Faitheist – bringing atheists and believers together (book review)

Book cover

I have several times posted here and elsewhere about relationships between christians and atheists, and my wish that we do better at this, for example:

So when I saw a book in our local library by an atheist with a similar interest, I had to read it.

It was worthwhile.

Chris Stedman’s life journey (so far)

Chris grew up in a relatively secular US family. He was perhaps slightly precocious, and somewhat of an outsider.

He was only vaguely aware of religion until his family “flirted with Unitarian Universalism” for a while, then he made friends with a Jewish girl and joined in some of her families religious festivities.

Becoming a christian

Then, at about age 12, he was invited by fellow students who he admired to attend their church youth group. He went, enjoyed the music and the social equality where “popular kids mingled with nerds unflinchingly” and “felt enveloped by love”. He so much wanted to be part of it all that, on his third visit, he ‘went forward’ and ‘accepted Christ into his heart’.

Trying to live as a christian

Chris found that, although it was free pizza, popularity and love (from God and the christian community) that appealed to him initially, it was the idea of Jesus as social reformer that came to appeal to him most, an aspect not stressed by his new church. And so he volunteered in various christian social action trips and events.

But gradually he became aware that he was gay. He tried to hide his sexuality and earn God’s forgiveness for it, but the effort took its toll and he became withdrawn. Eventually he “came out”, with the support of his mother and some counselling from a liberal-minded Lutheran pastor who reassured him God loved him just the way he was.

He became an “energetic queer Christian activist” and at age 18 headed off to a Lutheran college with hopes of becoming a minister. But it didn’t work out that way.

Saying goodbye to God

He says he still doesn’t really see any particular ideas or events that made the difference, but somewhere along the line he came to the realisation that he no longer believed God existed. He says he never really had a strong attachment to Jesus, but he thought Jesus was an essential part of the social justice package.

Living as an atheist

Despite his atheism, he found college to be a positive experience, especially the opportunities it afforded to do global justice field trips and volunteer at local community service centres. After he completed his degree, he moved to a small town and worked for a Lutheran social services agency, where he came into contact with many christians and some muslims among those he was trying to help.

The realisation hit him that militant atheism wasn’t going to help these people – if he wanted to help them he needed to accept their religious beliefs, despite his disagreement. And so began a new and unexpected stage in his life.

The making of an interfaith activist

He decided to learn more about the religious divides, and enrolled in a religion Masters course at a seminary. He became committed to the idea of inter-faith dialogue (which for him included atheists) and now works as a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University.

The message of the book

Chris wants to increase the tolerance and dialogue between people of all beliefs, and none, so that they can “find common ground and work together to make this world …. a better place.” He is critical of the more militant atheists, and believes “there is a significant parallel between the certitude I felt as a conflicted, fundamentalist Christian and as a conflicted antireligious atheist.”

Reasons to be conciliatory

The bulk of the book is his story, but he ends with a discussion of different reasons why he believes atheists should follow a more conciliatory path:

  1. Atheists in the US are in a minority, and generally have to interact with christians all the time. Why not keep these relationships friendly and respectful?
  2. If atheists want to end religious extremism, it is best to avoid antireligious extremism, and make common cause with moderate believers.
  3. Atheists can learn from christians.
  4. Being provocative is counter-productive, and only makes atheists less accepted by others.

Atheist arguments against being conciliatory

He doesn’t accept arguments that interfaith work requires keeping silent about what atheists hold firmly – he argues that it actually creates more opportunities to discuss. He also believes that interfaith work doesn’t bolster religious privilege nor compromise the atheist opposition to faith.

A christian response

Chris has some strong messages for fellow atheists, but I am more concerned about how we christians should respond. I think the following issues are worth considering:

  • Are we christians sufficiently loving towards atheists and gays? Could we do more to make them feel less threatened and more accepted by christians?
  • Should we be more open to working on social justice and welfare programs with non-believers or believers in other religions?
  • Is there a danger that the uniqueness of Jesus or of the christian gospel would be compromised by taking more conciliatory approaches?
  • Is God calling us to a different response to homosexuality and to gays?

I plan to come back to some of these questions.

Do I recommend this book?

I don’t think christians need to read these arguments to be spurred on to love others, even those that some christians may regard as enemies – after all, that is a fundamental teaching of Jesus, though often ignored or ‘explained away’ by christians. But reading Chris’ story, or stories like it, may help give us a picture of the difficulties some christians, or those attracted to christianity, may face, and so help us at least be more sympathetic.

