In stores this week, Faitheist details author Chris Stedman’s tumultuous and ultimately inspiring journey with religion. In his late childhood, Stedman became a “born-again” Christian after longing for a sense of community. But as he grew older and began to accept the fact that he was gay, his church became his enemy. He vehemently distanced himself from its intolerant attitude and subsequently, its community.
Unlike his religious beliefs, Stedman’s passion for community service never died. In his line of work, he came across an increasing number of diverse groups of open-minded and religious people. Soon after, Stedman began to break down his walls, and they formed meaningful and lifelong relationships. As an atheist, he felt enriched by the religious people who had entered his life. Thus, his mission of spreading tolerance amongst the religious and nonreligious was born.
Today, Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. Amongst various other hobbies, he also is the founder of NonProphet Status (the first blog dedicated to interfaith engagement), and travels across the country and the globe giving talks on collaborative action between faith communities and the nonreligious – something he does while stimulating conversation from both sides.
I chatted with Stedman about his religious journey, being a gay Christian, the stigmas associated with both the religious and with atheists, the experience of writing a memoir at twenty-five, and more.
Alex Nagorski: First of all, what made you decide to write this book?
Chris Stedman: I entertained the idea of writing a book for a while, and decided to take the leap after friends encouraged me to start writing and see what happened. Once I began, the book just spilled out of me.
One of the primary reasons I wrote Faitheist is that I felt that the story that gets told about who atheists are—by the media and in general—frequently doesn’t reflect my views or values, or those of many other atheists I know. As an atheist and interfaith activist, I wanted to contribute another perspective to the conversation about atheism and religious diversity. I wrote it as a memoir because my life experiences have informed my conviction that atheists and the religious can, and should, seek to understand one another better.
AN: What do you feel are some of the key ways that everyday people can help extinguish the “us versus them” mentality that so widely exists between various faiths as well as the religious vs. non-religious communities?
CS: At the end of Faitheist, I encourage people to start reaching out, sharing their own stories, and trying to have constructive conversations about religious differences—specifically with members of communities other than their own. I think that this is just a first step, but it’s a very important one. Fear of the unfamiliar strongly contributes to how polarized our world is regarding religious differences. As an atheist, this concerns me. Survey upon survey finds that atheists are broadly, and often quite intensely, disliked and mistrusted. Interfaith dialogues present an opportunity to challenge these negative connotations by facilitating relationships between atheists and people of faith. By working with atheists, religious people have the opportunity to expand their horizons and learn from people who believe differently than they do, and the same is true for atheists.
AN: One of the many things that made this book such a unique read was how you detailed the self-loathing you felt when you were figuring out your sexuality during the time that you considered yourself to be a devout Christian. What advice do you give teens that approach you today who are struggling with these same conflicts?
CS: Talk to someone. Ask for help. Don’t feel like you have to work through it alone. I tried for a long time to figure out my sexuality on my own, but it took talking with other people about it to help me find some peace. There are so many resources and people out there that can help. I included information about The Trevor Project at the back of Faitheist—I’ve volunteered with them and they are a great resource for anyone who is struggling. My struggles with my sexuality are a huge part of why I promote interfaith dialogue now; it’s important for people to see that there are many ways of being in the world, and that it is okay to be who you are.
AN: You wrote that in the beginning of your atheism, you “mourned God.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that feeling? How and when did you overcome it?
CS: When I stopped believing in God, I felt alone. The idea of God had held a certain appeal—it was nice to think there was something larger that had my back, something that was going to watch out for me. And I think my feeling of isolation was exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people around me seemed to believe in God. I didn’t notice anyone who was modeling what it could mean to be an atheist. Eventually, as I became more settled in my own sense of self and what I believe, I didn’t feel sadness or regret about my atheism—in fact, because it felt authentic, I found it liberating.
AN: There’s a turning point in the book in which you were going through a phase of detesting and writing off religion entirely and thus vandalized a church sign. You described feeling guilty and lost, saying that, “I knew the church wasn’t my home, but I no longer wanted to destroy it.” Can you walk me through how this moment served as the catalyst for your shifted attitude towards religion?
CS: That story, like many others in Faitheist, is just a glimpse into a larger set of experiences—in this case, the time in my life when I was working through very conflicted feelings about religion. So it’s representative of a broader shift in my attitude and my approach. It’s hard to boil those kinds of shifts down to a single moment, but as I was writing this book I tried to select the experiences that best reflected what I was going through at the time. The church sign story was especially difficult to remember and write about—not only because it is pretty embarrassing, but also because it occurred during a difficult period in my life that I’ve tried not to spend much time thinking about. But I shared it because it represents how I felt at the time—lost, angry, confused, ungrounded. And then, of course, I returned to the church later with a different mindset. That’s why I wrote about it in Faitheist—because I was able to present a “before” and “after” picture that reflected how my thinking around religious issues changed over time. That story was just one of many formative experiences in my evolving approach to religious differences, but as I reflected back on that time period, it was among the most stark.
AN: Another poignant scene in the book was when you and your friend were brutally hate crimed by a group of men who called you “fags” and chanted condemning quotes from the Bible at you. What effect did that night have on the way you viewed the dichotomy between the Christian and gay communities?
