Chris Stedman, who is the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, intrigued me when we would meet at Harvard Humanist events. Stedman’s position as “Interfaith and Community Service Fellow” struck me as particularly curious for an atheist. In the 1960s and ’70s, under influences as diverse as the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council, believers of various denominations and religions began to gather for joint prayer or social activism. But I had a hard time imagining how interfaith groups would deal with an atheist, and why an atheist—and a gay atheist at that—would want to immerse himself in the religious world. I downloaded Stedman’s memoir, Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, as soon as it was released on November 6, 2012. As I read, I found myself immersed in an awkward combination of hope and discomfort.
Like Stedman, I once embraced religious faith (I was a nun for twenty years), then passed through a stage of rage against God before concluding that there is no God to rage against. Like Stedman, I retain respect for many religious people, including friends and family, and I want to be able to talk with them about anything, including religion. Unlike Stedman, I break into a sweat and my stomach lurches when I actually have to engage believers in dialogue in a way that highlights my atheism.
A quick Google search revealed that I wasn’t the only one with a visceral response to the book. Infuriated atheists left scathing comments on Salon.com, where an excerpt from Faitheist’s first chapter had been posted. These commentators took particular issue with Stedman’s criticism of the tendency of the so-called “New Atheists” to rail against religion and call for its downfall; Stedman criticized their “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful” style of engagement, denouncing its “alienating narrative.” In a reply to his critics, Stedman reiterated his “concerns about the efficacy and ethics of confrontationalism.”
As the comments on Salon made clear, being rude to religious people can feel like a calling to some atheists, particularly those inspired by The End of Faith, in which Sam Harris decries the political correctness that often shields religious faith from rigorous public analysis. I owe a personal debt to Harris for the way that book helped restore my reason after decades of religious indoctrination. I also share Stedman’s concern with Harris’s tendency to paint religious faith with a vicious swath of red. When he talks about religion, Harris’s anger sometimes upstages his reason. Stedman, who holds two degrees in religious studies and was once a believer, paints religion’s complexities with a more diverse palette and attention to detail—more Rembrandt, less Rauschenberg.
Both caustic atheists and zealous Christians excel at keeping each other at arm’s length with anger and innuendo. I’ve heard preachers conflate atheists with the devil, who, according to Saint Peter, “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Not infrequently, individual atheists have a history that includes having been personally hurt by religious people; requests to talk civilly with believers can feel like being asked to coddle an abuser.
While vocal zealots on both sides strengthen the ideological walls and shoot strategic volleys of flaming invective over the battlements, a silent majority tends to sidestep alienating discourse about religion, long considered an unsuitable topic of polite conversation. As I read Faitheist, I wondered if silence and aggression weren’t both too easy, if they weren’t, at least sometimes, the coward’s way out.
What the twenty-five-year old Stedman does is very brave. He enters unfriendly territory unmasked, walking into an interfaith soup kitchen or an interfaith discussion group undeterred by the certainty that many of those he will encounter there are systematically set to condemn him simply because he is gay and an atheist.
One of Faitheist’s most moving stories recounts the time Stedman and a friend were attacked in an underground Chicago subway tunnel at three o’clock in the morning. While shouting Bible verses, five gay bashers punched Stedman in the throat, knocked his friend to the ground, and shoved Stedman toward the path of an oncoming train. From the eventual safety of a subway car, the two friends tamped blood with a t-shirt that had been ripped in the fight. And then? Stedman suggested heading for a diner to grab something greasy and to “figure out how we can make this fucked-up world just a little less fucked-up.”
Stedman chooses to focus on what unites people, without compromising who he is. He works for a world that will recognize the right of each individual to determine his or her own identity, and he demands of himself that he respect others even when they don’t respect him.
I admire that—especially since I’m not always as brave. Reading Faitheist caused me discomfort in part because it brought to the surface some of my own pain and unrealized hopes. The book often insists on the importance of telling stories as a first step toward building bridges. I’ve been holding back a few stories of my own.
While touring with my book, An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, I had dozens of mutually respectful, meaningful exchanges with believers. But I also encountered militant Catholics who maligned my intentions and grilled me about “the bitterness you spew into the world.” These people hadn’t read the book, nor did they intend to; they merely assumed that a memoir written by someone who had left the convent and the Church was filled with the same sort of invective they spewed on me. I’ve been having trouble writing my second book, and reading Faitheist helped me realize that my reluctance to face further verbal assaults was holding me back. I suspect that only a deeper compassion for a fucked-up world and new skills in guiding people toward more meaningful discussions will draw me forward.
Then there’s the email I received recently from a friend of nearly ten years. She told me that she had decided to cut off all communication with me because I’m an atheist. The pain of many family difficulties, she wrote, had caused her to “cling desperately” to her belief in God in order to sustain her. It seems odd that she would need to disconnect from me; I’ve never tried to dissuade her from her faith. She knows I care about her. A part of me wanted to blame religion for the anger and hurt I felt at the loss of my friend. Further reflection on Stedman’s lessons about interfaith dialogue helped me to see the situation in its human complexity. In vulnerable moments, we all clutch at whatever we think we need to survive. Human life isn’t always about reason.
Interfaith tension has also hit very close to home. I was raised in a large, churchgoing Catholic family. Currently when my family gathers, including spouses and progeny, we are Catholic, Congregationalist, Muslim, Mason, Jewish, Sufi, atheist, humanist, agnostic, Unitarian, and a gay man whose spirituality tends toward the ancient Egyptian. We can’t really do Christmas anymore. We’ve learned that discussing religion destroys a good game of Crazy 8s, and that we can’t put marshmallows in the fruit salad because they contain pork gelatin and that’s not halal. The family still hasn’t entirely recovered from the attempts of my headscarf-wearing Muslim sister to convert my Jewish brother-in-law.
Being family isn’t as simple as it used to be, but I’m proud of us Johnsons. Not every family allows each member to search and find what works for him or her, refraining—for the most part—from belittling or pressuring anyone.
We’ve learned that discussions about dogma make everyone uncomfortable (except the sibling who thinks he or she is winning the argument), and that these discussions never succeed in changing anyone’s mind. But whereas arguing about religious doctrine is divisive, sharing stories—about sleeping in a dormitory with a hundred other women on a pilgrimage to Mecca or about dancing in a Sufi prayer circle or about the feelings of liberation in letting go of God altogether—brings us together because we see how faith or lack of faith matters to each of us.
These are the sort of stories that fill Stedman’s Faitheist, stories of a world where our common humanity trumps our differences, where we don’t have to ridicule the other side to feel good about ourselves, and where each of us will have to do the hard work of dealing with our personal histories in all their complexity if we’re going to learn to speak more from our hopes and less from our pain.
Mary Johnson is the author of An Unquenchable Thirst, named one of the best nonfiction books of the year by Kirkus Review. At nineteen she joined the Missionaries of Charity, and during her twenty years as a sister she lived and worked closely with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In 1997 she left and became a humanist. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon.com, Poets & Writers, the Daily Beast, AlterNet, Bloomberg View, Hardball with Chris Matthews, NPR, and The Rosie Show.