Toxic atheism drives people apart

I'm not a believer any longer, but I do believe in respect. The "New Atheism" of Dawkins and Harris is simply toxic

Topics: Books, Religion, Atheism, Atheists, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Chris Stedman,

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.

The brusque brush-off occurred at a reception following a public discussion organized by a nonreligious group; the topic had been how the nonreligious — more specifically, atheists, agnostics, and other nontheistic, nonreligious people — should approach religion. I had suspected that there would be mixed feelings about religion. After all, I knew of the popular atheist discourse on the subject, which cast the religious not only as incorrect about metaphysical realities but as standing in the way of social and intellectual progress. But I had also hoped that someone might offer a more balanced perspective on religion, locating within the beliefs, desires, and actions of religious people similar values held by many nonreligious people.

I had gone with optimism and excitement. At the time, I was both an atheist and an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that helps mobilize young people to change the public narrative on religion from one of conflict to one of cooperation by engaging in dialogue around shared values and collaborative action. Because of my work, I felt I was in a particularly good position to discuss religion in the lives of nonreligious folks. I pictured myself saying with a well-meaning grin, “Hey, I work with religious people every day and my atheism is stronger than ever!” 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.

Though I was disheartened by the event, I went to the post-panel reception, held at one of the panelists’ apartments, because I hoped that if I spoke with more of the group members I’d find some people who shared my opinions or learn a bit more about why they believed differently than I did. Also, as a thrifty graduate student, free dinner and drinks were hard to pass up!

I walked in and instantly removed my shoes. The apartment was beautiful; the ceiling-to-floor windows allowed for a stunning view of Chicago’s orange-and-white-lit skyline. The living room was impeccably clean. I scanned the crowd; I was easily the youngest person there and unfashionably underdressed (nothing new there). Looking down at my feet, I noticed there was a hole in each of my socks.

I sat down on the couch, carefully balancing a mint julep in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres I couldn’t name in the other, intensely aware of how out of place I must have seemed. Next to me on the couch were a woman in her mid-40s with a shimmering peacock brooch and a man in his late 30s wearing a denim shirt and a tan corduroy vest. I introduced myself and asked what they’d thought of the panel. 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?”

I paused, debating whether I should say anything. My “Minnesota Nice” inclination warned me to let it be, but I had to say something. So I started small, asking them to consider that diversity of thought and background fosters an environment where discourse thrives, where ideas are exchanged, and where we learn from one another.

I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost,” said the woman with a flick of her hand that suggested she was swatting at an invisible mosquito.

As a former Evangelical Christian, these words were hauntingly familiar, and they represented a kind of sure-handed certainty and dismissal — a kind of fundamentalist thinking, really — that I’d hoped to leave behind with my “born again” beliefs.

Our conversation continued, and I offered up petitions that the positive contributions of religious people be considered with equal weight alongside the negative.

“I understand what you’re saying,” I said, trying to weigh my words carefully, “but how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi?”

“Oh, I get it,” the man jumped in with a sneer. “You’re one of those atheists.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it didn’t sound like a good thing. I shifted my weight from one side to another — another nervous habit — and picked at an hors d’oeuvre that I thought might be some kind of cheese.

“What do you mean, ‘one of those atheists?’”

“You’re not a real atheist. We’ve got a name for people like you. You’re a ‘faitheist.’”

Not a real atheist. I’d heard words like that before — in my youth, when I was told I couldn’t be a real Christian because I was gay. Once again I didn’t fit the prescribed model, and I was not-so-gently shown the door.

Now, atheism is a bit different from Christianity in that atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s an identification marker that unifies a minority of Americans who do not believe in God. But the implication was clear: you’re at the wrong party, kid.

*   *   *

The next day, I attended my weekly religion class at Loyola University’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, a Jesuit Catholic-run program for priests, nuns, and lay leaders. As the only self-identified nonreligious person in the class, I was regularly met with many questions. Once, a Catholic classmate cornered me in the elevator after class, proclaiming, “I’ve been dying to ask you about your atheism!” Yet it never felt like an affront — she and the others were genuinely (and understandably) curious.

