A Lengthy Response to Zach Alexander

November 14th, 2012 | Posted by:

Just a quick note: this post shouldn’t be taken as representative of Chris or his views. He’s been keeping abreast of his critics and has been thinking carefully about the points they raise. But he is also quite busy with obligations surrounding the release of his book and his work organizing this weekend’s upcoming Humanist Community at Harvard Values In Action event, which is working to pack 40,000 meals for food-insecure children. In the meantime, why not check out the project and consider donating here.

Zachary Alexander wrote a review of Chris’s book, Faitheist, and it has gotten a fair amount of attention in the online atheist community. There are a lot of nice things to say about the post, and in fact I find much of it to be a compelling personal narrative that, for the most part, is completely in line with and in support of Chris’s message and project. I’d recommend reading Dan Fincke at Camels and Hammers for a brief treatment of some relevant portions, as well as an interesting comment discussion.

As a review and as a fair, thoughtful treatment of Chris’s book, however, I think the review fails thoroughly (though, bizarrely, his Amazon review I think fares much better). And I honestly find this to be a shame, because the rest of the review—a good 80% of it—is so touching and engaging. However, I think almost all of the criticisms, both big and small, fail. They suffer from uncharitable reading, and they serve only to reinforce current misconceptions about Chris and his work. So I’d like to take this chance to recommend a read of Zach’s piece with some caveats—read it for the story but realize much of his arguments against Chris are misguided or false. Because Zach’s review is rather large, and there’s a lot I want to address, I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this post. But I think these points are important and worth addressing.

Hypocrisy and the limits of pluralism

The first criticism of Chris’s work is a shallow one, and I’ve read it often enough that it warrants a response. Zach, and a few others, have suggested that Chris throws atheists under the bus, builds bridges with everyone but atheists, wants pluralism except with atheists, and so on. The basic idea is that Chris is a hypocrite. Zach writes, “The most obvious problem is that even as Chris extolls the virtues of religious pluralism, he delivers an anti-pluralist message to his fellow atheists.”

But I’ve never been quite sure where Chris goes out and does this. Near the start of the book, he praises and agrees with the religious critiques of the new atheists (pg. 13). Chris never suggests that atheists ought to be silent or refrain from religious criticism. He never tells atheists that they can’t be a part of his pluralist project. In fact, the atheists he criticizes, myself once included, are reached out to with the same hand Chris gives to the religious. I’ve only ever seen him respond with patience and kindness.

Though Chris does offer critiques of the atheist community a few times throughout Faitheist, they are of specific practices and strategies that he sees as counterproductive, and not indicative of atheists as a whole. The only thing I can think of, then, is a passage from Chris’s controversial Salon excerpt, where he says “I believe that this so-called New Atheism—the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target — is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful”

The message seems rather clear to me, and frankly not that controversial. Chris is promoting pluralism. Atheists who have as their main focus the destruction of religion are anti-pluralist. It would be bizarre to insist that pluralists work with anti-pluralists in the name of pluralism, just as it would be absurd to ask us to tolerate intolerance in the name of tolerance. These projects necessarily can’t be self-defeating, and it’s a strange critique to complain that they aren’t.

I’ve seen a lot of atheists critique this project as hostile to many atheists, and they say it is tantamount to stabbing atheists in the back. PZ Myers recently made a point like this in response to Zach’s piece (in what is actually one of the better treatments of Chris’s positions I’ve seen from PZ). But I’m still not quite sure what the problem is supposed to be. Chris has something he wants to promote, sees certain practices to be harmful, and he says as much rather respectfully.

Isn’t that exactly what antitheists do, and would have Chris do, to the religious? Isn’t it, at this point, something of atheist canon to say that honest criticism is how we show respect to those we disagree with? And isn’t a hallmark of a strong community that it can withstand internal criticism?

It’s absurd to suggest that Chris has somehow crossed a line by criticizing atheists he thinks are wrong, while showing not even a fraction of the vitriol I’ve seen poured on to the religious (or on to Chris) by some bloggers. And this strikes me as a clear double standard: should we expect Chris to play nice with antitheists, instead of criticizing them, so as not to hurt their feelings? Isn’t that exactly the attitude towards the religious (falsely) attributed to Chris and criticized so eagerly by those same bloggers?

