An Interview with Author Chris Stedman

Chris Stedman

Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist.

Last December, I reviewed Chris Stedman’s book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Chris is the Assistant Chaplain and Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard University, Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status.

Faitheist centers around two major life revelations—that he is both gay and atheist—either of which is enough make to most people feel like outcasts. But for Chris these revelations led to community. With his secular humanist values as his guide, he has managed to embrace, and create a welcoming space in his life for, his religious friends.

Chris generously gave up some of his precious little free time to talk with The Discarded Image.

Hi, Chris. Our focus at The Discarded Image is ideas and moments in life that change the way individuals understand the world. In Faitheist, you describe several points of life-change, from the more dramatic discovery of your own sexual orientation to the subtle, “gradual” loss of your faith. It appears to me, despite the emphasis of your book’s title and your current interfaith work, that the former experience has been more significant in forming your current identity and your book’s story than has the latter. Would you agree?

That’s an interesting question. Part of me agrees, but ultimately I can’t parse my life out in that way. For me, every experience described in Faitheist is an important piece of the puzzle. Each step in the narrative leads to the next. Coming to terms with my sexuality was probably more difficult than recognizing that I was an atheist, but largely because I was younger and less equipped to navigate the cognitive dissonance that came along with realizing I was queer. I didn’t have to grapple with my atheism until I was older. But realizing I was an atheist was definitely difficult in its own right. For one, it was a more solitary experience. When I came out as queer, I was immediately connected with resources, support groups, and solidarity. I couldn’t locate those resources at first when I realized I was an atheist—and, even once I did, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by what I found. So I think my atheism was perhaps more of a hurdle than my sexual orientation in terms of my coming to appreciate the value, and necessity of, pluralism.

Additionally, I would say that being queer was more central to the formation of my identity than my atheism because my atheism is merely my position on one issue. Being queer is more connected to my identity—so, in that sense, it perhaps has more in common with my ethical Humanist philosophy than it does with my atheism. But because we live in a society that assumes religiosity and theism, my atheism has come to feel very noteworthy. In the same way that my being queer was more significant because of societal heteronormativity, I think that atheists need to be visible and vocal because we are a minority group living to a society that often ignores or marginalizes us because of religious and theistic privilege.

Did the first realization help to break down the potential fear-barriers that may have made the latter (atheism) easier to accept? I ask this because it appears to me that anytime one “comes out” on anything significant, it generally follows a period of fear about becoming a public pariah. However, once one faces that first big fear, it helps to alleviate the anxiety that could be experienced when going public on other issues later on, like that of a conversion to another faith or becoming an atheist.

Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I do think that having to come out to myself and others in one arena once made doing so a second time, in a different way, a bit easier. Once I had to challenge the normative, inherited assumptions and expectations that I had of myself, it made it easier to break open, challenge, and move beyond others. Once I began to expand my understanding of the possible paths I might be allowed to take, it made it easier to be more authentic in the other ways in which I came to understand myself and my beliefs.

FaitheistIn what ways has your past experience in the evangelical community influenced what you do now in your interfaith work? 

Based on my experiences as an evangelical, and as a liberal Christian, I feel that I have some degree of understanding about what it means to be an evangelical and a liberal Christian—and, more broadly, some understanding of the religious experience and how it varies in more closed and more open religious communities. I have a sense of how personally important it can feel, and about how it can be as much or more about building identity and in-group cohesion and constructing community as it is about shared belief. But I firmly believe that you don’t have to be or have ever been religious in order to be actively engaged in interfaith work; the work itself is inherently educational. Participants—religious and nonreligious alike—teach one another about their differences, and about how to be in relationship with one another.

You’ve earned the “Happy Heathen” award and have a reputation as a peacemaker, but even the most renowned of peacemakers have their limits stretched. There are significant numbers of religious individuals whose reactions to the LGBTQ community are visceral, and include active opposition to equal rights under the law. Does your interfaith work extend to that conservative community? If so, what difficulties have you run into and/or successes have you experienced?

Believe me, my limits are constantly being stretched. In fact, I’m not always sure that my instincts incline toward peacemaking. Not all the time, anyway. Like anyone, I have emotional responses to things, I get frustrated and angry and impatient. But it’s important to think carefully and strategically about how to respond when you are confronted with something that pushes your edges. I wrote a piece about this a few months back, reflecting on what happened when I responded constructively—with patience and compassion—when someone told me that I have a demon inside of me that is making me gay, even though that wasn’t my first instinct.

