Chris Stedman, whom we’ve encountered before, has moved from job to job as a “humanist chaplain”: first at Harvard, then at Yale, and he’s now started jobs as Director of the Humanist Center of Minnesota and a Fellow at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College—an Evangelical Lutheran Church school). Author of the book Faitheist, Stedman’s avowed aim is to find common cause between atheists and believers. To do that, of course, he can’t be critical of religion, for that would erode his mission. Rather, he courts believers and the general public by criticizing vocal atheists and anti-theists, as there’s little downside to going after nonbelievers. The great asymmetry of America is that you get loved and lionized by praising religion, even as an atheist, but demonized if you praise atheism.
Back in the old days, Stedman went after atheists for anti-theism, convinced that his beloved but unrealistic concordat wouldn’t occur if we heathens didn’t shut up about the silliness, falsity, and dangers of religion. Now he’s bought into that staple of Authoritarian Leftist atheists: the trope that our “movement” (whatever that may be) is riddled with misogyny, racism, and, yes, alt-rightism of the white supremacist variety. You can read his “J’Accuse” piece at Vice by clicking on the screenshot below.
In the absence of any data showing that atheists are more conservative, more racist, and more sexist than average people in their demographic, Stedman relies on blanket assertions and anecdotes. He picks out prominent nonbelievers, including Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins, slandering them for the usual reasons (I needn’t recount this here). Aren’t places like Vox and Salon getting tired of publishing the same article again and again?
Now it is true that some prominent atheists have behaved in odious ways (I’ve written about Lawrence Krauss before), but finding bad behavior in a handful so-called atheist “leaders” doesn’t indict all atheists, or even New Atheists, of the same behavior. You can argue that Stedman, like me, simply wants to clean out the bad apples from his own barrel (my barrel is the Left), but I’ve never indicted the entire Left, or all its leaders (viz., Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and so on) for behaving worse than, say, Republicans. No, Stedman wants to say that the problem of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and white supremacy is not only present in some atheists (yes, of course it is!), but is widespread among atheists. And to do that he relies on assertions without data, just making the usual unsupported claims or generalizing from anecdotes.
I’m still an activist, but after nearly a decade of active participation in online atheism (a loose community of forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and fandoms of figures like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Sam Harris), I mostly stepped away from the online side of atheism a few years ago. One of the biggest reasons for this was my growing concern over its failure to adequately address some of its darker currents—such as overt sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bias.
While I can’t demand that all my fellow atheists make public declarations against right-wing and bigoted stands, let me speak for myself, so that Stedman will shut up about me: I decry sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bigotry, while at the same time reserving opprobrium for the tenets of all religions, including Islam. And I suspect most of you, as well as people like Sam Harris, Steve Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, would join me in that statement. I’m not sure what Stedman means by atheists “adequately addressing some of its darker currents”, but those are currents not of atheism but of humanity. As I’ve said, there’s no necessary connection between atheism and egalitarianism, although I would think there should be some linkage since many atheists are humanists, and humanism prescribes empathy and equality for all.
Here are some of Stedman’s questionable assertions about how atheism promotes alt-rightism and bigotry:
As George Hawley, author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right, told NPR last year, the alt-right is not only “predominantly white millennial men” but also probably represents “a more secular population than the country overall,” meaning many of its members are “agnostics and atheists or people who are just generally indifferent to religion.” Cultural conservatives are leaving organized religion, Peter Beinart argued in the Atlantic last year, and many are making their way into the darker fringes of the right.
. . . The alt-right intentionally targets and preys on people—young white men in particular—who feel disconnected, marginalized, and misunderstood, seeking to give them a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. It’s not surprising then that atheists, who are often marginalized in America, may be prime targets. [JAC: Have any of you white males been targeted by alt-righters?]
. . . The problem is more widespread than figures like [Richard] Spencer and [Robert] Fisher, too. While championing liberal views on some issues, many of atheism’s most prominent advocates—the majority of whom are, like me, cisgender white men—have expressed troubling sentiments that align with views held by the alt-right and faced little to no consequences.
And this speculation, for which there are no data:
[Community organizer James] Croft suggested that this may be at the heart of the seeming kinship between so-called anti-theists and the alt-right. The taboo-confronting ethos of both movements, where irreverence is idealized and often weaponized, enables some of their members to style themselves as oppressed outsiders—despite often being relatively privileged straight white men. Many in the alt-right and atheist movements seem to see themselves as a group under siege, the last defenders of unfettered inquiry and absolute freedom of thought and speech, contrarians and truth-tellers who are unafraid to push back against the norms of polite, liberal society. If this is a part of why the alt-right seems to appeal to some atheists—and I suspect it is—then we must take a hard look at why that is and how to address it.
This, of course, doesn’t explain why many groups who consider themselves “oppressed outsiders” confronting societal norms and “polite, liberal society” don’t also move to the alt-right. Why is it just atheists?
Okay, Stedman here you go: I honestly deplore Spencer and Fisher and disassociate myself from them.
Stedman goes on to name those people who have views supposedly aligning with the alt-right, and I’ve named them above. That’s just slander, pure and simple: a way to associate people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher with Nazis. Stedman also notes that several atheist organizations have explicitly declined to condemn Spencer because they didn’t want to call attention to the fact that he was an atheist (he conveniently fails to name these organizations, those he has no trouble naming miscreant atheist “leaders.”) But I’m not sure if it’s the business of organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, for instance, to issue repeated condemnations of bigots and sexists who also happen to be atheists. That’s up to them, but I don’t see groups like the FFRF doing much good by spending their time making Little Lists of Bad Atheists rather than battling the incursion of real dangers—Republicans and free-speech denialistss—to our First Amendment.
In the end, Stedman’s piece is just a long kvetch condemning atheists for not denouncing Richard Spencer for his white supremacy. So let me start by giving us all an “I am Spartacus” moment:
I, Jerry A. Coyne, hereby condemn Richard Spencer for his injurious and odious white supremacy.
Stedman goes on to fault us for “mocking the sincerely held beliefs of others”, i.e. making fun of religion. Well, here I’m not with him. Religion is a dangerous superstition, and whatever it takes to make it go away, including reasoned discussion, debate, and yes, mockery, are fine. After all, for centuries those have been weapons against conventional but unfounded beliefs. And I’ll add here, somewhat lightheartedly, a poll on how we feel about these issues. Since it’s anonymous, you can vote how you want, and nobody will know who you are. This poll is just for atheists, and can serve as the kind of record Stedman seems to want. PLEASE VOTE.
Well, Stedman barks, but the caravan moves on. Despite anti-theists and supposedly hateful atheist leaders, the U.S. is becoming, slowly but inexorably, more atheistic.