Faitheist, heal thyself

I should be a poster-boy for Chris Stedman’s vision of atheist-religious dialogue. So why am I so disappointed by his book?

From the moment I heard the title of Chris Stedman’s new book about a year ago – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious – I’ve been cautiously intrigued.

Because for the six years I’ve identified as an atheist, I’ve been doing just that – working with evangelical Christians to advance LGBTQ inclusion, and working for atheist acceptance in more liberal religious circles. I think many aspects of religion are worth adapting for secular purposes, and that religious people (if not necessarily their beliefs) deserve kindness and respect as fellow human beings. These are controversial opinions in parts of the atheist community, and I was looking forward to a book making a case for them.

But the term “faitheist” made me cringe. And worry that Chris was somehow taking a good thing too far. To draw a political analogy, I think there are times for bipartisanship, but I would recoil from a book titled Republocrat, however well-intentioned.

And Faitheist exceeds both of these mixed expectations. It’s even better than I anticipated – and worse than I imagined.

The book

In it, Chris tells a compelling, moving story about finding religion as a child and losing it as a young adult, interwoven with his coming of age as a queer male. The recurring themes are his longing for community, his passion for social justice, and his call to the secular community to engage the religious with respect rather than scorn. I came away from the book (and the launch event) with the sense that he’s a person of courage and tremendous compassion.

Here are its most persuasive messages: (i) we should collaborate with religious people to achieve shared goals, and (ii) we should be more respectful of the religious to accelerate our acceptance into the mainstream and grow our numbers. And beyond that, it so drips with peace, love, and understanding that you can’t help coming away with an enhanced feeling of engagement and respectfulness purely on their own terms.

This is a hard sell for atheist audiences. But with the right caveats and qualifications (see below), I think these are incredibly important points, and that this is an important book for raising them.

And I wish I could stop there. As a memoir, I love this book. But it’s not really a memoir, despite being marketed as one – it’s narrative nonfiction, meaning, a book whose story serves to advance an argument. And when Chris strays from his story (chs. 2-6) to make more universal claims (chs. 1, 7, and 8), sometimes he gets himself into trouble.

What kind of trouble?

The most obvious problem is that even as Chris extolls the virtues of religious pluralism, he delivers an anti-pluralist message to his fellow atheists. Not content to merely do his own work, inviting like-minded people to join him, he expects the entire herd of cats to conform to his particular temperament and interests. Rather than increasing the breadth of the movement with his unique voice, he wishes to narrow it.

Second, even as he preaches respect, he casts aspersions on the so-called New Atheism, calling it “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful” (14). This is a curious way to call for more civility. And it betrays what, on closer inspection, seems to be a rather shallow appreciation for some of the dangers of religion – dangers that arguably justify much of the sharper New Atheist rhetoric.

In short, the central irony of the book is that the person who hopes to inspire atheists towards greater respect of religious diversity is disrespectful of the diversity in his own community.

And when you flesh out this picture with several astoundingly tone-deaf statements, risibly bad arguments, and signs of incipient narcissism, the result is tragic – a book whose narrative and core messages are pure gold, delivered in a manner that virtually guarantees their widespread rejection.

It’s not entirely surprising, then, that Chris’s reception in much of the atheist community is perfectly captured by a certain classic scene from The Simpsons.

The mystery

In an episode from season 8, the residents of Springfield are huddled on the edge of a forest, waiting in the twilight for an alleged alien that Homer had previously sighted there. Suddenly – a pale, slender, luminous figure emerges from the trees, and says in a soft, mellifluous voice:

“I bring you….. LOVE!”

The response: “It’s bringing love, don’t let it get away!” “Break its legs!”

And shamefully, some attacks on Chris are almost this unhinged – and of the calmer ones, many lack a careful reading of his actual words, as has been argued by my friend James Croft. (Who, incidentally, I was looking forward to appearing in the buff with, before the Secular Woman calendar was cancelled.) I don’t agree with James on every point – he’s too hard on Larry Moran, for example, and in general I think he reads Chris a bit more charitably, and his critics a bit less, than he would if they weren’t friends. But on the whole, he is right that there’s a concerning pattern of anti-Stedman criticism untethered from Chris’s actual words. Which reflects poorly on a movement that claims to value evidence-based reasoning.

