Saturday, February 02, 2013

So, how good is #Faitheist? What’s it about?

Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry
If you’re not familiar with that name, it appears to have been something  largely developed by Chris Stedman, now the recently published author of a book by that name, which is what this blog post is all about.

First, some personal identification by me.

Regular readers of this blog, or at east the part of it that deals with religion, philosophy and metaphysics, know that I normally don’t have a lot of use for the New Atheist, or Gnu Atheist, “movement.” I've written about my issues with Gnus on many occasions, most recently here. I consider them too confrontational, for one thing. I consider them too … fundamentalist, to be wry, secondly. Third, unlike them, I have no desire to “evangelize” the religious, let alone conduct an intellectual browbeating quasi-jihad.

Well, that same angle is where Chris generally comes from.

That said, is Faithiest the book about branding Faithiest the idea as well as telling Stedman’s own quite interesting journey, which includes his gay sexuality and coming terms with that while spending part of his time growing up in a conservative evangelical church?

Well, two different reviews have two different takes. Which I will get to in just a bit, because, first, I'm going to give you my own answer, now that I've read the book myself.

Here's a list of observations, going generally in order of the book, but also somewhat, in the later ones, in order of imporance once I get to the meet of the book. First, those observations on the book, then the rest of my original post, followed by other, earlier updates at bottom.

1. He doesn't use the phrase, but Chris clearly was an "old soul" as a kid. I relate. He was also naive as a kid, at times, it seems. Maybe even clueless. I also relate.However, he also doesn't always seem aware of that in hindsight, which is a bit different, and relates to his joining that church. On the other hand, maybe he is aware of today. Maybe it's part of a persona. Yes, my thought is going more that way.

2. The first time he visited, he talks about how felt "moved" by the embrace from the "welcomer," and he later notes that was probably a budding gay sexuality issue. However, he never explicitly says that that was part of why he joined the church. Is this an ellipsis of deliberateness of some sort? Or has it not occurred to Chris?

3. He joined this church for community. Only later did social justice drives arise. Since he had gotten his mom more interested in church then, why didn't they go back to her family's Methodism? We're not given any story here. Nor, if we want to find out more, are we given the name of the presumably nondenominational conservative evangelical church.

4. His dad gets almost no mention. Yes, his parents divorced, but it seems Chris as at least 10 when that happened. What was, and is, their relationship? Good, bad, nonexistent? Simon Davis, in one of the longer reviews mentioned below, faults Chris for not telling how any of his academic religious background influenced him, as far as naming particular religious names, etc. I'll go further. I'll ding him for not discussing in any way relations with is dad. Per other comment by Davis, it makes the book more depersonalized. Sorry, Chris, and please, don't even give the "Minnesota nice" excuse as to why you didn't talk about him. 

5. Another family issue. If Chris had gotten his mom more involved at that conservative evangelical church, how did she know to have him talk to this particular liberal Lutheran minister immediately after she read his journal? Did she already suspect he was gay? Chris gives us no background.

6. This too, reflects an odd "depersonalization" of the book. None of his siblings are named. None of their reactions to his "journey" are related to us. For that matter, neither is his mom's reaction. The more and more I think about some of the "depersonalization" aspects of the book, not just vis-a-vis his family but primarily there (see blogger Davis' comments about Stedman seemingly so detached from his academic influences), I wound up dropping my Goodreads review rating by a star.

7. Was Chris really "that much" of an atheist in his early years after "coming out"? Several things in teh book tell me now. He says that, at the end of his undergrad time at Augsburg, he felt jealous of progressive theologians, and he felt angry that he couldn't be and believe the same. He went to a graduate divinity school. And, after getting to Chicago, he only discovers "atheist community" after a full year of active involvement with Interfaith Youth Core? (One great blog review, below, picks up on that.)

Chris, Minneapolis is a big and diverse enough place that, had you done some simple Googling, you surely could have found something there. Considering that "community" was the primary reason you joined that conservative evangelical church, I find another disconnect here, to put it a bit mildly. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you. And, related to that (and before any interaction with folks like American Atheists) we have:

8. A comment like this, page 130, my emphasis at end:
Anyone who looked remotely religious ... was given a suspicious sideways glance by my nonreligious friends as they went outside for their continual cigarette breaks.
Sorry, but I find that last clause gratuitous, and you're a good enough writer I can't quite believe that just somehow got there. I wouldn't quite call it snide, but it's gratuitous with baggage, let's say that.

