A Different Kind of Atheism

There is a moment in the middle of the forthcoming book Faitheist that about took my breath away. The author, Chris Stedman, is living in Bemidji, a small town in the northern part of Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Stedman arrived in Bemidji hoping to escape his past in Minneapolis and to live 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, Stedman’s disgust at religion had come to define him as deeply as his evangelical identity once had.

Stedman took a job working as a direct service professional for adults with developmental disabilities at a social services agency run by Lutherans (yes, he is self-aware enough to note the irony). His closest relationship was with a man named Marvin, a man who couldn’t talk and who could barely sign. Stedman watched movies with Marvin, sat with him for hours just keeping him company, read to him from his favorite books.

One day Marvin brought Stedman into his room and placed in his hands one of Marvin’s most precious possessions, his prayer book. He wanted Stedman to read from it. Stedman hesitated for a second. Perhaps he was reminded of all those nights he lay awake searching through scripture verses, hoping to find one that would make him feel loved for how 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 was about what it means to be a friend, about expressing care for something Marvin values. Stedman read Marvin a prayer. Marvin pressed his face tightly to Stedman’s blue flannel shirt and kept it there for a long time.

One cannot 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 probably heard of. More likely, they would have whipped out a lecture, or maybe an insult.

Like all good personal stories, Faitheist casts light on an important dimension of our public life—in this case the growing chasm between believers and atheists. It was a chasm first opened by believers, who have too often mercilessly berated and bullied nonbelievers in ways antithetical to the values of respect, compassion, and freedom central to all our faiths, and one recently widened by the aggressive response of certain nonbelievers.

Chris Stedman heralds a different kind of atheism. 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 Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, writer), and he wants to create a world where all people are free to be proud of who they are—Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, wanderer, whatever. He believes that the atheist movement ought to be talking more about what it stands for than what it doesn’t. He believes energy spent hating on what others do or 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, toward that end. We get there together, Stedman believes, or not at all.

Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, was awarded the 2012 Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize.

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