So, to set the record straight: yes, Chris really is an atheist. No, he doesn’t think atheists should completely shut up. And yes, he really does criticize religion.

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.

Or at least, I was – until something dawned on me while reading the book last weekend. It’s a fundamental difference between Chris and the mainstream of the community that I don’t think anyone has fully grasped – perhaps not even Chris himself. And it illuminates the entire picture I’ve drawn so far.

But before we get into the philosophical weeds, I want to show you what is so important and valuable about Chris’s message – not by merely summarizing it, but by sharing experiences of my own that confirm it.

Let me tell you two stories.

Common ground

Like Chris, my college years were dominated by a long, tortuous process of losing my evangelical faith. I stopped believing in God sometime in 2006, my last year at Gordon, the Christian liberal arts college north of Boston. The day I graduated, I tied my college ID to a rock and threw it into the Annisquam River. And I wanted nothing to do with Christianity after that.

But as time passed, I was reminded of the plight of students at Gordon and other Christian colleges who feel oppressed in the same ways I did – for not being straight enough, Christian enough, or both.

And the following year, I and two friends who were still students did something that had never been done at Gordon – we published a booklet of anonymous stories from necessarily closeted LGBTQ students, effectively giving a megaphone to people who were all but voiceless on campus before. A few years later, I helped then-current students publish further issues, including one this past spring – this time with stories from closeted atheists, agnostics, and doubters.

And the impact on the campus has been profound. Many straight students reading the first issue were consumed with remorse, recognizing in a deeper way the humanity of their queer classmates, and the pain their homophobia was causing them. At the launch of the most recent issue, one student approached me in tears, unable to find any words beyond thank you. I don’t know what her exact situation is. But I think I know how she feels, as a free-thinking person trying to survive in a stiflingly religious environment. And I’m so, so grateful we were able to make a difference for her, and others like her.

None of which may have happened had I been allergic to any engagement with any religious institution, or unwilling to collaborate with religious people of good will. My cofounders, for example, are both Christians; I presume most of the student editors since then are as well.

Equally important, the publication’s editorial tone has been consistently respectful – not haranguing the administration for being homophobic (even though it arguably is) or vilifying the students for being intolerant of nonbelievers (even though many of them are). Why? Because that would accomplish very little, beyond gratifying our sense of moral indignation. Our goal has been to increase the quality of life of marginalized students – and in this case, we think the best way to accomplish that is not pouring vitriol upon people, but appealing to the better angels of their nature.

It was in precisely that spirit that I wrote the most recent issue’s closing essay (which Chris highly praised), calling for the college to be more accepting of nonbelievers, in gentle prose more full of Biblical allusions than a Left Behind novel. Believe me – every Hitch-loving bone in my body wanted to let loose, and write a scathing indictment of the college’s unjust, discriminatory policies, and their absurd, mythological worldview. And there is a time and place for that critique. But there are also times and places for moderation, for seeking common ground instead of burning bridges. And this is one of them.

Because even though Gordon remains staunchly evangelical, I know firsthand that there are good, decent people among the faculty and administration, who don’t want any of their students feeling marginalized and persecuted. That, for what it’s worth, is meaningful common ground.

Does this mean every atheist needs to do this kind of work? Of course not. To each their own. But it’s tremendously important that some of us do it – and that we aren’t dismissed as fakes for our trouble.

Acceptance & growth

Meanwhile, in Indiana – the tables were turning.

It was the spring of 2008, and I was in the last place you’d expect to find an atheist: at a Christian seminary in the Midwest, for a conference of young adult members of the Religious Society of Friends (better known as Quakers). A woman from the more traditionalist wing of the Society – I’ll call her Emmylou – was speaking. And she seemed more nervous than I was.

“I know many people have done hurtful things in the name of Christ,” Emmylou said, her voice wavering, “but please, don’t reject Jesus entirely just because of them.”

Why would a Christian at a religious conference in a seminary be nervous talking about Jesus? Because Quakers are one of the most free-thinking religious communities in existence. Quakerism has evolved in many quarters to be a bit like Zen: a set of values, practices, and philosophies that, though rooted in a historical religious tradition, are compatible with a diverse range of beliefs – atheism included. Which was why I had come to the conference – to ensure there was a godless perspective at the table. My presence, and the presence of other non-Christians, was what what made Emmylou anxious.

