Can Atheists and Religious Folks Fight Inequality as Allies?
How does a queer atheist go from kicking in church signs to working side by side with Christians, Muslims, and other religious people? Ask Chris Stedman, a humanist chaplain at Harvard and interfaith activist known for calling out Islamophobia and bigotry in atheist communities.
The belief that equality for religious and nonreligious people alike depends on mutual dialogue and cooperation drives Stedman's activism. His debut book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, argues that sharing personal stories can bridge gaps between groups that appear to have little in common, create space for working towards shared goals, and ultimately transform society.
What Stedman calls Faitheism is very like what we would call intersectionality—and it holds important lessons for feminist activism. Feminism that fails to engage with the religious lives of religious people—feminism that asks them to leave their faith identities and experiences at the door—is doomed to be less relevant, if not meaningless, to the vast majority of people who practice a faith.
Stedman makes a conscious, political choice to put a human face—his— on abstract discussions of religion and sexuality. He traces his evolution from a born-again teen Christian teen struggling to reconcile faith with his sexuality, to a disenchanted ex-Christian angry at religion, to finally becoming an interfaith atheist evangelist.
Stedman paints an intimate portrait of a working class childhood defined by his mother's love and creativity through hard times (she was a master of "hand-crafted and recycled gifts") and his grandmother's Midwestern piety, which simultaneously shunned The Omen as demonic and welcomed HIV-positive queer men into their home. These experiences frame Stedman's yearning as a child for meaning and connection, which he thought he had found in church, only to be forced by societal and religious homophobia into dangerous isolation. In his teen years, Stedman desperately searched for Biblical and Christian writings for any positive mention of homosexuality, ate lunch alone, and withdrew from friends and family for fear of having his sexuality discovered. At a low point, he despaired so completely of leading a "normal" life and being loved that he considered ending his life.
Isolation—and the power of open, authentic connection to transform it— are a running theme in Faitheist. A conversation with a queer-affirming Lutheran pastor, arranged by Stedman's mother, allows him to finally reconcile his faith and his sexuality. The moment where he encounters the first person he knows who is both Christian and openly gay proves similarly transformative: "I felt known; I felt human again," he writes.
The second half of Faitheist chronicles Stedman's journey towards knowing and seeing others in their full humanity. He moves from an atheism that "[refused] to entertain the religious lives of those I [cared] about," to one open to learning about those lives and the people living them. He recounts an episode in which, at the height of his anti-religious fervor, he vandalized a church sign. His friend joked that they should target a synagogue next. The probably unwitting anti-Semitism of this comment— and the numerous examples of Islamophobia and other bigotry Stedman cites from his fellow atheists—powerfully illustrates how rigid, uncritical anti-religious sentiment can produce the same bigotry the nonreligious often decry.
Stedman highlights the potential for honest conversation to uncover common ground with two different conversations between himself and young Muslim women. In the earlier encounter, Stedman begins to connect his fear of holding hands with his boyfriend in public with a young woman's experiences of public harassment for wearing hijab. But when she says Allah gives her strength to face such hatred and asks where Stedman gets his strength to face homophobia, he shuts down and ends their conversation. The later encounter goes much differently: Stedman and another Muslim woman bond over "Tightrope," a Brother Ali track that draws the same connection between homophobia and Islamophobia that Stedman shied away from before.
Reading Faitheist, I couldn't help but think about how relevant it is to divisions between and within feminist movements, and to struggles to convince broader audiences of the continued need for gender justice. Many gender justice activists do work that is intimately bound up with religion and spirituality: bell hooks, Native scholar Andrea Smith, womanist theologian Renita Weems, and queer theologian Patrick Cheng, just to name a few. Unfortunately, hostile attitudes and basic ignorance about religion and the role it plays in the lives of many people often alienates communities that could be natural allies to "mainstream" feminisms (that is to say, the most visible feminisms).
How much opportunity to build robust feminist coalitions is wasted because so many feminists fail, as Stedman once did, to recognize the critical role Black churches continue to play as centers of support and activism in Black communities? Or because mainstream feminism continues to overlook and speak for "oppressed" women in Islam, rather than standing with Muslim women already doing feminist work in their own communities? There's a deep disconnect between "feminism" and people who are doing feminist and womanist work in religious contexts, much to the detriment of all of our efforts.
Faitheist is an exercise in the very act of sharing story and working towards human connection that grounds Chris Stedman's interfaith humanism. It's an atheist manifesto for respectful dialogue about faith, and a secular work written in the time-honored genre of spiritual testimony and confessional. In the spirit of Faitheist - and intersectionality - we might all benefit from opening our ears and minds to hear from fellow feminists coming from different faith perspectives, whether it's reading Crunk Feminists on faith and sex, following a Muslim feminist blog, learning about Ada Marìa Isasi-Díaz ("the mother of mujerista theology"), or taking in a reflection from a transfeminist rabbi. And if you're religious, maybe check out something written by those of us who are agnostic or atheist. Let's create a feminism where faitheists, the faithful, and everyone in between can find common ground on which to build the world we want to see.
Read more feminism critiques of new atheism in our article The Unbelievers, from the Reverb issue of Bitch. The above illustration, by Ryan Brown, is from that article.
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