THE BLOG
01/02/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

'Faitheist': Social Change Through Storytelling

The first thing I tell people about Chris Stedman's "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious" is that it made me cry, and books don't make me cry. But there I was -- in public no less -- teary-eyed and puffy-cheeked as I read someone else's encounter with conservative evangelical Christianity and subsequent deconversion. It sounded strikingly similar to my own.

Like Chris, I grew up evangelical despite my family's relaxed attitude about religion. Like Chris, I found friends and community in my church. And, like Chris, I was devastated when I lost them. Chris and I were both driven to God because of our dedication to justice and, when we lost our faith, those convictions remained in us both. After an awkward intellectual adolescence spent hating the religious, we both gravitated toward an atheism that prioritized ending suffering and injustice over feeling cognitively superior to our religious neighbors.

These similarities -- though they made me quite emotional -- didn't make me cry. What did was the vignette of a young Christian boy shaking on the floor of his shower contemplating suicide with a knife in hand, while feeling that he'd failed himself, his faith and even suicide when he couldn't go through with it. This scene captured the darkness, loneliness and desperation that characterized my own religious doubts.

The existing literature on atheism is overwhelmingly rose-tinted: science is wonderful, the world is wonderful and being liberated from religious baggage is wonderful. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. When you have cognitive ties to religious belief but new circumstances challenge them, the experience can be petrifying and altogether consuming.

At a young age, Chris knew two things for certain: He liked boys and he believed in Christ. When these two facts seemed to be at odds with each other, there was turmoil, not liberation. Though Chris' crisis reflected the struggle that occurs at the intersection of being queer and being Christian, it generalizes well for those who have struggled at all with their faith. For me, the scene evoked memories of the cold sweat contemplating Hell would leave me in as I wondered how I could possibly save all of my non-Christian friends in middle school. It also evoked the terror of reconciling the absolute, universal suffering of humanity with an ostensibly omnipotent God. Feeling like you can't measure up to the standards your religion demands is not liberating. Doubting your faith is not fun. It is often emotionally and cognitively taxing in the extreme, and "Faitheist" is the first account I've read that doesn't paint over this fact. This is not to say that to doubt is to be without hope. After accepting his doubts and developing his atheism, Chris, like me, found his irreligion to be a source of optimism -- a base that encouraged him to live happily and help others to do the same.

Some critics of "Faitheist" have noted Chris' age: Why should we bother reading a memoir written by a 24-year-old? His age may seem like a deficiency, but it is actually a key feature of the book. "Faitheist" is part of a biographical tradition which emphasizes the importance of everybody's story. Everyone's experiences are worthwhile, and when we share them, we can fight the foundations of prejudice, inequality and hatred. In this way, "Faitheist" addresses a fundamental problem with diversity in America: our inability to relate and engage with people who differ from us.

At Tufts, I work under the Dean of Student Affairs as part of a student task force to both respond to and prevent acts of intolerance which target an individual or a group identity (be it race, sexuality or otherwise). We recently sent out a survey to the student body to find out what their perspectives and experiences were on topics ranging from identity representation amongst Tufts faculty, to hook up culture and beyond. One of our questions asked students to rate the frequency of their interactions with people of races different from their own; if they answered that their multi-racial interactions were limited, they were then invited to write what obstacles might prevent them from such interaction. There was a recurring theme in the answers provided: people of other races are just too different. Students suggested that the attitudes, values and even humor of people of different races were completely incompatible with their own. So, writing off entire races as alien and not engaging with them was seen as excusable.

I don't buy this rationale. It is simply ludicrous to suggest that entire races or cultures are not only homogenous and uniform, but also irreconcilable with others. Something else is at play here, and it was captured by a one-word answer provided by a student. They said that the obstacle keeping them from connecting with students of different backgrounds was simply this: "fear."

It's too easy to say that those who are different from us are just too different. It's too easy to push the "others" to the margins and doom ourselves to the desert of only interacting with the familiar. But the luxury of segregation has clear consequences for real Americans.

Tufts likes to market itself as a "diverse" university. Here, you'll meet students with unimaginably interesting backgrounds and lived experiences that will captivate and inspire. However, to many of us this so-called diversity feels stale. Students of different cultures flourish in bubbles perfectly cordoned off from each other. As a result, our student body is illiterate to even the most basic facts about communities they don't belong to, let alone their many intricacies. This ignorance breeds intolerance. Because we may not come into contact with racial minorities, we justify this absence as the result of some failing on their part and construct elaborate myths about how strange they must be. These results seem to be in line with national trends relating to religion. We don't engage with religious minorities, and we believe them to be fundamentally dissimilar to ourselves. Less than one in five of all Americans think that Islam is at all similar to their own religion. As many as 43 percent of Americans will acknowledge feeling prejudiced toward Muslim Americans and 43 percent of American Muslims report experiencing hostility. And yet, with all of this animus directed at this religious minority, less than half of Americans even know someone who is Muslim. Interestingly, knowing an American Muslim negatively correlates with these distressing statistics. The implication is clear: if we know someone of a marginalized identity, and if we actively engage with him or her in our community, it is harder for us to vilify his or her identity.

Like Tufts, America is diverse. However, this diversity occurs in safe, isolated pockets that are stagnant and unengaged with one another. Diana Eck, religious scholar and founder of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, notes that diversity is nothing to be proud of. Diversity is the description of a community, like Tufts or America, where people of different beliefs or backgrounds happen to be in the same location. Pluralism, rather, is the "active seeking of understanding across lines of difference." It is this engagement that breaks down barriers and guards against prejudice. If we want to make pluralism, rather than diversity, a descriptive fact of our community, we need emissaries to navigate cultural boundaries. We need to invite others inside our communities and show them what we value. And we need storytellers.

"Faitheist" works to end this ideological segregation. Chris humanizes atheism by sharing his life and his values; he aims to end the cycle of isolation and tribalism by encouraging others to contribute their own story to our collective narrative. The more we get to know each other, the more our prejudices will dissolve. Toward the end of the book, he notes: "The moment I shared my story as an atheist, others felt more comfortable sharing their own." "Faitheist" isn't just a memoir; it's a continuation of the biographical heritage established by "Roots", "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Hiroshima" -- the books that informed Chris about the radical depths of human suffering and inspired his dedication to justice -- but it is also the predecessor to a new generation of compassionate voices articulating their beliefs while serving humanity. Chris' model of interfaith engagement and storytelling will, I believe, make my university and my country better places -- places where diversity actually means something.