“Faitheist”: The Positive Review
Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is a book by Chris Stedman, Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. The following is a review by guest writer Jonathan Brown — you can find a contrasting review by YAS writer Jonathan Meddings here.
Religion and atheism are two ideologies that couldn’t be more at odds. It’s not uncommon that religion and atheism are the taboo subjects – the ones you avoid in conversation so not to offend. Regardless of how you identify – religion and atheism have one thing alike: they are both known for their deeply personal nature. They are ideologies that permeate throughout our communities and our lives whether we like it or not, but I wonder — has the dialogue between these perspectives stagnated?
“I fear that some atheists are doing what I used to do in my antireligious days: engaging in monologue instead of dialogue,” remarks Chris Stedman in the early stages of Faitheist . “Faitheist” is a term which Stedman describes as somewhat of a slight: a term used towards those who aren’t “real atheists” and one directed at him during one of his first experiences trying to connect with the atheist community.
Stedman’s background certainly gives him an interesting perspective on how the broader community interacts with religion. As a child, religion played a fairly minimal role in his family life – it was “something other people did”. This was until his teen years where Stedman found religion and took to it with great dedication becoming an Evangelical Christian hoping to “earn God’s love”. However, seeking “God’s love” came with some unique challenges for Stedman as the teenager discovered something about himself that seemed at odds with his newfound faith. Stedman realised he was gay.
After a period of intense internal struggle, he sought a range of perspectives and support and was eventually able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith. We gain a fascinating insight into the perspective of being queer and religious but over time his faith waned and he swung to the other side of the faith pendulum. In the midst of studying religion in college Stedman “stop[ped] believing in God altogether” and became an atheist – and quite a determined one at that.
Faitheist follows Stedman’s perspective shifting from evangelical Christian to dedicated atheist and by the end of the book somewhere back in the middle – still maintaining his non-belief, but finding his place as an interfaith activist and facilitating dialogue between the religious and the non-religious.
What makes his story engaging is that he has lived the extremes of two vastly different communities and found an understanding of the grey areas in both. In referring to the “monologue” of religious and atheist communities Stedman makes an interesting point that these communities are so focused on what makes them different to each other that they seem almost incapable of recognising common ground.
After living through the experiences of being mocked by both the religious and the non religious Stedman realised eventually what he wanted to do with his life, saying: “I wanted to help organise nonreligious communities that would not only provide a safe space for the nonreligious but would also value reaching out to those with different beliefs in an attempt to understand and empathise, not bulldoze or mock them.” It’s this perspective that comes through most in Stedman’s writing – he doesn’t seek to mock or bulldoze the reader into sharing his beliefs. He simply shares his stories from living within both communities and in doing so shows us that there is a lot of grey in between the black and white.
Stedman draws on a number of influences in his writing and shows the depth of his knowledge gained from his work studying and interacting with religious and non religious communities. The strength in his story comes from the uniqueness of being able to illustrate the thought processes involved in being both religious and atheist.
Whilst the book mostly focuses on Stedman’s story and his experiences it is also a commentary and a mouthpiece for him to talk about the state of faith, atheism and dialogue between the two. He believes that “to be understood, we must work to understand…we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about those who seem different – and the result is often life-changing for all parties involved.” Faitheist provides some of that challenge.
If you feel like you don’t understand the religious or if you feel you don’t understand the atheist movement it’s worth reading Faithest. You might struggle to understand his personal story with religion and atheism, but this perspective is important because it’s complicated. It’s an insight into the grey areas that we don’t see in similar texts which are too often the cheering squad for narrowly defined black and white perspectives.
Faitheist is an attempt to switch the monologues about atheism and religion into a dialogue. Stedman doesn’t have all the answers to creating a more respectful and constructive dialogue between the religious and the non-religious, but his story is good food for thought regardless of where you fit. You may or may not agree with him, but hopefully his story can deepen your understanding of why people believe what they believe and open some conversations.