Jun 7, 2013

A Queer Atheist in the Heart of Mormon Country

Earlier this year I visited Utah to speak at a conference cosponsored by Brigham Young University (98.5% Mormon) and Utah Valley University (86% Mormon, the highest single-religion percentage at any public university campus in the U.S.A.). In advance of my speech this weekend at Boston Pride, and in light of a strong Mormon presence at this year's Utah Pride, my new piece for Religion Dispatches explores what I experienced as a queer atheist in the heart of Mormon country. Check out an excerpt below and click here to read it in full.

Last weekend a group of around 400 Mormons marched in the Utah Pride Parade. Calling themselves “Mormons Building Bridges,” they were met with enthusiastic applause. Carrying signs with messages like “Love 1 Another” and “LDS heart LGBT,” they were there to show their support for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community and celebrate recent advancements in issues relating to LGBTQ people and Mormons, such as Bishops no longer excommunicating members who come out and the Boy Scouts of America voting to allow openly gay scouts to participate. (LGBTQ adults and atheists still cannot do so openly.)

As I read about Utah Pride in preparation for my remarks this upcoming weekend as the 2013 Boston Pride interfaith speaker, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I learned during a recent visit to Utah.

It was late in the evening when I arrived, and I knew I would be there for only 24 hours. I was met by Alasdair Ekpenyong, a college sophomore who stands at the crossroads of intersecting identities and convictions: black, LGBTQ-affirming, feminist, progressive, a lover of bowties—and deeply Mormon.

Click here to continue reading.

Jun 3, 2013

Religious Liberty and LGBT Rights

On Monday, June 10, from 6-7pm eastern, Becky Garrison will host a webinar about religious liberty with a focus on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues, a conversation important to both people of faith and nontheists. I will be joining Becky on this webinar, along and Ed Buckner, former President of American Atheists and author of In Freedom We Trust, and other invited guests.

Relatedly, June 10th happens to be the 216th anniversary of the proclamation of the famous Treaty with Tripoli that clarifies what the Founding Fathers thought about the merger of church and state. And this year marks the 350th anniversary of the signing of the RI state charter, which has the distinction of being the first governmental charter to write religious liberty into law.

This event is free but reservations are required. To RSVP go to this link.

May 31, 2013

The Good Men Project review

Deanna Ogle reviewed Faitheist for The Good Men Project; check out an excerpt below, and click here to read the review in full.

I would highly recommend "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious". If you are religious, this book is a great way to not only hear some new perspectives but also to understand what this whole interfaith thing is about. If you are an atheist, you may find a renewed hope and passion for humanity and a find reason to get involved in your community. If you are someone in a faith community wanting to understand the heart of LGBT youth, Chris' story is a great one to begin with.

Chris' storytelling will get down inside your skin and heart; his descriptions make you feel like you are in the room as the story is happening... This book has something for everyone. Chris' myriad of experiences speak so deeply into the human experience and are wildly relevant to the ever-diversifying culture we live in. If we want to create a better world together, this is an awfully good place to start.

May 29, 2013

Reflect atheists in a more positive light

My new column for USA Today asks people to tell another story about atheists. Check out the excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.

Last week atheists were all over the news and social media. But in a world that frequently focuses on conflict, it seemed like we were hearing a different -- and, to many, surprising -- story about atheists.

Last Tuesday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Rebecca Vitsmun, asking her if she "thank(ed) the Lord" for the fact that she lived through a disastrous tornado in Oklahoma. Holding her infant child in her arms, she replied, "I'm actually an atheist." And then she added: "You know, I don't blame anybody for thanking the Lord."

In a couple of short sentences, Vitsmun delivered two equally powerful messages: that she was not embarrassed by her atheism, and that she respected her religious friends and neighbors. Blitzer's question represented a common assumption that most people believe in God. It was an indicator of widespread religious privilege in our culture, and Vitsmun challenged it in a way that also humanized atheists.

The clip went viral and quickly became one of the most-discussed stories to emerge from the Oklahoma disaster coverage. All the while atheists, along with Muslims and many others, were at the forefront of recovery efforts.

That same day Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez made headlines when the Democrat offered a rousing, moving atheist reflection during the time prayers are typically offered prior to the Arizona House of Representatives' afternoon session, invoking the words of the late astronomer, author and agnostic, Carl Sagan: "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

The next day Pope Francis surprised many by offering a defense of atheists, saying that atheists can do good -- and that religious people and atheists can "meet one another" by doing good together.

What was most remarkable about these three incidents wasn't simply that each was about atheists, or that they made headlines. Rather it was that they showed atheists in a positive light. They demonstrated the reality that most atheists are kind, moral individuals.