9. Per the branding angle, I'm wondering if Davis isn't right about Chris' claim to be "fashionably underdressed" at the secularist event in Chicago in chapter 1 of the book. I see that claim to be possibly "branding" related, if it's not totally correct. As in, "Look at my, the green around the ears kid." Other parts of that incident are ... interesting, too. Chris never says why he took his shoes off when he entered the apartment hosting the post-event soiree, and if others did or not.

10. Per the branding angle, in another way. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you, at least not until after extensive involvement with Interfaith Youth Core; is there a marketing/branding related issue? This is about the time that Eboo Patel gets you on the Washington Post religion pages blogging, about the time Greg Epstein of Harvard gets in touch with you, etc.

Some of this may have been luck, fortuitous circumstances, etc. Some of it may have been a conscious decision, as in "I need to investigate atheism as community as part of my next steps and moves." But ... there's little discussion of that. (Yet another illustration of how the book is relatively "thin." Or, per the "story" issue below, of how the story telling is selective.)

11. Like Davis, below, Chris' use of the word "queer" is a bit interesting, especially in light of his criticizing Gnu Atheists for, among other things, being a bit too much in the faces of the religious. From what I know of the LGBT world, perhaps not to the same degree, but I think "queer" has a bit of that itself. It's interesting that he starts using the word in his story (go near the bottom for more of the "story" angle) just after accepting that he's gay, and disengaging from that conservative church.

12. Finally, there's the matter of luck, and hard work/drivenness. Chris merely hints at it, but, below his Minnesota Nice, there seems to be a Type A personality scrambling to climb ladders. There is also a definite bit of luck, like landing the position with Interfaith Youth Core, then having the likes of a Greg Epstein contact him back, after his Type A "push" started. This all ties in with the marketing/branding angle I see in the book.

At least one FB friend common to Chris and I probably won't like the review. But, it is what it is. And, with a strong marketing push for the book, and it getting a lot of attention in the atheist and skeptic blogosphere, and me having seen some of that (like the reviews below), it was going to get a close read from me. And, not just the book, but the Faitheist brand, and the brander, were going to get that close look too.

Beyond critiquing the book as it interacts with branding, and a particular way to do non-Gnu atheism, the "depersonalization" makes it not a very good memoir coming from wherever, whomever, for whatever reasons. If it didn't have the Faitheist angle, would it get any buzzplay at all?

Anyway, to other reviews, detailed below the fold (and yeah, I may post just book review comments separately, since this has become as much a review of Chris Stedman as of his book):

First, at Skepticblog, Daniel Loxton has a quite sympathetic review

Here’s the heart of Loxton’s review:
Like his other writing and interfaith work, Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue between people of faith and people who have none. Given the strong anti-theistic sentiments common currently in movement atheism and the atheist blogosphere, this has not too surprisingly made Stedman a somewhat controversial figure in atheist circles. Some place him as part of an established narrative—a proposed distinction between atheist “firebrands and diplomats.”

“We need both,” it is often said, “firebrands and diplomats.” Working together—the soft sell and the hard sell, the good cop and the bad—these complementary approaches may do more to bring down religion than either prong of the attack may accomplish on its own. “We’re all part of the same movement,” say these voices. “We all want the same thing.”

But that’s just it. We don’t all want the same thing.

The radical function of Stedman’s Faitheist is to underline that rarely-stated truth. Atheism is actually not a duopoly of firebrands and diplomats. These two types of evangelists no more describe “both kinds” of atheist than “country and western” describes “both kinds” of music.

Stedman explicitly rejects “the demise of religion” as a goal he does not share, and rejects the firebrands versus diplomats dichotomy as well. “I believe how pushy should we be? is the wrong question,” he writes. The better question is how do we make the world a better place?
I would agree with all of that, with one notable exception against that is to Loxton’s one claim.

