Slut of the week: The “Faithiest”

I recently finished a book called ” Faithiest” by Chris Stedman, and it successfully rent my non-existent soul in two.

The premise of the book (as seen on Amazon) is

The story of a former Evangelical Christian turned openly gay atheist who now works to bridge the divide between atheists and the religious.

The stunning popularity of the “New Atheist” movement—whose most famous spokesmen include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens—speaks to both the growing ranks of atheists and the widespread, vehement disdain for religion among many of them. In Faitheist, Chris Stedman tells his own story to challenge the orthodoxies of this movement and make a passionate argument that atheists should engage religious diversity respectfully. Becoming aware of injustice, and craving community, Stedman became a “born-again” Christian in late childhood. The idea of a community bound by God’s love—a love that was undeserved, unending, and guaranteed—captivated him. It was, he writes, a place to belong and a framework for making sense of suffering.  But Stedman’s religious community did not embody this idea of God’s love: they were staunchly homophobic at a time when he was slowly coming to realize that he was gay. The great suffering this caused him might have turned Stedman into a life-long New Atheist. But over time he came to know more open-minded Christians, and his interest in service work brought him into contact with people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. His own religious beliefs might have fallen away, but his desire to change the world for the better remained. Disdain and hostility toward religion was holding him back from engaging in meaningful work with people of faith. And it was keeping him from full relationships with them—the kinds of relationships that break down intolerance and improve the world.  In Faitheist, Stedman draws on his work organizing interfaith and secular communities, his academic study of religion, and his own experiences to argue for the necessity of bridging the growing chasm between atheists and the religious. As someone who has stood on both sides of the divide, Stedman is uniquely positioned to present a way for atheists and the religious to find common ground and work together to make this world—the one world we can all agree on—a better place.

The concept of this book fascinates me;  stemming the tides in communication between theists and non-religious has often been a subject on my mind. It seems like the two are diametrically opposed without any common ground to stand on. Still, I hate that conversations between atheists and theists often become heated and reach an impasse before any real ground can be covered.

I’ve often wished there was a way to bridge the gap in an amicable way, especially with my own very religious family. The author, Chris Stedman, feels this way too. He believes atheists should take a “Christ-like” attitude towards the religious, instead of shaming them with words like “delusional”, “irrational” or “wrong.” In Stedman’s mind, tolerance  and acceptance between the two is the only route to make headway towards understanding. Hostility helps nobody, and it holds us back from meeting people from a multitude of backgrounds, and retaining them as friends.

A very big part of me agrees with this. While it might surprise some of my readers, in person I am an extremely non-confrontational gal. I hate when a conversation gets set on fire and becomes a match of bellowing opinions and talking over one another. It’s draining and ultimately pointless. People who think so differently will likely never agree with each other, but with efforts at civility we can respect where the other is coming from.

In a recent conversation with my parents, they explained it was not my atheism that affronted them, it was my disdain and irreverence for things they held sacred. For example, when someone says gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry, my blood boils and my temper flairs. It seems my calling the pope a corrupt old buffoon has the same effect on them. I know, I know, the comparison of ideals is very flawed. But the reaction is the same.

When I finally understood this, I was able to engineer my interactions with my parents so that my atheism didn’t come off quite as acerbic. This has, for the most part, repaired our relationship considerably. My mom mailed me her miraculous medal which she was worn for years, and instead of rolling my eyes at the religious article, I wear it as an heirloom from someone I love. When she says “I’m praying for you,” I now have trained myself to hear “I love you and am thinking of you even when you’re not around” and I answer accordingly.

So, in a lot of ways, I agree with Stedman. There’s much to be said for his brand of altruism.

But on the other hand, its not so much the silly rituals and superstitions of religion that I so abhor. These are harmless, and don’t affect those who don’t share the beliefs.

It’s that most religious people either passively or actively believe all non-believers will burn for eternity. Or that homosexuals don’t deserve to be married to someone they love. Or that abortion doctors should be killed. Or that you can only be a good person if you believe in their god. Or that miracles and angels are real, despite any kind of proof. I think that these sorts of beliefs actually make religion dangerous to the greater development of human morality. If we’re going to move forward as a species, then the beliefs that cause us to fight, kill, judge, and shun each other need to go by the wayside. But anything that hinders our ability to sort through the beliefs that were passed down to us, and decide which should stay and which should go….is inherently wrong.

