Simon Davis got caught up in some of the discussion around the Salon excerpt from Chris Stedman’s Faitheist. He ended up reading the whole book, and once he was done, he asked whether I’d be interested in a review. I am, so here it is.
The recent excerpt from the first chapter of Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist in Salon.com piqued my interest. It told the story of Stedman’s attendance of his first atheist event in 2009 and how this influenced his interfaith advocacy as a nonbeliever. I had already read some of Stedman’s past blog posts discussing his disagreements with well-known atheists and their approaches to religion; however, his retelling of this personal experience was what caught my eye. To be blunt, I was not convinced that the account was accurate and wanted to investigate the facts–to the extent I could. In the process of doing so, I thought to myself “in for a penny, in for a pound” and so decided it was only fair to read the book in its entirety and offer my thoughts accordingly.
Faitheist is part memoir and part interfaith advocacy. Chapters 2-6 detail Stedman’s life from childhood all the way through graduate school and his internship at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and include his personal journey from being non-religious to Evangelical Christianity and then to no longer believing in God. Chapters 7 and 8 also contain personal anecdotes from after this but are primarily Stedman’s arguments for interfaith engagement by nonbelievers. Stedman was 24 when he wrote the book (p. 159).
Chapter 1 is entitled “There’s Nothing Worse Than a Faitheist”. The main thrust of the chapter including the context for this quote is in the Salon.com excerpt mentioned previously. In reading this it’s hard not to sympathize with Stedman. As a newcomer at an atheist event, he tells the story of being spoken to in a plainly derisive manner for expressing a perfectly respectable opinion.
To me, this is not acceptable behavior. As someone who organizes dozens of events large and small on a regular basis in the DC area for nonbelievers I wanted to know if this was indicative of a larger problem. If there was a fellow organizer in Chicago who was consciously allowing this to happen I wanted to know who it was. I’ve witnessed similar cringe-worthy and awkward discussions with less dramatic language take place over the years, so I had no problem believing that a conversation along these lines may have taken place.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that in my experience of attending hundreds of atheist, skeptic, and humanist events I had never heard anyone referred to as a “faitheist”. The same held true for others I asked. Even on the much more rough-and-tumble blogosphere dialog, the fact is that “faitheist” was not a term that ever really took off. Furthermore, the story and the characters–for which he seems to recount very precise details–seemed a bit surreal to me, with no apparent acknowledgement of this by the author. After all, life can seem surreal at times.
As it happens, Stedman wrote about the event in question in a 2009 article for the Washington Post’s On Faith column just four days after it had occurred on Sunday, November 15. At the time, his byline stated that he was “writing a novel and an accompanying paper on storytelling”. There was no mention of the term “faitheist” and almost no dialogue quoted. To my knowledge, Stedman never even used the word “faitheist” in writing until February 2011 when it was the name for his speaking tour. To me it seems contradictory that someone would feel strongly enough about being called a particular word to “reclaim” it in a similar way that he has done with the word “queer” (p. 15), and yet still wait so long to write about it.
But what about the rest of the story in Chapter 1? In order to corroborate the account, I located the original listing and got in touch with the panelists. It was a volunteer-run, local CFI Chicago event.* Most of Stedman’s story was confirmed. He did attend a Sunday afternoon panel discussion hosted by a local secular group on the role of religion in a secular society. This was followed by a “social time” private event (as the host referred to it) at the residence of one of the panelists.
The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.
At the “social time”, Stedman was probably the youngest person, but the dress-code was casual, which raises questions about his claim to have been “fashionably underdressed” (p. 3). Nobody I spoke to had a recollection of hearing the term “faitheist” or any other part of the conversation that Stedman described. Likewise the description of the couple he says he had it with was not recalled, though there were about 30 attendees and there were many conversations going on. Stedman says he “sat down on the couch, carefully balancing a mint julep in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres I couldn’t name in the other” (p.3). There were no mint juleps served, only homemade pizzas, sandwiches, and cookies.
As for the term “faitheist” per se, it has been in existence since before 2009. It is a play on the two words “faith” and “atheist” that isn’t isn’t very difficult to arrive at. However, the origin in this context seems to have been Jerry Coyne’s blog post from July 2009, just four months before the event in question. Indeed, I could not find any documented evidence outside of Stedman’s book of use of the term in a similar fashion in an “offline” setting by anyone in the secular movement. Sufficient evidence would be mentions in secular conferences, journals of the day, or even a YouTube video of an event. Something akin to “accommodationism” which was a term used at the time and reflected in the relevant literature and conferences. It seems more like Stedman is claiming the term “faitheist” as opposed to re-claiming as he says.
