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