This is why I cannot be “at peace” with religion or religious people. If you want to believe that a piece of bread turns into human flesh and you enjoy eating it at a weekly social gathering….that’s fine I guess. But if you also believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is a pariah who will ultimately be tortured for eternity….not so much. Some extreme mental gymnastics are necessary to accept that this is ok, and I think they are detrimental to the evolution of the world our descendants will inherit.

In conclusion, I give props to Stedman for taking the very brave stance of peacemaker between logic and liturgy. But I’m not sure I can get behind him 100%

What do you think of the Faithiest? Can there ever be peace between atheists and religious people, or is it a hopeless cause?

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18 responses to “Slut of the week: The “Faithiest”

  1. I engage some pretty hardcore theists quite regularly. Just the other day an interesting turn of events happened. After detailing all the evidence for debunking the entire Pentateuch (evidence so overwhelming that even Jewish rabbis now openly admit the whole thing is inventive myth) i concluded by telling this guy it’s perfectly ok to admit you were wrong and that no one would gloat or make fun of him, or indeed all theists when they jettison their unfounded religious beliefs. I suggested we could all just have a laugh about it and move on. From his reaction i think it was the first time he’d heard something like that; an assurance that he could in fact admit the error and the sky wouldn’t fall down. It was interesting. Perhaps more of us outspoken atheists/anti-theists should push this line more often.

    • whoa! that’s a first. It’s almost like you gave permission for him to release himself from his pride and admit his error. And for him to be willing to do so requires a great deal of respect for you (less his pride take hold and prevent him from admitting so).
      Good for you, friend!

      • Oh, he wasn’t willing… not there on the spot, at least. The tone of discourse changed though after that. I like the way you put it: released him from his pride. That’s brilliant.

  2. Great post mate.
    I think it is a hopeless case for the simple reason that encouraging such practices are what fuels the bigger problems you see like homophobia or beheadings in Pakistan. To help the human species move forward, superstition has to be shown the door. What is irrational must be said is irrational and if anyone thinks their beliefs are rational, then let us put them on the table of reason to be the final arbiter, reason based on experience.
    I, however, hardly start such debates since the few ones I have been involved in have not ended up so well.
    So I don’t think I would support Stedman

    • What do you think of his ideas of engaging the religious person kindly (but unyieldingly), rather than with hostile arrogance? That’s the problem I have with some of our fellow atheists. They seem to have a “your stupid, and I’m going to talk over you” attitude. The same can be said for the opposition, but it just doesn’t seem to be very productive. Theists have such “stupid” arguments, but they tend to take it personally when you counter them too aggressively, and then its hard to plant ideas in their mind that maybe…just maybe…there is something wrong with what they’ve always accepted.

      • I agree that it is alright to engage people kindly, not just the religious but whenever you are talking about any unpopular topic. That said, with matters of belief in gods, I have had to change tact. We will start with basics, tell me what god is, then we can discuss other things. If not let us live and let live.
        Confrontation may not help but sometimes it gets one to really think about his stand. I have a friend who though still religious, I have managed to see the need why he should think seriously about what he believes sad thing is he puts all his energy in reading apologists for his faith!

  3. Atheists have *tried* the gentle, non-confrontational approach many, many many times to little or no avail. Religionists still insist on laws that support their views on morality, love, partnerships/marriage, child-rearing & adoption, education, and on and on. I no longer have staunchly religious people close to me because once we all realized how far apart we were on so many deal-breaking issues, it was easier to let those relationships fade and end than continue to struggle, trying to change each others’ minds.

    When the faithful are content to let everyone enjoy freedom FROM their beliefs, that’s when a reasonable conversation will be possible.
    When atheists are no longer vilified as amoral, evil, , birth-control-using, Darwin-believing, condemned sinners, we can talk.

    The Pope recently made some pseudo-friendly remarks about other faiths & the faithless coming together to do good works, how doing good IS good for everyone (duh). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html

    But now he’s also offering indulgences…again http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2013/07/17/Pope-offering-indulgences-through-Twitter/UPI-92831374062909/

    One step forward…2 centuries back…

  4. I think we’re in a transitional period right now, and that the “faithiest” is something that’s going to be more practical and pragmatic after this transitional period is over.

