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You did ask

I was asked what I think of the quotes from the NO God Blog and Al Stefanelli quoted in Chris Stedman’s most recent Letter to the Atheists. Ok; what I think.

The first one is from a post titled “A Point was missed” on what appears to be a blog on the website of American Atheists. It’s not signed. It’s short. It’s dated April 29, 2010. It seems about as random, as an “example” of anything, as one could get. The bit quoted is very badly and stupidly worded; no disagreement there; but so what? I don’t even know who wrote it. I certainly don’t take it as representative of anything. It’s nearly two years old. What on earth is the point of dredging up an old obscure anonymous blog post as part of what is called a “sampling of comments from prominent atheists about Islam and Muslims”? Yes of course you can find people of any point of view or faction or party or any other category, saying stupid things, but what of it?

The second is from Al Stefanelli here at FTB ten days ago – so much better on the recent, and representative, and non-anonymous score; but when you read it you find it’s much worse on the making the case score. In context the quoted bit is not shocking or (to use Stedman’s term) “hateful.” Al doesn’t just say “Islam sucks booya”; he makes a case. You’d never know it from Stedman’s article.

So that’s what I think. The first was a crappy comment but it’s obscure and far from recent so why bring it up, and the second was a forcefully argued comment and not “hateful.”

And for dessert I will say a little more about what I think.

As someone who is regularly targeted with false critiques by fellow atheist activists — most frequently that I believe that religious beliefs should be immune from criticism, a claim I countered in this post, or that I am an apologist for religion, for which no evidence has ever been provided — I can attest firsthand that the debate over how atheists should approach religion is perhaps the most contentious conversation in the atheist movement. It is a frequent cause of disagreement, and the disagreements it inspires are very often vitriolic and personal.

This is what I think. Stedman isn’t “targeted” by atheists. Atheists reply to things Stedman says about them (us) or publishes other people saying about them/us or both. That’s not “targeting.” To reply is not to target. Atheists don’t just hide behind trees and pounce on Stedman for no reason; atheists react when Stedman does some shit-stirring about them, as he does with dreary regularity, including in this very post.

Stedman gets quite a lot of attention and praise for this shit-stirring – this “targeting,” one might almost call it. I think that’s probably a major reason he keeps doing it – from his point of view it works. It’s self-pitying and disingenuous to complain about people responding to his endless accusations. I suspect that he actually wants the responses, and that that’s why he keeps stirring the shit. He gets attention and praise for stirring the shit, and then he gets attention and sympathy when we disagree with him; win-win.

Oh and one more thing – I don’t consider him a “fellow atheist.”

Update: and one more one more thing: more about this at

Pharyngula

Almost Diamonds

En Tequila es Verdad

Comments

  1. chigau (mrmee, mrmee, mrmee) says

    Atheists don’t just hide behind trees and pounce on Stedman for no reason…

    Perhaps we™ should reconsider this.

  2. sisu says

    I also don’t consider Stedman an “activist”… I fail to see what, exactly, he has done that’s active.

  3. julian says

    @sisu

    He is, from my understanding, very much involved in gay rights activism.

    Atheist activist though, yeah I don’t buy it either. I don’t even believe he’s an atheist much less interested in countering harmful stereotypes or removing the stigma attached to us.

  4. Michael De Dora says

    Just to be clear, Ophelia: do you not consider Chris an atheist in terms of what he believes? Or do you not consider Chris an atheist in the sense that *you* are an atheist? No motives here, just asking.

  5. Randomfactor says

    He is, from my understanding, very much involved in gay rights activism.

    Fully respectful of the Phelps’ church position on the matter, I would hope.

  6. Michael De Dora says

    @Julian: I don’t think Chris is a gay rights activist in any official capacity (though obviously he cares about the issue). He describes his job at Harvard as such:

    “I coach and empower Humanist students to initiate and organize community service work in partnership with faith communities at Harvard.”

    I think you can read more about his work here:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/service/

    “As just one example: In September of 2011, HCH led an interfaith event in which nearly 200 people of diverse religious and nonreligious identities wrote hundreds of letters urging legislators to support famine relief and packaged over 10,000 meals for food-insecure children. The event was covered in print, television, and online media both locally and around the United States, showcasing the importance of this work to people in our community and beyond.”

