How To Make The Soft Sell To Christians

How To Make The Soft Sell To Christians November 12, 2012

Zach Alexander is disappointed with Chris Stedman’s controversial new book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religiousdespite sharing some common ground with Chris. In a long and valuable review, Zach talks about the value of bringing some empathy to our criticisms of religious people, as Stedman models, but without also not neglecting the serious importance of epistemology as he thinks Stedman has also done.

Here Zach explains his own effective outreach to Christians at his devout alma mater:

Like Chris, my college years were dominated by a long, tortuous process of losing my evangelical faith. I stopped believing in God sometime in 2006, my last year at Gordon, the Christian liberal arts college north of Boston. The day I graduated, I tied my college ID to a rock and threw it into the Annisquam River. And I wanted nothing to do with Christianity after that.

But as time passed, I was reminded of the plight of students at Gordon and other Christian colleges who feel oppressed in the same ways I did – for not being straight enough, Christian enough, or both.

And the following year, I and two friends who were still students did something that had never been done at Gordon – we published a booklet of anonymous stories from necessarily closeted LGBTQ students, effectively giving a megaphone to people who were all but voiceless on campus before. A few years later, I helped then-current students publish further issues, including one this past spring – this time with stories from closeted atheists, agnostics, and doubters.

And the impact on the campus has been profound. Many straight students reading the first issue were consumed with remorse, recognizing in a deeper way the humanity of their queer classmates, and the pain their homophobia was causing them. At the launch of the most recent issue, one student approached me in tears, unable to find any words beyond thank you. I don’t know what her exact situation is. But I think I know how she feels, as a free-thinking person trying to survive in a stiflingly religious environment. And I’m so, so grateful we were able to make a difference for her, and others like her.

None of which may have happened had I been allergic to any engagement with any religious institution, or unwilling to collaborate with religious people of good will. My cofounders, for example, are both Christians; I presume most of the student editors since then are as well.

Equally important, the publication’s editorial tone has been consistently respectful – not haranguing the administration for being homophobic (even though it arguably is) or vilifying the students for being intolerant of nonbelievers (even though many of them are). Why? Because that would accomplish very little, beyond gratifying our sense of moral indignation. Our goal has been to increase the quality of life of marginalized students – and in this case, we think the best way to accomplish that is not pouring vitriol upon people, but appealing to the better angels of their nature.

It was in precisely that spirit that I wrote the most recent issue’s closing essay (which Chris highly praised), calling for the college to be more accepting of nonbelievers, in gentle prose more full of Biblical allusions than a Left Behind novel. Believe me – every Hitch-loving bone in my body wanted to let loose, and write a scathing indictment of the college’s unjust, discriminatory policies, and their absurd, mythological worldview. And there is a time and place for that critique. But there are also times and places for moderation, for seeking common ground instead of burning bridges. And this is one of them.

Because even though Gordon remains staunchly evangelical, I know firsthand that there are good, decent people among the faculty and administration, who don’t want any of their students feeling marginalized and persecuted. That, for what it’s worth, is meaningful common ground.

Does this mean every atheist needs to do this kind of work? Of course not. To each their own. But it’s tremendously important that some of us do it – and that we aren’t dismissed as fakes for our trouble.

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