If Chris’s arguments are wrong and pluralism is a bad thing, or his arguments against antitheism fail, then that should be the critique of his work. But the critique that Chris is at fault for criticizing atheists or not including anti-pluralists in a pluralist project is one that I have a difficult time taking seriously. And I think, ultimately, if atheists insist on dealing in criticism, they should accept it in return without crying foul.

Post-nothing, or down with secular Shibboleths.

The second criticism I find nearly as frustrating. Zach suggests that Chris doesn’t share the same epistemic values as most atheists. Chris is somehow “post-truth,” only concerned with the feelings of religious believers and not with how right they are. It is strange that Zach acts as if this idea—that Chris and other mainstream atheists diverge on certain core values—is some kind of revelation. I’m pretty sure Ophelia Benson has been saying as much for years, and the difference in values came to the forefront last December when Chris responded to Greta’s blog post detailing the values of the atheist movement—an exchange Zach references, bizarrely enough.

What’s novel, though, is that Zach isn’t claiming Chris doesn’t properly prioritize epistemic values; rather, he suggests that Chris only superficially shares them, if at all. Zach writes:

“[Chris] values compassion and social justice to a remarkable, exemplary degree, yet places almost no value on the epistemological virtues near and dear to most in the atheist movement, such as rationality, skepticism, and the scientific method.”

Zach goes so far as to compare Chris to a restaurant critic who writes exclusively about ambiance and service, leaving out any mention of how the food tasted—suggesting that the only thing atheists do and ought to care about is whether or not religious claims are true. Zach writes:

It explains why he is so hypocritical about pluralism and respect – he simply does not see much value in the epistemic goals of the “New Atheists,” seeing only the hurt feelings they cause, and the interfaith work they could be doing instead. Granted, if Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were going around offending people for no higher purpose, Chris would be right to call their work “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.” But they aren’t. And he isn’t.

But this strikes me as an extremely bizarre critique, considering right at the start of the book (pg. 13), Chris writes:

Although I believe that many New Atheist critiques of religion are correct and have helped many people find liberation from oppressive beliefs, some of these critiques have also often neglected to account for the full range of religious expression and have resulted in segregation that has parsed the religious and the secular into opposing camps.”

Chris not only expresses agreement and support with these atheists epistemically, but makes clear that he has problems with their reductive view of religion and tendency toward encouraging tribalism. Chris throughout the book makes no effort to hide that he agrees with atheist criticisms of religion or thinks that many religious claims are wrong. Whether he makes that the forefront of his engagement with the religious is another issue—Zach complains that Chris focuses too much on eliminating suffering but not ignorance, and to that I ask, if eliminating ignorance doesn’t make the world a better place then what’s the point?—but to claim that Chris is somehow post-truth because of this is absurd. Zach writes:

Perhaps I missed a blog post where Chris explains how he does, in fact, care about all these things. But until I see him wax poetic about the scientific method, or exhibit some passion for the theory of evolution, or at least confess his abiding love for Star Trek: The Next Generation– color me skeptical.

Reading this and the section preceding it, it’s difficult for me not to get the impression that the real issue here is that Chris just didn’t use the word “reason” enough in his book. The problem is that Chris is seen as not acting or talking like other atheists—he hasn’t publicly expressed his appreciation for Star Trek (neither have I), he doesn’t talk at length about reason and rationality (neither do I), and he doesn’t unnecessarily praise Darwin or measure anything in KiloSagans (and neither do I). But that has absolutely nothing to do with one’s feelings about epistemology (and I have some pretty strong feelings about epistemology).

So this critique strikes me as so strange. Chris isn’t in lock-step with freethinkers’ jargon and that’s a problem? Can’t there be value in communicating our ideas in various ways, or appealing to different values for different audiences? I won’t speak for Chris, but the reason I don’t talk about Logic and Reason and skepticism or freethought is because they strike me as such obvious and vacuous Shibboleths, signaling little more than group inclusion.

It’s not often that you see an atheist who has taken a formal logic class, studied Bayesian statistics, learned basic philosophy of science and research methods, or made an effort to minimize cognitive biases. Not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s rare enough that appeals to logic, reason, and the scientific method more often than not strike me as hollow. More so, a Catholic like Leah Libresco has put in far more effort than any given atheist, I’d wager, at living out and applying those epistemic values Zach is so fond of—certainly more than I have. Which brings me to my next point: that having these as the values of atheism sends either an implicit (or in many cases a very vocal) message that believers don’t share them. Something which I hope readers will realize is obviously false.

