“More Than Half Way”: Why I’m Proud to Work With a “Faitheist”

Chris Stedman: one of the most controversial figures within the atheist movement. Few atheist activists split opinion as cleanly as Chris does: it seems you either love him or you hate him. There are plenty on either side of the argument. He has been praised for presenting a new face of atheism, more concerned with those values shared between religious and nonreligious people. His work at the Interfaith Youth Core and the Humanist Community at Harvard has paved the way for greater participation of atheists and Humanists in interfaith events, and has brought the nonreligious positive press that we are unused to receiving. His activism on behalf of the food insecure of Boston and his tireless battle against Islamophobia – including his willingness to stand on principle against Islamophobia in his own community – is inspiring, and the fact that he does all this as an out-and-proud atheist and gay man brings credit to both communities.

At the same time, he’s been criticized for attacking New Atheist voices unfairly and for not understanding their values and concerns. He’s seen by some – including some of the most prominent atheist authors – as more interested in boosting his own image than in serving the secular cause. Some think his work is counterproductive, playing into stereotypes of atheists as strident, disrespectful, and mean – while also reinforcing the idea that it is not the done thing to criticize religion. Some atheist bloggers give the impression that Chris is simply not “one of us” – that his values and his way of demonstrating them draw him outside the atheist movement, even working in opposition to it.

I don’t want to get into those debates here: I’ve already said what I want to say about most of them. What I want to say today is this: last Friday night I attended the book launch party for Stedman’s Faitheist. In some ways Faitheist is an odd-prospect: a memoir by a twenty-something guy who grew up in a nonreligious family before converting to evangelical Christianity before de-converting to atheism. The memoir of an atheist activist who seeks constantly to find common-ground with the religious, even risking the ire of his own community. The memoir of a very young guy who has already had more significant shifts in identity than some people will have in their whole lives.

But what struck me about Friday’s event was the sheer positivity in the room. Tons of people had come to – I mean tons – to celebrate the achievement of their colleague, friend and, in many cases, their inspiration. There was a sense of love and happiness that I rarely feel at atheist events, and I think it’s down to one thing:

Chris is genuine.

This is perhaps the one thing Chris’ critics get wrong most spectacularly. They read his writing and think he’s fake, insincere, a faux-naif. In truth – and I say this from two years’ experience working closely with him – he is absolutely genuine: and that’s why those who actually get to talk to him in person find it hard to dislike him. He shares himself and his vulnerabilities in a soft-spoken way, speaking movingly of his personal experiences – of the discrimination and personal violence he has experienced at the hands of the religious – and showing precisely why he cares more about finding common ground than focusing exclusively on differences.

At one point, introducing Chris to the gathered crowd, Prof. Diana Eck described him as dedicated to “meeting people more than half way.” No description seems more apt to me than this. Chris believes that it is worth sacrificing a lot to come to know other people more deeply and personally. He believes that the surest route to recognizing the common humanity we each share with the other is not through debate but through respectful discourse, and that it’s worth putting aside some of our own concerns – concerns about the word “interfaith”, about entering religious spaces, about being seen to give up our commitments to skepticism – in order to seek a more harmonious society. He believes in going more than half way.

This path is not for everyone. Some will have different ways of pursuing their activism, and that’s fine. But I, personally, have been proud to work alongside a “Faitheist”. His humility, dignity, vulnerability, and willingness to go further than most to find the human in others has inspired me to think differently about how I engage with the religious, and shows a commitment to a core Humanist ideal that becomes ever more important in a conflict-riven world. We, as a movement, have many fantastic warriors able and willing to take the fight to religion when needed. We have few prominent peace-makers and bridge-builders who are willing to go more than half way to meet those who are very different to us.

So, for anyone who’s interested in what constructive discourse with the religious might look like – and anyone who thinks Chris is full of shit, but who cares about what he actually believes and why – I’m excited that Faitheist is coming out tomorrow. His book affords a rare opportunity to see atheist activism done differently. I think it will surprise many and move many more. I recommend it.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Laurence

    Maybe he does go more than halfway to meet religious people, but do you feel that he goes more than halfway to meet atheists that he disagrees with or that disagree with him. Based on his writings, I would say that he does not.

