“I had never heard the word ‘faitheist’ before,” says Chris Stedman, “but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment.” So begins Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, which is part memoir, part plea for dialogue between the atheist and the religious. It’s a plea both communities would do well to consider.
Faitheist is a personal story. It documents two major life revelations for Stedman—that he is both gay and an atheist—either of which are enough to make him a pariah in many communities. As a gay man, Stedman found himself unwelcome in his evangelical community. And while becoming an atheist could have provided a new community for him, being a faitheist—an atheist who engages religion constructively to better society and refuses to just criticize those who are religious—also put him at odds with many atheists. As he recalls:
“You’re not a real atheist. We’ve got a name for people like you. You’re a ‘faitheist.’” Not a real atheist. I’d heard words like that before—in my youth, when I was told I couldn’t be a real Christian because I was gay. Once again I didn’t fit the prescribed model, and I was not-so-gently shown the door.
Stedman experienced these two transitions in significantly different ways.
The first, coming to terms with his sexual orientation, was fraught with stress and a disappointed hope that a simple cure could be found in suppression and prayer. He believed no one would understand and when his mother discovered his journal, which detailed this turmoil, he believed that she would disown him.
“I didn’t want her to reject me, but I felt like I’d earned it,” he writes. “I didn’t deserve love—not from God, not from my mom, not from anyone. I was worse than dirt; even earth had a purpose in God’s creation. I was an aberration, an unlovable abomination.”
But to his surprise, his mother took him to see a minister who had a different perspective. God loves him, he was told, just as he was.
“If God had made me this way,” he writes, then “why did He allow me to suffer so much?” After this moment, Stedman’s relationship with God became a complicated mix of anger and uncertainty. One might think this would end his connection to the church altogether, but when his sister invited him to attend a Lutheran teen retreat, he discovered a friend who introduced him to the idea that he could be gay and Christian, that these were not mutually exclusive. “I became an energetic queer Christian activist,” he writes.
His journey to faithlessness was much more subtle. Losing one’s faith can be like either a mugging or a picked-pocket; for Stedman it was the latter.
It’s hard to put my finger on the demise of my belief in God. There was no moment of revelation, no neat and tidy bookend to the years of belief that followed my initial conversion. The conclusion of my Christian faith was a gradual process; it was something that happened in increments as a result of careful thought and investigation.
He transitioned into the atheist community, initially attempting to find a place among confrontational atheists.
Even as I tried on different identities, I began to step up my antireligious behavior, arrogantly rolling my eyes at anyone with a semblance of certainty. Christianity became my special target. I decided that after our break-up I did not want to be friends.
But that attitude could not last long, for reasons that are obvious from the beginning of the book: Stedman is a really nice guy. In fact, almost every time I run across discussions about him online, they are exuberantly positive. Possibly for this reason he was named by Religion Dispatches as #5 in a list of the Top 10 Peacemakers in the Science-Religion wars and he was given the “Happy Heathen! Award.”
He may have felt angry, but he couldn’t shutter the empathy he had for his fellow human beings, religious or not. For all of the headway made for the atheist world by classic statesmen like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, Stedman is right that the only way Atheism will ever be more than a visceral reaction will be if its adherents embrace something other than their acreedal formula that there is no God and no one is his prophet.
Stedman eventually finds his home not in anger but in loving his neighbor as himself. Like Greg Epstein or Alain de Botton, rather than identifying himself with the absence of belief, he embraces the existence of his humanist values. And because of these values, he can close his book with several reasons atheists should reconsider the value of inter-faith dialogue and a life of service to others—landing him the label, Faitheist.
He is aware that he is only in his twenties and possibly too young to write a memoir, but his life experience is significant, and his insight into both the worlds of the religious and the atheist is invaluable to both.
Faitheist is a bold, empathetic, and sensible challenge to faith and nonfaith communities to think compassionately and to seek common values in a shared world. Stedman has had plenty of reasons to disown both the religious and the atheist, but rather than travel down that bitter, twisted path he chose the road of graciousness. Many of the Christians I know, especially those whose worldviews are fueled by phobias of atheism or the LGBT community, should read this book. Perhaps they will manage to see beyond the stereotype and find the human being.