I can’t speak to why Chris doesn’t use that language, but I hope through sharing my own case that it’s clear that, even if you think I’m wrong about my reasons, a failure to pay lip-service to the atheist establishment doesn’t suggest a neglect for epistemic values. Nor does valuing compassion primarily, either in everyday life or philosophically, suggest that someone doesn’t care about what’s true. I’ve seen nothing written by Chris anywhere to suggest that he is, as Zach suggests, a “post-truth atheist.”


I’ve covered the two main points I wanted to address, but the rest of the review struck me as having a lot of smaller errors, as well as some unnecessary cruelty. As such, this might delve into the petty and the minute, but I think it’s important to not let these little jabs go uncorrected. A lot of people are reading Zach’s blog post, seemingly in place of Chris’s book—and many, like Chris Halquist and his commenters, are walking away with the wrong impression.

On the cruelty front: in a review that James Croft praised for being “sensitive and thorough,” Zach writes that “I recommend [Chris] first master the skill of stringing words together into meaningful sentences,” based on the following quote from the book:

Until those of us who do not believe in God are seen as having an equal capacity to be moral, anti-atheist remarks will continue to perpetuate discrimination and atheists will be seen as less moral than the religious.” (pg. 152)

Zach said that “at times I felt like I was a TA again, grading a third-rate undergraduate philosophy essay,” but I hope he had enough comprehension at the time to realize that the passage taken in context, rather than being tautologous, suggests that, until we build relationships with religious believers who will then be our allies, anti-atheist prejudices will go uncorrected. And unless Zach is advocating we convince people of our morality by yelling at believers, Chris’s point strikes me as a completely normal and comprehensible one to make.

On the topic of reading comprehension, Zach criticizes Chris for being “so deeply offensive as to compare antireligious atheists to fundamentalists (pgs. 149-150)” but Chris didn’t do that. On those pages he quoted two authors expressing broader points, including the comparison, but Chris rebukes that aspect right after, saying “Neither of these writers gets it exactly right. After spending several years deeply embedded in the atheist movement, I know there is no consensus on atheism, nor do I think that the intolerance that proliferates in the atheist movement is equivalent to religious extremism.”

Zach also misreads or misrepresents Chris to paint him as expressing “incipient narcissism.” Zach criticizes Chris for calling himself humble, but Chris didn’t—the passage in question (pg. 162) says Chris’s confidence was humbled. Zach also chastises Chris for having the hubris to compare himself to Moses, a claim that’s false or at best misleading—Chris said (pg. 131) that he identified with Moses’s feeling of apprehension and insignificance at taking on a task, acknowledging that his own task was “not so immense, of course.”

Lastly, in what Zach describes as the “single most baffling, dumbfounding fact of the book,” he expresses incredulity that:

a professional atheist could, with a straight face, ask nonreligious, faithless people to engage themselves in “religious pluralism” and “interfaith work” – a hard enough sell as it is –without making the slightest attempt to find more atheist-inclusive terms for these activities. There are no words.

Actually there are a lot of words. Words that perhaps Zach skipped over when reading, because Chris addressed this point at length. So let me just quote part of the relevant passage (pgs. 174-175).

After saying that he “fully acknowledge that the language of ‘interfaith’ is imperfect, clunky, and can feel exclusive to many nonreligious people” Chris writes:

I believe that change will come from within—that by participating in interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly. This has certainly been true of my experiences in the interfaith movement. . .  When I first began to work with [an interfaith group], they went by the name Social Action Ministries. Soon, however, we began a discussion about their name. Before long, they decided to change it to Social Action Massachusetts”

So rather than being indifferent, as Zach implies, Chris is saying something along the lines of “I realize the language is problematic, but right now the action is more important. Worry about the name later, because the language has historically become more inclusive, it will become more inclusive in the future, and it will be easier to accomplish this change if we get involved.”

In sum, I think there is a lot to value in Zach’s review, but not a lot pertaining to Chris. I think a lot of Chris’s positions have been misrepresented and treated unfairly—not just by Zach but a lot of other bloggers, too. Zach’s review reinforces lazy and shallow stereotypes of Chris and his work, and I hope I have gone some way towards correcting them.


Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

  • http://icbseverywhere.com badrescher

    Masterful analysis and expression. The two points you made were exactly the two I thought were most important and your points were dead-on.

