The Alternatives to Confrontationalism

Chris Stedman has one of those posts up at The Huffington Post today. You know the sort: “But I’m the good kind of atheist. Not like them.”

The first “them” in this case is the set of the American Atheists No God Blog, PZ Myers, JT Eberhard, and Al Stefanelli. Their crime? Not mincing words in calling Islam particularly violent, cowardly, and misogynistic. The problem?

None of these are reasonable critiques of any specific Islamic beliefs. They are broad generalizations and they do nothing to further the discourse on ethics — atheistic or Islamic.

What Stedman cites as objectionable are (except for Stefanelli’s, which is in the middle of a post that cites relevant passages from the Koran, making it rather bizarre that Stedman would level that particular criticism at it) offhand remarks in blog posts about things like threatening the lives of cartoonists who have depicted Mohammed or condoning forced child marriage and rape. The actions being condemned are, in fact, spurred by specific beliefs with their basis in the Koran, even if the bloggers don’t stop to cite chapter and verse.

I’m not sure what Stedman thinks would be a “reasonable critique” of these situations that would “further the discourse on ethics.” Perhaps a nice roundtable discussion of the various accepted interpretations of the passages in question? We could have a fundamentalist representative or two, a few more liberal members who think this sort of behavior should be reserved for Allah only (who could argue amongst themselves whether it was also acceptable for the prophet or whether his flaws merely proved his humanity), and someone who insists it’s all poetry, highly suitable for meditation.

This is, of course, the problem with much of the accommodationist set. They purse up their lips and flutter their fingertips in the general direction of all that strife, but they never tell you what the alternatives are.

What people like Stedman like to tell you is that they are practicing outreach, furthering dialog, enhancing trust. That’s all well and good, if that’s your thing (I actually do a certain amount of it as well, though no one pays me for it). As far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere near problems more pressing than hurt feelings and bruised religious privilege.

Stedman has read the blog posts he cites, right? He knows that people are dying, that others are in hiding or pretending to be someone they’re not so they don’t die, that children are being mutilated and raped, that they’re being groomed for martyrdom instead of educated and employed–and that the authority conferred by Islam plays a huge part in making these intractable problems? He knows that most if not all of those things, plus a few special others, happen in places where Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism plays the role of the heavy instead?

He has to know this, if he allows himself to. So what is he offering in confrontation’s stead to deal with these problems?

If you look at the face he’s showing the religious, he’s offering nothing. There was the Common Ground Campaign, which has a dead Facebook page and website, just a few months after it started planning to set up a conference to brainstorm solutions to the problems of religious hatred.

We have problems. He doesn’t want confrontation. The alternative is passivity. The alternative is allowing the problems to go on without any kind of fight.

Of course, when you look at what he offers the atheist community in response to all these problems, he longer has nothing. For us, he has…criticisms that aren’t based in what we’re saying. In addition to the examples above, Stedman apparently needed to misrepresent Greta Christina’s post from yesterday on the diversity of goals within the atheist movement.

Furthermore, I disagree with Christina’s claim that “confrontationalism” is “the best strategy for achieving our other goals.” Focusing one’s activism on criticizing a caricature of religion does nothing to improve atheism’s image; in fact, it actively hampers attempts to improve the conditions of life for nonreligious people.

First off, that’s not at all what Greta said. But you could tell that from the fact that he had to put two quotes together to make his point, right? Here’s what she said about the “best strategy.”

But convincing the world that atheists are nice is not our main goal. Not for everyone. For many of us, getting legal rights for atheists and making sure they’re enforced — such as the right to organize high school groups, or the right to keep custody of our kids, or the right to not have religious ideas taught to our kids in public schools, or the right to be soldiers in the U.S. military and not have religion shoved down our throats — is our top priority… regardless of whether people think we’re nice along the way. And for many of us, persuading more people out of religion and into atheism is our top priority. We think that’s the best strategy for achieving our other goals. And we think it’s a hugely worthwhile goal just for its own sake.

