A book in the local library, Chris Stedman’s 2012 memoir Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press), attracted my interest recently. In this book, Stedman, who self-identifies as an atheist, promotes pluralism and interfaith dialogue among the religious and non-religious. He strives to encourage people of different commitments to respect and listen to each other, as well as challenge each other, to counter the belligerent approach to religious people of those dubbed the New Atheists. He asserts that reconciliation can legitimize the status of the non-religious within society in a way that belligerence towards the religious never can.
Setting aside the arguments of theists and nontheists as well as competing strategies among pluralists and proselytizers (whatever their commitment), his construction highlights the dominance of the category “religion”. Assuming that the dialogue for religious and non-religious alike should be organized around the category religion is itself a sign of the dominance of that category. Stedman at one point even describes atheists as “an intensely disliked religious minority in a culture that privileges Christianity in particular and religiosity more generally” (155, emphasis added), ironically reinforcing the privileging of religiosity as the organizing principle in people’s lives. Why shouldn’t humanists be dialoguing with anarchists, libertarians, objectivists, etc., without regard for religious identification. The New Atheist position, while taking a different strategy than Stedman, has the same problem, by focusing acutely on the religious as their other, they fail to break out of the frame that religion is central.
Imagine a different organizational rubric. We could establish an intersports dialogue where those who love Alabama and Notre Dame, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Yankees and the Red Sox, etc., discuss their commitments and experiences. If we then included those who have no interest in organized athletics, in order to build understanding across humanity, we have defined the latter group by the absence of an interest rather than by their interest in gardening, reading, or hiking in the woods, perhaps naming them the a-fans. For most of us (even some of us in Tuscaloosa, Alabama), sports commitments do not appear to frame lives in the way people generally presume that religion does, even though some fans don clothing of their team year-round, schedule their lives around the games, check recruiting/draft updates throughout the off-season, and make pilgrimages to their team’s axis mundi.
The presumption that religion is what motivates and organizes life lies behind the concept of interfaith dialogue, and much of religious studies, even for those who do not commit themselves to religion. That is the irony with the pluralist atheist and the New Atheist viewpoints, as well as the labels atheist and non-religious. They all affirm that religion organizes society, no matter what we observe in people’s lives. While that perception provides a useful argument for why religious studies remains relevant, scholars in religious studies should begin with an inquiry into the interests and assumptions that this presumption satisfies.