This seemingly simple fact shouldn't be notable, but it is.

Click here to continue reading.

May 20, 2013

Disinformation Interview

In this lengthy interview with Disinformation, I discuss Faitheist, the Humanist Community at Harvard, and more. Fun fact: one of the first books I bought (and put on display in my room) after deciding I was an atheist was their book Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion. Check out the excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.

Recently in a bookstore, killing time before going to my day job, I came across the book Fathiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, by Chris Stedman.

The concept really resonated with me. Here was an atheist reaching out to religious people, to find common ground and work for equality and social justice. It seemed like a very refreshing approach. I’m familiar with The New atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. I frankly felt these guys were missing a lot of the aspects of religion that are worthy of support, such as feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, working with people struggling with addiction – work I had been involved in as an evangelical. Though I definitely wouldn’t categorize myself as a scientific materialist, I actually am on board with the scientific and philosophical objections vocal atheists espouse against Christian fundamentalists. I am actually a former evangelical due to being excommunicated from a Baptist church for questioning literal six day Young Earth Creationism.

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May 17, 2013

'Metro Weekly' Magazine

A new piece in Metro Weekly about my event at the Newseum with the First Amendment Center next week. If you're in DC, I hope to see you there!

Chris Stedman's mother rifled through her teenage son's diary and read about his struggles with homosexuality. But unlike many other parents, her response was to introduce Stedman, who had been going to an anti-gay evangelical church, to a local pastor at a progressive church. "He gave me a different, affirming perspective on homosexuality and Christianity," Stedman says.

So while initially angry at his mother's violation of his privacy, Stedman couldn't stay mad for long. "I was very fortunate, actually, that my mother found out what was happening and intervened," he says. "I think she really sped up the process for me."

Stedman, who grew up in an "irreligious" home in Minnesota, turned to evangelicalism as a pre-teen in an effort to cope with his parents' divorce and to find a sense of community among his school's "popular kids for whom life seemed really easy." These days, the 26-year-old Stedman describes himself as "ethically and philosophically a humanist, but I use the term atheist a lot because it needs to be de-stigmatized."

And that is Stedman's chief focus, as the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He helps non-religious students with their personal struggles, as well as engaging them in discussion with their religious colleagues. "I think a lot of people, especially millennials, are just sick of the cable news style of discourse where people just shout past one another and don't even really listen to what the other person is saying," he says.

Stedman seeks to reclaim the word "atheist" in much the same way the LGBT movement has made the word "queer" less offensive. Stedman, who will talk about his work at the Newseum next Thursday, May 23, titled his new memoir Faitheist -- its subtitle: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious -- as one signal he's more open to the faith community than many other, more vocal atheists.

Says Stedman: "[Being] a faitheist means that I have faith in humanity's ability to transcend our differences over questions like, 'Does God exist or not?' I have faith in our ability to have a different kind of conversation about religion."

Chris Stedman speaks Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m., at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free, but limited space. Call 888-639-7386 or visit newseum.org.

May 14, 2013

Including LGBTQ Voices in Interfaith Work

My home state of Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage today. (And yes, my grandmother has already called to say that I "can move home now.") While I celebrate this sign of social progress, there is still much work to be done. In this spirit, my new piece for HuffPost Religion and Interfaith Youth Core calls for interfaith advocates to include LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) voices in their efforts to promote pluralism. Check out an excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.

As an atheist and interfaith activist, much of my work focuses on advocating for the inclusion of nonreligious voices in interfaith dialogue. But a related—and, for me, equally urgent—push for inclusion can be found in efforts to welcome LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people into interfaith spaces. I am passionate about LGBTQ acceptance, and I am passionate about interfaith cooperation. In my eyes, these passions are not in tension; they are intimately connected.

In Faitheist, I write about times that I experienced exclusion and demonization for being an atheist, and also times I was attacked for being queer. I included both to highlight the reality that fear of the “other” has frequently pushed me, and many others, to the margins of our society—this includes atheists and agnostics, but also LGBTQ people, Muslims, Sikhs, women, and many others. Interfaith work, which brings together people from diverse communities to better understand one another and build inter-community networks that advocate for the dignity of all people, must necessarily welcome all people.

Click here to continue reading.

May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day! Today and always, I am so grateful for my mother's wisdom and love—for all that she has taught me, and for the example she has set throughout my life. Below, two pieces I've written on her influence (the second is adapted from Faitheist).