Persuasion and confrontation are very different things, despite Stedman’s attempt to pretend his own confrontational message is aimed at us with love and reason. Nor can I think of any atheist activists who engage with only one facet of religion in their activism. Mondays may be for superstition, Tuesdays for dominionism, Wednesdays for misogyny, etc. While activists do usually focus on one aspect of religion at a time, that just makes them effective, albeit vulnerable to that “No True Muslim” argument of his.

So, when it comes right down to it, Chris Stedman is offering us two different alternatives to confrontation: passivity and some weird passive aggression with an honesty problem.

Either of those sound appealing to anyone out there?

The Alternatives to Confrontationalism

21 thoughts on “The Alternatives to Confrontationalism

  1. 1

    Has Chris Stedman ever provided a verse or accepted interpretation of any scripture that was, in his eyes, problematic?

    If he could I think that would help us all see eye to eye. I’m sure he’s a decent guy but that doesn’t make him right and that doesn’t mean he can’t be doing any harm. It’s perfectly possible to be the sweetest thing ever and still impede progress.

    Is this something Mr. Stedman would be up for? Criticizing an aspect of a religious texts or canon that’s problematic? Or has this already been done?

  2. 2

    Well I guess if I can choose only between those two, I’ll choose weird passive aggression, because that way at least I get to do aggression. It kills me though, because I really hate passive aggression.

  3. 4

    Judging by comments on the Facebook share of Chris’ posting, I’m getting the impression that part of the disconnect is that Chris is defining religion differently than others around FTB.

    It seems he’s saying that attacking verses in the holy books, or dogma of the Catholic Church, and so on, is attacking a caricature of religion. Because, for example, many Catholics don’t actually believe or support all the Church’s stances or the rules in the Bible. So, to continue the example, if we attack Catholicism for the Vatican saying homosexuality is evil, we’re unfairly attacking religion because of all those people who call themselves Catholic but don’t follow the Church’s position.

    I think that view is rather divorced from reality. As Sean Gillespie was explaining on that thread, that these Catholics don’t follow Church teachings makes them less Catholic rather than making the criticisms in to unfair attacks on people who call themselves Catholic.

  4. 5

    Because, for example, many Catholics don’t actually believe or support all the Church’s stances or the rules in the Bible.

    Pretty sure Julian Baggini recently bumped into some issues with that.

  5. 8

    I do agree with his criticism of Stefanelli who tends to make arguments amounting to Religion X’s scriptures say this, therefore all true adherents believe it. This seems to be engaging in a lot of question begging. I have no problem with criticizing scripture, but this argument is based on there being some correct form of a religion and him being the expert on what it is. I think this is ridiculous. Islam is whatever Muslims believe. Christianity is whatever Christians believe. If their beliefs seem to have been really based on convenience or politics rather than whatever they’re theoretically based on, point that out by all means, but don’t presume to tell anyone what they really believe or what they would believe if they were a real believer.

  6. 9

    danielrudolph, if Stefanelli does this routinely, surely Stedman could have found a post in which Stefanelli actually did that instead of specifically talking about the problem of fundamentalism?

    Ophelia, as a gnu, I’m not sure you’re allowed a choice. That makes it extra special that you’re getting the one you would choose on your own.

  7. 11

    Not all Christians accepted the Nicene Creed when it was written and not all do now, either. The ones that do accept it vary widely on its importance. It is not synonymous with Christianity.

  8. 15

    I’m guilty of being one of those atheists who doesn’t say a word or try to argue. I don’t announce my atheism either. I simply don’t believe and leave it at that.

    Why do I do this? Because I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to deconvert themselves. There’s enough information out there so I don’t have to add to it. I am glad for people like Greta Christina and the things she does along with all the other public atheists. I don’t have anything to add. However, I don’t deny my atheism either and people who know me know I am not religious, so, there’s that.

    My attitude is that if you want to believe that stuff, go right ahead. I won’t have much to do with you if you do but it’s your right to believe what you want and ignore the obvious. When you’re ready to step up and join reality, you’ll have to figure out how to do that on your own. There’s lots of information out there for you to help yourself. Don’t expect me to argue you out of your stupid beliefs. I’m too busy enjoying the life I have to argue an adult with a closed mind and it’s not my responsibility to deconvert you.