  7. says

    Michael, the phrase Ophelia used was “fellow atheist.” Why focus on only the second word? I find it perfectly reasonable to state that Stedman shows little to no fellowship.

  8. Michael De Dora says

    @Stephanie: the word “fellow” is usually employed before a term (atheist, conservative, Democrat, Christian) to denote that the person in question is a member of a community with certain shared characteristics.

    As such, either Ophelia doubts Chris’ atheism per se, or she thinks Chris’ values do not align with those typically shared by atheists. I think this is a very important distinction, and I’m wondering which track Ophelia takes. I’m guessing the latter, but I’d like to hear it from her before assuming anything.

  9. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Since Stedman has shown in his Huffpro screed that honesty is not one of his attributes, I certainly don’t want him to represent me as an “atheist activist.”

  10. says

    “I coach and empower Humanist students to initiate and organize community service work in partnership with faith communities at Harvard.”

    He’s a humanist community service organizer. That’s a fairly far cry from atheist activist.

  11. says

    Michael: it’s what Stephanie said. Emphasis on the “fellow.” You’re right about the usual meaning of “fellow ___” but I think Stedman is using that to imply some kind of commonality or community or alliance. I don’t consider him any kind of ally. He spends way too much time digging up and then tattling about trivial examples of atheist wickedness for that.

  12. says

    Unless you suspect that he’s secretly not an atheist fellow then of course he’s a fellow atheist.

    Just as for me he’s a fellow male, and both you and Adolph Hitler are among my fellow human beings. What you can more reasonably deny is that he is a comrade. Comradeship is a kind of fellowship, but fellowship, though sometimes defined as “equality *OR* comradeship”, also applies to the sharing of any characteristic.

  13. Michael De Dora says

    Thanks for the clarification, Ophelia. I wonder if it would be more accurate to say Chris is not a “fellow *new* atheist.” Or something like that.

    As for your other point, I do consider Chris an ally insofar as his professional interfaith work helps to break down religious believers’ misconceptions about secular people as unethical, mean-spirited, meaningless, etc. I think that’s one of his main goals, and if he’s accomplishing that, he’s helping to improve the public’s perception of people like me. At least that’s how I see it.

  14. says

    Michael – but he’s also building up religious believers’ misconceptions about secular people as unethical, mean-spirited, etc, by doing things like seeking out old obscure anonymous blog posts and pointing at them with a quivering finger on a big site like the Huffington Post. In his writing I see him doing more of that than the other thing.

  15. John Morales says

    Alethea, he ain’t an ally — he’s a faitheist and an accommodationist.

    “Bleating and babbling I fell on his neck with a scream.
    Wave upon wave of demented avengers
    March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream”

    (We’re worse — we’re gnus, not sheep)

  16. John Morales says

    [meta]

    James, whom do you address in your insincere expression of gratitude?

    (It’s not clear, to me)

  17. says

    John Morales:

    In the same way that I guess I’m merely somewhat unlikely rather than grossly improbably, I suppose that Chris Stedman is ‘terrible’ in the same way as gum on the sole of your shoe, or most like an irritating coworker. He’s capable of aggravating, and can even cause some slight interference in your career path, but it isn’t like he’s got enough pull with anyone you care about to really derail your whole gig.

  18. says

    Well, I consider Stedman an atheist. He identifies as one, and I’m not aware of a reason to claim he actually believes in a god, or the supernatural. However, “fellow atheist” implies a camaraderie that I do not feel with him.

    I think his respect for religion in general is severely misplaced (contrasted with his respect for religious people, the misplacement of which would be dependent on the individual people being respected), but I don’t doubt that much of the work he does is very positive, and probably has helped some of the religious to stop demonizing atheists. But I don’t care at all for his attitudes regarding the more confrontational atheists. And I never care for misrepresentations.

  19. says

    James, whom do you address in your insincere expression of gratitude?

    Ophelia. I asked the question in another thread, and she answered it in this one. I was expressing my gratitude for the time she spent answering my question. That you misread me as being insincere says more about your unreasonableness than about my sincerity.

