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Thoughts on Chris Stedman’s Faitheist

by Daniel Loxton, Nov 27 2012

I’m drinking my morning coffee as I write this, and thinking about a moving, thought-provoking book I’ve been reading for pleasure: humanist interfaith activist Chris Stedman’s Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.

I try to follow a number of firm guidelines for my writing at skeptical platforms like Skepticblog. One is never to talk about anything unless I’ve given that thing a thorough look myself—read the book, seen the movie, tracked down the paper, whatever. Another is to keep my personal politics, humanism, and atheism out of my skeptical writing as much as possible. After all, skepticism is not a private clubhouse for people who share my personal values and opinions; it’s a shared workspace for people of many backgrounds to pursue the useful practical task of investigating fringe science and paranormal claims. (Believe this, don’t believe that—who cares? Science and skepticism are about what we can find out.)

But I’m not a robot. I believe stuff. I enjoy stuff. So today I thought I might break my own guidelines and share a few preliminary personal thoughts about an atheist book I haven’t finished reading, but which I am savoring.

Country AND Western

Like his other writing and interfaith work, Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue between people of faith and people who have none. Given the strong anti-theistic sentiments common currently in movement atheism and the atheist blogosphere, this has not too surprisingly made Stedman a somewhat controversial figure in atheist circles. Some place him as part of an established narrative—a proposed distinction between atheist “firebrands and diplomats.”

“We need both,” it is often said, “firebrands and diplomats.” Working together—the soft sell and the hard sell, the good cop and the bad—these complementary approaches may do more to bring down religion than either prong of the attack may accomplish on its own. “We’re all part of the same movement,” say these voices. “We all want the same thing.”

But that’s just it. We don’t all want the same thing.

The radical function of Stedman’s Faitheist is to underline that rarely-stated truth. Atheism is actually not a duopoly of firebrands and diplomats. These two types of evangelists no more describe “both kinds” of atheist than “country and western” describes “both kinds” of music.

Stedman explicitly rejects “the demise of religion”—that is not a goal he shares. He also rejects the firebrands versus diplomats dichotomy. “I believe how pushy should we be? is the wrong question,” he writes. The better question is how do we make the world a better place?

I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and pluralism, and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism. Many religious people are allies to me and other atheists in these efforts—and a good number of them cite their religious convictions as the motivating factor behind their work. I am far more concerned about whether people are pluralistic in their worldview—if they oppose totalitarianism and believe those of different religious and nonreligious identities should be free to live as they choose and cooperate around shared values—than I am about whether someone believes in God or not.1

Atheists are not and never have been unified by a dislike of religion (nor especially of religious people). We atheists are a mixed population. We comprise an ecosystem of beliefs and values—some of those values in concord with the values of religious people, and some of those values necessarily in tension with the values of other nonbelievers. It simply is not the case that atheists are unified by a wish to convert more believers into nonbelievers, or to work toward a religion-free future. Some atheists do happen to want those things. Others do not.

Many atheists simply do not care whether other people have faith. Some atheists actively like religion, or suspect that it may be a net force for good for humanity, or consider the concept of “religion” too nebulous to judge. Some atheists find the concept of an atheism that seeks to persuade, to convert, or to grow its numbers to be distasteful or even morally wrong. And most common of all, perhaps, are the countless de facto atheists who live quietly secular lives without bothering themselves about god debates one way or the other.

Speaking for Myself

I’m an atheist. I’m even a fairly “hard” atheist—I feel morally certain that god does not exist. But that does not mean I’m remotely interested in convincing anyone else to agree (nor of course that I think as a skeptic that my untestable religious conviction is a demonstrable scientific fact). For me, atheism is a bit like being fair-skinned. It’s a true fact about me, but in most contexts it’s not a very important fact.

Movement atheism—atheist activism—has long been dominated by folks who think religion is a problem to be combatted and perhaps one day solved. That apparent unity of purpose is a social and historical artifact, an illusion. Antitheists are not representative of atheists as a whole. Now, when I say that, I’m not arguing that antitheism is bad. (I have reservations about confrontational antitheism, some serious, but that’s not my point at the moment.) Certainly an argument can be made that religion is a net negative for humanity; people who happen to believe that have the right to unify around that idea.

It’s just that there’s no place for me in an antitheist movement. It’s not who I am. Such a movement does not represent my values or beliefs.

Which is what makes Stedman’s Faitheist such a pleasure for me.

Looking Back

Faitheist is an argument for humanism—for the prioritizing of the wellbeing and dignity and complexity of human beings over our ideological differences—framed in the language of a memoir. Stedman’s look back over his life leaves him starkly exposed. It’s moving to read, while also reminding me (cringe-inducingly) of my own youthful struggles with faith and love and sex and existential meaning. It’s like Quantum Leaping back into my screwed up life in 1992—which is around the time that I engaged in my first public act as an “out” atheist. By coincidence, that act was interfaith dialogue of just the type that Stedman advocates today.

