Friday, November 9, 2012

On differences and mutual respect: Reply #4 to James Croft

[James Croft has responded, briefly, in the comments to my previous post.]

I think in order to continue this discussion you will have to go back to what I've written on all these topics, read it again, and then respond to me and what I've written and not to whoever you are responding to in these posts.

James, I’ve taken the time to quote long portions of your text and to respond carefully, while you’ve replied lately with short comments that haven’t quoted my words but just claimed in general that I have things all wrong.

You have repeatedly and consistently written long replies to somebody who is not in the room, splitting the minutest of hairs to find "disagreements" which are really just "differently-stated values".

OK, I’m going to narrate events as I understand them. I invite you to object to any parts of the narrative you find incorrect and explain how your arguments differ from my reading.

Over the past two years, Stedman and others connected to your organization have aggressively publicly criticized gnu atheists, including telling us that our activism is wrong and we should stop. Our anti-faith/religion work, or the caricature of it presented by Stedman, has been presented in negative terms: as rooted in a desire to mock and vilify religious people rather than humanistic values, alienating, lacking in human warmth, cruel, fundamentalist, intolerant, destructive, and failing to offer any positive vision. They’ve argued that through this activism we invite prejudice against ourselves, and by extension all atheists.

Stedman and others have made arguing that gnu atheism is contrary and hostile to everything humanists stand for into a veritable cottage industry, while at the same time gushing about the alleged benefits of religion and the importance of interfaith work to the humanist vision. This has included defining HCH Humanism in large part in opposition to gnus and in terms of a friendly relation with faith, minimizing and muting the atheist identity and presenting it as relatively peripheral to what humanists are about.

Recently, A+ has emerged. You, I think genuinely seeking some sort of rapprochement and common-cause building, suggested that it looked a lot like humanism to you, and you were happy about that. Since you saw these similarities, you wondered why A+ people didn’t identify as you do. For some reason, you were puzzled by the various statements from gnus+ about their differences with the humanists around them:

In the ongoing discussions around Atheism+ and its relationship with Humanism one issue crops up again and again: the perception that Humanists – at least some Humanists – have an attitude toward religion which the atheists who are excited by Atheism+ do not share. This is often expressed as a reason why a given blogger does not identify as a Humanist, or why they prefer the Atheism+ label to Humanism.

…Clearly, in the minds of these bloggers there is something troubling about Humanism’s perceived relationship with religion, and perhaps particularly of the approach taken by the Humanist Community at Harvard, where I work.

This really is an astounding statement. I don’t see how that perception is remotely disputable given the history of the past two years. You and your colleagues very obviously have “an attitude toward religion which the atheists who are excited by Atheism+ do not share.” How could anyone say this isn’t true? Stedman has sought to build the identity of your organization explicitly on distinguishing your attitude toward religion from ours. Whatever broad philosophical similarities might exist, it’s absurd on the face of it to claim that there are no differences in actual approaches to religion between the HCH Humanists and gnu atheists.

And of course this recent history is going to be a factor in many gnus’ reluctance to identify publicly or primarily as or with humanists, even for those who do see themselves as humanists. Even if it were possible and useful to subsume this activism under the humanist label, and I presented in my previous post the reasons why it isn’t (as others have as well), we would be stupid not to recognize that in the current context this would be a concession to those who think atheism is better discussed in hushed tones. We would be stupid not to appreciate the way in which the Humanist label has been used to distance the “good” atheists from us and to denigrate us by denying the positive elements of anti-faith work.

People haven’t been claiming that this reflects some inherent, natural antagonism between humanism and gnu atheism. It’s the case because some humanists, especially the HCH Humanists, have worked with definitions in this way because they thought it benefited them to do so. To better understand why maybe many A+ people don’t want to publicly identify as humanists, you need only look at how Stedman’s been promoting himself and your Humanism at our expense. Amongst other benefits, identifying centrally as atheists, as others have said, is a means of expressing pride in the inherent value of that work and showing that it’s animated by positive values.