She was afraid of offending us.

It wasn’t always this way: in 1994, my friend Robin Alpern, one of the pioneers of nontheism among Quakers, was expelled from her community in upstate New York after disclosing her unbelief. Ten years later, it was still a hotly contested topic. But thanks to the combined efforts of the little fellowship of nontheistic Quakers, by 2008 it was becoming normalized. At the conference, my breakout session on theism and atheism was the most well-attended of all of them – and free of major controversy.

Think about that for a moment. This is an incredible slam dunk – a resounding success for one of the major goals of the organized atheist movement, atheist acceptance. And yet, I know some readers are squirming, because this happened within a religious community rather than without.

But rational progress takes place on multiple fronts: not just when people leave religion, but also when religious institutions and people themselves become more humane and reasonable. (And secular ones, for that matter.) Both are important – I am gladdened not only by the news that record numbers of Americans are nonreligious, but also the news that the Episcopal Church is slowly coming to support gay marriage and transgender inclusion, and that the Catholic Church has become ever-so-slightly less batshit insane on condom use.

If you still aren’t convinced, consider the concept of harm reduction in public health. Given that opiate addiction will not be eliminated overnight, it is prudent to give addicts access to clean needles, lest they catch or transmit diseases, further harming themselves and society at large. Given that religion will be with us for the foreseeable future, it is worthwhile to work with – even within – religious communities to rein in their tendencies towards tribalism, xenophobia, and irrationality, support their more positive traits, and show them that atheists are good, normal people.

And while Chris won’t be crazy about that analogy, these are essentially two of the main points from his final chapter – that engagement with “pluralistic religious communities” is one of the best ways to combat religious extremism (167), and that “respectful relationships we establish with religious communities” will help us improve the popular image of atheists (170).

Does that mean every atheist need engage their local church or mosque, in patient, gentle, sometimes aneurysm-inducingly frustrating dialogue? Of course not. Different strokes for different folks. But if you already have a meaningful relationship with a religious community, and you’re a bit of a masochist, the nobler course is probably to remain in conversation rather than cut ties.

In that spirit, instead of leaving my religious community when I became an atheist, I cheerfully afflicted it. I hosted discussions on atheism at the regional and national conferences. I co-facilitated a three-day retreat at one of our retreat centers. And I ran what for a couple years was the flagship atheist Quaker blog (now offline), battling more conservative bloggers who wished we would just go away. And a long line of nontheistic Quakers before and after me have done similar work.

And what have we accomplished?

Drastically increasing the visibility, acceptance, and reputation of atheists in our corners of the world.

Demonstrating to closeted atheists that they can be honest about their beliefs.

Encouraging moderate theists and fence-sitting agnostic types to examine their beliefs.

This deserves being unpacked. How often do religious people ask atheists, with total sincerity, to talk about their atheism, and listen attentively? Almost never. But when you do what Chris and I are talking about, all the time. He is worth quoting at length here:

“Whether engaging Christians around my negative experiences as a former evangelical and a queer person, or challenging my religious peers to explain their beliefs rationally, I’ve found interfaith work to not only be a fruitful place for such conversations but, in fact, the ideal forum for it. I can fondly recall any number of incidents when I argued theology and philosophy with religious colleagues while doing interfaith work and now, later, they told me that they actually took my perspective seriously because we had built a trusting relationship. It made all the difference that I treated them as intellectual equals – as people with respectable goals rather than just mindless adherents of some stupid religion. They had heard positions similar to mine in the past from other atheists, but the arguments had been presented so disrespectfully that they made no impact, and in some cases closed my religious colleagues to even entertaining such ideas.” (173-174)

Showing atheist and agnostic youth that they don’t have to choose between their community and their convictions.

This is important. This is part of why I occasionally volunteer for a regional Quaker retreat program for high schoolers – not to influence their beliefs, but to support the ones who are already atheistic, by showing them that their community has a place for them too, if they want it.

Diversifying the range of environments where it’s safe to be godless.

