We had the meaningful experience of interviewing Chris Stedman, activist and author. Please read some more about Chris (from http://faitheistbook.com/theauthor) before proceeding to the interview.
Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, “an intimate and deeply affecting portrait… [that] proves [he is] an activist in the truest sense and one to watch” (Booklist, Starred Review). The Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community, Chris previously served as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and as the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard (where he was previously the inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow). He is the atheist columnist for Religion News Service, Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status.
Please describe your path to becoming an activist and author.
I grew up nonreligious but became an evangelical Christian around the age of 11, when I had a dramatic conversion experience. There were two primary causal factors. A year prior, at the age of 10, I read books like Roots, Hiroshima, Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl; these were books that not only increased my awareness of the fact that I lived in a world where people treated others in abusive ways, but they also told stories about what it was like to experience those things in a way that filled me with profoundly difficult questions about justice, purpose, and meaning. As much as any 10-year-old can be consumed by those questions, I was very deeply shaken and did not have a framework to unpack those questions.
The second factor occurred was when I was 11. My parents separated and it was a very disruptive experience—not only because they divorced but also because it set off a chain of events that created a really difficult situation financially and in terms of resources. My mother worked three jobs, worked nights, and was also our primary caretaker. She took courses for insurance licensing, juggled a lot; it was a very uprooting experience, so I was looking for stability and a safe place to land during a tumultuous time. That place happened to be this fundamentalist Christian church that I got invited to by friends from school.
At first, it was a perfect fit and incredibly welcoming. I was excited to be there; the church gave me a sense of community and provided a framework to think about human suffering and injustices. So, it all felt like a great fit. However, it became clear to me before too long that the community was not as welcoming as it seemed; it was vocally and vehemently anti-gay to the point of almost obsession. People would mention homosexuality in sermons for no apparent reason besides wanting to demonize gay people; talked about it in Bible study all the time; and there was a whole section in the church library with resources about homosexuality.
Their basic gist was that homosexuality was at best a bad decision or means of rebellion and, at worst, a sign of demonic possession—which is a terrifying message, particularly for a vulnerable and confused 11-year-old.
That propelled me into a difficult time, where I was fixated on trying to change my sexual orientation through prayer and fasting. I spent every night engaging in Bible study trying to change my sexual orientation. A big irony of the conversion was that I became Christian to address suffering and community, and ultimately ended up isolating myself and my personal suffering increased tenfold.
My mother eventually found a prayer journal that I kept and she took me to speak to someone at another Christian church who told me there was more than one view on homosexuality among Christians, which was the first time I had heard this. He gave me books that explored the intersections of the two, and he helped me find a safe space and acceptance—what I had been really looking for all along.
This was a very important thing for me not, just in terms of personal reconciliation but also became this was my safe space at a time when I started to come out as queer. I was the only openly queer person in my community and in my high school.
In fact, I had profoundly positive experiences in church during high school; so much so that I decided to go to college and thought I might study Christianity and religion with the goal of eventually working in ministry, because the people who helped me most during high school were Christian ministers. I wanted to pay it forward, so I thought I would go into the ministry.
Once there, I started studying religion academically and I was challenged by Christian professors to explore the foundations of my beliefs. It was through this process that I discovered I converted not because I thought the metaphysical premises were true but because I was looking for a community that pursued justice and everyone else said God was the source of these things: of community, of justice. Because this was what I cared about, it made sense. However, as I began to think about these experiences critically for myself, I realized that those passions and interests preceded my becoming Christian. Then, I allowed myself to really ask if I actually believed in God. I read Christian apologetics and felt increasingly unconvinced. Finally, I realized I was an atheist. After that, I was happy to debate religion in the classroom—but when it came to talking to people about my beliefs, I had only two strategies: avoidance or conflict.
This was because I had the assumption that religious disagreement lead to conflict, so either I was going to go into the conflict or just avoid it. In Faitheist, I write about my work at the Brian Coyle Community Center, which I still think about a lot. I once had a conversation with a Muslim woman there about our experiences of being on the margins, on the periphery; though our beliefs and backgrounds were very different, she was inviting me into a humanizing conversation that both recognized the fact that our beliefs were different but also acknowledged that we shared in the experience of being human. That was a kind of conversation that I did not know how to have at that time.
