Identity or Value?: On Chris Stedman’s “Faitheist” and Religious Monuments

When a friend gave me blogger Chris Stedman’s new book Faitheist, I was skeptical at first. The quick, attention-grabbing writing that makes for a good blog post or op-ed column can feel flippant and shallow when the author uses it for a couple hundred pages. However, Chris Stedman makes the jump from screen to page with grace, managing to weave together an argument for greater interfaith engagement with his own life narrative. (Disclosure: Stedman is the emeritus managing director of State of Formation, but I have no personal connection with him.)

Stedman seeks to find a middle ground between “New Atheism” – which he finds to be “toxic, misdirected, and wasteful” – and religious fundamentalism that defines a group by who it excludes. While the book’s primary goal is to offer a rejoinder to New Atheism’s resistance to dialogue with faith communities, Stedman’s life history and feelings towards religion, especially conservative Christian churches, comprise about three-quarters of the book. While writing a memoir in your mid-twenties could be written off as narcissistic, superfluous, or [insert token critique of millennials here], Stedman’s experience is integral to the broader aims of the book. By the time Stedman gets to the book’s final chapter, a summary of arguments for and against atheist engagement in interreligious dialogue, it doesn’t feel like a total departure from the rest of the book.

I returned to Stedman’s book this week after reading about the first atheist monument on U.S. government property, unveiled last month in Starke, Florida. The monument was built in response to the local Community Men’s Fellowship’s installation of a monument displaying the Ten Commandments. A lawsuit followed soon after, ending in the creation of what Bradford County attorney Terry Brown called “a venue for freedom of speech, where everybody could express their selves and express their beliefs.”

In the introduction to his book, Stedman writes that we should seek to build communities founded on “shared values rather than shared identity.” Opening up the square to any monument is a simple and fair solution to the legal problem, but it doesn’t help advance the conversation or lead to any kind of mutual understanding. This is because the monuments are primarily markers of identity. The Christian group has its monument. The atheist community has its monument. To use an old phrase, “I’m good if you’re good.”

Instead, what would it look like if we took Stedman’s advice and built monuments of our values instead of monuments to identity? My hunch is that if we did, we would notice two things. First, we would define ourselves not by who is in and who is out, but by what we do. If we focused on our values as much as we focused on our identity, we would likely start working to help others, hopefully those who don’t identify as part of our group. Second, we would likely find that we have more shared values with the people behind the other monument than we initially thought. Identity is far more divisive than values.

I agree with Terry Brown, who said that the courtyard must be a venue where “everybody could express their selves and express their beliefs.” But we shouldn’t confuse putting up monuments with real engagement. What we need is a willingness to listen and a dose of humility, not monuments that turn our courtyards into silent shouting matches. What we need is people, not monuments, who can not only express their beliefs, but work to understand those of others.


Credit flickr user davemuscato

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5 thoughts on “Identity or Value?: On Chris Stedman’s “Faitheist” and Religious Monuments

  1. The expression “silent shouting matches” captures perfectly the proliferation of monuments.

  2. Great piece!

    I to held mixed reactions to the atheist monument. Like you – not in that I was made uncomfortable; rather, it appeared I be a tit-for-tat response, rather than a reaching dialogue towards.

    ‘Instead, what would it look like if we took Stedman’s advice and built monuments of our values instead of monuments to identity?’ — Astutely driven home.

    I empathize with the atheist community, however, especially in overwhelmingly Christian Florida. When a community is marginalized for so long, who are WE to question their desire to have accurate, and equal, representation in public domain?

    Having read Fatheist with great admiration (alike yours), I agree that Stedman’s approach of with/and is certainly more fruitful than a ‘We get this space TOO’ approach, which is how the monument may/will be interpreted.

    I wonder: what would the most authentic, transparent, and intentional INTERFAITH monument look like?

    Many thank for your post!

  3. I appreciate your thoughts, though I’ve not read Steadman’s book. But I have worked with interfaith groups for twenty years. Acting together on our common values is surprisingly challenging, especially when so many will not even come to the table because particular “others” are there. (Including others like me who lead congregations that welcome atheists, agnostics and humanists.). But we do manage to do good work together and learn from one another.

    I was tempted to reply cynically to your post and say that monuments to our values are all over the place — huge sports stadiums, deeply entrenched poverty, racial and class division… But I know those aren’t the values you meant.

  4. Rev. Lynch,
    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your insight, especially given your experience doing interfaith work. I agree with you that the monuments that say the most about our culture aren’t the ones we call attention to, but the ones that we don’t question. Thanks for providing me with a new perspective and something to think about.

  5. Dear Joseph, thank you for your kind reception of my thoughts. I have a great love for interfaith work, and consider it a key part of my work as a clergy-person. My current local interfaith group includes a gentleman from thsde Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, the first LDS person I’ve ever seen join in this work. We’re blessed to share in the joys and struggles across many lines of difference. Thank you for your good words and good work.

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