    Still, some won’t hear them, so I hope you don’t mind my additions.

    Even if intolerance of bad behavior somehow conflicted with tolerance of personal beliefs, calling Chris a hypocrite for such a view would be hypocritical itself when the claim that “all approaches in activism are positive and to each his own” is unfounded and akin to “teach the controversy”. I am sure that many people will hate that comparison, but it’s a fair one while the other is not.

    I also appreciated your wording when contrasting Chris’s priority of eliminating suffering with the goal of eliminating ignorance. It was a charitable reading of Zach’s post and other criticisms, one that I learned from. My less charitable impression was that they cared more about insisting that people see “the truth” than reducing harm. I found that a bit ironic and sad, given that everyone thinks that their truth is THE truth. Reducing ignorance is a goal of mine because it reduces harm, so I thank you for allowing me to connect a little with those critics.

    However, we reduce ignorance, not by promoting our beliefs (conclusions), but by promoting a defensible epistemology. In most skeptical activism, we focus on providing accurate information and revealing fraud, not in ridiculing or criticizing beliefs. We don’t doubt the reasoning ability of strangers. Instead, we provide information that they may not have. For example, we don’t tell people that nobody can talk to the dead whether we personally believe that or not. Instead, we provide alternative explanations for what appears to be an amazing ability to do just that. We reveal, for example, that the so-called psychic is wearing a listening device or that when you do the math, the number of “hits” is exactly what we’d expect from flipping a coin.

    Why I bring this up: if the goals of the atheist-activist critics are to reduce ignorance, the best practices should be the same as those of skepticism. Reason is a process by which we start with premises and draw conclusions. The only way to evaluate a conclusion alone is to compare it with you already believe. So, it seems to me that attacking someone’s belief (e.g., in God) as wrong, rather than discussing the reasoning process and evidence that led them to that belief (which is different for everyone) is the equivalent of saying that you know “THE truth”. That’s how people who don’t have evidence on their side behave and it doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of logic/reason. It’s epistemically wrong in addition to providing a fast track toward ridicule and malice.

    Chris’s approach not only serves as a means to accomplish the goal of reducing suffering in the world, it also provides opportunities to talk about one’s own beliefs along with the evidence and reasoning behind them. That’s what people who have evidence and reason do to persuade and educate. Discussing evidence with a truly open mind – with the understanding that one’s own conclusions may be wrong – is how science progresses, how people learn, and how the best outcomes are achieved.

    If the goal is greater acceptance of atheists among the faithful, then it’s really a no-brainer, isn’t it?

    Sorry this comment is so long. The last couple of blog posts I’ve read have me ranting to myself and it seemed an appropriate place to get that out. :)

  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander

    Hi Vlad,
    Thanks for reading the review, and your response.

    Before I respond, let me get the Amazon review out of the way first. There’s nothing “bizarre” about it; the second paragraph is almost a perfect microcosm of the longer review, addressed to the organized atheist community, of which I am a part. The only difference is that the Amazon review also addresses two additional audiences: religious people and non-movement atheists. I happen to think the book is great for both of those. Hence the Amazon review seeming more positive.

    I concede that religious pluralism that excludes antireligious atheists is intellectually coherent. But pleading “intellectual coherence” doesn’t prevent it from seeming hypocritical. It’s like a promotion whose message is “FREE BOAT RIDE FOR TWO*,” with fine print explaining, “*Some restrictions apply; must purchase lifetime membership to be eligible for free boat ride. ” That is an intellectually coherent pair of sentences, but the euphoric impact of the first turns out to be undermined by the second. In the same way, an uplifting rhetoric of respectful listening and bridge-building, with asterisks explaining this only really applies to people deemed to be sufficiently religiously pluralistic, rings a bit hollow. Though I will grant that it is basically a coherent philosophy.

    But as I said on Facebook, the point about pluralism is largely a surface problem, symptomatic of the bigger, underlying disjunct in how much we value matters epistemological.

    Speaking of that – there’s nothing “strange” about the suggestion that this is a novel argument. Many seem to have noticed parts of it, but I’m not aware of anyone putting it in the most general terms, as I did, and Ophelia in fact agreed with me on this. And that HuffPo article responding to Greta you linked to doesn’t address the underlying issue of epistemic values, focusing only one of the surface issues, namely, being antireligious or not. Being antireligious or not is not the core issue. The underlying values that drive people to be antireligious (or not) are.

