A review of a book about a young, gay atheist, his journey through religion and sexuality, and his thoughts on the importance of interfaith work.
I first stumbled across Chris Stedman on Twitter and when I heard about his new book, I knew it was going to be important. I bought the book the day it came out and inhaled it.
“Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious”, his first book, is a about listening. It’s a book about belief and non-belief. It’s a book about how people have burnt bridges in the past and how we can rebuild them together. All of this, told through the story of one man: Chris Stedman, a gay atheist who is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and who also does a lot of interfaith work.
Being in the interfaith arena can sometimes be a lonely place. On one hand, there are atheistic groups that think you are wasting your time putting effort into something that people use as a crutch. On the other, there are groups of religious people who are wary of learning about other religions or who assume that interfaith cooperation is merely a tool of a creeping evil. And on an entirely different scale, there are communities who are suffering and experiencing destruction because of fear and ignorance between religious groups who sorely need to rebuild their community and learn about each other and the importance of diversity. This is the world where Chris has found himself.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “interfaith”, Wikipedia sums it up nicely with this definition:
The term interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels.
Chris Stedman grew up in a mostly religious ambiguous household and eventually stumbled into a fundamentalist Christian youth group where he was pulled in by the notion of Jesus as a social reformer. However, not everything was a perfect paradise… There was something that was eating at him that would eventually come into conflict with his faith. He says in his book:
Unfortunately, the prospect for LGBT kids like Chris in fundamentalist environments is grim. They often go through rigorous exercises of self-discipline trying to cure themselves of their “afflicition” in order to get back into the good graces of god, or they face a life of rejection and celibacy and the torment of feeling like god had solidly rejected them (because this is what the church tells them). One quote from the book punctuates this pain:
“I could only conceive of two possible futures for myself: one in which I lived a lonely life in solitude, or one in which I died of AIDS. And both, ultimately, led to the same final future: an eternity in hell.”
Through struggling with his sexuality and experiences in early college life, Chris eventually left the fundamentalist community, came out of the closet, and moved into atheism, but not through a lot of questioning and long nights.
When I first read the story of Chris’ journey and exit from Christianity, and his anguish while struggling with his sexuality, it reached up and punched me in the heart. Coming from a similar background a Chris, I recognized the harsh words and logic that left him with such heartache for so long. It is one of the most moving coming out stories I have ever read.
Chris Stedman goes on to talk about the various places he moved to, the conversations he had with new friends, and the experiences in local community faith centers that ultimately helped him understand his place in the universe, and see the urgent need for understanding between faith groups of all types.
I asked Chris about one of the primary reasons he got involved in interfaith dialog: “We live in a world that is increasingly religiously diverse and globalized,” he said. “We still don’t really know how to talk about religious differences because there are often no examples of strong interfaith bonds and thus, religious illiteracy is off the chart.”
At this point, you might be wondering what an atheist has to gain from interfaith cooperation. This is a question he often gets and he spends a good portion of the book explaining his reasons. He also puts out a call to his atheist brothers and sisters to create a much more redemptive narrative than what they have often projected. In one passage he explains:
I fear that some atheists are doing what I used to do in my antireligious days: engaging in monologue instead of dialogue. After years of dismissing religious people outright, I realized that I was so busy talking that I wasn’t listening. I was treating religion as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives.
Chris’ interfaith work and humanist chaplaincy ultimately come down to this: “I work to promote critical thinking, education, religious liberty, compassion, and pluralism, and to fight tribalism, xenophobia, and fanaticism.”
So, whether you are an atheist who thinks religion is stupid, or if you are a devout believer who has never once strayed from the faith, this is a goal we all can get behind if we want a future of freedom and peace. If we can learn to understand each other’s’ cultures and value systems, we don’t have to be afraid of each other anymore. Fear is poison to a community. So, if we as citizens can become informed about our neighbors, we can learn to live peaceably with each other and promote harmony within our communities.
I would highly recommend “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious”. If you are religious, this book is a great way to not only hear some new perspectives but also to understand what this whole interfaith thing is about. If you are an atheist, you may find a renewed hope and passion for humanity and a find reason to get involved in your community. If you are someone in a faith community wanting to understand the heart of LGBT youth, Chris’ story is a great one to begin with.
Chris’ storytelling will get down inside your skin and heart; his descriptions make you feel like you are in the room as the story is happening. “Faitheist” is incredibly honest and Chris hides nothing for the sake of showing you the beauty he has found in our world and why he lovingly, tirelessly labors to promote understanding between communities.
This book has something for everyone. Chris’ myriad of experiences speak so deeply into the human experience and are wildly relevant to the ever-diversifying culture we live in. If we want to create a better world together, this is an awfully good place to start.
Photographer: Alex Dakoulas, used with permission