Even the most resolute of believers has a moment, or 100, when doubt is infectious and uncertainty seems insurmountable. It comes with the territory. Whether you're Christian, Muslim, Pagan or Sikh, the experience of questioning is usually familiar. In many respects, it seems more biological than cultural-the normal process of aging and banking experience.
Although conversion is always a possibility in most organized faiths, our belief systems are generally inherited much the same as wealth and debt. For a lot of queer kids, that can mean being born into faith and eventually excising yourself from your heavenly father's or mother's will, choosing self-actualization, happiness or safety over the nostalgia and conditional affection of one's earthly and ethereal community.
I don't say all queer kids, because that isn't how it turned out for 30-year-old humanist author and lecturer Chris Stedman.
When he was growing up in Minnesota, Stedman's parents presided over a secular household. So, when they split on the cusp of his teenage years, he sought sanctuary in the stability of evangelical Christianity. In the church's explicit code of ethics, the ritual of praise and the built-in family of religious affiliation, Stedman thought he'd found absolution. But as he got older and began higher education at a Christian college, he experienced a second conversion. This one less like Saul on the road to Damascus and more like Bare: A pop opera's habit-clad Diana Ross. He was gay. The realization of his sexuality converted those sturdy church doors into an imposing, iron prison gate.
Embittered and once again seeking acceptance, Stedman stepped away from religious orthodoxy and into a burgeoning movement of nonbelievers. On one level, he was angry, feeling ostracized and discounted by the very people he'd come to rely on for a sense of self and support. But in atheism he had finally found both community and acceptance of his individuality. The contrast between atheistic acceptance and theological bigotry reinforced the idea that adherents to religion were at least immoral, if not ignorantly dangerous.
It's the prevailing thought among the most visible leaders of the New Atheist movement-Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.-that religious belief is problematic and portentous. Accusations that this vitriolic no-tolerance policy for beliefs that aren't material science are applied unequally are not uncommon. Eventually, this too began to grate on Stedman-he eventually found himself ostracized yet again, this time for speaking more empathetically about and to religious folks-the same sorts of people who, at least at the outset, helped Stedman cope with his parents' divorce.
So where does that leave someone? Normally, you'd think loneliness would be all but certain. Instead, Stedman decided to use his dual spirituality to build two-way bridges between devout believers and nonbelievers alike. These days, he identifies himself as a faitheist-a pejorative term for a nonbeliever too friendly with religion. Don't call it another conversion, though. No, for Stedman it's just an acknowledgement and acceptance of life's messiness.
But don't take my word for it. Here are some of Chris Stedman's.
Faitheist lays out quite the personal transformation. You go from being raised in a fairly secular home, to converting to evangelical Christianity, to becoming a strict atheist. Can you describe the catalyst for that journey and how you went from atheist to "faitheist"?
I was raised irreligious but became increasingly curious about religion over the years, in part because we didn't really talk about it, but especially because one of my best friends was Jewish. I felt like she was part of a bigger community, a bigger story, and I wasn't sure that I was. Then, when I was 11, I converted to Christianity after being invited to an evangelical Christian youth group. My parents were separating at the time, so I was looking for a safe space and support, and the church provided that. But the biggest factor was that a year prior to converting, I'd started reading books like Alex Haley's Roots, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, and John Hersey's Hiroshima. These books told the stories of some of the greatest atrocities in human history, and filled me with a desire to understand what it said about the human condition that we could be so cruel to one another. I felt like I'd been learning about the events these books detail in school as historical facts, but not as moral issues. In Christianity, I found a community that oriented itself around trying to answer these questions, to make sense of things that don't make sense.
I remained a Christian for years, despite profound struggles around my sexual orientation, until college. It was there, majoring in religious studies at a Christian college, that I was challenged to look at why I converted in the first place. Though it was difficult, this inquiry helped me understand that my involvement in Christianity had never really been about the theology, which hadn't ever really felt right to me, but rather about the church's function-how it gave me a space to explore life's big questions. Through this process, I ultimately realized I was an atheist. But I continued to wrestle with religion. For a time, I maintained a pretty negative view of religion, in part because of my personal struggles with it. But as I continued to study religion, working with and learning alongside religious people, I came to see that religion is incredibly complex. Instead of just condemning it, I wanted to try to better understand it, which eventually led to my efforts to build greater understanding across lines of religious difference. My approach to religion shifted to be more like this Baruch Spinoza quote: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."
How integral was the understanding and acceptance of your queerness to developing your world view? When you first converted to Christianity, did you already have an inkling inside that you were gay?
