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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Chris Stedman's Faitheist

I'm currently reading this book, and am writing a fairly lengthy piece on it (maybe a couple of thousand words) that I'll be submitting to Free Inquiry.

Just a few quick thoughts here, though. I've enjoyed Faitheist as the memoir of a life that has been interesting so far (though, alas, with its share of pain during the author's adolescence), and Stedman can certainly write lucid, concise, enjoyable prose. There are some small (seeming?) oddities, as when John Berryman is referred to as "a deceased gay Minnesotan poet". I don't know what that's all about, since Berryman was well-known for being heterosexually predacious. Even if it turns out he was bisexual (which would be news to me!), he seems an odd person to refer to as Stedman does. Could someone please enlighten me about this? Does Stedman know something I don't? Anyway, the memoir parts of the book make for a solid read ... sometimes even a poignant one.

I'm less impressed by Stedman's analysis of how we should talk about religion and the religious. I actually agree with him that some more civility might be in order as the default. But that's because we see some material on the internet (in particular) that is totally undiscriminating and unnuanced, mindlessly hostile, and even vilifying. This is not something we should aspire to. The atheist blogosphere is not always a pretty sight.

But Stedman goes too far in his denunciations of authors such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and to a lesser extent of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. In my opinion, none of these authors violates ordinary standards of civility that are accepted in, say, political debate. Perhaps they could be argued to have "given permission" (as they say) to others to be more offensive and less nuanced. Really, though, I encourage my readers to go and read any of these people carefully. See for yourself how they develop their critiques of religion. You'll see that their styles are calm, rational, and suitably varied to the topic. These are all fine writers with skilled control, in each case, of the "voice" that comes through.

None of that is to deny an element of moral indignation in some of what they write (some engage in this more than others). But we do not see incivility for its own sake.

In the past, I've disagreed with Harris, in particular, about some issues, but it is all too easy to demonise people. Unfortunately, there's that tendency in Faitheist. I wish the author had torn out a few pages on reflection (or rather, deleted them from the manuscript). The strength of his argument in favour of more civility will tend to be lost on many people because he overreaches. Yet, surely he has a point,and it's unfortunate that it might get lost in the inevitable kerfuffle.

[Edit: One sentence above is badly worded and conveys something rather different from what I actually had in mind: it's the sentence beginning, "But Stedman goes too far...". See comments below for explanation of what I was trying to convey.]


Ardent Skeptic said...

I will be interested in reading your complete review. Just thought I'd leave a comment here so you will be certain that you have readership (even if only one) on your blog. Doesn't take sex when drunk to prompt me to read your blogposts either. ;-)

Ardent Skeptic said...

BTW, dyslexics like me hate this type of verification to prove our humanity. It's difficult enough for me to read with a decent font, but the font in the verification window is really, really tough to parse. I have attempted to leave comments on other posts but have messed up the verification. After three strikes I give up. (It's not like I have anything earth shattering to say anyway.)

P.S. Not sure you will see this comment if I don't make it after three attempts at verification. ;-)

Jacques Rousseau said...

I've just re-read it (for the purposes of what will no doubt be a shorter review than your 1000's of words one!), and I can't find any "denunciations of authors such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and to a lesser extent of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens". The book has no index - did you perhaps keep a note of where this happens? He does quote others who denounce those writers, but Stedman himself (as far as I can determine) sticks with denouncing PZ alone.

Russell Blackford said...

Jacques, pp. 148-50 he quotes Chris Hedges and Reza Aslan at great length talking about "fundamentalist" New Atheists, introducing those quotes in a way that is pretty clearly (at least to me) sympathetic, then just says that it's not exactly right to talk about fundamentalism in this context. But it's still "arrogance" and over-antagonism, according to Stedman, or to be fair he actually says "seeming arrogance and antagonism, and Hedges and Aslan make "cogent points" (page 150)about this. Note that Hedges and Aslan, and Stedman on page 150, are making their "cogent points" about Dawkins, etc., not about Myers. Even if that's not clear from the Hedges quotation itself, it's from Hedge's book, which is all about Dawkins, etc.

It's immediately after this passage, at the bottom of page 150, that Hedges turns briefly to Myers.

I'd say that it's pretty clear that Stedman is giving a general approval to the Hedges and Aslan quotes, even while saying they are not "exactly" (p. 149; Stedman's italics) right in that it's not strictly fundamentalism but (only!) Dawkins and the others behaving in a way that seems arrogant and antagonistic and produces unnecessary mutual hostility.

