Recently in a bookstore, killing time before going to my day job, I came across the book Fathiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, by Chris Stedman.
The concept really resonated with me. Here was an atheist reaching out to religious people, to find common ground and work for equality and social justice. It seemed like a very refreshing approach. I’m familiar with The New atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. I frankly felt these guys were missing a lot of the aspects of religion that are worthy of support, such as feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, working with people struggling with addiction – work I had been involved in as an evangelical. Though I definitely wouldn’t categorize myself as a scientific materialist, I actually am on board with the scientific and philosophical objections vocal atheists espouse against Christian fundamentalists. I am actually a former evangelical due to being excommunicated from a Baptist church for questioning literal six day Young Earth Creationism.
When I picked up the book I noticed some amazing synchronicities. Chris Stedman and I were not only both former evangelicals, we both lived at one time in the same small town of Bemidji, Minnesota and worked the same job for Lutheran Social Services working with the same clients: adults with developmental disabilities. Though the names were changed to protect the innocent, I recognized them in the book! In light of recent discussions on related topics on Disinfo, and due to these amazing coincidences, I knew I had to get this guy for an interview. I hit him up on twitter, shared my journey as a fellow former evangelical, and to my delight Chris was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule and grant me an interview.
Why do you think Christian fundamentalists and militant atheists are so much alike? You describe some parallels in your book that I have witnessed as well.
Well, for starters, I personally wouldn’t use the term “militant atheists” because I don’t think it describes the phenomenon I’m most concerned about. What troubles me is encountering atheists that speak of religious believers in sweeping generalizations—positing that all, or a majority, of religious people are unthinking, closed-minded roadblocks on the road to social progress. Just as there are religious people that promote a tribalistic, totalitarian way of thinking, there are atheists that simply dismiss all religious people and disregard the common ground that is shared by many atheists and many people of faith. That a person is an atheist tells me nothing about whether she or he is a critical thinker, whether she or he is a pluralist, whether she or he is kind and compassionate to others, and so on. So I think promoting atheism misses the point, because I have definitely witnessed among some atheists a reflexive, closed-minded attitude toward religious people—one that increases the divisiveness of religious differences, rather than opening up a channel for constructive dialogue. As an atheist, I don’t see the benefit in advocating for a world without religion—atheists can believe some pretty terrible things, too. Instead, I’d rather see people push for a pluralistic world in which freedom of conscience is granted to all people, and social and scientific progress are prioritized. These are goals that atheists and religious people can work toward together.
I have often pondered why human sexuality seems so irreconcilable to “God’s Law”, so called. Its pretty amazing really. Are you familiar with author John Paulk coming out against the ex-gay movement? “Praying the gay away” just doesn’t seem to work, and there have been many who seemed to have tried really hard at different times throughout history. But even beyond LGBT issues, it seem like we as human beings don’t have complete control over who we are attracted to or who we fall in love with. Any speculations as to why this is?
There have been some really insightful, fascinating studies on human sexuality. My knowledge on the subject is limited but, as far as I can tell, we don’t fully understand why people are attracted to the people that they are just yet. Personally speaking, I never made a decision to be attracted to men—I just was. Unfortunately, I converted into a fundamentalist Christian church during my adolescence, where I internalized the messagethat “same-sex attraction” was at best a bad decision and at worst a sign of demonic possession. But the church’s library was full of materials saying that my attractions could be changed, so I set about trying to change them. Of course, that didn’t work—all it did was drive me into a self-destructive period of self-loathing and isolation. So these messages—that homosexuality is immoral or inferior, that it is necessarily malleable, and that heterosexuality is the only acceptable option—are harmful because they instill shame in people with relatively fixed sexual orientations. These ideas should be challenged—and they are, by nonreligious and religious people alike.
What do you think most Americans mean by the word “God?” I am sure its different for everybody, but the way I have heard a lot of atheists define the term I am pretty sure I don’t believe in that God either. Do you have a definition?
