Token Skeptic Interview – On Faitheism With Chris Stedman

The latest Token Skeptic podcast is now out! Thanks to everyone who has been very patient while I’ve been busy with studies, checking that the podcast is ready to be released – and not keeping a very regular schedule with the show.

There should be two more Token Skeptic episodes at the very least coming out in April, but since there’s also at least three conferences in quick succession over the next two months (including my MC role at the Global Atheist Convention!) – well, I’m not promising a lot of action on the podcast-front until April is well and truly over.

I do have some news though – I’ll be involved with the Media 140 Digital Futures three day event here in Perth, but I’ll hold back on all the details until things have been properly finalised and some meetings and networking have been completed. I’ll certainly be focusing my podcasting efforts on producing more information about the tri-partite conference that’ll be happening from the 26-28th April in central Perth – called Digital Me, Digital Family and Digital Business.

Until then, enjoy the listen and remember to sign up for the Fringe events for the Global Atheist convention, especially the Road Less Traveled fringe event of the Global Atheist Convention, with PZ Myers, Chris Stedman, Leslie Cannold and Meridith Doig.

Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago, for which he was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement. A graduate of Augsburg College with a summa cum laude B.A. in Religion, Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. His soon-to-be-released book is called Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious and he speaks on it regularly both by invitation and as a member of the Secular Student Alliance Speakers Bureau.

Here’s a partial transcript as to how the interview went (mp3 download here):

Chris Stedman: My forthcoming book is called Faitheist, and a lot of it has to do with the intersection of atheist identity and interfaith work. Actually, a good bulk of it is memoir. My friends make fun of me a lot because I’m not even quite 25 yet! I’ll turn 25 in a couple of weeks. It’s a bit early in life for a memoir, and I acknowledge this. I didn’t write a memoir because I think the events of my life have been particularly unique or sensational, but because stories, I think, have the capacity to communicate ideas and values, if not better than many other mediums, then at least very effectively. Of the few skills I have, I think I can tell an okay story.

Anyway, it’s the best way I know how to explain why I see the value that I do in the work that I do, and to explain how I ended up doing it. I’ll share a much shorter version right now!

Kylie Sturgess: OK, go for it.

Stedman: I don’t give it all away. I want people to buy the book!

Sturgess: That’s true, yes. Give us a teaser – go right ahead!

Stedman: I actually grew up in a non religious home in the Midwest in the UnitedStates. I grew up in Minnesota, but religion wasn’t a part of my life growing up. Around 11 or so years old, I experienced a dramatic conversion and became a born-again Christian. There were a couple of factors that preceded that conversion. One was that about a year prior, I started reading books like Roots, Hiroshima, The Diary of Anne Frank, and was suddenly exposed to the reality that there is great injustice in the world, and was trying to figure out as an 11 year old how to make sense of that.

Then about the time of my conversion, my parents divorced, and my father really stopped being a supportive presence in my life, and my mother went from staying at home and being a homemaker to working three jobs and going to night school. My family dynamic was hugely disrupted.

Some kids who I went to school with who I hoped to become friends with, invited me to go to church, and immediately this community stepped in and filled the void that was created by the disruption of my family dynamic, and provided some answers to the questions that I had about meaning and justice in the world.

Very shortly after that conversion, I realized something that I’d always known but had been in denial of, which is the reality that I’m a gay man. Those two things felt irreconcilable. The community that I converted into was extremely conservative theologically. I really struggled with those things, and I go into detail in that in the book, but the outcome was that I eventually worked my way into more progressive Christian communities, and decided that I was going to go study to become a minister.

I rationalised the struggles that I had by imagining that God was preparing me to work in solidarity with the disenfranchised so that I might know the experience of suffering intimately. By the time I got to college though, and started studying religion as an academic subject, I was exposed to a very different take on religion as a social phenomenon, and learned a lot of things that I wasn’t taught in the churches that I was a part of, such as how the religious texts came to be canonised, and those kinds of things.

More than anything, I was encouraged to critically reflect on my initial conversion, and realised that the things that had brought me into Christianity were searching for community and looking for an ethical framework. When I realised that those things existed out of religion, it became clear to me that belief in God wasn’t something that I could hold on to, and it always felt a little bit bizarre, but I had seen it as a package deal.

It was my study of religion at a religious higher education institute that actually made me an atheist. My religion professor knows this, and she remains very supportive. That’s how I ended up becoming an atheist.

Sturgess: I guess it’s one of the big questions that exists out there, that I often see debated on forum boards, for example – whether or not exposure to religion in an educational setting is in fact a very beneficial thing if people want to encourage others to consider atheism as a valid worldview.

Stedman: Yeah, for me, a lot of it was the critical reflection on my personal experience that I was encouraged to have, and it’s hard for me to say, had I been raised Christian, and if I had been in a Christian environment that acknowledged more of the history of Christianity and how things came to be. If I hadn’t been ignorant of all that, it’s hard for me to say whether that would have resulted in me becoming an atheist. I don’t know that that’s universally the case, but for me, because it was almost like an outfit that I put on for a period in my life, it was easy enough to take off.

