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.