“Faitheist”: The Negative Review
Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is a book by Chris Stedman, Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. The following is a review by Jonathan Meddings — you can find a contrasting review by guest writer Jonathan Brown here.
Faitheist is part memoir and part interfaith activism. Stedman questions whether he should have written a memoir before the age of twenty-five1, and I question it too. The memoir forms the bulk of an already short text, and although it provides an insight into how Stedman came to hold his accommodationist views, its absence wouldn’t have detracted from the accommodationist argument he advocates in the final chapters; the content of which could have been condensed into a long essay. Due to this fact I question whether this book needed to be written.
I met Chris at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, so I know firsthand that when it comes to public speaking he has a way with words. Unfortunately this doesn’t translate into his writing. Indeed, Stedman’s writing style is so tangential, introspective and verbose, that whilst reading Faitheist I frequently lost my place, only to discover this was a result of reflexively rolling my eyes; something that has only happened to me before whilst reading work by theologians2. Fitting, because Stedman is nothing if not a religious apologist.
Like the fact a 25 year old has written a memoir, its title is a curiosity. “I’d never heard the word ‘faitheist’ before,” begins Stedman, before explaining that it is a term of derision he encountered at a reception following a panel discussion. The term is apparently used by some atheists to insult others they deem not to be ‘real’ atheists, or who are overly accommodating of the religious. I can’t say I had ever heard the term before, nor had any other atheist I asked about it. Despite this I am willing to accept that Stedman has been called it at one point3, although I find it hard to believe this vituperation is widespread. And whilst on the subject, like the title Faitheist, a portmanteau of two words that have nothing to do with one another4, the book contains one conflation after another: Stedman repeatedly conflates atheism, antitheism and humanism with each other, being disrespectful with being dehumanizing, and being tolerant with being a doormat.
One redeeming aspect of the book is Stedman’s candid discussion of his struggle coming to terms with his sexuality. Such stories are not written about enough in my view. More are needed because they provide an insight that most heterosexuals are rarely exposed to, and compel anyone with a heart to work towards the equality and acceptance of the LGBTI community. However, even this aspect of the book (like the rest of it) was written in such a way that it felt protracted and self-indulgent.
I felt for Chris as he described how a group of homophobes beat him and almost pushed him in front of an oncoming train. But Stedman would do well to remember that the religion he defends is not only what motivated his attackers5, but is what drove him to the brink of suicide.
It is true that there are many progressive religious people, and no doubt Stedman has met and befriended many in his line of work (as have I). But to critique religion is not to paint all followers of that religion with a broad brush, because religions are best judged by their foundational and canonical texts, and the statements and actions made by their authorities. In defending religious texts so patently absurd and hateful, and clerical institutions so thoroughly corrupt and regressive, religious moderates and apologists are shielding the religious fanatics they claim to abhor. If the likes of Stedman criticized the religious right with half the zeal they criticize atheists, people like myself wouldn’t have to take up the responsibility.
The overarching message of tolerance is a powerful one, but one must not fail to recognize the exception to the rule. The exception being that tolerance of intolerance isn’t just counter-productive, it is cowardice. There are few sources of intolerance as potent and consequential as religion. Yet Stedman provides no argument for how to engage with intolerant religious fanatics, choosing instead to wax indignant at the way he and other religious apologists are not afforded (in their view) enough respect, and to argue for civil discussion and debate that is already commonplace in secular liberal democracies. There is an element of sententiousness that cannot go unnoticed in Stedman’s writing.
Stedman is right that the eradication of religious fanaticism will only come from religious and non-religious secularists joining forces to fight theocracy and totalitarianism. But our shared value of secularism does not require we respect each other’s beliefs, only that we respect each other’s right to hold those beliefs (so long as they do not cause harm), and respect each other as human beings. Writing a book urging atheists to do so seems gratuitous, especially given the fact they’re not the people flying planes into buildings, or attempting to undermine freedom of speech through acts of violence and intimidation.
When it comes to concern over causing offense, the religious have done an excellent job of putting the fear of God into people who don’t believe in him. Stedman likes to imagine he is building bridges, but really he is protecting the bubble the religious have built for themselves to avoid coming to terms with the rank stupidity, narcissism, arrogance and dogmatism of their archaic beliefs. The sooner that bubble is burst the better.
- p.159 [↩]
- Some who haven’t read the book might think I am being unfair. In my defense I provide one example of many eye-rolling passages, “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.” (p.8) [↩]
- In her review Stephanie Zvan is more skeptical of Stedman’s recollection of events: http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/11/26/faitheist-the-review/ [↩]
- Those words being “faith” and “atheist”. [↩]
- They quoted Bible passages before attacking Stedman and his friend (p.120). [↩]