Chris Stedman: Proud to Be a "Faitheist"
Chris Stedman isn’t your average atheist. The Assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University is releasing his debut memoir "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious." An unusual story of self-discovery among hardship, the story points toward the notion of interfaith work to build a more just society.
As a child, Chris was raised in a generally irreligious family but around age ten, his life began to change. After his parents’ separation, Chris found his security evaporating, "My Dad sort of became very hands off and not really involved in our lives."
"Around that time, some kids invited me to a youth group with them. It felt to me like life seemed really easy for them and I wondered what their secret was," he recalled. Chris joined full-force: "I became a born-again Christian, a really fundamentalist Christian when I was eleven years old."
The book details the tumultuous experience of self-discovery that nearly ended Stedman’s life. Per Stedman’s optimistic personality, the story is one of inspiration and hope. But rather than leaving religion in the dust as atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins so famously have, Chris had other ideas.
That brings us to the book title: What is a "faitheist"? "In the opening chapter of the book I tell the story of the first time I ever went to a meeting of organized atheists," Chris explains. "After the event, which I was a little disappointed by, I went to a reception. They asked what I did for a living, and at the time I was working for a group called Interfaith Youth Core... Somebody said to me, ’You’re one of those atheists... A faitheist.’"
"It felt so familiar with me from the past, being a Christian and gay"
Stedman immediately recalled the reaction as one he’d seen before as a teenager in church before he recognized his atheism, "It felt so familiar with me from the past, being a Christian and gay."
"I want to try and be fair when I look back on those years in an Evangelical community," he says of the church, explaining it did in fact offer a lot of the community he was lacking at the time. "I don’t think they knew any better," is his generous response to the rejection he experienced.
Atheism’s prominent voices have been much less generous to Stedman. His most vocal critic is PZ Myers, who’s described Stedman as a "slimy" character and traitor to the movement for the embracing of religious individuals in his work and criticism of atheism’s more hardline tactics. While Myers would enjoy a fight, Stedman isn’t interested in engaging, calling such divisive disdain "toxic."
"Everyone has the capacity to be good, they just need to be given the opportunity"
"I don’t want to discourage the discussion around these kinds of (religious) issues, I just want to encourage a more considerate discussion," Chris explained. I asked him why he believed division was the most popular form of discourse, and he pointed at the media: "A message of peace doesn’t sell as well as the clash of civilizations."
Stedman genuinely doesn’t like division and didn’t take the bait when asked if religion is a source of societal problems. "I see religion as an outlet for problems that already exist in society in general. To say that religion in and of itself is the source of conflict is a reduction of a very complex sort of intersection of multiple issues," he responded.
In the end, Stedman sees himself as a "community organizer," a hands-on player in building bridges between people of differing perspectives. "I wanted to inject an alternate perspective into the discussion."
I asked Chris to sum up his viewpoint in a single sentence, "Everyone has the capacity to be good, they just need to be given the opportunity."
"Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious" hits stores on November 6.