A new interview with Chris Stedman is now out on the Token Skeptic podcast – this one is Episode #143 - On How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious. It follows on from an earlier interview I did, conducted before I read his new book Faitheist, Episode One Hundred And Fourteen – On Faitheism – Interview With Chris Stedman
For those of you who aren’t aware – I have a book of transcripts from the podcast interviews I’ve conducted (several years of work now, since starting on the Tank vodcast in 2007 – I really should do something to celebrate the five-year anniversary!), and a column on the CSI website called “Curiouser and Curiouser“, where I submit the interviews that I think are of use to skepticism.
EDIT – new column out on Curiouser and Curiouser today! Waldorf Steiner and Education – Weird and (Not So) Wonderful Schools – An Interview with Quackometer’s Andy Lewis.
Since this is an interview primarily about atheism, rather than skepticism, I thought I would type the transcript here instead. I hope you find it interesting.
Kylie: ”…there’s nothing worse than a Faitheist”.
Apparently, that statement must be fictional. And no atheist would ever treat any other atheist like this, and then proceed to outline how, apparently, there are worse things than being a Faitheist and that includes writing about being a Faitheist.
So my question to you is – what makes you not step away from interfaith work all together? And say, “OK. Fine, atheists, so‑called rationalist community, do what you like, I want nothing to do with you. I’m going to go off on my own thing?” Instead, what made you tell your story in the book, Faitheist?
Chris: I think that the situation you’ve just outlined is really interesting. First of all, this book is a memoir, it’s not a historical record. So I don’t quite understand the idea that I should be able to necessarily provide a record of that event, to show exactly where that quote came from. In the first chapter of Faitheist, I come right out and admit that my memory isn’t perfect.
I think skeptics know just how unreliable memory is. But that being said, this book is my best attempt to tell the story of how my thinking evolved over the years. And some of the experiences I’ve had that have informed that. It’s not an exact account. Because I didn’t live my life taking detailed notes with the idea that, someday, I’d write a memoir.
But at the same time, if you honestly think that such statements are implausible and could never been said, I just don’t understand that. I heard them at that event. I hear statements like them frequently, and so do many others I know. The only other thing I can say, specifically, about that matter, is that my boyfriend at the time went to that event with me.
The things that people said there put such a bad taste in his mouth that he didn’t join me at the reception afterwards. Even though he is non‑religious, he’s never been to an atheist meeting since that one. So I guess that leads into your bigger question about why I continue in this work.
And even though maybe I feel tempted, at times, to walk away, I don’t. I guess the reason I’ve kept at it these years, despite attempts to discredit my character or people making up lies about me, or whatever, is because I do think that it’s important. That’s why I got started doing it in the first place and I keep at it. Because I see the dividends of the work, over and over again.
And because there are many people out there, who I’ve spoken with at different times, who feel similarly, but feel that they don’t have a voice in the conversation. I guess that’s why I started speaking out in the first place. I just didn’t feel like the perspective that I and others share was necessarily represented in the discourse. But I’ll be blunt.
I’ve never experienced the kinds of dehumanizing personal attacks that I get from people that I think are a part of my same community, just because I disagree with them. I’ve never heard those kinds of words directed at me before. Even growing up gay in a conservative environment and having very negative experiences with bullying, for being gay, when I was younger…
I’ve been very surprised. I’m sometimes afraid to say much about the level of vitriol that I and others have received. Because I really don’t want to reinforce the worst stereotypes that exist out there about the non‑religious. Because, again, I don’t think that people who are saying those kinds of things do represent atheism in the broader perspective, or atheists in the broader perspective. I tried to walk that line in my book by saying, “Here’s an issue I see.”
I think it’s honestly a minority perspective, like most vocal, divisive perspectives. Because they’re vocal and divisive, they are loud and they get the most play. But I don’t think they’re representative. I guess I just hope that people will… If they disagree with the ideas I put forth in the book, that’s great. I’m glad for the discussion. I seek opportunities to think critically about my ideas.
But it is discouraging to have your experiences invalidated or discounted, just because they don’t resonate with someone else. Just because someone else hasn’t experienced that doesn’t mean that I or others haven’t.
Kylie: …Gone through them, I guess.