This is one of those difficult things about interfaith dialogue, and conversations about religion in general. We rely on labels in order to navigate society, but they can create complications or confusion as often they help clarify. People have vastly different—and often conflicting or contradictory—definitions of various terms. I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that there are as many definitions of God as there are theists. Atheists and theists alike should be honest about this reality. I think that a civil, compassionate dialogue infused with a spirit of genuine curiosity is truly the best way to uncover the multitude of ways in which people approach, consider, and respond to ideas about gods and supernatural forces. Best of all, interfaith dialogue and cooperation demolishes the idea that religious communities—as well as the nonreligious—are monolithic entities comprised of people who all believe the exact same things. The sooner we begin to recognize the complexity that defines different systems of belief, the sooner we can do away with the sweeping generalizations that have come to define, and polarize, our general attitude toward religious diversity.
Following your account of your childhood, you sound like a kid that would have been labeled “gifted.” Is that a label that was applied to you as a kid? As, a kid that label was applied to me as well as being diagnosed with learning disabilities, but I think simply being intelligent is enough to make one feel like a freak in this world. Gay rights activist, intellectual and Porn star Conner Habib, said in a recent interview on the Disinfocast with Matt Staggs, that “Intelligence is the last taboo.” Any thoughts on that?
You know, I can honestly say that I’m not at all surprised to hear that Conner said that! And I think he’s got a point. As a child I often felt that my peers who excelled at athletics, for example, were more valued than those who had a passion for academics. I can vividly recall how I felt when it was announced over the middle school loudspeaker that I had placed in the top 10 finalists of the Minnesota Geography bee. Just the day before, I had been so proud of that accomplishment. But I was definitely teased over the announcement. To go from feeling proud for being knowledgeable on a certain subject, to feeling ashamed of it, was truly disheartening. It certainly fed into the insecurity I already felt at that time, having recently realized that I was queer.
Because anti-intellectualism pervades our culture, people aren’t encouraged to cultivate knowledge. They’re not given an incentive to learn. This leads to widespread ignorance, which problematizes diversity. The United States is perhaps the most religious diverse society in the history of human civilization, and we live in an increasingly globalized world—yet religious illiteracy is rampant. People know very little about religion, and they’re told that it’s something we shouldn’t discuss—especially with people we don’t know, who of course are more likely to have different beliefs and backgrounds than the people we already know. So unless people are given the opportunity to learn more about people in different communities, and given permission to speak openly about religion and ask questions about religious differences, common misconceptions about religious differences—such as the negative stereotypes frequently directed at Muslims and atheists—will go unchallenged, and the boundaries that exist between different communities will remain.
You definitely strike me as a very altruistic person, a trait that seems to be found in people from all walks of life, both secular an religious. Where do you think this trait comes from? Do you believe all people are basically good?
I’m no expert on human behavior and the role our genetics and conditioning play in the people that we become, but I can speak to my own origins. I grew up nonreligious, and was raised to value kindness and compassion. During my adolescence, I converted to nondenominational evangelical Christianity. I became an atheist in college when I realized that I was underwhelmed by the evidence offered for the existence of God; but, more so, my atheism was born from the realization that I had always valued community and justice. I became a Christian at a time in my life when I was looking for a place to belong, and more specifically, a community that saw the value in striving to prioritize social justice. But those were the things that appealed to me about the community I converted into; so, later, I realized that I had taken on the idea of God as a part of a package deal. I came to believe in God because I was told that things like community and justice come from God. But later in life, as I began to question my faith, I realized that I had always valued those things—that they had preceded any ideas about God in my life.I think it is beyond time to put to rest the tired argument that people can’t be good without religion or God, or the myth that religious believers are unintelligent. You can sample any number of religious people and find people of striking intelligence, compassion, and courage; and you can do the same with atheists and find some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. So it’s just plainly obvious that those ideas are both incorrect. And frankly, the idea that people only do good because of God or religion is, I think, insulting to both sides of the coin—because it suggests that the nonreligious can’t be moral, and it implies that the only thing stopping religious people from acting selfishly or harming others is because God said not to. We know that that isn’t the case. People
do morally questionable things all the time, with and without religion; likewise, people behave in ways that are altruistic with and without religion. As a Humanist, I do think that most people have the capacity to buck their selfish instincts and care for others with compassion and empathy—but how we nurture that on an individual and cultural level is a much longer discussion.