    And none of your arguments weaken my case in the slightest. The passage you quote from page 13 concedes many “New Atheist” critiques of religion are correct, but he doesn’t specify which critiques, and even if we assume (for no reason) that he was referring to critiques made on epistemic (rather than humane) grounds, conceding they are correct is a far cry from agreeing they are important. That passage also concedes that some “New Atheist” criticisms have helped people find “liberation,” but again, this is a compassion/justice-oriented evaluation, not an epistemic one. None of this is evidence that Chris highly values epistemic concerns.

    The exact same holds true for your statements that Chris “agrees with atheist criticisms of religion”, and “thinks many religious claims are wrong.” Again, which criticisms? Which claims? In the book I read, he almost exclusively focused on compassion/justice-based criticisms and claims, and almost completely ignored epistemological criticisms and claims. So the point stands – he’s clearly concerned about the former, and the latter seems extremely low on his list of priorities.

    And my primary point here isn’t to “complain”, but explain. As I said in the conclusion, if you and/or Chris don’t care about epistemic concerns very much, in a sense, that’s fine. Different people are passionate about different things to different degrees. We can and will argue that everyone should value a given thing (aesthetics, say) to some minimum threshhold (not wearing Crocs, say), but that isn’t going to iron out all diversity in what people value, nor should it. My primary point is that it explains the huge divergence between the readers of this blog and most of the rest of the atheist community. To the point that it calls into question whether we actually are a part of the same community.

    So if you really have a passion for truth or knowledge or reason, I’m all ears, but if you don’t, I’m not asking you to pretend to care more than you actually do. It’s inauthentic, and usually fails to convince anyway (think Romney pretending to care about poor people). You gotta be you.

    And on that subject, I’m open to persuasion on what you care about, but FWIW, these do not seem like the words of someone with a passion for knowledge and truth: “if eliminating ignorance doesn’t make the world a better place then what’s the point?” What’s the point? Eliminating ignorance is an inherent good. That doesn’t mean it’s the only good, or that it outweighs everything else. But it is a good in its own right, contrary to the implication of your question. I would therefore go even further – we should reduce ignorance even at the cost of slightly increasing the suffering in the world. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied; better to gain knowledge of the universe and be a bit depressed by its vastness, coldness, and ultimate meaninglessness, than to be ignorant and a bit happier. If that statement sounds bizarre (which seems like your favorite word), I rest my case.

    And for that matter, someone who significantly values logic, reason, or skepticism wouldn’t describe them as “vacuous Shibboleths”. If you don’t particularly care about them, they probably do seem like shibboleths, in the same way that the jargon of the fashion world is almost completely opaque to me. But I’m sure there’s a method to the madness of (at least some) fashion writers, just happening on a plane I’m not particularly attuned to or invested in.

    So it’s not that he didn’t use the codeword “reason” enough. There are a multitude of ways to express a concern for epistemic virtues and vices, and I went out of my way to give a range of examples in my review. It has nothing to do with jargon, and everything to do with what is important to you.

    So what next? I don’t know. I guess it’s up to Chris – if he wants to be accepted as part of the defacto/mainstream atheist community (which is, I concede, only a subset of all atheists), he should show us he shares our values before trying to persuade us of the wisdom of playing nicer. And I know this is an entirely achievable aim, because I am already doing it. With a single blog post and a handful of comments, I daresay I have persuaded (or at least prompted) Chris Hallquist to say there is value in collaboration with the religious to achieve shared goals, to engagement with them as a way to rein in religious extremism, and that there may even be value in Chris’s interfaith work in particular. I have gotten JT Eberhard to agree with my praise of much of Chris’s message, and explicitly express common ground with parts of it. This from some of his staunchest critics.

    And I have little doubt that if I raised concerns about some particular instance of antireligious vitriol to them, or to John Figdor, they would give me a sympathetic hearing.

    Can you or Chris say the same? Not in the slightest.

    And how do I perform these feats of Jedi magic? By first showing myself to be their comrade – by making it abundantly clear that I share their core values. (Chris attempted to do this in the book, I think, by talking about his antireligious phase in college; but as I argued in the review, merely being antireligious is insufficient to show that he cares about the epistemic values which are themselves our real concern.) They have no reason to doubt my commitment to truth, knowledge, and reason. So when I argue for the value of respectful dialogue, they see me as a friend, not a foe or space alien, and are therefore more willing to listen with an open mind – even if they don’t ultimately agree with me on every point.