Chris: Yeah. It’s definitely challenging and I won’t sugar coat that. But at the same time, because I do think that the work is so valuable. And because I’ve seen interfaith discussions that bring in atheists and the non‑religious be so productive and so valuable that I don’t want to let something like that prevent me from continuing to push those ideas out into the public discussion about these issues.
Kylie: Speaking of things that resonate with people, one thing that might put people on the back foot is something that, when I conducted an interview with you, back in Token Skeptic Episode 114, before the book was published… Where I raised the issue of ivory towers. I joked about working at Harvard being a classic example of such a thing. Now I’ve read the whole book (which I think people should do, they should read the whole book). And seeing the range of experiences that you’ve had, I can see it’s an unfair summation to make about your career, that it’s just “ivory tower thinking” to believe that people of different faiths and no faiths could work together.
But I did have a comment from a fellow Facebook friend, who is in a different country. She has had a different upbringing, different circumstances to both of us. She sees religious people manipulating charity law, to allow them to attack every group or person unlike themselves. She has seen women being denied reproductive freedom, due to religious beliefs. She says religious groups are undermining of freedom of speech; she cited Rowan Atkinson’s reform section five at the commons, in the UK. She even says that religions enable people to invade any country that’s different from their own.
So, to me that sounds like legitimate criticism…
Chris Stedman: Sure.
Kylie: …How do you respond to that – people saying, “OK – that’s your experience, Chris, but I’m facing this. I’m facing massive, massive opposition from religion and I can’t see a way to talk to them?”
Chris: Sure. Well, so, you know, I am sometimes asked the idea of interfaith cooperation would play out in a context other than my own. This was a conversation I had quite a few times when I visited Australia earlier this year.
I am aware that my work is very much focused on an American context, and even more specifically with college and university age students. I mean, that’s the work I’m doing, and so that’s the sort of context I know best.
But, you know, just the other night – like two nights ago – I met with some fellow interfaith activists and heard stories about how this kind of work can be promoted around the world.
Just as an example, one person described her experiences working with a program in the Middle East that has brought 30 very influential imams – Muslim imams – over to the US for tours, extended visits where they would stay with different people. Essentially, the focus of the tour was to provide the opportunity for these imams to build interfaith relationships and see what America is like and how Muslim communities are over in the US. It’s a program that’s run in collaboration with interfaith organizations and the State Department. The result of this program is that those imams are now back over in the Middle East, sharing their experiences in the US with the broader Muslim community, talking about how interfaith relationships are not only possible but are in fact very valuable.
And that those kinds of standards for interfaith engagement and the idea of pluralism – essentially that people should be able to live their lives according to their own values and not impose those values on other people, they are now in the Middle East promoting that message. And contrasting the narrative that America hates Muslims and that a clash of civilizations is inevitable and that sort of one religious system should be able to define the rules for everybody else.
So when you talk about some of these very legitimate important examples you bring up – I mean, I think there again, just an example of the kind of tribalistic, totalitarianistic thinking and behavior that interfaith proponents are trying to address and remedy.
Of course, the way to build interfaith relationships is going to look very different in every context, and I’m no expert on other parts of the world, but I think that if we’re going to effectively resolve issues like those, we’re going to need to build coalitions with religious communities and individuals who still make up a sizable majority of the world’s population.
And in fact, coming up with programs that are specifically catered to different environments very much like this program in the Middle East is going to be, are going to be, I think, very essential to peace building efforts around the world.
Kylie: So it is measurable. People do chase up on this and make sure whether change is happening?
Chris: Oh, sure, yeah.
Kylie: Now, back to your book again. I noticed the fantastic quote by Carl Sagan at the start which I personally love, as an author not only of non‑fiction works but of course, of fiction. His statement at the beginning was one that I don’t think is reflected upon often in regards to exposing ourselves to different ideas.
Do you think that we’re more reliant as modern non‑believers in easy access texts, like Internet blogs and podcasts and traditional mediums like books? I mean, considering how well‑read Hitchens and Salman Rushdie are and so forth, I sometimes wonder if the book is lost when it comes to reading widely…
Chris: Well, a number have people have said that to me. They say, “Why are you writing a book? Why not just keep blogging and build up a massive blog following, and just do it that way?” That’s never really been my aim. I’m not trying to build this large presence.
