|Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry|
Here's a list of observations, going generally in order of the book, but also somewhat, in the later ones, in order of imporance once I get to the meet of the book. First, those observations on the book, then the rest of my original post, followed by other, earlier updates at bottom.
1. He doesn't use the phrase, but Chris clearly was an "old soul" as a kid. I relate. He was also naive as a kid, at times, it seems. Maybe even clueless. I also relate.However, he also doesn't always seem aware of that in hindsight, which is a bit different, and relates to his joining that church. On the other hand, maybe he is aware of today. Maybe it's part of a persona. Yes, my thought is going more that way.
2. The first time he visited, he talks about how felt "moved" by the embrace from the "welcomer," and he later notes that was probably a budding gay sexuality issue. However, he never explicitly says that that was part of why he joined the church. Is this an ellipsis of deliberateness of some sort? Or has it not occurred to Chris?
3. He joined this church for community. Only later did social justice drives arise. Since he had gotten his mom more interested in church then, why didn't they go back to her family's Methodism? We're not given any story here. Nor, if we want to find out more, are we given the name of the presumably nondenominational conservative evangelical church.
4. His dad gets almost no mention. Yes, his parents divorced, but it seems Chris as at least 10 when that happened. What was, and is, their relationship? Good, bad, nonexistent? Simon Davis, in one of the longer reviews mentioned below, faults Chris for not telling how any of his academic religious background influenced him, as far as naming particular religious names, etc. I'll go further. I'll ding him for not discussing in any way relations with is dad. Per other comment by Davis, it makes the book more depersonalized. Sorry, Chris, and please, don't even give the "Minnesota nice" excuse as to why you didn't talk about him.
5. Another family issue. If Chris had gotten his mom more involved at that conservative evangelical church, how did she know to have him talk to this particular liberal Lutheran minister immediately after she read his journal? Did she already suspect he was gay? Chris gives us no background.
5A. And, according to a recent Facebook post of his on Oct. 21, 2013 (and, it's posted "public," so I'm OK to use it) he talks about "Growing up nonreligious." He does so elsewhere. From the book, it seems like, even before his own decision to join the evangelical church, that he grew up flitting in and out of religion more than anything. Anyway, back to the thread of main point 5 ...
6. This too, reflects an odd "depersonalization" of the book. None of his siblings are named. None of their reactions to his "journey" are related to us. For that matter, neither is his mom's reaction. The more and more I think about some of the "depersonalization" aspects of the book, not just vis-a-vis his family but primarily there (see blogger Davis' comments about Stedman seemingly so detached from his academic influences), I wound up dropping my Goodreads review rating by a star.
7. Was Chris really "that much" of an atheist in his early years after "coming out"? Several things in teh book tell me now. He says that, at the end of his undergrad time at Augsburg, he felt jealous of progressive theologians, and he felt angry that he couldn't be and believe the same. He went to a graduate divinity school. And, after getting to Chicago, he only discovers "atheist community" after a full year of active involvement with Interfaith Youth Core? (One great blog review, below, picks up on that.)
Chris, Minneapolis is a big and diverse enough place that, had you done some simple Googling, you surely could have found something there. Considering that "community" was the primary reason you joined that conservative evangelical church, I find another disconnect here, to put it a bit mildly. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you. And, related to that (and before any interaction with folks like American Atheists) we have:
8. A comment like this, page 130, my emphasis at end:
Anyone who looked remotely religious ... was given a suspicious sideways glance by my nonreligious friends as they went outside for their continual cigarette breaks.Sorry, but I find that last clause gratuitous, and you're a good enough writer I can't quite believe that just somehow got there. I wouldn't quite call it snide, but it's gratuitous with baggage, let's say that.
9. Per the branding angle, I'm wondering if Davis isn't right about Chris' claim to be "fashionably underdressed" at the secularist event in Chicago in chapter 1 of the book. I see that claim to be possibly "branding" related, if it's not totally correct. As in, "Look at my, the green around the ears kid." Other parts of that incident are ... interesting, too. Chris never says why he took his shoes off when he entered the apartment hosting the post-event soiree, and if others did or not.
10. Per the branding angle, in another way. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you, at least not until after extensive involvement with Interfaith Youth Core; is there a marketing/branding related issue? This is about the time that Eboo Patel gets you on the Washington Post religion pages blogging, about the time Greg Epstein of Harvard gets in touch with you, etc.
Some of this may have been luck, fortuitous circumstances, etc. Some of it may have been a conscious decision, as in "I need to investigate atheism as community as part of my next steps and moves." But ... there's little discussion of that. (Yet another illustration of how the book is relatively "thin." Or, per the "story" issue below, of how the story telling is selective.)