  20. John Morales says

    [meta]

    James, I take you at your word and retract that claim, and I also apologise for misreading you due to my jaundiced opinion.

    Sorry.

  21. says

    This is what I think. Stedman isn’t “targeted” by atheists. Atheists reply to things Stedman says about them (us) or publishes other people saying about them/us or both. That’s not “targeting.” To reply is not to target. Atheists don’t just hide behind trees and pounce on Stedman for no reason; atheists react when Stedman does some shit-stirring about them, as he does with dreary regularity, including in this very post.
    **************************************************************
    After the debacles carried out by Stedman and his minions(Re: JT,PZ,You and others) I decided to research this person a bit more. I had been blissfully unaware of his particular brand of vitriol against atheists and just how much of a belly crawling religious boot licker he is. I couldn’t even fathom WTH he’s playing at. He’s not an atheist! Oh, he may identify as one as long as it’s “cool” to do so but, he’ll drop it like any hipster when it becomes “too mainstream”. A pygmy fainting goat has more courage than this parasite.

  22. says

    I suggest a useful comparison: Eboo Patel, his pal & head of IFYC. Who, you might ask? Exactly. Atheists haven’t been pouncing on him at all, despite the fact that he’s probably an even bigger pro-faith loony then Stedman. And why? Because he’s making a career of interfaith activism (ick) but not anti-atheist sliming.

    If Stedman were more interested in taking the Patel path, he’d be doing what he says he wants to do, but he wouldn’t be rousing the ire of the atheist community. Which would mean he wouldn’t be getting any attention at all. Which is why he’s not ever going to drop this, and will be a punching bag for a long time to come.

  23. says

    Precisely (what PZ said). Which makes it all the more irritating when he (Stedman) complains about the reaction (as he always does). The reaction is exactly what he wants! He should be rejoicing. He should be thanking us. The pretend self-pity is fingernails on blackboard.

  24. says

    Hey Joe (@ 26) – that’s funny – there’s that time when Penny tells Sheldon he’s impossible and he says no I’m not, I’m here, so I can’t be impossible; it would make more sense to say I’m improbable.

    Is that the origin of your handle?!

    (Good to see you, btw.)

  25. Michael De Dora says

    @Ophelia, you wrote:

    “Michael – but he’s also building up religious believers’ misconceptions about secular people as unethical, mean-spirited, etc, by doing things like seeking out old obscure anonymous blog posts and pointing at them with a quivering finger on a big site like the Huffington Post. In his writing I see him doing more of that than the other thing.”

    This is a very good point, one which I will sit and consider for a moment. My initial thought is that Chris’ writings would be justified if he was discussing some significant portion of the secular community, instead of just quote mining. I’m not yet sure where I stand on that question, mostly because I find it so hard to grasp what the “secular community” is, let alone what its members believe.

  26. Michael De Dora says

    Ophelia, I just read your latest post, and it appears Stangroom sums up my initial thought quite nicely:

    “…one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.”

  27. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Why is it that Stedman is an accommodationist with goddists and a confrontationist with certain atheists?

    Yeah, it’s a rhetorical question. As PZ notes, if Stedman did nothing but suck up to goddists then few people would have ever heard of him. Apparently he likes the dictum: “Bad publicity is better than no publicity.”

  28. Michael De Dora says

    I’m not sure it’s fair to say that atheist interfaith workers are sucking up to religious believers (or promoting “faith”). I’ve always assumed that atheist interfaith workers — or, at least, the good ones — work with the religious on common service-oriented goals, and in the process try to break down misconceptions about the nonreligious. But perhaps I should read up on it some more.

  29. Michael De Dora says

    I wonder about how many people actually think bad publicity is better than none — that any publicity is good publicity. Are there surveys on that kind of thing?

  30. says

    Michael – #39 – yes of course, but we already know that. #41 – ‘Tis said Stedman, not atheist interfaith workers in general. And the issue isn’t assumptions about what they do, it’s what we know Stedman does when he writes these “be nicer like me” essays.

