinda miss the pancake breakfasts before the service, sometimes, anyway, a little, I guess… Sure, okay, fair enough, y’know, those weren’t bad sometimes…” space, myself.

    (And yes, you may quote me on that, wikiquote.org. Please.)

    Sorta more seriously: it’s one of those cliché things I find I equally dreadfully cynically suspect people just figure looks sorta good on themselves. I’m deep, see? Spiritual. This is how I say so. Also sensitive. See how I have these deep, transcendental yearnings for cosmic company…

    Not to mention: it’s how they say they read Sartre. Once. Or, okay, the dust jacket, anyway…

    I guess a little more charitably, I might more kindly wonder if there just isn’t a certain suggestibility behind it. People hear this notion about ‘god-shaped holes’. Feeling whatever dissatisfaction, whatever loneliness they might (and feeling either or both, and sometimes with some pervasiveness, is probably about as universal as breathing), they ascribe it to this particular perceived absence. All it may actually mean? Possibly just that Sartre’s meme has traveled, and that people are either suggestible, and/or are attracted to such dramatic declarations. Little more, with any confidence, I’d say, on balance.

  13. says

    Well, Sartre did talk about the absence of god as a drawback, but he meant that it meant human beings had to do all their own work in developing morals and ethics. We couldn’t kick back and relax.

    Appropriate to humanism (and Sartre argued for humanism), but not at all the same sense one gets from the quote, wherever it came from.

  14. F says

    Thank you Simon ans Stephanie for the further review of Self-Portrait of the Faitheist as a Young Man.

  15. DLC says

    Simon : good review of a crummy book. brain bleach is on the left next to the pink bismuth solution.

  16. clamboy says

    Stedman’s inability or laziness as regards verifying the quotes he uses does not speak at all well to the rest of the book. This guy is supposed to be a scholar, and he can’t be bothered to find the actual words, or the actual source? Shoddy at best.

    The long quote from page 14 in the review makes for pretty painful reading, too. Thank you very much for the review – I’ve got more interesting and well-written material to read than Stedman’s book, and I look forward to doing so.

  17. ovdlk says

    Hello,

    As I’m french speaking (sorry for bad English) and have quite extensively studied Sartre, I confirm that:
    – the quote is not used in France.
    – if it was in Sartre writing, my best guess would be in “Le Diable et le Bon Dieu” (wich is a play, as something said by one of the character).

    More importantly, even if this is a real quote, this completely mischaracterize Sartre philosophy, wich was clearly atheist.

  18. joachim says

    If Stedman lied about the reaons for his “deconversion”, maybe he was lying about being a Christian in the first place.

    And he would be following in the fine tradition of other atheists who claimed to believe, when in fact they didn’t, by continuing to preach…i.e., Loftus, Barker, McBain, Dewitt, et al.

    I Love The Smell Of Atheists Bashing Each Other In The Morning!!!

  19. hexidecima says

    always a red flag when someone claims to be a “big picture guy”. It always seems to be an excuse prepped in case the author is caught in a lie.

  20. says

    With this in mind, how much should the veracity of Stedman’s account matter to the reader?

    In this case, it should matter a LOT. This isn’t just any old anecdote, it’s a minor variant of the same old BS many Christians use to pretend they know atheists and have the personal experience to show that they’re all a bunch of miserable meanies minus morals. When we hear such stories from “former atheist” Christians, we conclude they’re false because the atheists we know almost never act like they do in the stories; and we immediately conclude that the person telling the stories cannot be trusted. So when this author tells a very similar story, we should all be wary. This author is being sloppy at best, and repeating a negative and harmful stereotype. If I had been inclined to read this book before, this anecdote would have changed my mind. Thanks for the heads-up, Stephanie.