Sturgess: The subtitle of your book is How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Just how difficult is it to find common ground?

Stedman: I always laugh at that subtitle, because I think it’s a bit of a misnomer. To claim that I’ve found this mysterious…

Sturgess: “It’s been solved!” – yes!

Stedman: …It would be rather arrogant [to say that], and also it would be false. Every day in this work is an effort to find commonality, while also acknowledging the very real differences in worldviews. It’s an ongoing process, it’s not something that I think you can find and then have.

There’s another reason I laugh at the subtitle too, which is that I think religious suggest a kind of uniformity that just isn’t there. That’s a huge part of what my work is about. Common ground, it looks different every time with everyone, but I think the sentiment of the subtitle is true in the sense that the book is a story about how I learned to seek out commonality instead of just focusing on what the differences are and what the benefits of that have been. When I stopped identifying as religious, and continued to study religion academically, I wanted to treat it as purely an academic subject, something that I could survey from the ivory tower, that I could focus on the text but be removed from the actual experience of religion in peoples’ lives.

That distance from the subject matter made it hard for me really acknowledge what the diversity is among religious people. I know that when people hear the word interfaith, or even common ground, they may imagine a drum circle or guitar sing-along or something like that.

The way I and many others thing about interfaith is a two-fold process. One is that it’s educational. By bringing people of different religious backgrounds together, it creates an opportunity for people to teach one another about their differences, and in the process, hopefully uncover some shared humanity.

The second aspect of it is that it’s action oriented. When we discover what these shared values are, then we can work together to advance social causes. I think that this effort to find common ground, even if it can feel evasive and challenging, is so important because we live in a divided, divisive world. It’s particularly fractured around religious difference. It’s increasingly globalised, so religious diversity is increasingly interacting, but religious illiteracy is also rampant. We know increasingly less about peoples’ religious differences.

I think given the state of things, building intentional relationships of understanding between diverse communities is in itself a worthy goal, just looking at common ground as a goal. There’s a really great example of this in a book called Ethnic Conflict in Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, that talks about how in communities where Muslims and Hindus didn’t have intentional relationships; where they didn’t work to cross their differences, when an inciting incident would happen, it was much more likely to lead to extensive violence if those intentional relationships weren’t in place.

In communities where they were in place, those inciting incidents didn’t lead to that kind of violence. In and of itself, that common ground is important, but it’s also important because we can use the understanding we cultivate to further important social causes, to build larger coalitions than just working within our own communities.

Through this humanisation that interfaith work can accomplish, we also enable the discovery of shared values that we can then work together around. It’s frequently challenging, but the dividends have been really numerous. That’s why I think the effort to
find common ground is so important.

Sturgess: It’s interesting that you mention the ivory tower and “getting out of the ivory tower”, because you’re at Harvard University – and for many of us, that automatically means big ivory tower! Yet you’re obviously interested in action orientation, social causes, about atheists getting out there and making a difference. What does your work as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University involve? How do you consolidate the ivory tower and the common people out there?

Stedman: I’d have to just admit that I do often feel a bit like a fish out of water at Harvard. My background is not anything like Harvard, and I’ve had to learn the ropes in the last year and a half that I’ve been here. I’m sure there are plenty of other places I could do this work, but it’s a great place to do it precisely because I have the opportunity to work with students, to help them get beyond the walls of Harvard, and out into the community.

My main responsibility as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow is to coordinate a program called Values in Action. It’s our interfaith and humanist community service program. Every month, I organise an interfaith or humanist community service program, and we, just in this last year for example, have done some really awesome things.

In a period of a couple of months, we mobilized hundreds of volunteers to package 30,000 years for food insecure children, write letter to elected officials in support of hunger relief. We collected a bunch of canned food for Boston area food banks. We weatherised a three story community arts centre in a low income neighbourhood.

Most recently, one of the projects I had the privilege of working on was the annual Alternative Spring Break trip that our graduate students go on every year. I had the opportunity to plan and then take them on a week long spring break trip to Los Angeles to work with homeless and at risk LGBT youth. We got to work with a number of organisations like the Trevor Project and many others.

Basically, the work that I do through Values in Action is trying to create opportunities for students, community members, humanists, atheists and religious folks to come together, and have the opportunity to build these intentional relationships. Also, have a very real impact in the community, and get outside of the ivory tower, as you said.

I also work on a number of other projects for the chaplaincy, including working with the graduate student group every week. I work with students and community members one on one, assist in the general work of the chaplaincy. My main focus of what I’m
doing is this Values in Action program. We’re figuring it out as we go along.

To our knowledge, this is the first time that an explicitly atheist and humanist organisation has created a position to work around interfaith and community service issues. We feel like we’re trying to do something new, so we’re learning as we go, but it’s been very, very meaningful so far.

Check out the full interview at

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