As far as labels go, “Faitheist” is not so bad

I’ve struggled with the word “atheist”.  It’s accurate; I don’t believe in God.  Strictly speaking, that does make me an atheist, so why do I always add a caveat?  (I’ve done it just this week in a blog post.)  In part, I suppose I am a bit of a coward.  I know that word frightens people, so I just avoid it.  But it’s more complicated than that.

The most prominent atheists of our time have largely been individuals who not just didn’t believe in God, but were advocates of an anti-religion movement.  Richard Dawkins, whose The God Delusion is perhaps the most famous modern atheist text, is (in my most humble opinion) quite a bit of a jackass.  While I find value in many of his arguments for the non-existence of God, I find his manner, tone and ultimate goals to be rather detestable.

I am ashamed to admit to my own moments of religion bashing.  When faced with the (primarily Christian) fundamentalist rhetoric in our country, I have reacted and pushed back against organized religion as a whole.  It has been the significant relationships with Christian friends who are open to conversations about faith and morality that have caused me to realize that religion isn’t the problem. 

Enter Chris Stedman and his new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  I didn’t even know how much I wanted this book to exist until I absorbed it within 20 hours of stumbling across it during a book buying binge.

The image to the left is my actual copy of the book, taken so that I can point out the 23 post-it flags sticking out of the pages.  Occasionally I’ll grab a post-it flag to note a quote or passage that I really love – something that I want to highlight when I talk about the book or pass it along to someone else.  I felt compelled to do that 23 different times as I was reading this book.

The book is, at its core, a memoir of Mr. Stedman’s journey from his irreligious childhood, through a born-again Christian period in his early teen years, to an angry, reactive atheism and finally to the realization that by seeking the commonalities in all of us, people of all faiths, beliefs and non-beliefs can come together to accomplish our common goals.

This idea that it is worthwhile to make an intentional effort to find common ground is, to me, the difference between mere diversity and engaged pluralism.

The idea of engaged pluralism is what I’ve been striving and yearning for, admittedly from a more political than religious perspective, in recent months.  We have common goals – prosperity, safety, love – basic ideals that we all want to accomplish, regardless of our political or religious affiliations.  We can’t accomplish them independently, not to mention when we’re in opposition with each other.  We need to come together and find the common ground.

Mr. Stedman’s proposal for how to do that is simple: Learn about each other.  Talk to each other.  Tell your story.

There is so much about this book that I love and long to share and talk about with others.  (I hope that you might buy the book and join me in conversation in the comments.)  The desire to bring atheism out of the darkness and help people to understand that not believing in God does not mean that our moral character is any weaker.  The yearning for conversation across differences with the intention of finding the commonalities.

I also feel as though I’ve been given some language to talk about my own beliefs.  The “faitheism” label was originally bestowed on Mr. Stedman as an insult, but one that he accepted with some pride.  I want to write it across a t-shirt or get it tattooed on my forehead.  The one thing that I was a bit disappointed by in the book – and perhaps in the entire movement – is that the word “faith” continues to be applied to those with a religious affiliation.  It’s just a word, I know, but it’s one that means a lot to me on a deeply personal level.  To me, faith is believing that I have a purpose – even if it is one that I define and not one that is divinely bestowed.

I told a friend of mine today that it was likely that I would be talking about this book ad nauseum for some time to come.  I really hope that I might entice you to join me in that discussion – via blog comments or Facebook (if we happen to be connected personally).

7 thoughts on “As far as labels go, “Faitheist” is not so bad

  1. I am so excited that you posted this. I have been told that the problem with my attitude towards things (life, politics, etc) is due to ‘all those atheists’ I hang around. In actual fact, I have seen more compassion, more openness and more generosity from ‘those atheists’ than I was ever around when I was in a locality-imposed Christian bubble. I was just thinking about this today, actually, about how much I have grown since I have turned my back on mainstream religion, specifically ‘organized’ religion, and I truly feel that I am a much better person now than I was then. Certainly, I now go through life with much less fear, loathing, bigotry, judgment and naivete than I did before!

    • I’m lucky enough to have an amazing, diverse group of friends – including you 🙂 – who are open-minded and open-hearted. But even given that, I’ve been so afraid of being unfairly judged because of the atheist label. It’s amazing to me how much fear exists. That I don’t believe in God doesn’t mean that I have no moral compass.

      In your case, you grew up in a very different environment – and I can only imagine the reaction to having atheist friends in such a fiercely fundamental area. That you’ve come out of that environment with a free, open mind is a testament to the idea that getting to know people who aren’t like you is the key to greater understanding – don’t you think? Not to minimize your unique intelligence and compassion – because those played a MAJOR role – but that you took that intelligence and compassion and sought to learn about others meant that you could truly understand the world beyond that Christian bubble.

      And that I now get to talk to you about your spirituality and beliefs has opened my mind and heart a little bit more with each conversation.

  2. I’m really intrigued by your viewpoints and was wondering if there was a specific catalyst that spurred you in this direction. (Given that I grew up with you and know your family’s Catholic background.) If this is too sensitive to talk about…I apologize ahead of time.

    • Not sensitive at all! I appreciate that you asked.

      I wish I could point to something specific, but to be honest there isn’t one thing. I questioned the Catholic dogma pretty early on, and no one was willing to take on my questions. The Catholic Church is not exactly a great place to argue whether animals are capable of love (the Catholics say no), whether it is important to learn the 10 commandments in order (I refuse to believe that matters), or whether homosexuality is really wrong. And yes, as a kid I found all of those discrepancies between my own beliefs and the Catholic church to be equally important.

      The truth is that I don’t think I’ve ever really believed in God, as much as I wanted to at times. There is a lot that I love about religion and spirituality as a matter of ceremony, structure and discipline – but as much as I tried, I always felt like I was just playing along.

      Within the past ten years or so, I have gone through this period of being really angry at “religion” for the hate and rhetoric that tears our country apart. Interestingly, I never blamed Islam for terrorism – but I blamed Christianity for homophobia, racism and misogyny. And in the end, it’s all just misplaced blame.

      The word “atheist” scared me for a long time – because it scares so many other people. But one day I just decided that I was tired of dancing around the word. It was true, so I was going to own it. (I have a few very close friends who are atheists, and they owned it first.) But I knew that if I was going to use that word, I needed to be educated and articulate about why. So I started to read a lot about religion. (The Evolution of God is a fantastic book. The author is NOT an atheist, but it’s a wonderful historical view of God. I have a list of other resources that are great, if you are interested in reading more on the history of religion.) The more I read, the less I blamed religion for all that is wrong with the world, and realized that it might just be religion that will ultimately be able to repair some of the wrongs.

      Where am I now? I love thinking about God and religion from a historical and social perspective. I can’t deny the impact that the idea of God has had and continues to have on society. More importantly, I have no desire to change anyone else’s mind about their belief in God. If that belief is something that helps you to structure your life, educate your children to be wonderful people and gives you a stable, strong community – go for it. I’m just not going to be playing along.

      Holy crap (pun intended) – this ended up way longer than I expected. I suppose I’m really glad someone asked. 🙂 Thanks, Derra!

  3. Pingback: If I could have been an altar girl, maybe this never would have happened. | chrisbykate

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