I realized that my “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach or all-out-conflict approach to religious differences were both fundamentally limited, and I wanted to find another way forward. I wanted to go into interfaith work, so I went back to school and studied alongside religious communities. In the process, I was reminded of how powerful of a role my Christian community played when I was younger, so I decided I wanted to see what was out there for atheists and nonreligious people. Through this, I discovered a couple of things: atheists are just as susceptible as anyone else to extreme tribalism, to an us-versus-them mentality with exclusionary community politics; but I also discovered humanism. This was the first time I was able to articulate my nonreligious, nontheistic worldview in a positive sense. I was able to express what I do believe, rather than define myself by what I am not. By making strong connections with religious believers, I learned to ground my sense of self in the values that I have.
In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, there’s a fascinating finding: that religious Americans tend to be more civically engaged, give more money to charity, are more likely to vote, and are “better neighbors.” But the complicating aspect of that finding is that a nonbelieving spouse of a religious person who participated in the community was just as likely as the believing spouse to donate money. Based on this finding, the correlation between religiosity and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Being part of a community that opens up a space for you to ask what it means to be a good person, gives a place to ground that work, and encourages you to be a moral agent for change in the world. Putnam and Campbell even speculated that morally bound communities for nonreligious people can serve a similar function of helping the nonreligious be more civically engaged. I wanted to see nonreligious people become more involved in civic initiatives that orient around religion, such as interfaith dialogues, and so I rediscovered the importance of community.
If my goal was to bring religious people and atheists together for the common good of humanity, I realized that I needed to invest in the idea of community for the nonreligious. So, I made the focus of my master’s degree pastoral care and counseling and studied community organizing and building. I became interested in the ideas that colleges and universities are great places for these conversations to happen, as colleges and universities can be a microcosm of the greater diversity we see in society. College is the first opportunity that many people have to be in really close community; for many people, it’s the first time they have experiences with people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. It is a great context for establishing identity and community, and learning more about different people’s experiences. Though I struggled to have those conversations while in college, it still was transformative in that way—and because my mother didn’t go to college, it was really something that I cherished. Now, the work that I do in both the university and broader contexts is very grounded in a recognition that, in the same way that colleges and universities take other aspects of identity seriously (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), they must also take religious identities just as seriously—including people who identify as atheists, agnostics, and humanists.
How have your social and personal identities informed your work?
I think that being a nontheist is a big element of this, because if I take seriously the conviction that it is unlikely that divine forces will intervene in human affairs and solve our problems for us, then I have to be the change I want to see in the world, if you will. As a single individual, I cannot do that alone. I have to pursue common ground and find shared values with people whose identities are located on the margins in our broader cultural context.
As a queer person and an atheist, I stand on the margins in a number of different conversations, which deeply informs my desire to understand others’ perspective. Being a white male, I benefit from privilege, and I have a strong desire to understand how my own privilege affects the experiences of others and my own limited view of the world. All of this has moved me to try to understand better others’ experiences.
After having a prolonged and profound struggle with reconciling myself with my sexual orientation, I had to learn at a young age that who I was, was not necessarily going to map onto the assumptions of who I was supposed to be. That really cracked me open in an important way to question and challenge other assumptions I inherited, and inspired me to seek intersections with others. I think that everyone’s experiences are important and that everyone has a contribution to make to our understanding of identity, values, and ethics.
In Faitheist, I end the book by thanking the reader for letting me share my story and inviting them to share theirs. The best discussions are grounded in experience. Too often, they are grounded in the theoretical and abstract. By having a window into someone else’s experience, it is much harder to argue against their freedom. Sharing stories invites people to stop and listen so that they can empathize and learn.
You quote Carl Sagan and Rumi at the start of “Faitheist” and Eboo Patel, developer of Interfaith Youth Corps wrote the forward. How have they been inspirational to your activism? Who and what other forces have been influential?
Carl Sagan is someone who has really influenced the way I think about this work, because he recognized that simply trying to argue, with data or statistics, is not going to compel people to action. He was an incredible scientist but more than anything else, he was an effective science communicator; he would tell personal stories, or the stories of others, and did so in a way that was so elegant and that invited others into learning.