My conversion actually coincided with an emerging understanding of my queerness, and I think that's actually part of why such a fundamentalist community appealed to me. The church I converted into wasn't just anti-LGBTQ, or even just hostile to queer people-it was actually quite fixated on demonizing them. I started becoming aware that I was queer, but I also didn't want to be, because I didn't know anyone else who was and I didn't want to be different. So I joined a community that said I could change my sexual orientation, and privately set about trying to do so. That experience was agonizing, and also hugely ironic: I joined the church because I wanted to make sense of suffering and connect with others, but I ended up withdrawing from everyone around me, in private anguish. Fortunately, my mother found a journal [in which] I was detailing this struggle, found an LGBTQ-affirming minister, and took me to speak with him. He gave me a stack of books to read, and ultimately helped me come to terms with my sexual orientation. I made my way into queer-affirming churches, which actually became my safe spaces when I came out in high school and encountered intense homophobia. So, like I said, religion is complicated.
My queerness is inherently linked to the work I do now and the way I see the world. First, I think being queer has made me a skeptic: having to question and interrogate the norms I was taught about sexuality, both from religious and secular sources, at a young age cracked everything open for questioning. Wrestling with society's views on sexuality was good training for questioning all kinds of other norms, including belief in God, and even norms within the atheist community once I became an atheist. Second, being queer is a huge part of why I seek to build understanding across lines of difference. I don't want others to suffer like I did. Rejecting the "us versus them" attitude my first church had toward LGBTQ people taught me to reject that kind of mindset how ever and where ever it's expressed, whether it's religious people demonizing atheists and queer people or atheists demonizing religious people.
Atheism in some respects seems less socially acceptable than being queer. If someone intends to run for office or be any kind of public servant, there's always an informal, if stringently enforced, requirement to be religious. Why do you think this distrust of non-belief is so prevalent?
I think there are a few reasons for this. First, religious communities have talked about atheists in "us versus them" ways that have perpetuated fear, ignorance and animosity toward atheists. But it also has a lot to do with representation and relationships.
There aren't many atheists in this country. Only six percent of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, according to recent survey data, and many of these people aren't open about their nontheism due to stigma. That means most Americans don't know an atheist, or don't know that they know one. So their understanding of atheism is largely shaped by media, where most of the representation is negative. Fox News, for example, really only portrays atheists in a dehumanizing way, casting them as evil grinches waging a "War on Christmas." Of course, stories of conflict sell, so we often see negative stories about Christians, too. But most people know many different kinds of Christians, so they have more data than just what they see in media when it comes to shaping their understanding of Christianity. But this largely isn't true for atheists.
Sure enough, a 2014 Pew poll found that atheists and Muslims are statistically tied as America's least favorably viewed religious or ethical communities. But that poll had some encouraging news, too: It also found that people who claimed to know an atheist rated atheists a full 21 points higher than those who said they didn't. So relationships-actually knowing and liking someone with a different worldview-seem to have a tremendous impact on how someone views marginalized communities. That's a big part of why I've been so involved in interfaith work and have advocated for building relationships across lines of religious difference.
Some in recent years, perhaps the last decade, have responded to this theistic discrimination with a strong, almost militant stance as anti-theists, generally referred to as 'new atheists.' How does one work within the nonbeliever community to soften the tone and rhetoric of its more strident members? And is confrontation always a bad thing?
Confrontation certainly isn't always a bad thing. It can be very important and effective. But I try to ask myself what my goals are. I'm not trying to eliminate religion; I'm trying to encourage acceptance of religious diversity, including of nonreligious people, and discourage the ways people have used religion to harm others. Because of this, I'm less interested in confronting the very existence of religion and more interested in confronting harmful attitudes within religious communities. Pluralistic religious people are some of the greatest advocates and allies in that work, and I want to support their efforts to improve and reform their communities. I don't think dialogue is always the answer, but I think many people, including me, often default to confrontation instead of seeking to understand our differences. So I try to encourage people to attempt dialogue when they can, and of course respect and honor when they can't or when it isn't the right approach.
That being said, the anti-theistic perspective is disproportionately represented in organized atheism. For years, the loudest and most prominent voices speaking out for atheism have been very anti-religious. But a few years ago, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga conducted a study of atheists and found that less than 15 percent of atheists fall into the "anti-theist" category-meaning those who are actively anti-religious. And that is probably an overly high number due to confirmation bias from polling those already involved in atheist groups. Yet if you look at the biggest names in atheism, you really only see anti-theism. So despite the fact that we actually make up the significant majority, the perspective of atheists who don't have an anti-theistic mindset is woefully underrepresented in our discourse. This is a big part of why I wrote Faitheist. I was trying to tell a different story about atheists because I felt like most of the atheists who, like me, had a different approach to religious differences, weren't being represented.
