Firebrand or Faitheist?

When I was a newbie atheist, fresh from my first reading of The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and every amateur Xanga blog I could find, I had a firm belief that no good could possibly exist within religion. “At its best, religion is nothing more than a lie! Even when not causing outright harm, it is a delusion on par with mental illness,” I would argue. An active frequenter of r/atheism, my so-called humanism came in the form of memes and petty jabs at religion.

It also came in the form of internalized misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and various other forms of oppression. When I created my first Twitter account, dipping my toe into the loosely-organized online community that is atheism, my profile picture was a man with the words, “STOP BEING A CUNT” splashed on top. I was never called out on it. That sort of thing was acceptable, if not the norm.

I was a firebrand atheist, and my manifestation of that said, “I’m here, I’m an atheist, and fuck you if you aren’t!” Books like Faitheist pissed me off to no end – how dare anyone try to tell me that religion was anything other than an irredeemable bastion of oppression! I gleefully shared every news story about abuse at the hands of religion. Every one of those stories acted as proof that I was right, I was morally superior, and I was certainly smarter than those damned theists. My glee about those stories was in no way undone by the fact that those stories were about real people whose lives, like mine, had been affected by the negative aspects of religion.

Some humanism I had there.

Then, one day, I did the unthinkable. I started talking to my religious friends instead of talking at them. I befriended some interfaith activists. Out of curiosity, I decided to actually read Faitheist instead of just sharing the spittle-spewing articles I’d found across the blogosphere. And (begrudgingly) I liked what I found.

The more I researched, the more I found that many communities rely on religious groups to organize for their causes, because the atheist community is ambivalent at best toward issues such as race. I’d never encountered this. So long as I acted like one of the boys and didn’t challenge the status quo, atheism was perfectly accepting of me as a straight-presenting, able-bodied, white, cis-gendered woman. Recently, this was summed up perfectly by Sikivu Hutchinson, who said, “The vast majority of people of color in the U.S. are religious or religiously identified because, again, these are the most visible and active institutions in our communities. Hence atheists and humanists of color cannot do viable community work without engaging proactively with humanistic religious and interfaith organizations.” I view that statement as a wake-up call to organized atheism. If Tibetan monks can travel thousands of miles to Ferguson in an effort to show solidarity, why can’t atheists? To put it simply, why aren’t atheists doing more?

So where do I fall? After flirting with both sides of the Firebrand vs. Faitheist Rift, I find my own time is best spent amongst the interfaith activists. That isn’t to say that I see absolutely no use for firebrands (obligatory #NotAllFirebrands). My feminism, queer politics, and other activist ideals have been molded by the likes of Jason Thibeault, Greta Christina, PZ Myers, and others who identify as firebrand atheists. We may have differing approaches to religion, but I’m glad there are others interested in making atheism compatible with social justice. I’m particularly glad that there are self-identified firebrands who show that being an asshole (like I was) isn’t a requirement for being a firebrand.

If the staunchly anti-“faitheist” segment of atheism is truly interested in eradicating the need for interfaith work, they will start by making the atheist community a place that holds its own on intersectional issues. They’ll disrupt the status quo (the one I admittedly helped perpetuate for so long). I’ll certainly take that over standing around complaining that people are being too friendly with religion.

Featured Image: Church of St. Teresa


Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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  1. I think it’s nice that the New Atheist movement is finally re-discovering the basic same controversy that Marx got into when he started to mature from the Hegelian philosophy to his brand of Dialectical Materialism:

    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

    He started differing from previous “idealist” philosophers that saw religion as a mere artifact of an older, less sophisticated era, to start seeing it as a reflection of the day-to-day material struggles. To end religion must be, then, to end all exploitation and oppression that make religion seem such a pleasant alternative.