    Trust me, I was once convinced there was a God too and no one could have ever said anything that would have convinced me otherwise. But eventually I could not ignore reality any longer. Arguments didn’t work until I was able to face facts and stop relying on my “feelings” as proof.

    I do applaud all the public atheists though and I appreciate all their different approaches. If I can think of a unique approach, I may become one of them someday!

  9. 16


    It’s usually hard to tell what John Morales means

    I try not to be obscure! 🙂

    In this case, I mean that this Creed is recited (certainly) by every single Catholic who attends Mass, and I suspect by all other denominations that have it as dogma.

    (It’s pretty explicit)

  10. 17

    Furthermore, I disagree with Christina’s claim that “confrontationalism” is “the best strategy for achieving our other goals.”

    Whatever one thinks of confrontationalism vs. accomodationism or what have you, it’s just messed up that he could possibly respond to Greta Christina’s post with this sentence, since the primary thrust of her post was that maybe people like Chris Stedman have different goals than she does. Bah…

  11. 18

    I don’t see why anyone cares who is a true follower of religion X or not. If there is an aspect of a religion to criticise then criticise it. If you follow such a path rigorously and honestly then eventually there appears to me to be very little left for anyone to follow.

    Knock out the Nicene Creed, demonstrate the unreliability of the scriptures or the existence of JC, demonstrate that the authority of the Qur’an is bogus, what you are left with is people that may say “I want to believe this way anyway”. That’s fine, the wind is out of their sails and I don’t care what they think.

  12. Ben

    Is this really the dichotomy? Aggression or passivity? it seems like they are opposed, but it doesn’t seem like if you are not doing one then you are surely doing the other. Non-aggressive isn’t equal to passivity. If someone is acting in a manner that isn’t aggressive, this is open to any number of things. Thats just classic logic. Not A is everything that isn’t A, so it may or not be passivity. I don’t feel like this is all that strong of an issue.

    What is concerning to me, and i’ve read the both this article, the Greta, and Stedman article, is the issues of goals within the atheist movement. I think this is the bigger focus, as I think Stedman really tried to express it. Many atheists are opposed to religion, and wish for rights of themselves, but not are against people believing what they will. The way most people stand against belief is the consequences of the belief result in something horrible, and therefor wish to abolish the belief. Some may go further and say, atheists wish to do away with believing all together which is a point that cannot be well founded. Being human entails a natural tendency to belief in something, everyone does to a certain extent. Religion, god, or faith may not be a part of it. There are much simpler beliefs, such as human good, worries, hope, the future, luck, fate, trust, whether this career path, or this branch of science is the right choice. No atheist is interested in abolishing all things that require some amount of believe, or at least strange logic with inductive proofs. So the want to abolish religion, I think, is just a criticism on the results of a belief, and the parts of a belief. such as, i want you to believe in hope, but not hope for terrible things, nor do I wish for you to be inactive. I want you to strive for better, and hope that it will get better if you cannot know it will Religion is just an institution which can be thrown away or edited. So my point is, we do need a way to work out these goals together because we’re splitting our own atheism movement. I don’t really care if religion fades away, but I don’t want it prohibited. I would like to see the religions catch up to the ethical norms of society, but it doesn’t by necessity entail their suspension.

  13. 20

    Ben, theorizing on whether another response is possible is all well and good. It probably makes people feel great. In the meantime, the unearned authority conveyed by religion continues to do damage. So feel free to implement different responses to that problem, because I really don’t care whether you believe or not. I care about undermining the power that perpetuates the harm. Do you?

  14. 21

    Hi Stephanie,

    Just making “blog calls” prior to @scio12 to say Hi and give your blog a shoutout on twitter (I’m @sciencegoddess). You definitely have some thought and conversation provoking topics here on Almost Diamonds.

    I’ll see you in January!

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