Carolyn Meckbach is a former editorial intern for Beacon Press, where she crafted the discussion guide for Faitheist. She is studying Political Science and Gender Studies at Gordon College while directing If I Told You, a student-run journal that publishes personal narratives surrounding sexual orientation, spiritual doubt, and mental health.
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No sooner had I found a spot in the cramped basement of an Old Jerusalem café in Central Square than I realized I had entirely misplaced the notes and questions I had written for an interview with Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. My mind reeled, trying to remember my talking points, trying to brainstorm new ones. Chris had just arrived back in town from a cluster of speaking gigs and was already taking time away from work to meet with me; the least I could do was ensure I knew what I wanted to ask him. As I grabbed my notebook and began to scrawl a few poorly-ordered questions, I looked up to see him standing before me smiling, arms held out as if to give me a hug. (I had never met him, but immediately doubted he was a native New Englander: as it would turn out, he is not.) I stood to greet him, and amid his laughter about a nearly unsuccessful attempt to find the place, I remember him glancing down at my notes to remark:
“I’m feeling conversational today, if that’s alright with you.”
After conversing with him for those few hours, and in the subsequent times we’ve met, I’ve realized that his initial request—more an invitation—pretty much sums up Chris’s entire approach to conflict-resolution: a preference for open, personal discourse as opposed to rigid debate. In person, what’s notable about Chris is the way he becomes immediately familiar through quirky and humbling admissions, and the forward-leaning manner in which he listens. It’s abundantly clear that Chris is most fulfilled when he’s creating an opportunity for both others and himself to speak with honesty.
What follows is a highly-condensed version of some of our conversations (also found at Patrol Magazine) in which Chris explores his transition from Evangelical Christianity to secular humanism – as well as the various insights which have positioned him to share about his journey.
So: let’s be frank here. You’re 25, and you’ve already written a memoir…
[Laughing] Ahh. More often than not, people will say to me: ‘A memoir? You must have had a really interesting life.’ I suppose I have had an interesting life, but it’s hard for me to compare it to others because it’s the only life I’ve ever had. Most people think their own life is interesting, and I guess I’m no exception. But this book isn’t really about whether my life has been sensational or not; I wrote this book because I care about trying to improve the way that the religious and the nonreligious speak with and about one another, because it feels to me like there is an increasingly volatile chasm between those groups. The reason I wrote this book as a memoir is because scholars like Marshall Ganz agree that storytelling is one of the best avenues for reconciliation and for prompting discussion across lines of diversity. The easiest way for me to explain why I believe this work is urgent, and why I personally care about it so much, is by discussing it through the lens of my own story.
Faitheist sheds light on when you were 10 and encountered books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Roots, and Hiroshima. How instrumental were these books to your initial impulse to become involved in peace-building?
I was horrified. I had no idea I lived in a country that had recently allowed for slavery. I had no idea that I lived in a country built on stolen land. I had no idea that, within the last 50 years, an atomic bomb had been dropped by my own country on another. I had no idea that WWII had happened; I knew nothing of the Holocaust. And these books, of course, didn’t just present the facts; they were stories that personified these issues, making it easy for me to imagine myself, or friends or loved ones, in those situations.
And how did this affect your pursuit of a god?
Well, I was looking for a way at a very young age of how to make sense of all that—I wondered if the perpetrators of those crimes would be on the receiving end of some type of justice, or if the people who had suffered at the hands of such evil individuals would experience some kind of redemption. The Christian cosmology provided the answers to the questions I had been asking; the theology I was presented said that those who acted in selfish ways—ways that obscured others’ rights to live freely in the world—would be punished for their actions, and that the innocent individuals who suffered would be rewarded with an eternal life… if they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
And that’s a big “if” that you committed to, right?
Well, I wanted that for myself too. Converting seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Everybody there was, like, so excited for me, and I thought: okay, now I belong. Now I belong somewhere; I belong here. And not only in this physical space, surrounded by these people, but in this sort of larger cosmic structure. As in: “I am part of God’s flock now.”
How did people receive you?
So warmly. I remember the youth pastor asking me, after I casually mentioned I had a big exam coming up, “How did that math test go?” They were very attentive; they really seemed to care—and that felt really nice, given the way my family was fracturing at the time. Another factor that played into my going to church was that I wasn’t the coolest kid around—I didn’t have trendy clothes and was a bit of a nerd, and all the cool kids went to youth group. Youth group was this weird mix of cool kids and the nerds they wouldn’t associate with outside of youth group. But while you’re at youth group, you’re all best friends. Anyway, despite all of those things that appealed to me about church—the way it substituted the structure my family once provided, how it compensated for my feeling like a total misfit at school, and how it provided me a framework for making sense of injustice—it wasn’t a good thing for very long.
