The War on Christmas, Affect, and the Closet of Disbelief: Postsecular Atheisms, Part 1

by Donovan Schaefer

Atheist interfaith activist and author of the memoir Faitheist Chris Stedman appeared two weeks ago on Fox News for an interview with right-wing commentator Bill O’Reilly.  O’Reilly’s topic was the “War on Christmas,” an annual theme of the conservative-entertainment industry.  Stedman is a rising star among progressive atheists, who might be called a pioneer in postsecular atheism, or post-atheism, which has emerged as a reaction against the missteps of the New Atheist movement.  Post-atheism starts from a position that has (a)theological similarities with other forms of atheism, but focuses on a new set of practices and dialogic strategies.  Post-atheism is about changing the political landscape of the conversation around religion in Anglophone North America by changing the style of atheism itself.

I showed the clip of Stedman’s interview on the last day of my “Religion, America, and the Science of Life” class at Haverford College.  After O’Reilly’s opening monologue, I stopped the clip and asked the students, “How does this feel?”  “Nasty,” one of them responded. “Like I’m watching a scene from Mean Girls.” But after watching Stedman’s portion of the interview, the students described a different response: interested, engaged, and concerned.  Where before they had been repelled, now they were enticed by the conversation in front of them.


This transformation is the heart of Stedman’s project: to change how the conversation around religion feels.  O’Reilly enters the dialog looking for a fight–another skirmish in the war between The Atheists and The Believers–but Stedman doesn’t give it to him.  This partly comes across in the way that Stedman refuses the conversational bait O’Reilly dangles in front of him.  Stedman’s response to each of O’Reilly’s points mixes measured agreement with principled, but non-confrontational, reaffirmations of his own perspective.  This is evident from the transcript, the way Stedman repeatedly refuses to get into a boxing match, parrying rather than counterattacking.

But the transcript–the printed list of words–doesn’t tell the whole story.  Stedman also changes the way the conversation feels through the way his body participates: where O’Reilly exudes contempt and bitterness, Stedman expresses vulnerability–such as by closing his eyes or looking up to the sky—and joy–grinning broadly or chuckling along with happy surprise at O’Reilly’s jokes.  (O’Reilly sneers but never laughs, in the way that someone who is trying to dominate you will rigidly refuse to laugh at your jokes.  It is the consummate form of what Eve Sedgwick calls paranoid reading–the resolute refusal to ever be surprised.) Where O’Reilly’s gaze bores into the camera, Stedman’s is often downcast or floating.  Where O’Reilly jabs, Stedman nods.  In each round of their exchange, O’Reilly, expecting to be confronted by another raging atheist, offers Stedman the opportunity to get angry–to reactivate the old battle lines between atheists and believers in the US–and each time Stedman ignores the invitation.  An affective transcript of their interview would show a fascinating color field version of the text itself: O’Reilly repeatedly proposes anger as a tone for their debate and Stedman consistently responds with tranquility, humility, and thoughtfulness.

But I think the most important moment of the interview–and the one most telling of the direction of postsecular atheism–is one that Stedman skillfully inserts into the conversation without O’Reilly even realizing what he’s doing: this is when Stedman says “I would much rather see a billboard saying ‘Do you not celebrate Christmas?  You’re not alone.'”  Stedman’s book Faitheist can be read as a memoir of a network of interconnected closets: the closets that queer bodies find themselves in within heteronormative society, and the closets that believers and non-believers put each other in within spaces defined by class, region, race, and subculture.

It’s easy for many Americans to understand that queer bodies can suffer in isolation, especially in a society that still traffics in homophobic violence and scorn.  But Stedman draws out something new in suggesting that atheists, too, might be suffocating in closets: that the things you believe or don’t believe shape how you feel and how you belong.  This is a uniquely impossible thing to say on the American intellectual landscape, where ideas and beliefs are still broadly assumed to be abstractions that hover in the air above bodies.

Postsecular atheisms repudiate this implicit dualism by recognizing that the way we know can hurt us.  When Stedman looks into the camera and says to closeted atheists “You are not alone,” he is implicitly acknowledging that intellectual frameworks are intransigent–things that bodies need or crave rather than abstract luxuries–and always have feeling tones.  He is reaching out to bodies who feel isolated, desperate, or buried because of what they believe or disbelieve.  Stedman and others like him, especially in the interfaith community (whether atheist or religious) may be able to transform the debates around atheism by shifting the affective locus of the conversation from rage to compassion.  This suggests a new approach to ending the so-called War on Christmas: not with a victory, but a détente.

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