Engaging with atheism: Faitheist

In Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (2012), Chris Stedman tells his story-so-far — he was only 23 at the time of writing — to show that atheists and the religious should still be able to talk respectfully to one another.

The first part covers Stedman’s mostly religion-free childhood in a liberal family, then a period in adolescence when he joined a fundamentalist church, unfortunately closely followed by his growing realization that he was gay. The pages detailing his agony over his supposed sinfulness are absolutely heartbreaking. Eventually, his mother noticed his distress and brought him to a more tolerant Lutheran minister who put him on a better path, religion-wise, and he became involved in more liberal Christian circles to support his social idealism, along with gradually finding the courage to come out as a gay man.

While going to a Lutheran college and majoring in religion, though, he lost his faith in God. After his initial anger at religion he soon rejected militant anti-theism and became an interfaith enthusiast. This brief biographical section is followed by a more discursive part in which Stedman argues that atheists would benefit from engaging in interfaith dialogue — a part I found much less powerful than the stories, but which perhaps contains some ideas of interest for those involved in the movement. He’s anxious to change the image of atheists and reduce the prejudice against them, and his honest sharing is a great help there, although it would be good to hear other voices as well.

In spite of his fervent churchgoing for a time, I didn’t have the sense that Stedman actually made a mature connection to religious faith at all. His Christianity seemed a kind of cloak that he put on to cover his loneliness, and he dropped it as he grew able to cope without it, returning to his non-religious roots. That was honest and admirable in its way, and left him what he probably should have been from the start: a secular humanist who wants to engage with other humans for mutual benefit, out of love rather than aggressive proselytizing. Sounds good to me, although it enrages some other atheists who want to eliminate religion altogether. (“Faitheist” was a term Stedman first heard applied to him as an insult.)

Stedman insists that atheism is not a faith, but I have questions about that. If faith is defined as believing in something for which you have no empirical evidence, then believing in the non-existence of God is an example of faith. There may be no empirical evidence that God exists, but there equally is none that God doesn’t exist.

However, I don’t agree with that definition anyway. My whole concept of faith was transformed when I discovered that the Greek word usually translated that way, “pistis”, has the primary meaning of “to trust.” The Hebrew predecessor, “emunah,” also connotes trust and stability. That means it isn’t about intellectual belief at all. One trusts a person to do what they have promised. One also trusts people to be reliable witnesses of things one has not personally seen. Mistakes and misunderstandings can happen, but one trusts that the person has the right intentions, that problems can be worked out, that communication and relationship can be restored.

Abraham entertaining the Angels, by Rembrandt (1646)

It certainly doesn’t mean trusting that God exists. That would have been utter nonsense to the ancient users of this word. They took the existence of divine beings for granted; what they wanted to know was, rather, what are the intentions of these beings? How are they going to use their superior power? Are they benign or adversarial? Are they trustworthy? Faith means discerning, among all the spiritual powers experienced in the soul, which one is a reliable guide toward our higher human becoming, rather than a deceiving false light. The need to prove the very existence of God arose later in history, when direct experience of the spirit had faded into the past, blotted out by the growing intellect so that experience in the sense world became the primary source of learning.

Stedman’s childhood was troubled — during his fundamentalist period, his parents were going through a divorce, his father was weaseling out of child support, and his mother was frantically busy with multiple jobs and schooling to try to support the family. As I read of this, it made me wonder how such threats to the essential trusting bond with a caregiver might correlate with atheism. Just out of curiosity, I looked to see what I could find out about the childhoods of some of the most prominent and vocal “New Atheists”:

  • Richard Dawkins – Father called up in WWII, only returned when Dawkins was 8
  • Sam Harris – Raised by mother after parents divorced when he was 2
  • Daniel Dennett – Father was a counter intelligence agent in WWII, killed in a plane crash when Dennett was 5

It may not be a scientifically valid sample, but it certainly is interesting. An absent or otherwise unreliable father could plausibly be one reason for the need to deny God. Obliterating the problematic archetype is one way to gain power over it. And when trust in human beings is betrayed, hyper-rational trust in the laws of the physical world might step in. Those laws will never change, vanish, or betray you, so long as the same conditions are maintained — unlike slippery, changeable humans.