Well, I soon realized it was only a safe place for some. About two months into my participation in this Evangelical Christian community, I finally put my finger on something that I had always sort of known. I had always felt a little, um, different. And I wasn’t altogether sure why. I mean, everybody feels a bit different at some point. But I just knew something was ‘off.’ Something about who I was didn’t fit what I was supposed to be.
I assume you’re partly referring to your sexual orientation—how would you say that you first fully recognized this “difference”?
I write about it in the book: I was watching TV and this commercial came on. It was a low-budget ad for swim suits; there was a male model and a female model standing next to each other, and I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Oh my God. It’s supposed to be the one on the left drawing my eye, but it’s the one on the right.’ It was horrifying. I was like, ‘Oh f—. I’m in big trouble.’ Because I knew this was going to be a big problem—not just in terms of societal expectations, but particularly within this community that I was so enamored with, that meant so much to me.
And you lived in a small town in the Midwest, right?
I grew up just outside of St. Paul, in a blue-collar river town. To put it in perspective, my elementary school district was the one featured in a Rolling Stone article entitled “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” which investigated a recent suicide epidemic where nine students thought to be gay killed themselves within a two-year period. So, needless to say, I didn’t want to be gay. See—things are very different today. There are representations of happy, healthy LGBT folks all over the place. Ellen DeGeneres, Glee—they’re everywhere you look. But when I was in middle school, I don’t think even Will & Grace was on the air yet. And even by the time that show did come, they, you know, lived in these fancy New York apartments with lives that didn’t look anything like mine. I was a dorky Midwesterner—I could not relate to that. I didn’t personally know any gay people, and the few things I had heard about gay people were not good. At the end of the day, though, my being gay was just another way thing to make me feel different from the majority of my peers.
How did the realization that you were gay affect your faith?
Since I didn’t really want to be gay, I decided I was going to change my sexual orientation. I got the idea from my Christian church, who said that homosexuality was solvable, changeable. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for fear of being ostracized, but I got the impression based on ideas promoted within the church that being gay was a spiritual affliction—one that could be overcome through dutifulness to tradition. So if I prayed and I fasted and I studied Scripture and was just this model Christian, my ‘burden’ would be lifted. I came to see my same-sex attractions as a test, or a punishment—one I could overcome. So I worked very hard to do just that, but became despondent as years passed by and I didn’t see any progress. The irony is that I had become a part of this community because I was looking for a way to make sense of suffering and because the communal aspect of Christianity was very appealing—but when I became increasingly serious about my quest to change my sexual orientation for them, I ended up retreating further and further into myself, and suffering more and more. Eventually I was just a zombie stumbling through my own life, completely unengaged with the world around me; focused solely on this one thing.
You write in the book about certain times that you were harassed by Christians. How much did those experiences influence your break with Evangelical Christianity?
My atheism wasn’t born out of the negative experiences that I had had within the church, although I will admit that they sort of set me on a course of self-reflection that led me to the conclusion that God probably does not exist. As a college student, I was encouraged to turn a critical eye on my initial conversion experience. When I did, I realized I hadn’t really converted for the theology of the church, but for the community and the ethics and the positive social action. But I wonder if I would’ve had the opportunity to enter into that deep kind of reflection if I hadn’t had to question everything about who I was for a number of years. I don’t know. I actually think those kinds of hypotheticals are a bit silly. I am where I am now, and that’s what I know. But it’s important for me to say that I didn’t decide that I don’t believe in an anthropomorphized deity who is an interventionist force simply because Christians were mean to me. I feel that’s what a lot of people think about atheists—that they don’t believe in God because of negative experiences with religion.
Exactly. Sometimes atheism is portrayed as something that is purely reactionary. For me, it was actually more the result of critical self-reflection, which I go into in the book. I looked at my own underlying values and beliefs and I just decided, you know, this community isn’t my community and this Christian narrative is not my narrative. It’s interesting to me that when I tell a very brief version of my story of my years in the church, I’ll have Christians come up to me afterwards, and they’ll say: “I just want to apologize on behalf of all Christians for what you went through and you should know that not all Christians believe this. I’m a part of a community that would welcome you without question for who you are.” And while I really appreciate that, and I know it’s usually coming from a very good place, part of me wonders: ‘did you listen to the second half of what I talked about?’ My issue with Christianity wasn’t solely because I hadn’t been entirely welcomed, though that was a big part of it; I had to find a place where I fit. I had to find the right language to describe the world around me. And that right language is a humanistic, naturalistic way of seeing things.
If existential problems don’t concern you as much anymore, why do you feel so strongly that the irreligious should care about religion?