  31. Michael De Dora says

    But are Chris’ “be nicer like me” articles sucking up to religious believers or defending/promoting faith? I’ve read them as arguments as to why religious criticism should be joined with ethical action, or more recently why religious criticism should be more measured. Obviously we can argue over those points — I don’t know whether Chris’ recent criticisms were accurate, and I’d like to see him draw out what measured criticism might look like — but this is a different conversation than one that assumes Chris is working for the so-called other side (as if there are only two).

  32. says

    Did you read the post? I think the post says why I think Stedman is not arguing in good faith. I also think the post says why I’m not assuming that. I don’t recall saying anything about Stedman “working for the so-called other side.” That’s not what I think. I don’t think it’s that simple, to put it mildly.

    What I do think, though, is that he is – inadvertently or not – doing things that are pleasing and helpful to people who despise atheism. That does not translate to “he is working for the other side.”

  33. screechymonkey says

    From Stedman’s point of view, getting criticized by Gnu Atheists is good publicity. I think he dreams of the day a Gnu calls him a “clueless gobshite” so he can wave that bloody shirt for a couple of years a la Michael Ruse.

  34. Michael De Dora says

    @Ophelia, you wrote:

    “What I do think, though, is that he is – inadvertently or not – doing things that are pleasing and helpful to people who despise atheism. That does not translate to ‘he is working for the other side.’”

    That’s the point I was driving at. Many commenters in the blogosphere call Chris pro-faith, pro-religion, etc. I think Chris is arguing in good faith, and that any negative consequence for atheists at large is unintended.

  35. Michael De Dora says

    I think it’s of some interest, given that many people who argue over Chris’ words and work start from different assumptions, making it difficult to discuss whether or not he’s actually making valid points.

    Anyway, I think we’ve reached an understanding here. Thanks Ophelia.

  36. says

    I can’t agree, Michael. Just knowing that you think X rather than Y, or that anyone else does, really isn’t of interest. And we already know that people start from different places, and I’ve already said several times that the word “assumptions” implies not having reasons, and I do have reasons, which I’ve provided.

  37. Michael De Dora says

    But I thought we agreed that Chris was writing not to defend religion or faith, but to express his honest (though debatably accurate) concerns about the atheist community’s approach to religious criticism? You don’t agree with that? If not, what do you think his motives are? Attention?

  38. says

    Michael – no, we didn’t agree that. See my comments 12, 17, 36, as well as the most recent ones to you. I’ve been very clear, so I can’t really understand why you think I’ve agreed that. I don’t think his concerns are honest. I think it’s possible that he thinks they are, but I don’t think they are – I think they’re worked up, and bogus, and a way to position himself as the extra-special Nice guy.

  39. says

    Yes, attention, and publication, and also a glow of piety along with a glow of martyrdom, and lots and lots of flattery. Every time he does one of these “bad new atheists are bad” pieces he moans on Facebook and Twitter about how misunderstood he is, and flocks of friends arrive to tell him how wonderful he is and how sucky the new atheists are. Every single time. It works a treat.

  40. Michael De Dora says

    @Ophelia:

    “I think it’s possible that he thinks they are, but I don’t think they are …”

    If Chris thinks his criticisms are honest, isn’t that enough to qualify them as such? Again, their accuracy — whether they are “bogus” — is another issue, one on which I might even agree with you. I’m just not sold on the argument that Chris is doing this for any other reason than “I have concerns, here they are.” I know him well. I just don’t see it.

  41. Michael De Dora says

    Also, I really don’t know if Chris needs to keep writing on this issue to get attention. Almost anything he posts on Facebook gets a ton of likes, comments, etc. He’s a public figure who isn’t afraid to open up about his personal life and feelings on the net, and in part because of that, he has an adoring following.

  42. says

    Michael, no, that isn’t enough.

    If he’s really just doing it because he has concerns…then why does he keep doing it even though it backfires every time? He never persuades any of the people he names and shames to write differently. If he’s really just doing it because he has concerns why is he doing it in public? Why doesn’t he email all the people he has concerns about, instead? Why go public, shouting “Look at these horrible people!!” over and over again, when he must be able to see that it doesn’t improve the horrible people?

    And one of his major concerns is Division, yet he keeps (surely deliberately) pissing on and thus pissing off a big chunk of his “fellow atheists,” thus sowing Division.

    I think his adoring following is more because he’s very skilled at a certain kind of unctuous sentimental pious rhetoric that a lot of people just love.