Following the story on page 14, Stedman includes the following disclaimer of sorts (emphasis mine):
I’m going to do my best to tell my story honestly, but I haven’t the best head for facts, names, dates, or anniversaries. (Ask my mom how many years she has received a Mother’s Day card on time.) In other words, I’m a big-picture kind of guy; the details slip through the cracks in my floorboards. Moreover, my mom swears up and down that several of the few vivid memories I’ve retained from childhood simply didn’t happen. I’d like to believe she’s wrong, but I fear she may be right. For example, she tells me that one day in community children’s swimming lessons I earnestly informed all of my water-winged classmates that my mom had gotten pregnant with me when she was in high school; she turned to the parents standing alongside her at the side of the pool and explained, red-faced, that I suffered the deadly combination of being a wildly imaginative storyteller and having a shoddy memory. I’m not sure they believed her, but if there’s one thing my mom is not, it’s a liar—I just don’t always get things right in hindsight. Still, I will endeavor to tell it like it was. I may shift a few names or dates along the way to respect the privacy of some, but the spirit of what I write will be as true as I can muster.
With this in mind, how much should the veracity of Stedman’s account matter to the reader? Given that the incident is presented as illustrative of a wider phenomenon that he wishes to combat and that the dialogue contains the title of his book, I would say that accuracy is important. It may be be too much to ask to require an author to adhere to transcript-like precision in their memoir, especially for events from the distant past. However, if Stedman is aware of his inability to recall certain details of key events from his life where others were present, I think jogging his memory by getting in touch with others (as I did) to corroborate his recollection would have been helpful. Of course, I have no way of knowing his creative process and who he did and didn’t speak to in writing the book. But in the Chapter 1 incident he appears to have gone based on his recollection alone.
*In the interest of full disclosure: my wife is a CFI staff member and I assist in organizing events at the DC branch.
In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. This is also the same time that he begins to read the Bible and the Left Behind books. He quotes the numerous Biblical passages as he describes the anguish he felt reading the anti-gay passages, as well as the various inconsistencies. This causes Stedman to feel very guilty about his orientation to the point of even thinking that it was to blame for his parents’ divorce and largely isolating himself from his surroundings. After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.
He then attends a Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.
Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir. For example, even though he discusses his visit to the site of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, he doesn’t explain exactly how Romero’s religious beliefs influence his political activism. On the other hand, his mentor Eboo Patel in the book’s introduction says very directly: “Islam means to submit to the will of God, and I believe God is mercy and my Muslim-ness depends on whether I am merciful to those around me. Whatever compassion and conviction and courage I may have, I believe it comes from God.”
Stedman says that “At its core, this book isn’t about my family life; not directly, anyway. It’s about my experiences with religion. Religion was the conductor of my adolescence and early adulthood, always standing before me, motioning vigorously while I struggled to discern what I was being asked to do.” (p. 16). When it comes to Stedman’s experiences in religious settings, the memoir does not disappoint. Stedman clearly struggles to reconcile contradictory and bigoted Biblical passages with what is for him a mostly welcoming Christian community. This is something he acknowledges is the exception to the rule for most gay youth (p. 58). At the same time, he obviously wants religion to continue to play a role in his life despite his rejection of God.
As an aside, readers should be cautioned that at the beginning of each chapter in the book, Stedman includes a quote from a famous person. These are mostly not sourced and sometimes even incorrect. For example, there is the following Carl Sagan quote at the beginning of Chapter 1: “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them— the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” (p. 1). The correct quote from p. 300 of The Demon-Haunted World is:
And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us v. Them–the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive.
[Ed. note: The rest of this paragraph reads, "It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted." --SZ]
Update 11/29/2012: As pointed out in the comments, the quote used on p. 1 of Faitheist that Stedman attributes to The Demon-Haunted World is in fact from Sagan’s article “Wonder and Skepticism” in Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 19.1, February 1995. –SD
Another example is from the beginning of Chapter 4 where he attributes the quote “If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past” to Dolly Parton without further information. This is in fact from the Truvy Jones character she played in Steel Magnolias. There is also an unsourced Sartre quote at the beginning of Chapter 5 (“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” p. 82). I was unable to locate the source on my own and sent an email to Stedman on Nov. 11 requesting more information. This has so far gone unanswered.