  2. Yeah, pretty much. My view is that it is one of many things whose net effect **tends** to be negative, but kind of like nationalism, or patriotism, or the like, directed at regimes that are themselves oppressive, or inequitable, etc., most people see only the benefit they gain by being “in” the winning group, than the end result of perpetuating the problems that result from the philosophies. Its the whole, “Ok, I know you are one of the nice ones, but how can you not get that your support of the institution emboldens, strengthens, and one some level, defends, the worse ones?” So, so, so many of us ask that of people who insist on calling themselves Catholic, every time the church they are members of does something horrible, again. The answer being, sadly, that for someone far enough away from the center, its valuable, and they can pretend that membership doesn’t mean they, how ever indirectly, support all the horrible things being done there. Same with being a “moderate” or “progressive” Christian, fighting the good fight against all the bad stuff, while failing, very badly, to recognize that the bad people get elected, often, purely on the claim that they are, “nice Christians, just like you”, when they are anything but that.

    You can’t “reclaim” something that a huge percentage of the people in it are just dead wrong about huge swaths of reality, and *they* are the ones who actually get the source material more or less right, instead of glossing over the bits that tell them that its reality that is wrong. Of course good people flock to the only game in town. That doesn’t mean that the game isn’t still rigged, in precisely the manner the firebrand/faithiests types say it is.

    But, it means that *our* side needs to pull its head out of its backside and stop acting like the problem is the existence of “faith”, and not the fact that it successfully co-opts anything and everything it can get its hands on, precisely because it **does** badly, and with a disinterest in actually comprehending the problems in the world, try to actively help people solve the same, while “atheism” has had a bad habit, and still has, sadly, in some of its core, or just standing around saying, “Your philosophy is bad. Abandon that, and somehow all the problems will just disappear.” That *part* of the core sounds like the damn gun lobby, talking about its own theory about how to reduce gun violence, by simply adding more guns. All the other issues need not be addressed, they are merely some sort of “by product” of not enough guns. Just replace the last word in that sentence with atheism, and you have the argument of every bloody fool out there claiming that atheism+, and or “actual dealing with social issues”, etc., is a “distraction”.

  3. “faith” doesn’t co-opt anything, because it’s not an autonomous being.

    What happens is that the people who elbow their way to the levers of power in society at large are also the people who control most religious organizations (especially the dominant ones.) Naturally, those religious organizations are going to support and extend whatever oppressions are in society at large, because it’s the same kind of people who shape them in both cases. Southern (USA) churches supported slavery because their members supported slavery. Etc. And in many cases, to the extent you fight the oppressions, you also undermine those same religous power structures.

    There’s also the phenomenon that for certain oppressed groups, their church (or other religious organization) is where they can gather to deal with and oppose their oppression. Atheists who attack these religions are rightly seen as supporting their oppression, especially since atheist groups don’t offer any other institution that can serve as a focus for resistance. Obviously, if the oppression weren’t there, they wouldn’t need a religious organization to provide a place to oppose it.

    It may be that fighting social ills (e.g., misogyny, racism, etc) without criticizing religion per se may do more to support and advance atheism than explicitly fighting religion.

  4. With respect, you are right in a sense, but for such a strategy to be successful for those who use religions to do such a thing it requires two things – 1) People willing to believe, without evidence, that the religion has the truth, and/or, their best interest in mind, i.e. “faith”, and 2) promotion of the idea that ignorance of alternative views are dangerous, which could be described in terms of, “lacking enough faith, if you listen to those other views, or consider them”.

    Ideas may be inactive in the sense that they are not living breathing things, but they dang well play an active role in undermining people’s ability to see reality. Its unfortunate that the same term gets applied when someone have factual, accurate, assessments of the chance that something is true, and is willing to take that on faith, as well as when they have no accurate facts, their assessments are based on prejudice, and possibly fear, and there is no verifiable truth to the claim they opt to have faith in. The latter is the bread and butter of religion, even the nice, friendly, ones, who insist that some special category of ideas, which exist in an “untouchable” area, where there are “special conditions”, which somehow only apply to those ideas, and require only popularity, or good feelings them, or even a disbelief that other answers are possible (or preferable).

    I realize the fact that the word is used to describe “both” of these things is confusing as all heck, but there is a clear and important difference in the outcome of which sort you pick, when looking for answers. Religion, pretty much by definition, always picks “some” things to be in the, “I like this answer, because it gives me an answer, a lot of other people also like the answer, and none of us like the other answers, or lack of one.”, box. It makes in really dang easy for some charismatic loon to fill such a box with things that lead to very scary places, even when those places start out looking like nice ones.