This is huge. Not everyone is attracted to atheist conferences and brunches. Some people want a nonreligious place to talk about ethics and other issues in an intimate setting – hence things like the Humanist Small Group. Some want a secular place to send their kids for moral education and socialization – hence the Harvard Humanist Learning Lab. Some want a nonreligious place to meditate – for which reason I founded the Harvard Humanist Mindfulness Group, inspired by Sam Harris. All of this increases the size and complexity of the secular ecosystem, and makes it a more attractive place for increasing numbers and types of people.

And some people (many of them former hippies) want the particular tenor of ethical and contemplative community that Quakers have always offered, without having to check their rational convictions at the door. And increasingly, they can.

But only because we have been respectful, patient, and friendly in advocating for our beliefs and our inclusion. [1]

On the last night of the conference, I stopped by the bonfire to say my goodbyes. “Hey, I’m heading out,” I said to Emmylou, arms out for a hug. “It was good to see you again.”

She looked alarmed, as if braced for an insult – then relieved. “I really appreciate you being friendly to me,” she said, “even though I know we disagree about spiritual things.”

And that was a profound moment for both of us.

But does this mean every atheist, skeptic, freethinker, humanist, naturalist, pastafarian, and otherwise godless person on the planet must go and do likewise, hugging believers around bonfires like Chris and I do? Of course not. We can argue that this kind of engagement has value. We can testify that it can be rewarding, moving, healing, and transformative, for all parties involved. We can tell you our stories and hope they inspire you. And we can – and I hereby do – invite you to join us.

But I know that many of you won’t. It’s just not your style. Or your priorities lie elsewhere. As Cat Stevens might have said, there’s a million ways to be godless – so if you want to be Chris, be Chris, and if you want to be PZ, be PZ. (Cue photoshop of their heads on Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon’s bodies)

But strangely, Chris is unwilling to be so generous. And I think I’ve figured out why.

The post-truth atheist

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.

It’s easy to miss, because he pays just enough homage to these values to pass under the radar. But once you see it, it’s unmistakeable.

I first noticed it in chapter 7, where he considers Greta Christina’s influential 2011 blog post on the goals on the atheist movement. He disputes that the demise of religion should be among them, because religion itself isn’t so much the problem as the specific negative traits it is prone to. Which, so far as it goes, is a sensible attitude to take.

But all the negative traits he lists – “tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism” (153) – are offenses against social justice. Absent are epistemic vices that roll easily off the tongues of many atheists: superstition, dogmatism, wishful thinking, incuriosity, hostility to free inquiry, and so on.

Nor is this an isolated example. In passage after passage, he rightly preaches compassion and decries injustice, but is conspicuously silent on reason. He owns up to religious “atrocities” and “conflicts” – but not the absurdities that facilitate both (8). He desires a world in which “suffering and oppression” have been eliminated – but not ignorance or superstition (11). He faults some religious beliefs for being “dehumanizing” or “intolerant” – but not for being false (84, 154). He seeks to make society “more cooperative and less conflict-oriented” – but not more evidence-based (115). His mission is to “advance equality and justice” – but not rationality or free inquiry (158).

To be fair, in a handful of places he does both, for example, saying he works not just for compassion and pluralism but also “critical thinking” and “education” (153). But “critical thinking,” which he praises elsewhere as well (150, 172), is a rather flimsy substitute for the full panoply of epistemic virtues – in the same way that “niceness” is a poor substitute for compassion and justice. Only twice does he mention rationality in a positive light – once in the extended passage quoted above, and once where he is not really speaking for himself, but describing the aims of the humanist movement (“making the world a better, more rational place”, 148).

And there is one chapter that, on the surface, breaks this pattern – chapter 6, on his deconversion in college. He writes of losing his faith through “careful thought and investigation”, “intellectual and personal consideration”, and because he was “underwhelmed by the evidence.” (82-84) And there are two paragraphs about chance and meaning which could’ve been written by a younger Sam Harris (93). But on the whole, a celebration of reason this is not. He clings to the bitter end, grasping at an array of muddled, emotional pseudo-arguments in a desperate attempt to retain some shred of his faith (e.g. 101-102), turning bitter when he ultimately fails (102-105) – and I can sympathize, because my own deconversion was just like this. My point is not to fault him for it; it’s to point out that those of us with a passion for epistemic values will find little in that department to resonate with in this chapter. [2]

But still more revealing are the passages where he is silent about irrationality, or defends it. 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). And most obviously, throughout the book he casts “faith” – belief in the absence of evidence, and religion that depends upon it – in neutral to favorable terms.

