Chris Stedman’s ‘Faitheist’ Adds Needed Voice to the Culture Wars for Atheists and the Religious, by John W. Morehead

I have for some time wanted to post a review of Chris Stedman’s recent book “Faitheist“. However, since I work so closely with Chris, and have a great friendship with him, I did not feel it appropriate initially to review the book myself. Therefore, when Evangelical Christian John W. Morehead approached me and asked if I would post his review, I happily accepted. Obviously, this review is not by me, and I haven’t edited it in any way – I don’t claim to agree with every word. However, it is a thorough and thoughtful examination of the issues which ends with an interesting distinction between interfaith work and “religious diplomacy” which might add something valuable to the well-worn debate over interfaith work in atheist circles. So, to the review!

John W. Morehead is Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He is the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, and has been involved for many years in interreligious relationships and conversations in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He will add Atheism to this list as he engages Chris Stedman at the “Intersecting Convictions: Core Beliefs and Civil Dialogue” conference this Fiday at Utah Valley University – flyer for the conference here.

‘Faitheist’ Adds Needed Voice to the Culture Wars for Atheists and the Religious

A review of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012)

By John W. Morehead

Many times atheists are perceived as more anti-religion (even anti-religious people) than pro-Humanism. They have been involved in a clash with religion, particularly Christians in America and the West, and as the example of the annual wars over religion in the public square during the Christmas season indicates, this will not disappear any time soon. However, there are new voices in the atheist community arguing for a better way forward that benefits both atheists and the religious.

I’ve participated in my own clashes with atheists in times past. Several years ago I participated in three public debates with Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Once we debated the existence of God, and two other times the Resurrection of Christ. We had engaged each other so much that on at least one occasion Barker shared with tongue in cheek in his opening remarks that we obviously had had a profound and persuasive effect on each other.

I came away from those debates with the feeling that Barker and I had done little to actually engage or persuade each other, and we probably spent more time talking past each other as narrative props using sales scripts to sell our rival worldviews to our differing constituencies in the audience. The audience came away feeling that their respective champion had “won” the debate, and that their boundaries were safe while those in “the other” camp were seriously defective.

But these were cordial if spirited debates. Much of the atheist-Christian engagement is not. From dueling Facebook memes on a popular level, to the clashes of the New Atheists with Christian evangelists and scholars, the cycle of heated rhetoric continues. But from the most unlikely of places a different approach among atheists has arisen. In his book Faitheist, Chris Stedman shares his personal journey, a painful one many times, from becoming a fundamentalist Christian in his youth, to struggling with his queer identity in a Christian community and eventually embracing atheism. One might suspect the story would end there, and probably not in the most positive way by looking at Christianity in the rear-view mirror. But Chris’s story has more twists than a mountain road.

In Faitheist Chris shares his experiences in a Christian youth group at a local church. While he came to embrace the Christian message, he also wrestled with his queer identity. Finally mustering the courage to share this publicly, it is no surprise that this was not well received by the very conservative Christians he was associated with. As the author continues to share his experiences over the course of his life journey, we read of his personal angst over his queer identity, multiple experiences with anti-homosexual bigotry and even assault, as well as a growing intellectual curiosity and academic studies, all of which would lead to a loss of faith. Even so, Chris still felt a paradoxical desire for and anger with the God of Christianity who had let him struggle for so long, as well as anger toward religious people as a result of his negative experiences with them.

At one point in the book, Chris shares a shift in his thinking and attitudes. While in the past he had relished the opportunity to critique religious claims, particularly Christian ones, eventually he came to recognize that an individual’s religious convictions were just as important and foundational for them as Chris’s atheism and Humanism was for him. By focusing on anti-religious interactions he was missing opportunities to develop new relationships, to understand people and their religions as integral facets of their lives rather than as reified textbook objects, and to work with religious people in the public square for the common good of atheist and religious person alike.

As Chris sought a different way of engaging religious people as an atheist, he shares his experiences with Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core. His work with the people of this organization resulted in this becoming a formative period. He sensed the need to learn from interfaith engagement, and that the same social scientific and psychological dynamics and principles that enabled Muslims to work with Christians, and Buddhists to work with Hindus, could also be applied to the atheist community so that they might more positively engage and work with religious people.  Since his time with IFYC, Chris has gone one to develop and expand his thinking and work in this area.

As an Evangelical Christian working with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy in a process similar to interfaith, I find Chris’s story challenging and encouraging at the same time. On the one hand I am saddened that he experienced bigotry at the hands of those in my religious community. Homosexuality represents one of the most significant issues for conservative religious traditions in the twenty-first century. But regardless of a religious person’s convictions on the issue as shaped by their interpretations of their sacred narratives, the way of love rather than the way of name calling, oppression, and violence should be exhibited by Christians and those of other religious traditions. On the other hand I am encouraged by Chris’s desires to move beyond anger and anti-religious sentiments, and to impart interfaith engagement principles of relationships and personal stories shared in dialogue as a positive way forward for the atheist community.

There is one area where I would like to engage in extended dialogue with Chris, and with Eboo Patel as well, and that is the distinction between interfaith and religious diplomacy. I have the utmost respect for the expressions of many in interfaith, including Mr. Patel, but many times interfaith, particularly when practiced on the progressive end of the spectrum, sets aside significant differences as out of bounds so that common ground can be found and work together for the common good can be pursued. In Patel’s approach, a sharp contrast is drawn between the public and private dimensions of religious commitment, and this can exclude issues of religious significance and difference. By contrast, religious diplomacy emphasizes our very real differences, and aims to prepare individuals to embrace each other as trustworthy rivals engaged in a process of civil contestation without compromise. In the final chapter of Faitheist, Chris touches on issues related to this and notes that the kind of interfaith work he is setting forward does not involve “tongue-biting” on the part of everyone involved just to make everyone comfortable. I appreciate this acknowledgment, but would like an opportunity to further dialogue with him in the development of his interfaith approach so as to consider how the nuances of difference in religious diplomacy contrasted with interfaith might strengthen this work. Beyond that, I look forward to my continued work with Chris, and it is my hope that a segment of the atheist/Humanist community will see the value of interfaith and religious diplomacy, and get behind the formation of a Humanist Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Whether you are an atheist, Christian, or identify with some other ideology, philosophy or religion, Faitheist is an important read and contribution for those looking for alternative ways to navigate the culture wars arising out of our growing pluralism.

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