I just wanted to write a book because I love the book as a medium. And I do – I am concerned certain modern technology – it’s discouraging people to immerse themselves in it, more extended works like that.
I was actually just thinking about this the other day, about how the ease with which we can communicate and access information today is kind of a double‑edged sword. It makes it easier for us to access just about any information we possibly could want to, but I think it also kind of allows people to stick within their circles and only be exposed to the kinds of ideas and talk to the people that reinforce their own views.
So even though on the one hand, technology allows us to connect with people all over the world, much like you and I are talking right now, it also can facilitate the kind of in group thinking and limited exposure to a multitude of ideas. That directly contributes to some of the problems that result in tribalistic and totalitarian thinking.
And I also think, as someone who does use technology quite a bit, I think that we also just become inundated with the amount of information we could possibly delve into and process. I know that I don’t pick up books nearly as often as I used to. It’s much easier for me to sort of download, if you will, bits of information in much smaller doses, because I’m constantly plugged into one aspect of social media or the other.
I’m actually making a sort of intentional effort these days to not spend so much time on social media, not be on Twitter or Facebook as much, and to spend more time reading things that will enrich my own views and expose me to different ideas in longer formats.
Kylie: How would you suggest people avoid in-group thinking? I mean, unplugging themselves from social media seems like a good step on occasion…
Chris: Yeah, I mean I do think that I’m not, in that respect, it is valuable to not just absorb information and ideas through the written word or through lectures, but to get into communities and speak with people, because I find that the times when my ideas – the ideas that I hold dearest – most constructively challenged are when I’m talking with people about them, particularly people who hold different views and who can expose me to resources and information that I was previously unaware of.
I do think that getting out there and speaking with people who hold different views and come from a different set of experiences is one of the best ways to resolve that.
Kylie: How difficult is it to get dialog when unfortunately religion and politics, education – they intersect so often. I mean, at the moment, the US is facing elections, aren’t you? And that’s certainly a hot topic at the moment.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, it can be extremely difficult. You know, actually there’s a story that I’m finishing writing right now, which will hopefully be published online somewhere at some point. It’s one that I’ve thinking on more and more over the last few months, and I think it has something to do with the fact that I find my ideas sort of coming under fire and feeling my self‑preservation instincts kicking in.
This is a story that makes me sort of – you know, that helps me question when I’m feeling that. Anyway, the story is this: I was on a speaking tour a few years ago. It was my first speaking tour, and I was just going and speaking at colleges and universities in the mid‑western United States to speak about my ideas and see what the response is and see how things out.
It was about midway through this speaking tour, and I was at a college in southern Illinois. I gave a speech and I thought it went all right. Afterward, people came up and spoke with me, and eventually there was only one person left, and she – I could, I had sort of seen that she was hanging back, waiting for other people to leave.
She came up to me. And when, after everyone had left, then said, basically – she said, “I wanted to let you know that you have a demon inside of you that’s making you gay.”
Chris: I know.
Kylie: Oh, gosh! Oh, bloody hell!
Chris: As you know, you’ve read my books, so you know that there was a point in my life when I actually thought that. And so, of course, when she said that it really struck a nerve.
My immediate internal reaction was to kind of lash out. Either to insult her or shame her for saying something like that, or at least, to just sort of let her know how wrongheaded this idea was, if for no other reason so that she wouldn’t go up to someone else and say that same thing. And have someone else feel the way that I was feeling.
But I took a moment after she had said it to kind of just pause and decide what I was going to say. As I took that moment to kind of pause, I felt my initial emotional response to our disagreement settle a little bit. I felt myself calm down.
And when I took that moment to pause and just relax for a moment, I noticed – I began to notice some things about her. I noticed that she was kind of shaking. She seemed nervous. I sort of recognized that when she had come up to me, she had spoken in kind of a quivering, stuttering voice. I recognized that she was nervous.
I kind of surprised myself with what I said in response. I’m not going to be able to say verbatim what I said, but I something along the lines of “I want to thank you for coming up and being honest with me. I know it’s really hard to say things to people that maybe you feel like they’re not going to want to hear. Especially if you think that this is something that they really need to know, and it’s important, but they’re not going to like what you have to say. That took some bravery, and so I just want to thank you for being honest.”
