Chris Stedman: Interfaith Activist — and Faitheist

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Faitheist?

"That's a pejorative term in many atheist circles to describe an atheist who's seen as too accommodating to people of faith. It's something I was called the first time I went to an atheist meeting."

So says Chris Stedman, who borrowed that term for the title of his memoir, published late last year by Beacon Press. And perhaps, according to nonbelievers in some circles, Stedman is indeed too accommodating to people of faith. The subtitle of Faitheist admits as much: "How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious."

That's the topic Stedman will present in a lecture, free and open to the public, on Monday, April 8th, inside Rhodes College's Hardie Auditorium at 7 p.m. It's a topic he addresses on the NonProphet Status blog, online at Huffington Post and The Washington Post, and as assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University. It's a topic he further explained in a recent phone conversation from his home in Boston. Of his Monday night lecture: "I want to stress the importance of constructive and compassionate understanding between people of faith and the nonreligious."

How does an atheist and young man — Stedman turns 27 on Tuesday — arrive at such understanding? Especially since he grew up in a nonreligious household? Especially since he converted to an evangelical church at the tender age of 11? And especially since, since his freshman year in high school, he has made no mystery of the fact that he is gay?

Let Stedman explain.

Chris Stedman: My book Faitheist is the personal story of growing up nonreligious and becoming a fundamentalist Christian when I was an adolescent. Shortly after that, I realized I was gay. I struggled for a number of years to reconcile those two things — and did reconcile them.

I went to Augsburg College in Minneapolis to study religion, thinking I'd go into the ministry. But I was encouraged by my Christian professors to ask myself some serious, critical questions about what I believed and why. It was then that I began to recognize I'd become a Christian when I was an adolescent not because I particularly believed in the truth claims of Christianity but because I was looking for community and a way to make sense of the injustice I saw in the world.

Prior to my conversion, I'd read Roots by Alex Haley, Hiroshima by John Hersey, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I became aware of the fact that I lived in a world with these great atrocities. I was trying to make sense of it. But I also converted about the time my parents divorced. I was looking for stability, for structure. But when I finally realized that the metaphysical claims of Christianity had never sat comfortably with me, I realized I was an atheist.

As an atheist studying religion, I wasn't sure how I should relate to my religious peers. I had a difficult time understanding them, talking to them. And I found I had a fair amount of resentment toward religion after spending so much of my life trying to reconcile my religious beliefs with my sexual orientation and way I see the world.

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So I struggled for a number of years to relate to religious people, but I realized, as time went on, that I wasn't really giving them a fair shake. I was only looking at the harmful and negative expressions of religion. I wasn't looking at the real diversity of religious expression that exists in the world.

I decided to continue studying religion and see if I could find community between me and other nonbelievers and religious believers. I found, I'd argue, that between the majority of believers and nonbelievers there's significant common ground — common ground that's often ignored or dismissed in favor of focusing only on our disagreements. I think there's a real need at this point in human history — when we live in such a globalized and interconnected world, a world that's increasingly religiously diverse — for a different kind of conversation about religious differences, one that puts our shared values at the forefront.

Are you seeing a new openness generally between people of faith and nonbelievers?
I would say so, yes. First of all, there's the Obama administration. It's supported initiatives to promote interfaith dialogue particularly on college campuses, where young people have the opportunity to live alongside, study alongside, and learn from people who are different from them, who've had different life experiences and believe different things.

There's been significant growth too in conversations within the atheist community about how to relate to believers. For example, there's been a rise in the number of atheistic, agnostic, and nonreligious student groups doing collaborative programs with religious groups on campuses.

And that includes you and your work as a humanist chaplain? What is a humanist chaplain?
I have office hours where students can talk to me about meaning-of-life issues, crisis management. I don't claim to have answers, but what I can offer is a compassionate ear. I'm there as a resource and advocate for nonreligious students.

I also plan events and programs for nonreligious students. We bring in speakers and organize discussion groups. I coordinate our interfaith and civic-engagement program, called Values in Action. That involves interfaith outreach and collaboration with charitable initiatives to give our students the opportunity to live out their values, to give positive expressions of humanism. We want to demystify atheists, to counteract negative stereotypes, and give atheists the opportunity to give back to the community.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell has some interesting observations in this regard. Research shows that religious Americans are a lot more civically engaged than the nonreligious. They give more money to charities both religious and secular. They volunteer more of their time to charitable causes. They're more likely to vote, more likely to run for political office. But on the correlation between religiosity and civic engagement: People aren't more civically engaged the more devout they are. They're more civically engaged the more involved they are in their religious community.

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Putnam and Campbell also found that the nonbelieving spouse of a religious person who participated in a religious community with that partner was as likely to be as civically engaged as the believing partner. The authors speculate that nonreligious communities could serve a similar function: help nonreligious people become more civically engaged.

That's a big part of what we try to do with the Humanist Community at Harvard. It's a big part of why I'm passionate about working in a nonreligious community. We want to provide resources for nonreligious people to not only give back and contribute to society but also be part of these quickly growing interfaith conversations that help break down the suspicion and hostility between religious and nonreligious groups.