    In fact, I recently read a wonderful Lincoln quote about just this notion, in a book called…. yep, that one.

    So again, it depends on what Chris’s goals are. If he wants to actually have an impact tempering the aggression of the organized atheist community, he’s failing to do so at present, and I just explained how to do that more effectively. If on the other hand, he is only interested in criticizing us in order to draw a contrast with his own interfaith work, well, he can do that – but let’s drop the pretense that we’re part of the same movement, and with it, his attempts to decree Mosaic commandments for the entire community of atheists.

    So those are my main points. Since you were thorough though, I will respond to your miscellany:

  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander

    On tautology: The context is irrelevant. The quoted sentence is, in fact, tautologous. It has this form: “Until A happens, B and C will happen.” This is equivalent to saying “Until A happens, B will happen” and “Until A happens, C will happen.” The first of those two sentences makes sense. The second is a tautology. I realize it’s painful to see your friend’s flaws publically exposed, but he has no one to blame but himself. As I said, I would’ve gracefully overlooked it if he had merely written a memoir, but there is no excuse for a careless tautology in an argumentative book. (And this is just the most glaring example of bad argumentation. I was merciful to not provide more examples.)

    On fundamentalists: Chris did, in fact, compare antireligious atheists with fundamentalists.. He quotes two authors who make the comparison uncritically, and then procedes merely to gently qualify the comparison – saying only it isn’t “exactly” right (emphasis in original!), and only that the movement’s emphasis on rationality “does allow it to escape some of the trappings of fundamentalism” (emphasis mine)(149-150). This is not a “rebuke”.

    And anyway, he draws the same comparison much more directly, in his own words, on page 4.

    On narcissism: I’m sorry, but this is where you seem most grasping. Describing your confidence as humble is equivalent to describing yourself as humble. Parse the words all you want, make whatever artificial distinctions you want – he described himself as humble. And that is something that can almost never be done with integrity.

    On Moses: you’re only going to dig Chris into a deeper hole here. Some of his detractors were asking for this passage to be posted, but I declined, because I didn’t want to needlessly embarass him. But since you want to talk about it, here goes:

    But here I was in that kitchen again – an atheist seminary student, standing in the office of a national faith leader – and the heat was getting to me. Suddenly I thought of Moses in the Book of Exodus asking God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ My mission was not so immense, of course, but I still wondered: Was I capable of working to bridge the divide between different religions? And what about the chasm between the religious and the secular? (130-131)

    The comparison is implied, but it is implied clearly. He doesn’t say “I am like Moses,” but he does explicitly compare his mission to Moses’s mission, and implicitly likens his apprehension to Moses’s. The further implication is that, like Moses, he perhaps has a mission of grand importance which despite his feeling of insignificance he is specially equipped to carry out. Which may in fact be true – interfaith work is in fact important, and Chris may in fact be particularly good at it – but by invoking Moses, instead of merely talking about his apprehension and sense of calling directly, he gives the impression that it is getting to his head. Adding that his own mission is less immense does not materially change this.

    On the term “interfaith”: you are incorrect. My claims are that (i) he makes no explicit attempt, and I think no attempt at all, to himself propose better terms, and (ii) he seems uncomprehending of how much of a problem the terms are. On the first, talking about ways other people have found more inclusive terms doesn’t count. He still makes no attempt to do so himself, and if anything, the former just makes him look worse, because it shows that other people get it more than he does. On the second point, a perfunctory acknowledgement that the language is problematic, combined with his utter failure to lift a finger to do anything about it (despite how easy it would have been to say something like, “We should call this ‘interfaith/intersecular’ when atheists are involved”), makes it clear he doesn’t get how big a nonstarter this is.

  • Walker Bristol

    Lightning round:

    Do you disagree that pluralistic collaboration often leads to dispelling stereotypes and myths about atheists (and the religious)?

    I’m pretty sure you can easily “compare” two things without saying they are congruent. Chris’s point, which I agree with, is that a movement that prides itself on rationality and critical thought is not free from producing tribalism, groupthink, and ignorance, and citing the movement’s commitment to rationality/critical thought in an effort to hide that fact is self-violating.

    If I hear one more blogger call Chris narcissistic I will do a backwards somersault down a flight of stairs.

