Atheism’s role in the interfaith movement is a contested one. Those who are for it want to build bridges, and work towards common goals. Those opposed to the involvement of atheists in the interfaith movement reject the idea that we should play nice with people we believe to be wrong.
The advocate for atheists to join the interfaith movement getting the most attention these days is Chris Stedman. Whose book, Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, makes a case for why an interfaith movement that includes atheists is needed. In this post, I’ll be offering my thoughts on the book. I’ll approach this in two ways 1) what are my thoughts on the main argument of the book?, and 2) my opinion on the book as a piece of writing. I should mention that I haven’t been paying attention to the debate in the blogosphere over Stedman’s book, or his work in the interfaith movement. This has been due, mostly, to being tied down by school work among other things. With that out of the way, time to get to the book.
The book opens with a quote from Carl Sagan that effectively sets the tone for Stedman’s central message:
“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them – the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all those stupid doctrines are morons; that if you are sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to minority status.”
Straightforward enough: Don’t treat those on the other side like idiots. It’s an approach that will do more to make people despise you than support, or agree with, you. On the surface, it’s not a controversial statement to make. However, as Stedman discovered, there is resistance to playing nice with the religious. While attending a party hosted by an atheist organization in Chicago, Stedman tried to make a point about not constantly bashing the religious. This is where the word “Faitheist” comes in. In the book it is defined as: “a derogatory term used against atheists interested in working with, rather than against the religious.” I can’t say I have any idea as to how widespread this word has become in its usage. Until hearing of Stedman’s book, I had never heard of the term though that’s a minor point. It is, I believe, safe to say that there is controversy surrounding the suggestion that atheists should make nice with the religious and engage in interfaith activities.
Stedman shares the story of his involvement in the interfaith movement, and his work to engage with the religious around, “shared values and collaborative action”, an approach I’m in favour of. I find that it makes more sense to work with people of faith who share common views with you, than it is to work on tearing the whole faith down. Stedman argues that, “Atheism must move beyond defining itself – both in thought and in practice – in opposition to religion”. I both agree and disagree. Atheism, almost by definition, can be in opposition to religion. God vs. Don’t Believe in God. Where I agree, is that even with that clear divide we can still work with the religious towards common goals. Stedman feels that spending all our time attacking religion ends up defining atheism as just being opposition to religion. In doing so it fails in, “articulating Humanist values”. There are more important issues and values to stand for than standing in opposition to everything religion represents.
We do need to work with the religious if we want to address the major issues of our time. Climate change, poverty, war, hunger, oppression. Those impact people of faith and non-faith, and to turn our noses up at the thought of working with the faithful on these issues is counter-productive. For atheists, there’s another reason for wanting to work with the faithful as opposed to spending all our time going after religion’s faults. Stedman feels that the harsh brand of atheism doesn’t help in making an argument that an ethical life is possible without a belief in God. If we spend all our time focusing on why religion is bad, we haven’t automatically built a case for why non-belief is preferable
The atheist community can learn from the religious community despite our differences. During his highschool years, Stedman drifted towards Christianity because the people in the local Christian group at his school offered him a sense of community, a place where he could belong. Many atheists have caught on to this idea as atheist organizations spring up and create that community for other atheists.
One of the objections that has been raised towards atheism’s involvement in the interfaith movement has to do with the name itself. “Interfaith” seems to exclude atheists. Atheism isn’t a faith, after all. The objection was recently brought up by Sarah Kaiser in a recent CFI On Campus post. Earlier this term, I was part of an inter-club panel. Various representatives from student clubs had a chance to share their stories, and talk about the purpose of their club. The panel was organized by the Christian organization: Power 2 Change. While the event itself was not explicitly advertised as a religious event, a majority of the audience questions were religiously-based because people associate Power 2 Change with religion. This made it difficult for the clubs that weren’t religious to give a straight answer to the question. So I can understand the concern of associating an event with religion. It can put the non-religious members into a tough spot as not every aspect of the event will apply to them. Further, some people may start developing the wrong idea about atheism. They could come to mistake it as another religion, a misconception atheists have been working to correct for some time.