How do you feel now about that term "faitheist"?
It's something I want to reclaim. Being a faitheist means I value seeing the humanity in others, meeting people in the middle, building understanding where I can — essentially, putting — quote unquote — faith in the idea that as human beings we can learn to transcend what I think are often merely tribal differences masquerading as more substantive differences.

We have students at the Harvard Divinity School who are atheists and humanists, who are studying to do humanist chaplaincy. And this is a growing phenomenon. These are people who would not consider themselves religious or people of faith in any sense. But they're very interested in religion. Even as nonbelievers, they're looking at how religion helps people build community and make meaning of their lives.

What was the tipping point for you personally, from Christian convert to atheist?
In Faitheist, I describe it as a more gradual process than, say, realizing I was queer — as feeling one day that God had packed up his things and moved out, but I'd been too busy to even notice.

At one point, I thought I had to believe in Christianity in order to be part of a community of people who talked about justice … people building the kind of community that advocates for the well-being of all people … communities of faith. But I actually … I only sort of felt I needed to believe to belong to that kind of community.

I may have grown up in a nonreligious household, but I was raised to value others, to treat people with kindness. Things I hold most centrally are the things I was raised to believe even before I encountered religion at all. But I'd come to think of studying religion and being a Christian as a "package deal," and eventually I had the realization that even though I was studying religion as an undergraduate, I didn't need to see it as a "package deal" any longer.

Do you think being gay helped or hindered your wide perspective?
I try to make it clear in Faitheist that I'm not an atheist because I'm gay. I know a lot of gay people who are people of faith.

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When I started coming out of the closet, my mother found the journal I was keeping. I was struggling to reconcile my sexual orientation and my faith, and she called a church in the community and took me to speak with a minister, who offered me an LGBT perspective as a Christian. I then spent all of high school very involved in Christian circles as an openly gay person. In fact, I found acceptance in Christian churches before I found it in my public high school. For me, becoming an atheist had nothing to do with my feeling that I couldn't be a Christian and gay at the same time. It was more that I simply didn't believe any longer.

But I will say that accepting my sexual orientation meant challenging a lot of norms and assumptions I'd inherited about who I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to believe. And I do think it's made it easier for me, later in life, to be more open to questioning other norms and assumptions — to think outside the box in ways that I perhaps had a harder time doing when I was younger.

Do you ever get impatient with, angry at the rhetoric used by opponents of LGBT equality?
Oh, sure, I definitely do. That's when I think of what others have said. Like Martin Luther King Jr. when he talked about how hate cannot drive out hate, darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. I try to challenge myself to respond with compassion and patience. Shouting matches and vitriolic rhetoric embed people further in what they already believe. I'd rather invite someone to consider another perspective.

Last December, I wrote a piece called "Sympathy for the Devil" for The Rumpus — a piece about one of the first speeches I ever gave. After almost everyone had cleared out of the room, a young woman approached me and said I had a demon inside me that was making me gay.

Now, you'd think it would be easy for to me dismiss that, because I don't believe in demons, right? But it actually triggered a lot of … a very emotional response in me. That was the same rhetoric I'd internalized when I was younger, the same rhetoric that led me to believe that who I am is wrong.

My instinct was to respond to this woman in a number of ways: to get upset or yell at her or show her why her idea was not only wrong but harmful. But I paused. I took a moment to calm down. And for whatever reason, I said to her something along the lines of: "I just want to say thank you for being honest with me. I know it can be hard, especially when you have something to say to someone that you think they are not going to want to hear. I suspect you're telling me this out of a place of concern for my well-being, and I appreciate that."

I think she was expecting a confrontation. I think she was expecting to have her belief that there's a demon inside me confirmed. But by responding with compassion, I was able to surprise her. We ended up having a really nice conversation.

I'd love to say she walked away from that conversation and became a gay rights activist. But I can say that by having that conversation I was potentially able to plant a seed. Now when she thinks about gay people, she not only has to think about her idea that demons are inside them. She has to think about a person whose story she's heard, whose experiences she can relate to. It gives her another point of reference. It humanizes the issue. It takes it out the realm of the theoretical, out of the shouting matches on cable news.

Too often we turn down the opportunity to build that human connection, because it feels too hard or too unsafe or too scary. That's why an interfaith dialogue can be such a force — a force for good. •

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Chris Stedman's invitation to speak in Memphis was proposed by Rhodes Freethinkers, Atheists and Agnostics (RFAA) and supported by the school's Better Together Campaign, a group of students trained by Interfaith Youth Core, a national organization that equips young people for dialogue and community service across the boundaries of religion and belief.

And according to Rhodes student Jess Wilder, of RFAA, Stedman was the ideal person to bring to campus for the school's interfaith week. In Wilder's words:

"Chris is one of the few secular voices protesting the methods and rhetoric coming from writers such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris and from the New Atheist Movement. Chris emphasizes that, through a focus on service work, nonbelievers can find common ground with the religions of the world. He'll also be having lunch with our LGBT groups while on campus Monday. 

"As for the goals of RFAA, we want the group to be as inclusive as possible. We want to show that not all nonbelievers hate religion. We have nothing against religion. We just don't happen to believe. Nevertheless, we can find common ground with the religious through our desire to better the world."

Another goal of the group: possibly a name change — one that suggests shared concerns, not boundaries. In place of freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics, Wilder wrote in an email, think Rhodes Secular Alliance.

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