    Let’s take a relatively simple concept that we concede divides many of us within the atheist community: Christmastime nativity scenes on public property. While none of us disagrees that it’s unconstitutional on its face, the divide within our community is basically between those who think it’s right to point out this unconstitutionality and those who feel as though our resources are better spent elsewhere.

    What’s interesting, though, isn’t this divide within the atheist community; it’s the reaction of the theists when the ACLU or the FFRF sends an letter to the powers that be, pointing out that it’s unconstitutional. A practical response would be “Ya know, they’re right. Let’s leave it up this year because it’d be too costly to take it down this year. Next year, let’s just not put it up.” Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never seen a municipality of any size say anything close to resembling this. More often than not, they say they’ll fight it. Why? Because they’re affronted and offended by the fact that someone pointed out that what they’re doing is illegal, so they fight back harder.

    This is a sign of the nature of the transitional period. Other signs include the response of theists to the Arizona state lawmaker who began one session with a very secular invocation (and beautifully worded, if you heard it), or to the New Jersey congressman who proposed allowing humanist chaplains in the military because the ranks of the non-theistic in our armed services are growing. In the case of the former, a lot of lawmakers had a separate prayer because they felt as though the session wasn’t opened properly. In the case of the latter, they used strawman arguments and vocal opposition to the very concept of humanism to argue it down. One lawmaker even said that the last thing a family receiving the worst possible news from the field, was for an athiest to say their son is “worm food”. (Couldn’t that same argument apply to a Christian chaplain visiting a family of a different denomination, if not a different religion altogether? “Sorry to say this, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but your son’s burning in hell now…”)

    So how long is this transitional period? That’s hard to say but I do have some hope. If the lessons learned from the gay community are any indication, I am hopeful that it will end within my lifetime. Take the issue of gays in the military. Before the 1990’s, you could be denied the opportunity to serve if you were gay, plus you were asked outright if you were. It may not have been the best compromise, but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a first step to getting past that denial. They stopped asking. Gays could still get kicked out for revealing that they’re gay, but at least they couldn’t be prevented from serving. I don’t think we’d have been able to completely do away with the ban on gays serving without first having DADT as an intermediate step. It’s unfortunate that it took another 20 years to do it, but it shines a light on how sometimes we need to transition into a change, especially when we want to change a way of thinking that is very entrenched and longstanding.

    In the meantime, it’s still right to point out that those nativity scenes are unconstitutional.

  5. I could never get behind the ideas in the faithiest because the vast majority theists are dangerous and destructive, either directly or tacitly. I think you are very nice to have trained yourself to acknowledge that your mom does care for you, but I could not do the same. From my perspective, she is still being utterly insensitive and willfully ignorant about your position. I will always be one of the “rough men” and never a peacemaker or pacifist in this case.

    • I admire your point of view as well. And you’re right—religion can be very destructive and dangerous. I will do everything in my lifetime to lessen its influence on my friends and open minded family members. However, I’ve come to a point where my mother’s insensitivity doesn’t offend me quite so much; mainly because I realize (as she does not) that once she’s gone, she’s gone forever, and I’d rather have memories left with her than not. Its enough for me to know I’m right than to prove I’m right as far as my parents are concerned. trying to show them otherwise would be a losing battle. Thanks for your comment!

  6. I haven’t read Faitheist, but I think I would agree with Stedman on a lot of things. The other thing is that – although I can’t get my head around how – there are religious people who are tolerant, who accept the findings of science, and who think critically and intelligently. They have done all this and still concluded their religion is right. It baffles me how they get there, but I think at that point I can only say “fair enough”.

  7. You know, some people can’t do confrontation and that is fine. I like to avoid it if I can, skirt issues and all that to side step annoying people, with the caveat; Others must do this for me as well. The second someone steps into my happy place and tries to take a shit, I am on them like a coked up Krampus. The idea of having a thoughtful narrative with unlike minded people hinges on both sides having the ability to think. The hardest part about talking to religious people is that they have convinced themselves, against all the evidence laid out before them, that their very lives depend on what they believe and there is a nasty torment waiting for them if they falter. Inversely, Atheists have come to the decision that being nice to others can make the one shot at life you were lucky enough to get on this globe a lot more pleasant. That can make for strange bedfellows.

