Atheist, Plays Well With Others…
Most of us are consumed with the election today. It also happens to be the publication date of a boundary-defying and yet somehow sweetly patriotic memoir from my publisher, Beacon Press, entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. While still in his 20s, Chris Stedman has written a brave and moving account of how he became an evangelical Christian, realized he was gay, left Christianity for atheism, and now devotes himself to interfaith dialogue with religious people.
Faithiest will appeal to many interfaith families, as an intimate chronicle of an “atypical” religious (and non-religious) formation, illuminating the intertwining influences of family and society on religious identity. Stedman quotes my favorite Buddhist thinker, Thic Nhat Han: “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.” For those of us who are heirs to two or more family religions, this statement has deep resonance.
Stedman seems to have written one of the very first memoirs by anyone in his generation. So I was fascinated to note that the idea of being raised with both religions appears early on, and in a positive light. Stedman writes of his childhood friendship with a neighborhood girl who “…celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, and maintained practices from both traditions…” He goes on to describe his own brief infatuation with Judaism as a result of this encounter.
A longing for community drives Stedman, as a tween, to a Christian youth group. The tension between evangelical Christianity and being gay eventually drives him away. But after he becomes an atheist, that same longing for community alienates him from the strident, anti-religious “New Atheism,” and eventually sends him into the arms of the kinder and gentler community of secular humanists.
Secular humanism has long provided a safe haven for interfaith families who agree to put aside the question of God. So Stedman’s description of his discovery of the benefits of humanism will interest many secular interfaith families.
More broadly, those of us in the movement to educate our children in both family religions find ourselves arrayed across the entire religious and non-religious spectrum: religious, spiritual but not religious, skeptics, agnostics, atheists.
Whether we identify with no religion, two religions, or many religions, those of us in interfaith families who do not belong to a synagogue or church find ourselves grouped with Stedman by demographers as part of the fast-growing “religious nones,” the statistical category for those without religious affiliation. As “religious nones,” we are a complex, rich, and varied group on the rise, just beginning to discover each other, and I am very pleased to share this space with a mensch like Chris Stedman.
By the end of his memoir, Stedman finds twin interwoven missions–convincing interfaith activists to welcome atheists, and convincing atheists to engage in interfaith activism, and join college campus groups (such as Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core) in performing community service together.
Stedman and others have achieved notable success in making a place for secularists, alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, at the interfaith roundtable. But is there a place at that table for intermarried people or interfaith children claiming our ties to more than one religion? Or is our presence so disturbing, our blurred boundaries so threatening, that we are left off the guest list?
The dogma of interfaith dialogue has long been that you cannot engage with the “other” unless and until you have a strong and singular religious identity. Stedman successfully makes the case that the non-religious should be exempt from this requirement. I am making the case that those who marry into or are born into a state of interfaithness should also be exempt, and welcomed as people with unique qualifications for interfaith dialogue.
Stedman writes, “Interfaith dialogue strives to usher in religious pluralism, and it is realized primarily through the personal stories of its practitioners.” Members of interfaith families in general, and adult interfaith children in particular, want to tell their stories, whether they currently identify with one, two, many or no religions. As people who engage deeply with the “other” on a daily basis, whether that “other” is a spouse or partner or sibling or parent or a part of our own being, we bring unique skills and perspectives to more formal interfaith encounters. We want to be part of the quest for greater interfaith understanding and an end to religious violence, through interfaith education. As members of interfaith families, we are already on that quest, whether or not our role is recognized by those from monofaith backgrounds. I am hoping that those of us from interfaith families can be as convincing as Chris Stedman in articulating our desire to be included in the movement for interfaith cooperation.