I think she was really surprised by that response. I think she was expecting a confrontation. She was expecting me to lash out, and she was expecting her ideas to – she was expecting to be confirmed in her perspective that I was going to, you know, disagree with this idea that she had.
Kylie: Yeah, because she certainly gives the impression that she truly believed this, the same way you used to truly believe this and were worried about it…
Chris: Sure. And what instead ended up happening is we had this discussion about it. I would love to, as a story teller, I’d love to be able to say, “And at the end of our conversation, she admitted that she had been so wrong and she was going to be a gay rights activist.” You know, I mean, that’s not how the story ended.
But I would like to think she walked away from that discussion changed, and now she has two points of reference for gay people when she hears the issue of gay marriage comes up or she hears the morality of homosexuality being preached from the pulpit, she not only thinks of this idea of gay people as demon‑infested, but she also has this other point of reference with me and with the sort of stories I shared with her and the experiences I’ve had. She has to put a human face on it. And she has a person that she’s connected with.
So I don’t – this certainly isn’t a sort of easy response to that question, to say whenever vitriolic and volatile political disagreements come up, we should just respond with love and have a gentle discussion.
But I do think that that is something that is kind of fundamentally missing from a lot of our public discussions about political disagreements and other things like that is a willingness to try to invite people into a relationship instead of responding to those kinds of attitudes combatively.
I mean, you know, if you look at the Pew report that was out in 2010, and this is one that I cite pretty regularly, but it demonstrated that the majority of people who are supportive of LGBT equality are people who have relationships with people who identify as gay, and that that’s where that sort of transformation in people’s views happened.
So I think that injecting a little bit more civility and trying to have more discussions where people are able to speak with one another instead of just shout past one another is a potential way to move forward when these disagreements arise.
Kylie: Now, speaking of the human face of atheism, some people think that you’re pretty harsh in regards to how some atheists communicate.
I do agree from my own personal perspective, I do think there are some bad efforts at branding. I think there are some poorly thought out advertising campaigns, slogans, blog posts, communications through lectures and so forth, which really aren’t the best. They’re things that I personally don’t agree with.
I know that some people think that you’re quite harsh in regards to some of the efforts that go out there. Is it entirely fair to say that they’re uniformly bad, like some critics seem to think you’re saying about them? I mean, is it also editing, biased media – are there efforts by atheists that you think aren’t being heard that are perhaps being overshadowed in favor of sound bites that are being misinterpreted, or by those people who think the fire and brimstone atheist is getting out there…
Kylie: …And being heard more?
Chris: Well, you know, I definitely do hear that critique. I have made efforts to try to – whenever I bring up these issues, I try to couch what I’m talking about with the acknowledgment that this isn’t the only perspective that exists in atheism.
I think, I try to make it very clear in the book that I think it is actually the minority perspective, the ones that are those sort of most vitriolic and that it’s a – that they’re a minority perspective that are kind of dressed up as the majority perspective.
Chris: Sure. Yeah. You know – well, with that excerpt, for example, I mean, I did reference – I tried to specify in that excerpt that I’m talking about a specific sort of expression of so‑called “new atheism.”
I mean, so first of all I talk about it being “so‑called new atheism,” and I specifically said the kind of expressions of atheism that target the religious lives of others as their number one target, and makes generalized statements.
I’m not saying that that’s atheism as a whole. But in the book I bring up critiques of “new atheism” by Chris Hedges and Reza Aslan. I actually disagree with their critiques in the book outright. I say even though I think that there are some legitimate points that they make, and it’s also helpful to see that this is how outsiders are perceiving atheism, I say in the book that I don’t think that the critiques that they make represent all of atheism.
I also say that I don’t think that intolerance that exists in some segments of the atheist community is equivalent to religious fundamentalism or extremism. I come right out and say I don’t think that those are equivalent. And I also specify that I don’t think it’s a majority perspective. I mean, Reza Aslan actually blurbed my book, but it’s funny. He did that – it was very gracious of him, because I do disagree with him in the book! But that being said, the reason I want to address those perspectives is because they are the loudest. Whenever I speak with people outside of the movement, this is what I hear consistently.
