Chris Stedman was an Evangelical Christian who eventually came out twice: once as gay and once as an atheist.
Stedman, the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and Values in Action coordinator for the Humanist Community, will speak about the importance of uniting theists and atheists at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture today in the Hall of Philosophy.
As mentioned in his book, Faitheist, Stedman didn’t immediately come to terms with his new beliefs. There was no exact moment when his faith disappeared, but the pain was still pointed. He missed God. He felt guilt for his beliefs. With no role models that shared these beliefs, he felt alone.
“When I was in college, it would have been very helpful to have a person I could talk to that could say, ‘I’ve experienced something similar — here’s how I reacted when I did,’ ” Stedman said.
His work at Harvard involves large-scale gatherings of people of multiple faiths to discuss a path for a better world. A lot of this work engages college students, who don’t often feel old or wise enough to bring their voices to the conversation.
“I do think millennials, who are consistently told to value diversity and see it as a positive thing, have the potential to transform the conversation about religious differences and what they mean,” he said.
Stedman believes all voices are equally important to the discussion, even those who disagree.
After a lecture he gave at a university, a woman approached Stedman. She told him that a demon was living within him that made him the way he was.
The woman’s words stung. He felt frustrated, itching to spit back angrily how wrong she was.
But an angry response is exactly what Stedman fights against.
“I am not convinced that there are any divine or supernatural forces in the world,” he said. “Because of that, I think that it’s up to human beings to work together to solve the problems that we face.”
So instead of arguing, he paused. He thanked her for approaching him with such unabashed honesty.
“I know that can be really difficult, especially when you think the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to hear what you have to say,” he told her.
She was surprised. Perhaps she had expected a confrontation, a rage-filled response that would confirm her beliefs about the demon inside him. Instead, the woman was able to see that she could actually have a conversation with someone she didn’t agree with.
“Now she has another point of reference for atheists and queer people,” Stedman said. “She has to put flesh on the bones. She can’t just base her perspective off what other people say about queer people or atheists.”
By sharing his story and asking others to do the same, Stedman hopes to humanize these issues and unite people both with and without faith.
“[People’s] experiences, though they may be radically different,” he said, “have the potential to resonate with you in a way that simply talking about religious disagreements in a theoretical way often cannot.”