The dancer from the dance


It’s accommodationism day in the neighborhood…I guess it’s a Christmas thing. Baby Jesus is born, Tim Minchin got his (requested) song dropped from a tv show, Julian tries to square a circle, and to make it all complete, Chris Stedman writes yet another “mean atheists are doing it wrong and I am doing it right” article for the Huffington Post. I had been ignoring Stedman for months, but he does make it difficult.

…effective criticism of religious dogmatism accounts for the diverse spectrum of religious expression. It is balanced, it is rooted in compassion, and it responds to what people actually believe and practice, not just the most extreme forms of religious thought.

Well some people do actually believe the most extreme forms; often a lot of people. It’s not the case that most religious believers are thoroughly liberal and unextreme.

But some of the most vocal atheist activists understand religious criticism differently. Take, for example, this sampling of comments from prominent atheists about Islam and Muslims:

Ah ah ah – not so fast – those two items shouldn’t be mashed together. Talking about Islam is not the same as talking about Muslims and they can’t usefully be talked about under a single heading.

PZ Myers: “Come on, Islam… It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

Yes, and? Stedman fails to say what is wrong with that, and he also fails to say what the post was about. It was about the Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris whose life was trashed because she had to go into hiding after drawing a benign cartoon of Mohammed for Draw Mohammed day. I hope Stedman doesn’t deny that Islam takes Mohammed very very seriously.

I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.

But they don’t, and it’s unfortunately typical of Chris Stedman to pretend that they do.

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Stedman quotemined Al Stefanelli, PZ Myers and Greta Christina. If you’re trying to convince your opponents to agree with you, being dishonest is not the most effective way.

  2. says

    It’s not *just* specific beliefs and behaviors that come from those beliefs. It’s the faith that props up those beliefs that is a huge problem (“belief in the absence of evidence, or against the evidence, or in spite of the evidence”). That’s anti-reason, and that’s dangerous.

  3. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    Ditto NathanDST.

    Stedman contrasts atheism with anti-religion as though that were a comprehensive distinction. But I’m most relevantly an anti-theist, a term Stedman seems not to recognize. I’m no mere atheist, nor do I simply object to religion (organized belief in “spiritual” things), but am keen to criticize and discredit theism in particular — the notion that there is a supreme being who is personally present and involved in the world, interacting with humans and giving them messages and agendas. Such a claim is inherently dangerous and always supremely arrogant, even in its so-called moderate forms. To insist that you have knowledge of the existence, nature, and intentions of such a being — even “imperfectly” — is a radical statement on its face, and a bid to exempt yourself from all kinds of accountability regarding what is true and what is good. Religion is poisonous, yes, but theism is particularly noxious and destructive of clear, civil, rational discourse — monotheism even more so.

    Therefore, I oppose theism as I would any grandiose, fraudulent claims that defy examination and imply drastic things about our existence and purposes. A world with a superintending intelligence is quite different from one without. If you claim to know we are in such a world, you had better be able to back it up. “Faith” in any religious idea, but particularly in “God,” is a high-handed slap at those who are unconvinced and beholden to evidence. Theism says, “your reasoned inquiries don’t matter — my god belief is self-justified and trumps all other concerns.” That’s a big middle finger from theists that deserves a hard response.

  4. says

    Islam is barbaric and primitive (as is Christianity and Judaism and just about any dogma you care to name). Stefanelli’s post is long and contains many quotes from the Quran to back up his argument.

    What is Stedman’s post but a whine begging everyone to stop criticizing beliefs and believers? Is there any criticism of religion that he wouldn’t hold up as an example of horrible intolerance?

  5. says

    Can’t stand Stedman, and mostly I simply ignore him. What a pompous, self-congratulating jerk (although your link to Stedman takes us to your response to Julian). Of course, the Canadian atheist scene is a bit different — if there is one! But what Stedman gets wrong is the way he so readily identifies with the religious critique of the new atheism (or “new” atheism). The new atheism — and Stedman wouldn’t have a voice at all if it were not for the his new atheist predecessors — put atheism out in public view, where it has stayed for over six years now. There’s no reason its influence should not grow. I don’t think it was only a publishing phenomenon, even though it started that way.

    But atheism itself is not a (single) movement. Stedman seems to think that it should be. That we should all get together and make nice to religion, and pick someone like him as a leader. But the whole point is to oppose religious ways of believing, and the supposition that there is no such thing — the whole argument to diversity — is simply nonsense. as Baggini’s unscientific survey seems to confirm, and as the stats in Jerry Coyne’s post on Tim Padgett article in Time magazine underscores (see http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/time-magazine-gets-everything-wrong-about-atheism-and-a-lot-wrong-about-religion-too/).

