What’s a ‘Faitheist’? Chris Stedman explains

As the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, Chris Stedman coordinates its “Values in Action” program. In his recent book, … Continued

As the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, Chris Stedman coordinates its “Values in Action” program. In his recent book, “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious,” he tells how he went from a closeted gay evangelical Christian to an “out” atheist, and, eventually, a Humanist.

On the blog NonProphet Status, and now in the book, Stedman calls for atheists and the religious to come together around interfaith work. It is a position that has earned him both strident — even violent — condemnation and high praise. Stedman talked with RNS about how and why the religious and atheists should work together.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does the term “faitheist” mean? Is it a positive label or a derisive one?

A: It’s one of several words used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion. But to me, being a faitheist means that I prioritize the pursuit of common ground, and that I’m willing to put “faith” in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice.

Some people have suggested I think atheists shouldn’t critique harmful religious beliefs, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I do, however, think that atheists should be responsible, fair, accurate, and specific when offering robust criticisms of religious dogmas — and that we should focus more energy on working with the religious on identifying shared values and acting to advance common goals than we currently do.

Q: You are both an atheist and a humanist. What’s the difference?

A: I am an atheist because I do not believe in any gods, but Humanism speaks to my values. It’s descriptive of what I do believe. Humanism is my philosophy.

I believe that humans have the capacity, and the responsibility, to work together in solving our own problems. I value reason and critical thinking in the service of compassion. And I find that participating in the Humanist community and considering Humanist ethics help me to express — and act upon — my highest principles and greatest aspirations.

Q: You write that the atheist community is often defined by the “New Atheists” and their aggressive stance against religion. Isn’t the term atheist a negative by definition?

A: When I first became active in the atheist movement, I was taken aback by the degree of hostility I saw directed toward religion and, in many cases, religious believers. It has often felt to me that atheism and anti-theism are treated as synonyms by many segments of the atheist community, when they are in fact different.

This “face” of atheism estranges many atheists who do not agree with the strategies and positions put forth by some of the more visible atheists. I believe it is counterproductive, and often harmful, to assume that being an atheist means you should focus your activism on trying to bring about the end of religion. My top priorities as an atheist and a Humanist are promoting pluralism, education, and compassion; these are goals I share with many religious people, and they are things we can work on together.

Q: If atheists by definition don’t have faith, why should they seek to be included in interfaith work?

A: Interfaith work seeks to humanize religious diversity and erode tribalistic divisions. It promotes religious literacy and freedom of expression and conscience, and if atheists don’t participate, we risk not being included in interfaith efforts’ vision for a pluralistic world. The term “interfaith” may be imperfect, but in my experience it does not exclude atheists — and when it does, that’s something we should work to change.

Q: You write that atheists and religious people need to find better ways of talking to each other. How? Why should they?

A: Storytelling is one good way to begin a conversation between atheists and the religious, which is why I wrote my book as a memoir. Stories humanize diversity for people who might feel that other communities are impossible to connect with — they invite people to empathize with people who have different beliefs and experiences.

Interfaith dialogue gets a bad rap as a project concerned with surface level “feel good” conversations, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When done well, interfaith work doesn’t deny the very real and important differences that exist between people of faith and the nonreligious — but it does concern itself with the pursuit of identifying shared values, instead of just focusing on the things that divide us. Atheists and religious believers often talk past one another, and interfaith work creates a space for different people to listen to one another.

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • itsthedax

    What’s the big deal? If I have a right to choose whether or not to have a religion, then so does everybody else. All that’s required is for people to act like adults.

  • mjpo74

    Good discussion. I think it’s great Chris wants to find a middle ground. It’s clear there are different shades of any belief, whether atheism or Christianity or Islam, etc.

    However, commenting on “If atheists by definition don’t have faith”: I suggest atheists do have faith. They have faith that there are no gods.

    One great thing atheists give people of faith is a way of seeing where the gaps in their beliefs are. It’s a good test of faith: either your faith is strengthened by questioning, or it becomes weaker and falls apart.

    I’ve noticed a lot of the attacks from atheists regarding faith is in behavior, not belief. And there is a lot of misrepresentation of faith coming from the ‘faithful.’

    I’m very interested in reading Chris Stedman’s book. He’s very interesting.


  • PhillyJimi1

    I don’t see where there can be a “common ground” between an atheist and a theist. The best that can be hoped for is establishing a middle ground where both sides don’t tread. The reality is there isn’t a much of a middle ground.

    So soon as any religion gives the atheist a position they start to lose. Most theist that become atheists do so over years. They start to drop the more silly positions of their religions. It is a slow chipping at the faith within the context of the modern world. Over years the faith eventually crumbles. Theists know atheists ask bad questions and demand good answers. Seeking knowledge the mortal enemy of faith.

    No theist wants an open dialog with an atheist. Do you think they want their children asking an atheist “why don’t you believe in my parent’s god?” All religions paint atheists as evil, immoral and “baby eating” bad. This is the core issue as to why the theist will never allow an open dialog with atheists.

    The ironic thing is if the theist would just respect the 1st amendment they would be safe. But no, the theist feels the need to impose their faith on everyone else. Now the “New rude Atheists” no longer are happy to sit in Uncle Tom’s cabin the theist cries that these “New Atheists” don’t know their place anymore. They are mean and pushy. Jefferson’s wall of separation really is the best solution for the theists but they just don’t see it because they know they are right because their god tell’s them so.