  5. “Atheists who attack these religions are rightly seen as supporting their oppression, especially since atheist groups don’t offer any other institution that can serve as a focus for resistance. Obviously, if the oppression weren’t there, they wouldn’t need a religious organization to provide a place to oppose it.”

    If I may, I venture that the “firebrand” atheists are a bit like the anti-monarchy republicans of 18th/19th-century Europe, seeking for a replacement of inheritance-based governance with a more democratic, limited-span and limited-power leadership.

    European republicans wanted less of a system which was determined by birth and family prestige, and less “life-term” offices like that of a monarch or life senator/lord.

    Similarly, I think that atheists (or naturalists? or maybe just me) want a similar shakeup of the whole idea of a deity or anthropomorphic moral compass. No “eternal reign”, no “unquestionable Word of God”, no “omnipotence/omnipresence”, no “power over life and death/good and evil”, no declaration of “who goes to Heaven or Hell”, none of those claims.

    Many of us want a less-absolute, less-monarchistic moral compass as has been presented in Abrahamic religions, among others.

  6. Late to this, but here’s one way I formulate this kind of thing. May atheists in the blogosphere rant about the evils of religion, but most of the time they are talking about the religion that has a privileged status in their local sphere. That is Islam or Christianity, depending on the country you are in.

    But what would atheists say to a Lakota, whose religion has been the locus of resistance and identity to oppression? That it’s just a bunch of superstitious nonsense? Fine and dandy, but don’t complain when the Native person says you are an insensitive dick who is taking an active part in the oppression of his or her people.

    Part of the deep, deep problem with atheism as a movement is that it just doesn’t offer any social benefits in the way most religions do (Sikivu Hutchison’s point is relevant here). Being right is all very well but if you are a hermit as a result then for most people that’s not a sell.

    And in many places religious communities are more than the faith, and in fact I’d argue that the finer theological points are about the least important thing to most of the people in them. Ask yourself if you have ever, ever heard a theological discussion among religious people when you all get together for the pot luck or go to Seder or get together for the meal at the end of Ramadan. I’ve been around two of the three, and I can tell you that I never heard a word abut theology. Something tells me that the third is similar for most folks.

    Right now atheists for the most part just don’t offer anything that comes close. If I ask you “what do I get for being an atheist” and your answer is “you get to be right” — well, that’s just not enough for most normal humans who like to do things like socialize. It’s a similar issue that crops up in social justice circles — you have to offer something people get here, now, in this world, not a zillion years after we are all dead. Because functionally the latter is not a whit different from saying you will go to heaven and at least in church I get to hang out with people I like and my aunt makes a pretty rad potato salad, you know?

  7. Right now atheists for the most part just don’t offer anything that comes close.

    See, the conclusion this leads to is a horrifying one. Where old world insane asylums “good”, because they where the only form of psychiatric care at the time? Is a witch doctor better than no doctor? I could go on.

    Yeah, atheism doesn’t supply some of the stuff that religion does, but there are a few critically important reasons for this: 1) As an actual movement, instead of just a few disconnected individuals, its unbelievably new. As an idea, it may not be, but as a movement… 2) religions have tended to be even more aggressive (and still are) at disparaging people that disbelieve all gods as the ones that just disbelieve their own gods. Finally, 3) there is a bloody stupid argument going on right now *in* atheism as to whether or not its somehow a waste of time to do anything other than challenge religion.

    This last one is total idiocy, in my opinion, and many others, we do recognize the things that are lacking, we would like to see sane replacements for them that lead to reason, not unreason, and no, its not a waste of time.

    But, yeah, they have had thousands of years to prefect giving people just enough help to convince people that their is value not just in the help they give, but the absurdities they claim are behind them offering it. Some of them even honestly believe, and the refusal of atheism+, and other sub-movements, by some in the over all movement, only strengthens such arguments, that *all* good things come only via those absurdities.

    And, yeah, the Lakota are not exactly out to convert the world, or demand that even non-Lakota do what ever they insist you must do to be properly religious, etc. Who cares what they believe, or do, its not impacting anyone else, and it may be helping them salvage something they find valuable about themselves. Good for them. When they start insisting that every school child has to go through the seven sacred rights, how ever often they do that, as part of everyone’s school education, and make up lame methods to “opt out”, which disadvantage, or even harm, the students that do so, how ever unintentionally, then we can talk about whether or not its even worth telling them how silly we find some of it. Last I checked, we are neither there yet, nor are they likely to demand such a thing.

