May 3, 2013
"I would encourage anyone interested in building interfaith bridges to reach out to others, to speak from your own experience, and, most importantly, to actively listen. Allow yourself to consider things that you haven't; challenge yourself to empathize with ideas and experiences that seem alien and even scary. Be honest, but also be compassionate."
Check out my new interview at Religion News Service on Faitheist, The Humanist Community at Harvard, atheism and interfaith cooperation, and more. Click here to read it in full!
Apr 20, 2013
The newly-released April 2013 issue of The Interfaith Observer is entitled "Welcoming Atheists & Humanists into the Interfaith Community," and as a whole the issue is focused on engaging atheists in interfaith work.
It includes a piece by me, which is an updated version of my very first article the Huffington Post about atheists and interfaith work (published as I was beginning work on Faitheist). When I was approached about updating that piece for 2013, I agreed that it would be fitting to revisit it a few years later and add more recent examples, new data, and some additional thoughts. Check out an excerpt below, and click here to read the full thing:
As an interfaith activist, I’ve worked to bring an end to religious division. In recent years, this has increasingly meant speaking out against the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence sweeping America.
Advocating for religious believers has often put me at odds with my own community. As an atheist, I regularly encounter anti-religious rhetoric and activism. Speaking out against anti-pluralistic voices in my community hasn’t always been easy. Yet it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.
Why? For one, without religious tolerance and pluralism, I wouldn’t be free to call myself an atheist without fear of retribution. Not that long ago, I could not have been a public, vocal atheist at all. But due to relationships with religious allies and increased atheist visibility, the times are changing.
Still, this expanded freedom shouldn’t suggest that everything is coming up roses for American atheists. In 2010, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, forbade the formation of a secular student group, claiming the group’s mission was in direct opposition with the school’s identity as an institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Concordia, which recognizes a Catholic student group, refused to reconsider their decision. As a graduate of Augsburg College, another Minnesota ELCA-affiliated school, I was alarmed by this news. But Concordia’s decision received little attention. Few came to the secular students’ defense. This was not the end to the Concordia story, though, as we shall see.
Chris Stedman’s Faitheist is a fine, compelling book written by a deeply faithful person, who by his own admission is more interested in building something than in tearing something down. His faithfulness is not to a set of religious beliefs but to a search to understand and honor his unique humanity and the unique humanity of others in ways that contribute positively to life on Earth.In clear prose, with often disarming honesty, Stedman chronicles his sometimes turbulent and anguished journey toward a self-identity he can embrace, regardless of what the larger society reflects back. This journey includes a collision between his identity as a born-again Christian and his awakening sense of himself as gay man that led him to the brink of suicide. It includes his stint as an atheist doing graduate work at a Christian seminary, and an internship at the Interfaith Youth Core, one of the U.S.’s preeminent interfaith organizations.
Woven throughout his story is Stedman’s passion for constructive, life-affirming, boundary-crossing community, a compassion for those that mainstream society marginalizes, a high ethic of service, and a deep commitment to building a future “where the mutual goals of love and service remain at the forefront of people’s thoughts and actions…” (p.179) This stance in life would be praiseworthy in anyone. In a person whose identities – as a gay man and an atheist – make him the target of indescribable bigotry that all too often explodes in hatred, this stance is both unexpected and inspirational.
Stedman is a courageous pioneer who models the following words from the charter of the United Religions Initiative – We listen and speak with respect to deepen mutual understanding and trust. For Chris Stedman this principle is the platform from which to create engaged community that welcomes all in a spirit of appreciation and inquiry and seeks to engender a shared commitment to cooperative action to make our world a better place for all life, especially for the most vulnerable.
If you’re someone who is concerned about the increasingly polarized state of our world and the serious challenges that face our Earth community – poverty, environmental calamity, and the wanton disregard for life evident in the escalation of militarism and violence, to name a few – I urge you to read Chris Stedman’s book.
Beyond that, I urge you to follow his example and reach out to those you are inclined to view as the “other.” If you do, I guarantee you’ll discover there are no other people in this world, only a marvelously and confoundingly diverse humanity waiting to be discovered, respected and invited to travel together on a shared journey whose destination is our fullest humanity and the good of all.
Additionaly, the issue contains "an overdue welcome to the atheist community" from Rev. Paul Chaffee (founder and editor of The Interfaith Observer), contributions from emerging atheist thinkers and activists like Kile Jones ("'Interview an Atheist at Church' Takes Off") and Vanessa Gomez Brake ("The Case for Atheist Chaplains"), Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel's foreword to Faitheist, and much more. Click here to check out the full issue!
Apr 15, 2013
In this new video profile, I talk to Odyssey Networks for their "Call On Faith" series about Faitheist, atheist community and narrative, and including queer voices in interfaith dialogue.
