Photography by Alex Dakoulas
When the writer Chris Stedman secured a book deal in 2010, his mother was so proud that she wanted to gush to the women at the gym she attends in her rural Minnesota town. There was just one problem: the subject matter.
“She has no concerns about telling them that my book is about my being gay, or that it talks about my work with Muslims,” says Stedman. “It’s when she gets to the part about how I’m an atheist that she’s afraid. The reactions are so polarized.”
In a country that has enshrined in its constitution the concept of God-given or divine rights, that’s perhaps no surprise. A 2010 study showed that atheists are America’s least-trusted minority, ranking well below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups; they’re also the minority group religious Americans are least likely to support their children in marrying.
That divide between atheists and the religious is where Stedman operates. A gay evangelical Christian-turned-atheist and a chaplain at the Humanist Community Project at Harvard University, Stedman looks like what your grandmother thinks hipsters look like: rangy-framed and bearded, covered in tattoos, his earlobes stretched with plugs. His first book, a memoir-cum-manifesto titled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious, was published last November. He is 25 years old. And yet in his own community, among the atheists he seeks to represent, he is widely reviled -- in fact, it’s sometimes hard to work out who Stedman alienates most, the religious or the atheists who resent his concessions to the faithful.
“The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world,” Stedman says. “It’s also rife with religious illiteracy. People are more vocal about what they believe and encounter religious diversity at increasing rates, but they know less and less about it. The chasm between atheists and the religious is increasingly polarized, and without engaged relationships across lines of difference, people don’t know how to respond when conflict arises. Atheists are demonized, and they demonize the religious in return. In the media, violence and religion go hand in hand, just as atheism and anger have become synonymous for many.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those angry atheists have not taken kindly to Stedman, who has been savaged online. Read his work in spaces like Salon and The Huffington Post, and the comments sections are littered with posts like this:
“He’s a self-aggrandizing, dishonest little shit who has a habit of throwing atheists under the bus to make inroads with the religious.”
“How softly would be enough to get Stedman to relinquish his iron-clad grip on his pearls?”
“He’s an Uncle Tom, a direct enabler of theocratic power, religious privilege, and atheophobia.”
And, chillingly: “I say we kill Stedman.”
Of course, among the commentariat, death threats and name-calling are standard, but the vitriol hurtled in Stedman’s direction is sharper and more erudite than the work of the average troll. Those remarks come by way of his fellow atheists, generally a cerebral and well-educated group, who loathe Stedman’s willingness to engage with the faithful. To be so alienated from that community after his long road there seems a particularly cruel twist. Even his status as a self-identified atheist has been called into question. “People have said that I’m not an atheist, or I’m secretly religious, or that I’m not actually gay,” he says.
But Stedman was always an outsider, with one foot in and one foot out of the communities by which he wanted to be embraced wholly -- even in his studies in religion, first at Augsberg College and later in the masters program at the University of Chicago, where he was the odd atheist out in classes comprised largely of God-believing students.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Stedman grew up secular but turned to religion for answers in his early adolescence as his parents’ marriage dissolved. He connected with an evangelical faction of the church just as he was beginning to struggle with his own sexuality. After his mother found his journal, where he had been documenting his private longings, she intervened in an effort to pull him from the fundamentalist church where he had found a community toward a more inclusive Christianity.
“She immediately picked up the phone book and called churches until she was able to speak with a minister she thought would be able to give me the perspective that I needed,” Stedman says. “The fact that that was her instinct set me on the course toward what I’m doing now. She didn’t have any kind of language or framework for doing that, but instead of dealing with her personal reaction to my sexuality, her initial response was I want to make this situation better for him. That’s what she has modeled for her entire life. It’s about trying to meet people more than halfway. It’s about prioritizing understanding.”