  21. Brownian says

    In this case, it should matter a LOT. This isn’t just any old anecdote, it’s a minor variant of the same old BS many Christians use to pretend they know atheists and have the personal experience to show that they’re all a bunch of miserable meanies minus morals. When we hear such stories from “former atheist” Christians, we conclude they’re false because the atheists we know almost never act like they do in the stories; and we immediately conclude that the person telling the stories cannot be trusted. So when this author tells a very similar story, we should all be wary. This author is being sloppy at best, and repeating a negative and harmful stereotype. If I had been inclined to read this book before, this anecdote would have changed my mind. Thanks for the heads-up, Stephanie.

    The party anecdote in particular reminds me of the Tom Johnson (AKA Wally Smith) incident: A bunch of unnamed atheists are terrible (so very terrible!) to religious people or those sympathetic to them solely because of religion. Of course, we all know how that turned out.

    Which is part of the reason I so enjoyed this review. I even agree with Simon Davis’ perspective on the use of narrative. As someone who uses them himself, I am well aware of how easily a story can serve as a vehicle for one’s thesis, even if the facts themselves do not support it, and how dangerous that is to critical thinking.

  22. eric says

    With this in mind, how much should the veracity of Stedman’s account matter to the reader?

    I agree with Bee, it matters quite a bit. He is presumably telling the reader about the events that were important to the development of his current beliefs and positions on atheism and faith. If those events didn’t happen, then it undermines his current positions.

    Its sort of like the James Frey debacle, but writ much smaller. If you didn’t actually go to jail, your claim to have learned life lessons from your jail time is just wrong. If you imply that mint juleps and canapes taught you that atheists are pretentious, but they actually served soda and delivery pizza, then the implied claim that atheists are pretentious flies right out the window.

  23. Paul W., OM says

    Like Brownian and lots of people over at Butterflies and Wheels (incuding Ophelia) I thought of “Tom Johnson” (Wally Smith) as soon as I read Stedman’s excerpt. (I thought of Ayn Rand’s execrable dialog too.) No way did that event happen anywhere near as recounted, and it was pretty clearly a grossly exaggerated and fictionalized composite, at best, presented as if it were a good example of the kind of thing that regularly goes on among Those Awful New Atheists. (And as if Stedman hadn’t formed his very negative opinion of nasty confrontational atheists well before that seemingly formative event.)

    Of course James Croft and other apologists for Stedman popped up to defend the plausibility of his clearly purpose-built propagandistic fiction.

    Kudos to Simon for going the extra miles to show that what didn’t pass the sniff test was in fact bullshit, and to Stephanie for publishing his review.

    Thanks to you both. I raise a mint julep in your general direction.

  24. Paul W., OM says

    fwiw, I believe the food (including the pizza) was homemade.

    OMG, how pretentious and effete.

    Real non-elitist, easygoing, fashionably underdressed atheists with holes in their socks just get cheap takeout pizza. Pepperoni.

  25. says

    I guess those probably nice people who kindly invited him to their home in an attempt to be nice to him might be mightily pissed to see what they have morphed into.
    And that from the nice Mr. Stedman who thinks that accuracy in criticism is very important.

  26. says

    I sometimes suspect that Fatheist, NonProphet Status and related endeavors are a big, hipster, ironic farce and their proponent giggle into their once-cool designer beverages every time we take them at face value. It would explain the execrable writing but I doubt anyone could maintain the required level of cynicism for that long. And I can’t fathom the thinking that would allow someone to describe their friends as both “hipster” and “nice”.

  27. Rodney Nelson says

    Paul W., OM #37

    James Croft and other apologists for Stedman

    One thing I’ve noticed is that Stedman never defends himself in the blogosphere. His surrogates and proxies carry his banner and battle for the Stedman’s honor, but he doesn’t deign to argue with his opponents, at least not of the gnu atheist flavor.