I participated as a youth delegate in an interfaith conference held on the beautiful, secluded campus of the United World College’s Pearson College of the Pacific. I openly attended as an atheist, a secularist, and at that time an antitheist. I arrived opposed to religion. I left opposed to religion. (Also, I was an ass. I recall that I was interviewed by a television crew at the event, and fondly hope that the tape no longer exists.) And yet, it was also an eyeopening event for me. To this day I remember conversations I had that weekend.

The goal for the conference was the drafting of recommendations for comparative religion curricula. The line I advocated was what I would advocate today: that comparative religion is an important part of every kid’s education, and should ethically be taught through a lens of secular scholarship, not partisan faith. The first is education, I said; the latter, propaganda. Well, responses to that argument, and to the task of the event, were very mixed. I found tension where I wouldn’t have expected it, and found common ground where I would not have expected that. I got to know folks better, communities better. (The kids from the Bahá’í school in Shawnigan Lake were especially interesting—smart, groovy, and from a religion I had never heard a whisper about until that moment.)

This fascinating experience had an impact (as did many others). But you know how it is. Change doesn’t happen overnight. I spent a few college years as what we might now think of as a confrontational New Atheist firebrand. But it didn’t stick. Over time I found myself less and less concerned about other people’s faith, and more and more inspired by the values of humanism. To this day, that is how I think of myself. I am an atheist (a mere fact); I identify as a humanist (my values and viewpoint); I do skepticism (my professional task).

Then came 2001. The 9/11 events shook a lot of nonbelievers. I mean, 9/11 shook everybody—much of humanity howled in protest—but it changed many nonbelievers. “My last vestige of ‘hands-off religion’ respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11, 2001,” wrote Richard Dawkins. It was, he said, “time to stop pussyfooting around. Time to get angry. And not only with Islam.”2 I felt some of that anger myself. Everybody did. But the ghastly footage of smoke and dust was not the thing that defined the impact of 9/11 on my own life. What I remember is sitting on the warped, splintery wooden floor of my hallway late on the night of September 12 or 13, speaking to one of my closest friends on the phone. She and I had gone to high school together, and later worked together herding sheep in the wilderness. She phoned from Hong Kong to say her brother had died in the Twin Towers. She was flying to New York to meet her family. Would I tell our shared friends what had happened? Of course I would. “What do you think will happen now?” she asked me, half a world away. We knew the world had changed. Her world. The entire world. “The Americans are going to set a lot of people on fire,” I said, in shock. “They’re going to pick a country and level it.” All the sorrow for her loss, for all those families’ losses, was compounded by the sorrow for the losses still to come. I’ve never stopped thinking about the human cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, the losses on all sides—all those people in their thousands and their tens of thousands—nor about the more subtle costs of suspicion and racism and religious discrimination, here and around the world.

The truth is that the face of religion is not defined by suicide bombers—it is as diverse as humanity itself. Religion is firefighters and cops and volunteers coated in choking dust, soldiers serving overseas, heroes and monsters and geniuses and fools. The religious are no less complex, no less valuable than anyone else. Their sorrows and joys are all of ours.

Chris Stedman’s work calls humanists to remember that complexity. It asks us to speak first to our shared humanity. As humanism, this is unexceptional. Humanism has always had its thin vein of anti-religious sentiment, but the main theme of humanism—humanism’s beating heart—is the call to altruism, the call to value the wellbeing and dignity of every spark of human consciousness.

Stedman’s work embodies what humanism is, in my view. But he does something more when he positions his work not only as humanism, but as “atheist interfaith activism.”

He makes a place in atheism for atheists like me. Perhaps for the first time.

References:

  1. Stedman, Chris. Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.) pp. 153–154
  2. Dawkins, Richard. A Devil’s Chaplain. (New York: Mariner Books, 2004.) pp. 156–157
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Thoughts on Chris Stedman's Faitheist, 4.5 out of 5 based on 22 ratings

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68 Responses to “Thoughts on Chris Stedman’s Faitheist”

  1. Somite says:

    The problem is when so-called skeptics compartmentalize their skepticism for the sake of someone’s phee phees.

    This is not difficult stuff.

    There is no evidence or need for the existence of any god and thus belief in gods is irrational.

    If you call yourself a skeptic and want to be consistent, you should have no problem supporting this statement even in the presence of religious people. This is the one question you don’t want to tiptoe around specially when someone is asking because they genuinely want to know.

    • Mike McRae says:

      I know few skeptics who ‘compartmentalise’ their skepticism in the face of religion, not least Chris. I know a lot who pragmatically face the issue as one of resolving problems rather than punitively criticising another’s beliefs.

      Which is basically what this boils down to. For one, I’d rather the problems that arise from tribalism and supernatural belief are limited or abolished. I couldn’t care less what a person believes – I do care whether that belief causes another person pain.

