Todd Stiefel Interview – Free Thought, Morality, & Atheism

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Todd Stiefel is the founder and president of Stiefel Free Thought Foundation, one of the leading atheist groups in the country. 



 


He says he was born an atheist (as we all are) and grew up devoutly Catholic. Only later did he realize the practices and mantras he learned at religious camps were simillar to practices used in brainwashing. He says his group's goal is not to convert the religious over to atheism, but to prevent people from becoming fundamentalist. 

According to Stiefel, atheists have an uphill battle in the quest for public acceptance, but it is doable. He says atheists need to gain respect from the religious and show that they have morality and also show how most religious people have more in common with atheists than they do with fundamentalists.

He says the model for the atheist movement should be the LGBT community – need to come out, organize, and get financial support. Stiefel says freethinking has to replace other things religions have to offer – social connection, charity, and more. Can that be achieved? 
 

Written By: The Young Turks – Cenk Uygur
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    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      The interviewer, who made that comment about Yahweh losing to another god, did not cite the passage, and I for one cannot think of a passage in which that was said to have happened. Perhaps the interviewer was thinking of a passage in which the Israelites suffered defeat in an ongoing war (there are several such passages – e.g. in the long war against the Philistines covered in the Books of Samuel and Kings), but the Israelites prevailed in the end (or as Todd Siefel suggested, “Yahweh stikes back”). Polytheism was indeed the accepted way of thinking among the Israelites of those times (around 1000 BCE), and Yahweh as the god of the Israelites, or more precisely the god that those of the Yahwist and Deuteronomist schools thought ought to be exclusively worshiped and obeyed by the Israelites. The threat that the Philistines posed to the Israelite tribes was the main cause for the political unification of the tribes under the kingship of David, whose rise to power was seen by the Yahwist scribes as the work of Yahweh. Continued reflection on this politicoreligious history of Israel and the continuing antagonism between the Yahwists and those who respected other gods encouraged the Yahwists to upgrade their god to something far superior to any of the other people’s gods and to downgrade other gods to evil spirits and demons, ultimately developing (by the intertestamental period) a monotheistic belief-system whereby there is only one God, one supreme being, that created the world and everything in it, and who just happened to have singled out the Hebrews as his favored people. Some people have all the luck!

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      The host talks about a biblical verse where another god defeats Jehovah. Do you know the verse? It conflicts with the Christian and Islamic idea he is the only god.

      I haven’t watched the whole interview. What time does he say that? I don’t think its such a controversial theory actually although (like a lot of things) what is actually in the bible contradicts the dogma that most people understand. There are references to other divine beings in the old testament and Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God claimed that this indicated that in the early days of Judaism it actually was not monotheistic. Wright claims that Jaweh was initially one god among many. Bal I think was another. I thought it was Jaweh that triumphs over Bal but its a long time since I read Wright’s book so not sure. It was later in Judaism that Jaweh was the only god as opposed to the best. One thing that makes it tricky is the order of books in the old testament is not the historical order they were actually written in. If they were (at least Wright claims) we would see the evolution from Jaweh as best god to Jaweh as only God more obviously.

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      The host talks about a biblical verse where another god defeats Jehovah. Do you know the verse? It conflicts with the Christian and Islamic idea he is the only god.

      I’m not sure what passage he was referencing, but God’s kryptonite is iron chariots. In Judges 1:19, he helps win the hills, but is impotent against stronger metals. “19 The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.”

      On another note, there are several other gods and supernatural creatures in the Bible. For example, Satan (linked to the pagan god Baal-zebub), as archenemy of God, is clearly the equivalent of a deity.

      Here is some info on specific gods talked about in the Bible (there are many):
      http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/gods-and-goddesses-pagan.html

      Here is a list of Bible passages where it talks about the existence of other gods in general, but not specifically: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/gods.html

  1. Todd Stiefel says he was born an atheist (as we all are) and grew up devoutly Catholic.

    I can’t see anything controversial in that.

    Only later did he realize the practices and mantras he learned at religious camps were similar to practices used in brainwashing.

    I have heard this before, and its always interesting to hear another witness statement. For more witnesses see:
    beyondbeliefanthology.com

    He says his group’s goal is not to convert the religious over to atheism, but to prevent people from becoming fundamentalist.

    Surely, all the evidence we have is that those who turn to violence rather than dialectic is that they start out leaning towards conviction rather than thinking? Good luck with that.

    … atheists have an uphill battle in the quest for public acceptance, but it is do-able.

    They have an uphill battle in the US. I don’t see that elsewhere, indeed most of Europe is down the road and over the horizon. Islam is proving to be a new challenge, but it is not beyond us.

    Todd Stiefel says atheists need to gain respect from the religious …

    I don’t know what that means. The religious are never going to show us deference. The religious define themselves as better than anyone else, including other religions – and they reserve their strongest vitriol for atheists because we deny any truth in what they say. We are duty-bound to do so. Other religions at least provide mutual support by saying that, at some level, woo is a good way to think.