Sitting in class the day after my botched attempt at seeking secular community, I realized that I felt more at home with my religious colleagues than with the atheists from the day before. I looked around the room, focusing on each individual face; here were people who believed in a God I had theorized away years ago, yet they felt more like kin than most atheists I knew. While my classmates felt that their religious beliefs were right, they not only tolerated my beliefs but also enthusiastically embraced and challenged them.

Even though many parts of the United States remain incredibly segregated, we live in the most religiously diverse nation on the planet, so one doesn’t need to be an atheist enrolled in a Catholic institution to know that many American citizens are by default required to coexist with people who believe radically different things. The question I found myself asking that day, however, went a step beyond that.

It was not, “Can religiously diverse people coexist in peace?” — because, with some notable exceptions, Americans generally manage to tolerate one another’s differences. It was, instead, “Can we learn to seek out our commonalities instead of solely fixating on our differences?” This idea that it is worthwhile to make an intentional effort to find common ground is, to me, the difference between mere diversity and engaged pluralism. It is a question that our nation — in which a solid majority of Americans associate the extremists of 9/11 with all Muslims — is not close to resolving.

The challenge of engaged religious diversity — of intersecting religious difference — is one that atheists know perhaps more intimately than most. In a nation full of believers of all stripes, we are, in a sense, outliers. This is perhaps why so many atheists today ask for equal airtime alongside our religious neighbors — we want to be taken seriously, to be seen as equally ethical individuals. The unfortunate side effect is that many atheists demand this at the expense of talking to our religious peers in a way that affords them dignity and respect.

Several years ago, Harvard Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein wrote a book called “Good Without God,” and his thesis was a simple but important one: our society must move beyond the question of if one can be good without God to how this may be accomplished. I join Greg in wanting people to move beyond wondering whether I am a moral individual, but I also join him in a companion call to our own community: atheism must move beyond defining itself — both in thought and in practice — in opposition to religion. If secular Americans want to be respected in our religiously diverse culture, we need to recognize that there is nuance and complexity in the diversity that defines it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism, is often said to have written these lines: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”

Although some atheists — myself included — may cringe at the “w” word, Emerson reminds us to be wary of casting our neighbors in a negative light. Negative fixations will color our worldview. It’s not always easy, but we must endeavor to live up to our best principles — just as we hope the religious will.

I have been speaking with secular communities about the idea of engaged religious pluralism for several years, and the results have been mixed. As I encourage my fellow atheists to respect and reach out to people who are religious, I am taken aback by how often I meet resistance and criticism.

Yet I didn’t always feel this way. Once upon a time, I might’ve joined the groups of atheists decrying attempts to build intentional bridges of respect and collaboration between atheists and the religious. That interfaith cooperation is an important aspect of the quest to advance social progress wasn’t a conclusion I came to overnight. In fact, after I stopped believing in God, I spent some time decrying the universal “evils of religion.” I wanted nothing to do with the religious, and I was sure they wanted nothing to do with me.

*   *   *

Leaving my Loyola class the day after my first atheist event, I stepped out into the cool, windy Chicago afternoon and thought back to my conversation with the man who had called me a “faitheist.” The bird-brooched woman had abandoned our discussion quickly, saying she didn’t want to waste her time. The man and I had moved to the hall, grabbing more food and another drink on the way.

“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.

Clearing my mind of the conversation about Islam, I turned to face the overcast sky — the same direction I used to look up to in search of God — and recalled how once upon a time, in moments of contemplation such of this, I would direct a prayer up there. Years later, that notion felt alien, and so I looked to my feet to realize that I was standing in a puddle. (Waterproofing my Chuck Taylors hadn’t done much to make up for the holes in their sides.)