I’m not any kind of atheist evangelist myself, whether a firebrand or a diplomat. Now, if Stedman is (I don’t know about Loxton) then I part company with him there, and if “Faitheist” is part of a soft sell version of atheist evangelism, no. And, per Zack Alexander below, that's a third way to do interfaith outreach. It's not to try to subtly convert the faithful from inside their tradition, nor to ecumenical with people of faith for ecumenism's sake. It's to work with them the amount necessary to achieve commonly perceived goals, and no more.

So, I'm not an atheist evangelist. Instead, like Garbo, respect my boundaries, both as an individual and as a member of society (no creationism in public schools, etc.) and I otherwise want to be left alone, and leave you alone, too.

Meanwhile, Simon Davis, guest-blogging at FreethoughtBlogs, the ground zero of Gnu Atheist bloggers, has a different take — one more critical, but not stridently so.

Davis first says he thinks Stedman overdramatized his encounter with an atheist group in Chicago.
The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.
Interesting, to say the least. And, per my comment above about Chris noting atheists' constant need to smoke, maybe there is a bit of fire behind both literal and metaphorical smoke.

Second, Davis points out a little bit of elision Stedman does of a famous Carl Sagan quote, while noting that the version he has, or similar, has floated around the Internet.

Ditto on this Sartre quote Stedman uses:
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”
Several commenters, including one French-fluent, say Sartre never said this. In fact, one calls it Stedman’s wish-fulfillment:
I think this is a key to Stedman’s thinking. My armchair psychoanalysis is he has a god-shaped hole in his psyche which he’d like to fill but can’t because he intellectually rejects gods. Religion is emotionally satisfying for him but intellectually without basis. Hence his interfaith work and his criticisms of anti-theist atheists like PZ Myers and the other gnu atheists. We reject the totality of religion while he embraces the emotional (and possibly the social) aspects. He likes religion (except for the god parts) so he’s angry at those who don’t like it.
I think that’s over the top. I like certain things about religion, and, in non-fundamentalist incarnations, don’t come close to hating it. On the other hand, again per Zack Alexander below, if Chris doesn't really align with core values of atheism, or of skepticism, then maybe it's partially true.

At the same time, do I wish that at least some of the metaphysical promises, or even the psychological ones, of religion actually were true? Yes, yes, and yes.

An atheist who claims with a straight face not to have any such yearnings is a Gnu Atheist squared. Or has smoked too much college pot while reading "Invictus" one too many times.

Anyway, what spurred Davis was this post by Stedman at Salon, an excerpt from the book. Read it for yourself.

The one other important part, related to Davis, is where the word “faitheist” comes from, and per this post here, whether there is some “branding” by Stedman afoot.

My final takeaway from Davis is that Stedman, according to him, doesn’t actually personalize the book as much as he could. For example, Davis said he’d like to hear more of how Paul Kurtz influenced him. Ditto here. And other influences. 

There's other things giving some ammunition in support of Davis and commenters there that Stedman is in a journey that is still very much in media res?

First, his own history. Per Davis, from the book:
In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. … After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.

He then attends a (sic) Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.

Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir.
That is quite a journey, and as with humanism, if Davis is right, the book is poorer indeed for Stedman not showing more of the influences on him.

Zack Alexander, like me, wonders just how committed Stedman is to the core values of atheism and skepticism. That starts here:
Yet there is a persistent sense that Chris, if not quite an alien from outer space, is still not one of us. That there is not just a difference of opinion, but a deeper disjunct in values, or experiences of reality, which no one can quite put their finger on. It is telling that Chris does not merely disagree with his critics; he is shocked by them (5). And that we, his critics, do not merely disagree with some of his statements; we are flabbergasted by them.
Alexander seems, perhaps unconsciously on his part, to also reflect the "depersonalization" disconnect the book has. He also could, but doesn't, note that Chris lets much of the "shocked" be communicated through surrogates. He does, though, pick up the "disconnect" idea and then takes that thought here:
The source of the alienness felt between Chris and much of the atheist community, myself included, is this: he 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.
Well put. And continuing:
In passage after passage, he rightly preaches compassion and decries injustice, but is conspicuously silent on reason. ... He minimizes belief in the afterlife as “benign” (24). He voices no epistemic discomfort with several factually unsupportable statements thrust upon him by religious leaders as a child (38, 57-58). He talks about children “losing or changing their faith” almost as though this were a bad thing (128).
Bluntly, I'll explain this in terms of his "target audience" for his marketing. Sorry, Barbara Drescher, but reading Zach has now firmly convinced me of that. Chris' target audience is his fellow "Minnesota nice" religious Lutherans and similar. And that's why he was so angry, earlier. Since he doesn't highly value rationalism, it seems, what DID lead him to atheism? He does talk about his decision in rational terms, but again, oh so briefly. Sorry, Simon Davis, in comments, but that might be another way in which you're too charitable. He says he struggled rationally over the issue, but, once again, provides no details! Zip. Zilch. Nada.