    Anyone who takes the Bible or the Qu’ran or the Tanach or the Bhagavad Gita as sacred and revealed by some supernatural power, or treats them with the respect due to a divine revelation, has a problem with critical reason, and we need to say it, something that Stedman steadfastly refuses to do. Of course, by refusing to do so he becomes the darling of the religious, because they don’t like their sacred faith being denied, parodied or criticised. If Stedman doesn’t see this as a problem, it shows just how far out of it he has become. The same, I’m afraid, goes for Julian Baggini. He simply cannot bring himself to say that the new atheists, whom he has criticised so sternly, and yet whose beliefs he actually shares (as can be shown from some of his articles), were right all along.

    Why should we be kind to religion? No one is going out of their way to mock devout individuals. It’s the beliefs that we criticise, and the religious leaders who think they have a right to induct children into religious traditions, even though such traditions undermine rationality and encourage tribalism. Stedman’s pose as an honest broker is disingenuous, since, by refusing to criticise the fraudulent or baseless claims of religion he is in fact siding with them, and to this extent fails in critical reason himself. Why can’t we just acknowledge that opposition to religion is likely to be as diverse as religion itself? And then, of course, get on with it!

  6. Josh Slocum says

    Your automatic defense of Stedman is Pavlovian, James. It’s positively creepy how unable you are to engage with reasonable disagreements about your friend.

  7. says

    Not to mention the fact that we know perfectly well he (Stedman) wouldn’t answer. He was complaining of noooo atheist bullying by X Y or Z on Twitter the other day and I asked him the same question – why don’t you ask X Y or Z then? No answer.

    He’s not interested in genuine discussion. He’s interested in tattling via quotemining, thus getting 1) lots of adoring comments from his ardent fans and 2) scorn from his non-fans, which he promptly parlays into Brave Martyrdom on Facebook and Twitter, and more adoring comments about his bravery and our craziness and badness.

    Repeat.

    Repeat.

    Repeat.

    And James – seriously – we just had this discussion, don’t you remember? I said I did not want you to leave the discussion as a whole – but also that nobody needs to hear yet again that you back Stedman no matter what. We already know that.

    At this point you really should recuse yourself.

  8. says

    Your automatic defense of Stedman is Pavlovian, James. It’s positively creepy how unable you are to engage with reasonable disagreements about your friend.

    And James – seriously – we just had this discussion, don’t you remember? I said I did not want you to leave the discussion as a whole – but also that nobody needs to hear yet again that you back Stedman no matter what. We already know that.

    At this point you really should recuse yourself.

    Did either of you read what I said? I said:

    That’s a good question. Why not ask him?

    I meant it. It’s a reasonable question to ask, and someone should ask him. I wasn’t defending him, I disagree with some of what’s in this post, and I’m currently thinking about how to address him about it.

    What’s Pavlovian is your immediate assumption that I am leaping to Stedman’s defense, when nothing I said implies that. Creepy, indeed,

  9. says

    What Ophelia said.

    I also suspect that what would happen if I did have a conversation with Stedman is that he’d smile, affirm my feelings, and immediately after run to the HuffPo with his sad tale about having coffee with a monster. No thanks. He’s just too hypocritical — I’d never know which of his two faces I’d be talking to.

  10. Josh Slocum says

    No, James, it’s a reasonable deduction to make based on your well-known reflexive defense of Stedman. If you want us to know that you aren’t posing a question sarcastically, I’m afraid you’ll have to be explicit. The very first comment of yours in this thread was to ask Ophelia what she thought of the quote(mines) Stedman used. Do you really think it’s weird that anyone would assume you’re more interested in defending him?

  11. says

    And James, I just told you – he wouldn’t answer! At least, I for one certainly have good reason to think he wouldn’t answer, having just asked him a question which he didn’t answer.

  12. says

    Someone left this comment on Stedman’s Facebook page:

    Congrats on your approval from Friendly Atheist in the comments of your article! “I’m with you Chris. I wouldn’t outlaw religion even if I had the power; people must be left free to believe whatever it is they want, nor am I one of those atheist who thinks that religion poisons everything­. I have, on these very pages, defended the right of religious minorities­, such as the Mormons, to believe what they do without having to be called heretics by the so-called “orthodox”­. My only agenda towards the religious is to make sure their religion does not intrude into the affairs of state and to have myself a real good time showing them that most of their religious beliefs are just down right silly.”

    Can that be true? (I hate navigating the mess at HuffPo and there are 4 pages of comments, groan.) Does Hemant seriously think gnu atheists want to outlaw religion? For fuck’s sake. Do they think we want to bake babies into matzo too?

  13. says

    I also suspect that what would happen if I did have a conversation with Stedman is that he’d smile, affirm my feelings, and immediately after run to the HuffPo with his sad tale about having coffee with a monster.

    Test the hypothesis! I can’t speak for him, but I certainly would be very happy to discuss those issues over which we’ve disagreed over a coffee. In fact, we were talking about inviting you to write a blogpost with your criticisms of the Humanist Community Project which we would host on our site, so that we can have a genuine discussion.