      It seems too many atheists and skeptics are more concerned with being offended by the notion of irrationality, and feel a need to scorn or punish others for believing. This is justified post-hoc into the unsupported view that if you shame or criticise a believer, the belief will change (and with it the consequences of the belief).

      There is always a time and place to discuss beliefs and promote certain thinking values. For what it’s worth, I know Chris believes this as well. But to really make a difference, sometimes it’s a matter of identifying a problem and finding community in addressing it, rather than division over an ideology.

      • Somite says:

        How is this not lying to achieve a goal?

      • Mike McRae says:

        Abstaining from criticism or shaming in favour of focussing on solving a problem doesn’t equate lying.

        In any case, it’s a non-sequitor. The goal is to find those who share a value in limiting oppression and pain caused to others, regardless of worldview. It speaks volumes that you’re more concerned with an ideological perspective of truth and rationality than limiting the negative consequences of oppressive beliefs.

    • Daniel says:

      How is being “consistent” working out for you? It boils down, in popular vernacular, to not being a dick.

      If someone tells you that he believes in ghosts because there just has to be more to the universe than ending up as a pile of bones, science or skepticism (which you apparently appear to equate with reason) has nothing to say about it. The same way that science or skepticism has nothing to say about whether raping and pillaging is a good or bad thing. On the other hand, if the same person tells you he believes in ghosts and that “electromagnetic readings” of haunted houses prove it, science and skepticism tells you that it can be explained by natural phenomena, no ghosts required. Similarly, skeptics do the world a service when they use the most effective means available (whether it means being a dick or using gentle persuasion) to persuade people not to spend their life savings to pay for a ghost hunter to rid their house of poltergeists.

      However, I fail to see the good in attempting to browbeat people into not spending an hour of their time watching Celebrity Ghost Stories (or Keeping Up With The Karadashians) instead of watching physics programs. But if having consistency between your beliefs and actions is the most important thing in the world to you, by all means belittle everyone else in the world.

      • Somite says:

        But isn’t the lack of consistency and caring for the truth the actual problem? If people cared for what is actually correct rather than what they wish was correct the world would be a much better place.

        What you are doing is condescendingly accommodating people’s irrational beliefs.

        BTW. Science has a lot to say about what happens after death. We have looked into brains, neurons and their connections and there is nothing there that could persist after death. There is also no evidence of life after death. You can choose to be irrational and belief in life after death but science has concluded there is no evidence for it.

        Any emotion you attach to my statements is your own. Me and other skeptics like Dawkins only make clear and emotionally neutral truthful statements.

        Do you have a convert’s corner or examples like this to show for your approach? http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/the-value-of-stridency-a-creationist-becomes-a-biologist/

      • Max says:

        You know the teleportation thought experiment, where a copy of you is created and the original is destroyed? We can pretend that the copy is you, even if it’s not a perfect copy, or its memory is wiped out. It’s not a matter of fact, it’s pretend. I can just as well pretend that when I die, I get reincarnated as a newborn or as a puppy, because “I” was an illusion in the first place.

      • J. J. Ramsey says:

        “if it was just noise you would have similar letters from the accomodationist approach.”

        Citation needed.

      • J. J. Ramsey says:

        Sorry, that was supposed to be a reply to Somite.

      • J. J. Ramsey says:

        You do realize (1) that’s anecdotal evidence, which isn’t that reliable and (2) you’ve presented a sample size of 1?

      • Somite says:

        The convert’s corner is a very long list of letters sent to Richard Dawkins by former religionists

        http://old.richarddawkins.net/letters/converts?letter_id=644501&page=1

        In this case even an n=1 would be higher than conversions achieved by accomodationists.

      • J. J. Ramsey says:

        Ok, so now you’ve got a much bigger sample size, but it’s still anecdotal evidence, with all the problems that it comes with: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anecdotal_evidence

      • Somite says:

        It is anecdotal but if it was just noise you would have similar letters from the accomodationist approach. I haven’t seen any.

        The point is how does a skeptic/realist can accomodate the religious point of view regarding creationism, conception, evolution, etc. it shoukd not be possible to accomodate this and yet they are at the core of what religionists believe.

        I would add statements of god belief among these.

      • Max says:

        Here’s what Mitt Romney said about evolution.
        http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/11/romney-elaborates-on-evolution/

        “I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.”
        “In my opinion, the science class is where to teach evolution, or if there are other scientific thoughts that need to be discussed,” he said. “If we’re going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why it was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that’s for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class.”

      • Wow. That’s pretty iconoclastic for a GOP candidate.

      • Max says:

        One more:

        [Mitt Romney] told his interviewers that he did not believe there was a “conflict between true science and true religion,” he said.
        “True science and true religion are on exactly the same page,” he said. “they may come from different angles, but they reach the same conclusion. I’ve never found a conflict between the science of evolution and the belief that God created the universe. He uses scientific tools to do his work.”

      • Somite says:

        Romney also said “I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design,” he said. “But I believe God is intelligent, and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”

        Whis is creationism.