Apr 13, 2013
In an article about shifting trends in atheism-related books, Publishers Weekly lifts up Faitheist as an example:
Today books by and about nonbelievers—atheists, humanists, “brights” and other “freethinkers”—have taken a new turn. Books on the topic have matured...
The changes in books on the topic are on full display at Beacon Press with Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman, published last November. Stedman, who is 25, dubs the New Atheists destructive and calls on his fellow nonbelievers to work with the religious to improve society. Amy Caldwell, Beacon’s executive editor, says Faitheist is a response to the disparagement of religion. “Chris knows that if you want to work for the common good you need to work with folks who are religious and to respect their beliefs,” Caldwell says. “I think there are a lot of people who feel that way, and this new crop of books on atheism speaks to those folks.”
The book has done well for Beacon, Caldwell says, and is growing in strength as Stedman, a prolific blogger, writes guest posts for CNN.com and other outlets. Caldwell says Beacon, a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association, will seek more titles for “nones.” “I do think there’s a shift, and we’ll be publishing for it.”
Apr 12, 2013
Marcus Mann, a graduate student in Religion at Duke University studying contemporary atheist and secular humanist social movements, reviews Faitheist for the Patheos blog Friendly Atheist. Check out an excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.
[...] Faitheist, for me, bridged the gap between the convinced atheism the New Atheists helped me find and the necessity of the kind of interfaith work that Neibuhr so rightly recognized as indispensable in the current religious and political climate. Stedman also demonstrates how, in practice, one is able to live a life as concerned with compassion as one is with truth. By sharing his own personal story, Stedman maps a landscape of valleys and peaks (to borrow a borrowed metaphor from Sam Harris) that portrays the true complexity of navigating the tension between upholding liberal values such as religious pluralism while maintaining an open and honest atheist worldview.
We see this landscape’s lowest valleys, in his book, in the form of the kind of self-negation he was forced to endure as a gay evangelical teenager, stifling an integral aspect of his identity in misguided deference to another. This self-negation was also present when Stedman felt restricted from engaging with the type of work and people he knew shared his values by what he thought were the practical contingencies of his intellectual atheistic stance. The peaks are realized when Stedman’s atheism and belief in religious pluralism are most fully expressed together, informing and strengthening one another through his community outreach and service.
The question then shouldn’t be how we fit kindness into our atheist worldview; it should be how we conceive of our atheism so that it operates most effectively within the central value of human kindness. Any other organization of these values threatens to poison the effectiveness of the atheist message of reason, the Humanist project of human flourishing, and even our minds themselves as they become subservient to abstract ideals rather than to the service of the people around us in all the dignity and reality of their flesh, bone and consciousness.
A lot of the controversy surrounding Faitheist in atheist circles has to do with the prominent role Stedman attributes to interfaith work and religious pluralism in shaping his ethical perspective. What I found notable, though, was the strength of Stedman's atheism as he navigated the choppy waters of the largely religious interfaith world. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when he is hitching a ride with a Christian coworker at Interfaith Youth Core and she admits her concern for his salvation. While the conversation in the book is more detailed, Chris's central response is to say, 'Thank you. I mean, you could've kept that to yourself, but I'm glad you didn't. And you must know that I, as an atheist, think your beliefs are probably wrong, too.' The conversation is honest, civil, and even friendly. It's a strong atheism that doesn't feel patronized in such an interaction and that states itself clearly and warmly. I am hoping such an atheism catches on and that this book finds itself in the hands of many more people eager to hear the story of how compassionate atheism is not only possible, but of how it's being done.
Apr 10, 2013
Tikkun Daily's Amanda Quraishi reviews Faitheist:
"[Faitheist] is as frank and raw as any personal account I've read. He talks about things that most of us actually exert energy to avoid talking about... Is Chris Stedman the only Secular Humanist in America? Not by a long shot. Nor is he the only one to advocate for harmony and pluralism in our society. But he is one of very few writers who have been willing to humbly lay himself out and share the deeply personal (sometimes painful) aspects of his struggle as he has come to terms with religion, sexuality and his family. Using artful storytelling, Stedman generously allows us to see his vulnerability. We read about him challenging his own beliefs, which simultaneously comforts and challenges us to do the same... Considering the truly desperate state of public dialogue in America today, Faitheist could be the most important book all of us read right now."
Apr 9, 2013
In 2010 I wrote my first piece for Huffington Post Religion. In it, I addressed Concordia College's decision not to recognize a secular student group on their campus. Last week, they approved a secular student group. What changed between then and now? Check out an excerpt of my new piece -- coauthored with Andreas Rekdal (a founding member of Concordia's Secular Student Community) -- below, and then click here to read it in full.
