Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: "Faitheist"



The Humanist Book Club adopted Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious for its December discussion in preparation for an author visit to Bryant University, co-sponsored by the Humanists of Rhode Island. I found the book alternately challenging and exasperating, but its limitations are mitigated by the youth and inexperience of the author and chronological development of the memoir. Most often, the questions he raises in one part of the book, he resolves elsewhere. The logical inconsistencies are suggestive of a young author who has yet to resolve every nuance of the issues that preoccupy him. Who has?


The Foreword, by Eboo Patel, sets the tone for the book. Patel reminds the reader that the chasm between believers and atheists was initially opened by the religious--a point often overlooked by those who are still shocked by blasphemy. Uncritical reverence for religion is, after all, a vestige of the same religious privilege that licensed persecution of heretics. Patel immediately goes off the rails, however, with a false equivocation between faith and the values of respect, compassion and freedom.

Faitheist is a memoir. While the standards of scholarship do not apply, Stedman lays out on page 11 what is arguably his thesis. He defends atheist participation in Interfaith activism in terms of maximizing resources for promoting social and economic justice. Elsewhere in the book he acknowledges that Interfaith nomenclature is alienating, but insists that participation is worth it. To my mind, whether or not it is worth it is a matter of perspective and life trajectory. The year Stedman had already invested in divinity studies when he renounced his faith and his established support network would seem to favor his decision to remain. 

I sympathize with Stedman's plea for less stridency. There is a point at which ridicule can be construed as coercion. But a call for restraint from an Interfaith activist is bound to be taken as putting Interfaith activism ahead of the atheist cause. The question of loyalty must certainly account for a fair share of Faitheist bashing. 



On page 12, Stedman continues the thread of atheist antipathy toward religion. He attributes the desire to eradicate religion to a pessimistic vision. Those of us who see the vision of a world without religion as an optimistic one will be inclined to disagree. Perhaps nothing more is the operative phrase here. Seeing religion as nothing more than a problem to be eradicated suggests reducing people to mere obstacles rather than seeing them in their full humanity. Then again, we're talking about eradicating religion, not religious people. Can we hate the delusion but love the deluded as the religious hate the sin but love the sinner? 




Contrary to what you might have heard from his detractors, Stedman is not oblivious to the problem of religious obscurantism. On page 183 he recalls a time when he called out a divinity professor for applying the name "God" so broadly as to render it meaningless. Stedman occasionally equivocates faith and humanitarianism, however, as Patel did in the Foreword. 


Stedman addresses any doubts about where his loyalties lie on pages 149-150. He renounces false equivalencies between the intolerance demonstrated by atheists toward believers and that of believers toward atheists. He also acknowledges the diversity of atheist opinion. Understanding that diversity of opinion should prepare him to defend atheism in his Interfaith work.



In the final analysis, Stedman's willingness to engage with people who the rest of us might write off does vital work to advance the interests of atheists. On page 177 he recalls an event at which he was instrumental in winning the support of the Campus Ministry Office for a Secular Student Alliance. If Stedman manages to convince the religious that religious privilege is not in their best interests, I see no reason to oppose his work. Whether or not you harbor the (secret?) hope that religion will eventually collapse under its own weight, it seems reasonable to work to reduce its power to do harm.

Religious extremists and moderates lay rival claims to authenticity within their faith communities. It is reasonable, however, to ask whether more harm is ultimately done by enabling religion or prevented by humanizing it. Faitheist is a good place to start if you're interested in challenging your own position. It is a respectable first book by an author who has discovered an original niche for himself. His will no doubt be an indispensable voice on the subject.

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