Conversation with Chris Stedman on Faith and Faitheism

Greg Stevens [Greg]: I loved your book, Faitheist. I was raised by an atheist father and a Unitarian mother, and was taught that it is important to respect the important role that religion plays, and always has played, in society. So I often find myself in a similar situation as you: defending atheism when among religious people, and defending religion when among atheists.

Faitheist bookI liked the way that you approached the book. You are telling a story about your experiences, not laying out some abstract argument using general principles about what people “should” believe or how they “should” act. People are used to hearing a Luther-like treatise expounding upon abstract principles; but instead you make the conversation  personal. I think it is a very important thing to humanize these discussions.

But there is also a down-side to your approach, I think.

While I think that your story-telling approach is good for humanizing religious beliefs rather than treating them as abstractions, I think some people could also see it as manipulative.

Many people have felt the sting of religion in a very personal way in their lives. Sometimes this is because of rejection by their families and communities. Some people feel very emotionally harmed by religion. When you spend time trying to get people to see religion, or religious individuals, in a positive light, I’m worried about how that comes across to them.

Chris Stedman [Chris]: I understand the resistance, but I do try to be clear that I’m not interested in defending “religion,” per se. What I try to do is defend the idea that it is important to treat religious people as individuals, and to approach a phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as religion—especially one so bound up in personal and cultural identity—fairly, honestly, and humanely.

As I share in Faitheist, I have been deeply hurt by religious communities and ideas. But I came to recognize that there were deeper issues at work in what I experienced—with time and education, I began to understand the roles that totalitarianism, tribalism, dogmatism, and ignorance played in the negative experiences I had.

I also, through experience and study, came to see that in fact many religious believers shared my concerns about religious abuses. Recognizing these things brought me a sense of peace, and also equipped me to work against those kinds of abuses. I want to see an end to injustice perpetuated in the name of religion, and I think that will require working with the religious allies who share in them. Even when that feels difficult.

Greg: I would like to believe that when you get people away from their ideological bluster, and talk to them heart to heart, most people will acknowledge that there are some people who are smart, good-hearted and worthwhile who believe in God and there are also some people who are smart, good-hearted and worthwhile who do not.

However, the two sides are not on parity with one another, either. The fact remains that while there may be a small and growing number of atheists out there who think all religion should be destroyed, this is preceded by the dominant view of most religions wanting to convert everyone. While there may be a small and growing number of atheists out there who think that all religious people are stupid and unable to think for themselves, there is a longer history of religious people claiming that I am “attacking” them if I simply want to say out loud that I don’t agree with their views.

How can you encourage your fellow atheists to be respectful in a situation where their interlocutor insists that the only way to be “respectful” is to change your mind and agree with them?

Chris: Well, discourse in a pluralistic society is ideally a two-way street, built on a foundation of mutual respect. Unfortunately, we’re not always going to get that—sometimes, it has to be worked for. I don’t see the confrontational tactics employed by some atheists in the name of trying to end religion as helping the cause of decreasing anti-atheist bigotry and paving a way for the kind of respectful discourse that furthers understanding, decreases stigma, and promotes education.

It doesn’t strike me as particularly effective to ask for more respect from religious believers without demonstrating a respectful attitude. A world that is more open to different ideas and free inquiry is going to come from the efforts of both the religious and the nonreligious, and that will require cooperation. As Carl Sagan said: “an organism at war with itself is doomed.”

Greg: Your book tells a compelling and very personal story about your journey. But I am also worried that religious people could misread it as speaking for ALL atheists.

For example, your line, “I didn’t believe in God anymore, but I didn’t know how to be anything but angry about it. He had disappeared, and all I felt was absence.” You are, of course, talking about what was only a stage that you went through. But aren’t you also giving ammunition to people who would dismiss all atheists as being “just angry people” who are trying to get back at religion because of some personal grudge.

How would you respond to atheists who criticize this part of your story in this way?

Chris: I would say that while I understand a response like that to the book, I don’t think it is an entirely fair read. While writing Faitheist, it was very important to me to make it clear that my atheism wasn’t born out of anger, but out of careful consideration and investigation and study—something I explicitly state in the book to be unambiguous about the fact that my atheism isn’t merely a negative reaction to religion.