This piece was co-authored with Andreas Rekdal, who works for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He graduated from Concordia College in December 2012 with a B.A. in political science and philosophy, where he was a founding member of Concordia's Secular Student Community.
In my first ever piece for The Huffington Post Religion, published in 2010, I wrote about Moorhead, Minn.-based Concordia College's refusal to recognize "Secular Students of Concordia," a student organization centered around nontheistic values. In that piece I argued that, in order to be truly inclusive, interfaith dialogue and collaboration must also include -- and defend -- those without faith, who are often marginalized and discriminated against in the United States.
Last week, the same college gave official recognition to the "Secular Student Community" -- an organization similar in name and still centered around nontheistic values, but with a different vision.
This long-overdue affirmation of secular students' place within an otherwise predominantly religious institution owes largely to precisely the kind of interfaith dialogue and collaboration called for in my 2010 piece -- the kind of approach that encourages mutual respect and solidarity between atheists and the religious, rather than scorn or derision.
* * *
The debate about giving Concordia's nonreligious population official recognition and a voice on campus first began in November 2009, when a group of students applied to form Secular Students of Concordia. The group's stated goal was to be "a secular alternative to the religious and faith based clubs at Concordia." Their application was rejected by the school on the grounds that "the organization [was] not in compliance with ELCA [the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America] and the College Standards."
Looking at the organization's constitution, a few aspects appear problematic with regard to the college's nondiscrimination policies and religious affiliation. First, it required that all active members affiliate themselves with one or more national secular organizations. Second, if the group were disbanded, its remaining funds were to be donated either to "an on-campus initiative promoting or strongly supporting secular values" or to the self-described "aggressive, in-your-face" American Atheists, a national organization widely known for its confrontational tactics and anti-religious activism. The latter was particularly problematic because funding for campus organizations usually comes from the college itself. By approving the Secular Students of Concordia, the college could have potentially placed itself in a position of being forced to make a donation to American Atheists -- a perhaps less-than-tempting prospect for a college that finds itself at the crossroads of its increasingly religiously diverse student body and its explicitly Christian heritage.
In January 2011 the group's founder, Bjørn Kvernstuen, appealed the college's decision and reapplied for recognition with a redrafted constitution. In the appeal, Kvernstuen argued that the organization was in fact not at odds with the ELCA, and that the organization would play a crucial role in promoting openness and diversity on campus. The redrafted constitution appeared free of the problems contained in the first, but nonetheless, the college rejected this application as well.
* * *
Ironically, the resistance met by the Secular Students of Concordia coincided with a campus-wide push for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. A group of students began forming an Interfaith Youth Core-affiliated "Better Together" interfaith campaign, and the college was in the process of creating a "Forum on Faith and Life" -- a campus office concerned with matters of interfaith cooperation and community service. Moreover, the following academic year kicked off with an appeal for interfaith dialogue in a September 2012 campus-wide lecture by IFYC founder Eboo Patel.
Interpreting the choice of Patel as the convocation speaker as an invitation for religious minorities to become part of the larger discussion on interfaith, another group of students (including Andreas Rekdal, who co-authored this piece) submitted an intent form for a Secular Student Community in October 2012. This organization was meant to be a place of belonging for Concordia's many nonreligious students, centered around constructive dialogue about secular morality. Furthermore, the group wished to spark a campus-wide conversation about inclusivity -- to raise awareness about the college's many nonreligious students, and to advocate on their behalf.
Six months later, to the surprise of many, the group finally gained official recognition from the college. What had changed in the just over two years since the group was first rejected, and the less than two years since its last appeal, that allowed for this?
Apr 5, 2013
One of the newest additions to the wildly popular "For Dummies" series—a collection of reference books intended to "present non-intimidating guides for readers new to the various topics covered"—is Atheism for Dummies. Authored by Foundation Beyond Belief executive director Dale McGowan, it looks like an incredibly comprehensive resource for anyone who wants to learn more about atheism and atheists, and I'm thrilled to say that Faitheist, as well as my blog NonProphet Status, are featured in the book!
Chris Stedman became an evangelical Christian in his teens. But when he came out as gay, and that community turned its back on him, he began to question his beliefs. Eventually he decided he was an atheist.
Change a detail here and there and you’ve got the story of many an atheist. But Stedman’s story takes a different turn once he’s left the fold. Instead of diving into his new secular life without a backward glance, or glancing back only to berate, Stedman recognized that not everything he’d lost had been bad. He also became aware that for all of the obvious differences, there was a lot of common ground between the religious and nonreligious, more than either side usually saw.
Stedman had become a “faitheist” – a name some atheists use to describe other atheists who they see as too accommodating toward religion. Eventually he would write a memoir of his experiences and co-opt the word for his title: Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (2012).
