|Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry|
Like his other writing and interfaith work, Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue between people of faith and people who have none. Given the strong anti-theistic sentiments common currently in movement atheism and the atheist blogosphere, this has not too surprisingly made Stedman a somewhat controversial figure in atheist circles. Some place him as part of an established narrative—a proposed distinction between atheist “firebrands and diplomats.”“We need both,” it is often said, “firebrands and diplomats.” Working together—the soft sell and the hard sell, the good cop and the bad—these complementary approaches may do more to bring down religion than either prong of the attack may accomplish on its own. “We’re all part of the same movement,” say these voices. “We all want the same thing.”But that’s just it. We don’t all want the same thing.The radical function of Stedman’s Faitheist is to underline that rarely-stated truth. Atheism is actually not a duopoly of firebrands and diplomats. These two types of evangelists no more describe “both kinds” of atheist than “country and western” describes “both kinds” of music.Stedman explicitly rejects “the demise of religion” as a goal he does not share, and rejects the firebrands versus diplomats dichotomy as well. “I believe how pushy should we be? is the wrong question,” he writes. The better question is how do we make the world a better place?
The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”
I think this is a key to Stedman’s thinking. My armchair psychoanalysis is he has a god-shaped hole in his psyche which he’d like to fill but can’t because he intellectually rejects gods. Religion is emotionally satisfying for him but intellectually without basis. Hence his interfaith work and his criticisms of anti-theist atheists like PZ Myers and the other gnu atheists. We reject the totality of religion while he embraces the emotional (and possibly the social) aspects. He likes religion (except for the god parts) so he’s angry at those who don’t like it.
In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. … After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.He then attends a Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. He lives in Boston.