How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious
by Chris Stedman
Nonfiction — Memoir
Beacon Press, November 2012
In the Foreword to Faitheist, Eboo Patel–the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core–says of Chris Stedman:
His atheism doesn’t hate God; it loves people. He is proud of who he is (gay, atheist, Minnesotan, heavily tattooed, staff member at the Harvard Humanist Association, writer), and he wants to create a world where all people are free to be proud of who they are–Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, wanderer, whatever. He believes that the atheist movement ought to be talking more about what it does stand for than what it doesn’t.
I first learned about Chris Stedman and his work when he was a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show at the end of December. He was there to talk about the role of religion in events like the Newtown, CT school shooting. I don’t remember exactly what he said on the show, but I knew I wanted to read his book right away. I’m also an atheist and a humanist (I do my best with the latter), and I, too, think that we do ourselves a disservice by arguing over whether or not there’s a God. While we (meaning atheists and theists, alike) are arguing about whether or not God exists, while atheists are throwing science at theists to try to make them see our version of the light, we are wasting time that could be better spent on working together to make the world a better place. I know that sounds a bit cliché, but it’s true. Most of us–no matter how we feel about religion–want the same thing: social justice. We want people to be happy, healthy, respected, free from oppression. Like Chris, I am more concerned about social justice than I am with whether or not people believe in God. There are elements of organized religion that I’m not fond of; I don’t like how exclusive some religions tend to be. I don’t like that there are groups of people in our society who are put down and railed against by certain religions because of who they are. But as long as there are humans on earth, there will be religions and religious faith–it’s not going to go away. I respect that, and I’d rather work with progressive theists to move religion forward, make it more inclusive, and use our shared values to work on social justice issues, than waste my time debating the existence of God. As Chris says in Faitheist, “A world absent of religion would not necessarily be a more cooperative or peaceful one; a world absent of fanaticism, totalitarianism, and tribalism would certainly be.”
Faitheist is Chris Stedman’s memoir about his relationship with religion and how that relationship has changed over the course of his life. Chris became a born-again Christian in his early teens (if I remember correctly) because he wanted to belong to a community that was as concerned as he was with the injustice he saw in the world around him. He wanted to feel like he belonged to something bigger than himself, and what better group to belong to–one that celebrated a God who loved everyone without exception. Unfortunately, Chris soon found out that this religious community was unapologetically homophobic, and Chris was just beginning to realize that he was gay. There was no place for him in this community, and his anger at being “fooled,” as it were, into believing that he would be accepted unconditionally turned him away from religion permanently and made him highly cynical for a time. Eventually, Chris realized that his hostility toward religion was keeping him from engaging with theists who wanted the same things he did, and it was keeping him from doing any meaningful work. Now Chris is a humanist and highly involved in the interfaith community.
Faitheist is more than just a memoir, though. Having been on both sides of the gulf that separates theists and atheists, Christ suggests ways for all of us to come together and find common ground that we can build meaningful relationships on. As he says in Faitheist:
Now it sounds like exactly what our world needs—people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.
I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and pluralism, and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism.
I am far more concerned about whether people are pluralistic in their worldview—if they oppose totalitarianism and believe those of different religious and nonreligious identities should be free to live as they choose and cooperate around shared values—than I am about whether someone believes in God or not.
Faitheist is a wonderful book that I highly recommend to everyone, no matter your religious or non-religious affiliations. Chris is very down-to-earth (no pun intended), well spoken, and passionate about his beliefs and the work he does with the interfaith community. I think a lot of people (including myself) can learn from his example.
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