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Review: Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, Chris Stedman

Near the end of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012), Chris Stedman wonders if he’s too young (24) to write a memoir. Stedman concludes that he isn’t. Turns out he’s wrong. Faitheist is full of good ideas, but it’s an article (or two) posing as a book. For those of you keeping count, the book’s metadata–that is, its bibliographic information–indicate that Faitheist is approximately 200 pages. If that’s accurate, 20 pages must be blank, and another 10-15 consist of front matter and notes. In other words, contrary to the advertised length, Faitheist is about 170 pages long, and, even then, it’s puzzling in its lack of specificity when it comes to Stedman’s life.

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Stedman is a native Minnesotan, and his sunny, Midwestern disposition shines through here. He cheerfully recounts his childhood, as well as his adolescent and adult difficulties, always concluding on a triumphant note, with success achieved or a lesson learned. Stedman’s optimism might be annoying if it weren’t so obviously sincere. It’s just hard to stay mad at that Chris, even when he’s kicking in church signs, or, in the case of the book, glossing over large chunks of his life.

Faitheist is clearly the work of a young man. This is not to say that young men aren’t capable of great things; they clearly are. But Stedman doesn’t seem to be aware–or willfully chooses not to acknowledge–that, as a twentysomething, his story has only just begun. Stedman presents as complete, or near complete, a story that, by rights, is just getting underway. He wants us to think he’s in chapter 15, when he’s really only in chapter 2.

Consider, for instance, the beginning of the book, in which Stedman goes into poignant detail regarding his grandmother and mother, his love for them, and their influence on his life. These women were independent, strong, and encouraged those qualities in Stedman. Of course, there is a glaring absence: Stedman’s father, who is not discussed. Stedman’s parents divorced, and it’s clear from the Acknowledgments that Stedman and his father are working on their relationship. Stedman clearly was uncomfortable with discussing in his memoir his relationship with his father. But that omission is obvious, and, in itself, speaks volumes about where Stedman is in his life. Given another 10 years, perhaps Stedman would be able to reach more meaningful conclusions about his relationship with his family. (His siblings are given short shrift.)

Of course, the draw of Faitheist is not Stedman himself, although he is charismatic, but his role in American religious life. Stedman is a “faitheist,” an atheist who is comfortable engaging in interfaith work and dialog with the religious. (The term is pejorative when one atheist applies it to another; Stedman’s intent is to reclaim it, as the LGBT community did with “queer.”) Stedman has had a remarkable spiritual trajectory, from a nonreligious childhood, to an adolescent infatuation with evangelical Christianity, to angry and alienated atheism, and, finally, to his interfaith work on behalf of atheism and Humanism, movements (or philosophies, or ways of life, what have you) that he goes to pains to point out are not religions.

Even here, in what should be the meatiest part of his memoir, Stedman is inconsistent. His struggle with his sexuality (he is gay) as an evangelical Christian is excruciatingly drawn. It’s after the chapters devoted to that period of his life, though, that Stedman’s narrative loses its momentum. Stedman discovers liberal Christians who welcome gays, and throws himself into the social justice work in which his community engages. Then, relieved to be welcomed into a new community, to have his very identity validated, he goes to college and, almost immediately, kinda, sorta gives up on religion for no reason other than that was his intellectual path. The angst of his adolescence and the joy of acceptance would seem to be at odds with Stedman’s almost apathetic abandonment of his faith. But wait: Stedman was angry. He carried a grudge against religion because of the box it had put him in, because it couldn’t live up to his expectations, because, try as he might, he couldn’t intellectually convince himself of the existence of God. But he’s okay with it, really. But he’s not. Stedman’s vacillations are understandable, especially in someone who is still relatively young, but, in the presentation of his narrative, he appears unaware of its internal inconsistencies. Stedman might have been advised to engage in more introspection as he considered his story.

Stedman’s philosophy is better thought out and will be of interest to the average reader. Put simply, Stedman encourages atheist engagement with the religious. He advances several reasons for this, for instance, education. Stedman argues that atheist-religious dialog serves atheists because it works both ways, allowing believers to discover that atheists are not the bogeymen they’re perceived to be (if popular polls are to be believed). In short, Stedman believes that “atheism” is a negative philosophy, defined as it is by what it does not stand for, and advocates for “Humanism” as a positive, active promoter of secular values.

Stedman is a social justice warrior (and I say that as a compliment) and advocate for his beliefs and those who share them. He is a promoter of understanding and dialog. He is a leader. But Faitheist is a poor reflection of Stedman’s ideas. It is not the book his movement needs. Faitheist is, like its author, sincere, well-intentioned, but callow. Give Stedman another 10 to 15 years. Perhaps then he’ll produce a memoir worthy of his goals.