11. Like Davis, below, Chris' use of the word "queer" is a bit interesting, especially in light of his criticizing Gnu Atheists for, among other things, being a bit too much in the faces of the religious. From what I know of the LGBT world, perhaps not to the same degree, but I think "queer" has a bit of that itself. It's interesting that he starts using the word in his story (go near the bottom for more of the "story" angle) just after accepting that he's gay, and disengaging from that conservative church.
12. Finally, there's the matter of luck, and hard work/drivenness. Chris merely hints at it, but, below his Minnesota Nice, there seems to be a Type A personality scrambling to climb ladders. There is also a definite bit of luck, like landing the position with Interfaith Youth Core, then having the likes of a Greg Epstein contact him back, after his Type A "push" started. This all ties in with the marketing/branding angle I see in the book.
So, too does the fact that Stedman has a Facebook page just for the book. If he had enough followers that his personal Facebook were converted by Facebook into an official page, that would be one thing.
Add in this Out magazine profile of Stedman, which has the "hagiographic" photo (trust me, with or without that particular cloud backdrop, whether actual clouds or not, I've shot pictures like that before) also adds to ... my image of Chris Stedman, interfaitheist rock star or whatever. And, the angles he and the story takes tie in with Zach Alexander's blog review below.
At least one FB friend common to Chris and I probably won't like the review. But, it is what it is. And, with a strong marketing push for the book, and it getting a lot of attention in the atheist and skeptic blogosphere, and me having seen some of that (like the reviews below), it was going to get a close read from me. And, not just the book, but the Faitheist brand, and the brander, were going to get that close look too.
Beyond critiquing the book as it interacts with branding, and a particular way to do non-Gnu atheism, the "depersonalization" makes it not a very good memoir coming from wherever, whomever, for whatever reasons. If it didn't have the Faitheist angle, would it get any buzzplay at all?
Anyway, on to other reviews, detailed below the fold, about both Stedman and the book:
Like his other writing and interfaith work, Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue between people of faith and people who have none. Given the strong anti-theistic sentiments common currently in movement atheism and the atheist blogosphere, this has not too surprisingly made Stedman a somewhat controversial figure in atheist circles. Some place him as part of an established narrative—a proposed distinction between atheist “firebrands and diplomats.”“We need both,” it is often said, “firebrands and diplomats.” Working together—the soft sell and the hard sell, the good cop and the bad—these complementary approaches may do more to bring down religion than either prong of the attack may accomplish on its own. “We’re all part of the same movement,” say these voices. “We all want the same thing.”But that’s just it. We don’t all want the same thing.The radical function of Stedman’s Faitheist is to underline that rarely-stated truth. Atheism is actually not a duopoly of firebrands and diplomats. These two types of evangelists no more describe “both kinds” of atheist than “country and western” describes “both kinds” of music.Stedman explicitly rejects “the demise of religion” as a goal he does not share, and rejects the firebrands versus diplomats dichotomy as well. “I believe how pushy should we be? is the wrong question,” he writes. The better question is how do we make the world a better place?
The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”
I think this is a key to Stedman’s thinking. My armchair psychoanalysis is he has a god-shaped hole in his psyche which he’d like to fill but can’t because he intellectually rejects gods. Religion is emotionally satisfying for him but intellectually without basis. Hence his interfaith work and his criticisms of anti-theist atheists like PZ Myers and the other gnu atheists. We reject the totality of religion while he embraces the emotional (and possibly the social) aspects. He likes religion (except for the god parts) so he’s angry at those who don’t like it.
In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. … After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.He then attends a (sic) Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir.