The Case for Interfaith
In Chapters 7 and 8, Stedman details his case for interfaith involvement by non-believers. He talks about his first exposure to humanist literature while interning at IFYC, his first attempt at creating a local humanist group in Chicago, and his eventual move to Boston to join the staff of Harvard Humanist community. He goes on to discuss his perception of popular atheist discourse and his disagreements with it. In the final chapter he reflects on some of the lessons he’s learned so far and details his four main arguments for why non-believers should engage in interfaith activism as well as address two main critiques.
The discussion around involvement in interfaith precedes Faitheist and will likely continue. For those who are looking for a general overview of the main arguments, the final chapter is a good place to find them all in one place and I would recommend reading it in its entirety. Rather than go over everything in the final chapters individually, I’ll offer some thoughts on what stood out to me personally.
Stedman cites numerous articles in Chapter 7. Two of them are substantial misrepresentations. On page 145 he says: “When the majority of prominent atheist-identified thought leaders name “the end of faith” as one of the movement’s top priorities” and cites what appears to be this Beliefnet Sam Harris interview from 2005 (Stedman doesn’t provide full hyperlinks to his online sources-only each site’s homepage and the article name/date). There’s no mention of the “movement” or it’s priorities. This is simply Harris’s opinion.
Stedman also says the following (p. 155):
One study, from 2010, found that atheists in the United States are less agreeable and less conscientious than the religious— but that the factors responsible were largely cultural, and atheists’ minority position in American society played a significant role in this being so.
The source is a blog post by Tomas Rees which was indeed headlined: “Atheists are disagreeable and unconscientious”; however, the post starts: “Well, that’s the headline. To understand why this might be, you need to dig into the details of the study” and ends with (emphasis mine):
And there is one important caveat you need to bear in mind. These studies for the most part treat religion as a continuum. Although some did look at fundamentalism, none actually looked at atheism. We can suppose that the personalities of the low-religious are shared by atheists, but until the studies are done, we can’t really be sure.
More broadly, the fact that the “interfaith movement is inherently rooted in an antifundamentalism framework.” (p.166) is a huge plus in my opinion and is absolutely a common goal with the atheist/humanist movement. Religious fundamentalism is very dangerous indeed, and the opposition has to come from people both secular and religious. To the extent that interfaith undermines fundamentalist isolationism while also involving young people in community service, it would seem to be beneficial. To give a concrete example, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) groups can serve as part of an organized and diverse opposition to CRU on college campuses in coalition with other secular and religious groups.
However, my personal sense is that if the current trend of college-aged youth being increasingly less religious and more atheistic continues, the secular groups will be better placed to become the lead opposition, given that young adults are the most reliably secular demographic in the US today. Also, from looking at IFYC’s website and YouTube videos, they give me the impression that part of their marketing/PR strategy involves portraying religion as “hip”, which is probably their way of appealing to a more secular youth, though this is not by any means unique to IFYC. However, as a thirty-two-year-old professional long out of college, I will acknowledge that I’m probably not in their target group.
IFYC’s emphasis on storytelling is also a positive in my opinion. Narrative is a powerful and humbling way of communicating. Personal stories humanize often abstract concepts. However, there is a caveat. Namely, that the stories in this book–to me at least–have a religious tone. I was by no means ever religious myself so my view may not be shared, but both Stedman’s and Patel’s stories as told in Faitheist remind me of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” If IFYC wishes to make inroads into the young atheist community, they might do well to avoid relying on rhetoric that bear this resemblance.
Overall, with the exception of Chapter 1, the book reads like a sincere account of his experiences and how they influenced his advocacy. My impression is that Stedman believes strongly in the mission and methods of IFYC. The quotes he provides from their interfaith literature do seem to percolate into his writing very noticeably. He also voices considerable criticisms to the work of atheists such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. By contrast, what I didn’t find in the book was insight into how Secular Humanism influences Stedman’s activism. He does mention that he read the writings of Paul Kurtz and Robert Green Ingersoll among others and that Humanism is something he “needed to act upon” (p. 137), but how these writings are translated into his interfaith work is not explicitly articulated. Just like with religion, he doesn’t explain how the philosophy translates into positive action. If Stedman is able to incorporate this into his advocacy, I anticipate that he will become a more effective voice for his cause.
Simon Davis is online marketing director at a health care publications company.