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.
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.