The Fascination of Faitheism

Russell Blackford

In his new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon, 2012), Chris Stedman asks for kinder, gentler expressions of atheism. For Stedman, the current level of hostility among atheists toward religion and religious people is not only uncomfortable but also, more important, counterproductive to the achievement of shared humane goals. If, like Stedman, you’re involved as a humanist in interfaith efforts to address poverty and suffering, one of the last things you want is an uncontrollable spiral of hostility and distrust between religious people and nonbelievers.

That seems to be the gist of his argument, though there’s a bit more complexity to it. At any rate, I think Stedman’s efforts in developing such a viewpoint ought to be welcomed. Plainly enough, Stedman is a calm, thoughtful, and compassionate man, and he’s engaging in a debate that we need to have. He does so with entirely admirable clarity and civility, though it doesn’t follow that he’s right.

I most enjoyed Faitheist for its account of events in a particular individual’s life. It is the story of a gay man’s adolescent struggle to accept his own sexuality, the anguish he suffered in attempting to reconcile his religious faith with his attraction to other men, the process by which he lost that faith, and why he works today in interfaith charitable organizations. Such narratives are, of course, likely to be distorted and tendentious, at least to a degree. Moreover, even if we accepted them entirely at face value, we might draw rather diverse conclusions from them.

Still, autobiographical narratives like Stedman’s offer us fresh perspectives on the world. They give us opportunities to imagine how things might appear to someone with a very different sensibility, family and cultural background, and set of life experiences. To some extent, then, a memoir such as Faitheist can take us outside our personal epistemic bubbles.

Alas, Faitheist is weak whenever it shifts from narrative to argument. I don’t see much analysis that could help me think through to what degree I should be harsh toward religion, religious organizations, and religious believers.

I’m certainly no faitheist, which I take to be an atheist who considers religion a good thing, wants to say nothing against it, considers it beyond satire, and so on. Stedman never explicitly defines the word, but it has often been used as a satirical term for atheists who are “soft on faith.” Writing on his Why Evolution Is True website in July 2009, Jerry Coyne approved the word in exactly that sense, and I expect that many people are familiar with it as a result of this high-profile endorsement. Whether or not you like the word faitheist may depend on whether you think that atheists who are soft on religion are (or at some point can become) fitting targets for satire.

Here, I’m pretty much on the same side as Coyne. At least beyond a certain point, the efforts of some atheists to avoid offending the religious, to explain earnestly what might be good about religion, or even to help out the religious with ingenious theological proposals, can seem a bit silly and even ridiculous.

Admittedly, this is a matter of judgment, circumstance, and degree. I’m a philosopher, which means I’m trained to look for the strengths in, or the best possible arguments for, positions I disagree with. Up to a point, that’s surely a worthwhile approach. Before I’d make fun of somebody as a faitheist, I’d cut him or her quite a bit of slack. But faitheistic behavior can travel well beyond ordinary, sound philosophical practice until it seems perverse, oddly persistent, obsessive, exasperating, or downright foolish or comical.

Cutting across all this, there’s the tricky question of accommodationism and what is meant by this unusual word. If it just means being soft on religion, then the ideas of faitheism and accommodationism are closely linked. Indeed, in his July 2009 post, Coyne stated that faitheists were “atheist acommodationists.” Often, however, in his rather prolific anti-religious writings, Coyne seems to use the word accommodationism and its cognates to indicate something more specific and rather different. According to this usage, which is the one I favor, an accommodationist is someone (who might be either religious or a nonbeliever of some kind) who argues for a compatibility between religion and science or for some room for religious beliefs to be accommodated within a scientific understanding of the world.

If we apply the word accommodationism with that meaning, we would probably find that no one is so radically accommodationist as to think that all religious beliefs are compatible with science, though some might think that all legitimate ones are (they might, as Stephen Jay Gould did, insist on their pet idea of what counts as a legitimate religious belief). Again, few people might be so strongly or naively anti-accommodationist as to think that all religious beliefs are just plain logically inconsistent with things that we know through science. Sophisticated anti-accommodationists are more nuanced and precise in explaining the sense, or the senses, in which they regard religion and science as incompatible.

It all gets more complicated because some atheists might reject religion for reasons that have little or nothing to do with science—some of these atheists might not be soft on religion at all if, for example, they think it is inherently degrading or socially harmful. Another group of atheists might be anti-accommodationists in thinking that religion is, in some sense, undermined by science, but they might still be soft on religion–say, because they see it as possessing individual or social utility. As a further twist, some religious people openly claim that religion and science are incompatible — and so much the worse for science!