On the other hand, the same issues in childhood could also give rise to a rigid religious faith, which requires God’s actions to be as invariable as physical laws. When human relationships have been unreliable, there is a great need for certainty. What one believes is less important than having something to believe in with complete confidence.

The interesting thing with Stedman’s story is that he’s retained his faith in humanity while losing his faith in God. He’s still willing to trust and be open and vulnerable, and that is a very brave thing to do considering all the forces ranged against him. No human being can have such trust unless they have known a trustworthy person; Stedman credits his mother with saving him when he was suicidal. I would venture that that has helped him to know there is something fundamentally reliable under the shifting sands of life, and to be open to dialogue even with people who want to hurt him.

In the end, I think it’s more important to believe in humanity than anything else. While we each have to make our best guess at the nature of reality and live accordingly, we can make it our more important goal to strive to be worthy of one another’s trust while honestly admitting we make mistakes and don’t know everything. As we grow in trust for ourselves and each other, we can raise children who are willing to take the risk of opening their hearts to a wider reality than our heads currently know.

Loving and learning from each other is the highest ideal; no other belief should be allowed to get in the way of that. Stedman might be considered a traitor by certain other atheists for such a suggestion, but for me it makes him a brother in the cause most dear to my heart.

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17 thoughts on “Engaging with atheism: Faitheist

  1. A very interesting book and review. I lost my faith (really schooled belief without thought) at Sunday School aged about 8 when I realised you could learn stuff by heart and still win stars and then a bookmark, and finally, when the teacher pretended to turn water into wine (dodgy in several aspects!) and I knew he’d put potassium permanganate in the water. But I am so keen on interfaith stuff and there is so much good going on locally in that area, however as someone who isn’t part of a congregation or community I just can’t take part. Not sure of the answer, just my thoughts.

    1. Hm, it’s too bad that if you are keen on interfaith stuff you can’t take part. If it’s really “inter-” it should include even those who aren’t part of a formal congregation, but maybe structure is hard to let go of. I like the “humanist” appellation because it can really include everyone.

  2. A hugely important area of discussion, Lory, quite apart from the review aspect. Interesting too your mini-survey of New Atheists and the absence of a father figure: it reminds me that my father was away at sea for long stretches when I was growing up, only being permanently ‘home’ when I was in my early teens.

    I’d say my loss of faith only really began to take hold late on in school, fully manifesting when I went to uni. But did I really have faith in the first place? I would argue that a belief system (and I’m talking about Catholicism here) built on personal guilt along with a concept of original sin is relying on shaky foundations.

    I go back to the bipartite structure of the ten commandments and to Jesus’s answer to the question of ‘the greatest commandment’: the first batch of commandments pertain to one’s relationship to the Divinity, while Nos 4–10 can be related to ‘loving one’s neighbour as oneself.’ As – nominally, at least! – a humanist I can happily engage with the ethics of being a good neighbour, while less happily engage with discussing concepts of a Divine Being. Still I take heart that Jesus said that, after ‘the first and great commandment’ the second is ‘like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’!

    1. If faith is trust, then it can never be based on subjecting a vulnerable soul to shame tactics which paralyze our humanity. I feel fortunate that nobody ever foisted that kind of religion on me and can definitely understand wanting to escape it.

      1. Thanks, Lory. Trust is too often such an underrated condition, so fragile, so full of hope and expectation that once lost is very hard to retrieve. When you place your faith in people or institutions and they let you down it has lasting impacts – I’m glad you escaped that in your religious upbringing.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting book. I like your statement about the importance of putting one’s faith in humanity. As an atheist, there’s one thing I’d like to clarify. I don’t believe “in the non-existence of God”. I just don’t believe in God.

