I started following Chris Stedman on Twitter thanks to a recommendation from Josh Rosenau citing him as someone who promotes atheism without being contemptous of religious people. He was, indeed, a source of religion-and-politics material that I found congenial, and when I noticed he was flogging a forthcoming book, I picked up a copy, which I just got around to reading.
I’m a little hesitant to review this at all here on ScienceBlogs, given past history. I’ve pretty much completely withdrawn from culture-war blogging, finding it more aggravating than useful, and these days just about the only things I review on the blog are pop-science books, which this decidedly is not. On the other hand, though, not saying something about it seems like chickening out, especially given that it’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve frequently said we need more of.
So, I’m going to sort of split the difference, by posting a review but burying it on a weekend when nobody’s reading blogs…
Anyway, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is, as you can probably guess from the title, a personal story about the evolution in Stedman’s thinking. The full story is a little more complicated, of course, because he went through multiple stages. A flippant way to describe it would be to say that he’s a man with incredibly bad timing– he became a committed evangelical Christian right about the same time he realized he was gay, then he became an atheist right after he found a more accepting branch of Christianity, and started attending a religious college.
To put it in more physics-y terms, you could also cast this as a story of damped oscillations. After a very liberal and secular upbringing, he drifted off into becoming deeply religious, then overcorrected to vehement atheism, and now has reached a new equilibrium, not all that far from where he started.
Joking re-framings aside, this is a very human story, and for all the apparent attitude swings, two things remain constant throughout: Stedman is a person who wants to make the world a better place, and who wants to belong to something larger than himself. Both the excursion into fundamentalism and the subsequent overshoot into atheism are rooted in the same impulses. He’s very committed to the idea of volunteer service, and, in fact, this is the origin of the “common ground” he’s managed to find– his partnerships with religious people have come through interfaith activism, built around the common desire to do good first, and worry about the afterlife (or lack thereof) later.
I think this is an extremely valuable story to have out there, because it’s a perspective that’s all too often missing from what passes for discussion of religion and society on the Internet. Religion is usually a very personal issue, but far too many blog posts on the subject take a weirdly bloodless approach to the whole thing, as if it were merely a matter of abstract metaphysics. Those that do get emotional usually veer off in one wrong direction or another, declaring in absolute terms that either religion or atheism is utterly toxic and corrupts everything.
Of course, as Stedman shows, the reality is far more complex and subtle, as ought to be expected for anything as inherently human as religion. If anybody has a right to be bitter and spiteful toward the whole idea of religion, it’s Stedman, given the torment he went through trying to reconcile his homosexuality with fundamentalist Christianity. Remarkably, though, he’s gotten past that to a place where he can recognize the good in religious people, without bending his atheist convictions (in fact, he spent a good chunk of Friday on Twitter vehemently disagreeing with a publicist for a nonbelieving member of Congress who tried to duck the term “atheist”).
He’s also shown, through his work with interfaith groups and the Harvard Humanist Chaplain, that it’s possible to fill the need for good deeds and a sense of community that drove him and many others to religion through secular organizations. That’s an essential message to have out there, to weaken the default assumption that good deeds and community only come from religious organizations. There’s also a lesson to be taken from the fact that Stedman and his interfaith colleagues find community in spite of their different beliefs, thanks to their shared belief in the importance of volunteer service and the like.
Of course, this isn’t a book that’s going to play well with the Nü Atheist crowd– he specifically calls out PZ Myers at a couple of points (not unfairly– if anything, he picked some of the less offensive Pharyngulisms), and some other bloggers as well. Which is, after all, why I’m hesitant to post about it here. At the same time, though, that’s what makes it important to mention, to highlight the point that there’s a different path to a more inclusive and respectful sort of community.
This is a very short book, bordering on “slight,” though it’s got a little too much emotional content for that. That’s to be expected, given that Stedman’s very young– still in his mid-20’s, judging from a comment late in the book. It’s conceivable that he’s still got a few more worldview changes to go before he’s really done– he certainly sounds content with his current position, but you could easily imagine him sounding the same way in one of his earlier phases, too. There are a couple of great scenes where he undercuts his earlier certainty– where he’s publicly embraced by a “popular” kid he had sneered at, and where his attempt to cynically distance himself from a Bible verse tattoo is undercut by the ghost of Oscar Romero– but on some level, you wonder if some later revision might undercut some of his current certainty in the same way. Even if he shifts position again down the road, though, this is a fascinating narrative of how he got to this point.
It also undersells somewhat the degree to which he was fantastically lucky in terms of his family and his community. There are several places in the story where the whole thing could have gone in a Very Bad direction, and I’m sure many others in similar predicaments have had things break the wrong way for them. It’s sort of hard to acknowledge that too much without it becoming oppressive, though, and the story moves along very quickly. On the whole, the writing is clear and compelling, without much artifice and a minimum of pretension.
An obvious counter to the whole argument of the book might be that the very factors that make the story compelling– his good fortune in family and friends, etc.– also make it singular. That his path to his current accommodation is so improbable that nobody else can really be expected to follow it.
I suspect, however, that there are quite a few people like Stedman out there– not with such eventful biographies, mind, but people who have the same desire to do good in the world and belong to a larger community, who at the same time want no part of religion. His anecdotes about his outreach efforts and the formation of new humanist groups at various colleges and universities would seem to back this up. Then again, they could be just lurkers who support him in email. It’s tough to say. Whatever the full story is, though, he’s a young guy, and has a lot more time to work on it. It’ll be interesting to see where he takes it from here.