On Chris Stedman and the Faitheist

Posted: October 23, 2012 in Braak
Tags: , , ,

Toxic Atheism Drives People Apart,” says the headline, which is about as banal a headline as a person could muster. Couldn’t you say that Toxic Christianity Drives People Apart? Toxic Waste is Bad For Your Health. Toxic Apples Will Give You a Stomach Ache. Yes, duh, that’s why we call it “toxic”. Thanks, hoss. It beggars belief that anyone is going to write an article, much less a book, exploring the intricacies of the circular argument, and let’s be honest, you write for a newspaper or some such, maybe you don’t always pick your own headlines (I know that at io9 they [rightly] NEVER let me pick my own headlines). Let’s take a minute then, and try to see what Chris Stedman is getting at. Sure, the headline makes me grit my teeth, but surely this isn’t going to be the sort of thing that’s really just a long list of cherry-picked and false comparisons, standing in against an argument that no one seriously makes, just generally a general clouding of the discourse by someone unwiling to make an actual argument, someone who’s really just worried about how much people are shouting at each other.

Surely not.

So, let’s see what he has to say. Here is a quote:

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 do not 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.

Bleh bleh bleh, a lot of literary stuff, a lot of color meant to reveal our intrepid narrator as being, like us (well, like you), a man of FEELINGS. Let me just cross out a couple of things before we get to the meat of the matter, because he’s about to go on at length about the problems of the atheist community, their inferiority to the community of Catholics that he studied with at Loyola, and how they’re mean to his Muslim friend.

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 do not 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.

Yes, okay. 1) Boy, are you correct — it is not only largely impossible, but actually completely insane to organize all of the nonreligious into a single broad category, since “atheism” is a null set, like I said before. So I hope — oh how I hope! — that you didn’t just go to “some organization of some kinds of atheists” and then plan to write a whole book about why I should care that those guys are assholes. 2) “actually made people good at it” … good at what? Activism? Interfaithism? Organizing? Seeking out a community? The antecedent is unclear, but I’m assuming that you mean “activist” — if that’s the case, then OH HOW I HOPE — you went to an actual atheistic activist organization, as opposed to some organization that was largely about affirming group identity, because otherwise isn’t your comparison going to be horribly skewed…

Ugh.

(Here is another quote that I am putting in for narrative color:

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?”

Which, no, actually I do not believe that any human being actually said this.)

In Defense of the Atheist’s Anger

Here’s the deal: I do not, generally, approve of the kind of disgruntled sermonizing that Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens sometimes get into. I wrote about God Is Not Great once before and I pointed out that Hitchens’ characterization of religion was largely hysterical and alarmist, and both inaccurate and tactically insufficient. I’m not satisfied I’m completely correct on the last score, because it really does seem like the only way you can find a place for yourself in American discourse is by kicking a bunch of people out of the way and defending your bunker with some guns.

But regardless, I’m not an advocate for that kind of speech, necessarily, certainly I’m not going to engage in it. I do, however, understand where it’s coming from, and I am going to say right now that if you’re Chris Stedman and you walk into an “atheist convention” and you walk away from it just saying about how you think they’re unnecessarily mean and cruel, without taking the time to understand where this kind of anger is coming from, then guess what? You are part of the problem!

Because the problem isn’t “atheists are mean,” any more than the problem is that “Christians are mean,” the problem is that we’ve created a discourse that necessarily pits one side against the other, so if your takeaway is, “yeah, those guys ARE mean,” then all of your overtures towards compromise are bullshit, because you don’t want actual compromise — the kind composed of the mutual understanding that starts with you — you want compromise on your terms; you want not to adapt your way of thinking to include those modes that are alien, but for all those alien modes to adapt themselves to you.