Unlike many of the other books in this chapter, Faitheist isn’t a collection of arguments or a work of history. It’s a story, specifically a memoir of Stedman’s own complicated path through religion and into atheism. He went through the phases so many people describe – thinking he could fix Christianity, then looking East for another religion, then deciding religion was garbage but God was real, then finally, in an instant, getting rid of God as well.
But as he engaged in the atheist community, he began to feel that something was missing. They had the intellectual side of life managed really well. But the more emotional, humane side of life, the side that religion had fulfilled for him, seemed to get very little attention.
The last chapters of the book describe Stedman’s re-engagement with religion – not for its beliefs, which he still rejected, but for what it seemed to know about satisfying human need – and his breakthrough work as an atheist in the interfaith movement.
If you want to have all of your preconceptions about atheists and atheism shattered, look no further than Non-Prophet Status, a blog founded by interfaith activist and atheist Chris Stedman and featuring eight outstanding contributors.The blog is described as “a forum for stories promoting atheist-interfaith cooperation that hopes to catalyze a movement in which religious and secular folks not only coexist peacefully but collaborate around shared values.”For a soft-spoken twenty-something from the upper Midwest, Chris Stedman has done a lot of world-shaking. He’s the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and holds an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago.Chris grew up Christian, then began to question the church when he came out as gay and felt the sting of judgment from those around him. He eventually decided he did not believe in God, but he continued to see the benefits religious people got from their involvement in religious communities. His work now is focused on achieving those same benefits for the nonreligious and encouraging bridge-building between worldviews along the way.The middle isn’t an easy place to stand. Chris takes a lot of grief and abuse from both sides – from the religious for being an atheist, and from atheists for consorting with the religious and for criticizing the New Atheist approach. But Chris also has a lot of supporters on both sides who see tremendous courage, integrity, and restraint in the work he does to build those bridges.If you’re interested in seeing this kind of conversation and connection between different worldviews, Non-Prophet Status is the place to watch it happen.
Apr 4, 2013
My new piece for Salon, published two days ago, looks at Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer's efforts to pit the LGBT community against Muslims, and includes quotes from folks at GLAAD, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Believe Out Loud, as well as authors and activists Reza Aslan, John Corvino, and Faisal Alam. Check out an excerpt below, and click here to read it in full.
I have an earnest and sincere question for the LGBT community: Do you support Pamela Geller?
Geller, who is one of the most active proponents of anti-Muslim attitudes in the United States, rose to notoriety as one of the key instigators of the Park51 backlash, misrepresenting a proposed Islamic Community Center (think a YMCA or Jewish Community Center) by calling it the “Ground Zero mosque” and engaging in dishonest rhetoric and blatant fear-mongering. Her organization, Stop the Islamization of America, was identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, alongside extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis. And it’s earned that label — Geller and her allies have dedicated countless hours and millions upon millions of dollars to drum up hatred, fear and xenophobia toward Muslims.
Last week I learned that Geller and one of her biggest allies, Robert Spencer, are hosting a fundraiser for their anti-Muslim advertisements on the website Indiegogo. This disturbed me for a number of reasons, but particularly because Indiegogo’s terms explicitly prohibit “anything promoting hate.” (Despite reports from me and many others, Indiegogo has so far declined to remove the fundraiser; if so inclined, you can let them know what you think about that here.)
While I was looking into this, I discovered that Geller recently announced plans to run a series of anti-Muslim advertisements in San Francisco quoting Muslim individuals making anti-LGBT statements. Why? Because members of San Francisco’s LGBT community criticized other anti-Muslim ads she has run there.
I tweeted my appreciation that the LGBT community in San Francisco is standing up against her efforts to drive a wedge between LGBT folks and Muslims. Soon after, Geller retweeted me, claiming that she in fact has “huge support in Gay community.” Immediately, her supporters began to lob insults and even threats at me; Spencer himself suggested that I should be rewarded for supporting Muslims by someone “saw[ing] off [my] head.” (Meanwhile, though Geller, Spencer and their supporters kept tweeting at me that Muslims “hate gays” and want to kill me, many Muslim friends and strangers aliketweeted love and support for LGBT equality at me.)
As things settled down, I realized that Geller had stopped responding to me when I requested more information to back up her assertion that she has “huge support in Gay community,” after the only evidence she provided was a link to a Facebook group with 72 members. I’ve since asked her repeatedly for more information, but have not gotten a response.
I couldn’t think of a single LGBT person in my life that would support her work, but I didn’t want to go off of my own judgment alone. So I started asking around. It wasn’t hard to find prominent members of the LGBT community who do not share Geller’s views.
Mar 27, 2013