Disclaimer: the central metaphor of this post is scatological, so if you have a particularly weak stomach, might I suggest you watch this video instead.
There is a far-too-common meme that exists among a subset of the nonbelieving community that goes more or less like this:
Well of course religion has led people to do bad things. Nobody is denying that. And I certainly don’t believe there’s any truth to it, but some people believe sincerely and do good things. It’s therefore neither fair nor is it accurate to paint all expressions of religion with the same brush. Religion has inspired people to do great good, as well as great evil.
Perhaps one of the most celebrated of those holding this opinion is Chris Stedman, who has published an excerpt from his upcoming book ‘Faitheist’ at Salon:
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. I’d been an atheist for a while, but I had hesitated to seek out a community of nonreligious people. I imagined that secular folks would be difficult to organize; that assembling atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, and other nonreligious individuals would prove tricky because our common thread—that we are not something — underscores only what we donot believe. But as I progressed in my work as an interfaith activist, I noticed that one of the things that actually made people good at it was a groundedness in one’s own identity. That, paired with my longing for a community of common belief, led me to begin searching for an organized community of nontheists.
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.
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.
Now if Chris’ point was simply that universally being smug dicks about religion is not a great way to advance the political goals of organized atheism, then I think he’d find very little opposition even from those ‘New Atheists’ he decries in his post. There was an air of self-congratulation at the Imagine No Religion 2 conference that a number of fellow attendees found quite offputting – this is not new information to us. Some people think that getting one thing right makes them (us) somehow superior beings. Those people are annoying, even to those who share their nonbelief.
However, that wasn’t Chris’ point. This was:
I was not naïve then, nor am I now, to the atrocities committed in the name of religion around the world. I do not pretend that religion has not played a sizable role in a great many conflicts since people first began to conceive of it, or that it does not do so today. Historically, religion has been at the center of many atrocities — this is an undeniable, important fact. But I also know that at various points in history religion has been an enormous force for liberation. Religion has changed, reformed, and revolutionized the world, and it will continue to do so as long as it is central to the human story.
I saw that my approach to religion had been distorted. I’d been thinking narrowly about the texts, not about some of their positive applications; of the one-sided stereotypes, not the diverse spectrum of beliefs and practices. It was only after I observed the actual actions of religious communities — and, more importantly, engaged with religious people and their stories — that I was able to see the benefits of working across lines of religious difference.
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. Although I believe that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs, some of these critiques have also often neglected to account for the full range of religious expression and have resulted in segregation that has parsed the religious and the secular into opposing camps.
Or, to strip it down to its relevant bullet point “New Atheism is counterproductive”. Yes apparently it’s already the return of 2008 and we’re having the “confrontation vs. accommodation” fight again – a fight where one side accuses the other of just being super mean and undermining the whole enterprise, and the other side sighing and explaining for the umpteenth time that a variety of approaches are needed, and that we may not all be speaking to the same audience. For a group of people who are so consumed with the idea of ‘working with people who have different beliefs’, they certainly don’t seem to a) follow their own advice, and b) listen to the responses to their hectoring.
There’s no need for me to re-litigate the whole fight. If you’re new to the conversation, you can feel free to check out some posts I wrote on the topic. The bullet point is that the strongly anti-theist position may in fact not be speaking to those who value pragmatic co-operation above philosophical consistency. It is foolhardy to expect every atheist to either work with religious believers or shut up, which is the logical conclusion of Stedman’s argument.
The part that particularly chaps my ass is this idea that religion can be repurposed for good, and therefore we mustn’t criticize it or hurt its feelings. The fact is that good acts performed for bad reasons still deserve scrutiny. Someone who feeds a starving person out of a belief, however sincere, that a intergalactic space moose is going to fellate them in the afterlife is certainly doing a nice thing, and that’s just fine. That being said, when the same Alcesiest belief structure can be used to justify scooping out the eyeballs of cancer-ridden orphan children, it behooves one to stop and ask if we might not be better off disposing of moose-reverence altogether. Indeed, since most of the hungry-feeders would do it regardless of the possibility of moose-BJs, would we not all be better off if there was a general understanding that moose-worship was a generally nutty concept?
But not for Chris Stedman*. Chris Stedman and those who follow his line of reasoning can be likened to a man staring into a recently-used toilet bowl and marveling at what he has found: delicious corn.
“That’s not corn, Chris” the rest of us say “that’s a lump of shit”.
“Yes,” coos Stedman “but if you look closely, you’ll see that there’s lots of little pieces of corn in there! It’s not all shit! How dare you say that this is completely shit!”
“But Chris,” we say “there are much easier, safer, and tastier ways to get corn. Come over here – we’ve got whole ears just waiting to be shucked and devoured.”
“No!” says Chris, horrified “people have been eating this shit for generations! It’s because it’s full of delicious maize-y goodness! Sure, parts of it are foul and disgusting, but all you have to do is pick the corn out from those parts and you’ll find it’s quite tasty!”
I’m all for building alternative social structures to religion. If they work and if there’s a need for it, I’m even happy to see certain elements of religious practice re-claimed for secular purpose. Gun to my head, I’m even happy to enthusiastically endorse trans-faith co-operation to achieve humanist purposes when there is agreement on a specific issues between theist and atheist groups. I think we need to face the fact that sitting around and simply sneering at religious believers in a fit of self-congratulatory collective masturbation is a fast track to obsolescence, and certainly does not reflect the feelings of all atheists as a whole. I get it, I really do.
But there’s no way in a non-existent hell that I’m going to be made to eat any more of Chris Stedman’s corny shit.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
*Whose name I keep mis-typing as “Christ Edman”, which is a fun Freudian thing to ponder.
UPDATE: James Croft thinks I am skewering a straw Stredman. Then again, he thinks Chris is “self-critical”, so take that for what it’s worth. Read his post though. I may have been too busy having fun to have made clear the crucial part of my critique: that Stedman’s criticism of “New Atheism” introduces an irrelevant and inaccurate label to criticism of a specific behaviour that is not a necessary or sufficient component of what I understand New Atheism to be.