Chris Stedman, Gnu Atheism, and the Use of Quotation Marks

You may have seen the excerpt on Salon from Chris Stedman’s new book, Faitheist, in which he complains about how other atheists are such meanies.

(No, really: that is what’s going on in the book.)

Ophelia Benson read the excerpt so the rest of us wouldn’t have to, and she found that he puts a lot of energy into making himself seem as extravagantly humble as possible. If the phrase “extravagantly humble” sounds like an oxymoron, that should tell you something about the tone of the book.

While he’s at it, he gives us an anecdote of an encounter he had which seems rather…implausible. Ophelia describes it thus:

I’m reminded of Kingsley Amis, reading a novel he hated, constantly saying as he read, “No she didn’t, no they weren’t, no he didn’t, no it wasn’t like that.” I don’t believe a word of that paragraph. I don’t believe he remembers any brooch or tan corduroy vest – or their ages – or what they said – and certainly not that they said what he quotes.

I went and read the full text, and she’s not exaggerating. I will quote some passages, in sequential order:

I had never heard the word “faitheist” before, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment.

I blushed and ran my hands through my short hair — a nervous habit — and cleared my throat, asking if it was intended to be an insult.

“Yes,” he said without inflection. “There’s nothing worse than a ‘faitheist.’”

*blogger runs knitting needle through long, thick, incandescently shiny mane*

You want us to think about your hair? Show us something remarkable.

More importantly, I find it extremely difficult to believe that this other dude actually said those words. The jury’s still out on whether the no-inflection dude even exists.

Though I was disheartened by the event, I went to the post-panel reception, held at one of the panelists’ apartments, because I hoped that if I spoke with more of the group members I’d find some people who shared my opinions or learn a bit more about why they believed differently than I did. Also, as a thrifty graduate student, free dinner and drinks were hard to pass up!

I walked in and instantly removed my shoes. The apartment was beautiful; the ceiling-to-floor windows allowed for a stunning view of Chicago’s orange-and-white-lit skyline. The living room was impeccably clean. I scanned the crowd; I was easily the youngest person there and unfashionably underdressed (nothing new there). Looking down at my feet, I noticed there was a hole in each of my socks.

I sympathize with the impulse to go for the free drinks and dinner, I really do. It wasn’t too long ago that I was white-collar poor and wondering when I’d have health coverage again. However, the attention he gives to the fabulous apartment, contrasted with his own worn-out socks, is no accident. The trope of young, eager, struggling Chris Stedman up against the older, wealthier, more cynical New Atheists is a major theme in this piece.

I sat down on the couch, carefully balancing a mint julep in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres I couldn’t name in the other, intensely aware of how out of place I must have seemed. Next to me on the couch were a woman in her mid-40s with a shimmering peacock brooch and a man in his late 30s wearing a denim shirt and a tan corduroy vest. I introduced myself and asked what they’d thought of the panel. They raved: “Wasn’t it wonderful how intelligent the panelists were and how wickedly they’d exposed the frauds of religion? Weren’t they right that we must all focus our energy on bringing about the demise of religious myths?”

Ophelia Benson does not believe that Stedman actually remembers the details of the peacock brooch or the denim shirt and tan vest. I suppose it’s possible that these two people at the party were dressed that way, and that Stedman remembers it, but it’s also no accident that the peacock is an obvious symbol of pride. The dialogue, unfortunately, drains the paragraph of credibility. I do not believe for a second that anyone at that party actually said those lines. Why not, you ask? Because no one talks that way in an unscripted conversation.

I paused, debating whether I should say anything. My “Minnesota Nice” inclination warned me to let it be, but I had to say something. So I started small, asking them to consider that diversity of thought and background fosters an environment where discourse thrives, where ideas are exchanged, and where we learn from one another.

I was stonewalled: “We have the superior perspective; everyone else is lost,” said the woman with a flick of her hand that suggested she was swatting at an invisible mosquito.

No. No, she did not say that. I’ve hung out with atheists of the outspoken, confrontational variety that Stedman abhors. I’ve attended appearances by PZ Myers, for example, and had some fabulous conversations with the other attendees. They’re not all nice people, in fact some are raging assholes, but their speech is not unnatural.

Our conversation continued, and I offered up petitions that the positive contributions of religious people be considered with equal weight alongside the negative.

“I understand what you’re saying,” I said, trying to weigh my words carefully, “but how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi?”

“Oh, I get it,” the man jumped in with a sneer. “You’re one of those atheists.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it didn’t sound like a good thing. I shifted my weight from one side to another — another nervous habit — and picked at an hors d’oeuvre that I thought might be some kind of cheese.

“What do you mean, ‘one of those atheists?’”

“You’re not a real atheist. We’ve got a name for people like you. You’re a ‘faitheist.’”

It is extremely unlikely that this conversation actually happened. “We’ve got a name for people like you”? No. This is, at best, exaggeration.

Leaving my Loyola class the day after my first atheist event, I stepped out into the cool, windy Chicago afternoon and thought back to my conversation with the man who had called me a “faitheist.” The bird-brooched woman had abandoned our discussion quickly, saying she didn’t want to waste her time. The man and I had moved to the hall, grabbing more food and another drink on the way.

“Take Islam,” he had said, leaning into a doorframe while I clutched my beer a little too tightly, the condensation running down my forearm to meet with the sweat that had just reached my elbow. “Now that’s a violent faith. And don’t try to tell me it’s not, because I’ve read the Koran.”

I thought of my friend Sayira, one of the most compassionate people I knew. Sayira was a young woman who was motivated by her Muslim faith to work for the economically disadvantaged.

This is another place where I have a bit of sympathy: I don’t like to see Muslims tarred with the terrorist brush, either, but that’s not what that man was doing, assuming he even said what Stedman quotes, which is still implausible. I have Muslim co-workers who are lovely people, and I’m aware of the Muslim emphasis on charity, but charity does not negate violence. Individuals can be wonderful, but that’s a separate issue from what their religion asks of them. Individuals can be totally peaceful, decent and generous, and the religion in which they count themselves can still be responsible for an outsize proportion of the world’s violence. I have no doubt that Sayira is awesome. Stedman’s position doesn’t become any more coherent when he contrasts Mr. Does-He-Actually-Talk-That-Way with Sayira, this one Muslim young lady who’s a wonderful person.

When you put words between quotation marks, you are showing the reader what came out of a person’s mouth, verbatim, in real time. The punctuation is not simply decorative. If you want to use quotes in a snarky manner to show us what you think the person really means to say, then first we need to see the words themselves. The dialogue that Stedman quotes in this excerpt is credible only if you’re willing to believe that confrontational atheists are humorless, emotionally deficient, socially crippled freaks with dazzling vocabularies. Those are not the speech patterns of normal people. In a novel, dialogue like that would look absurd. In a memoir, it’s preposterous. It makes the entire encounter look like a fabrication.

MOAR take-downs of Stedman’s ridiculousness!

Larry Moran’s post

PZ Myers’s post

Crommunist’s post

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