  43. says

    Let me put it this way. His Facebook posts that follow these articles always trigger hate-fests directed at “new atheists” – really nasty foam-flecked stuff, a lot of it. If he were really “concerned” about anger and division and strong language and all of that…that fact would surely bring him up short. But it doesn’t. So I don’t believe he has real “concerns,” I think he just dislikes unapologetic atheism and disguises that dislike (probably including to himself) as “concerns.”

  44. says

    @Michael: to put what Ophelia’s saying another way, self-deception is a real phenomena (some scientists have suggested that the ability and tendency may have been selected for, to make lying easier), and Stedman may be engaging in good deal of self-deception. Hence, he could think he’s being honest, but really isn’t.

    Whether this is true or not is difficult for me to say, and I’m not so sure whether I believe it or not, but I think it’s a strong possibility. He has said (on Facebook) that he will answer the questions about what sort of criticism of religion he’d be willing to engage, and what criticism he has engaged in, once he’s back and done with the holidays.

  45. says

    This is a very good point, one which I will sit and consider for a moment. My initial thought is that Chris’ writings would be justified if he was discussing some significant portion of the secular community, instead of just quote mining.

    Really. Perhaps you could sit and consider how you’ve skipped over acknowledging his dishonesty (and this is but one example – the McLaren guest post was ridiculous) directly to the suggestion that, well, if he weren’t being dishonest he might have a point. That tells me quite a bit. In any event, you haven’t made a case justifying his writings about gnus even if he were being honest about us.

    If Chris thinks his criticisms are honest, isn’t that enough to qualify them as such?

    to express his honest (though debatably accurate) concerns about the atheist community’s approach to religious criticism

    As you’ve said, his criticisms themselves are not honest. I’m not interested in evaluating the level of consciousness and clarity about his motives. I do know, though, that:

    - He has not stated clearly what he hopes to accomplish by his repeated comments about gnus and defended that in light of actual results.

    - His criticisms have been presented in terms of “we” and “our cause,” long after it’s been established – and now, after he’s acknowledged – that this is a false presentation. We’ve also done everything short of sending a wedon’tgiveafuckaboutyourconcerns-o-gram, and he persists, so he can’t honestly believe that it’s serving the purpose of changing our minds or contributing to harmony amongst atheists.

    - The implicit suggestion that his public expressions of “concern” and “disappointment” and his distancing himself from outspoken atheists are meant to improve the public image of atheists does not pass the laugh test. If he meant this honestly, he’d be a fool. The rational explanation is that his intention is to promote himself and his brand of atheism or humanism at our (other atheists’) expense (which, given that he’s noted that gnus are the public face of atheism to many, can only serve to harm atheism’s image). Again, I don’t care how conscious that is, but he should stop it. We are already marginalized and misrepresented enough.

    I’ve read them as arguments as to why religious criticism should be joined with ethical action,

    I hate this nonsense. Stedman does not get to define what ethical action is.

    Religious criticism is ethical action.

    Many of us engage in other activism that we consider ethical, and much of that also includes oppositional stances.

    The defense of faith is unethical action.

    And now I’ll sign off. This week has included several threads debating three men whose actions and claims I find distasteful and wrong for various reasons and their defenders. Discussions of feminism, atheist activism, and the anatomy of human destructiveness are important, but I’m frankly tired enough of reading about Schwyzer, Stedman, and Pinker.

  46. says

    The rational explanation is that his intention is to promote himself and his brand of atheism or humanism at our (other atheists’) expense (which, given that he’s noted that gnus are the public face of atheism to many, can only serve to harm atheism’s image).

    Pre-cisely. This is what I’m saying. He’s promoting himself, disguising that as “concern” about the atheists he keeps smearing. Yes he may well have convinced himself that he does so out of the purest of motives; no that by itself doesn’t make his criticisms honest.

    Oh and Michael, you say he’s “a public figure” – well if he is, that’s in large part because of all this “concern.” There’s always a market for atheist-bashing.

  47. Michael De Dora says

    Fair enough. I’ll keep all this in mind and perhaps if/when Chris answers the questions mentioned by Nathan, we can discuss this further.

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