This comment by Alexander (his emphasis) also goes to the issue of "target audience":
It explains the single most baffling, dumbfounding fact about the book. 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. No, really – when I realized the full extent of this, I sat dumbstruck
Boom. Target audience.

It also, again, could be an eyebrow-raiser as to the purposes of the book.

One other thing, also per Alexander. We who are both atheist and humanist, who don't demonize religion and don't have a lot of use for Gnus, don't need to put all our marketing/image/outreach eggs in one basket. Mr. Alexander, himself, sounds like he's done some "lifting" while being both atheist and inside his original religious tradition of Quakerism, for example.

Others will work with the religious at least on church-state issues while remaining fully atheist and fully skeptical. (And, while there are plenty of pseudoskeptics out there, there are plenty of good, real ones too.)

OK, after that looong "first," I do have other enumerated sections of comment.

Second, the book is only 208 191 pages, and just 180 of actual text. (The 208 is per Amazon; oops!)

Third, Stedman’s a … young pup! He was only 24 when he wrote the book. And, per a NYT column, my personal take on life, etc., if you're going to write a memoir before you're 25, it had better be worth it. And, this isn't. Not to diminish his childhood, or what bits and pieces he tells us, but he seems to have experienced  a decent, sometimes bumpy, but generally Minnesota nice childhood with the twist of coming out of the gay closet. Even that seems to have been only moderately bumpy.

Fourth, we have the example, recently, of a Harvard student, one who had gained some prominence among young atheists, deciding she was no longer an atheist and instead becoming some sort of fideist Catholic.

Now, I’ll admit that, like with John Loftus, I may have a twinge or two of jealousy over Stedman. I’ll also admit that I’ve not read the book yet, but that I think Chris is a decent guy personally, and that he’s a Facebook friend.

That all said, because of my three caveats above, I’ll say that Davis probably, at least, isn’t all wrong in his review. Stedman may be dramatizing his journey a bit. And, there may be some “branding” behind that move.

I mean, his brief mini-bio on Amazon hints at why he might want to do that:
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. He lives in Boston.
Let’s be honest. That’s heady stuff for a 24-year-old who might well be more ambitious than he lets on in polite company. Especially when he was writing for the On Faith blog back at least at 2009.

For more about his thought in general, here’s Stedman’s blog.

For the book’s website, including a biographical page, go here. There’s more biography at his CFI page.

Anyway, I am, as of this time, still of multiple mindsets about the book. It sounds interesting. But, while Davis cuts too hard, maybe it’s not as deep as it could be. And, per myself, maybe it is a “branding” book. He is a definite high achiever, at least so far in his life.

General update: Per Barbara Drescher, I've updated the first graf to reflect that Chris didn't invent the word “faitheist.” My update reflects that he is, IMO, though, someone who has done a lot of “running with” with the idea and the word, or “branding,” if you will.

More thoughts, and updates, below the fold: 

Steadman responds to some concerns of some Gnu Atheists with a guest post at Friendly Atheist. I think he at least partially addresses the anti-Gnu issues that Davis raised, and may have been gnat-mining or nit-picking to find, per this original post and Barbara's comment

If I can get my hands on it, I'll see if my other concerns are addressed, along with the others raised by Davis, namely, if he fails to personalize this memoir enough, etc. I've posted a comment on his Friendly Atheist post as well as his FB feed where he announced this post. Stay tuned.

