I wrote an essay about recent developments in the atheist religion market expressing my hope that new atheist religions and quasi-religions would live up to certain standards I hold dear. I thought if I made my case now, when those efforts are in their infancy, it might have some positive effect. I believe I was wrong.
I was called to task for mushy, relativistic thinking, for failing to distinguish between people and their beliefs, and for attempting to silence criticism and sabotage progressive activism. My piece leveled a direct criticism at James Croft, saying,
Martin Luther King showed more compassion for his racist jailers than Croft shows for conservative Christians.
Ed Brayton, in a blog post entitled Sigfried Gold’s Relativistic Nonsense, said
If James Croft, one of the kindest and most generous people in the humanist community, is too harsh a voice for you, your criteria is seriously flawed.
A Queereka blog post said
Gold is being entirely unreasonable in asking that we must exhibit a King-like restraint in how we choose to fight back against people who would have us simply not be at all because it’s easier for them if we aren’t.
And Croft perorated:
I refuse to silence my criticism of abhorrent beliefs and belief systems out of a misguided and patronizing “respect” for those which hold them. I believe we show our compassion for others partly through holding others to high standards, and the moral standard is highest of all.
My hope was not to silence criticism or to cripple efforts to fight for human rights, but to encourage appreciation for religious spaces dedicated to a tolerance and respect for people and beliefs across political divides. A worthy aim, I persist in claiming, but one that was not advanced by my essay. On the contrary, I have given Croft and allies further impetus to rally against the evil, oppression and mushy thinking that threatens them from all sides.
I am attempting here to craft a genuine public apology, but even now I cannot discuss my interlocutors without coloring them in a negative light. This is not because they deserve my scorn, but because my feelings are hurt; I see myself as misunderstood and maligned and feel a visceral, irrepressible desire to vindicate myself.
My aim, strangely enough, was not to start a fight but to build an alliance, and, to be honest, to make a bid for a place at the table in the work of the Harvard Humanists, which I greatly admire. My failure is partly due to my succumbing to two tactical temptations I’m not proud of: 1) rather than addressing Greg Epstein or Chris Stedman, who are closer to me in philosophy but who have not responded to my requests for dialogue, I addressed a less famous member of the group who was more likely to respond; and 2) rather than elaborate on my support for their work, I offered criticism because my feelings were already hurt by their ignoring me and I calculated that mild public criticism would attract their attention. These are not tactics that do credit to my values.
I have a vision of the kind of new religions I’d like to see emerge in these interesting times and Croft has a different vision. It could be just my mushy relativism speaking here, but maybe Croft’s vision is better–it certainly is by his measure. Holding Croft to the standard of Martin Luther King’s compassion for his jailers achieved nothing. It’s a standard I aspire to, however sure I am to bungle it. But even if Croft did accept that standard, he would interpret it differently than I do. If I have judgments about Croft’s approach to promoting godless congregations, I don’t need to express them publicly.
The failure of my critique leads me back to my own values, which tell me to pay attention to my own side of the street. I promote my vision better by living it than by publicly prodding others to do so. Transgressing my values has turned me into a person who tries to silence criticism and aid the enemies of human rights.
Let me declare now that I not only celebrate Croft’s prerogative to criticize his enemies but even to treat them with what may seem to me, but not to him, to be disrespect.
Though I hope I never to impinge on Croft’s rights and obligations to criticism in any way, this experience has led me to the very difficult aspiration to silence my own. It will be terribly difficult if I undertake it seriously, because I do have a vision that motivates me, and if I refrain from criticism of things I would like to see change, I’ll be fighting with at least one hand tied behind my back. Besides, I enjoy being snarky and self-righteous as much as the next guy.
On the other hand, at least one venal consideration would support this aspiration: public combat is not my strong suit. I like to write in a polemical style, but my strengths, as I see them, are in exploration, experimentation, and self-examination. My writing is easy to misunderstand and easy to attack. So I would be well-advised to stay out of public scrapes–even though I have chosen one of the most controversial and provocative of subjects to write on.
As unsure as I am that my new aspiration is a good idea or even remotely possible, I’m making it public to stand as a reminder to myself that however I may be tempted to pronounce judgment or make snide remarks at another’s expense, non-combative speech, for me, at this moment, is where I believe my better lights are leading me.
So, James, please accept my apology. If you do find me criticizing you in public again, you have many means for making me regret it, but here I offer you another one: you are always welcome to remind me that by criticizing you I am acting against my own values.
The alert reader will notice that this essay attempts to make the same arguments as my previous essay, by example this time rather than by explication, but my apology and my aspiration to refrain from public criticism are no less sincere for that.