    No, James, it’s a reasonable deduction to make based on your well-known reflexive defense of Stedman. If you want us to know that you aren’t posing a question sarcastically, I’m afraid you’ll have to be explicit. The very first comment of yours in this thread was to ask Ophelia what she thought of the quote(mines) Stedman used. Do you really think it’s weird that anyone would assume you’re more interested in defending him?

    The first question was genuine too! It’s fair to interpret what someone says in light of previous statements. It’s not fair to read into what someone says a whole set of motives which may or may not be present, particularly when the reading is unflattering. I don’t do that to you, and I expect the same courtesy in return.

  14. says

    PZ – if he discussed this stuff with you, then posted in the way you suggest after a reasonable discussion, I’d be the first to criticize. We aren’t completely malevolent, you know. We have a lot of passion around these issues, a lot of shared concerns.

  15. says

    James! One, you’re not Stedman, so “we” is not the right word. I know you’re not malevolent! I think Stedman is somewhat malevolent, and that he conceals that from himself by lavish use of pious language. Two, it’s ludicrous to tell us to keep kicking the football for Stedman. We’ve already tested the hypothesis! Ok not literally the one about having a beer/coffee/hot fudge sundae with him, but the one about having lots and lots in common and just loving each other if only we talk. Three, and for the third time, I have tried asking him, and he didn’t answer. Four, share your passions and concerns by all means, but not in the process of yet more knee-jerk defense of Stedman. Outsource it! Find someone else to do it. You’re an interested party; can’t you get that that makes you not the right person to do it? As I said: you should recuse yourself.

  16. says

    Ophelia, I am not defending him. I am agreeing with you that there are serious questions that should be raised about the stance he’s outlined in this article. I have not said one word in defense of this piece. When I DO defend his work, it is not “reflexive” but considered and balanced, as is demonstrated by the times in which I have publicly disagreed with him. In my view, much of the criticism is in fact “reflexive”, as your responses here, and Josh’s are beginning to look.

  17. says

    James. I think you’re not playing fair now. A more cynical person than I am might even think you were engaging in entrapment. Your first two comments don’t explicitly defend Stedman, true, but given your long history of defending him here, including just a couple of days ago, can you seriously not see that your questions looked pointed rather than genuine?

    Notice that you didn’t say in those questions that you agree with me that there are serious questions that should be raised about his article. I, for one, took them as implicit accusations, not serious questions. No that’s not a matter of reflexive response, it’s a matter of your known recent history.

    I’m annoyed with you now, frankly, because I think if you really were seriously critical you should have made that clear at the beginning. That’s why it looks like entrapment.

  18. says

    Perhaps we are proceeding from different assumptions about how to conduct discourse online. When I write I assume people will read what I have written and respond to that, not imagine I had written something quite different and respond to what they imagine I might have said. I say what I mean to say. I asked you what you thought about the Stefanelli and No God Blog quotes because I wanted your opinion. I don’t think I should have to flag everything I write with: “What follows is a genuine question, not an implied attack”. That way lies complete silliness. In any case, I have now made myself crystal clear, as I did in #10.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  19. says

    James that’s just silly – at best. You’re saying you start from zero with every comment. I don’t believe that.

    And I’m having a very hard time believing you can’t see why I would think your question was that of a hostile witness. Very hard indeed.

    Honestly, you make it sound as if you operate like that guy in Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars, the one whose memory deletes every few seconds, so that he keeps starting all over again from the beginning. Or else you sound like Sheldon Cooper.

  20. says

    Ok I tell you what, I’ll pretend you are Sheldon Cooper and need everything carefully explained to you, since you’re acting like him.

    I don’t think I should have to flag everything I write with: “What follows is a genuine question, not an implied attack”.

    Not everything, no, of course not, but when it’s a subject on which you have a long and adversarial history here, then yes! Since our last bout ended just a couple of days ago, it has to be fresh in your memory.

    I don’t know if you’re playing clueless or you really are clueless. This seems so blindingly obvious…

  21. says

    Hah I’ll take that as a compliment! <3 Sheldon. I actually do try to revert people to 0 after every comment. I definitely don't always succeed, but I try! That's the only way to be certain you are dealing with your critics' arguments in their strongest possible form. Anyway, even if I don't start at 0, how many minus-points must I have to turn a question into an attack?!? I must be doing worse than I thought!

    Nonetheless, I hope I've been clear how I think about the piece now.

  22. says

    Heh – it is sort of a compliment. I adore Sheldon.

    Hmm. I see what you mean – but I also think it’s bound to lead you astray. Then again you would reply that reading in the background can also lead one astray. True. I guess we’re fucked either way.

  23. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    When conversing with people in the atheosphere, I always consider the distinct possibility that I’m engaged with “Sheldon Cooper.” It’s just the milieu.

  24. says

    Yes, so am I. It was a pain navigating the mess that is HuffPo to find the comment, but I’m glad I did it. I also cleared up the mistake on Stedman’s FB page, so at least that one small item turned out better than it began.

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