Stedman’s response to the objection is that, in his experience, no one at an interfaith event has ever been confused as to whether atheism is a religion. No one actually believes atheism to be a religion. I do think he could have done more to address the word “interfaith”, perhaps suggesting an alternative term. He sticks to the word because it, “is currently the most-recognized term to describe activities that bring the religious and non-religious together for dialogue and common work. It doesn’t really address the fact that the word does have a misleading appearance, but perhaps atheists shouldn’t get hung up over the word. Those involved in the movement aren’t under any illusions as to what atheism stands for. We should, as Stedman argues, engage with the religious. Refusal to do so closes off bridges to understanding.
Another concern atheists have with the interfaith movement is that our involvement means having to play nice. That we have to leave our “real opinions at the door”. Stedman contends that this is far from the case. The religious members of the interfaith movement are fully aware that atheists disagree with them precisely because the atheists share their beliefs. “Interfaith” does not mean keeping quiet about what atheists think. In exchange, atheists have a chance to learn more about why the religious believe what they believe. This is not the same as accepting the belief to be true, at the end of the day people in the interfaith movement are allowed to disagree.
There’s a practical reason for engaging with the religious rather than taking the “us vs. them” approach: It’s better for atheism’s image. Spending all our time dressing people down for their beliefs is going to anger them. Unless it’s the goal of certain atheists to ensure we remain disliked, then the tactics need to change. Now for atheists that want to focus on eliminating religion, perhaps this doesn’t matter. When there are no religious left it’s not going to matter what they think of atheists. I’m not overly supportive of the “eliminate religion” approach. Preferring to side with Stedman where he says, “I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and plularism and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism”. Further, those wishing to eliminate religion need to understand why people turn to religion. “They are idiots”, is not a good answer and offers no useful insights.
Now let’s move on to looking at the book as a piece of writing.
The central message of Stedman’s book is one that I find myself in agreement with, however, I’m hesitant to suggest that people buy and read the entire book. This is because the book comes off as being way too self-indulgent. This book is the autobiography of a relatively unknown person who is only 25. It is the type of the book that should be written by someone of fame, who has lived long enough to have a life-story to tell. Stedman is not unaware of this, pointing out towards the end of the book that a memoir at the age of 25 may be questionable. However, the self-awareness doesn’t save the book from the fact that it spends too much time being about Stedman.
Yes, I understand that the book is about his personal journey so the stories do have relevance to the central message about interfaith. My problem lies with the fact that much of the story-telling is padded out. For example, Stedman shares the story of grandmother over a couple of pages to eventually reach the conclusion that his grandmother played a strong role in shaping his views. The story could have been condensed into a paragraph that said something along the lines of, “My grandmother played an influential role in shaping my views”, and go on to list those views. Another example that sticks out in my mind has to be the story of Stedman’s first kiss with a partner that played a significant role in helping to overcome his self-doubts about his sexuality. Really, that’s all the reader needs to know. Instead, the reader has to be taken along through Stedman’s personal journal. Meaning that the reader gets a detailed recounting of the moment and actions that led up to the kiss. All I could think when reading this was, “Just say that you kissed him. I’m not interested in all the minute details of this event”. There are limits to self-indulgence, and reading the intimate details of Stedman’s early love life isn’t what I’m looking for in a book advertised as a lesson on interfaith works.
The two examples I went through here are not the only instances of unnecessary padding. The book is filled with stories that could have been condensed into a paragraph or two, and the reader would still get the central message. The padding stretches out an already short book, which causes me to question whether this book had to be written. The content related to the interfaith movement could be condensed into a long essay. If you want to learn more about the interfaith movement, and the debate surrounding it, I suggest reading various blog articles. You’re likely to come across the ideas put forward in this book, and you don’t have to read someone’s memoirs in the process.