        The run down of GOP candidates beliefs is here

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/24/2012-election-gop-candidates-evolution-_n_934045.html#s333316&title=Rick_Perry

        Note how appalling are Perry and Santorum. Ron Paul’s stupidity is surprising

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/24/2012-election-gop-candidates-evolution-_n_934045.html#s333316&title=Rick_Perry

        Accomodate that!

      • Daniel says:

        @Somite

        Ron Paul may believe the world is a few thousand years old, but he apparently is a competent physician who was against the Iraq War unlike Christopher Hitchens who knew the true age of the earth. I would venture a guess that Ron Paul probably knows more about human anatomy and economics than you do.

      • Somite says:

        As a veterinarian I know ALL anatomies. Boom!

      • Max says:

        “Accommodate that!”

        The whole point of accommodationism is not to tolerate beliefs that conflict with science, but to ally with those whose beliefs don’t conflict with science. The belief that God uses scientific tools like evolution to do his work is metaphysical, and doesn’t conflict with science.

      • Somite says:

        Metaphysics are unscientific and anti-scientific. No evidence of anything beyond physics.

  2. MadScientist says:

    Here’s another review of the book – this one by one of those dang CFI skeptics. Them skeptics – always rainin’ on folks’ parades you know:

    freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/11/26/faitheist-the-review/

  3. @blame says:

    Again I see the godless are in furious agreement.

    Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue…

    I’m comfortable with such excitement leading to “new” moralising rhetoric that –one hopes– will stir up both insiders and outsiders alike. Wherever we personally decide to draw that line.

    But that’s just it.

    Our popular influencers go viral and up our headcount. Meanwhile their’s retain the political funding advantage. Imho, religio-politics within a democratic state means lawyering back from the papal extreme to a mid-point that better suits liberal christians, than strict secularists.

  4. Max says:

    Do you distinguish religion from, say, belief in ghosts or new age woo?

    • Mike McRae says:

      Religion is a nebulous concept that vaguely insinuates anything from dogmatic collectives believing in an omniscient, ominpotent deity to inchoate senses of universal, metaphysical entities. It can refer to rituals, supernatural beliefs, traditional exchanges, hierarchies, oppressive values, values in freedom and everything in between.

      In a word, ‘religion’ says little of an individual’s specific belief.

      Belief in ghosts means you believe in ghosts.

      If somebody says to me they’re religious, I’m forced to ask what they mean by that. If they say they believe in ghosts…I can safely assume they mean they hold some belief in incorporeal forces that resemble living beings in some way.

    • Do you distinguish religion from, say, belief in ghosts or new age woo?

      No, I don’t distinguish. The religious flavor of a claim is irrelevant—it’s empirical investigability that matters.

      If a claim has some potentially testable component, then my task as a scientific skeptic is to see if I can get to the bottom of that, and then make the answer available to the public. It doesn’t matter if that claim is considered “paranormal” or “religious” or neither or both.

      If a claim has a moral component, I can’t say much about that as a skeptic. But I’m interested in putting on my humanist hat and having a dialogue about those moral concerns, just as Stedman advocates. But here again, it doesn’t much matter whether the claim is considered “religious” or not.

      If a supposed fact claim is framed purely as an untestable matter of faith (or as in incomprehensible utterance) it again doesn’t matter if it is labelled “religious” or not. Either way, it’s not my problem. If your dynamized homeopathic water memory or ghosts or psi or soul or god or aura have no reliable effects and cannot be directly detected, then those are all equally outside of science—and all just so much good or bad poetry from my perspective. Fill your boots.

      • Somite says:

        I have an invisible intangible bridge to sell you Daniel.

        You probably won’t buy my bridge because it would be silly to accept its existence without evidence. As a matter of fact you probably won’t believe it exists even though it is untestable.

        How is my invisible intangible bridge different from god or any other religious claim?

      • It’s not different. Untestable gods, untestable bridges—I don’t share any of those beliefs, and also I don’t care if you do. Whatever floats your boat.

      • Somite says:

        One would hope you would care about being inconsistent or incorrect.

  5. markx says:

    Daniel Loxton, that is a damn fine article, worth a lot more than 5 votes, and worthy of wider attention.

    I’ll certainly buy Chris Stedman’s book, Faitheist.

  6. mikeb says:

    I’m one of those quiet, non-demonstrative atheists. That’s my personality. But I do teach Darwin to my writing students as “the best idea anyone has ever had” (Dennett) while also teaching them that Darwin got pretty much all his ideas from predecessors (“evolution as an idea evolved”).

    So, yes, in a way, I’m trying to convert people.

    But when the topic of religion and belief come up in class, I don’t announce my atheism, because that’s changing the subject to me. I tell the students that, regardless of what we mean by “religion” or which religion we’re talking about, “religion” is not going to go away, so it’s kind of pointless to rail against it, even as you rail against its falsehoods like creationism.