Humorously, In addition to having lived in Bemidji, having been former evangelicals, and having both worked for Lutheran Social services, we both seem to have really cool moms who occasionally attend Unitarian Universalist Churches. Had your Mom’s UU church had a youth group with good looking popular kids and free pizza how do you think your spiritual journey would have been different?
I do think that my experiences would have been very different had I not ended up in the nondenominational, fundamentalist church I converted into. But as bizarre as it may sound, I’m glad I had those experiences. They played a sizable role in shaping me into the person that I am.
Do you think maybe had you been a UUer, or a liberal Christian as a kid you would not now identify as atheist? Do you think evangelical churches have a way of cranking out atheists unwittingly?
It’s possible, but I don’t know. I do think that my realizing that I was queer while being an evangelical Christian did push me to be a critical thinker. Learning to accept my sexual orientation and overcome the anti-gay messages of the church I had converted into involved challenging the norms and assumptions I had inherited about who I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to believe. I think that that process enabled me to be more open to questioning other norms and assumptions. It encouraged me to think outside the box in ways that were more difficult for me when I was younger.And yes, I do think that more closed, dogmatic communities often cause people to react against, and perhaps even mirror, their rigidity. Some of those people become atheists, while others conceive of a God in different ways—they might call themselves spiritual but not religious, they might migrate to another denomination of Christianity, or they might become irreligious and apathetic about it. But my hope is that, whether people are atheists or not, they will live considered lives—that they will have given thought to their beliefs, will have investigated the foundations upon which they make decisions, and will have made an informed decision about how they define themselves.
Do you think evangelicalism can be a positive spiritual path for some people or is it inherently destructive?
It really depends on what we mean by “evangelicalism.” Personally speaking, I had some terrible experiences as an evangelical Christian, and I absorbed some really dehumanizing, abhorrent, and restrictive ideas. But I know that isn’t the case in every evangelical Christian community, and I’m not willing to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” if you will. There are people doing truly radical work in evangelical Christian spaces—and even I have to admit that I also had some powerful and important experiences as an evangelical Christian. My participation encouraged me to spend more time thinking about how I was treating others, and I was pushed to be a more loving person. You can get that from other communities, but you can’t deny that some evangelical Christian communities contribute positive things to people’s lives. The core issue, as far as I can tell, is whether a community encourages and allows people to question what they’re told, think critically, pursue different paths, and have open dialogue.
What does being a humanist chaplain at Harvard university entail? What are some things you are doing in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing tragedy?
I do a number of things at Harvard. In my work as a Chaplain, I help to organize the community of atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious at Harvard and am available for students who are looking for someone to talk to. In addition to that work, I coordinate our Values in Action program, which is a series of events that bring together our community and religious communities for dialogue and service work. These events give religious people and the nonreligious an opportunity to work on projects for the common good while engaging in educational dialogue with one another. We do a lot of different kinds of service projects—as an example, in the last year we’ve brought together thousands of people to raise the funds for and then package 70,000 meals for food-insecure children in Massachusetts. Through working together on packing meals for those in need and other projects, these people of all different beliefs and backgrounds have a chance to learn from people who have a different perspective and build relationships of mutual respect beyond the boundaries of their own community.As for the tragic bombing in Boston, our community came together to mourn, reflect, and organize after it happened. Members of our community asked for nontheist representation in the Boston memorial; when that didn’t happen, we organized a memorial for the nonreligious community in Boston, and invited our religious friends and neighbors to join us. I am glad to say that they did join us, and spoke out in favor of the idea that the nonreligious and the religious should come together to mourn, reflect, and work to build a more inclusive world—together.