In sum, Chris does not merely have a different take on religion – much more deeply, he seems to only superficially share the epistemic values that are important to most people in the atheist and humanist [3] movements, and central for many of them. In this he is like a restaurant critic who is mostly indifferent to the quality of food. He may indeed have a column, and indeed go to restaurants, and indeed write reviews about their ambiance and service, which are indeed important. But few of his peers would fully resonate with his opinions. And if he began a quixotic campaign to moderate their negative reviews – because no chef should be belittled merely for their food – they could be forgiven for responding with bemusement, annoyance, and even scorn. Because really, what right does a culinary know-nothing have to lecture others on how to talk about food?

Now, perhaps I’m mistaken here. Perhaps I missed a blog post where Chris explains how he does, in fact, care about all these things. But until I see him wax poetic about the scientific method, or exhibit some passion for the theory of evolution, or at least confess his abiding love for Star Trek: The Next Generation – color me skeptical. I’m not asking him to be Neil deGrasse Tyson. I just fail to see how someone who gives half a fig for truth or knowledge or discovery could be asked to share his perspective about the origin of the universe, by a sincerely interested Christian in a friendly conversation, and deflect the question entirely as irrelevant (157). Say what you will about the Christian – but at least he’s not incurious.

And this disjunct in values clarifies virtually everything puzzling and maddening about the book.

Faitheism explained

It explains why he is so easy on religion, giving equal weight to its positive and negative contributions (4). Looking narrowly at matters of justice, this is not entirely unreasonable; for every Torquemada, there is a Gandhi – as well as a Robespierre. But when you broaden your view to include matters of the mind, the case becomes more lopsided; few institutions in history, and fewer still in modern times, are as guilty as religious ones of promoting ignorance, superstition, and dogmatism, and thwarting scientific progress.

It explains why he is so hypocritcal about pluralism and respect – he simply does not see much value in the epistemic goals of the “New Atheists,” seeing only the hurt feelings they cause, and the interfaith work they could be doing instead. Granted, if Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were going around offending people for no higher purpose, Chris would be right to call their work “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.” But they aren’t. And he isn’t.

It explains how he could be so deeply offensive as to compare antireligious atheists to fundamentalists (149-150). If interpersonal harmony is the only dimension of experience you care about, there are indeed many similarities between the two, and their main difference is merely their degree of intolerance (150). But this amounts to a Colbertian, post-truth epistemology, according to which a fierce defense of scientific cosmology (say) and a fierce defense of Canaanite creation myths are equivalent, notable only for their stridency. If he cannot acknowledge that these are in a very real sense worlds apart, and find more productive ways of criticizing excesses of certitude – well, he might as well start conflating Red Sox and Yankees fans, or climate scientists and climate change deniers, or Persians and Arabs. And see if they respond any better to his message of love.

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, staring at the page like it was the monolith at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Chris, are you kidding me? It’s like inviting bank robbers to a police convention – without making even a half-hearted attempt to make it more appealing by calling it a “bank robber/police convention.” And it’s not like it would’ve been difficult to perform a find/replace with “interfaith” and “secular-interfaith” in his manuscript. And it’s not like people haven’t been telling him this. Yet somehow, he seems wholly uncomprehending of just how big a nonstarter this is (174). But it makes total sense. Because to him, “faith” is as benign as your choice of shoes. What’s the big deal?

And it explains why some of his arguments are just so appallingly bad. In the final two chapters, at times I felt like I was a TA again, grading a third-rate undergraduate philosophy essay. I don’t mean to say Chris is unintelligent – only that it is abundantly clear he is not intellectually exerting himself when he writes a sentence like the following (emphasis mine):

Until those of us who do not believe in God are seen as having an equal capacity to be moral, anti-atheist remarks will continue to perpetuate discrimination and atheists will be seen as less moral than the religious.” (152)

In related news, until the sun comes up, it will be down; and if you only have three oranges, you don’t have four. I would gracefully overlook this, had he written an authentic memoir from his own experience and been content with that. But if he’s dying to make sweeping normative claims, throw bombs at people he disagrees with, and be taken seriously in the process, I recommend he first master the skill of stringing words together into meaningful sentences.