    Trying to rid humanity of religion is like trying to rid it of sex. It’s a universal human trait, probably with ancient genetic roots, that evolved along with us. Will we find an adequate secular replacement for the scientifically-unsound religions we have now? How the hell should I know….

    • MadScientist says:

      “Trying to rid humanity of religion is like trying to rid it of sex.”

      Not really. Ignoring the disease we call religion is a means of promoting it. Educating people and showing them that religion is nonsense would diminish religion to the point where large organized religion can no longer thrive, and this is evident through a lot of Europe. It’s not so much eradicating religion as removing its threat to society. Also, no religion = good, no sex = bad. While humans depend on sex to promulgate the species, religion is at best a threat and we’re better off without it.

      • Daniel says:

        No religion = good? Ask a random person in Stalin’s Russia whether they would rather live in Dayton, Tennessee of Scopes Monkey Trial fame. I would say that it’s a verifiable example of living under a religious government > living under an atheistic government.

      • Max says:

        Those who were born in Stalin’s Russia were brainwashed enough that they loved Stalin.

      • MadScientist says:

        Your argument makes no sense whatsoever Daniel.

        1. Religion is inherently evil because it promulgates ignorance. Getting rid of religion will not magically make everything better, but it’s a good start.

        2. How can you even imagine that the Scopes Monkey trial is in any way comparable to Stalinist Russia or that Stalinist Russia is somehow representative of the lack of religion? I’m not impressed with your self-Godwin there. Are you implying that atheists must be like Stalin because they have some agenda to violently repress religion? What planet are you living on? Are you also implying that the US governments are religious governments?

      • Daniel says:

        It makes perfect sense actually, as it is a verifiable example of how wrong the oft-repeated claim that the world would be a better place without religion, which is what your claim boils down to.

        Atheists of the “you’re stupid if you’re religious” type are very fond of pointing to theocracies and saying that it’s what happens when religious people are in control. Much more often though, you get places like the Bible Belt where they can manage to build communities that function well enough, and are generally ok with leaving you alone if you leave them alone, and so long as you don’t make a federal case out of displaying a nativity scene at city hall or not getting your panties in a bunch that they’d rather not teach evolution in their own schools.

        On the other hand, I have given you a plain example of an atheist with political power that imposed a regime of cruelty virtually unmatched in the history of civilization. Your only response is, “well that’s not really how atheists are supposed to be”. Maybe you’re right, but that’s little solace to the person that was rotting away in Stalin’s gulag, who would have been much better off being Amish.

      • Somite says:

        You said it. That was a function of fascism rather than atheism.

      • Daniel says:

        @somite:

        Actually, it was a function of Communism, which is explicitly atheistic. You can’t rationalize that away by using the buzz word “fascism”.

        But hey, I’m sure you would be satisfied while you were in front of an NKVD firing squad knowing that your countrymen didn’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster like those Amish people.

      • MadScientist says:

        @Daniel: You need to read about commie-nism rather than swallowing 80 years of government propaganda. Where is the call for the brutal suppression of religion in the communist ideology?

        Your original statement still makes no sense to me. I said no religion is a good thing and you say “no it’s not”. It’s like someone saying “not having a toothache is a good thing” and you say “no it’s not – what if you had cancer instead?” You have a false dichotomy and non sequitur all in one. I’m trying to understand how you make such a bizarre connection which has no basis in reality. Perhaps you still believe that people can’t be good without religion and that only ex-religious non-believers have any hope of being good? If not, then why do you so readily equate the absence of religion with some extreme? As for the notion that religion makes people good, that is clearly bunkum – just look at what happened in the Republic of Ireland in the past week or so – a woman was willfully left to suffer and die needlessly because that’s the will of some worse than worthless god.

      • Max says:

        Nah, it’s like saying that not eating a bagel is a good thing. Well, that depends whether you replace it with a doughnut or a high-fiber cereal. You need to eat something, and you need some system of beliefs and ethics.

      • Daniel says:

        Mad Scientist:

        Where does it say that Communism calls for the brutal suppression of religion? I don’t know, maybe it was Marx, y’know, the guy who came up with the whole thing?

        “Of course, in periods when the political state as such is born violently out of civil society, when political liberation is the form in which men strive to achieve their liberation, the state can and must go as far as the abolition of religion, the destruction of religion. But it can do so only in the same way that it proceeds to the abolition of private property, to the maximum, to confiscation, to progressive taxation, just as it goes as far as the abolition of life, the guillotine.”

        The first Communist state was actually a bit more tame than that.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSR_anti-religious_campaign_%281928%E2%80%931941%29

        You could move to the deepest and most believing part of the Bible Belt, and they wouldn’t do that to you, even if you were a complete jerk.

        The merits of Communism aside, it is a philosophy created by atheists and implemented by atheists. If you’re going go through the standard talking points regarding the misery that follows religion, the least you could do is acknowledge your own dirty laundry. And it’s a complete cop out to say, “that’s not what REAL atheism is all about”. (I imagine you’re unimpressed with the Catholic Church’s recent apology for placing Galileo under house arrest).

