What Are We Fighting For?

March 30, 2010

cats with lightsabers

This interblog dispute probably looks as silly as this picture, though less cute.

As I’ve written on here before, the basic premise of this blog – to build pluralism among secular and religious folks and work for an organized secular community that isn’t rooted in an oppositional identity standing against religion – has become something of a lightning rod for controversy among some contingents of the non-religious community. So it wasn’t especially surprising when a gratuitously spiteful post went up this week over at World of Weird Things. You should read it for yourself, but it can essentially be summarized by this selection:

[NonProphet Status’ perspective is] annoying, petty and a pretty clear attempt to get on the good side of religious people. By positioning themselves as nice and non-threatening to seem harmless to theists, the faitheists seem ready and willing to add to the stream of condescension and berating the religious crowd likes to lay on atheists, all while claiming to be really atheist and support the secular and humanist community with every fiber of their being. Just not when it matters.

Based on his post, it seems fairly clear to me that World of Weird Thing’s Greg Fish has mischaracterized my work. I would like to invite Fish to more thoroughly read the postings of this blog. NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference.

And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.

Erik Roldan, a judge for our Share Your Secular Story contest, ably reacted to Fish’s critique of this:

Erik RoldanIt strikes me as narrow-sighted to think that someone trying to engage with members of another group is “pandering,” as this reactionary blog has called it. Additionally, his statement that the story contest is designed to have people write the same things [Chris] did is another attempt at belittling any acknowledgement of the commonalities non-believers have. That is not only unproductive, it further serves to propogate self-definition by what you are not – your negative space – rather than what you are.

As Erik points out, the problem with atheism is that it only suggests what an individual does not believe and easily lends itself to taking an antagonistic stance toward religion – this is why I have identified a problem with it. With the Share Your Secular Story contest, we aim to help cull a canon of secular stories that go beyond saying “we don’t believe in God” to share the experiences and values of everyday secular folks.

Mary Ellen Giess, another member of the Share Your Secular Story contest panel of judges, reacted to Fish’s incorrect analysis of its aims with a wise reflection:

Mary Ellen Giess[Fish] claims that Chris laments atheists who want to “separate themselves from religious people,” but what Chris actually laments is secularists who are openly antagonistic to religious people. Fish asks: “How exactly does one establish a humanist or secular identity by complaining that all the non-theists around you are so pushy and negative in a ridiculous caricature?” The ironic thing is that this story contest is about establishing a secular identity that is not about being in conflict with other people – religious or non-religious people. So, fundamentally, the story contest is exactly what he’s arguing for. He’s listening to the first line of Chris’ argument without listening to the second. His whole third paragraph is about the fact that atheists are just normal people who are not usually that aggressive with their view. If that is true, then obviously someone has to do some PR for atheists to let the world know that they are just nice people, which is what this story contest aims to do.

As Mary Ellen has noted, his post is a dishonest assessment of the true aims of the contest. Share Your Secular Story contest judge Nick Mattos offered an elegant, precise reaction to Fish’s post that elaborates on this:

Nick MattosThe fact of the matter is that contest organizer Christopher Stedman, for all of the high regard I hold him in, is not one of the contest judges. Criticism of Mr. Stedman’s work – or allegations that he prefers to be exotic amongst religious people, or that he is “dishonest” or “cowardly” – are utterly irrelevant to the contest itself.

The huge volume of submissions we’ve received so far indicate that there is a sizeable body of secular people – articulate, rational, thoughtful people, at that – who don’t view their secularism as an oppositional identity. Virtually none are “nice, fluffy stor[ies] saying pretty much the same things [Mr. Stedman] did,” a fact that reinforces that the authors submitting are indeed rational, thoughtful people who think for themselves. I encourage the readers of the Weird Things blog to do just that: to think for themselves, and decide whether it’s in the best interest for the common good to build a canon of secular narratives, or if it is more important to knock down people and projects that seek to do so. For those of the former school of thought, myself and my fellow contest judges look forward to reading your submissions to the essay contest.

It is true that the message of this blog is not in lock-step with the dominant atheist narratives and asks secularists to think for themselves, not just subscribe to the anti-religious attitudes that flood the non-religious market. The funny thing is that Fish accuses me of being “offended and surprised by a rebuttal,” but what I am struck most by about his assessment of my work is how offended he seems. Though I have been baffled by the degree of vitriol that the idea of pluralism elicits in some people that I share many common beliefs with, it simply emphasizes the importance of this work. If the dominant narrative among atheist communities is inherently anti-religious, it shouldn’t surprise me that a different perspective ruffles some feathers. But that is not my aim, nor is it my aim to be exotic (or a “fascinating curiosity for a high minded group of theists” as he’s suggested.) Instead, I simply hope to help change the tone of the conversation about religion and secularism – an all-too-often nasty, divisive one as exemplified by his post – to a more empathic, respectful way of being in community that transcends simply tolerating the differences of others. Yes, even with religious people.

“Really, it’s ok to be religious,” Fish writes. “I hear a lot of people do it. Just don’t call yourself a devoted atheist while enjoying everything religion has to offer because that’s not fair to everyone involved.”

cats with lightsabers

Get it? It's a "catfight." Okay, I'll stop.

I have to ask: why shouldn’t I? What exactly is unfair about wanting to enjoy religion’s many positive characteristics? How can I be in community with religious people without finding a way to care about the things that matter to them?

