“What is most personal is most universal.” So said the great psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. I saw this principle confirmed years ago in my personal growth workshops. When people who were feeling lonely and isolated told their personal stories, they were often surprised by the way other group members empathized, identified, and responded.
Today I finished reading a highly personal memoir that will speak to a great many people – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The author, Chris Stedman, is smart and passionate. He is also ruthlessly honest, even about his own faults. With this combination of brains, intensity, and candor, it’s not surprising that he sometimes takes unusual risks. During a high school retreat, for example, he got up the nerve to tell his classmates why he’d taken course-work at a community college that year: Because of being gay, he said, “I didn’t feel safe here.” He received a standing ovation, led by a fellow named Nate, a popular athlete that Chris had assumed would look down on him. Afterward Nate “approached me and gave me a hug. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, dude, but that was brave’” (pp. 80-81).
Even when we don’t identify with someone’s actions or ideas, we may admire that person’s courage.
It also takes courage to criticize both religious and non-religious viewpoints, running the risk of being sniped at from both directions. A religion teacher said to Stedman, “‘When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation — why can’t you just call that God?’” Chris replied, ‘Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?’” (P. 123)
Chris has also critiqued prominent atheists and atheist organizations. At his first atheist conference he heard “speeches comparing religion to sexually transmitted diseases. It was, for me, a nightmare. … I called friends of mine back home — atheists, no less — and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: ‘You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist” (p. 145).
Stedman wrote an article suggesting that organized atheism often talks about religion in ways that deepen divisions. After it appeared in the Washington Post, he got “unexpected feedback. ‘This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,’ wrote one reader” (p. 138).
Faitheist contains several other remarkable stories of risk and (mostly) reward. It’s a moving and readable memoir, highly recommended for theists, atheists, agnostics alike.
Roger Christan Schriner
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