  28. madscientist says

    @Raging Bee#32: I agree entirely. It’s very much like the case of Chris Mooney parroting the lies of that religious guy who made up all those stories about the nasty mean atheists – what was his fake name again? I thought the story was very transparent but so many people sucked it right up, perhaps because it confirmed their dearly held incorrect beliefs that nasty atheists are causing loving religious folks to shun science and sensibility. I think Stedman has probably written a book based entirely on setting up strawmen to tear down – it’s such a brave thing to do – without Stedman, who’d protect us from all those strawmen?

  29. madscientist says

    Dang … I should have read Brownian’s note at #33 first – yes, the Tom Johnson saga – that was it.

  30. says

    The pedant in me wants to tell you that I think you mean ‘Universal Resource Locator’ or URL, not ‘hyperlink’ as those are kinda hard to do in paper form – hyperlink means where text is highlighted or noted in some way and then selecting or clicking on it leads you to another position in the text or a different page or work entirely.

  31. spunmunkey says

    Well – when he did his totes Hipster tour of Australia – he got called many times a pretentious wanker… non-hip Aussie atheists pegged it.

  32. lippard says

    #7, #10: The alteration of the Sagan quote was by Sagan, when he rewrote his February 1995 Skeptical Inquirer article, “Wonder and Skepticism,” into a chapter for Demon-Haunted World. The version Stedman quotes (and which is found in other places on the Internet) is from the SI article, not the book. To call it a misquote is inaccurate, unless Stedman mistakenly attributed it to the book. If he just attributed to Sagan, or to the SI article, it’s correct.

  33. simonsays says

    Excellent find! (Jim is that you?)

    In the book the quote is attributed to The Demon-Haunted World.

    I sent a message to Stephanie to add a brief update clarifying this as well as adding the additional information on the correct quote source.

  34. Jason Loxton says

    The Sartre quote appears to be from his Essays in Aesthetics: http://tinyurl.com/cgks5tf

    If you agree, perhaps you could acknowledge it as an update in your review (it reads right now, whether intentional or not, as as you implying that Stedmen is both making stuff up and being evasive, i.e., in not responding to you).

  35. Jason Loxton says

    Hmmm… upon second look, it seems that the link I gave above includes the quote, unsourced, as an addendum. It is not part of the original text.

  36. jflcroft says

    I object to the title of “apologist”. I am no such thing. When I think Chris is right, I am happy to defend him, and when I think he is wrong, I am happy to criticize. I have no objection whatsoever to examinations of this sort which seek to determine the accuracy of the events described in a memoir, as long as they are carried out in a fair-minded way.

    What strikes me about this analysis is actually how little there was to criticize. So there were no mint juleps (gasp!) and a couple of the quotes were misattributed or wrong. One of the studies was, in your view, not reported sufficiently accurately. Regrettable, sloppy, and worthy of note, sure – but hardly damaging to the book’s central proposition. To quote the review itself:

    “Overall, with the exception of Chapter 1, the book reads like a sincere account of his experiences and how they influenced his advocacy.”

    That sounds like praise to me.

  37. says

    James

    What strikes me about this analysis is actually how little there was to criticize. So there were no mint juleps (gasp!) and a couple of the quotes were misattributed or wrong.

    You’re a very intelligent person which makes me wonder why you miss the point so much and explains why people call you an “apologist”.
    What you describe as trivial stuff, as blunders, reads like a massive load of dishonesty to other people.
    So, there were no mint juleps. I have a hard time imagining how you missremember that, because, well it’s not that mint juleps and canapés are everyday stuff. If it had been soda instead of coke, and hot dogs instead or pizza, yeah, same ballpark.
    But given Stedman’s account and the actual facts it reads like a massive made up ad hoc bullshit to misscharacterize his opponents and make himself look better.
    Same as the quotes: It doesn’t look like mistakes but like deliberate attempts to make himself look better.

  38. jflcroft says

    I think it would read more like dishonesty to me if I were committed as you are to reading uncharitably and had already made my mind up about Chris before (not) reading the book. It doesn’t seem to me at all odd that either Chris or the event organizers could misremember what was served at an event years ago. That seems to me completely normal human behavior: we misremember things like that all the time. Hence the responsible disclaimer.

