By Eboo Patel
There is a moment in the middle of Faitheist that nearly took my breath away. Chris is living in Bemidji, a small town in northern Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi river. The nearest big city is Fargo, and it is several hours away. In the winter, the snow piles up so high he can’t see out of the bedroom window in his garden apartment.
Chris arrived there hoping to escape his past where, as he writes, “I didn’t run into ghosts from my former Christian life that reminded me of the years I spent hating myself for being queer and unable to change it.” By the time he was a student at Augsburg College, Chris’s disgust with religion had come to define him as deeply as his Evangelical faith once had. To a group of fellow students whom he knew to be believing Christians, he described getting a Bible verse tattooed on his leg as the single stupidest thing he’d ever done to a group of fellow students whom he knew to be believing Christians, deriving a peculiar pleasure from the offense he caused.
Chris had come to Bemidji because he wanted to live in a place where he could slow down and reflect, form deep relationships with small-town neighbors, and take the first steps down a career-path of service. He found a job at a social services agency run by Lutherans (he notes the irony) working as a direct-service professional for adults with developmental disabilities. His closest relationship was with a man named Marvin, a man who couldn’t talk and who could barely sign. He and Chris found other ways to communicate. Marvin would pretend to sock Chris in the jaw, and Chris would fall down and bounce back with his dukes up and say, “This isn’t over yet, buddy,” sending Marvin into gales of laughter. Chris watched movies with Marvin, sat with him for hours just keeping company, read to him from his favorite books.
One day, Marvin brought Chris into his room and placed in his hands one of his most precious possessions, his prayer book. He wanted Chris to read from it. Chris hesitated for a second. Perhaps he was reminded of all those nights he lay awake searching through scripture for verses hoping to find one that would make him feel loved for what God made him. Perhaps he was reminded of the time when, in a drunken rage, he kicked in the glass panel of a church sign. But neither longing nor anger overcame him now. This moment is about what it means to be a friend, about expressing care for something Marvin values. Chris reads Marvin a prayer. Marvin, normally tense, lets his arms relax. Perhaps he senses that some deep personal bridge has been crossed in his presence. He presses his face tightly to Chris’s blue flannel shirt and keeps it there for a long time.
* * *
One struggles to imagine the late Christopher Hitchens performing that intimate act of mercy. Or Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins or any of the other prominent so-called New Atheists you’ve likely heard of.
Chris Stedman is different from the atheists who wear that badge on TV (Bill Maher comes to mind). His atheism doesn’t hate God; it loves people. He is proud of who he is (gay, atheist, Minnesotan, heavily tattooed, staff member at the Harvard Humanist Association, writer) and he wants to create a world where all people are free to be proud of who they are – Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, wanderer, whatever.
He believes that the atheist movement ought to be talking more about what it does stand for than what it doesn’t. He believes energy spent disparaging what others believe is worse than wasteful; it’s toxic. His goal is to nurture a movement of humanists who emphasize cultivating humanity, express it in serving others, and work with people of all faiths, in good faith, towards that end. Chris understands that we get there together or not at all.
Like all good personal stories, Faitheist casts light on an important dimension of our public life. In this case, it is the growing chasm between believers and atheists. It was a chasm first opened by believers, who have mercilessly berated and bullied nonbelievers in ways antithetical to the values of respect, compassion and freedom central to all our faiths. In recent years, a small, loud group of atheists have battled back, with choice quotes like this one from PZ Myers: “I say, screw the polite words… Break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.” There’s a set of religious people out there who are only too happy to return the same violent language, and probably more likely to employ the actual tactics.
The wider the chasm, the longer the bridge you’re going to need to cross it. This book is a piece of that bridge for our broader culture. And what’s more, there are tools and skills and stories in these pages that will be useful to bridge builders of all backgrounds.
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Here is another thing good personal stories do: help readers narrate their own lives alongside the life unfolding in the pages of the book. Reading Faitheist brought back memories I had long buried. In one scene, Chris writes about being out on the town with a group of friends when they are verbally accosted by people shouting, “Fags! Repent!” Chris nods to his friends to keep walking and he stands on the street corner and allows the group to preach at him. He listens politely, joining in when he hears a Bible verse he recognizes, and then asks if he can share his story. The men are a little shocked but as Chris has listened with such grace, they feel it’s only fair to let him have his say. And so Chris speaks of his years as a Christian, his coming out, his undergraduate degree in religion, his becoming an atheist, his current graduate study at a seminary and his internship at the Interfaith Youth Core. The conversation tilts back and forth like that for a good part of the evening, and towards the end, one of the men thanks Chris for sharing his story, saying he has never actually met a homosexual before.