You might think that an entire book with the title Faitheist would try to tease out a few of these complications, but there is no attempt to do so. Stedman is not, apparently, one for fine-grained intellectual analysis. In the end, he offers a plea for more civility, and many forthright and anti-accommodationist atheists would not disagree with that. Although I don’t think religion is a good thing, and although I am an anti-accommodationist (a fairly sophisticated one, I hope!), I believe that it’s worthwhile trying to model thoughtfulness, fairness, kindness, and civility whenever we reasonably can. Neither a commitment to anti-apologetics nor a philosophical position of anti-accommodationism on the religion/science question need involve any embrace of nastiness.

Of course, there may be some atheists, perhaps too many, who resort very quickly to dogmatism, abuse, demonization, indiscriminate scorn, fearmongering, and the like. Indeed, some atheists resort to inflammatory, bullying rhetoric very quickly, even in debates with fellow atheists who are essentially their allies. I hope Stedman won’t be the recipient of too much of this for taking the trouble to write Faitheist.

And yet … Stedman seems to think that no harsh criticism of religion, let alone satire of religious positions, is ever justified. In taking that stance, he seems to forget that it’s healthy to have societies in which religion is regarded as a fair target for scrutiny, skepticism, critique, satire, and even expressions of anger. There is no adequate acknowledgment in Faitheist of the dangers if religious pretensions to moral and political authority go unchallenged or of the difficulty and unfairness when people who contest religious pretensions are held to a
n extreme standard of civility.

Indeed, there are some unfortunate passages in Faitheist where the author goes after mainstream “new atheist” authors such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, and Sam Harris, as if they display an especially poor standard of civility. It is embarrassing to come across a pair of long quotations, chosen from the writings of Chris Hedges and Reza Aslan respectively, that display much demonization, fearmongering, and inflammatory rhetoric of their own. Hedges and Aslan denounce the new atheists for largely imaginary misdeeds, and each of them employs the tiresome canard that the new atheists resemble religious fundamentalists.

Having benefited Hedges and Aslan with long, sympathetic introductions, Stedman concedes that neither author “gets it exactly right.” Fine—so why give oxygen to their complaints? Stedman’s point seems to be that the atheist movement is not, strictly speaking, fundamentalist (well, that’s nice to know!), but there is something arrogant and unnecessarily antagonistic in its culture. Perhaps there’s a grain of truth here, but it would need considerable qualification before we could accept it. For a start, how can someone as careful and gentle as Dennett be fairly labeled as arrogant or as unnecessarily antagonistic? Dawkins usually writes in a quiet, reflective tone, admittedly with flashes of snarky humor or moral indignation. A book such as The God Delusion falls well within ordinary standards of civility in public debate. So, indeed, do the works of Hitchens and Harris, if we think for a moment of the standards that we usually consider acceptable in debates about political or economic issues.

Faitheist would have been a stronger book without the material from Hedges and Aslan. The impression given here, and to some extent throughout the book, is that Stedman supports an exceptional–and, I submit, stifling and oppressive–standard of civility for criticism of religion.

Yes, perhaps we should aim at more civil and philosophical critiques of religion than we see in the wilds of the atheist blogosphere. Perhaps we should, as a movement, have less recourse to abuse and other kinds of obnoxious rhetoric. Nonetheless, satire, skewering wit, and ordinary kinds of harsh criticism all have important places in our repertoire. There will be occasions for their use. Sometimes, in fact, the language of religious leaders will be so atrocious that a forthright, indignant response is justified. Sometimes conduct associated with religion will merit outrage or mockery or solemn condemnation. All of this is contextual.

We can be discriminating, in the good sense of that word, when we encounter religion or religious individuals. We don’t have to get into an angry dispute with every humane, compassionate religious person who might cross our path. To that extent, Stedman has an important point to make. But he overreaches.

For Zeus’s sake, let’s not become faitheists, full of solicitude for doctrines and practices that we have every reason to oppose. Let’s aim for civility as a default, but let’s not be so worried about niceties that we are straitjacketed or paralyzed. In the end, religion belongs to the cloud-palace of illusion, and all too often, those illusions are oppressive or dangerous. We should not be afraid to say so, to explain why, and to speak with strong and clear voices.


Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Australia. His most recent book is Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

In his new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon, 2012), Chris Stedman asks for kinder, gentler expressions of atheism. For Stedman, the current level of hostility among atheists toward religion and religious people is not only uncomfortable but also, more important, counterproductive to the achievement of shared humane goals. …

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