I mean, I’ll do workshops at colleges and universities for mixed audiences, and I’ll ask people right at the beginning, I’ll say, “OK. I know you know that I’m an atheist. So I don’t want that to bias what you’re going to say here. And don’t worry about hurting my feelings, but when you hear the word ‘atheist,’ what are the first words that come to mind for you?”
They’re always very negative. I ask people why that is – you know, where these sorts of ideas come from for them, and they say that some of them are based on the media. So I think that that’s an absolutely right on point that you raise, that the media is conflict‑driven, so it’s going to pull out those things, those strands more than others.
But they also will talk about direct experiences that they’ve had with atheists. I think that intolerant perspectives in atheism should be addressed, because they make the work of building positive and constructive relationships with people of faith much harder. And sometimes they turn people off – religious people of the idea altogether.
But, you know, I think that those kinds of attitudes are not the majority. I say that very expressly, but I do think that people with another perspective aren’t speaking out in quite the same way. Part of that is the biased media is not picking up their ideas.
But for that reason, people with other perspectives need to work that much harder to be heard, which is why I have worked for the last few years in the atheist movement, trying to help atheists get involved in efforts where they will be able to be heard by religious people and will be able to break down some of the bad will that has been built up both by the media and by people with more extreme perspectives in the atheist community.
Kylie: Now back to the book. It is a memoir, and I found the relationship you had with your family, the early story of your life, your grandmother, your mother – I found that an absolutely wonderful story and how that helped you build a relationship with people of faith.
Do you think that that was instrumental in terms of encouraging you to be an interfaith supporter? What happens if you’re someone who doesn’t have that kind of supportive family – I mean, if you have a very negative experience of religion due to family upbringing?
Chris: Yeah. I do think the support that I’ve gotten from my family has been instrumental and…
Kylie: Have they read the book, for example?
Chris: … I’m very fortunate in that respect. My mother has read the book, and she – you know, I mean, she really enjoyed it, but she’s biased, I’m sure!
Kylie: One would hope, yes!
Chris: But, you know, I mean… it has been very helpful to have family support, but at the same time, from a young age almost to a fault I tried to carve my own path. That meant that when I became an adult at 18, I made very proactive efforts to distance myself from my family.
Some of the more challenging experiences I had in my adulthood were experiences that I kind of decided I was going to work through alone.
But I do think at the end of the day, knowing that I have my family to fall back on has made a huge difference. But I think that, you know, for people who have a – are sort of struggling to find that kind of support or resources, that is where communities can be vital, where people can create their own network of people around them, their own supportive network that can help them begin to do bridge building outreach.
But the challenge you could potentially run into is sometimes you end up falling into a community that is a bit more closed, that doesn’t really have strong relationships or partnerships with people outside of the community. That is where sometimes you can fall into the trappings of tribalism.
I will say that having my relationships with my family has definitely inspired me to do a lot of that outreach, yes.
Kylie: And there have been so many challenges within your life. I mean, I’ve got a number of quotes that I wrote down about “always skipping immediately to the glossary in the back of a book to look for homosexuality, desperately hoping that just even one book would have something positive to say on the subject, and I never found one.”
I sincerely hope things have changed since that time!
Kylie: I mean, here we are in 2012, for heaven’s sakes, but yeah.
Chris: Sure. No, I mean, I’ve definitely found a lot more resources since then. You know, I mean, the thing is I’m not a Christian any longer obviously. But I still have connections with a lot of folks in the Christian community who are working to create more spaces for LGBT folks to be affirmed in Christian circles.
That is something I was doing at one point in my life when I was teenager. So I know that there are a lot of books and films and other resources. A couple I guess I would recommend is one of my closest friends is a women named Ky Dickens, and she directed a documentary film called “Fish Out of Water” that takes a look at the verses in the Bible, at each one that is used as kind of ammunition against LGBT people. She sits down and interviews biblical scholars who provide context for those verses and different interpretations of them.