His question points to the limitations of his outlook and, ultimately, I am grateful for Fish’s post for multiple reasons. For one, I appreciate any opportunity to receive feedback and critique, and am always open to discerning better ways of articulating my perspective. But all the more, Fish’s blog underscores the critical problems I see facing secular communities today – an occasionally bloodthirsty readiness to divide and conquer. I’d like to feel some satisfaction in this affirmation, but it merely saddens me because it reminds me that we have so much more work to do. As Nick said, I hope you will contribute to the story contest and help us build a cohesive, unified secular community that does not try to rise up by putting the religious down.

Fish may think this outlook on the world – respecting religion while staying secular – is an alienating one, but that runs contrary to my experience. It is a way to engage with religious people, of course – the vast majority of the population, in case you’ve forgotten. But it is also a way to build a healthy secular community and, in Chicago anyway, it is bringing people together. Last night, our burgeoning Secular Humanist group met for the second time. Everyone in that room has expressed distaste for the anti-religious double-speak of New Atheists, saying it has, in one way or another, kept them from secular community organizing. People who had once thought there was nowhere for them to explore and express their secular values are now building a community that does not want to isolate itself by alienating the religious. I wish Fish would join us instead of trying to further divide a community that is already too isolated from the rest of the world (or, to use his own words, trying to “alienate atheists from [our] cause” as he warned me before his post went up).

Let’s call this what it is – divisive fearmongering – and move on with our work, for it cannot wait any longer for the anti-religious to stop shouting over us.

11 Responses to “What Are We Fighting For?”

  1. jpjesusss said

    I think it’s kind of telling that you’ve posted a bunch of thoughtful responses to what reads to me as an essentially ranty little post. This sort of highlights some of the differences in worldviews between the authors.

    I still think there is room in the atheist tent for most of these views–in particular I’m thankful for voices like Fish’s when it comes to religionists attempting to co-opt science for their purposes and the like, just as I am thankful that there are folks like yourself calling out the possible problems with some of the currently prominent atheists. Fish does seem to be prone (at least in the post you’re responding to) to false dichotomies and oversimplification. It will be interesting to see if he has anything to say once he reads some of the winning secular stories!

    By the way, it would be nice someday to hear what you have to say regarding the *differences* between the folks whose views (and personalities?) have all been subsumed under the term “New Atheists”. I find them quite different in approach and substance, but maybe that’s the philosopher in me. Dennett, for instance, advocates for the study of religion with one goal being encouraging less dangerous forms of various religions and discouraging more dangerous ones–this seems in line with what atheist folks doing interfaith work might want to do, as opposed to what somebody like Hitchens might advocate for (abolishment of relgion? Not sure).

  2. Rachel said

    I just saw this comment on the blog about you on world of weird and thought you’d like to see it in case you didn’t:


    I get it. Chris is on a very different page than you and me, Greg. Humanism, secularism and atheism/agnosticism are actually three very different things. Not to say they can’t all be rolled into one in specific cases, but there is no imperative to do so. If you regard secularism as an overiding goal, you might seek to further that goal by not offending people who are not otherwise ready to jump onto your wagon with both feet, but might see the wisdom of secularism, nevertheless.

    I’m an old timey original self-made hard-ass atheist. I don’t recall ever going out of my way to attack anyone else’s religion, but I’ve sure paid the price for my position. I’ve been attacked, snubbed, threatened, and routinely discriminated against. Makes you mean.

    But, I see Chris’s position, and I can’t really see anything wrong with his idea, in the broadest sense. I really want secular government; everything else is negotiable. I don’t care what you choose to worship as long as you don’t impose your theocracy on me. I’m not evangelical, and neither are you. But can we afford to fall to squabbling among ourselves? I say, let this go, Greg. Give Chris his due.

  3. gfish said

    I think it’s kind of telling that you’ve posted a bunch of thoughtful responses to what reads to me as an essentially ranty little post.

    Well in case anyone is interested in another ranty little whine which I guess lacks the thoughtful responses here… =P


    • jpjesusss said

      Ha! Nice point. Yes, my response wasn’t particularly thoughtful, perhaps, and maybe a little ranty itself! That said, there was lots to respond to before I chimed in, and I will look forward to reading your response to that when I get a chance…I’m busy with all of my “accommodationist” chores. 🙂

  4. how to fight good said

    Great post, I like these posts most of all.
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  5. […] it known that I didn’t come to the 2010 American Atheist Convention to pick a fight – as we recently saw on this blog, that is rarely fruitful. I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the […]

  6. Stefano said

    Your debates with Greg Fish (if they can be called that) – moreso your response – have swayed me to ease off on identifying as ‘atheist’ and identify as ‘secular humanist’… I think I get where you’re coming from now! 😛

  7. […] the Q&A session Hirschfield was asked about critics and, in light of the recent batch of negative appraisals of my work, I found his answer to be especially wise. “Anytime someone says you […]

  8. […] even further into their religious totalitarianism. It’s also a poor way to build community; as I’ve written on this blog before, the majority of what I hear from secular friends is that they’ve had no […]

  9. […] between secular and religious communities, it is sometimes easy to get distracted by the numerous vocal detractors I encounter; particularly because the majority of critiques I get come from members of […]

  10. […] and wish to devote my energy toward working against such self-defeating antagonism. As I said in a post back in March: NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly […]

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