The Paradox of Popular Anachronism

Sometimes an idea, a strategy, or a style of communication becomes boring due to sheer repetition – and yet it remain popular. That’s especially puzzling when it’s never even worked. I’ll give two off-topic examples, and then get back to religion.

Example 1: Obsessing about who’s to blame for a problem instead of what we can do to solve it.

Is global warming caused by human activity? Who cares? The important question is whether human activity can slow warming or even stop it. I realize some people think global warming is a hoax, but that’s a different issue. Right now I’m focusing on how we think about problems: Let’s spend lots of time assigning blame.

Example 2: Emphasizing persons instead of systems. Who caused the financial crisis and the Great Recession? Everyone and no one. The system was set up in ways that rewarded imprudent risk-taking. Eventually we got burned.

Example 3: Dealing with religious differences by attacking, denigrating, and mocking those who disagree with us.

In his book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman gives an example, quoting a prominent atheist named PZ Meyers:

“I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It’s time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.”

This statement is frequently quoted on the internet by people who dislike atheists. Meyers probably thought he was striking a powerful blow against religion, when actually he was handing a big box of ammo to his adversaries.

I am so weary of polarizing, overheated rhetoric. It is so boring, so tedious, so passé. To use an old-fashioned analogy, it sounds like the record got stuck in a groove. And yet this approach is still popular. It’s out of date, and yet widely acclaimed: The paradox of popular anachronism.

On January 17, 2012, in a comment on Julian Baggini’s essays, I noted the popularity of shallow attack-rhetoric:

“Yesterday while perusing comments by Baggini’s readers, I decided to see which ones scored the highest approval ratings…. Posts given the thumbs-up by 25 or more readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning: ‘Rubbish,’ ‘You’re making ridiculous leaps,’ ‘Atheism is essentially irrational,’ and a scornful reference to ‘Dawkins and all you “atheist” lot.'”

Don’t people ever get tired of self-stimulating their own combat hormones?

There is nothing so pathetic as an idea whose time has come and gone … when people still think it works.

Nevertheless, I am still hopeful that more of us will wake up to the wastefulness of antagonism and the power of cooperation, among those of all faiths and philosophies. Reflecting on his own experiences with interfaith work, Stedman writes that our world needs “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.” (Faitheist, p. 133)

This is not yet an idea whose time has come. But I think it’s on its way.

May we live to see that day.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Reflections on Faitheist, by Chris Stedman

“What is most personal is most universal.” So said the great psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. I saw this principle confirmed years ago in my personal growth workshops. When people who were feeling lonely and isolated told their personal stories, they were often surprised by the way other group members empathized, identified, and responded.

Today I finished reading a highly personal memoir that will speak to a great many people – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The author, Chris Stedman, is smart and passionate. He is also ruthlessly honest, even about his own faults. With this combination of brains, intensity, and candor, it’s not surprising that he sometimes takes unusual risks. During a high school retreat, for example, he got up the nerve to tell his classmates why he’d taken course-work at a community college that year: Because of being gay, he said, “I didn’t feel safe here.” He received a standing ovation, led by a fellow named Nate, a popular athlete that Chris had assumed would look down on him. Afterward Nate “approached me and gave me a hug. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, dude, but that was brave’” (pp. 80-81).

Even when we don’t identify with someone’s actions or ideas, we may admire that person’s courage.

It also takes courage to criticize both religious and non-religious viewpoints, running the risk of being sniped at from both directions. A religion teacher said to Stedman, “‘When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation — why can’t you just call that God?’” Chris replied, ‘Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?’” (P. 123)

Chris has also critiqued prominent atheists and atheist organizations. At his first atheist conference he heard “speeches comparing religion to sexually transmitted diseases. It was, for me, a nightmare. … I called friends of mine back home — atheists, no less — and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: ‘You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist” (p. 145).

Stedman wrote an article suggesting that organized atheism often talks about religion in ways that deepen divisions. After it appeared in the Washington Post, he got “unexpected feedback. ‘This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,’ wrote one reader” (p. 138).

Faitheist contains several other remarkable stories of risk and (mostly) reward. It’s a moving and readable memoir, highly recommended for theists, atheists, agnostics alike.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Faitheist: An Important New Book by Chris Stedman

On November 6 Beacon Press published Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Just from reading the reviews and browsing through the text on line I know this book will be helpful in promoting theist-atheist dialogue. I ordered it today.

When I wrote Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, there were virtually no other works available that focused on what theists and atheists have in common. Stedman addresses this subject personally, by recounting his own experiences with atheists, Christians, and interfaith work.

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association Bookstore, “Chris Stedman makes a passionate argument that atheists should learn to respect religious identity while remaining secular. Drawing on his personal transformation from born-again Christian and closeted homosexual through full-throated atheist with a disdain for religion, and finally to a modern, more tolerant atheist, Stedman is uniquely positioned to present a way for atheists and the religious to find common ground. Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University…. His work appears in Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and Religion Dispatches.”

Thanks, Chris, for telling the story of an unusual and courageous personal journey.

Roger Christan Schriner

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