Similarly, there’s a young man named Matthew Vines who has recently been making a lot of waves for a video of talk that he gave that essentially debunks the idea that the Bible supports anti‑gay perspectives. He, I think, also goes through the verses and says why this narrative is perhaps not true. I mean, I have a number of other good friends, including someone who works at GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and many others who are very connected to efforts to reconcile LGBT folks and the Christian community.
These resources are exploding precisely because anti‑gay attitudes are dissipating very rapidly in many Christian circles in the United States. At the time, when I – that I’m talking about in the book, that you referenced with that quote, I wasn’t able to find any resources specifically because of the community I was in. But now with the Internet and with the sort of messages that are being pushed out in the media and on the community level, kids today are having very different experiences than I did.
So, I do hear from young people in Christian circles who are struggling with this issue. My goal is never to tell them right away that they should just leave Christianity and that will sort of magically solve their conflict. I want to connect them with as many resources as possible. That often includes connecting them with some of these resources that can help them, from a Christian perspective. Because that’s what I needed, as I talk about in the book. That’s what I needed at the time. I needed a Christian perspective to help me to come to accept my sexual orientation.
Kylie: I’ve got another quote from your book: “Knowing your own story is the first step.” What do you suggest for outlets for people who do have a story to tell? I know that there’s bloggers who have people submit atheist stories; I know that there are sites, obviously. Anyone can hop online, hopefully. As I said at the beginning of the interview, there are people who might have limited access to technology or resources… How do you suggest people tell their story?
Chris: I do think that online community is definitely one way. Much like the stories that are shared on PZ Myers’ blog or other blogs. When I first started blogging… Within the first year of blogging I hosted a story contest that I called the Share Your Secular Story Contest. Specifically for that reason, for trying to push out narratives and stories of what it means to be an atheist or a secular person in religiously diverse world.
I think that sharing those stories can bring people a sense of comfort if they feel alone, or feel like their story is singular. And that they can’t relate to experiences that anyone else has had. And they don’t hear their story reflected in others. I think that sharing stories is one way, sharing your own story is one way, to help other people find their own voice.
I guess that is one hope that I have with the book. That there will be some people who will read it. Even though their own story will be quite different from my own, but they will find things in my story that resonate with them. And perhaps will feel empowered to begin to speak out about their own. I think that sharing those kinds of stories is one of… As I’ve said in this interview, already, sharing those stories and building those relationships across lines of difference is one of the first and biggest ways that we can begin to break down a lot of the suspicion and mistrust and intolerance that exists between atheists and the religious.
And between different religious communities. Even though there have been many times where I have felt scared or uncertain about sharing my own story, because it does feel vulnerable and difficult… I don’t regret it when I think about the possibility that it might help other people feel that they, too, have the ability to do so. No matter how old they are or what point they’re at in their journey.
Or where they’re at in life. I hope this comes across in the book. I wrote it as what I hope is the beginning of a conversation. Because I’m very young and I still have many experiences ahead of me. I wouldn’t claim to be an authority in any respect. The one thing that I can claim some kind of authority on is my own experiences and story. So that’s where I’ve begun.
Kylie: Where can people find out more about your work? When’s it released? And what website to go to?
Chris: It will be out on November 6th…
Kylie: Oh, not long now!
Chris: …2012. Yes. Very soon. If you want to find out more about where you can get it, you can just go to faitheistbook.com.
Kylie: Does it feel funny, thinking that this word that was used as an insult against you, now it’s the title of your book?
Chris: It does feel very funny. But as I write in the book, I know that the word queer is used as an insult all the time. And that is a word that I had to reclaim. And the word gay, when I was growing up, I heard, “That’s so gay.” Or, “You’re gay.”
Kylie: Oh, it still happens. I’m always yelling at students about it. It’s like, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Really. Would you say that to…?” And they go, “Oh, right. Oops.”
Chris: Sure. So Faitheist, accomodationist, these are words that get bandied around. As I write in the book, if Faitheist means that I, as an atheist, prioritize trying to understand people of faith and try to help them understand where I’m coming from then that’s OK. I’ll take that word, I guess.
Kylie: Good for you. Thanks so much for talking to me, Chris.
Chris: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure speaking with you, Kylie.
Kylie: It’s the Australian accent. It’s so charming!
Chris: It is!
Kylie: Cool. Done!