I also noted in my first post that your claiming the similarities between your humanism and specifically A+ leaves intact the false notions about gnu atheism that HCH has been promoting. It wasn’t just condescending to imply that we were now “infusing” our work with positive values or now turning to social justice issues. It reflected the underlying assumption that I think you’ve had all along: that this activism is not itself animated by positive humanist values. This doesn’t necessarily lead you as far as to say what Stedman and his guest bloggers have, but this fundamental misconception is consequential. I know you weren’t trying to insult or condescend to us, but that’s how it reads.

And I have to wonder why you care - why you’re insistent about this identification. It would be just fine with me if you merely pointed out that you as humanists share similar values to ours despite our differences on the matter of religion, as long as you acknowledged that for many of us our approach to religion is animated by positive values just like yours. I’m not a member of A+, but I imagine they’re open to suggestions for collaboration. What difference does it make to you how people identify, if you’re not trying to marginalize the atheist identity or the specific issues we prioritize?

So people gave you various reasons for why they didn’t care to identify with you, among them that many humanists in practice take an approach to religion and to anti-faith work that’s not just different from ours but actively hostile to it. It’s bizarre. It would be one thing if you were unaware of what self-identified humanists and their organizations were saying, but among the humanists people are talking about are your own colleagues. Instead of appreciating the real context in which people were making these observations, though, you responded in abstract, generalizing terms:

But what is the relationship of Humanism with religion, and are these critics (most of whom are expressing their personal perceptions of the term “Humanism”, to which they are perfectly entitled) giving Humanism a fair shot?

Others pointed out that this isn’t about humanism in general – there’s no being called “Humanism” that thinks and acts - and that you don’t speak for it. A core commitment to reason, science, and secularism allows for a wide diversity of attitudes toward and relationships with religion, all of which can recognize themselves as humanistic.

Is it really true that there is a signifiant difference in view between Atheism+ people and Humanists like myself in this regard?

It’s strange. There are plainly significant differences between us and Stedman in terms of our relationship with religion. To deny that is ludicrous. There’s good evidence that there are significant differences between you and me on this subject. That’s fine. It’s not the only issue in the world, and we can disagree and still find much common ground regardless of how we identify. The problem is that your colleagues have made a practice of presenting themselves as champions and us as enemies of positive values and visions.

But I welcomed your effort to spell out your views, knowing, of course, that even if we reached complete agreement on the subject it wouldn’t mean we gnus would need to start identifying as humanists.

In order to try to answer this question I’m going to attempt to make a series of statements regarding how I understand the relationship between Humanism and religion, and I invite self-identified Atheism+ people to come give their views on the same points. Perhaps there is a real difference if view here, but perhaps the differences are overstated.

I responded to your statement at some length, focusing on the differences between your views and mine. My purpose in that post, as I said at the time, wasn’t just to show that there are significant differences between us on this subject but to explain the motivations for my specific priorities and how I see them as expressive of my larger social vision. I wanted you to acknowledge the differences, whether you came around to my way of thinking or not, but also to acknowledge that these arguments for my priorities and for why I see this work as advancing positive values exist. As I said, it doesn’t matter to me whether anyone identifies this as humanist or not, but it matters very much that people stop attacking my approach on the false premise that it isn’t based on or is contrary to positive values, or at least that others become aware that this premise is false.

Your response, as I read it, was all over the place. You claimed there were no real disagreements but at the same time acknowledged some. If the discussion had been about seeking mutual understanding and common ground, which it should have been and could have been in a more neutral context, I think this would have been a fruitful start, or just a solid basis for mutual respect. But for some reason you’ve been coming at it from an insistence on a common identification and thus a desire to minimize the differences rather than discuss them or simply accept them, so you’ve pretty much locked yourself into an argument that we’re all exactly the same.

