An Interview with Chris Stedman

Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman (Beacon Press, 2012) $22.95

faitheistChris Stedman is gay. If that proves an uncomfortable introduction, the rest of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious will continue to unsettle you.

The first four chapters are spent introducing and grounding Stedman in plum evangelical youth culture, with memorable and detailed accounts of altar calls, Bible studies, hushed prayers with friends at school, complete with religious paraphernalia, clothing, and reductionist bumper sticker-theology. But rather than stay there and perhaps explain why he rejected the faith of his childhood for an educated and “liberated” atheism, he begins to tell a different story. Slowly, he begins to introduce what it means to realize you have same-sex attraction in evangelical culture. He tells about his first tentative “dates” with boys, his crushes on television swimsuit models and Justin Timberlake, and his first breakup. Underneath the tension of sin and shame is still another story – how he realized, again ever so slowly, that he had given up on God.

What struck me the most was how relatable Stedman’s experiences are to me, as a straight evangelical. The fear of his “sin” being exposed, the musical interests, the life-long desire for community, frustration with the things done in God’s name, and the lingering resentment of a God who rarely – if ever – shows up. Like a modern Holden Caulfield, Stedman chronicles his journey through evangelical culture, disillusionment and disenchantment, college, first loves, and the screw-ups of the early twenties. But unlike The Catcher in the Rye, Stedman possesses the requisite maturity to make meaning of the chaos. He went to college to study religion, trying to make sense of it all – his life as a gay man, the faith of his childhood, and the irreconcilable incongruency between the two. He find himself working in an assisted-living home, reading the “Lutheran Prayer for Courage” at the request Marvin, a developmentally disabled resident.

I realized that though I couldn’t decipher why the prayer was so important to him, it was. It touched him in a profound way. And because I shared in this significant element of his life, our relationship was more honest and real… I realized that a relationship that didn’t account for this important piece of Marvin’s life was an incomplete one.

Stedman goes on to have an epiphany of sorts. Even though he no longer believes in God, or any god for that matter, he sees the value in helping people – even people who do not believe the way that he does. He decides to devote himself to interfaith engagement, inspired by a copy of Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, concluding that,

I wanted to learn from my mistakes and take concrete action to bridge the vast divide between religious communities and the nonreligious. The anger I felt after years of struggling with Christian theology and my sexual orientation transformed into something deeper, richer, and more complex: a combination of humility and empathy, a stance of conviction, curiosity, and compassion.

You’re an atheist who works in interfaith dialogue. How is that even possible?

It started when I was in seminary in Chicago, under the umbrella of the Univ. of Chicago in Meadville and interning at Interfaith Youth Corp – which equips you to do interfaith dialogue on their campus. I worked there as a content developer and adjunct trainer. At the time, I was doing my masters, I was looking at the role of narrative and storytelling in interfaith dialogue, and I noticed there was an absence of humanist and atheist communities at interfaith dialogue. There are many people who are already involved getting connected through their respective faith communities, but the language of interfaith dialogue doesn’t inspire people to get involved. I wondered if there was also a channel for interfaith dialogue for the non-religious. Along the way, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and I started a dialogue to discuss reaching out to religious communities to engage in creating civic ties between religious and non-religious, to challenge the stigma on both sides. Out of that, I was inspired to create “Values in Action” at Harvard.

My responsibilities involve community dialogue and functioning as a community organizer to organize programs. Practically, I have open chaplain office hours for people to talk to someone in a pastoral role, from a secular humanist perspective.

What does that mean for someone like you who would seem, at first glance, to be “outside the circle” of religion to have a seat at the table?

My masters degree was in pastoral counseling, so I’m interested in bringing nonreligious people to make meaning and have life-giving community for identity.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book, American Grace, for example found that religious Americans give more money than the non-religious in society, to charities and non-profits, so there exists this correlation between faith and civil engagement which relates to how involved people are with their faith community. I was convinced that there was some way to connect the faith and non-religious communities, some way to engage both religious and non-religious a compassionate conversation with each other.

You said that you have office hours, where you meet with people in a pastoral role. What does that look like?

Yeah, I get this question a lot. There are 40 chaplains at Harvard from different worldviews, so it is important for nonreligious students to have equal access to resources. But more than that, I’m a halfway point between doing nothing and having a counseling relationship – so crisis intervention. I’ve had a lot of students come to me looking for someone to talk to without the commitment of a long-term counseling relationship.

Many people want a humanist perspective, but more than that I’m able to speak to people who are looking for someone to listen and not try to direct them to a therapeutic diagnosis. I’m able to share from my own experiences, as I deem appropriate, as someone who can understand, and as someone who they can have an experience with through a community service project or interfaith dialogue.

It’s a different kind of relationship than counseling. I try to make it about what they are working through. Sometimes, a person who believes in God will come and talk to me, and I’m able to help them move towards wholeness, happiness and health – whatever that means for them, no matter their religious concerns.

In the book, there is this really touching moment where you talk about the importance of your mother trying to find a spiritual leader to help you when you were younger. Can you speak to what that was like?