Zack Alexander, like me, wonders just how committed Stedman is to the core values of atheism and skepticism. That starts here:
Yet there is a persistent sense that Chris, if not quite an alien from outer space, is still not one of us. That there is not just a difference of opinion, but a deeper disjunct in values, or experiences of reality, which no one can quite put their finger on. It is telling that Chris does not merely disagree with his critics; he is shocked by them (5). And that we, his critics, do not merely disagree with some of his statements; we are flabbergasted by them.Alexander seems, perhaps unconsciously on his part, to also reflect the "depersonalization" disconnect the book has. He also could, but doesn't, note that Chris lets much of the "shocked" be communicated through surrogates. He does, though, pick up the "disconnect" idea and then takes that thought here:
The source of the alienness felt between Chris and much of the atheist community, myself included, is this: he values compassion and social justice to a remarkable, exemplary degree, yet places almost no value on the epistemological virtues near and dear to most in the atheist movement, such as rationality, skepticism, and the scientific method.Well put. And continuing:
In passage after passage, he rightly preaches compassion and decries injustice, but is conspicuously silent on reason. ... He minimizes belief in the afterlife as “benign” (24). He voices no epistemic discomfort with several factually unsupportable statements thrust upon him by religious leaders as a child (38, 57-58). He talks about children “losing or changing their faith” almost as though this were a bad thing (128).Bluntly, I'll explain this in terms of his "target audience" for his marketing. Sorry, Barbara Drescher, but reading Zach has now firmly convinced me of that. Chris' target audience is his fellow "Minnesota nice" religious Lutherans and similar. And that's why he was so angry, earlier. Since he doesn't highly value rationalism, it seems, what DID lead him to atheism? He does talk about his decision in rational terms, but again, oh so briefly. Sorry, Simon Davis, in comments, but that might be another way in which you're too charitable. He says he struggled rationally over the issue, but, once again, provides no details! Zip. Zilch. Nada.
This comment by Alexander (his emphasis) also goes to the issue of "target audience":
It explains the single most baffling, dumbfounding fact about the book. That a professional atheist could, with a straight face, ask nonreligious, faithless people to engage themselves in “religious pluralism” and “interfaith work” – a hard enough sell as it is – without making the slightest attempt to find more atheist-inclusive terms for these activities. There are no words. No, really – when I realized the full extent of this, I sat dumbstruckBoom. Target audience.
One other thing, also per Alexander. We who are both atheist and humanist, who don't demonize religion and don't have a lot of use for Gnus, don't need to put all our marketing/image/outreach eggs in one basket. Mr. Alexander, himself, sounds like he's done some "lifting" while being both atheist and inside his original religious tradition of Quakerism, for example.
Others will work with the religious at least on church-state issues while remaining fully atheist and fully skeptical. (And, while there are plenty of pseudoskeptics out there, there are plenty of good, real ones too.)
OK, after that looong "first," I do have other enumerated sections of comment.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. He lives in Boston.
More thoughts, and updates, below the fold:
Updated, Dec. 19: Stedman responds to some concerns of some Gnu Atheists with a guest post at Friendly Atheist. I think he at least partially addresses the anti-Gnu issues that Davis raised, and may have been gnat-mining or nit-picking to find, per this original post and Barbara's comment.
Running update thread. Four hours later, Chris hasn't responded to my comments. At the same time, most of the Gnu Atheist respondents to his post are not reading him, deliberately misreading him, or both. Some of them do have a point that Chris may be too charitable to non-fundamentalists for not “calling out” fundamentalists more. At the same time, I think many of the commenters show that he's also too charitable to too many Gnus.
Updated, Dec. 28, 2012: Per his musings here, it seems that Stedman's family of origin moved quickly past conservative evangelicalism, as far as how religious they really were, if Santa, not Jesus was normally the center of the holiday. Between this and my comments dialogue with Simon Davis, I'd say that Davis may just be a bit of a gnat-strainer at times. At the same time, I think, per Stedman's background influences, Chris' blog post indicates Simon raises some interesting questions.
One particular thing I find interesting that Davis missed noticing and I did just now ... Chris claims he joined an evangelical church because he was interested in social justice. However, he says he came from UU background, and any liberal who knows anything about American religion knows that Unitarians are quite, quite active in social justice. So, something just doesn't quite square up, although it is possible Chris was at a "bad" UU congregation.
This part of the mystery deepens with a review of the book by Utne Reader. I am assuming the review is quoting the book when it says he:
(W)anted ... a framework for making sense of injustice and suffering.That's a bit different than wanting social justice. There, a UU church would make more sense. Wanting a black-and-white, just-so story theodicy, yes, a conservative evangelical church would make more sense.
OK, in this op-ed in the Advocate, extracted from the book, Chris said he had joined the evangelical church at the encouragement of friends and because he was looking for some sort of "home" as his parents' marriage foundered. Makes sense; our childhood peer-friends can have strong influences. But, how much sense it makes, given that he doesn't talk more about his childhood, I don't know.
He then says he considered suicide, after this church told him being gay was unacceptable. His mother eventually found his journal, told him she loved him unconditionally, then got him to another minister who said god felt the same.
Some questions answered, others remain.
Could Stedman not have gone back to UUs rather than atheism? Did he not ask theodicy-related questions in the first place?