Running update thread. Four hours later, Chris hasn't responded to my comments. At the same time, most of the Gnu Atheist respondents to his post are not reading him, deliberately misreading him, or both. Some of them do have a point that Chris may be too charitable to non-fundamentalists for not calling out fundamentalists more. At the same time, I think many of the commenters show that he's also too charitable to too many Gnus.

Per his musings here, it seems that Steadman's family of origin moved quickly past conservative evangelicalism, as far as how religious they really were, if Santa, not Jesus was normally the center of the holiday. Between this and my comments dialogue with Simon Davis, I'd say that Davis may just be a bit of a gnat-strainer at times. At the same time, I think, per Steadman's background influences, Chris' blog post indicates Simon raises some interesting questions.

One particular thing I find interesting that Davis missed noticing and I did just now ... Chris claims he joined an evangelical church because he was interested in social justice. However, he says he came from UU background, and any liberal who knows anything about American religion knows that Unitarians are quite, quite active in social justice. So, something just doesn't quite square up, although it is possible Chris was at a "bad" UU congregation.

This  part of the mystery deepens with a review of the book by Utne Reader. I am assuming the review is quoting the book when it says he:
(W)anted ... a framework for making sense of injustice and suffering.
That's a bit different than wanting social justice. There, a UU church would make more sense. Wanting a black-and-white, just-so story theodicy, yes, a conservative evangelical church would make more sense.

OK, in this op-ed in the Advocate, extracted from the book, Chris said he had joined the evangelical church at the encouragement of friends and because he was looking for some sort of "home" as his parents' marriage foundered. Makes sense; our childhood peer-friends can have strong influences. But, how much sense it makes, given that he doesn't talk more about his childhood, I don't know.

He then says he considered suicide, after this church told him being gay was unacceptable. His mother eventually found his journal, told him she loved him unconditionally, then got him to another minister who said god felt the same.

Some questions answered, others remain.

Could Steadman not have gone back to UUs rather than atheism? Did he not ask theodicy-related questions in the first place?  

And, Drick Boyd, in yet another blog, says this: 
What I appreciated most about this book was Stedman’s insistence on the power of one’s personal story. 
Indeed, it would not surprise me if I were to hear in a decade from now that Steadman had become a Buddhist. Or reidentified as an "agnostic" or a "None." Nor would it surprise me if he took the "faitheist" idea in new directions, including marketing and branding ones. I could mention one, if he became an agnostic, but, it might sound crude and bigoted coming from a straight person, though some gays embrace the root word.  Anyway, it will be in part about his life as "story," which also is the reason the idea of twentysomethings writing memoirs doesn't really float my boat.

So, to me the "spiritual move" possibility comes from a mix of his age and his apparent impressionability I note above. I am also wondering how impressionable he is, or was.

And, per my comment about the former atheist student from Harvard, Steadman strikes me as being a bit of a seeker, if you will, maybe even the type of person St. Augustine had in mind when talking about restless hearts staying restless until finding rest in god. Of course, America is full of "seekerism." It's part of the American cultural DNA, I think, with a nod to Tocqueville.
I'm also a bit disappointed that Steadman never responded to my FB comment on a post of his, asking for enlightenment on a couple of these questions. Also a bit disappointed that he never responded to any of the more enlightened comments on the Friendly Atheist post. That said, per comments on Davis' post by people like FB friend Kris Wager, I'm realizing this is normal ... ignoring criticism and critiques until, when deemed necessary, letting special "others" do the lifting for him. He does seem to have plenty of time to update his own website for the book with all the encomia he and it are getting. That said, I don't think he answered all of Davis' questions, either, so I'm not alone.
At the same time, contra the "accommodationist" label that some Gnu Atheists like to throw around, as he (and others) show regarding Kyrsten Sinema, he's not afraid to stand up for atheism, either, it seems. Or, per Zack Alexander, he's making sure to keep good branding on both sides of the aisle.

Anyway, I've read the book ... and, as I said, found it oddly depersonalized and disconnected. If that, too, is a branding decision, it's sad. If that reflects childhood issues he hasn't (and won't?) discuss, that's sad in another way. Were this a dissertation for a Ph.D. at Mead-Lombard, it would very possibly get an "incomplete" grade.

(Note: For readers of my primary blog, this is reposted from there.)

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