    If someone provides evidence of God’s existence, I’ll change my stance. I would never claim that there is no God, nor would any of the many atheists that I know. It just seems to us that His existence seems quite improbable.

    Atheists are willing to adjust their views based on evidence. People of faith often deny evidence in order to preserve their beliefs.

  4. With faith coming from the Greek word trust. Everyone has trust in something. What I notice throughout the years and having friends that are atheist is that people who don’t put their trust in a higher power tend to put trust in worldly things. Like people, themselves, ideas, or marital. With time people and ideas change. With marital things it rots and decay over time.

    With the state of the world is in right now and how apathetic people gotten. It hard to trust humanity. It harder to understand that humanity has and will always be like that.

    From reading the first comment and knowing people that experience something similar to that. It seem that it not a matter of believing in God to begin with. It who is the person putting their trust in first, man or God?

    Speaking on a personal level, after years of seeing people being bully and harass by being called -ist, -phobe, and other name simply for having different views. To me the people doing the name calling, first of all are highly emotional and irrational. Second do not trust people who have views that do not align with theirs. It seems these people are putting blind faith in an ideology.

    While it imponent to have trust in building a relationship and community. Putting trust in God first it easy to understand that people screw up and can be forgiving.

    These are just my thoughts. I am sure there more that can be added.

    1. To me, trying to keep the bigger picture in mind is what matters, beyond our own personal opinions. Some call that God, some find it in human relationships. Relationships don’t work at all unless we can look beyond ourselves and our opinions. It isn’t easy, but if enough of us keep trying, we will get somewhere.

      1. I get that it can be hard, however sometimes you has to cut ties with people that don’t have any sense to change.
        There a blogger that deems people as hateful and denigrating of others as well as telling people their words are harmful and violent. In the irony of this they resort to name calling and seeing people (let’s say) evil because these are words that are strongly tie to WWII. All because someone has a different view from them.
        To me this is highly abusive and toxic behavior. I want to say maybe psychic as well but, who knows. I would think people would see this toxic behavior but, they either don’t or they engages with it.

        1. Boundaries are important. We have to protect the vulnerable while having compassion for those who are caught in their own cycles of negativity. That doesn’t mean they get to hurt us with impunity.

  5. Very interesting review and insights, Lory. It’s been 8 years since I read this book, so I don’t remember much about it, but my own beliefs have changed a lot since then so I would probably view the concepts quite differently now anyway. The more I learn about Humanism, the more I understand why people are drawn to it….

    I need to make a more definitive list of the Spiritual Memoir books I’ve read the past few months. I had a more clear list at the beginning of the year. 🙂

    1. I looked to see what you said about the book, and you recommended it but didn’t say much else about it. It would be interesting to know how your views have changed.

      You read so many books, I can understand it’s hard to keep track of all of them. Thanks for sharing this spiritual memoir adventure with me, it’s hard to believe the year is nearly over.

  6. Interesting insights into an interesting book Lory–one can be quick to judge him for his changes of approach toward religion across his life, but perhaps it does serve those different purposes for different people.
    The point on the need to prove the existence of God (something that I’ve coincidentally been reading about in a course on Soren Kierkegaard which I joined online) also got me thinking about whether this need is also the impact of our increasing absoption in material life and the more and more complicated, and fixed frames that humans have created for themselves over the ages–that basic connection with nature and with ourselves seems to have vanished along the way.
    Also when you raise the point of dialogue between atheists and religious persons, I think the same applies to all contexts–whether politics or social issues or otherwise–so much negativity and venom these days–with each group trying to bring down the other rather than listening or simply putting forth the positives of their pov.

    1. There is so much polarization at the moment, it’s always refreshing to hear from anyone who is honestly interested in other people even when they have different opinions. That interest and openness is a basic requirement for me in any worldview, if it’s to have any kind of validity whatsoever.

      1. Far too much sadly. Wish people could simply listen and let people be, not always try to foist their views on them or insist that their’s is the only ‘right’ one.

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