Editors Note: This is part two of an interview with interfaith activist Chris Stedman (part one is here). Part one features Stedman talking about his evangelical conversion and eventual de-conversion. Today’s excerpt deals more directly with his recently released memoir, Faitheist.
You write in the book about certain times that you were verbally harassed by Christians—times that you were called a “fag” and were told to “repent.” How much did those experiences influence your break with Evangelical Christianity?
My atheism wasn’t born out of the negative experiences that I had had within the church, although I will admit that they sort of set me on a course of self-reflection that led me to the conclusion that God probably does not exist. As a college student, I was encouraged to turn a critical eye on my initial conversion experience. When I did, I realized I hadn’t really converted for the theology of the church, but for the community and the ethics and the positive social action. But I wonder if I would’ve had the opportunity to enter into that deep kind of reflection if I hadn’t had to question everything about who I was for a number of years. I don’t know. I actually think those kinds of hypotheticals are a bit silly. I am where I am now, and that’s what I know. But it’s important for me to say that I didn’t decide that I don’t believe in an anthropomorphized deity who is an interventionist force simply because Christians were mean to me. I feel that’s what a lot of people think about atheists—that they don’t believe in God because of negative experiences with religion.
Exactly. Sometimes atheism is portrayed as something that is purely reactionary. For me, it was actually more the result of critical self-reflection, which I go into in the book. I looked at my own underlying values and beliefs and I just decided, you know, this community isn’t my community and this Christian narrative is not my narrative. It’s interesting to me that when I tell a very brief version of my story of my years in the church, I’ll have Christians come up to me afterwards, and they’ll say: “I just want to apologize on behalf of all Christians for what you went through and you should know that not all Christians believe this. I’m a part of a community that would welcome you without question for who you are.” And while I really appreciate that, and I know it’s usually coming from a very good place, part of me wonders: ‘did you listen to the second half of what I talked about?’ My issue with Christianity wasn’t solely because I hadn’t been entirely welcomed, though that was a big part of it; I had to find a place where I fit. I had to find the right language to describe the world around me. And that right language is a humanistic, naturalistic way of seeing things.
If existential problems don’t concern you as much anymore, why do you feel so strongly that the irreligious should care about religion?
I care in the sense that other people care. I recognize the significance religion holds for so many other people. Even though the debate about the existence of God is increasingly irrelevant to me, that doesn’t mean that it must be irrelevant to everybody else. I have many friends and colleagues and people who inspire me to action who are deeply motivated by their religious beliefs—and not only isn’t that a problem to me, I actually celebrate it, when it’s something that enriches their lives and propels them to enrich other people’s lives. It’s not my business to say that because their source of inspiration is different from my own and because I believe it is incorrect, they must abandon it. If something is a force for good in somebody else’s life, I don’t feel that it is my place to erode that belief.
And in this sense, you’ve been known to deviate from the New Atheist movement.
Yes, this is where I diverge very strongly from some other atheists. A lot of other atheists I encounter believe that the solution to the problems in our world is to convince other people to drop “magical thinking” as they would put it—[brows squinting] to look at the hard, cold facts of existence and face them in the eye and just deal with the fact that ‘we are all we have’.
Though you’ve received criticism from such atheists as being “too soft” (with the title of your book as evidence), you haven’t always been so open to the fruitful aspects of religious belief. (After your conversion from Christianity, you express in Faitheist that you had been confrontational, mirroring the kind of atheism you now object to.) What changed? What’s a key principle for you now when you’re interacting with those who are outspokenly-committed to religious beliefs which oppose your own?
Self-awareness, first and foremost. It sounds backwards, but focusing on myself has enabled me to find common ground with others. I try to be increasingly aware of my own stuff: where my own pressure-points are, when I’m engaging in an interaction with someone else and it’s really about something that I myself am dealing with. I think self-awareness for me has been the key for being able to find common ground with people who believe really different things than I do, and the key to being able to forgive the people who perpetuated the beliefs that ultimately led me into a really difficult adolescence.
As I write in the book, so much of my issue in college was that I really wasn’t self-aware. So much of what was preventing me from having those conversations with others – so much of what led me to be confrontational – was my own lack of self-awareness, and less what they had done. I hadn’t fully acquired a disposition which made me want to learn and want to listen — I had this orientation of wanting to project and disagree, or wanting to isolate myself, and I could sort of twist what others said. I could totally manipulate anything anyone said into something hateful. But as I got older, I shifted into a position of wanting to understand what I cared about the most and where my values were. A lot of that has had to do with my education in pastoral care work—my Masters was in Pastoral Care. My focus shifted from wanting to align the beliefs of others with my own, or wanting to confront differences, to wanting to live as fully into my own convictions as I could.
Do you feel religious belief can ever become a problem?
It becomes a problem when a person’s religious beliefs compel him or her to impose those beliefs onto other people’s lives in ways that are harmful and hurtful; when they’re used to diminish others’ liberty and dignity. Of course, I don’t think that religious beliefs have a monopoly on dehumanization and diminishment. The issue for me is not religion or religious beliefs as much as it is any kind of totalitarianistic, dogmatic, exclusivistic, tribalistic way of thinking and way of seeing the world—anything that is used to oppressive ends. If we can reduce the prevalence that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior, we will live in a much more peaceable world.
Faitheist sheds light upon both your adolescence and early adulthood, and I know that the work you immerse yourself in – interfaith activism—much of it involves reaching out to a younger crowd who oftentimes feels hesitant to validate their nonreligious, religious, and sexual-based identities due to their age. How do you hope that younger individuals will interact with this book?
I hope that it might encourage younger people to step out into the public arena with their stories and their beliefs. I believe young people have the capacity to do such good work in the world, but many don’t feel they have the authority to speak, or to act, or to influence. This is why I’m so involved with IFYC, because I hope that other young people will see me say: ‘You know, he’s not the smartest guy around. He’s not the most well-spoken; sure, what he’s doing resonates with me, but I could do what he’s doing.’ Young people’s voices are largely absent in these circles of influence, and I hope that my experience inspires other people to be confident, to speak out, and to not feel like they have to have everything figured out in order to participate in discussions about religious diversity.
As with any memoir, publishing this puts you in a vulnerable position; with Faitheist, it’s particularly due to the controversial topics you address as well as the extremely personal experiences you’ve chosen to flesh out them out with. In regards to the previous question, how do you feel you might respond to any criticism about “not-having-all-of-your-ducks-in-a-row” – that your life is too much in flux to be putting it down in a memoir?
[Laughing:] I’m sure that in 5 years from now, I’m going to look at this book and just be like: oh my god. So much will have changed, but I suspect that my central concerns will remain relatively stable. Without being apologetic about it, I come right out in the book and try to explain that I don’t have it all figured out. Still, I hope my striving for authenticity will come through in the writing, and in who I am as a person. And if that doesn’t translate, then, you know, I’ll keep trying. What I’ve learned over the years from struggling with all of this is that every day is a new day—a chance to try again, to try it anew, to try something else. It’s constantly ongoing, meaning: nothing is at the end of the book. There is no period.
Carolyn Meckbach is a former editorial intern for Beacon Press, where she was able to craft the soon-available discussion guide for Faitheist. She is studying Political Science and Gender Studies at Gordon College while directing If I Told You, a student-run journal which publishes personal narratives surrounding sexual orientation, spiritual doubt, and mental health.
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