    You can *definitely* draw inspiration from a story without believing it to be true or, again, believing your cause is congruent to theirs. In fact, religious people do this all the time. Chris even clearly explicitly says that he didn’t think his calling was equivalent to that in the story of Moses. You wrote that off by saying “adding that his own mission is less immense does not materially change this.” I don’t understand your point here at all. It seems like that is exactly what it does.

    And is the aversion to the term “interfaith” really a necessary and sufficient reason to be averse to the concept of atheist-inclusive interfaith? Is the cause of interfaith work–which you yourself admit may “in fact [be] important”–building relationships among the religious and the non-religious, educating one another, standing in solidarity with one another, doing important service with one another–is all of this really negligible unless you have a more inclusive term? I don’t even disagree that the term is exclusive, but you have to work from the inside to make change like that, and the idea being propagated that we should withhold our participation simply because of a tiny linguistic disagreement strikes me as awfully stubborn and counterproductive.

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  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander


    Lightning answer: where on earth did you get the idea of “necessary and sufficient”? I never made any statement so bold.

    What I’m saying is that there is a subset of atheists for whom this is a dealbreaker. Some of us might be convincable to atheist-inferfaith work, but not “interfaith” work, and that’s just how it is. It’s not even particularly up for discussion, because it goes directly to values that are pretty central for many of us.

    And the fact that this blog seems not only not to share those values particularly strongly (note, Vlad, if you’re reading, the qualifier), but also not respectfully understand how important they are for us, and therefore keeps trying to push us into inter

    It’s like inviting observant Muslim butchers to a festival called Porkstravaganza, and in fact, saying they have some kind of moral obligation to do so – and taking no action to rename it Meatstravaganza to be more inclusive of them. You can argue with them all you want that they’re getting too worked up about the pork thing, but almost none of them will budge. And they will eventually become offended that you so little understand the gravity of their objection that you keep inviting them to “Porkstravaganza” despite it.

  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander

    (Unfinished sentence: the fact that this blog “keeps trying to push us into interfaith work, thusly named, despite our objections, is offensive.”)

  • https://plus.google.com/104848051786838984135/posts Walker Bristol

    I think it’s a lot more like inviting people to come do things that make a better world for people because who the hell cares about our differences when there are people hurting. I’ve never been in an interfaith circle where they haven’t tolerated, been respectful of, and sought to better understand my nontheistic worldview. Sometimes awkwardly and clumsily, sure. But I’ve always felt ultimately comfortable. I’m sorry if you’ve had a different experience.

    I don’t see this blog as “trying to push you into interfaith work” I see this blog as trying to encourage people to collaborate in service despite their differences and prejudices. When I say interfaith I always mean it to be atheist-inclusive. And like I said above, I’ve never had to doubt that definition.

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  • http://www.zachalexander.com/ Zach Alexander


    You’re right, I should’ve said “Chris’s book,” not “this blog,” tries to push atheists into interfaith work. I haven’t read anything here (yet) quite as guilt-tripping as some parts of Chris’s book.

    Anyway, when you say:

    I think it’s a lot more like inviting people to come do things that make a better world for people because who the hell cares about our differences when there are people hurting.

    I hear:

    No really, why don’t you conservative Muslim butchers come take part in Porkstravaganza, which makes the world such a better place (through civic engagement and stimulating the local economy, etc. etc.). Who the hell cares about our differences about whether pork is forbidden? Everyone there will tolerate and be respectful of your abstention from pork… except we’re still calling it Porkstravaganza. Please come!

    That’s clueless to the point of being offensive. And it’s just doomed to failure.

    It’s not about being tolerated and respected once we’re there. I’ve had mostly positive experiences in these kinds of environments, in fact. But that doesn’t let Chris off the hook for simultaneously (a) telling atheists they have a moral obligation to engage in interfaith-type work, and yet (b) failing to lift a finger to make it something they can take part in with a clean conscience. As I wrote, it’s a hard enough sell as it is, and it’s just straight-up offensive that he cares sooooo deeeeeeply for the strongly-held beliefs and values of any religious person, yet demonstrably so, so little for the strongly-held beliefs and values of a rather large subset of his fellow atheists.

    And I’m not even talking about PZ and the like. I’m talking about me. I’m talking about moderate atheists who don’t feel the need to bash religious people nonstop, and are open to constructively engaging with them, but who are very clear that their own values include “faith” being a deplorable intellectual vice, period.

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