I recently read Chris Stedman’s new book, Faitheist. In the memoir, Stedman recounts his journey from evangelical Christianity in his late childhood and teen years, to New Atheism while studying religion in college, to his current humanist “Faitheism.” Raised in a mostly secular a home, Stedman was attracted to Christianity as a preteen because of the social justice causes taken up by his church. However, after coming out as gay as a teenager, Stedman describes feeling out-of-place in his church’s community and eventually came to the conclusion that he was an atheist, completely rejecting religion for several years.
So what is Faitheism? Stedman explains in a November 2012 interview with the Washington Post:
It’s one of several words used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion. But to me, being a faitheist means that I prioritize the pursuit of common ground, and that I’m willing to put “faith” in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice.
In addition to telling the story of his personal beliefs and their development, Stedman makes the case for the inclusion of atheists and Nones in the interfaith movement, as well as acceptance of religious people and belief by the admittedly sometimes toxic atheist community. I found his story incredibly compelling; it is distinctly human, and distinctly millennial. At only 25 years old, Stedman has written the first memoir I’ve read that I feel fully takes place in the same world I know. The bands whose music Stedman mentions throughout Faitheist are some of the same my friends and I listen to all the time; even the conversational vernacular in which the book is written echoes that of today’s young people.
Stedman’s ultimate message is one with which I agree vehemently. Both through his experiences described in Faitheist, and his clearly laid out vision for atheist participation in interfaith work, Stedman attests to the power of storytelling and dialogue between people of different backgrounds. Faced with street harassment by protestors because of his sexuality, rather than resent his antagonists or yell back at them, Stedman recounts standing on a street corner for several hours talking about views on theology and identity with the group. At the end of the conversation, one man told Stedman he had never met a gay person before. While their beliefs were surely not irrevocably transformed, Stedman writes that he never saw the group protest at the same club again. The same principle is demonstrated again by Stedman’s friendship with his Muslim coworker during his time as an intern at Interfaith Youth Core.
Further, he argues that it is a necessity for atheists to be active in interfaith work because of both movements’ common background and goals. Stedman is particularly frank toward the end of the book when he writes, “You don’t even need to think that religion can be a positive force in the world to see the value in interfaith cooperation that includes the non religious. As citizens of a religiously diverse world, interfaith cooperation is a necessity in order to accomplish things that require a coalition larger than the community to which you belong – whether you wish to see religion come to an end or not.” He goes on to explain that both atheism and the interfaith movement stand in opposition to religious extremism, and both work to break down religious privilege in society, so while atheists may initially feel hesitant to engage in work that might feel too religious, really, refusing to engage is counterproductive.
I myself am an atheist as well as an Unitarian Universalist, and I found Faitheist incredibly inspiring, both as a manifesto for atheist interfaith work, and as a human story of changing belief and perspective. I often find myself agreeing with many new Atheist critiques of mainstream religion, as well as pluralistic messages of interfaith understanding and engagement, and Faitheist helped me resolve the conflicted feelings about religion and interfaith work I still, to a certain degree, hold. I would highly recommend Faitheist to anyone interested in interfaith work, or frustrated by the seemingly perpetual conflict between atheists and believers; Stedman’s book is both funny and frank, while relaying an empathetic story of personal development and discovery.