Let’s take a moment, then, and talk about WHY atheists always come off so angry. You know, I am assuming that most Christians don’t realize it, but there’s something actually really grating about the casual assumption that because I’m an atheist, I’m some kind of moral cripple; because I’m an atheist, I’m at some level incapable of understanding religion or spirituality the way that the enlightened can; because I’m an atheist, I’ve got something powerul and moving and significant that is missing from my life whose absence I can never understand. Sure, I figure most religious cats don’t do it on purpose, and the questing, open-minded Catholics that Chris Stedman met at Loyola are undoubtedly a refreshing exception, but the worst part of it all is that no religious person ever calls me a moral or spiritual cripple, they just kind of act surprised when I turn out not to be (if I turn out not to be; I am not actually that moral, personally).

There’s something really grating about the expectation that I have to take seriously, in matters of public policy, for instance, religious arguments. There’s something irritating about the knowledge that there’s an actual US representative on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who thinks that embryology is a lie from the pits of Hell, and the fact that I can’t do anything about that guy’s right to influence public policy. It is profoundly frustrating to know that actual, literal nonsense is being used as a tool to create laws, laws that will affect me just as much as they affect Paul Broun’s constituency.

There’s something, honestly, that’s supremely aggravating about the fact that the entire language of my culture, its idiom, its symbolism, is thoroughly saturated with Christian influence — that it’s a language that necessarily excludes me, and that will never be wholly my language, that will never be wholly the culture that I want.

A lot of atheists are okay with this. You know, after ten or twenty or thirty years, you basically just suck it up. We’ll never see a secular American politics anyway, so who cares? It’s not really fair for us to “own” the culture either, so who cares? No one means any harm by it, so who cares?

But every once in a while you get someone who stands up and makes a big deal out of it, and you know what that is? Because when you (Christians) are the dominant cultural paradigm, anything less than aggressive dissent just kind of gets brushed aside anyway. There have been atheists for a long time, ever since it became acceptable to stop hanging them or burning them at the stake, but it’s only recently that in the US we’ve seen people try to establish “atheist” as a genuine identity, and why is that? Because angry people finally stood up and said they weren’t going to put up with that shit.

So you can say how much you don’t like it, and that’s perfectly fair, and you can say how you’d prefer it if people weren’t jerks about it, which is ALSO perfectly fair, but there’s no getting around the fact that thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people kind of have a better idea of who they are because of it, have earned themselves a place (however small) in the public discourse. So, it’s easy for Christians to say everyone should calm down and stop yelling, all anyone is trying to take from them is the unfair, unearned, and undesevered domination of Western culture that they’ve enjoyed for fifteen centuries; the most Christianity has to lose is being treated like everyone else. The most the rest of us have to lose is being treated with at all.

The False Parity

Speaking of that place in the public discourse, and speaking of false parity, I want to draw attention to another Chris Stedman incident, here:

“Take Islam,” he had said, leaning into a doorframe while I clutched my beer a little too tightly, the condensation running down my forearm to meet with the sweat that had just reached my elbow. “Now that’s a violent faith. And don’t try to tell me it’s not, because I’ve read the Koran.”

I thought of my friend Sayira, one of the most compassionate people I knew. Sayira was a young woman who was motivated by her Muslim faith to work for the economically disadvantaged.

Sayira, who was close to receiving her black belt in karate. Sayira, one of the most gentle and loving people I’d ever met, repeatedly opened her home and her kitchen to anyone who was hungry. (And I am hungry a lot.) Sayira, a devout Muslim — and one of my role models. Sayira, who wasn’t at all represented in this man’s perception of Islam.

Right, so, Chris Stedman is bothered by this; it turns out, atheism doesn’t compare favorably when you take the shittiest atheist possible and stack him up against the nicest Muslim that you know. Quelle fucking surprise.

This is part of an ongoing argument — one that highlights the contributions of “people of faith” in politics — that points out that while “bad things might have come from religion, so have good things,” which altogether, completely and utterly, misses the point of the notion of secular politics. Now, in Stedman’s defense, if he’s only picking up arguments in favor of secular politics from Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (of whom the former was an unabashed polemicist, and the latter was a geneticist — notably, not a political scholar), you might get the idea that secularists want a secular government because we hate religion, that the goal is to STAMP OUT the churches, set fire to the priests, live in a world in which personal religious faith has no meaning.