        And for the millionth time, I don’t say it is impossible to be moral without religion. I am not religious as I’ve also tried to make clear. However, once you take God or whatever you want to call it out of the equation, morality becomes a subjective matter, the same as my preference for the Yankees over the Red Sox. When you add that into the mix of the type of person that strives for political power, the results can and have proven to be disastrous. Not always of course, but with great frequency and intensity relative to the number of atheistic nations that have existed during course of times.

      • MadScientist says:

        @Daniel:

        “And for the millionth time, I don’t say it is impossible to be moral without religion.”

        You don’t? Then why do you presume that when a person says it would be good to be rid of religion, there must be some replacement? What are you replacing? Why do you believe there is a need to replace religion with anything?

      • MadScientist says:

        @Daniel:

        “Of course, in periods when the political state as such is born violently out of civil society …”

        Nice quote-mining, Daniel! Go read the whole damned thing. Marx is not even advocating what you say he is and that is quite clear from the text.

      • tmac57 says:

        Daniel said

        However, once you take God or whatever you want to call it out of the equation, morality becomes a subjective matter

        It is also, apparently, a subjective matter withing the context of religion as well…unless you want to try to figure out a way to explain the religious subjugation of women,and children,as well as racism,slavery,genital mutilation,suppression of science (intellectual inquiry),infliction of guilt over normal sexual practices,witch hunts,holy wars,etc. etc.
        Are those excesses and abuses moral? They are considered so by some religious believers,and not by others…the very definition of ‘subjective’ I would argue.
        You say that you are not religious,so does that immediately rank you as less worthy of being considered a “moral person” compared to a religious person? Are you arguing that on average atheists are a less moral class,and therefore a less trustworthy class of people?

      • Max says:

        Whether no religion = good depends on what it’s replaced with. If it’s replaced with Communism or a cult of personality, that’s not good. The Cult of Reason in France was kind of nuts too.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Reason
        “The earliest atheistic public demonstrations ranged from wild masquerades redolent of earlier spring festivals to outright persecutions, including ransackings of churches and synagogues in which religious and royal images were defaced.”

      • mikeb says:

        I’m actually inclined to agree with most of what you say (especially the no sex = bad part!).

        And yet the religious impulse is fully human. I agree: the nonsense has got to go, and if that means the religion goes with it, then goodbye to all that.

        But without the nonsense, religion might evolve into something else, something more benign, and sublime.

      • MadScientist says:

        That remains to be seen; the influence of religion has certainly been wound back as society defies the various claims and insists on justice and compassion. However, even priests and preachers sometimes give up religion as they learn more about the world and about the foundations of their belief and as preachers dwindle the religion cannot survive. People will always believe silly things, but as we can see in many cities around Europe, organized religion is dying as society improves and there is no need for violence to achieve the end of religion. It is education which is the mortal enemy of religion; violence is religion’s dearest friend.

  7. Trimegistus says:

    An insightful review of a book that sounds interesting. I’ll look for it, as I do hope atheists can find a way to rescue themselves from becoming nothing but a caricature of the thing they oppose.

  8. That said, I’m going to nuance Daniel even more. I’m not ***any sort of atheist evangelist*** whether diplomat or firebrand. I hope you’re not implying that all atheists are evangelists of some sort.

    The theme of the post is that many atheists, including myself and Stedman, are not atheist evangelists. I do not care if people have faith. I am not interested in persuading people to give up religion, nor to identify as atheists. Other people’s metaphysical speculations, opinions, or beliefs are none of my business.

    • MadScientist says:

      You may think that other people’s beliefs are none of your business, but the government isn’t telling you what to believe and taxing you based on your beliefs. Have you no concept of the reality of religious sectarianism and why the Bill of Rights mandates that the government not promote any specific religion? Many religious beliefs are an outright threat to civilized society and the ignorance promoted by religion as a virtue is not a good thing. Do you need to wait until the USA resembles Ethiopia before it becomes your business to tell people that religion is bullshit?

      • I’m not certain I understand this comment, but in any event: None of the things I care about—combatting bigotry against atheists, promoting social justice, advocating for science literacy, critiquing pseudoscience, or strengthening secularism—require me to attempt to persuade people to drop their metaphysical opinions in favor of mine. Allowing each of us the safety to hold our own opinions about metaphysics is one of the things that secularism and democracy are for.

      • Daniel says:

        MadScientist, you are presenting a nice false dichotomy. Either be forever vigilant at the very sight of religion at all stages (yes, it’s hyperbole) or submit to a putative theocracy.

        Also, a hardcore religious person might ask a religious person with more of a live and let live attitude whether he should wait until Stalin takes over before saying another person’s atheism is none of his business.

      • tmac57 says:

        I don’t think atheism was any more Stalin’s problem than was his thick mustache.