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 didn’t always understand that religion — both religious systems of belief and religious communities and individuals — is dynamic; I once spoke of it in the same static, flat, blanket terms that I hear many atheists use today. It was actively confronting my immobile conceptions of religion — by meeting and getting to know people like Sayira — that forced me to deconstruct my stereotypes. Stereotypes that are bolstered when prominent antitheists (individuals who are not merely nonreligious but outwardly antireligious — I’ll return to this distinction later in this book) such as PZ Myers say things like, “Come on, Islam … It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.” It is no wonder that many in the organized atheist community follow suit, lumping all religious believers together and shaming them as a uniformly condemnable bloc.

I fear that some atheists are doing what I used to do in my antireligious days: engaging in monologue instead of dialogue. After years of dismissing religious people outright, I realized that I was so busy talking that I wasn’t listening. I was treating religion as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives. When I started listening, something interesting happened:

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.

Now I see interfaith engagement as the key to resolving the world’s great religious problems — and they are many. I want the atheist community to join me, to share their stories and learn from those of the religious. And, most importantly, I want us to join with the religious in working to resolve the problems that afflict our world. Together, we will accomplish so much more than if we work alone or in opposition.

*   *   *

Achieving a more cooperative world will require a dramatic change in how both atheists and the religious talk about atheism and religion. The problems of religious fundamentalism are apparent, and have already been responded to by many individuals far more qualified to do so than I. But what of atheism’s antipluralism voices, like Sam Harris, who has said that “talk about the dangers of ‘Islamophobia’” (discrimination or bias against Muslims or those who are perceived as being Muslim, which is a widely recognized, well-documented phenomenon in countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia) is “deluded”?

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. Religious and nonreligious identities are perhaps our most important social capital, for they signify our most central values, which inform how we act in the world. When we do not engage them, we lose out on something fundamentally important.

And people are resisting this enforced compartmentalization. For all of the gains we’ve made in the realm of scientific discovery, religiosity is still alive and well. Evangelicalism is thriving in many parts of the world, and fundamentalism is experiencing a radical surge. The 2010 Pew study on American Millennials — the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s — found that not only is “the intensity of [Millennials’] religious affiliation … as strong today as among previous generations when they were young,” but that “levels of certainty of belief in God have increased” and that religious Millennials are “more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life.” Sociologists once predicted that religion would decline as a result of modernization, but precisely the opposite phenomenon has occurred. Some religious movements have remained steady while others have grown in recent decades, both in the United States and around the world, and sociologists have since retracted their predictions. According to Peter Berger, “Most sociologists of religion … [have] looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory — that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion — does not fit the facts of the matter.” Psychologist David M. Wulff agrees: “At a point in human history when many thought that religion was on its way out, a casualty of science and rationality, we are witnessing a worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism, on the one hand, and a virtual explosion of interest in the ‘new spirituality’ on the other.”

With divisive religious fundamentalism on the rise, reactionary atheism that fixates on making antireligious proclamations is creating even more division. I believe that this so-called New Atheism —  the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target — is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful. Disengaged or antagonistic atheism weakens our community’s claim that an ethical life is possible without a belief in God, supplanting this with an alienating narrative that both distracts us from investing in community-building efforts of our own and prevents us from accomplishing anything outside of our small community. In addition, this militant, uncompromising antitheism inhibits people who do not believe in God from ever moving beyond articulating how they differ from the religious into the kinds of efforts that engender community building within and cooperation without. I do not believe it represents most atheists, but this perspective is currently the loudest and most visible one, speaking on behalf of atheists to the wider world and dictating the direction of the organized atheist community.

Just as I’ve personally reclaimed “queer” from those who have used it in an attempt to discount the legitimacy of my identity, I now reclaim “faitheist.” If such a label insinuates that I am interested in both exploring godless ethics and identifying and engaging shared values with the religious — in putting “faith” in my fellow human beings and our shared potential to overcome the false dichotomies that keep us apart — then I am all for it.

Excerpted from “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious” by Chris Stedman. Published by Beacon Press. Copyright 2012 by Chris Stedman. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.

Chris Stedman, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard, is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.

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