For gay atheist Chris Stedman, finding common ground with those who saw the world differently from how he did was not always a goal. In his enlightening and engaging memoir, "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious" (Beacon Press, 208 pages, $24.95), he admits that he often sought out conflict and belittled those whose perspectives didn't match his. Now the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and founder of the first blog exploring atheist-interfaith issues, Stedman treads a different path.
As a boy in Minnesota, Stedman was excluded from the popular groups, naïve, sensitive and prone to missing social cues. He found community within a Christian Youth Group. But after reading a Teen Study Bible, Stedman stumbled on two painful truths. "I was queer, and my church would kick me out if they discovered my secret," he writes.
A year later, his mother spirited him away to a Lutheran pastor, who assured him of the normality of his sexual orientation. He was still confused. He stopped attending services, yet still believed in God. At his sister's Christian Youth Group, he revealed his homosexuality to an audience, which led to a new role as an "energetic queer Christian activist."
Stedman's evolution into an interfaith activist was punctuated by philosophical and emotional detours. A breakup via text message from his first boyfriend, followed by his departure to study for the ministry at a Lutheran college, shredded his belief in God.
Stedman alternated between apathy and anger. He defaced a church sign during a drunken spree. He was assaulted by a group of anti-gay bullies. He refused to discuss religion with co-workers. An internship with the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago provided a foundation for his activism.
"I wanted to help organize nonreligious communities that would not only provide a safe space for the nonreligious but would also value reaching out to those with different beliefs in an attempt to understand and empathize, not bulldoze or mock them."
Working for an inclusive world, rather than one built upon tribalism and religious totalitarianism, Stedman rebelled against the rabid atheism espoused by the adherents of New Atheism movement authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
A year and a half later, Stedman moved to the East Coast to follow up on an offer "to create a pilot interfaith community service program for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard."
Stedman's memoir calling for civil discourse between atheists and the religious couldn't come at a better time. Is it possible in today's roiling culture to cogently argue against engaging in civil dialogue, using social action to build a better world, and learning from others, even if we feel their ideals are incorrect?
Chris Stedman will be at SubText Bookstore, 165 Western Av., St. Paul, at 7 p.m. Thursday; Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., at 7:30 p.m. Friday; and at the University of Minnesota Bookstore in Coffman Union at 4 p.m. Dec. 3.
Julie Foster is a transplanted Midwesterner and freelance book critic living in Sacramento, Calif.