CS: That moment was another hard one to revisit. After I wrote about it, I called up my friend Joey, who was also attacked that night, and we discussed the impact it had had on us. We reflected on how that was a moment when we could have retreated, deciding it isn’t worth it to try to find understanding with other groups of people. But instead, that attack served as a catalyst for our desire to work for a more peaceful and tolerant world. We didn’t want anything like that to happen again—to us, or to anyone else. At one point in my life, that kind of reaction wouldn’t have been possible. Today, it serves to remind me not only of how far we have to go on issues of religion and sexuality, but also of the urgency of working for progress.
AN: How do you respond to members of the gay community who reflexively dismiss religion because they feel fundamentally unaccepted by so many faiths?
CS: My response is that I relate to that feeling. I have been shunned and dehumanized by religious communities, and I understand how that can turn someone off of the idea of dialogue altogether. But I want to work toward a world where LGBT folks aren’t condemned and marginalized, and relationship building is one way to work toward that goal. Studies have shown that people are much more likely to support same-sex marriage if they know someone who is gay—so reaching out and introducing ourselves to religious communities can go a long way toward achieving that. It can be very difficult, but if we don’t try to build bridges of understanding, we allow exclusionary views to go unchallenged.
AN: Similarly, how do you respond to members of religious communities who reflexively dismiss your efforts to bring interfaith to the mainstream psyche due to either your atheism or sexuality?
CS: Fortunately, I’ve found a surprising amount of support from people of all backgrounds. There are certainly people who do not make the effort to hear me out simply because I am a gay atheist, but that is precisely why coalition building is so important. Some people won’t listen to me because of who I am, but they will listen to members of their own communities. Religious allies are essential, because they will reach people I and others cannot. They can speak to their own communities about the importance of equality and tolerance in a way that I can’t.
AN: In the book, you talk at lengths about the stigma that atheists are less moral than those whose morals are rooted in religious beliefs. One way you do so is by citing the example of CNN correspondent Erick Erickson attacking President Obama for “accommodating atheists” after calling for a time of “prayer or reflection” when Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. Why do you think so many people feel that advocating for atheist inclusion minimizes the morals and/or values of the religious?
CS: There are a lot of negative conceptions of atheism and atheists floating around in the cultural milieu. I sometimes facilitate workshops on atheism and religious diversity at colleges and universities, and one of the first things I do is ask participants what words, ideas, images, or phrases come to mind when they hear the word “atheist.” I ask them to be honest and not to worry about hurting my feelings. The words and phrases they share are almost exclusively negative. When I ask why that is, participants cite the messaging that exists in the media—how atheists are presented and how they present themselves—and they cite negative interactions they’ve had with atheists. So I think that a lot of it has to do with unfair anti-atheist stigma, but there are also ways in which some atheists perpetuate these stereotypes. This is one reason why constructive dialogue between religious and nonreligious folks can be so valuable—it humanizes people with different perspectives and makes it harder for them to demonize one another. It makes atheism seem less unfamiliar and scary. It normalizes atheists, which makes it harder for other people to marginalize us in that way.
AN: As yesterday was Election Day, what do you think the American government can do to bridge the gap between the religious and non-religious in this country? Or does the separation of church and state take the responsibility of this off their hands? If so, whose lap does this fall in?
CS: The government definitely can, and I think should, play a role in promoting pluralism. President Obama’s administration is supporting a program called the the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which has done a lot to help young people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds learn from one another and work together to improve the world. But government assistance aside, the responsibility ultimately falls on the community level, and that’s where change happens.
AN: In the book’s acknowledgments, you thank “the many musicians who soundtracked my writing.” Which musicians in particular did you listen to most while writing this book?
CS: Oh man—where to begin? One thing that helped while writing the book was playing music I used to listen to at the time in my life that I was writing about, so I did end up listening to a fair amount of Christian rock when reflecting on my younger years. But for the most part I listened to The Sound of Arrows, Sufjan Stevens, John Grant, Joan as Police Woman, Okkervil River, Cursive, The Antlers, Aaliyah, The Notwist, Robyn, Nellie McKay, Miranda Lambert, LCD Soundsystem, Garbage, The Fugees, Local Natives, The Tallest Man on Earth, The Weeknd, The Clipse, Marina and the Diamonds, Kanye West, M.I.A., and The National. Also, I listened to Britney Spears quite a bit… “Blackout” is one of my all-time favorite albums. And my edits were primarily soundtracked by Lana Del Rey.
AN: How does it feel to only be twenty-five-years-old and already have a published memoir out?
CS: Honestly, it feels pretty daunting. I’m just taking things one day at a time right now, because there are definitely moments where I stop and ask myself: “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I don’t really relish attention or controversy; I think I used to, but these days I’m much more content when I’m doing behind the scenes stuff that supports others, as I do in my day-to-day work as a community organizer. It’s difficult for me to get up in front of a big group of people and speak my mind, and to discuss deeply personal experiences—especially as a young person. Oftentimes, young people’s perspectives aren’t taken seriously.
No matter how old you are, being vulnerable isn’t easy, nor is sharing painful memories—but I believe in the power of storytelling to incite dialogue, which is why I wrote this book. Now that it’s coming out, I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow and learn from it. At the end of the day, I’m glad that I’m taking risks and trying to make a difference in the world rather than sitting on the sidelines just because that’s where I’m most comfortable.
Everyone has a story; in writing Faitheist, I wanted to share mine and invite others to do the same. People might think that a memoir is about telling a story from start to finish, as if it is something you do when the story is over. But to me, Faitheist is just the beginning. I’m still a work in progress. I still have a lot to learn—I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but I do have stories and experiences and ideas. So, to me, Faitheist is just another page in the book of my life.
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Originally published on PopBytes