What has been the response to your work to do just that within the atheist community? Faitheist itself, you describe, as originally being a pejorative, one you've reclaimed.
I got a lot of pushback. It surprised me, honestly. People criticized me and my work in ways that really reminded me of the "us versus them" mindset I encountered in conservative Christianity. One of the most popular atheist bloggers in the world regularly called me weak and wimpy, and described my work as "tinkerbellism," and his commenters were often even worse. The emasculating language in these posts and comments often evoked the feelings I've had when hearing anti-queer rhetoric over the years. This blogger and others frequently wrote posts attacking my character, and even my personal life and members of my family. A lot of that stuff is still up, so I always laugh and say "uh oh" when a new friend or someone I've gone on a date with says, "I googled you."
Online discourse can be nasty in general, of course, but internet atheism seems particularly challenging. I've known a lot of atheists who have left the movement because of this problem, especially women and people of color who have been harassed and whose concerns have been dismissed and discounted.
I should be clear that I encountered a lot of support, too-in fact, many major secular organizations and local communities that weren't involved in interfaith dialogue years ago are now, and that shift has been encouraging. I'm super-grateful for everyone who has supported me and advocated for different approaches to atheism over the years. But I've also moved away from writing about atheism online in part because it felt like a big echo chamber, where one approach dominated and didn't leave much room for others. I've been researching the overlap between internet atheism and the alt-right this year for an upcoming writing project, and unfortunately it doesn't seem like things have improved much in online atheism in the years since I stopped writing about this stuff regularly.
At the same time, religious folks have a pretty low tolerance for blasphemy. A majority of evangelicals are opposed to gay rights and are proponents of moving more and more religious teaching and iconography into public spaces. These people would see you as a threat and yet you are optimistic there's common ground. Where is that common ground and how do you find it?
You can't find common ground with everyone. But I do know that there are many people we instinctively want to write off who will actually listen to reason if you're patient. I've been surprised so many times by people I was inclined to dismiss who were actually open to listening and learning. At the same time, one of the benefits of building interfaith coalitions is that you can have "ambassadors" in other communities. There are many people who probably won't ever listen to me because I'm a queer atheist. But they may listen to one of my Christian friends. So I build understanding with those I can, and encourage them to go do the work in their own communities.
It's not always optimism that drives my work, to be honest. As an atheist, I believe that it is up to human beings to solve our problems, that no divine forces are going to do that work for us. That means we're going to have to find ways to work together, to try to reach out to people who believe in a shared life and challenge those who wish to impose their religious or political views on others. By working with others who believe in pluralism, including religious people who share our goals, we can have a greater impact. And in the age of Trump, when everything is so polarized, this kind of coalition-building feels essential.
Jacksonville is ground zero for the Baptist Church. In fact, evangelical Christian churches here may actually be more numerous than Starbucks. Do you specifically like to focus your appearances/events on places in the South like Jacksonville? Does the fact that Christianity is so entrenched in places like this draw you in?
I go where I'm invited, but I will say that the events I've done in places where there's a dominant religious majority-like when I've spoken at conservative Christian colleges, at an event [Brigham Young University] cosponsored in Utah, in the South, and others-have been some of the most rewarding. When I have the opportunity to help open up a conversation in those kinds of environments, I take it really seriously. I've learned so much from the people who live in those environments, especially closeted queer people and atheists who don't feel like they [can] be open about their beliefs.
I'm reminded of something my mom said many years ago when I was getting ready to go speak in Mobile, Alabama. I was living in Massachusetts then, and I called my mom to let her know of my plans. "It's kind of hip to be a gay atheist when you work at Harvard," she joked, "but not so much most everywhere else." Then, in a more serious tone, she told me to be careful. And it's true: There and elsewhere, I've had to take efforts to ensure my safety. But I'll always be drawn to the places where I feel I can do the most good-especially because there are already so many people doing such important work there to carve out space for queer people, atheists, Muslims and other demonized religious minorities, and I want to support them however I can.
There are many interfaith coalitions and groups around the country doing the same work as One Voice and OneJax. The continued dialogue has helped break down some barriers, but admittedly there must be people who can't be reached, right? So when do you know a dialogue has stagnated and what do you do once you've reached that point?
