ESR Director of Recruitment and Admissions Matt Hisrich reflects on a recent book about building bridges between atheists and those of faith:
Harvard University Assistant Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman seeks to chart a different course from the combative “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others. As the title of his book suggests – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012) – his hope is to neither deny his secular humanism nor deny the value of those with differing perspectives.
It is important to recognize from the outset that the short book (191 pages including notes) is primarily Stedman sharing the story about how he came to his current position. The “treatise” portion of the text that one interested in building bridges between secular and religious spheres might be looking for is limited to the concluding pages. Stedman spends a lot of time on his youth, in other words, but the point is to take readers on a journey through a variety of positions regarding faith. As he explains:
In my youth, being "right" held ultimacy. I valued precision and accuracy, and was sure to correct anyone I felt was “wrong.” I thought I was doing people a favor by correcting them. Now, I strive to lead with listening instead of lecturing. We can be dogmatically fixated on who is "right" and who is "wrong", or we can discern a way to live together in tension and ambiguity. Joining forces, we can buck the clash-of-civilizations story that has come to define our world and dictate a new narrative – one that bridges the religious and the secular, rather than threatening the “other” with extinction. (180-181)
Having grown up in a non-religious family and then joining an evangelical Christian church, Stedman struggled for years to reconcile his sexuality with what he was taught the Bible proclaims on the subject. This eventually led him to reject faith entirely and violently. As the intensity of his hostility to religion waned he came into contact with Eboo Patel (who wrote the forward to the book) and the Interfaith Youth Core. As he describes it, the IFYC’s mission aligned with his own growing sense of communication and cooperation across faith (and non-faith) lines. “[I]t sounds like exactly what our world needs,” he says, “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.” (133)
Stedman gained a name for himself in advocating this view on his blog, NonProphet Status. His growing presence brought him to the attention of Harvard Humanist Chaplain and Good Without God author Greg Epstein, who hired him for his current role.
Stedman is part of an emerging group of “new new atheists.” As columnist Theo Hobson observes:
atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it… This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton.
According to Stedman this more positive approach not only allows for collaboration with those of faith, but actually frees many atheists put off by the stridency of Dawkins and others to reclaim their identity (for those interested in non-theism among Friends, consider checking out Godless for God’s Sake). Toward the end of Faitheist, he issues an inspiring call to action: "Let’s learn from our shared past and imagine, together, a more vibrant future. I’m tired of seeing people pitted against one another because of these inherently false broad strokes that paint religious people as ‘delusional’ and atheists as ‘degenerates.’ Let’s start to see one another as people first." (156)
Any form of interfaith dialogue raises a host of questions, particularly for a “Christian seminary in the Quaker tradition,” as ESR describes itself. The idea of building bridges between theist and non-theist views takes this even a step further. If seeing “that of God” in every person was one way Friends advocated for equality across all of humanity, how do we continue to live into this testimony with integrity (for ourselves and respecting that of the other) when someone specifically rejects that of God within themselves, for instance? Perhaps we do not need to resolve all of the complexity and ambiguity at the outset. Perhaps, as Stedman suggests, starting to see one another as people first is enough of a step in the right direction.