Thought Catalog, "Tolerance Begins at Home"

My mom is almost never embarrassed to speak her mind. But she also makes an effort not to be mean, abrasive, or hurtful to others in doing so. She taught me to be strong, but she also showed me how to be kind. Surveying the innumerable and frequently volatile disagreements and conflicts over the veracity of religious claims in the world today, I think we could all stand to follow her lead a bit more often.

(Click here to read it in full.)

The Advocate, "Saved By Grace"

The next day, she took me to meet with a Christian minister who told me that God loves all people, queer and straight, and that I didn’t need to change. This moment changed my life forever, and set me on the course toward the work that I do now as an atheist-interfaith activist. My experiences of feeling isolated and misunderstood inform my conviction that it is imperative to work for a world where people of all sexual orientations, and all different faiths and beliefs, understand one another better — a society where all people can live openly and be who they are without fear.

But before we can reach out and try to build understanding and love across lines of religious difference, we must first love ourselves. I would never have known this unless my mother had saved me, loving me when I did not love myself. Her love was a gift, given at the moment I needed it most — and I intend to pass it on.

(Click here to read it in full.)

May 7, 2013

May - July 2013 Appearances: Boston Pride, Newseum, Chautauqua, and More

After a whirlwind six months following the release of Faitheist, I'm beginning to slow down a bit (and catch up on several projects that temporarily went on the backburner). Thus, I'm doing fewer events over the next couple of months. But I'm excited about each one! I'm thrilled to announce that I'll be doing a special event with The Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum (Washington, D.C.'s museum of news and journalism), that I'll be giving a lecture at the historic Chautauqua Institution on the Fourth of July, and that I'll be the speaker at this year's interfaith service at Boston LGBT Pride. Check out the list below for more information on these events and others, and please check back for updates and additional events TBA.

May 1
Center for Inquiry - Canada
Vancouver, BC

May 8
Concord Area Humanists
Concord, MA

May 23
The Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum
Washington, D.C.

June 1
Harvard Humanist Alumni Event
Cambridge, MA

June 8
Boston LGBT Pride Interfaith Service
Boston, MA

June 30
NYC Sunday Assembly
New York City, NY

July 4
Chautauqua Institution
Chautauqua, NY

July 9
Meadville Lombard Theological School
Chicago, IL

More events TBA

May 4, 2013

United Church Observer Magazine Interview

A new interview with the United Church Observer, the oldest continuously published magazine in North America:

Your new book, Faitheist:  How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, tells the story of your journey from born-again Christian to atheist. What’s the number-one thing that progressive Christians don’t quite get about atheists?

A Sometimes progressive Christians will assume that if I had better experiences [as a gay youth] early on in the church, I would still be a Christian. I think this idea exists among some progressive Christians: “If only more people knew about progressive Christianity instead of its more intolerant forms, then they would be more likely to be Christians themselves.” 

That may be the case for some folks, but progressive Christians also need to understand that for some people — myself included — Christianity doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t seem right. The claims that even progressive Christianity makes, I don’t believe they’re true. 

Q Could you be a bit more specific about what turned you away from Christianity?

A When I was 11, I became a fundamentalist Christian, and I just accepted it part and parcel. I began to question the blanket beliefs I was handed when I realized I was gay. And I think this turned me into a critical thinker. It trained me to not just accept things because someone in a position of authority said they were true. 

When I got to college, [I was challenged] by my Christian professors to really evaluate my own beliefs. Going through that process, I realized what had drawn me to Christianity was the form and function of it: the community aspects and the idea that it’s important to have beliefs and act on them. But the metaphysical aspects, the theological commitments, the ideas about God? 

I had accepted all the beliefs as a package deal when I was younger. Then I realized that I had always been interested in relationship, in community, in being a good person and caring for others — even before I believed in God. So I began to wonder how much I actually believed in God. 

Q So there wasn’t a moment like, “Whoa. God doesn’t exist”?

A Not in the same way [as when I realized] I was gay. It was a gradual process. The way I describe it in the book was, “It was as if I realized one day that God had packed up his things and moved out weeks ago, and I had just been too busy to even notice.” 

Q You’ve stated before that atheists should be included in interfaith dialogue. Don’t you need a faith to participate, though? And why would non-believers want to be included? 

A I think it’s central to the core mission of interfaith work to include atheists. Interfaith work is about bringing together people who have different religious identities or convictions so that they can better understand one another, can identify their areas of shared concern and then work together toward common goals. That surely includes religious voices, but it must also include non-religious voices if [the point is to] foster greater understanding and co-operation across lines of religious difference. One of those lines is between people who are religious and people who are not. 

Click here to continue reading.