As I said, I definitely can't always reach everyone. Often this is because of them, but sometimes it's also because of me. Sometimes I'm just not up for defending my existence. And I've learned that it's not just OK, but good and important, to respect my boundaries and not expect myself or anyone else to do that labor all the time. On the other hand, I've often had moments of surprising understanding when I thought it wasn't possible. Around the time my book came out, I published "Sympathy for the Devil" at therumpus.net, about a time a woman came up to me after a talk I did at a university and told me I had a demon inside of me that was making me gay. I wanted to get upset and angry at her, but I tried a different approach. My goal wasn't to change her mind or shame her. I simply wanted to humanize an issue that is so often framed in such dehumanizing terms; to give her another point of reference, to take something that she was treating as an abstract debate and embody it for her, to put flesh on the bones and share how that kind of framing harms queer people. I got her to listen, which I'm not sure would have happened if I'd insulted, dismissed or argued with her. So, if you're up for it in that moment-and you don't have to be-I think the next step is to assess what is possible and, again, ask yourself what your goals are. Even when you can't change someone's mind or reach any kind of agreement, sometimes you can at least make the conversation a little more human, and I think that's important.
Faitheist, published five years ago, chronicles quite a personal journey. Since then, you've gone on to work at Harvard and Yale in various humanist positions and you've continued to write. With five years to sort of stew on what you wrote and with all these new experiences, what else have you discovered about yourself?
I would, of course, write a different book today, because I'm a different person, but overall I'm still really glad I wrote it. I actually have a couple essays coming out this month, related to some things I've been reflecting on as the book turns five. One of the biggest things I've been chewing on is how-in a time when cable news and online discourse are so often vitriolic and social media allows us to edit and curate how we're seen by others more than ever before-do we let others in and practice vulnerability? My first book called for opening up and sharing our stories with one another in order to humanize our differences, but in the wake of the book's release, I often felt pressured to simplify myself and my story, to just be one thing-an atheist-rather than a complex set of intersecting identities. I often think about the time I went on Fox News and the chyron below me said "CHRIS STEDMAN, ATHEIST." It was hilarious, but it also represented how, in a world where you're asked to express who you are in 140 characters or fewer, we often ask members of misunderstood communities to flatten themselves out, simplify their stories, and be uncomplicated. So I'm working on a new book about making space for messiness in our discourse, and writing a monthly column for INTO [intomore.com] that explores vulnerability in the social media age. And I'm also forcing myself to be more open in life and on social media. Before, I would always second-guess things I wanted to tweet. Now I just tweet whatever's on my mind, even if it's a bit messy. It might seem silly and small, but it's felt really freeing.
What do you think is the most important and practical lesson in you've learned through lecturing, writing and life that you would like to impart to a younger generation? What do you think would help the closeted gay kid or the questioning churchgoer?
First: Everyone is worthy and valuable. The years I spent in the closet taught me that I was fundamentally bad and wrong, that I would never be good enough. That mindset became so deeply embedded that, even after I embraced my queerness, it continued to manifest in other ways. For years, I felt unqualified to do what I was doing. I paid my own way through school, going to community college, then a small liberal arts college, then an even smaller graduate program. When I started getting invitations to write for big outlets and speak about my work at universities, I had major imposter syndrome. But, with years of work, I've stopped feeling that way. I'm not trying to be the smartest person in the room, because I never will be. I'm just trying to be open-hearted and honest, with the hope that doing so will help make more space for others to be more openly themselves. I think we do everyone a disservice when we make it seem like only the smartest, most charming people who look like they have it all together can accomplish shit. If I can write and speak and work as a community organizer, with all of my limitations and shortcomings, then anyone can. If my work accomplishes anything, I hope it helps people feel like they can do this stuff, too.
Ultimately, I want to help make space for people of all beliefs and backgrounds to be able to live without fear. I want people to feel like they can be open about who they are and what they believe without worrying they will be rejected because of it. So if I could just say one thing, I guess it would be this: Take the energy you're investing in weighing and worrying what others think of you and invest it in yourself and the people you love. If you're constantly trying to prove yourself to the world, to demonstrate your worth and walk a tightrope in order to make everyone like you, you will be chasing that goal forever. You are not for everyone, and not everyone is for you. So be yourself, find your people, and do whatever you can to help make space for others to do the same. It may not be that deep but, like I said, I'm not trying to be the smartest person in the room. I'm just trying to be myself.
Chris Stedman is the founding executive director of the Humanist Center of Minnesota. He's also writes a monthly column for Grindr's queer online magazine INTO. Formerly the executive director of the Yale Humanist Community and a fellow at Yale University, Stedman has also worked as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a content developer and trainer for Interfaith Youth Core.
See Chris Stedman and hear about his story at the University of North Florida Interfaith and LGBT Resource Center luncheon, noon on Tuesday, Nov. 7 at UNF's Student Union Auditorium, facebook.com/events/150100772269167/?active_tab=about. And at 7 p.m. on Nov. 7 at One Jax's event at Intuition Ale Works, unf.edu/onejax/onevoice.aspx.