That’s why more recently you’ve argued not just that the differences are trivial but that anti-faith activism is part of the humanist tradition (which is of course true) and even a part of the HCH’s approach. You have to know that last is a strange argument in light of the evidence of the past two years. I’m happy to hear you say it, even if you haven’t said that or why you personally see anti-faith/epist activism as a valuable expression of humanism. But it’s contrary to what Stedman’s been saying in public over months and months. And it’s just unnecessary: I’m not saying you have to do anti-faith work, just that you should be OK with it and understand our reasons as charitably as possible.

So what we have is this odd situation in which your colleagues continue to paint our approach as bad/immoral/negative/destructive and yours as good/ethical/positive/constructive, to seek to distance themselves from us publicly, and to denigrate and oppose our actions, while you insist in the face of all of this that there are no serious differences in our approaches so we gnus should just identify with you.

What I’d like to see is a situation in which our different approaches are acknowledged and respected. We could debate them or just accept that we have different priorities, while appreciating the values and goals we share regardless of labels. There will still be criticism and mocking, and occasionally serious disagreement, within and between the two “camps,” but neither group will seek to promote itself or build its identity by denigrating the other, claim that the other isn’t coming from a positive place, or insist the other stop its activities. Everyone identifies however they want. Common ground can’t be imposed by a label; it can only be prepared by respectful coexistence in practice.

How about we discuss this on a podcast or Google hangout or something? I have a feeling it would be more productive than my endlessly responding saying "no, wrong again, that's not what I believe".

No, thanks. I have zero interest in that sort of format, and prefer to discuss things in writing. I agree that your endlessly responding that way has not been productive.


And what is the question of funding about? Who have you asked and who has refused to answer?

I believe I’ve asked two of you (Figdor, I think, and I thought the other was you, but it could have been someone else or Figdor both times).

And what is the insinuation, precisely?

No insinuation. Just a high value on transparency.


  1. I cannot publish my reply right now - it's too long =P.

  2. I don't honestly feel this discussion has been very productive for some time, so perhaps it's best if I leave you with some very simple statements about what I think on these topics which might lead you to question your conviction that you understand what I believe.

    On New Atheism:

    New Atheism is, in my view, fundamentally a moral movement animated by a particular set of ethical concerns. New Atheism isn’t simply a disbelief in god but a project to tackle certain negative and destructive forces, primarily faith and faith-based thinking but also dogma, authoritarianism etc. This is how I think and write about New Atheism, and have done for a while. I.e. New Atheism is already atheism “infused” with a certain set of positive values. Atheism, on the other hand, is not always so infused – atheism carries with it no value-set whatsoever. And New Atheism, I think it is fair to say, has traditionally had a narrower focus in terms of its ethical concerns than traditional Humanism.

    I see this as what Jen was responding to when she defined A+: taking the New Atheist activism with which she was already identified. She felt it was not responsive to concerns regarding feminism, racism, social justice etc. She wanted atheism “infused” with those values, and set out to create one. That’s all I mean. My views about the nature of New Atheism as a moral movement, which are expressed in my talks and writing, haven’t changed.

    You say:

    “What I’d like to see is a situation in which our different approaches are acknowledged and respected. We could debate them or just accept that we have different priorities, while appreciating the values and goals we share regardless of labels.”

    This is precisely the view I have been expressing all along. It is the view which is quite clearly expressed in my A+ post. This is exactly my position: shared values and goals, different priorities, labels unimportant. This is why I wrote the following in my initial response to A+:

    “For me, the Humanist label seems more apt. It expresses my positive values more clearly and focuses the mind on human concerns. To me Atheism is secondary to the “plus”, and Humanism does a better job of articulating the “plus”. The institutions Humanists have already built to do something about that “plus” need the help and support of people who care about those values, and I want to work within them to improve and strengthen that part of the movement.

    But if other people want to organize under a different banner toward similar goals I’m happy to march beside them. I just want to ensure we share resources, don’t compete unnecessarily, and learn from what has already been accomplished.”

    And please, before you misunderstand me again, don’t assume that by saying “atheism is secondary to the “plus”” I mean “atheist activism is secondary”. I mean that the mere identification of myself as an atheist is less important to me than working to reduce the role of dogma and superstition in the world (for instance).