  8. @kagehi— let me put it another way. Alex Gabriel brought it up at FtB. When a disaster happens, the churches are all over it. They provide real concrete stuff. Food. Shelter. Money.

    Where is the Humanist association? (Or the like?) Where the hell were us atheists? Nowhere. Crickets.

    Many churches provide very real things. It isn’t just about nonsense or being just helpful enough. Ask a black churchgoer about it sometime.

    Where are the atheists providing help? Few and far between, and then we complain that people turn to churches when they need something. Well, where the hell were we? Oh, right, we were telling people their superstitions were silly. Way to go, you know?

    1. “Where are the atheists providing help? Few and far between,”

      Please distinguish between “atheists” and “atheist groups”. Atheists were providing lots of help. It’s just that they were in general doing so through secular groups such as the Red Cross rather than explicitly atheist ones. Why? Because for most of us there’s no reason to brand the help you’re giving with the name of your faith or lack thereof.

    2. Yeah, what Lamuella said, but.. its more than that. I for one don’t give a frack if my atheism is plastered on some bloody charity. I might even donate to some non-secular ones, but it galls me to do so, or to show up to lend help some place, where the main groups are all theist, because even if its doesn’t matter that *I* get the credit, or that atheists do, it does bloody matter that they will take all of the credit. The press won’t report anyone else helping, and the religious organizations sure as heck won’t either.

      What really frosts me is that they get credit even when its blindingly obvious that all they want **is** the credit, like the cases where they push religion as part of the effort, or cherry pick who to help. Sure, not all of them are doing this, but enough of them show up at every effort for the express purpose of “only” helping the people they think deserve it, or serve there goals, and leave what ever other relief is needed to anyone else that shows up.. Even if they do give to everyone, they explicitly show their true colors by only trotting people in front of the cameras that emphasize how wonderful *they* where for being there, as a church, instead of fellow humans.

      And, then, again, its back to the press. Asside from the Red Cross, there is Humanist Crisis Response, SHARE, various charities with the American Humanist Association, etc. All of them are out there, and rarely do they even get a mention by the press, who are so much more interested in what the religious based ones are doing (not even betting on anything short of a total failure being mentioned on say, FOX, for example), or how many churches showed up. And, given that in some towns you can find so many bloody churches built that its a wonder they ever have more than two people per building, this is almost as meaningless a statement about how “useful” or “helpful” churches are as saying, “Look at how many locals showed up to help.”, or, “People with dogs”, or, “people with bathing suits at a beach disaster”. Some people seem to lap this up, and give it high praise. I am much more interested in the dude that hates beaches, loves cats, or was just passing through town, or didn’t have dozen other people telling them, “God will love you for this.”, and stopped to do something about the situation, who stayed to help. I also expect the press, the papers, and especially the churches themselves, to be about as honest about this as the guy running a Three Card Monte table. Because, the only mention any of them are likely to get is, “Ah, well, and they where there too, sort of…”, if even that.

  9. Shouldn’t the ideal be for religion/atheism to be kept separate from charities? Creating a charity based on religion/atheism seems like a very bad idea. Those who don’t share the organization’s metaphysical ideas may not be able to help it. Those who receive aid risk being subjected to uninvited metaphysical propaganda.

    I’m a member of a number of organizations, for example Animal Rights Sweden, Amnesty, Médecins Sans Frontières and Feminist Initiative. All of these specifically state that they are neutral/impartial with regard to religion (in other words, they are secular). Everyone who share their core values are welcome as members and any aid given (in the case of the charities) is given unconditionally.

    Coming from this perspective…
    1. I don’t think atheist charities are a good idea (unless they are directly related to religion/secularism/etc.)
    2. I don’t believe in inter-faith cooperation as a way to create better charities

    1. The atheist/humanist movements should keep pushing social justice issues and encourage support for charities. But let secular organizations handle the actual aid.
    2. Work together with people in secular organizations. You don’t need to think in terms of people’s motivations (religion/atheism/empathy/whatever), you simply work with the people around you towards your common goals.

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