    • James Croft

      That’s a very interesting question. I think what’s going on is that he sort of assumes that he shares most of his core values with atheists, so spends less time trying to “get” them. He doesn’t see them as “other” but as “us”. And that might lead him, sometimes, to assume too much regarding shared beliefs.

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

        Oh James for heaven’s sake. It’s not “a very interesting question” – it’s a blindingly obvious objection! One that you should have acknowledged in your post, which in fact does the same kind of thing. It’s a problem that Chris ought to be much more aware of, and deal with.

        I for instance don’t “hate” him. I do strongly dislike the way he stacks the deck, but that’s not the same thing as hating him. Stacking the deck by the way is a less neutral way of saying he sort of assumes that he shares most of his core values with atheists, so spends less time trying to “get” them.

        And about the overwhelming positivity? Of course there was! He’s hugely popular. His line is a hugely popular line. That’s one reason I think it’s fair to dispute what he writes without too much apologizing.

        And I’m not sure I do think he’s a faux-naif. I’ve probably said things like that, but really…I’m not sure I think he does it deliberately, but I do think he uses a lot of loaded language, including a lot of “I’m just a sweet kid” self-positioning.

        All this “if you only knew him” stuff – yes but, he writes for a bigger public than people who know him. I think his writing helps to enforce prejudice against atheists. However lovable he is in person, his writing is what it is. We do get to address that.

        • James Croft

          I agree – you absolutely get to address that, and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m suggesting otherwise. The problem I see sometimes is that the criticisms do not cogently explain how his writing reinforces prejudice against atheists. I think it’s pretty obvious that it does the opposite, and I am happy to say how I think that is. I want the criticisms to be cogent, specific, and fair – I don’t want them to go away.

          • Laurence

            I think his criticisms reinforce prejudice against a certain type of atheist, and that’s the type of atheist that wants to make harsh criticisms against religion. The way he goes about criticizing atheists who don’t agree with his seemingly happy-go-lucky style of activism makes it so that the atheists who are harsher on religion, religious belief, and/or religious values are the mean, terrible atheists who only want to insult and dehumanize people. This may or may not be the case, but I’ve seen his articles and posts definitely used as ammunition by religious people against harsher and more critical atheists. I don’t know whether or not Stedman intends this, but I have definitely seen it happen.

          • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

            The criticisms don’t explain how his accusations reinforce prejudice against atheists? What an odd thing to say. The same way saying “homoseckshuals are bad people and going to hell” does. Saying “Xs do bad things” in widely-read articles causes readers to think that Xs do bad things, aka reinforces prejudice against Xs.

  • ImRike

    Laurence expressed exactly what I was going to say. Personally, I have no problem with a “Faitheist”; if he enjoys working with christians and feels that his work could also help the atheist side, more power to him.
    What I don’t like is when he says things like “I believe that this so-called New Atheism — the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its No. 1 target — is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful.” As an atheist, why couldn’t he just say that he doesn’t always agree with the New Atheists and leave it at that. Instead, he goes out of his way quite often to call negative attention to atheism. To me, reading what I have of his so far, he would fit better with just the “humanist” label instead of “atheist”.

  • Birdterrifier

    Yes indeed! We need all types of advocates. Thanks putting that so plainly.

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  • NakedAnthropologist

    As someone who grew up in a toxic religious environment, I must say that I agree with many of religions’ harsher critics – there are policies fully supported by certain religious beliefs that go against my humanistic principles. To paint religious critics as “mean” and their (sometimes valid, sometimes not) criticisms as “wasteful” is unfair. There also seems to be this idea (frequently discussed in AHA communities) that religious people often have this idea and cultural trope that religion is sacred to everyone and therefore can not and should not be criticized – I disagree with that sentiment fully; there are numerous examples wherein religious dogma provokes and/or prescribes mysogyny, racism, violence, and so on. If valid and evidence-based criticisms make the religious clutch their pearls and reach for the smelling salts, then that’s too bad – the criticism is still valid and should still be addressed by the larger community, especially if the policy being criticized is harmful. I like some of Stedman’s work, but I too think that in order to placate religious feelings, he can and does over play the “it’s not me, I’m the nice atheist” card – and that helps no one but himself.

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