Speaking Doubts and Convictions: An Interview with Chris Stedman

Chris Stedman is a 27-year-old atheist who is committed to the well-being of nonreligious people and to interfaith collaboration. He recently became Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community. He consults with the Open Party, a YDS organization for non-Christian or non-traditional Christian YDS students.

Stedman’s 2013 book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press), tells of his embrace of atheism after a period as an evangelical Christian. The book includes his perspective as a gay teenager who was rejected by church – also his search for values of empathy, religious diversity, and social change.

He has a B.A. in religion from Augsburg College and an M.A. in religion (pastoral care and counseling) from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago. Most recently he has been a humanist chaplain at Harvard, one of only five universities that have such chaplaincies.

Reflections: Who gathers at the Yale Humanist Community?

Stedman: It’s a mixed group of students who self-describe in a variety of ways – humanists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, seekers, spiritual-but-not-religious. People are perhaps freer in today’s climate to speak openly about their doubts and convictions without having to worry about their safety or about social stigma. But there’s no barrier to entry in the Humanist Community based on belief or nonbelief. We want to be a resource to theists and nontheists alike.

Reflections: What is your role?

Stedman: My aim is to open up a safe space where students can explore what they believe, learn about new ideas, act on their values, and listen to what their lives are telling them. But it’s never my job to tell a student what he or she should believe, and I work with students of all religious backgrounds.

Reflections: Does a rising indifference to religious affiliation signal a new surge of religious skepticism?

Stedman: Young people are growing up in a world where so many things are vying for their attention. They’re bombarded. There’s pressure to be constantly connected. The result is: So many of these connections can be shallow and dissatisfying. I think there’s a great hunger to have conversations about what it means to be a reflective individual, especially when some of the institutions that have traditionally invited them to do so aren’t working for them. The Humanist Community hopes to create a space where students are invited to slow down, pause, reflect, relate with another person one-on-one on matters of importance.

Reflections: What do students come to you to talk about?

Stedman: It’s not unusual for a student to come in to talk about her or his struggle with a philosophical or ethical question. Some students struggle with how to tell their family that they don’t believe in God anymore – how to start a positive conversation with their families about why they feel that way, and how they can maintain an appreciation for one another despite these differences.

Reflections: Are they redefining what community means?

Stedman: Millennials are conceiving of community in new ways, and I think the rise of social media can positively contribute to our understanding of how communities form and function. But there’s a temptation to think that online community alone can replicate the experience of a physical community. It is important to find a balance.

Reflections: Why are interfaith connections important to you?

Stedman: It’s been said that America is now the most religiously diverse society in the history of the world. Yet religious literacy is abysmal, particularly knowledge of others’ traditions. So I think one aim of the Humanist Community should be to improve relations between believers and nonbelievers. It’s vitally important to have conversations with people who believe differently from oneself. For one thing, it challenges people to articulate what it is they believe to those who probably do not share in their beliefs.

Reflections: What’s the biggest misconception about atheists?

Stedman: I get to name just one? Okay: The biggest misconception is that being an atheist means being a nihilist, that a life of meaning is impossible if you don’t believe in God. It’s insulting to hear you can’t be a good person without theistic belief. It’s insulting not only to the many atheists I know who do live exemplary lives but to theists too, because it suggests they live compassionate lives only out of fear of God’s retribution. And I know that’s not the case.

Even if our sources of inspiration are different, there’s an important point of contact between believers and nonbelievers: helping others. It’s the human project to cultivate compassion and meaning. It’s truly up to us to work together to solve our problems.