I got to know Chris Stedman as he was writing a book to explain how a gay hipster atheist could come to work on interfaith activism as the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University.
It’s a tangled web, but in Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Stedman tells his own story — from his childhood to an adolescence in evangelism to coming out to defining his atheism to engaging in interfaith work.
Along the way, he aims at a larger story. As Stedman tells it, “I offer it up as a case study of sorts — an inside look into why one atheist struggled to find a healthy way to engage with the religious and why transcending our divisions is so important.”
Not yet the 25-year-old he is today, Stedman reaches a point in his book — and his life — when he saw all of those steps in his story coming together.
“I want to help organize nonreligious communities that would not only provide a safe space for the nonreligious but would also value reaching out to those with different beliefs in an attempt to understand and empathize, not bulldoze or mock them,” he writes.
Over the weekend, I asked Stedman to explain some things to me before I sit down with him this Friday in D.C. at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs to discuss “Faith, Diversity, and Sexual Orientation on Campus.”
3. What do people need to know about your vision of an atheist’s life?
My vision of an ideal atheist’s life is nearly identical to my vision of an ideal theist’s life. It is a life that values education and critical thinking, as well as compassion and cooperation, in equal measure — one in which it is seen as important to reach out to people with different identities in order to work together on improving the one world that we can all agree on.
4. Favorite corgi?
All the corgis. But, if I have to choose, the choice is easy.
5. How does being queer impact your atheism today?
Realizing that I was queer as a young, fundamentalist Christian encouraged me to become a critical thinker. It forced me to question what I was told instead of just accepting it as true because an authority said so, gave me a lot of empathy for those who struggle to understand differences, helped me to understand intersectionality, and equipped me to develop the ability to stand up for myself and my own beliefs. But being queer isn’t just connected to my atheism and to my Humanist values; it also deeply informs why I do interfaith work.
Because I experienced the consequences of extreme tribalism and fundamentalism, I want to help encourage a more open and compassionate dialogue about religion and diversity. I want to live in a religiously pluralistic world, where people see that we have to find a way to not only live alongside people with whom we fundamentally disagree, but also be in relationship with people different from ourselves. For this reason and many others, my activism grows out of my queer identity, and it remains deeply connected to it.
7. When does interfaith work make you feel most fulfilled?
I feel most fulfilled by interfaith work when I see the dynamic between religious and nonreligious individuals improve before my eyes. Many people come into interfaith work with significant skepticism about it (I was one of them), wondering if it’s just a group of people who already largely agree with one another coming together to talk about how they already largely agree with one another. But I see real transformation happen in interfaith contexts; people learn from one another and, together, develop a commitment to challenging exclusivism and dogmatic thinking. People come to see things from a different point of view, and challenge their assumptions about other groups of people and other ideas. And then, having joined a coalition of people from different communities, they’re able to go out into the world and accomplish more.
8. Ten words that best describe you?
Striving to love, understand, and help others. Not always succeeding.
9. Where is the best place you’ve visited in your work?
I had the opportunity to do a nearly two week speaking tour of Australia last year, which was incredible. More recently, I did a lecture in Montana last month and the mountains took my breath away. The thing about traveling for work is that I’m usually very busy with, you know, work, so I don’t get to do much sightseeing. I generally just catch little glimpses of my surroundings, and all that does is make me want to return and explore.
Scenery aside, I can say with all sincerity that the best places I’ve visited are the communities where atheists and believers are actively working together to make a better world — something that’s happening more and more across the United States and around the world.
10. Favorite cat?
I mean, who doesn’t like grumpy cat? My efforts to promote pluralism and compassion come in part from optimism, but they also come from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the way the world is. Some days, I truly do feel like this.
But then I see Ben Cohen holding a grumpy cat lookalike, and suddenly all is well again.
13. Why do you write?
Flannery O’Connor once said: “I write to discover what I know.” That’s true for me, too, to a certain degree — I find that the practice of writing helps me organize my thoughts and sort out what is most important to me about the ideas I’m trying to write about. But writing isn’t created in a vacuum. It grows out of experience, study, conversation, and relationships.
Faitheist came together because I found myself telling stories as I tried to explain to others why I care so much about bringing atheists and people of faith together to try to better understand one another. So I decided to write a book of personal stories explaining just that. In the words of Marshall Ganz: “Stories are what enable us to communicate [our] values to one another.” I hope that Faitheist does that.