Christians and atheists are often seen as cultural and philosophical opponents. But can the two groups work together toward common goals? Chris Stedman, a 26-year-old interfaith activist, believes they can. And as an evangelical-Christian-turned-atheist, Stedman knows a little something about both communities.
Stedman serves as the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. and is author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. His book argues for the necessity of bridging the social gap between atheists and the religious so they can find common ground and work for the common good. Though Stedman’s message won’t resonate with everyone—may be particularly difficult for evangelicals who shy away from interfaith work—it is significant and worth exploring. Here we discuss Stedman’s ideas on how to break down the social divide between atheists and the religious.
JM: The title, Faitheist, is clearly an melding of the words “faith” and “atheist,” but how did you get there?
CS: Well, I didn’t invent the term “faitheist.” It’s one of several pejoratives used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion or too friendly toward the religious—another one is the term “accommodationist.” I, and other atheists I know, have seen or heard these labels used to describe us and the work we’re doing to bring together atheists and religious believers for constructive conversation. In fact, the very first time I ever went to a meeting of atheists, someone called me a faitheist. I decided the term was ripe for reclaiming.
In that respect, being a faitheist means that I work to find common ground with people who have a different understanding of the world than I do. As a faitheist, I put “faith” in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should identify common goals and work together to advance them. This doesn’t mean that I think religious (or nonreligious) ideas should be immune from criticism—we should be able to be honest and unapologetic about our disagreements. But I do think that atheists should be responsible, fair and accurate when offering criticisms of religious dogma, for both strategic and ethical reasons—and that we should invest more energy on working with religious communities than we do right now. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Faitheist, and why I decided to give it that name.