I care in the sense that other people care. I recognize the significance religion holds for so many other people. Even though the debate about the existence of God is increasingly irrelevant to me, that doesn’t mean that it must be irrelevant to everybody else. I have many friends and colleagues and people who inspire me to action who are deeply motivated by their religious beliefs—and not only isn’t that a problem to me, I actually celebrate it, when it’s something that enriches their lives and propels them to enrich other people’s lives. It’s not my business to say that because their source of inspiration is different from my own and because I believe it is incorrect, they must abandon it. If something is a force for good in somebody else’s life, I don’t feel that it is my place to erode that belief.
And in this sense, you’ve been known to deviate from the New Atheist movement.
Yes, this is where I diverge very strongly from some other atheists. A lot of other atheists I encounter believe that the solution to the problems in our world is to convince other people to drop “magical thinking” as they would put it—to look at the hard, cold facts of existence and face them in the eye and just deal with the fact that ‘we are all we have.’
Though you’ve received criticism from such atheists as being “too soft” (with the title of your book as evidence), you haven’t always been so open to the fruitful aspects of religious belief. (After your conversion from Christianity, you express in Faitheist that you had been confrontational, mirroring the kind of atheism you now object to.) What changed? What’s a key principle for you now when you’re interacting with those who are outspokenly committed to religious beliefs that oppose your own?
Self-awareness, first and foremost. It sounds backwards, but focusing on myself has enabled me to find common ground with others. I try to be increasingly aware of my own stuff: where my own pressure-points are, when I’m engaging in an interaction with someone else and it’s really about something that I myself am dealing with. I think self-awareness for me has been the key for being able to find common ground with people who believe really different things than I do, and the key to being able to forgive the people who perpetuated the beliefs that ultimately led me into a really difficult adolescence.
As I write in the book, so much of my issue in college was that I really wasn’t self-aware. So much of what was preventing me from having those conversations with others – so much of what led me to be confrontational – was my own lack of self-awareness, and less what they had done. I hadn’t fully acquired a disposition which made me want to learn and want to listen — I had this orientation of wanting to project and disagree, or wanting to isolate myself, and I could sort of twist what others said. I could totally manipulate anything anyone said into something hateful. But as I got older, I shifted into a position of wanting to understand what I cared about the most and where my values were. A lot of that has had to do with my education in pastoral care work—my Masters was in Pastoral Care. My focus shifted from wanting to align the beliefs of others with my own, or wanting to confront differences, to wanting to live as fully into my own convictions as I could.
Do you feel religious belief can ever become a problem?
It becomes a problem when a person’s religious beliefs compel him or her to impose those beliefs onto other people’s lives in ways that are harmful and hurtful; when they’re used to diminish others’ liberty and dignity. Of course, I don’t think that religious beliefs have a monopoly on dehumanization and diminishment. The issue for me is not religion or religious beliefs as much as it is any kind of totalitarianistic, dogmatic, exclusivistic, tribalistic way of thinking and way of seeing the world—anything that is used to oppressive ends. If we can reduce the prevalence that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior, we will live in a much more peaceable world.
Faitheist sheds light upon both your adolescence and early adulthood, and I know that the work you immerse yourself in – interfaith activism—involves reaching out to a younger crowd who oftentimes feels hesitant to validate their nonreligious, religious, and sexual-based identities due to their age. How do you hope that younger individuals will interact with this book?
I hope that it might encourage younger people to step out into the public arena with their stories and their beliefs. I believe young people have the capacity to do such good work in the world, but many don’t feel they have the authority to speak, or to act, or to influence. This is why I’m so involved with IFYC, because I hope that other young people will see me say: ‘You know, he’s not the smartest guy around. He’s not the most well-spoken; sure, what he’s doing resonates with me, but I could do what he’s doing.’ Young people’s voices are largely absent in these circles of influence, and I hope that my experience inspires other people to be confident, to speak out, and to not feel like they have to have everything figured out in order to participate in discussions about religious diversity.
As with any memoir, publishing this puts you in a vulnerable position. How do you feel you might respond to any criticism about “not-having-all-of-your-ducks-in-a-row” – that your life is too much in flux to be penning it down in a memoir?
[Laughing:] I’m sure that in 5 years from now so much will have changed, but I suspect that my central concerns will remain relatively stable. Without being apologetic about it, I come right out in the book and try to explain that I don’t have it all figured out. Still, I hope my striving for authenticity will come through in the writing, and in who I am as a person. And if that doesn’t translate, then, you know, I’ll keep trying. What I’ve learned over the years from struggling with all of this is that every day is a new day—a chance to try again, to try it anew, to try something else. It’s constantly ongoing, meaning: nothing is at the end of the book. There is no period.