This is obviously dumb, but in order to exply I’m going to have to point out that “religion” as we understand it, is actually two things. The first is a personal relationship between you and the universe (i.e. “my faith”), the second is a social construction designed to influence the cultural sphere (i.e., “my church.”). The question of whether the first thing should have any involvement in the cultural sphere is moot; it’s impossible for a person to not have a relationship with the universe, anyway, and its presence as the guiding prinicples of your life is inevitable.

The question is whether the SECOND part, the engine of cultural hegemony part, should be permitted dominance in the social sphere, or whether it should be replaced by secularism which, like atheism, is a neutral, null set. And you can see that there’s a huge problem with not excluding churches from dominance of the public sphere — the secular government, the “neutral” government, argues that whatever is moral and meaningful to you, if you want it to be a law, you’ve got to make a case that it’s moral and meaningful to everyone else, too. If you think eating pork is immoral, that’s fine, no one’s going to make you eat pork — but if you want to stop me from eating pork, you need a better reason than “God doesn’t like it.” If you don’t think it’s right to get gay married, that’s fine, don’t get gay married, but if you think it should be against the law, you need a better reason than “God doesn’t like it.”

Why? Because while we can test secular laws (Does outlawing alcohol actually improve society?), we can’t test whether or not God actually doesn’t like something. People of faith can’t even AGREE on whether or not God likes something. So there is actually a demonstrable, quantifiable difference between secular and sectarian approaches to government — that is, in a circumstance in which we give all sectarian opinions equal weight, the only fair government is the non-sectarian one. This is why, incidentally, it’s so desperately important for certain kinds of religious folks to prove that “atheism” is itself a sect, because that would preclude even non-sectarianism.

So, actually, even though you don’t like how much some of the atheists are saying things that sound like Evangelism, secular and sectarian governments are not the same thing, and it is therefore correct to treat them differently.  That in your haste to not see the religious persons that you know have their personal faith dismissed, you’re inadvertantly arguing that their churches deserve equal consideration in the political sphere, and this is a false parity and actually pretty bad.

On the Intolerance of the Irreligious

It’s rad that you think intolerance is bad, Chris Stedman, I think intolerance is bad, too. But I don’t think we should let ourselves get tangled in ANOTHER false parity here; you’re not really suggesting that the intolerance espoused by some atheists is of equal concern as the intolerance espoused by some Christians, do you? You don’t actually think that the opposition to mosques in Murfreesboro and Manhattan, that the shooting at the Sikh temple, that Michele Bachmann’s attempt to purge “the Muslim Brotherhood” from American government…you don’t think all that is because people are taking their cues from Sam Harris? Oh, yes, he’s definitely wrong to say that the notion of Islamophobia is absurd, that was a dumb, wrong thing to say, but you’re not seriously arguing that it’s Sam Harris that’s the problem, are you?

Hey, man, look. If your argument is “shitheads are bad”, then good for you. That is a good point, I approve, well said. And if your argument is, “Like all other groups of people in world, the category of ‘atheist’ includes some people who are shitheads,” then, well, yes. You are technically correct! Congratulations! I think it’s a bit weird to write an entire column, much less an entire book, predicated on the notion that “some percentage of shitheads in human culture seems inevitable”, but a man can write a book about whatever he wants.

If, however, your argument is ever, even for a second, going to drift over into “atheism produces shitheads in a greater number”, if it even implies this (and, yes, actually just saying kind of DOES imply it, doesn’t it?), then you are, flat out, part of the problem.

About these ads
Comments
  1. Josh says:

    Just for the record, I have never thought it was your atheism that makes you such a horrible person.

  2. braak says:

    WELL THAT’S ALL I ASK!

  3. [...] wrongheaded. First of all, and let me get this out of the way, as I pointed out in my criticism of the Faitheist article over on Salon, if you’re going to defend yourself against [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s