      • Daniel says:

        tmac57:

        Stalin’s atheism had a lot to do with his cruelty. At bottom, Stalin was a nihilist. (He made a deal with Hitler when it served his interests, and he allowed the churches to reopen when it served his interests). In order to be a nihilist, it is necessary, although not sufficient, to be an atheist.

        It is true that the person who is killed by a Taliban whacko for religious purposes is just as dead as the person the NKVD executed for no reason at all. It just puts the lie to the oft-repeated simplistic (and, dare I say, unnskeptical) argument that the world would be a better place without religion.

      • tmac57 says:

        Daniel,I will not pretend to be a scholar of Stalin,or the history of Stalinist Russia,but it seems to me that his personality traits(apparently paranoid),combined with a complex mix of sociological and political factors,and also perhaps his early religious training,illness,and disabilities,all had some influence on whom he eventually became.
        So cherry picking the atheist component of Stalin,seems like retrofitting,or a post hoc fallacy.
        How would you explain the horrific acts in history committed under theocratic rule,if religion were the determining factor of who commits atrocities,versus who does not?
        Sociopaths have been with us from day one,I would guess,and they seem to have a knack for rising to the positions of authority regardless of their supposed belief system.

      • Daniel says:

        tmac57:

        As I’ve tried to make clear, I don’t dispute that religious leaders are willing to employ violence to achieve religious goals. However, I would say, pound for pound, atheist political systems are far more prone to cruelty and oppression. In the history of the world, atheistic political leaders are the exception, and by a wide margin. Yet the body count for just twentieth century atheistic leaders (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot — there’s a debate whether you could include Hitler, but in my opinion, he’s neither fish nor foul in that regard) is staggering, and makes the Taliban look quite tame in comparison.

        If I had to make pop psychology analysis, I would say that atheism is another element in the volatile mix that makes up the type of person that seeks political power. It takes a certain type of scumbag to aspire to have political control over someone else. (Atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Penn Gillette wouldn’t have the stones to do what it takes to be county dog catcher). The religious fanatic who does so at least has some kind of infallible text to look to (Bible, Koran, whatever) that has something in there that speaks to the importance of being decent to your fellow man (even if there’s the stuff about killing non-believers) and that you’ll be punished for all of eternity if you fail to live up to that standard. The atheist, in the final analysis, has no such restraint.

        Again, I’m not religious and don’t believe that morality is objective, but I’m pretty sure that if I all the sudden became absolute ruler of the United States I wouldn’t engage in a ruthless campaign of wiping out my political opponents and keeping the populace in check through fear. History tends to show us though that the atheists that actually seek out power are more likely to have no such constraints.

      • MadScientist says:

        Daniel, you’re the one imagining a false dichotomy. If people pretend that religion is OK and do not try to educate the religious, that is most definitely not a good thing and it can indeed lead to a theocracy. Just look at the USA and how numerous cults are trying to revise history and so on. I don’t know why you keep Godwining yourself either.

  9. oldebabe says:

    Good on you for expressing your thoughts re:, which I’m sure resonates with many. IMO and experience with people one-on-one, most non-theists are non-activists, just really don’t think about it all that much, and don’t care what others insist on thinking, as long as it doesn’t affect them negatively. I think I can say the same for the theists I know as well. Why does it need a specific designated `name’? Maybe humanist is as good as any.

  10. Johnny says:

    As someone living in one of the most secular countries in the world (Sweden) this myopic, mostly American (I guess) discussion is both amusing and sad. In case it was news to you, the religiousity of the US is the exception, not the norm, for an industrialized, highly developed country. As to why the US is by comparison so religious, you’ll have to ask a sociologist. But still, the point is that modern society in many parts of the world has rendered religion irrelevant.

    In case you wonder what two largely irreligious societies in the world look like in practice, consider picking up “Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” by Phil Zuckerman. Especially recommended for Americans.

    I also think there is a necessity to differentiate between what you want politically and intellectually. It is perfectly possible to politically advocate for secularism and live and let live on the political level, while still enjoying to discuss and persuade others on a more personal level. Though of course it’s not necessary. The point is that atheists who try to deconvert religious believers don’t necessarily want atheism enforced or favored politically, as seems to be the underlying assumption here.

    • MadScientist says:

      “The point is that atheists who try to deconvert religious believers don’t necessarily want atheism enforced or favored politically, as seems to be the underlying assumption here.”

      I think that’s an apt summary. Yes, there is a strawman being attacked: the atheist who wants to force atheism on everyone in society. That is far more rare than the religious person who wants to force their particular cult on everyone. Certainly such figures can exist and people should guard against them, but pretending that the majority of people are like that is ridiculous.

      • Johnny says:

        When debate-hungry atheists are accused of wanting to force people to stop being religious (rather than persuading them through reasoned argument), I think that’s just an attempt to make those atheists shut up. As if atheists did not have the same right as anyone else in promoting their views on the marketplace of ideas.

      • Somite says:

        I think you’ve hit the nail in the head Johnny. The question is why.