    Indeed, the rise of atheism is pretty obviously driving the ‘moderately religious’ together (think of the rise in inter-faith ‘dialogue’) which is one of the pressures that is driving a rise in ‘extreme religion’ because it increases the internal tension between spiritual harmony and in-group / out-group necessities in each religion that gets caught up in inter-faith exchange.

    As someone who comes from a religious family I have tried harder than most to map out a grey area between atheists and theism. Apart from secularism – a word that has become so misused in recent years that this too is a rapidly vanishing missed opportunity – there is no substantial meeting point.

    … and show that they have morality …

    Wait; my moral life is not enough?

    … and also show how most religious people have more in common with atheists than they do with fundamentalists.

    This is demonstrably not true. See, for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her latest warning over how ‘moderate’ religion is a path that leads directly to ‘extreme’ religion because those who are ‘moderate’ fail to engage with the fundamentalists in their own ranks.

    It seems clear to me that this is because they absolutely recognise they have plenty in common with ‘extreme’ religious types.

    Todd Stiefel says the model for the atheist movement should be the LGBT community – need to come out, organize, and get financial support.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that the political success of LGBT people offers many lessons. Find me a job, and I’ll be happy to contribute.

    Stiefel says free-thinking has to replace other things religions have to offer – social connection, charity, and more.

    Social networks are the trickiest. Most male atheists see no reason to belong to a church – although Elisabeth Cornwell’s recent perspective on this shows that some women think differently.

    Seriously; apart from the possibility of making friends, which even Elisabeth noted is not a given, what can I gain from Free-Thinker’s club? Perhaps I’m approaching the whole subject from the wrong angle, but I just don’t see it.

    I have given to charity through the RDFRS, but it seems to me that we need to be thinking in terms of having a named and constituted charity on the ground to be recognised as givers. Part of the difficulty is that free-thinkers just don’t give to charity in the expectation of recognition.

    To us the end result is simply the relief that charity provides. While I appreciate that religious charities are, by design, less efficient because they aim to provide two end results I can’t see us ‘selling’ that dichotomy to free-thinkers, particularly where a religious charity has hit the ground running and they’re already ahead.

    I’m even less keen on a partnership with, say, Oxfam. Some charities may be secular, and may have infrastructure in place to address needs and situations quickly – but if they’re confused about whether they’re a political organisation or not (i.e. by donating to Britain’s Labour Party) then I have a very real difficulty seeing the difference between said notional free-thinker’s charity and, say, Christian Aid. Meanwhile our attempts to give via a route that recognises our secular (i.e. neutral and efficient) giving is undermined by the fact that someone else is delivering – as often as not it seems to me we become invisible all over again.

    It is easy, of course, to carp. All I’m saying is that we need a charity that has its own name and its own delivery arm. The next problem will be what should the priorities for such an organisation be? It cannot be, certainly in the beginning, capable of flying a crew to the next earthquake in Japan, while dealing simultaneously with the more detailed and grittier work of poverty relief in Southern Europe, South America and Africa.

    But then a more vexed question arises: Is starting a charity that is deliberately constituted as a free-thinkers’ charity likely to repay the political dividends expected?

    Can that be achieved?

    We can all think of reasons not to do something. But, the above is only a sketch. In order to begin to match the political clout of religions we need to do a lot of work. I would be happy to assist, but can find no way to volunteer. Even the RDFRS did not respond to my offer.

    This interview is typical of the New Atheist / Free-Thinkers movement Plenty of people with strategic vision and ideas. Lots more with time, energy and empathy for our fellow human beings. No-one with a practical plan rolling up their sleeves.

    It seems to me that this is the direct consequence of too many intelligent people with different ideas. Many of the people who might be making a difference are hidebound by political tradition or too timid. The reality appears to be that we’re all too afraid of making a mistake.

    Free-thinking scepticism starts with this as a handicap; we can see the possibilities, good and bad. Religions start with certainty, or at least plenty of conviction.

    Yes, I’ve found myself up to my knees in proverbial crocodiles wondering why I ever thought it was a good idea to drain the swamp. I know that learning through failure is a hard school. But the free-thinking community has to get over that to progress to the next stage.

    It is of course easy to say. I know that resources are precious – resources are always limited. Yes, it will be a tragedy to waste any resources and doubly so if a charity is involved. Nevertheless we have to remind ourselves that we have reached the stage that every political campaign comes to at some point. We have to make some hard choices – and then we have to drive hard to a conclusion.

    We need to keep in mind that it is too early for schism. Inclusion, transparency and diplomacy are key.

    Coming out is a difficult aspect of this to grasp. For a long time I was persuaded by Christopher Hitchen’s view that “The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has — from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness.”

    But the more I thought about it the more I realised that, for those of us who have ambition, radicalism is not a simple path to positive change.

    If we can continue to grow our base – remembering what Jamy Ian Swiss spelled out for us. then the more likely it is that we will make a movement that will make real, long-lasting, change.

    Peace.

  2. Excellent interview, Todd! I especially enjoyed hearing from someone raised Christian and another Muslim who came to the same realization. At least everyone who watches this can agree with at least one of you about either Christianity or Islam being man-made fiction.

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