Chris Stedman is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University tells Katie Toth it’s time for atheists and Christians to put aside their differences and work together.
Katie Toth: 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?
Chris Stedman: 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.
KT: Could you be a bit more specific about what turned you away from Christianity?
CS: 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.
KT: So there wasn’t a moment like, “Whoa. God doesn’t exist”?
CS: 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.”
KT: 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?
CS: 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.
KT: How can Christians be expected to work with people who think religion is a fundamentally bad idea?
CS: Both atheists and religious believers have an opportunity to challenge their perspectives about each other. I think if you honestly go into an interfaith situation, wanting to listen to people and learn, you can’t help but have some of your views challenged. It just requires actually wanting to hear one another out.
Christians can make an effort to be invitational to atheists and recognize that atheists are a minority group that experiences, in many cases, significant marginalization and demonization. I would advise Christians to make an active effort to meet atheists where they are — even if they hear things they don’t agree with or that might personally offend them. Being willing to give people the opportunity to be themselves in those kinds of settings opens up an opportunity for both parties to learn from one another.
KT: Unlike some of your atheist counterparts, your goal is not to eliminate religion from society. Has your willingness to connect with faith communities caused friction with more hardline atheists?
CS: There definitely has been a fair amount of pushback from certain members of the organized atheist community. A lot of what it boils down to is ideas about compromise: whether it’s important or even worthwhile to compromise at all; what we should compromise on and what we shouldn’t.
There are two different kinds of resistance to this idea [of working with believers]. There’s resistance from folks who believe that it requires more compromise than is appropriate, and those are folks I try to work with and talk to — to explain that you don’t actually have to compromise on your values in order to engage in interfaith work.
And then there are some folks who think the very idea of compromise is harmful, and that it’s not something atheists should do. Those folks are the ones who have been the most critical.
But I’ve actually been impressed and surprised by the number of people within the movement who have really engaged with the book, even if they don’t fully agree with the conclusions I come to.
KT: From an atheist’s perspective, what value do you think religion can bring to the table?
CS: I don’t necessarily look at religion and say it’s either a good thing or a bad thing. Religion has been a force for good and a force for evil. Or rather, humans have been a force for good and for evil, and their behaviours have been associated with religious communities and beliefs. So what I advocate for is a fair and nuanced approach to religion.
On the one hand, there are some atheists who say religion is a net negative force and that removing religion from the world would necessarily improve it. And on the other hand, you have religious believers saying religion is a force for good, or that without religion, there can be no good. I think both of those are just not true. They don’t help advance a conversation about a shared set of ethics, a moral common ground.
I wouldn’t call myself an advocate for religion — when I stopped being religious, my life improved in some ways. But I also know people whose religious beliefs and communities enrich their lives. So I simply cannot say that religion is a negative thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s May 2013 issue with the title “‘I think it’s central to the core mission of interfaith work to include atheists.’”