    • Paul Thibodeau says:

      Thanks for the great point on modern secularism Johnny and the plug for Zuckerman. I think you are a little out of touch with the current new atheist debate though, remember, what we are talking about here is the ‘new atheism’.

      For example, in ‘The New Atheism’ Victor Stenger quotes D’Souza:

      ‘The atheists no longer want to be tolerated. They want to monopolize the public square and to expel Christians from it. They want political questions like abortion to be divorced from religious and moral claims. They want to control school curricula so they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity. They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but evil. They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today. In short, they want to make religion—and especially the Christian religion—disappear from the face of the earth.’

      Stenger then remarks:

      ‘In this introduction D’Souza does not provide evidence for his assertions by quoting from the new atheist literature. We certainly do not want to “expel Christians” from the public square or “control school curricula,” but we would not be unhappy with some of the other outcomes.’ (p. 23)

      I would argue that if one agrees with the other statements, the two contested claims probably follow.

      Finally, please see my book ‘The Call: moving from Science vs Religion to a Better World’ for a thorough discussion of many of the issues raised in Faitheist.

  11. RV says:

    What needs to be fought are the laws based on Christian ideology that are being proposed and accepted in several states, as well as at the federal level, that are, imo, ineffective and probably will do more harm than good – a couple recent examples – creationism in science classes, TN, abstinence only sex ed, TN. Others- prayer in schools, vouchers using tax money for private/Christian schools, birth control, abortion, same sex marriage, stem cell research, etc. There are many aspects of “Christian” influence in our supposedly secular government that give the impression this is a Christian nation (look at the Republican Party Platform and the things many Republican “leaders” say, “In God We Trust,” etc.) and that we need more laws based on “Christianity.” Granted, we may be able to find common ground on some important issues with theists, but there are many important issues that are being addressed by what is clearly Christian ideology that are, imo, setting us back as a nation. It is naive to dismiss the very real threat of Christian theocracy.

    As far as the references to Stalin, any ideology that puts a belief system above the value of a human life will lead to atrocities. In the case of Stalin, the ideology was Communism/nationalism. Atheism, in itself, does not posit an ideology valuing a belief system or an idea more than a human life.

    With that said, you can be a “faitheist” all you want. But where I live, TN, Christian legislators gladly pass legislation based on Christian ideology that is imposed on all of us in here in TN and that, imo, is an embarrassment to TN and this nation. When legislation based on supposed “Christian” ideology affects civil liberties, education, resources, etc. (creationism in science class, abstinence only sex ed, prayer in schools, school vouchers, stem cell research, faith healing, abortion, birth control, same sex marriage, climate change, humane treatment of animals, etc.) we absolutely should throw the bullshit flag at our theist “friends.”

    • WML says:

      Daniel,

      You call atheists “assholes” for standing up to a violation of the establishment clause by an unfairly tax privileged religious organization? Assholes? (And maybe they’re not even atheists, but secularists who value separation of church and state.)

      From what you’ve written in responses to comments above, it appears that making preposterous, empirically untestable claims is not a problem for you and would not elicit the “asshole” label from you. What would someone need to do inspired by their religious devotion for you to call the person an asshole?

      And while I’m asking questions, please explain how someone who doesn’t value faith (believing stuff without regard to relevant reason and evidence) can be an interfaith activist. I simply don’t get it. Interfaith means between different faith, but faithlessness isn’t a faith. Is calling faithlessness a faith any more reasonable than characterizing abstinence as a sexual position?

      • Daniel says:

        (Just noticed this response).

        Yes, atheists are being assholes. This is an example of a charitable event that virtually all of the community enjoyed that some atheist gadfly decided to threaten with litigation, which resulted in it being cancelled. Congratulations.

        Tell me, what exactly did this guy accomplish? Would you have really felt something unjust were happening if this concert took place. If you’re being honest, you would be admit absolutely not. It has all to do with some narcisitic schmuck who had to make a point to the detriment of a lot of people. Hope you atheists are proud of one another, and can go smell one another’s farts and admire how superior you are to everyone else.

        And by the way, the Establishment Clause has nothing to do with tax dollars indirectly supporting religious organizations. By that logic, an ambulance from a public hospital would not be able to respond to an emergency at a church. Religious people pay taxes too, and in much larger numbers than atheists.

        Get over yourself.

  12. Carole says:

    There is no evidence that a god exists or ever existed any more than there is evidence that we’re all tiny organisms living on the sweat gland of a giant or that we flew here from another Universe.

    Those things could be true. Anything could be true. There has to be a methodology that helps us decide between what is true and what isn’t and it can’t be just because someone wrote a book, found some scrolls or had a vision. Our best methodologies are science, proven facts and logic. The god theory and all religious philosophies don’t comply with that. They demand belief that bypasses science and logic. I haven’t heard any religion philosophy that when said out loud has any rational basis.

    I don’t use the word atheist because it sounds like another religion or fixed belie to me. I think of it as being for science and logic.