What I appreciated most about this book was Stedman’s insistence on the power of one’s personal story.Indeed, it would not surprise me if I were to hear in a decade from now that Stedman had become a Buddhist. Or reidentified as an "agnostic" or a "None." Nor would it surprise me if he took the "faitheist" idea in new directions, including marketing and branding ones. I could mention one, if he became an agnostic, but, it might sound crude and bigoted coming from a straight person, though some gays embrace the root word. Anyway, it will be in part about his life as "story," which also is the reason the idea of twentysomethings writing memoirs doesn't really float my boat.
So, to me the "spiritual move" possibility comes from a mix of his age and his apparent impressionability I note above. I am also wondering how impressionable he is, or was.
And, per my comment about the former atheist student from Harvard, Stedman strikes me as being a bit of a seeker, if you will, maybe even the type of person St. Augustine had in mind when talking about restless hearts staying restless until finding rest in god. Of course, America is full of "seekerism." It's part of the American cultural DNA, I think, with a nod to Tocqueville.
Update, Jan. 9, 2013: I'm also a bit disappointed that Stedman never responded to my FB comment on a post of his, asking for enlightenment on a couple of these questions. Also a bit disappointed that he never responded to any of the more enlightened comments on the Friendly Atheist post. That said, per comments on Davis' post by people like FB friend Kris Wager, I'm realizing this is normal ... ignoring criticism and critiques until, when deemed necessary, letting special "others" do the lifting for him. He does seem to have plenty of time to update his own website for the book with all the encomia he and it are getting. That said, I don't think he answered all of Davis' questions, either, so I'm not alone.
(Sub-update, Feb. 23: And, the first of those "others," Vlad Chituc, who co-blogs on Chris' blog and has other connections with him, has done the first "lifting" on my Amazon review of the book. As I told Vlad, between his actual critique of my critique, knowing the connection, and other things, his comments mean bupkis to me. Frankly, I don't think he really "engaged" me at all. Other than to call me a "nobody-blogger" while accusing me of making ad hominem statements myself. Chris, if that's an example of critical thinking from an attack dog, then Zack Alexander is right. And, "dude," if you want to talk about intellectual, and moral, laziness, becoming a vegan for just 40 days, yet allegedly for high principles, qualifies indeed; it matters not whether the 40 days perfectly overlap Christian Lent or not. As for everybody at Chris' blog doing it, including Chris, it sounds a little bit like some of these "Messianic" Christian congregations picking up about 3 percent of Jewish practice. And, proof that part of "faitheism" is about "branding"? This USA Today story on "Faitheist Lent" didn't write itself, nor did the idea magically pop up out of nowhere. And per the idea that Chris lets others do the heavy lifting at times, especially on confrontation, he quickly ducked out from his own FB page posting, saying he had spring break related stuff.)
At the same time, contra the "accommodationist" label that some Gnu Atheists like to throw around, as he (and others) show regarding Kyrsten Sinema, he's not afraid to stand up for atheism, either, it seems. Or, per Zack Alexander, he's making sure to keep good branding on both sides of the aisle. And, to be honest, I think it's at least 50 percent the latter.
Anyway, I've read the book ... and, as I said, found it oddly depersonalized and disconnected. If that, too, is a branding decision, it's sad. If that reflects childhood issues he hasn't (and won't?) discuss, that's sad in another way. Were this a dissertation for a Ph.D. at Mead-Lombard, it would very possibly get an "incomplete" grade.
And, part of my observations about Chris also relate to Vlad, and perhaps a bit to everbody at Non Prophet Status, based on my observations about their Leten "denial."
Beyond the triteness, as well as intellectual laziness, over Lent mentioned above, though, seems to be intellectual confusion, uncertainty or similar. Chituc says elsewhere he wants to use the label of humanism for a "community," even though he says he thinks it's ambiguous as a philosophy. There and in the post behind it, it seems like he's struggling for cohesion.
This is why, when it comes to philosophy, one should never trust anyone UNDER 30. Like Stedman, I suspect the best label for Chituc is "seeker," not atheist. Call me back in five years; I've otherwise read enough.
And, a final, for now, thought. Out of curiosity, I checked not my blog's page hits, but my Technorati rank, and I'm now one of the top 200 blogs for religion. And also contra Chituc's comments at Amazon, this post, allowing for renaming with the "extensively updated" added, is now in the 10 most popular posts of all time for this blog.
Update, Nov. 7, 2013: The PR blitz continues. Stedman just had an interview with Policy Mic magazine, which characterized a book that came out a little more than a year ago as "recently released." (I Tweeted the author to enlighten him, if he wants to be.)