Regarding Rumi, Eboo and many others – I am a humanist and nontheist, and so a lot of my worldview has been informed by humanist and nontheistic writers. It is important to also acknowledge that many of the thinkers and writers who have informed who I am and how I see the world are religious thinkers; it is important for us to not just sequester ourselves in our community and only read writers and thinkers whom we think share our views. Some of the things I have been most influenced by, that have challenged me most, are the works of religious writers. It would be silly to try to claim that I have not been influenced by religious studies considering that I have spent much of my life studying religion—and continue to do so.
So I would say there would be so many writers, thinkers, activists, people in general who have influenced my thinking. I do not know where to begin, as my influences continue to change. I like to think that I am a work in progress, and constantly changing and evolving depending on whom I am around and to whom I am exposed. I try to keep my thinking fluid in that way, which was a challenge when thinking about writing a book, because it locks you in place, at least for a moment in time.
What has been the greatest challenge to engaging in and coordinating interfaith dialogues? What has been the most rewarding aspect so far?
The most challenging aspect has been just getting people to the table—because honestly it has been my experience that, once people are at the table, it does not take a ton of work to get the conversation going. I would love to say that facilitating these dialogues requires this really specialized skill set, but it doesn’t. Once you get people to the table and introduce what we’re gathered to do, people begin finding intersections, uncovering shared concerns and shared humanity, and start to share personal experiences. The dialogue goes from there, and the people who participate are the ones who make it happen.
Contentious momentous will arise, but I think one of the hardest aspects has simply been communicating to people—particularly nontheists—that interfaith work is not only something that would include them but also that their voice is really vital.
One of the most rewarding aspects is just watching those conversations unfold; it feels like a huge privilege to be a part of that, to watch people connect, and to see false barriers began to fall way. It is so great to hear that people who have never met a Muslim or an atheist before have an incredibly transformative experience. It is really amazing seeing that “aha” moment that registers for a person, when they realize that the person they saw as really different from them is actually not as different as they thought.
Among reactions to your work, what has been the most surprising?
In the last few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how many atheists have embraced this idea that constructive conversation across lines of religious difference is valuable. I’ve also been really surprised to hear from a lot of people in very conservative, Orthodox, and even fundamentalist religious communities who have reached out to say that various aspects of my story connected with them. Every day there is a new surprise, and that is part of what has made this work so exciting and rewarding. I love those moments of surprising connection, and I want to be constantly surprised by how we can find connections with people who seem really different.
I have done events at very, very conservative Christian colleges where students have to sign a waiver that they believe in God, abstain from sex before marriage, and won’t “practice homosexuality,” and I have been amazingly surprised by some of the realizations that have arisen in those moments. There is always a surprise, which is one of the one greatest parts of this work.
Sem: I commend you for taking on this work.
It can be very intimidating; I am intimidated by speaking in front others, I actually do not love public speaking at all – I kind of hate it, actually, but every time I push myself to do it, it’s always worth it. I have learned to really appreciate and even chase after the things that make me afraid. I want to pushing myself to grow as much as I can, and to go into those spaces where these conversations may not be happening already.
How have your family and friends responded to your work and writing?
I am really lucky to have such a supportive family. It was definitely a little challenging when the book came out. They got some threats but they took it in stride and even made jokes about it; I was angry on their behalf and probably got more upset more than they did.
As I have walked down different paths in life, I am so grateful for my family, and the same goes for my friends. I have a loving group of family and friends. I could not do what I do without supportive family and friends, so I am very grateful.
My family does not share 100 percent of my views but it is not about whether we are 100 percent on same page all of the time. We recognize that the love we have for each other is the most important thing.
How has your work been received in particular by queer communities?
That has been one of my favorite aspects of this work. I think that many queer people recognize the power of personal storytelling, and I have learned a lot from the queer movement. The queer community really understands that in order to make change we need to build relationships and share stories. Harvey Milk called us to come out to loved ones, and the queer community really understands that. My approach to this work has been informed by that perspective.
Many queer people have complicated relationships with religious and religious identity. So queer interfaith conversations can be so important. I am really happy with how I’ve seen these discussions unfold in queer spaces.
Some of the earliest and most prominent support for my work was from queer publications and book stores; I feel really grateful to be embraced by the queer community.
When I was in school, I interned in a queer drop-in shelter, and went to one before that. So much of my early experience of the church was in queer spaces. They have a lot to teach about identifying areas of shared humanity through bridge building and storytelling.
