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The (un)Friendly Atheist

I like Hemant Mehta. I really do. He’s a passionate advocate and organizer who regularly makes significant and positive contributions to the secular/atheist community (far more than, say, someone like me does). His blog is a regular read for me, which is saying a lot because these days I barely have time to read this one. He’s actually been gracious enough to offer me a guest post in response to what I thought was a particularly terrible contribution by an ISSA member. Gallingly, however, Hemant posted something today that was so uncharacteristically incurious as to drive me to take out my ass-kickin’ boots again. I don’t like ragging on people who I (otherwise) respect and like, but this piece was beyond the pale:

If you read the blog posts and Twitter comments about Chris [Stedman], though, you’d think he was a religious man in atheist clothing. Or that he’s delegitimizing our work. Or that he’s undermining our goals. He’s not. He’s as much of an atheist activist as the rest of us. He just practices it by focusing on cooperation and conversation with people of faith instead of beating his chest with both fists and proclaiming his superiority.

Some day, and I hope it’s soon, we will finally be able to take this straw atheist who beats its chest and bellows defiance (instead of providing reasoned argument in opposition to a thoroughly-debunked meme) out behind the woodshed and put it out of its misery. Then maybe, just maybe, folks like Hemant will be able to muster up the restraint to stop attacking it.

I don’t know Chris Stedman, I’ve never had any interactions with him, and I don’t really care if I ever do. The same goes for Alain de Botton. I say this to forestall any accusations that I am getting personal – this argument could be about anybody. The problem with the approach that guys like Stedman and de Botton take has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they want to co-operate with believers. This has been pointed out so many times it’s hard to pick just one example to link to, so I will let you pick your favourite. Sure, were I in a particularly uncharitable mood I’d suggest that collaboration with an oppressive force like religion is a good way of preserving privilege in exchange for token concessions, but I recognize the willingness of many believers to counteract bigotry even when it comes from within their own ‘camp’.

The problem I (and others) have with Chris Stedman is that he spends a good chunk of his time shitting on the rest of us for doing it wrong. It is the same with Alain de Botton’s latest sack of excrement, so ably taken down by JT. Stedman and de Botton whine in endless paragraphs about how we “New Atheists” attack a caricature of religion instead of addressing what people actually believe (made more ironic by the fact that they actually do believe that shit), then pivot on a dime and spout lie after lie after lie about us instead of… y’know… addressing what we actually say. And it appears Hemant has no more restraint than they do:

de Botton later made headlines when he said “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’” WHAT?! BUT THE TRUTH IS ALL THAT MATTERS! said a bunch of atheists in response. They seemed to ignore the part…

Now I’m not above a little hyperbole for the purpose of illustration or ridicule, but I’m also aware that if I am going to disagree with people who are otherwise my friends, it’s usually not a good idea to straw man their position. Go ahead. Read those posts and identify for me the part where Martin or JT or PZ say that unless religion is scientifically proven it accomplishes nothing. I’ll wait (no I won’t, that would be stupid – this is a written document). The point that they make, pretty clearly, is that believers repeatedly assert that not only are their beliefs true, but that facts that don’t fit their beliefs must be wrong. If it were the case that nobody actually thought Jesus was the son of God, that Mohammed was the final prophet of Allah, that Yahweh granted the land of Israel to the Jews –  if any of those things were generally true, then Stedman and de Botton would have a point. But it isn’t. So they’re idiots.

These last two paragraphs were so twisted backward that I had to re-read the whole piece 4 or 5 times to make sure I didn’t miss Hemant’s thesis:

They’ll call you names* or take your statements far more literally than you intended so that you’re thoroughly humiliated in front of people who will never read your works for themselves. (Though, to be honest, if you offer an opinion of any sort online, people are going to go after you.)

Why am I saying all this? Because it’s not necessary to treat these atheists like they’re not on our side. They’re not hurting our cause. They’re with us. They’re not the enemy.

Hemant. Buddy. You’re talking to the wrong people. You’ve held the arrow and fired the bow. You’ve pulled the grenade and thrown the pin. It is Stedman and de Botton and their ilk who (along with you, perplexingly), have decided to demonize your own allies. We criticize Stedman and de Botton for the same reason we criticize Ray Comfort and Ken Ham – because they have shitty arguments that don’t make sense once you think them through. The reason why we go apoplectic on them is because they have decided that the quickest way to grant legitimacy to their positions is to go after other atheists. We are never the ones who are starting it, and I gotta tell you Hemant, I’m a bit hurt that you chose to chastise us for responding to an attack and hold up Chris Stedman as the paragon of reasoned discourse.

I am, by the way, not hostile to the idea that the secular realm can borrow from traditions that have been developed by religious institutions. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I agree with Mr. Stedman or Mr. de Botton. This is about an attempt to ritually sacrifice people who are advocating for you because you think there are points to be scored for looking ‘reasonable’. This is about shitting on your friends, and then turning around in the next breath and accusing us of ‘dividing the movement’. This is about the hypocrisy of declaring that we don’t listen to our opponents, while all the while spinning elaborate fables about our positions.

I’m disappointed in you, Hemant. I thought you were better than this.

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*And can we please untwist our knickers about name-calling? This isn’t the schoolyard – nobody gets a time-out for using a bad word. You want to make a name-caller look foolish? Call hir on it and refuse to reciprocate. Done.