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  1. That looks like an interesting book. Though what I didn’t get from the story was if he himself had been “a conflicted antireligious atheist” as implied by the quote. Could you tell something about that?
    P.S. I think there’s a typo right after “A christian response”. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the typo. I feel sure I saw that and corrected it, but ….
    He seemed to alternate between being tolerant and intolerant of religion, and he mentions a few places where he felt angry or confused:
    1. When a Muslim girl (I think a Somalian refugee) engaged him in conversation, he quickly closed it down, because he felt uncomfortable. But later felt he had been rude and afraid to someone he was wanting to help and build bridges to.
    2. One night after drinking a bit too much, he wandered past a church, felt angry and destroyed a sign out the front.
    3. He says he felt christianity had “broken” him, and he felt the only two options were to be religious or antireligious.
    4. For his final honors dissertation in his first degree, he wrote a “caustic, bitter and resentful” essay he titled “Kissing Ass and Taking Names”, in which he disparaged his course and the Professors, because he felt somehow the college was to blame for him, an atheist, having a religion degree.
    5. He says that at this time he felt “the idiocy of religion” and says “my conflicted enmity towards religion was poisoning my own well”.
    My feeling is that he is quite an emotional person and was doing an unusual thing (an atheist studying religion) and he was emotionally very up and down about it all.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post-very interesting.
    The point of question that I would raise, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, would be that Jesus’ words and disposition seem to stand in the way of the general solution steps that you suggest. Jesus was very merciful toward the downtrodden, the sinners, those caught up in empty lifestyles, etc. But Jesus was very impatient on ideological grounds toward Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, the rulers of this age, etc. With sinners he was merciful, but with ideology he took no prisoners and left little middle ground. The WWJD question seems likely to prevent the softer middle way suggested here. The Bible and Jesus’ often harsh words aren’t going away: he came not to bring peace, but a sword.

  4. Wow, that very much validates that point. 4 is in particular unusual and barbed. How did that work out?

  5. Hi Brisancian, I am not sure I agree totally with Chris, but I am obviously sympathetic, so I have thought about that question too, though I didn’t write about it.
    You have posed the dichotomy as ideology vs sinners, but I think that is comparing two unlike things. It should be either ideology vs no ideology or ideology vs different ideology, or sinners vs self righteous.
    My view is that it is none of those, but something different, and I think we can see it in Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus tells a parable about people who were confident of their own righteousness (a Pharisee), and those who weren’t (a tax collector).
    So the question is, where do atheists fit? And in my view, there could be atheists (and christians) on either side of that dichotomy. If we enlarged it slightly to include those confident of their own intellectual prowess and rightness (which would fit with Jesus’ statements about entering the kingdom as a little child), that might push a few more atheists to the ‘wrong’ side, but there would still be some on each side.
    As a christian, I can only see the outward behaviour, and it is difficult to know motives and attitudes, and I am commanded by Jesus not to judge. So I think starting with as positive an attitude as possible is best. (After all, I work with atheists, have atheists as relatives, etc, so I already am doing that.) Even if I ‘give up’ on an atheist (e.g. as happens in some internet discussions), I should still behave graciously.
    In the end Jesus/God has the sword, not me.

  6. ignorantianescia, he tells that story with some shame or regret. He says his professors must have had “compassion and forgiveness” to see beyond that spiteful essay and still granted him summa cum laude.

  7. great book review unklee,
    I first of faithatheist when listening to the matter of doubt podcast, in his podcast he talked more about his life, not as much about the principals in his book.
    Chris does make a good point that we should work more towards respect and common ground. And he does show and display to everyone(especially the anti-theist or new atheist) that there is still good in religion.

  8. Thanks Marcus. It sounds like the podcast was similar to the book. I think the main problem arises with people who are most sure they are right and most wanting to convert others. I am not sure I am right, but I believe i am, and I certainly would like to convert others (if they are interested), so I have to be careful. I think most christians and some atheists are much the same.

  9. @ unkleE and all others who wrote comments on this blog
    I am an Ahmadi peaceful Muslim; I also support the idea of a peaceful (without deriding and ridicule) dialogue between the revealed religions and non-religions (Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics; Humanists) all included.
    I live in Toronto; can we meet here (or your like-minded friends )?

  10. Hi Ahmadi
    Thanks for visiting. It’s always nice to meet someone who appreciates peaceful dialogue. There may be a group you can find in Toronto but the internet may be an easier option. Please feel free to continue to comment here.

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