Zach Alexander has a very thoughtful review, or review-essay, on Chris Stedman’s book. He admires much of it, but also dissents strongly from part of the argument.
The most obvious problem is that even as Chris extolls the virtues of religious pluralism, he delivers an anti-pluralist message to his fellow atheists. Not content to merely do his own work, inviting like-minded people to join him, he expects the entire herd of cats to conform to his particular temperament and interests. Rather than increasing the breadth of the movement with his unique voice, he wishes to narrow it.
Second, even as he preaches respect, he casts aspersions on the so-called New Atheism, calling it “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful” (14). This is a curious way to call for more civility. And it betrays what, on closer inspection, seems to be a rather shallow appreciation for some of the dangers of religion – dangers that arguably justify much of the sharper New Atheist rhetoric.
In short, the central irony of the book is that the person who hopes to inspire atheists towards greater respect of religious diversity is disrespectful of the diversity in his own community.
This is what several of us (us meanies) have been saying all along: his outreach is all in one direction. James Croft defended that the other day by saying he thinks it’s because Stedman thinks of atheists as we and he’s making the conscientious effort to be hard on his own group, as opposed to cutting it slack because it is his own group.
There is a world of difference between principled criticism of individuals who share an identity characteristic with you and the attempt to participate in the continued marginalization of that identity group. Atheists with a public personae criticize each other all the time over a multitude of issues, often disagreeing strongly on points of principle – and that is as it should be. Not all such criticism is traitorous and self-defeating: some of it stems from genuine ethical considerations which deserve to be heard.
I see Stedman offering such a critique. He believes, rightly or wrongly, that some of the ways some atheists pursue their criticism of religion is unethical, contributing to the dehumanization of individuals and perpetuating stereotypes of already-marginalized groups. Just as I, as a gay man, try to speak out against misogyny in the gay community, Stedman, an atheist, wants to speak out against Islamophobia in the atheist community (for instance). Suggesting other gay men refrain from sexist or racist language does not, I hope, make me an “Uncle Tom” (or an “Uncle Mary”). I hope it makes me a principled human being – even though it would restrict the freedom to act of members of a community of which I am a member.
Reminding your own side of their ethical responsibilities toward other human beings – even if applying your understanding of those responsibilities would limit their freedom of action – is not the action of a traitor but of a principled person making a stand for what they think is right both for the group of which they are a member and for others.
Yes but. It’s a matter of emphasis and proportion and repetition and venue and so on. Yes it’s great if gay men speak out against misogyny in the gay community, but if that’s all they ever say about that community, and they say it in big mainstream outlets where they know people who hate gay men will use it for their own purposes, it’s not so great after all.
Alexander thinks there is a key to understanding the mutual misunderstanding here.
…something dawned on me while reading the book last weekend. It’s a fundamental difference between Chris and the mainstream of the community that I don’t think anyone has fully grasped – perhaps not even Chris himself.
Before he gets to that he tells a couple of stories about dialogue despite disagreement, then comes back to the idea that people should do what suits them best, Chris what suits him and PZ what suits him.
But strangely, Chris is unwilling to be so generous. And I think I’ve figured out why.
The source of the alienness felt between Chris and much of the atheist community, myself included, is this: he values compassion and social justice to a remarkable, exemplary degree, yet places almost no value on the epistemological virtues near and dear to most in the atheist movement, such as rationality, skepticism, and the scientific method.
Ah that. Yes. I do think some of us have fully grasped it though. I’m pretty sure I’ve been talking about it all along. Many of us talked about it for instance in “Good old interfaith atheism” in April 2011.
Alexander goes on.
In passage after passage, he rightly preaches compassion and decries injustice, but is conspicuously silent on reason. He owns up to religious “atrocities” and “conflicts” – but not the absurdities that facilitate both (8). He desires a world in which “suffering and oppression” have been eliminated – but not ignorance or superstition (11). He faults some religious beliefs for being “dehumanizing” or “intolerant” – but not for being false (84, 154). He seeks to make society “more cooperative and less conflict-oriented” – but not more evidence-based (115). His mission is to “advance equality and justice” – but not rationality or free inquiry (158).
Exactly. It’s possible that I have a little more sympathy for that approach now, in the time of the Deep Rifts…but only a little. I still don’t like to see the “yes but is there any reason to think it’s true?” aspect left out altogether.
In sum, Chris does not merely have a different take on religion – much more deeply, he seems to only superficially share the epistemic values that are important to most people in the atheist and humanist  movements, and central for many of them. In this he is like a restaurant critic who is mostly indifferent to the quality of food. He may indeed have a column, and indeed go to restaurants, and indeed write reviews about their ambiance and service, which are indeed important. But few of his peers would fully resonate with his opinions. And if he began a quixotic campaign to moderate their negative reviews – because no chef should be belittled merely for their food – they could be forgiven for responding with bemusement, annoyance, and even scorn. Because really, what right does a culinary know-nothing have to lecture others on how to talk about food?
 You weren’t expecting that? The Humanist Manifesto III is very clearly about both rationality and compassion-oriented values, not just the latter.
That’s an amusing way of putting it. It is a serious point though, and it is the major point of contention between the Stedmanites and the Badnewatheists. (Whatever happened to badnewatheists, anyway? That used to be a Twitter and Facebook thing. Oh yes, I remember – it was replaced by FTBullies. That was replaced by Atheismplus. I wonder what # 4 will be.) Zachary Alexander’s essay might help to shed new light on that particular rift.