On this week’s show, Chris Stedman joined Ana on the pod to discuss the burgeoning relationship between movement atheism and the Alt-Right. Stedman, a Humanist chaplain and community organizer, wrote an essay at the beginning of April on just that relationship.
Their conversation began with an exploration of the similarities between the atheist movement and the Alt-Right, notably the problematic comments made by prominent atheists like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, as well as the fact that both movements are predominantly comprised of white men. In addition, both groups connect like-minded individuals with each other by finding community on the internet.
“I think there is reason to be concerned about the fact that [people like Harris and Richard Dawkins] are lifting up people or associating themselves with people who are affiliated with the Alt-Right in some way,” Chris said.
Chris entered the atheist movement nearly a decade ago, drawn to it by the community it provided. He felt compelled to speak out about the shifts he’s noticed within the movement at large after seeing the response — or lack thereof — to the growing notoriety of Richard Spencer, a self-professed atheist.
Chris and Ana dove into the different strands of the broader atheist movement, explaining what secular humanism really means. They also highlighted ways that many atheists seek to find common ground with religious people, just as the two of them did on this episode.
“What’s more important to me is that we’re both motivated to act in the world, and trying to find out whether our visions for the good life, the sort of shared good life that we can have, align,” Chris explained.
Chris grew up non religious, but converted to a conservative, evangelical Christian church at 11 when his parents divorced. He felt attracted to the church because it offered a community space to “reflect on the big questions of life.” However, it also caused a slew of other problems, making it far more difficult for him to understand his identity as a queer individual.
“I really retreated within myself, I isolated myself off from everyone as I was struggling with this,” he said.
After addressing Chris’ transition from a liberal strand of Christianity to atheism, the conversation turned to the unique relationship between Christian white nationalism, the Alt-Right, and the “alt-light” within Donald Trump’s political coalition. Ana noted that there is no better example of this than Steve Bannon, a Catholic who quotes atheist thinkers like Alain de Benoist and Julius Evola.
“It’s strange to me that we see some of these folks in atheism cosying up with some of these people who are deeply religious, because for years a lot of them have been incredibly, not just dismissive of anyone who is religious, but sort of hostile toward them, and I think ultimately it shows that religion was never really the issue,” Chris said.
While he doesn’t claim that all atheists are members of the Alt-Right, and has had a deeply affirming experience with the atheist movement, Chris stated unequivocally that its benefits do not mean the movement is devoid of racism, sexism, or homophobia. He believes that, particularly as a white man in a movement dominated by them, he needs to stand up against that kind of intolerance.
In the second half of the show, historian Diana Butler Bass joined Chris and Ana to tackle a question from a listener, whose parents forced him to undergo conversion therapy after coming out of the closet and refused to attend his wedding because they claimed it would have compromised their Christian values. Those same family members voted for Donald Trump, something the listener also views as compromising their values. He wants to know how to forgive Christians in the age of Trump.
Just as Chris wanted to hold atheists accountable for their culpability in the rise of Donald Trump, so did Ana and Diana with white Christians. In answering the listener question, Ana felt that forgiveness isn’t essential, especially not if he’s not ready or if no one is asking for forgiveness.
To answer this question, Chris drew on a personal experience with a young woman who told him he was gay because he had a demon inside of him, and it could be cured, as her gluten intolerance had. Rather than react with a witty response, Chris thanked her for having the courage to talk to him, and opened up a broader conversation about LGBTQ+ people and rights.
Diana responded to that by noting how everyone commits the kind of personal trespasses that young woman did. Diana drew on the language of the Lord’s Prayer, and said that the act of forgiveness can be about more than that. “It’s not really about forgiving them, the external them, but it’s about looking at ourselves, and saying, ‘where do I engage in that kind of transgressive behavior?’ What keeps me steady? And is that the kind of person of empathy and compassion that I want to be?”
That empathy and compassion then helps people to understand why others think, feel, and act the way they do. And, as Ana pointed out, through compassion, and interacting through communal activities like walking a dog together, people can build stronger and better relationships.
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