Let’s try this again. I keep seeing discussions of Chris Stedman and his new book that complain of how personal and hostile and unfair the criticisms of him are. Let’s see if I can spell out my dissent without sounding (or even being) personal and hostile and unfair. Religion News Service has an interview with him, so that provides an occasion.
On the blog NonProphet Status, and now in the book, Stedman calls for atheists and the religious to come together around interfaith work. It is a position that has earned him both strident — even violent — condemnation and high praise. Stedman talked with RNS about how and why the religious and atheists should work together.
One. Calling for atheists and the religious to come together around interfaith work seems to me (and others) to be a strange project, because it seems to be a rejection of the very idea of basic disagreement. On the one hand, atheists and the religious already do unite to work together in various contexts, because that’s just how these things work. People work on various things without interrogating each other about beliefs and world views. There’s no need to stipulate that atheists and theists work together; they’ll do that on their own. On the other hand, if he does mean that people should make a big thing about being one or the other and getting together around some kind of work – then I really don’t see why I have to. I’m happy to shut up about my atheism and do things with other people who shut up about their theism. I’m not happy to do a big “let’s weave the two together” dance.
Am I getting too personal and hostile and unfair already? Maybe. Maybe. I think that’s because I never can manage to grasp exactly what Stedman has in mind. I don’t understand why he’s not satisfied with the fact that atheists and theists do naturally work together all the time, just as liberals and conservatives do, women and men do, gays and straights do, tall people and short people do. I don’t understand why he wants to take that first step of having everyone identify as one or the other – atheist or theist – and then make a big deal of working together.
That first step is what makes the whole thing so dubious. If theism and atheism are just left aside, then we can work together. If they’re made central – then I have disagreements, dammit, and no I’m not willing to suppress them.
And then there’s interfaith work. Again: no. Work, yes; interfaith work, no. Why does it have to be interfaith work? Why can’t it just be work?
Two. This is the interviewer’s doing, not Stedman’s. Violent is the wrong word to use. It’s offensively wrong. Strong, even strident disagreement with Stedman isn’t violent.
Q: What does the term “faitheist” mean? Is it a positive label or a derisive one?
A: It’s one of several words used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion. But to me, being a faitheist means that I prioritize the pursuit of common ground, and that I’m willing to put “faith” in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice.
Ok. Here’s where we differ. There already is plenty of common ground. But there is also substantive disagreement, and that had been as it were de-prioritized for a long time before the recent renaissance of outspoken atheism. It is only in the last few years (at least in the US) that it has become somewhat normal for atheists to say how and why they differ from and disagree with theists. I think that’s a healthy shift, and I find it unfortunate that other atheists already think it necessary to “prioritize” what was already the conformist majoritarian approach, which was not so much the pursuit of common ground as the dominance of one view at the expense of the other. Prioritizing the pursuit of common ground, in a country where the vast majority is religious and where religion is in some ways compulsory, is really just prioritizing the continued dominance of the majority view.
In other words I don’t want to focus on areas of agreement, because that was all that was available to me for years and years until quite recently. Saying that people with differing views should focus on areas of agreement frankly amounts to an endorsement of whatever the status quo majority view is. It’s a way of saying hide your dissenting views. It’s that dressed up as being kinder than other people. I have problems with all of that.
Some people have suggested I think atheists shouldn’t critique harmful religious beliefs, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
But that doesn’t work. Saying that “religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement” is saying that atheists shouldn’t critique harmful religious beliefs. The areas of agreement obviously rule out things like criticism of harmful religious beliefs.
Maybe Stedman doesn’t realize that. Maybe he doesn’t recognize a tension between his avowed project and a commitment to open criticism of harmful religious beliefs. There is such a tension.
Q: You write that the atheist community is often defined by the “New Atheists” and their aggressive stance against religion. Isn’t the term atheist a negative by definition?
A: When I first became active in the atheist movement, I was taken aback by the degree of hostility I saw directed toward religion and, in many cases, religious believers. It has often felt to me that atheism and anti-theism are treated as synonyms by many segments of the atheist community, when they are in fact different.
You see there it is again. Hostility toward religion is and ought to be permitted. Stedman dislikes it. Ok but then he ought to admit that, and realize that he does indeed think atheists shouldn’t critique harmful religious beliefs.
Q: If atheists by definition don’t have faith, why should they seek to be included in interfaith work?
A: Interfaith work seeks to humanize religious diversity and erode tribalistic divisions. It promotes religious literacy and freedom of expression and conscience, and if atheists don’t participate, we risk not being included in interfaith efforts’ vision for a pluralistic world. The term “interfaith” may be imperfect, but in my experience it does not exclude atheists — and when it does, that’s something we should work to change.
But if what you’re talking about is actually pluralism, then it would be better to call it that.
There. My attempt to be impersonal, non-hostile, and fair.