Review: Faitheist by Chris Stedman

Posted January 22, 2013 by Heather in Book Reviews / 24 Comments

Review: Faitheist by Chris StedmanFaitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman
Published by Beacon Press on November 2012
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Format: eBook
Pages: 209
Source: my shelves

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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.

And:

I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and pluralism, and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism.

And:

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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  • therelentlessreader

    This sounds SO good. I don’t know where I fall on the religious spectrum…it changes daily. But, like you, I’m more concerned with social justice and humanism than with anything else. I need to read this 🙂

    • It is a great book–I read it all in one day. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

  • Wonderful review, Heather. This is definitely going on my to-read list.

    I’ve always been an atheist. I don’t really have a problem with religion, because I know that believing in a ‘guiding power’ bigger than yourself can be very comforting for some people. I’m reminded specifically of a woman I knew who was raising three girls by herself. Her older two girls were getting into trouble with drinking and the law, then her youngest daughter developed leukemia. She found it comforting to go to church and light candles and pray. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but it seemed to help her, so to each their own.

    The problem I have is that in my very strongly Catholic community, many citizens believe in ‘Love thy neighbour… as long as thy neighbour is exactly like thyself’. There’s not a whole lot of tolerance for homosexuals or people of colour around here, not to mention that some members of society seem overly concerned with what’s happening in other people’s uteri. It’s quite distressing sometimes!

    Anyway, I’ll stop rambling now. Thanks again for the terrific review. Can’t wait to read this one!

    • Catholicism is what made me decide that I am an atheist (decided around the age of 10 or 11). Long story short, I heard a Catholic priest say that anyone who isn’t Catholic automatically goes to Hell. Unfortunately, that meant lots of my friends and their families (and some of my family). That was when I really started questioning things, and I am fortunate that my mother had also decided she was an atheist at that point, and my father was what I call a “recovering Catholic.”

      I agree with you about people needing comfort and affirmation–many people just need to feel like they belong to a larger community, too.

      • sherrike

        Ha! My boyfriend calls himself a recovering Catholic as well. He and I discuss religion from time to time, and we’ve determined that if his grandparents were still alive, they would probably hate both of us. I think the Catholic church has changed—very slowly—but even a couple of generations ago, practicing Catholics around here did NOT mingle with the Protestants. I shudder to think what they would have thought about us godless heathens.

  • This review is absolutely why I love book blogs. I don’t like books about religion or faith. I was raised very Catholic, then dated a Baptist youth minister for years and now have a very tenuous relationship with that part of myself.

    Like you and the author, I care much more about people. That’s such a beautiful statement when you think about it. And a very difficult one to strive toward.

    I definitely want to read this. Now I just need to get my hands on it.

    • Thank you so much for the compliment, and thank you for sharing a bit of your story. I think you’ll really like Faitheist, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. 🙂

  • First – Superficial response, whose that cute guy on the book Heather just read.
    Second – whoa he’s smart too.
    Third – Couldn’t agree more – “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.”
    Fourth – Just put a copy on hold at the library (only partially because he’s cute).

    • He is very cute. Haha! That was my initial response when I saw him on TV, too. I’m so glad you’re going to read it!

  • This book sounds so amazing, and I love everything you said in this post. I really wish people would focus less on which religion other people belong to (or their lack or religion) and focus instead on trying to make the world a better place.

    I’m an atheist (kind of, maybe? I don’t believe in a god as a being that gives commandments and answers prayers, but I believe there’s an energy connecting all living things), and some of the things religious people have said to me are astounding. A Catholic friend of mine in college asked me, “If you’re an atheist, why do you have morals?” My response was something along the lines of, “If you’re only trying to be a good person because you believe you’ll go to hell if you don’t, you’re doing it wrong. I have morals because I’m not the only person on this earth, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect.” I totally agree that people should look at the bigger picture and try to be more understanding of others instead of squabbling over petty differences in beliefs.

    Although I’m not religious, I enjoy reading about religion, and I definitely want to read this book now!

    • That’s one of the hardest things for me to discuss in a less-than-irritated tone: “What is your moral compass?” I’m still a little shocked that people think I can’t be a good person without religion, but I just keep telling myself that in most cases, that’s how those people are raised…they don’t know anything else. It’s just as hard for them to imagine goodness without God as it is for us to imagine why they think that way. So I just tell people that I live by the Golden Rule and let it go at that.

      I know you’ll really like this book.

  • I will definitely be adding this to my list. Another great one is “Good Without God” (I think it’s by Greg Epstein). If I remember correctly, he’s the head of the Harvard Humanist program and I loved his book.

    • Yep. Chris spoke of Greg Epstein in this book. I already have Good Without God on my library list. Haha! Thank you for the recommendation.

  • The book sounds great!!!! I think that it’s true, we totally worry more about religion than the things that are hurting humanity. There is so much that we can do to make the world a better place.

    Have you read The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs? It’s different from this one, but it’s about how AJ Jacobs tries to live as “by the book” as he can for a year, exploring as many sects of Judaism and Christianity as he can. He was raised kind of Jewish, but is really more of an athiest.

    • I put AJ Jacobs’ book on my list when I read Allison’s review–I’m going to check the library for it as soon as I’m done with the other books I’ve borrowed. Thanks!

      • Ok, great! He actually wrote a few other books, but I haven’t read them yet. The Know It All (reading the encyclopedia Brittanica from A-Z) and Drop Dead Healthy (which I assume he is going to do everything to be super duper healthy).

  • Heather, unfortunately, the problem is not with Catholics alone. The problem is with Christiandom on the whole. I am a Bible believing Christian but I have always maintained that we Christians take our God for granted, being selfish, and being selective in whom we love, in short hypocrites knowing full well that our God is a forgiving God. So much social injustice in my country is caused by people who go to church every sunday only to turn round and blame things on the devil. There is no humanity in their Christianity. I may be accused of generalising issues but I know what I am talking about.

    There is a God-spirit in each of us, atheists or not that allow us to be humanistic and humane and this is visibly absent in lots of Christians. I may not agree with Stedman’s choice of belief or the lack there of, but I do agree with his ideals. I think he is great and so are you. 🙂 A wonderful review, BTW.

    • Oh, I’m definitely not singling out Catholicism–that’s just where my personal experience lies.

      Thank you for bringing your experiences to the conversation, and thank you for the compliment. The feeling is mutual. 🙂

  • This sounds like a great read. I too get annoyed at the easy-target “science is bunk, God is the answer!” fanatics, as well as the “you’re an idiot if you’re religious” extremists. I’ll be interested to read Chris Stedman’s exploration of what is too often polarizing. And I say that as someone raised Lutheran who now considers himself atheist-to-agnostic-at-best.

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