Do you maintain communication with people you knew from Teens Encounter Christ and the Brian Coyle Community Center and if so, what has their response been to interfaith dialogues?
I have a very good friend whom I met through Teens Encounter Christ and when I told her that I was an atheist, it was a struggle because she sincerely believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. She was legitimately concerned about my well-being and what would happen when I died.
Admittedly it would have been easy for us to go our separate ways but we stuck at it, maintained a friendship, and kept talking. We still have different beliefs but last year, I gave a reading at her wedding. She and her husband gave me the one reading in the service that was not from the Bible; they picked it on purpose so that I could read something that reflected my different worldview, which I thought was really thoughtful.
Most everyone that I still keep in touch with has been so supportive of this work. It says so much about why that was such a supportive community for me in high school. We love one another.
Because I kept a distance and had this wall up during my time at the Brian Coyle Community Center, where I was unwilling to have certain kinds of conversations, the people whom I worked with there didn’t know me very well. I didn’t ask them very much about themselves, so we didn’t keep in touch. But my work there influenced my desire to reach out, listen to, and learn from Muslim communities later on in my activism, so the Brian Coyle Community Center will always have an important place in my heart.
You describe yourself and your friend experiencing a hate crime while in Chicago. I am glad you are okay. How did you get through that experience and what can towns and cities do to make safer spaces for LGBTQ+ identified people?
Thank you. It was not the first time nor the last that I’ve experienced expressions of anti-LGBTQ hatred in my life. There have been many. Some have left me feeling defeated, like things won’t change. When I get into that headspace, I remind myself of the times in my life, where I have had positive encounters and have seen people’s perspectives change, and that reminder gives me hope.
I think it’s important for LGBTQ+ identified people to be careful. I was recently harassed by a stranger on the bus; they followed me for a while, and it was very scary. This is just a part of my reality. Regardless of what others do to make spaces safer, we have to be careful on our own. We have to prioritize our personal safety. And this is of course not just limited to LGB folks; in fact, 1 in 12 transgender people are murdered in the U.S., which is inconceivably horrifying, infuriating, and tragic. Trans people are incredibly targeted, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed now.
Regarding what people can do to make cities, towns, and the broader cultural climate safer: This starts by creating spaces where people can share stories and speak honestly about who they are. I believe that when people are given an opportunity to identify with someone very different from themselves, they can more easily challenge their preconceived notions and biases. These conversations have a butterfly effect; they ripple out into society and make it safer for all people.
I’ve had surprising conversations with anti-gay activists, such as with a group of people who were proselytizing outside of a gay bar. I can’t say I think that people should always have those conversations, because they have to prioritize their own safety. I don’t think you have to build bridges at all times, because of your own safety, but also because I know I can’t always be my best self all the time. I can’t always meet people more than half way, and sometimes I’m just not up to the challenge of these risky conversations. But the more that we as a queer community can step out and have those conversations, the more society will be a safer place for people at large.
The experience you describe of being at the assassination site of Monsignor Oscar Romero was quite powerful. What was it like writing about the experience?
It was very strange; the process of writing personal narrative is strange in general because our experiences are not these rigid, unchanging things. Our connection to our experiences change as we change. It is an interesting experience to place yourself in your own shoes at a time in life that feels very separate from where you are now.
That experience in El Salvador embodies a larger phenomenon. When I stepped out of Christianity, I wanted to compartmentalize myself and say that I am not that person anymore; but we are deeply informed by all of our experiences. I am not a Christian anymore, but I will always be a person who was a Christian.
It was very difficult at times to put myself back in those shoes and try to remember what it felt like to have that experience in El Salvador, or to have an adolescent conversion experience. We are often so busy looking ahead in life to what’s next, that we just move quickly past experiences and put them out of our minds, so writing Faitheist was a very helpful experience for me. Revisiting and remembering enabled me to make peace with those things; I did not realize how much I was carrying around a lot of that weight with me. In El Salvador, I felt this powerful connection to the Christian beliefs I had moved beyond, but because I was uncomfortable with those feelings, I ignored them and pushed the experience aside. So it was very powerful to go back and write about it – to reclaim and revisit it. I am not just going to push those or any other feelings aside from now on; I am going to sit with and explore them.