  8. Your post is very relevant to some thoughts I am trying to develop for myself that will likely end up posted sometime soon. I have been wondering what are the Ends that atheism means to satisfy–for me and for others.

    My thinking at this stage is this: without religion, we would have no conception of atheism.

    We simply do not go through our lives not believing in things until some idea of a thing is presented to us. E.g. I would not have a belief one way or the other concerning multiple universes, extra dimensions, ghosts or spirits, bigfoot, astrology, or any other suggested phenomenon that I have not experienced.

    I think the incessant promotion of religion and god has forced people to take a position, and it is becoming easier for people to plainly say, “no, I don’t believe any of that crap.”

    So your original question, I think that closing the divide between religious folks and atheists is up to the religious folks. It seems to me that they have pressed all members of society hard enough that we have been forced to either submit or stand firm in our unbelief.

    Basically it is this: If they cannot respect the atheist’s opinion, then I don’t see why we should respect their opinion. Simple reciprocity.

    • I agree. Respect for religious beliefs will never happen for me, or anyone who has been abused as a result of their ignorance. However, respect for the individual persons seems to help with a dialogue….hopefully a positive one. I can’t quite decide how I feel about Faithiest. There’s a part of me like Hitch that says, fuck them all. Hypocrites, ignorant bastards, etc. Then the other side of me wants to appeal to their reason and try to get them to see the folly of their beliefs. Most people are atheists without really knowing it—I mean, a talking snake, really? Who but the extremists believes this literally?

      • Hi Beth,
        Speaking only for myself, I have tried the reasoned approach to dialogue with religious folks, and I have discovered that there are enough Ray Comforts of the world feeding believers ridiculous arguments that they giggle proudly when they use one as if they have really shown me something.

        If someone is determined to reject evidence or logic for faith, then any attempt at a conversation is pointless.

        I am more interested in providing people who truly want more information with the evidences and arguments that refute religious dogmatism. Mostly I try to offered people the same type of information I would have liked to have found when I was trying to understand for myself the value or lack thereof of religion. Additionally, like any oppressed or restricted group–gays, women, racial minorities, or others–it is difficult for atheists to come-out so to speak for fear of feeling isolated if they are surrounded by people of faith like I was/am.

        The online community of atheists is a great start, but I would really like to see more atheists symbolism worn in public because we have a growing minority with a valid set of beliefs. It is not right that atheists in America should feel like there is something wrong with them because they disagree with the majority. This is not how it is in other countries, yet we remain trapped by superstition.

  9. “But if you also believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is a pariah who will ultimately be tortured for eternity….not so much. ” I find this is the same for theists. We, if you’ll excuse me for speaking for more than myself, often feel as though we are believed to be unintelligent, ignorant, and made into a pariah as well simply for believing differently from atheists. For example, in your post you poke fun at many of the things that theists consider precious rituals. While I myself don’t believe that the bread is actually turning to flesh, i do hold communion as a precious ritual. I use the symbolism to remind that a price must be paid for things I do against others, and to reflect on my actions and try to focus energy on doing better. Is this not something that a non-religious person could do as well. There are consequences for our behavior and shouldn’t we all be thinking about how ours affects ourself and others and how we can change it.
    It’s my thought that to have a peaceful relationship between atheists and theists we’ve got to stop acting like anti-theists and anti-atheists. We’ve got to be able to reach a point where we mutually respect each other’s beliefs and allow them room to exist side by side rather than insisting on winning one another over. Let each other exist and feel that to do so is not to threaten our own existence. We treat each other as though we’re in a war that’s to be won at the expense of the other rather than people with differing ideas that each have a valid purpose.
    Just my opinions.
    May you find blessings on your journey and thanks for recommending this one. I’d like to read it.

    • For what its worth, getting to rant on my blog is my cathartic release. I don’t think I’ve ever told a theist to their face that I think their rituals are stupid or meaningless. I mainly engage in debate based on mutual respect for each other as people rather than our differences. I hope you read it and let me know what you think!

      • You’d be the first to keep it only in blogs, in my experience. It’s really quite offensive from person to person. My least favorite is the passive aggressive Sam Harris approach: why do you feel you need a sky daddy? Then if I get angry about it they act like I’m crazy. Just something to keep in mind.

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