“And the problem of loud, intolerant voices eclipsing voices of moderation and inclusion isn’t one exclusive to the atheist movement.” (150)
We live in a world, thanks to social media, the internet, and the infotainment culture, where the shrillest and most extreme representatives speak for every group or movement. As a Christian pastor, I resonate with the words above from evangelical Christian turned humanist chaplain Christ Stedman in his memoir, Faitheist. I am regularly enraged by the extent to which the John Haggees and Joel Osteens, or worse – the Westboro Baptists – come to define ‘Christian’ for so many.
Atheism may have a similar problem. Stedman reflects early on in his book about the loudest voices in his own community:
“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 number one target – is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful. Disengaged or antagonistic atheism weakens our community’s claim than 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 atheist community.” (14)
Indeed, just as fundamentalist Christians often dismiss and demonize other Christians and non-Christians, Stedman argues that atheists who dismiss all religious persons out of hand make a crucial ethical and tactical error:
“Criticizing intolerant beliefs and practices is vitally important, but unsophisticated criticisms of religion en masse estrange reasonable people – both fellow atheists and potential religious allies.” (154)
I confess much of my own interest in studying atheism is the popularity of the so-called New Atheists, who, claiming an exclusive access to rational faculties, often proceed to commit every logical fallacy in the book – in addition to a basic lack of interpretive charity to the other and the other’s beliefs – en route to what are usually simplistic dismissals of all religions and religious persons. Stedman’s reflection reminds me that the atheist/agnostic/humanist community is as diverse as my own, and that I should be wary of doing what I loathe others doing to me: defining a whole community by the extremists who take up most of the air time. It’s no less fair to atheists than it is to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and persons of other faiths.