That chapter of his life as a fundamentalist Christian also laid the groundwork for his eventual role as a bridge-builder. “Having those experiences when I was younger -- of being misunderstood and abused -- was the result of the tribalistic mindset,” Stedman says. “That exclusion and the damage it did to me, that experience of being ‘othered’ in that way, gave me empathy for people who have experienced that. I do get the question, ‘You really suffered at the hands of Christianity, so why would you be interested in trying to promote a conversation between Christians and atheists?’ But interfaith dialogue gives people the opportunity to see that there are many different ways of being in the world, and that has to be extended to everyone. If that message had permeated the church that I converted into when I was younger, I would have had a very different childhood.”
While this issue may be an important one for Stedman, it’s not a conversation many atheists are interested in having. The world’s most-popular atheist blogger, PZ Myers, who won the 2011 International Humanist Award, has called Stedman a “slithery, soppy interfaith wanker.” In a recent conversation, Myers clarifies his position. “Interfaith is the antithesis of atheism,” he explains. “We do not believe in faith. We want to stand out as independent people of integrity. We want to be regarded as atheists, people who reject religion. This is somebody who’s making excuses for faith—and we don’t think faith is important. We think faith is dangerous.”
Indeed, atheists tend to be wary of Stedman’s compromising nature. Last year, he engaged in a high-profile exchange with the writer Sam Harris, who argued in favor of profiling Muslims. Stedman wrote a response inviting Harris to visit a mosque with him. (Sample quote: “I know you’re a busy man, but I’d like to ask you out. Will you go to mosque with me? I’m not trying to convert you to Islam. Like you, I’m not a Muslim. Like you, I don’t believe in any gods. I’m happily, openly atheist. A queer atheist, even.”)
He also made headlines when he boycotted the retailer Lowe’s after they pulled advertising from the TLC series All-American Muslim following complaints from consumers; his tweets to them were the first to prompt a response from the retailer.
That’s typical of the type of change incited by Stedman’s work, one inch at a time as he’s pushing with all his might. If it’s naïve to expect this type of dialogue to have a more meaningful impact, Stedman insists that increasing the quality of the conversation has more profound consequences than simply closing the gap between atheists and the faithful. “I think that changing the tone of the conversation about religious differences could lead to advances in a number of different arenas, including LGBT equality, as it’s tied to questions of religious belief of morality,” he says.
And while his own alienation from the conservative Christian sect to which he once belonged is a distant memory, it’s clearly still painful even now, as he’s working and living in the liberal enclave of Boston, where his days revolve around community-building and spending time with his boyfriend, Alex, an artist and photographer. Those early traumas left scars.
“I wouldn’t have gone through as much personal turmoil if people had more empathy for different values,” he says plainly. “I’d like to think that this work will result in people being able to be more openly different, to not experience the rejection of their communities or their loved ones just because they have a different understanding of the world.” To hear him talk is to realize that while his aims may be broad, his motivation is deeply personal.
And indeed, Stedman likes to tell a story about giving a speech early in his career and being met afterward by a young woman who wanted to speak to him. “She said that I had a demon inside me that was making me gay,” he says. “This was one of the first times I was doing a big public speaking thing, so I was nervous already, and she just happened to hit my trigger—that was the exact messaging that I had internalized when I was younger, the very same message that brought me years of misery.”
He grimaces. “But as I took a moment to pause, I noticed that she was nervous. She was shaking, actually. So what I said to her surprised even me—I don’t know where it came from—but I said, ‘I just want to thank you for coming up to me and being honest with me, and for being so brave. It’s not easy to tell someone something that you’re pretty sure they don’t want to hear, but what you think is important.’ She was so caught off-guard by that. I’m sure she was expecting a negative response or a confrontation. Instead, we had a pretty substantial conversation about my experiences.”
Laughing a little, Stedman shakes his head. “I would love to be able to say that she had a total change of heart and became, like, a gay rights activist. Of course, that didn’t happen. But I often wonder what seeds might have been planted that day. When she hears a minister preaching about gay people, or there’s a gay marriage initiative on the ballot—any time she thinks of those issues, she has another point of reference. She has to connect her ideas to a human experience, to a person she met, to stories that she heard. To somebody who has experienced being human.” He hesitates. “Just like she has.”