Since the world appears not to be ending today, let us check in with the non-believers.
Chris Stedman, author of the memoir “Faitheist,” was raised as a “casual Christian,” but somewhere in middle school, after a move from Fridley to Shoreview, he became a serious born-again Christian, hoping to find a community and a place to belong.
His instant new friends welcomed him — but they didn’t know something important about Stedman: He was gay. And everything he heard about homosexuality — at church, Bible study, camps, and the myriad Christian activities he participated in — told him he’d better keep that news to himself.
So he started down the path of self-destruction, unable to reconcile his identity with his belief. In the end, his mother brought him to meet a pastor at a Lutheran church who told him the viewpoints he’d absorbed were “dehumanizing garbage” and he was “as God made him.” It saved his life.
But after years of trying to reconcile his belief with his homosexuality, he realized suddenly — in the middle of his theology studies at Augsburg College — that he no longer believed. He continued his religious studies and, as an atheist, continues to be a part of interfaith efforts to improve society. He writes the popular blog NonProphet Status and today, at age 25, is the assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.
MinnPost: As I read your book, at several places I was struck by how brave you are — you engaged sign-waving homophobes in thoughtful, disarming conversation, for instance, and try the same tactic with a group of violent thugs yelling Bible verses. Where does this bravery come from?
Chris Stedman: You know, I don’t really feel brave. I won’t lie — I do feel frightened at times. But I’ve continued to try to put myself out there throughout my life because I believe in the power of relationships and storytelling to create change. Engaging contentious issues through dialogue can often feel quite difficult. But when push comes to shove, I feel good about the fact that I take risks and try to make a difference, instead of just keeping my mouth shut and sitting on the sidelines simply because that’s where I feel most comfortable. I think the courage I do possess comes from my mother, who has shown me throughout her life that you can speak your mind and stand up for your convictions — but that you can also be kind to others while doing so.
MP: Part of the reason you were attracted to Christianity was because you were looking for “community.” Where can atheists find community without religion?
CS: I work for a nonreligious community-building organization, and much of my job is essentially being a community organizer. I meet with members of our community, ask what kinds of programs they’re interested in, and work with them on making those things happen. We host lectures, discussion groups, community service projects, interfaith dialogue events and more. The Humanist Community at Harvard has a staff of five people who support these efforts. And we’re launching a study of nonreligious communities so that we can learn how other atheist, agnostic and other nonreligious communities function, and share that information more broadly.
Of course, there are certainly other ways that nonreligious people can find community, but I enjoy being a part of a community that I believe shares in many of my values and beliefs. For many reasons, of course — but in regards to interfaith dialogue, it makes it easier to build relationships between different groups of people if they’re based in communities.
MP: You recount the ways atheists are widely reviled by (dominantly religious) society — and then criticize atheists for having a negative or defensive reaction to religious people. How do you maintain your own seemingly cheerful and open attitude about being ranked among the lowest of the low?
CS: When I was in the closet, I literally thought of myself as worse than dirt. Coming from a mindset like that changes how you think about yourself, and how you absorb the opinions of others. I had to work hard to regain my sense of self and my self-esteem, and to come back to a place of feeling confident and comfortable in my own skin.
Feeling like I know who I am and what I stand for now — and coming to accept and appreciate who I am — has allowed me to more easily brush off the negative reactions I get because of who I am. When you know who you are, it’s easier to not be so influenced by other’s unfounded hatred toward you. Additionally, I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful support network of family and friends who know me, love me and support me.
MP: You have a keen sense of social justice and seem driven to make the world a better place — in truly actionable ways. Where did this come from?
CS: I was raised to believe in the importance of helping others. When I became a Christian, I couched these ethics in Christian language. When I realized I didn’t believe in religious claims, I returned to the roots of my values. And that process actually strengthened my desire for social justice. As an atheist, I don’t believe that anyone will save us. We have to try to save each other — and ourselves.
MP: How do you maintain your zeal for social justice for others when those groups would not do the same for you, either as a nonreligious person or as a gay person?
