Oh dear oh dear oh dear oh dear – there’s an excerpt from Chris Stedman’s much-dreaded new memoir Faitheist at Salon, and it’s as maddening as I’d expected, if not more so.
The excerpt is, of course, on the ever-popular subject of The Awfulness of atheists. That’s not what’s so skin-crawling about it though. What I really, really can’t stand is his shameless style of self-presentation – his unbearable self-regard and self-display. It’s worse because it’s dressed up as its own opposite – it’s all about how humble and shy he is. I want to say that doesn’t work, but sadly I know from experience that it will work all too well: lots of people will take him as he presents himself, and be hugely impressed and touched. They’ll think what a sweet awkward shy boy from the provinces, with a heart as big as all outdoors, trying so hard to wring a little compassion from the cold hard prosperous atheists.
Here’s how he does it.
I had never heard the word “faitheist” before, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment.
I blushed and ran my hands through my short hair — a nervous habit — and cleared my throat, asking if it was intended to be an insult.
“Yes,” he said without inflection. “There’s nothing worse than a ‘faitheist.’”
It was my first experience with the atheist movement, and for at least a moment I thought it might be my last.
See? He blushed. He was nervous. The other guy wasn’t, and he spoke without inflection (ew, weird cold heartless dude!), and he ground poor shy blushing nervous Stedman into the floor.
The brusque brush-off occurred at a reception following a public discussion organized by a nonreligious group…I had gone with optimism and excitement…I pictured myself saying with a well-meaning grin, “Hey, I work with religious people every day and my atheism is stronger than ever!” I hoped I might even serve as a bridge between two communities that are so often pitted against one another, to offer my insights as a nonreligious person working in an interfaith environment.
Aw the poor kid. He meant so well, he was all excited – and he got a brusque brush-off! Those atheist bastards!
It’s also interesting that he admits that he pictures himself saying things with a well-meaning grin. I knew he did, because he would, but it’s funny that he admits it.
That aspiration was quickly curtailed. Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied. I’d arrived hoping to find a community bound by ethical and humanitarian ideals. Instead, I felt isolated and sorely discouraged.
I don’t believe it. I smell a Tom Johnson. I don’t believe that religious people were mocked, decried, and denied throughout the program. I don’t believe it because that’s not how it goes. Actions, institutions, people in leadership positions, yes, but just plain “religious people” as such, no – not throughout the program and not roundly.
Though I was disheartened by the event, I went to the post-panel reception, held at one of the panelists’ apartments…Also, as a thrifty graduate student, free dinner and drinks were hard to pass up!
…I scanned the crowd; I was easily the youngest person there and unfashionably underdressed (nothing new there). Looking down at my feet, I noticed there was a hole in each of my socks.
I 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, intensely aware of how out of place I must have seemed.
The “carefully balancing” bit is clever. It extorts sympathy.
Next to me on the couch were a woman in her mid-40s with a shimmering peacock brooch and a man in his late 30s wearing a denim shirt and a tan corduroy vest. I introduced myself and asked what they’d thought of the panel. They raved: “Wasn’t it wonderful how intelligent the panelists were and how wickedly they’d exposed the frauds of religion? Weren’t they right that we must all focus our energy on bringing about the demise of religious myths?”
I’m reminded of Kingsley Amis, reading a novel he hated, constantly saying as he read, “No she didn’t, no they weren’t, no he didn’t, no it wasn’t like that.” I don’t believe a word of that paragraph. I don’t believe he remembers any brooch or tan corduroy vest – or their ages – or what they said – and certainly not that they said what he quotes.
I paused, debating whether I should say anything. My “Minnesota Nice” inclination warned me to let it be, but I had to say something. So I started small, asking them to consider that diversity of thought and background fosters an environment where discourse thrives, where ideas are exchanged, and where we learn from one another.
On the one hand, he’s such a nice kid. On the other hand, he knows everything and is there to gently lead these ignorant older people out of their deluded ways.
I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost,” said the woman with a flick of her hand that suggested she was swatting at an invisible mosquito.
No she didn’t. No you don’t remember that.
I mean – get real! He’s trying to tell us someone actually said to him, in all seriousness, “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost”!
Our conversation continued, and I offered up petitions that the positive contributions of religious people be considered with equal weight alongside the negative.
“I understand what you’re saying,” I said, trying to weigh my words carefully, “but how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi?”
So young, so shy, and yet so patronizing.
“Oh, I get it,” the man jumped in with a sneer. “You’re one of those atheists.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it didn’t sound like a good thing. I shifted my weight from one side to another — another nervous habit — and picked at an hors d’oeuvre that I thought might be some kind of cheese.
Oh oh oh the poor little mite! The man sneered at him; he was nervous again; he was all at sea with these elitist hors d’oeuvre thingies.
“What do you mean, ‘one of those atheists?’”
“You’re not a real atheist. We’ve got a name for people like you. You’re a ‘faitheist.’”
No he didn’t. People don’t say things like that – not face to face, in real life. People don’t say “We’ve got a name for people like you.” That didn’t happen.
Not a real atheist. I’d heard words like that before — in my youth, when I was told I couldn’t be a real Christian because I was gay. Once again I didn’t fit the prescribed model, and I was not-so-gently shown the door.
Now, atheism is a bit different from Christianity in that atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s an identification marker that unifies a minority of Americans who do not believe in God. But the implication was clear: you’re at the wrong party, kid.
He must mean he was metaphorically shown the door, and yet we’re probably left half-thinking he really was shown the door, by the cold evil atheist snobs who tell the kid he’s at the wrong party.
Later in the piece, he recycles yet again his accusation that [gasp] PZ Myers once said this one thing.
Stereotypes that are bolstered when prominent antitheists (individuals who are not merely nonreligious but outwardly antireligious — I’ll return to this distinction later in this book) such as PZ Myers say things like, “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.” It is no wonder that many in the organized atheist community follow suit, lumping all religious believers together and shaming them as a uniformly condemnable bloc.
How many times has he repeated that now? The latest was just a few weeks ago, in the Huffington Post, but I’d seen it more than once before that. It’s not so outrageous that it merits that level of hostile attention.
In a culture that increasingly asks us to check our religious and nonreligious identities at the door — to silence the values and stories we hold most dear — the “New Atheist” brand of secularism isn’t helping.
It’s Tom Johnson again!
Well – you know what will happen. It will sell like hotcakes.