Editors Note: The following interview with interfaith activist Chris Stedman has been split into two posts. Today’s portion features Stedman talking about his evangelical conversion and eventual de-conversion. Part two will deal more directly with his recently released memoir, Faitheist.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Chaplain and Values in Action Coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard, which exists for those who identify as humanists, atheists, skeptics, or “seekers.” It’s one of the first humanist-atheist organizations to create a position specifically intended to help facilitate the building of relationships between various religious communities or individuals. Through this position Chris heads up community service initiatives and organizes interfaith programming, urging both religious and nonreligious students to identify areas of shared values to form a basis for collaboration. He is the Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, as well as the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status.
Chris’s most recent and notable credential, however, is his recently released memoir, Faitheist, published by Beacon Press. I talked with Chris in anticipation of the book’s release and what follows is a conversation about his transition from evangelical Christianity to secular humanism – as well as the various other insights about his journey.
So, let’s be frank here. You’re 25, and you’ve already written a memoir…
[Laughing] Ahh. More often than not, people will say to me: ‘A memoir? You must have had a really interesting life.’ I suppose I have had an interesting life, but it’s hard for me to compare it to others because it’s the only life I’ve ever had. Most people think their own life is interesting, and I guess I’m no exception. But this book isn’t really about whether my life has been sensational or not; I wrote this book because I care about trying to improve the way that the religious and the nonreligious speak with and about one another, because it feels to me like there is an increasingly volatile chasm between those groups. The reason I wrote this book as a memoir is because scholars like Marshall Gans agree that storytelling is one of the best avenues for reconciliation and for prompting discussion across lines of diversity. The easiest way for me to explain why I believe this work is urgent, and why I personally care about it so much, is by discussing it through the lens of my own story.
Faitheist sheds light on when you were 10 and encountered books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Roots, and Hiroshima – how instrumental were these to your initial impulse to become involved in peace building?
I was horrified. I had no idea I lived in a country that had recently allowed slavery. I had no idea that I lived in a country built on stolen land. I had no idea that, within the last 50 years, an atomic bomb had been dropped by my own country on another. I had no idea that WWII had happened; I knew nothing of the Holocaust. And these books, of course, didn’t just present the facts; they were stories that personified these issues, making it easy for me to imagine myself, or friends or loved ones, in those situations.
And how did this affect your pursuit of a god?
Well, I was looking for a way to make sense of all that at a very young age—I wondered if the perpetrators of those crimes would be on the receiving end of some type of justice, or if the people who had suffered at the hands of such evil individuals would experience some kind of redemption. The Christian cosmology provided the answers to the questions I had been asking; the theology I was presented said that those who acted in selfish ways—ways that obscured others’ rights to live freely in the world—would be punished for their actions, and that the innocent individuals who suffered would be rewarded with an eternal life… if they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
And that’s a big “if”—that you committed to, right?
Well, I wanted that for myself too. Converting seemed like a no brainer at the time. Everybody there was, like, so excited for me, and I thought: okay, now I belong. Now I belong somewhere; I belong here. And not only in this physical space, surrounded by these people, but in this sort of larger cosmic structure. As in: “I am part of God’s flock now.”
How did people receive you?
So warmly. I remember the youth pastor asking me, after I casually mentioned I had a big exam coming up, “How did that math test go?” They were very attentive; they really seemed to care—and that felt really nice, given the way my family was fracturing at the time. Another factor that played into my going to church was that I wasn’t the coolest kid around—I didn’t have trendy clothes and was a bit of a nerd, and all the cool kids went to youth group…
[Laughing:] Yes, youth group.
Youth group was this weird mix of cool kids and the nerds that they wouldn’t associate with outside of youth group. But while you’re at youth group, you’re all best friends. Anyway, despite all of those things that appealed to me about church—the way it substituted the structure my family once provided, how it compensated for my feeling like a total misfit at school, and how it provided me a framework for making sense of injustice—it wasn’t a good thing for very long.
Well, I soon realized it was only a safe place for some.
And what initially made you feel like maybe you didn’t belong?
About two months into my participation in this evangelical Christian community, I finally put my finger on something that I had always sort of known. I had always felt a little, um, different. And I wasn’t altogether sure why. I mean, everybody feels a bit different at some point. But I just knew something was ‘off.’ Something about who I was didn’t fit what I was supposed to be.
I assume you’re partly referring to your sexual orientation—how would you say that you first fully recognized this “difference”?
I write about it in the book: I was watching TV and this commercial came on. It was a low budget ad for swim suits; there was a male model and a female model standing next to each other, and I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Oh my God. It’s supposed to be the one on the left drawing my eye, but it’s the one on the right.’ It was horrifying. I was like, ‘Oh f—. I’m in big trouble.’ Because I knew this was going to be a big problem—not just in terms of societal expectations, but particularly within this community that I was so enamored with, that meant so much to me.
And you lived in a small town in the Midwest, right? Welcoming for a homosexual?
I grew up just outside of St. Paul, in a blue-collar river town. To put it in perspective, my elementary school district was the one featured in the Rolling Stones’ article entitled “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” which investigated a recent suicide epidemic where nine students thought to be gay killed themselves within a two-year period. So, needless to say, I didn’t want to be gay. See—things are very different today. There are representations of happy, healthy LGBT folks all over the place. Ellen DeGeneres, Glee—they’re everywhere you look. But when I was in middle school, I don’t think even Will & Grace was on the air yet. And even by the time that show did come, they, you know, lived in these fancy New York apartments with lives that didn’t look anything like mine. I was a dorky Midwesterner—I could not relate to that. I didn’t personally know any gay people, and the few things I had heard about gay people were not good. At the end of the day, though, my being gay was just another way thing to make me feel different from the majority of my peers.
How did the realization that you were gay affect your faith?
Since I didn’t really want to be gay, I decided I was going to change my sexual orientation. I got the idea from my Christian church, who said that homosexuality was solvable, changeable. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for fear of being ostracized, but I got the impression based on ideas promoted within the church that being gay was a spiritual affliction—one that could be overcome through dutifulness to tradition. So if I prayed and I fasted and I studied Scripture and was just this model Christian, my ‘burden’ would be lifted. I came to see my same-sex attractions as a test, or a punishment—one I could overcome. So I worked very hard to do just that, but became despondent as years passed by and I didn’t see any progress. The irony is that I had become a part of this community because I was looking for a way to make sense of suffering and because the communal aspect of Christianity was very appealing—but when I became increasingly serious about my quest to change my sexual orientation for them, I ended up retreating further and further into myself, and suffering more and more. Eventually I was just a zombie stumbling through my own life, completely unengaged with the world around me; focused solely on this one thing.
Read part two here.
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