CS: I recently wrote a piece about this very issue — it’s not an easy one to respond to. The story I tell in that piece is about a time I gave a speech, and then someone came up to me after and told me that I have a demon inside of me that was responsible for my being gay. That was, of course, what I used to believe, and my initial response was to get angry, or hurt, or upset — and to yell at her or try to shame her in response. Instead, I took a moment to pause, and I decided to invite her into a conversation. A Gallup poll in 2010 found that people are much more likely to support gay marriage if they have a relationship with someone is gay. Thus, I believe that relationship-building is the best way to address the negative perceptions that people have about atheists or LGBT folks.
Beyond that, I am concerned about equality and justice for others, even if they don’t believe I should share in that freedom. My principles aren’t contingent on reciprocity. Even if others won’t extend compassion to me, my ethics still compel me to work for a more just world for everyone.
MP: What exactly does a Humanist chaplain do, and are you the first person to hold this position?
CS: This is definitely a question that I get a lot. The idea of a Humanist chaplain is confusing to a lot of people. (Myself included, sometimes!) There aren’t many Humanist chaplains — currently, only five U.S. universities have Humanist chaplaincies. But I’m not the first; in fact, the Humanist chaplaincy at Harvard was founded in the 1970s.
In addition to the community-building work I mentioned earlier, my job also includes doing “pastoral care” work. Many atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious students want someone to talk to, and I make myself available for them. I meet with students who are going through a personal crisis and have no one else to turn to, who are trying to sort out their own beliefs and values, or who just want someone to listen to them. Having people who are available to help in times of need, or simply to listen, can be vitally important — whether you’re religious or not.
Harvard categorizes positions like mine under the title of “chaplain.” There are almost 40 chaplains at Harvard, representing a variety of worldviews — many of which are non-Christian. We all use the same word because we all want to ensure that every student and community member has access to the same resources, and that they get equal representation.
MP: You have forged remarkable friendships with people from all faiths and backgrounds. How do atheists find common ground or equal footing with people who ultimately believe you won’t be “saved”? (Does the friendship feel unequal in some essential way?)
CS: It doesn’t bother me if someone doesn’t believe that I will be “saved,” because I don’t believe in an afterlife. But it’s still an important issue to address, and I don’t envy the position that some religious friends of mine find themselves in when it comes to questions about salvation. I know evangelical Christians who are engaged in interfaith dialogue efforts that have some very interesting perspectives on this issue. But personally speaking, I think that we can continue to disagree about an afterlife but still work together on concerns that are grounded in the here and now. We may not agree about the existence of God or an afterlife, but we can agree that life right now requires that we find a way to work together.
MP: New polls are finding that the current generation of young people is increasingly nonreligious — as many as 25 percent. If these young people are not being compelled through church membership, what do they need to participate fully in civic and community life?
CS: In 2010, Robert Putnam and David Campbell published “American Grace,” which was an extensive study of the lives of religious Americans. They found that religious Americans are much more civically engaged than the nonreligious. They give more to charities (both religious and secular), they volunteer more, and they’re just more active in their communities overall. But Putnam and Campbell reported that civic engagement wasn’t correlated with how devoutly religious a person is, but instead with how involved he or she was in a religious community. They also reported that an atheist spouse who attended services was as likely to be civically engaged as a religious person. Thus, they suggested that nonreligious communities could serve a similar function in inspiring and connecting people to be civically engaged. That’s one of the reasons why I think there’s significant value in communities for the nonreligious.
MP: If I may ask, since it’s this time of year, what winter holiday/s or traditions do you keep?
CS: I still celebrate Christmas — as a child, Christmas wasn’t really about Jesus for my family. I mean, if anything, it was about Santa. But really, it was about family. To me, Christmas has always been an excuse to come together in the face of an all-too-often cold and dark world; to relish in good food, good music, and the company of good friends and family. It is also as an opportunity to help make a dark, cold world just a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more inhabitable for others, through compassionate service or loving action. So, even though I’m an atheist, I’ll always cherish Christmas.