I’d recommend that everyone go back to challenging or confusing moments in life and reflect on them, through writing or talking with someone about them. It’s a very helpful exercise f. I do not think that everyone needs to write a book to do this; I was lucky to get to publish a book, but there are many other ways to reflect.
From your perspective, what forces led to the rise of the New Atheism?
Some “New Atheists” identify 9-11 as the emergence of New Atheism as a movement. What I think led to the rise of New Atheism is the fact that many atheists for many years had been excluded from participating in broader public life. Atheists have been marginalized and demonized. I think that, combined with very legitimate frustrations that a number of atheists feel about abuses done in the name of religion, led to his pushback.
I believe that much of the “no” of atheism has been said, and that it’s time to speak more publicly and positively about what atheism and humanism are, not just what they aren’t.
How has Interfaith Youth Corps and other interfaith activists responded to New Atheists critiques of interfaith dialogue particularly that these movements do not sufficiently address religious privilege?
I think interfaith work is a prime forum to address religious privilege; that by participating in interfaith conversation, atheists can demonstrate that religion does not have a monopoly on morality—and that in and of itself is incredibly powerful. I think interfaith dialogues are really excellent spaces to have those difficult conversations about religious privilege—if those conversations are grounded in personal relationships. I think it’s much easier for people to hear and understand religious privilege when the explanation is coming from people whom you know and understand and like. Similarly, I’m a realist, and I know that some people will not hear me because I’m queer, or because I’m an atheist—and I can speak until I am out of air and it won’t matter, because they won’t hear me. But they will hear someone from their in-group, someone who shares their identity. So it’s important for me to have friends and allies in religious communities who can go back to their communities and relay what they have learned in an interfaith space. I hear the critique that interfaith dialogue does not address religious privilege, and I think sometimes interfaith groups have done a bad job, but I think that the factors are there for interfaith dialogues to address incredibly powerful forms of religious privilege—and I see it happening already, and it’s going well. When it’s done well, interfaith dialogue is an ideal forum to have these conversations.
What are some insights you have for aspiring activists?
I would say that I have really benefited from taking time to listen to and learn from other activists. I have ideas and opinions, but it’s not wise to barge into conversations without taking time to learn from others, particularly those who have been doing this work for a long time.
I try to think about it this way: for every minute you talk, spend at least 5 minutes listening; for every piece you publish, read 10 other pieces. You really just can’t do enough listening, learning and reading other people’s work. I feel like I have really benefited from that, and I try to continue doing that as much as I can.
Part of why I was nervous about writing this book and doing this work was because I am young, and I know that there is a lot that I do not know. But knowing that shouldn’t stop you from being a part of the conversation. I helped create a website for emerging young thinkers and activists because I think it’s so important for people to know that it is okay to be a work in progress while doing activism. That you can use your voice while still finding and refining it. I fully expect that I will keep growing and improving—but if I let that stop me, I wouldn’t have learned all that I have over the last few years. So I would say, start doing the work and allow yourself to make mistakes and keep learning. You may write something or participate in something, and later look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really wrong on that’ or ‘Yikes, that was not nuanced’—but that is okay. It’s a part of the process.
On what projects are you working currently?
I was the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and now I’m transitioning into the role of Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community. I have been working on getting this program going for the last year and I am incredibly excited about it!
Also, I am continuing to work with organizations within the movements I participate in. I have been part of Interfaith Youth Core for years and I am so thrilled that they have had a huge impact on this conversation. Years ago, when I was first getting involved, I did not encounter many other nontheists—now, based on their alumni survey, about 20 percent of [the Interfaith Youth Core] alums identify as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics or non-religious, which is much higher than the national average of people who identify with these labels.
I am also involved with Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization. The Challenge the Gap program, part of Foundation Beyond Belief, empowers atheists and humanists to give to religious organizations that engage in work that does not proselytize but improves the conditions of life for others; this also enables us to build relationships with religious groups and people.
I am also continuing to write—I write a regular column for Religion News Service. And I am trying to find the work-life balance. It’s an amazing challenge. I am so passionate about this work, I can always find a million reasons to be up working into the late hours of the night. I feel so privileged and grateful that now this work has gotten to the point to where there are too many different things that I can be contributing to, helping with, or learning from – I feel so fortunate to be in that place, it is truly amazing.