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Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Announcements, Personal, Religion | 9 comments

New issue of Free Inquiry … plus a bit about faitheism

There’s a new issue of Free Inquiry available. As always, you need to subscribe to the magazine to get all the content, and only a selection (to whet your appetite) is available online.  Among the pieces that you won’t be able to read without getting hold of a hard copy is my (quite long) discussion of faitheism cum review of Chris Stedman’s controversial new book, Faitheist. Short version: I have a fair bit to say about the book, pro and con; there is much to enjoy and admire about the book; but I end by arguing that we should not be faitheists. I.e., we should not be atheists who view religion as a good thing, beyond satire, not a fair target for robust criticism, etc.

Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is an important subject. The publication of books such as Stedman’s ensures that it won’t go away. If nothing else, Stedman manages to do a reasonable job of reclaiming a word that has been used to satirise a particular approach to religion. Good for him, though he and I will go on disagreeing.

I do hope that my discussion of Faitheist gets a bit of attention. I’m fearful that the book will simply polarise people – that it will be liked by people who are already inclined to be faitheists and disliked by those atheists (like me) who actually dislike religion. I hope we can say a bit more about the book and the issues that it raises than just revealing, by our rhetoric, which camp we belong to. If any of y’all have read the new Free Inquiry, or at least my contribution, think of this post as providing an opportunity for discussion of Faitheist and faitheism.

Finally, Free Inquiry deserves your support – and not just because I have a regular column there. It publishes much worthwhile material and remains a flagship of the broad secular movement.

  • I only heard about Free Inquiry a day or so ago, due to another Elevatorgate dumb statement by Ophelia Benson … so I googled it, and found they devoted a whole issue to the Skepchick/FtB crowd … sadly that ensure I won’t subscribe ever to it … I’m sure your column is good, but they appear to have dubious editorial standards.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Russell, I thought your piece was well-written, and even-handed. I
    thought you treated Stedman fairly. You gave him kudos for much of the
    work he does, while pointing out the problems with the fatheist position

  • Charles Sullivan

    No, the issue’s theme was much broader than that. It was Women in Secularism.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I haven’t read your piece yet. (I no doubt will.) However, I’ll say this, anything that is above satire is a sacred cow that should be immediately slaughtered and consumed with much delight.

    The only question really is context and timing.

  • VladChituc

    Sorry for the long post, and, fair disclaimer, I’m not exactly a disinterested party (I’m a good friend of Chris’s and write at his blog). That said, I’m a fan of yours and have been following you for a while, so I hope you don’t mind if I push back a little bit about your characterization of Chris’s position.

    I’m afraid I don’t have a copy of Free Inquiry and I won’t be able to get one for some time, so I’m sorry if you went into this into some detail, but I was wondering where you get the idea that a faitheist is an atheist who “view[s] religion as a good thing, beyond satire, not a fair target for robust criticism, etc.”

    Chris has said before that he’s fine with and works well with antitheists, and he quotes Chelsea Link directly in a post he did at Friendly Atheist:

    I wish religion would go away. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s a net negative presence in the world, and if all else were equal, I would prefer a world without religion to one with it.

    But I think she’d identify with the “faitheist” project, and Chris seems fine with her. So where are you getting the idea that Chris thinks we should all view religion as a good thing?

    I also don’t know if you cited anywhere where Chris says that religion is beyond satire or off limits from “robust criticism.” I won’t speak for Chris, but I have no problem with the Book of Mormon and I doubt Chris does either. In fact I joke with and tease my religious friends all the time.

    As for robust criticism, I think Chris has mentioned again and again that he’s fine with it. He wrote in the same piece I linked above:

    Critiquing unreasonable and dehumanizing beliefs and actions is an important tactic, too — but the spirit of that criticism makes a significant difference. Atheist activists and public figures who engage in generalizations and stereotypes that dismiss all (or a majority of) religious believers as roadblocks to social progress increase the divisiveness of religious differences. While I support efforts to denounce female genital mutilation in Indonesia, I oppose campaigns spearheaded by prominent atheists to characterize the entire religion of Islam as “barbaric.”

    So for criticism and satire, I think Chris has only spoken out against it done in a dehumanizing or unfairly general way. I’d be curious to see though if he’s given some quotes or something I may have missed.

    I look forward to reading your review and I’ll try to pick up an issue of the magazine, because as a whole I’m a fan of your work (and I do agree that people like Dawkins and Harris get unfairly piled on as general scapegoats for the problems with a lot of internet atheists). I just think you might be falling into some careless stereotypes about Chris and his work that I’m starting to get a bit tired of.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks for your comment, Vlad. In response… well, a big problem with the book is its lack of philosophical analysis. I don’t believe the term “faitheist” is ever defined, let alone analysed. However, there is nothing in the book to suggest that he doesn’t mean the term in this (well-known) sense. The entire book is consistent with it, he does actually complain at length about people who are hostile to religion, and he even cites, fairly approvingly, long (and unfair) passages from the likes of Chris Hedges and Resa Aslan attacking people for criticising or satirising religion. Much of it is about interfaith activity where, notoriously, criticism of each others views or “proselytising” for your own view is pretty much forbidden.

    So it looks to me awfully as if this is the meaning he has in mind in the book. He really is defending faitheism, as that word is commonly understood.

    I’ve simply given my formulation of the well-known meaning of the term as it has been used in recent years, especially by Jerry Coyne, and Chris Stedman was surely being provocative in co-opting it. Indeed, in the book, he talks about how a person or bunch of people at a function in Chicago called him a “faitheist”. Well, if this is happened as described (it’s been suggested that he’s confabulating, but I have no reason to think the term was not used) then that is the meaning that his interlocutor at the function would have been using. Stedman does not suggest anything else.

    So, everything in the book is consistent with the assumption that its author is using the term in its well-known sense within the atheist community, and that he has Jerry Coyne’s and others’ satirical deployment of the term in mind. Indeed, he is being provocative (to Coyne and others) in using the term. He is trying to reclaim the term as signifying a good thing, but he nowhere says that he is redefining it.

    So why not assume that faitheism, for Stedman, is exactly what the word meant within the atheist community before Stedman’s book appeared, and that the book is written against that background? If he means something different by it, he really needs to say exactly what, because he will be taken as proudly saying he is a faitheist in that sense and that this is a good thing. If it’s a misperception of what he really thinks and is inconsistent with things that he’s said elsewhere, it’s a misperception that he has created by the gimmick of reclaiming this satirical term, without disclaimer. I don’t think it’s other people being careless.

    I mean, all he’d have to do at some point in the book would be to write a few reflective sentences such as, “Of course, I’m not really a faitheist in the sense popularised by Jerry Coyne and others. I think religion does much harm and should be a target of criticism and satire. But sometimes this goes too far and destroys valuable relationships. I should be able to say that much without being mistaken for a faitheist.” But I don’t recall any passage at all like that.

  • Copyleft

    I used to be an FI subscriber… when was this “Women in Secularism” issue put out? And what type of coverage did it include? For example, devoting a whole issue to dismantling the irrational claims of the Skepchicks wouldn’t be a bad thing….

  • I’m merely echoing one of Russel’s own positions … he wouldn’t want to attend any conference where speakers such as Rebecca Watson were speaking … similarly, I wouldn’t pay good money for a magazine that would devote column inches to her.

  • Latest copy, it is almost entirely penned by FtB and Skepchick bloggers.