If I were Dawkins, or Harris, or whomever, I'd certainly think I'd been denounced.

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, and I see an ambiguity, or worse - one sentence in the OP is quite badly worded. Mea culpa.

I didn't mean to say that Stedman denounces Dennett and Dawkins and denounces Harris and Hitchens to a lesser extent. I'll make an edit.

It seems to me that he actually denounces the New Atheists pretty compendiously, e.g. by quoting from Hedge's book and in some of his more general complaints. I actually meant that this is less unfair to Harris and Hitchens, because I consider them to be more genuinely antagonistic in their approaches than Dennett and Dawkins are.

Ardent Skeptic - I can try removing that verification thingie and see what happens. It does have the benefit of keeping out spam, though, and I've picked up quite a bit of spam in the past. Can't promise that it'll stay off.

Jacques Rousseau said...

Thanks Russell. I see now that my comment could have been more helpful, in that the sections you highlight are the ones I was aware of, and I was wondering if you'd spotted more that I had missed. It seems that we instead interpret those differently.

Stedman refers to "new atheists", and one obvious reading of that is to think it refers to the "4 horsemen" (leaving aside the fact that they aren't at all equally antagonistic. On that, I agree entirely with you that Dennett & Dawkins are less so than Harris is and Hitchens was). A different sort of interpretation is that "new atheists" refers to the people that were inspired by the sudden increase in public chatter regarding atheism, led by those 4 (and others, of course).

It seems to me that more people - at least in the blogosphere - have adopted the Hitchens and Harris mold than the Dawkins and (especially) Dennett one. So I read Stedman as complaining about new atheism as the tone and style of engagement inspired by the more antagonistic elements of those initial figures, rather than it being a comment on those people as individuals.

On 2nd thoughts, I think your interpretation more likely, though.

Ardent Skeptic said...

The "4 Horseman" gained a reputation for not pulling their punches about religion, (including Dennett when he wrote his letter about people praying for him while he was recovering from heart trouble). Certainly people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have/had no use for the likes of Ray Comfort, Pat Robertson, Islam fundamentalists who issue fatwas, or young earth creationists who dismiss evolution as just a "theory". But, I don't think it's accurate to call them "fundamentalists" because it has a negative connotation of close-mindedness. Even Hitchens, who probably appeared to be the most strident among them, enjoyed debating Douglas Wilson because he appreciated Wilson's ability to give a cogent argument which was not easily dismissed, (unlike the kind of nonsense that one hears from the likes of Ray Comfort).

I don't think that some people have adopted the Hitchens and Harris model rather than the Dawkins and Dennett one. None of these four spews ugly vitriol about all religious people being morons. I have seen that accusation often enough in the atheist blogosphere. Unfortunately, what these gentleman have spawned is an atheist blogosphere with too many people who think they are behaving like the "4 Horseman" but who are apparently unaware that these gentleman do not make ugly generalizations about all religious people.

"The God Delusion" is a statement about an idea. It is not a statement about all the people who support that idea. The more vitriolic among us don't seem to make that distinction.

Thanks for temporarily removing the verification for commenting, Russell. I will understand if you need to reinstitute it if you start receiving lots of spam. And, just so you'll know - "Metamagician and The Hellfire Club" comes up as the first item in the google list when doing a search for your blog. With just "The Hellfire Club" as the name, your blog doesn't appear until the second page in a google search. I like the revamp but am concerned that you will receive less traffic as a result of the name change.

Russell Blackford said...

AS, thanks. Traffic is down quite a lot, but I think that's because many people sort of gave up on me after the crazy month of October when I did little blogging. Hopefully it'll pick up. I do think that the name change is best for the longer term, but we'll have to wait and see.

Sisyphos said...

Hi Russell,

Your comments are extremely helpful and clarify how you feel about Chris' book. I have interacted with Chris in the past and I he is very committed to being an atheist, but has no problem working with religious people and even partaking in religious events.

I read one of your other blog posts in where you said that Chris Stedman and other "Faitheists" think religion is a good thing. This is not the impression that I get from Chris. Chris thinks religion CAN be a good thing, just like there are religious people who think atheism CAN be a good thing. I think that recognizing the POTENTIAL value in a different ideology/world-view and thus respecting it (even if one disagrees with it) is the basis of civil dialogue.
The people who categorically denigrate atheism or religion, on the other hand, do not really foster a true dialogue.