At the same time, I can’t deny the anger and frustration I felt about religion at one point in my life, and it was important to me to tell that story in order to explain how I overcame those feelings. I hope that anyone who reads the book will read beyond that anger to the point where I make peace with my atheism and, eventually, even take pride in it and find it ultimately more fulfilling, intellectually and emotionally.

Beyond all of that, I also don’t wish to speak for all atheists with this book—my story is my own, and that’s the place I write from. I end the book by inviting other people to speak out and share their stories, in order to help reflect the diverse experiences atheists have had. An important way to challenge the kinds of one-note stereotypes you bring up is to humanize atheism by telling the stories of atheists’ lives, and that’s something I tried to do with this book.

Greg: Your book provides a great template, I think, for a way to talk to both religious people and atheists about religion: one that doesn’t get caught up in abstraction or accusations, but makes things personal and about individual stories. I think one of the most innovative things about your book is that it provides a new way of talking about religion.

So working off of that idea, if you could give one or two basic tips to people on HOW to have a conversation about religion, what might they be?

Chris: Thank you so much! Well, I discuss some of this in the book, and there’s also a resource I produced with Interfaith Youth Core that’s available for free download on the book’s website.

But I also think it doesn’t need to be all that complicated; when entering an interfaith dialogue, you should begin by assuming good intentions, trying to treat people as intellectual equals, sharing stories and inviting others to do the same, and giving people an opportunity to speak for themselves and not on behalf of everyone who shares their identity.

This doesn’t mean that you should just ignore your differences, pretend they aren’t there, and simply “play nice” to get along. But by building an open and trusting relationship first, you’ll probably find that you’re better able to discuss more difficult issues with candor and respect.

Greg: I find myself looking at your book as being similar to relationship counseling, in a way. When you speak, directly or indirectly, to atheists who have very negative emotions about religion, it is almost like you say saying: “Find a way to be separate from your ex-boyfriend without hating him.” It almost reads like a very personal kind of self-help book: “you can still forgive him without letting him into your life.”

Anyone who has been in a relationship that has ended knows that that kind of advice is easier to think about than to actually follow-through with, emotionally. Even if people abstractly think to themselves, “I can hate the bigotry without hating the religion,” it can be almost impossible to separate the two with something as deeply emotional as a relationship with religion. What do you think about that?

Chris: You know, I’m not sure I’ve really thought about my book in that way before, but it’s an interesting metaphor. Atheists often advocate for reason and rationality—and I agree that those things are vitally important. Thus, I’d like to advocate for a more rational, levelheaded, and fair discourse about religion.

But, of course, as you rightly point out, emotions are a relevant part of any discussion—perhaps particularly when it comes to religious disagreements. For that reason, utilizing compassion is important when dealing with something as pervasive and historically divisive as religion, and the ways in which it has been used to divide people.

I wrote a piece recently about a time that a woman came up to me after a speech I gave and told me that I had a demon inside of me that was making me gay. Though I was hurt by what she said, I chose to respond with compassion—and, as I explain in the piece, I think that kind of response can be quite valuable.

Greg: Finally, I’d like to mention the section where you talk about your mom finding your journal, and taking you to see the pastor who tells you–the first time in your life that you’ve ever heard this–that God made you gay and that it’s ok.

That story was a very personal illustration of your experience that “not all religious people are the same”. I think that this may be part of what is missing with many atheists: a moment of connection or empathy with a religious person that proves that not all religious people are “the same”.

Chris: Yes, I think it is important to recognize that religious influences manifest in a variety of ways. For some, religion becomes an excuse to feel superior, to put others down, or even to harm people. For others, religious ideas and values inspire positive social action and empathy. For example, I found acceptance for being gay among Christians before I found it in a secular setting, like my high school.

Again, I’m not interested in being an apologist for religion—but I am interested in finding places of intersection, where my beliefs and values align with those held by some religious people, and then working with those people to help build a world where all are free to live their lives in the way that they choose, where empathy for different experiences is the norm, where education is valued, and where people treat one another with kindness.

It may sound naïve, but I think we will overcome our religious differences more easily with empathy and cooperation than with shouting matches.

Greg: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me!

Chris: Thank you so much for inviting me to do so!



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