    And the mistakes with the quotes seem to amount to one quote attributed to an actress when in fact it should have been attributed to a character in a movie played by the actress, one quote attributed to an author who did in fact write the quote, but in a slightly altered form in a different place (i.e. a tiny and ultimately insignificant error), and one quote which is commonly attributed to a thinker for whom no one can find exactly where it came from (very common indeed for quotes by major writers – I’ve run into that problem myself numerous times in my studies).

    These are minor issues by any reasonable account.

  39. says

    I think it would read more like dishonesty to me if I were committed as you are to reading uncharitably and had already made my mind up about Chris before (not) reading the book. It doesn’t seem to me at all odd that either Chris or the event organizers could misremember what was served at an event years ago. That seems to me completely normal human behavior: we misremember things like that all the time. Hence the responsible disclaimer.

    Bullshit. I have only read the god-awful article in Salon, but it made much out of the point about how the whole setting made him feel out of place etc. That was one of the major messages of that article (and presumably chapter one of his book). If you make it part of your central message, you fact-check – you don’t just thrown on a disclaimer (which wasn’t there in the article, as far as I can remember).

    This is the sort of shit Stedman does all the time, and the sort of stuff you downplay all the time. That’s why people call you an apologist.

    It’s not a trivial point in his book, and it appears to be completely wrong, yet you’re here defending it, trying to imply that it might be the other participants who were misremembering, when it appears obvious to everyone else, that it was quite clearly another Tom Johnson.

  40. jflcroft says

    What evidence is presented in this “review” which gives you sufficient grounds to believe the event didn’t make Stedman “feel out of place”? The piece asserts that the majority of Stedman’s description of the event is corroborated by his earlier, closer to the fact description, and was not contradicted by the people the author spoke with. How does the fact that Stedman’s description seems to have been mostly accurate and consistent diminish his credibility?

  41. says

    How does the fact that Stedman’s description seems to have been mostly accurate and consistent diminish his credibility?

    You and I obviously have different standards for what’s “mostly accurate”. Every single detail which was possible to verify proved to be wrong, except for the fact that he participated in such a meeting. The food details, the description of the clothes etc.

    What’s more, his description of the conversation cannot be verified, and the review explains pretty well why it seems highly unlikely that such a conversation ever did take place – at least with the sort of highly charged words as Stedman describes. One of which has become the title of his book, I might add.

  42. simonsays says

    And the mistakes with the quotes seem to amount to one quote attributed to an actress when in fact it should have been attributed to a character in a movie played by the actress, one quote attributed to an author who did in fact write the quote, but in a slightly altered form in a different place (i.e. a tiny and ultimately insignificant error), and one quote which is commonly attributed to a thinker for whom no one can find exactly where it came from

    Not exactly. There are other cases where quotes are either taken out of context or not attributed. The examples I provided are indicative however.

  43. says

    It doesn’t seem to me at all odd that either Chris or the event organizers could misremember what was served at an event years ago.

    No, the problem is that he tells a story. A story that is meant to justify his view about those nasty Gnus. A story in which he paints his opponents in a very uncharitable light.* A story of which he made up a considerable deal.
    Did he feel out of place? Apparently. But why did he have to make up reasons so the reader could relate to feeling out of place?

    *I don’t have the best of memories, and I most certainly might mix up some events and invitations because I host friends often. But I would certainly remember an event at which I served canapées (unless I always served them, which I don’t). I most certainly remember the evening I served sweet couscous with pomgrenades. I don’t remember each time I served Spaghetti Bolognese

  44. says

    simonsays– The examples I provided are indicative however.

    I am not sure I am understanding your point here. Are you saying that source errors are there but insignificant? Or that there are significant misquotations and distortions? I think we may be straining at gnats here. Christ Stedman is writing a personal memoir.

