Chris Stedman: The Prophet
By Sam Lansky
Photography by Alex Dakoulas
When the writer Chris Stedman secured a book deal in 2010, his mother was so proud that she wanted to gush to the women at the gym she attends in her rural Minnesota town. There was just one problem: the subject matter.
“She has no concerns about telling them that my book is about my being gay, or that it talks about my work with Muslims,” says Stedman. “It’s when she gets to the part about how I’m an atheist that she’s afraid. The reactions are so polarized.”
In a country that has enshrined in its constitution the concept of God-given or divine rights, that’s perhaps no surprise. A 2010 study showed that atheists are America’s least-trusted minority, ranking well below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups; they’re also the minority group religious Americans are least likely to support their children in marrying.
That divide between atheists and the religious is where Stedman operates. A gay evangelical Christian-turned-atheist and a chaplain at the Humanist Community Project at Harvard University, Stedman looks like what your grandmother thinks hipsters look like: rangy-framed and bearded, covered in tattoos, his earlobes stretched with plugs. His first book, a memoir-cum-manifesto titled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious, was published last November. He is 25 years old. And yet in his own community, among the atheists he seeks to represent, he is widely reviled -- in fact, it’s sometimes hard to work out who Stedman alienates most, the religious or the atheists who resent his concessions to the faithful.
“The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world,” Stedman says. “It’s also rife with religious illiteracy. People are more vocal about what they believe and encounter religious diversity at increasing rates, but they know less and less about it. The chasm between atheists and the religious is increasingly polarized, and without engaged relationships across lines of difference, people don’t know how to respond when conflict arises. Atheists are demonized, and they demonize the religious in return. In the media, violence and religion go hand in hand, just as atheism and anger have become synonymous for many.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those angry atheists have not taken kindly to Stedman, who has been savaged online. Read his work in spaces like Salon and The Huffington Post, and the comments sections are littered with posts like this:
“He’s a self-aggrandizing, dishonest little shit who has a habit of throwing atheists under the bus to make inroads with the religious.”
“How softly would be enough to get Stedman to relinquish his iron-clad grip on his pearls?”
“He’s an Uncle Tom, a direct enabler of theocratic power, religious privilege, and atheophobia.”
And, chillingly: “I say we kill Stedman.”
Of course, among the commentariat, death threats and name-calling are standard, but the vitriol hurtled in Stedman’s direction is sharper and more erudite than the work of the average troll. Those remarks come by way of his fellow atheists, generally a cerebral and well-educated group, who loathe Stedman’s willingness to engage with the faithful. To be so alienated from that community after his long road there seems a particularly cruel twist. Even his status as a self-identified atheist has been called into question. “People have said that I’m not an atheist, or I’m secretly religious, or that I’m not actually gay,” he says.
But Stedman was always an outsider, with one foot in and one foot out of the communities by which he wanted to be embraced wholly -- even in his studies in religion, first at Augsberg College and later in the masters program at the University of Chicago, where he was the odd atheist out in classes comprised largely of God-believing students.