That said, I didn’t get into this work because I was interested in easy answers. When people criticize interfaith efforts, they often characterize them as “kumbaya” initiatives that gloss over difficult issues, where participants ignore their differences or exclude perspectives that challenge. I’m not particularly interested in that kind of interfaith—I think it can and does serve a purpose for some people, but I think that interfaith efforts should create a safe space to constructively challenge norms and discuss seemingly irreconcilable perspectives on sexuality, faith, and more.

You are an activist heavily invested in the interfaith movement and with an optimistic view of the contributions religions bring to the world of social justice, but you are also an atheist. Among some atheists, this has earned you the label “accommodationist,” which is a near-synonym for “faitheist,” with the more obvious implication of being a “compromiser.” As an atheist, have you run into a conflict of interest when working with a faith that uses their social-outreach as a means—whether subtle or obvious—to spread their faith? If not, how does your work avoid that sort of conflict?

I was asked this question recently at an event, and I was glad that it was raised because this is an important issue, and it is one that I am very mindful of. I coordinate an atheist-interfaith community service program at Harvard, and I serve as an advisor to Foundation Beyond Belief’s Challenge the Gap interfaith initiative, which selects one religiously-affiliated nonprofit every quarter and donates money from atheists to it. In both of those roles, I work with atheists on donating time and resources toward working with religious groups and organizations on charitable initiatives. In both capacities, I always vet the organizations we work with carefully to ensure that they aren’t doing covert proselytizing, or putting religious requirements on recipients or clients. I’m interested in advancing pluralism, not a particular faith worldview.

On the other hand, I wonder if being entirely unwilling to work with organizations that proselytize results in those communities not having an opportunity to challenge their understanding of evangelism—to recognize the flaws inherent in building evangelizing stipulations into charitable work. So I think this is something worth considering and exploring further.

Every religion has its sects, traditions, and differences of opinions on how to approach outsiders. Some of these branches spread their beliefs less aggressively with a “come and see” invitation model, while others are activists and evangelistic. For the latter, anytime a religion actively advocates, it can risk offending. There seem to be similar models within atheism. Should atheists engage in activism for atheism? If not, does that say something about the value of being an atheist? If they should advocate, how should that effort look?

You can be an activist and an advocate for your own beliefs without making the elimination of others your priority. I explore this in Faitheist, and in a piece I wrote in 2011 called “The Problem With Atheist Activism.” I fully support—and actively work to advance—the ideas that religious privilege and totalitarianism are problematic and should be challenged, and that we need to build a world where atheism is more socially accepted and is something that can be expressed freely and without restriction. But I don’t see many anti-theist activists accomplishing those things; in fact, I think they often inadvertently reinforce preexisting prejudices about atheists, and make the work of relationship-building across lines of religious difference—which demonstrably decreases suspicion, distrust, and hostility between groups—that much harder. No atheist activist is going to be able to altogether avoid offending—after all, there are people who are offended by our very existence, and I also think that it’s important for people to be authentic and upfront about their beliefs—but for that reason it is especially important that we be thoughtful and strategic about how we express ourselves and pursue our goals.

Are there religious individuals, living or dead, that you find particularly inspiring in your work? Why? What might an atheist learn from them?

Of course. The religious individuals that have influenced my worldview and work are far too numerous to list out here, but Eboo Patel has been one of the most influential and his writing is well worth reading. More generally, I spent my years in higher education studying religion, and I certainly didn’t spend those years simply disagreeing with everything that I read and everyone that I spoke with. I think that there are many figures that have operated from a religious perspective that atheists can learn from—and, of course, many atheists that religious people can learn from. Interfaith dialogue can break down fear and suspicion between different groups of people, but I also think it can also help build a stronger society because it encourages people to be in conversation with others—to come across ideas that challenge their own, and to robustly exchange and strengthen them.

Lastly, Faitheist seems to have had a good public reception. Are there any plans for another project in the near future?

For now, I’m just taking things one day at a time. I’m continuing my work for the Humanist Community at Harvard, continuing to do interfaith work, and enjoying and learning from the discussions arising in response to my book. All of that is more than enough to occupy my time and attention at the moment. But I wouldn’t rule something new out down the road!

Thanks again, Chris, for talking with me and for bringing a different kind of voice to the interfaith conversation.

In search of belief changing ideas