    As a general remark, I would love to see this extreme focus on accuracy, honesty, care, and attention to detail applied without prejudice to new atheist statements as well.

    If you are looking for a more substantive critique of the new atheism with extensive sourcing, I suggest my book: ‘The Call: moving from Science vs Religion to a Better World’.

  45. jflcroft says

    Simon: I’m intrigued by the statement regarding the quotes as well. If there are more egregious examples – ones which represent real changes of meaning or really significant errors, rather than minor quibbles – then surely you would have chosen to present those instead of the minutiae you do focus on?

    And Giliell: I see no evidence presented that any details were “made up”, let alone a considerable amount of such details. Nor do I see much reason to dispute the account. Simon himself says that had “had no problem believing that a conversation along these lines may have taken place” since he had “witnessed similar cringe-worthy and awkward discussions” (as have I, some with language just as “dramatic” as what Chris describes, and some more rhetorically (and, in one case, actually) violent), and he could not find anyone to dispute the account of the conversation. Simon expresses some doubt that the rather obvious portmanteau “faitheist” would have been used at the event, but his doubt is no evidence either way.

    As for the panel, Simon himself states that “Most of Stedman’s story was confirmed.” That was the basis on which I wrote that Stedman’s account was found to be “mostly accurate” – I was essentially quoting the reviewer himself. You may have a problem with this, Kristjan Wager, but then you have a problem with Simon, whose account you are ostensibly using to argue against, errr, itself. Not a winning strategy.

    Simon found the panelists disagreed with Chris’ interpretation of their remarks – well, that’s a disagreement over interpretation, not an error of fact. Chris has a much lower tolerance for a certain sort of religious criticism than many atheists, and he sees some things as mocking and demeaning which many of us would not, so it seems entirely believable that he would genuinely interpret the event in that way while the panelists themselves did not. Nothing to see here.

    The fact the dress code was “casual” does not mean that Stedman could not also have been “fashionably underdressed”. Anyone who has seen Chris dress for work would know that his chosen attire of skinny jeans and rather tank-tops would look underdressed in almost any setting outside a queer hipster bar (also, I can hardly believe I am responding to a criticism which alleges an author is unreliable because of their own opinion of their own clothing. This whole process has a whiff of the absurd).

    And, that’s it. That, apart from the quotes (which are themselves correct, though slightly misattributed), and the stuff about the Sam Harris interview and the article quoted, there’s nothing but praise for the book.

    So why the triumphalism among the anti-Stedman crowd? It looks increasingly like a desperate and woeful attempt to find anything at all to criticize. And in the process, the actual arguments Stedman makes in the book are completely ignored. This is a very strange way to do skepticism, not really worthy of the name in my view.

  46. jflcroft says

    I read over my last comment and it seems a little strong. I don’t want to make this into an unpleasant, personal exchange: I genuinely am interested to see peoples thoughts and criticism regarding Chris’ book. I also am aware that my perspective will be inevitably shaped to some degree by my friendship and working relationship with him – that’s undeniable. What I’m responding to here is that it seems to my eyes like some of the criticism does not come from a good place. It looks, to me, as if it is not motivated out of sincere interest in the book and its arguments, but out of a personal animus against Chris, and a sort of “us vs. them” attitude which sometimes exists in this movement and which I find very distasteful (even as I sometimes contribute to it myself!).

    So take this as something of an olive branch: I don’t want to spend hours debating little issues with people like Simon, whom I respect greatly. If there are substantive questions about the role of atheists in interfaith discussions I am happy to continue to engage those, and I’ve written a lot on that topic. But I don’t want to go hammer and tongs with other freethinkers over questions like “what food was served at an atheist event in Chicago years ago?”

  47. simonsays says

    Argh. I confused it with the Greek word “ενδεικτικά” (I grew up in Greece). The word I was looking for was “representative” for comment #56:

    Not exactly. There are other cases where quotes are either taken out of context or not attributed. The examples I provided are indicative representative however.

    Apologies!

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