And considering this gulf of difference, and all of the above problems it causes, and the fact that Chris, while preaching his message of listening, does not seem to have been listening to his own community well enough to avoid at least a few of them, yet still has the hubris to compare himself to Moses (131) – I cannot believe I have to write that – frankly, I find myself beginning to sympathize with even his most immoderate critics.

But in the end, I don’t.

Conclusion

Because there are many kinds of people in this world, and different people are naturally attuned to different dimensions of experience. Chris’s attunement to matters of the heart is impressive, and I wish I had half of it. My friend Ben has a limited sense for visual aesthetics, and often asks me for advice on clothes. If matters of truth and knowledge play little role in Chris’s preferred mode of interaction with the world, that in itself is OK. It just means he’s like people who wear sandals with white socks to a wedding – infuriating, but they mean no harm. There’s a million ways to be.

And he is right to remind us, in his own way, of the necessity of balance. Compassion without reason is problematic – but so is reason without compassion. Our minimum standards for each, and the ideal mix of both, will always be a matter of debate. And though I have criticized Faitheist for an imbalance in the first direction, it remains valuable as a caution against the opposite – as a reminder that rational criticism insufficiently tempered by empathy can incur real human costs that should give us pause (148-151). [4]

And he is right to point out that this entire conversation is, strictly speaking, extrinsic to atheism – mere disbelief in God. The set of all nontheistic people is vast – and distinct from the smaller subset of us who get worked up about religion and homeopathy. Unlike Chris, I think these are worth getting worked up about. But I concede that by sometimes advocating for these broader epistemic concerns under the banner of atheism, rather than humanism, skepticism, and so on, we risk dissuading many latent atheists from identifying as such, and perhaps create more heat than light.

So I urge the community, especially those critical of Chris’s work, to be a little more tolerant of his peculiar turn of mind, and to give his book an open-minded, sympathetic reading, with as many grains of salt (and perhaps aspirins) as you need, and see if there is something you can learn from it. I think you might be surprised.

And I urge you, Chris, if you’re reading, to consider the possibility that you give epistemic concerns too little weight. Many of us care so deeply about them because we believe ideas have consequences, and absurdities sometimes beget atrocities, or at least, facilitate them – and in fact, your own story seems replete with fresh evidence of this. We see ourselves as striking at one of the roots of injustice, rather than merely the most obvious branches. So even if you have little native passion for truth and knowledge, I think you should care about them for that reason alone.

But most of all, I urge you to take your own advice – to listen more, condemn less, make fewer blanket statements, stop projecting your own experiences onto others, and celebrate the diversity of values and temperaments among the godless as well as the religious.

And to have a bit more humility. You have so much to offer. The movement, this country, and this planet desperately need more people with your depth of compassion. But we don’t need more people who are full of themselves. You call yourself “humble” (162) – almost always a performative contradiction – and I respectfully disagree. But perhaps we can respectfully agree that, in the way you’re currently operating, you have a lot to be humble about.

 

Notes

[1] At least, for the most part. There is one conservative blogger who isn’t speaking to me, but that’s a long story…

[2] In the same vein, he ends the chapter with a story meant to demonstrate his bona fides as a formerly antireligious atheist, but which I think few in the atheist community will fully relate to – getting a tattoo of a capybara, a rodent the Pope is said to have declared a fish. Disdain for the absurdity of the Catholic Church? Yes. Placing a permanent reminder of it on your body? Not so much. Not because tattoos are weird, but because a disdainful tattoo says more about a person’s emotional wounds than their values. (For comparison, the same year I got a tattoo of an owl: an ancient Greek symbol of wisdom, and hence, at least for me, the positive epistemic values I’ve been talking about.) I don’t fault him for getting a tattoo to express himself; as a tattoo, I’m sure it’s rad. My point is just that it fails to fully convince me that he shared the values of most antireligious atheists even in his most antireligious moments.

[3] You weren’t expecting that? The Humanist Manifesto III is very clearly about both rationality and compassion-oriented values, not just the latter.

[4] I added this paragraph after an atheist magazine asked to reprint this piece. Feedback on the original version made me realize its critical half overshadowed its positive half a bit more than I intended, perhaps in part because of the recency effect. Hence an additional paragraph reamplifying the positive. (Edited 11/19/12)

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