That was a pivotal moment that sent my life in a different direction. I am no longer a Christian or involved in that community any more – that is, while I certainly don’t believe in the metaphysical claims of Christians, I’m still engaged with people who are. But, at that time, had someone suggested I not be a Christian, it wouldn’t have connected.

I can definitely see that. You spent the first four chapters really establishing what it was like to be involved in evangelical culture, speaking at youth events and such.

Right, well, what I needed at that time were people who could provide a different perspective on human sexuality. The fact that my mom knew what I needed and could find it for me was an act of love. I’m grateful for what she did, and I still work with people who are looking to create an open dialogue about human sexuality.

What I hope my story can do is to humanize that feeling—utter rejection from your community and the journey of finding a new community that could hold and embrace me in the fullness of who I was.

Looking back, was there something that you needed when you were younger which you are trying to provide the LGBTQ community today?

One thing that I was missing at that point was the ability to move forward. The only narrative that I heard – that I could not be the person I was – kept me from moving forward. Today, there are so many narratives, but back then, I couldn’t envision that kind of life for myself.

If I am able to help people come to terms with their own life, I would be very grateful because if I had heard that story when I was younger, it would have helped me. Thankfully, I had my mother who could find that for me and find resources for me to grow.

Coming back to interfaith dialogue, so much of your book is about the importance of dialogue, of really appreciating those who hold different beliefs. What are some of the great challenges for you, listening to other faiths as an atheist, and what do you see in those engagements that makes you happy and gives you hope?

I think that some people enter interfaith dialogue with neutral language, where they don’t talk about differences but only surface-level agreements. That’s not what I’m interested in or inspired by, even though it serves an important function. People need to be able to listen with a compassionate ear to what those differences are. That can be challenging and risky. It’s often very challenging for me to enter into dialogue with people that I fundamentally disagree with. But to sit at a table and listen to each other’s differences and it not be like television’s talking head is important.

At the grassroots level, people can hear each other and see the overlap. It’s still an emerging field with a lot of research to be done but you can see the changes taking place in society when it comes to marriage and same-sex relationships. Interfaith communities can provide exposure to these differences, can humanize the diversity, to help people see that even if they have few things in common or few shared core beliefs, they are humans who have experienced similar things – things like going to school, growing up, having people you care about. If you’re able to see the humanity in people that you previously only saw by way of their label – whether Christian or lesbian or Muslim or atheist – that is an opportunity to confront those challenges and move forward together on those things.

I guess that’s where I draw inspiration from, seeing it happen in a person’s face, the “aha” moment, where they realize this person that they sidelined and put in a box is someone they can connect with. That realization leads to social change worth advancing. That is something hopeful to me. We encounter religious diversity but we are ignorant of our differences and these are causes for polarization. It’s a transformation that inspires me to see that diversity is possible and can result in some important social change. 

As a gay man, do you see the LGBTQ community as another pocket of faith (ex: Catholics, Bahai, LGBTQ, etc) or are you trying to help leaders recognize how to help those who are already among them (ex: twenty-somethings, divorcees, doubters, etc)? 

It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. There is a growing recognition that LGBTQs who are active in faith communities have unique needs. They have experiences that non-LGBTQ people share, but how those experiences occur can be very different . In a sense, they need to learn to engage in those spaces that are difficult to identify. Their distinct identity is like a Venn diagram, there will be overlaps even though there are unique differences.

But yes, there are times and places where the LGBTQ community operate as their own faith community in ways that, historically, faith communities have difficulty engaging with. I’m an LGBTQ atheist, but I’m also a former Christian who was open for a number of years. I recognize those differences and lived through them. It’s going to be different depending on your community, faith, engagement level, and how much they relate to LGBTQ.

What drives you? Why is the thing you’ve devoted yourself to and what wakes you up each morning, inspires you, gives you strength?

I think that what drives me is the work that I’m doing – to see change take place. It’s really difficult to engage these conversations in a public way, particularly as a queer atheist which puts me in a position of not being warmly received – including among atheists who feel that atheists should not engage in this kind of work.

For me, even in the challenging moments, I almost never question what it is that I’m doing in the sense that I feel renewed every day in my sense of this is important work for me and that I find personally fulfilling. I get to meet all kinds of people from different backgrounds and I’m learning new things, being challenged, reaching deep down and find more compassion for people. I couldn’t be satisfied if I weren’t doing what I could to help other people. In some ways, the work I am doing comes from a serious optimism. It comes from a place that believes people can rise to the occasion, that people can care about others as much as themselves. It comes from a place of optimism and a restlessness with the way things are. I wake up each day with Facebook and Twitter and the news, realizing that people are often cruel and don’t listen, but that dissatisfaction drives me to do what I can to make the world a more compassionate place. Those are the two things  – my optimism from all the change I’ve seen in my work, and the real sense of dissatisfaction that the world is not what I’d like to see. As an athetist, I don’t believe that anyone will intervene. No one is coming to save us. So, I feel a sense of urgency to make the world better, the world I am currently in, and I want to do what I can with what I have.

Randall Frederick is editor of The SEMI magazine in Pasadena. He is currently getting his second M.A. in Theology and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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