Chris Stedman…Just A Little Above Average

Photo Credit Erin Williams

We had initially titled this interview: Chris Stedman…The Prince of Secular Humanism Discusses His Evolving Worldview, Eboo Patel, Teen Suicide and His Love of Britney Spears. But after hours of looking at his pictures and editing the facts, it just didn’t seem right. At the cost of gaining more views or getting more people to read our blog, just in the name of a sensational, attention-grabbing title, we couldn’t do it. It just didn’t fit. Chris never called himself the Prince of Secular Humanism…we did! He’s considerably more humble than to pat his own back let alone identify himself as royalty of religious discussion. In fact, when we spoke with him initially about secular humanism and referred to him as an “expert”, he laughed and corrected us, pointing us to at least five other authors and speakers on the subject.

But after a few months of knowing him we have absolutely no problem complimenting or heralding the young man who could very well be accepting his Noble Peace Prize within the next ten years. And unless you know of him already and have simply come to this interview to find out more about the guy you already love, than you’ve probably never even heard of him. So what is it exactly that makes Chris so interesting?

For starters, he is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He writes and runs his own blog NonProphet Status,writes for the internationally famous blog The Huffington Post, and is the youngest panelist for The Washington Post on Faith. He is also writing a book which will be published in 2012 by Beacon Press. But Besides being a writer, an educator and a highly requested national speaker, what exactly does he do?

Stolen from his blog’s About the Author section, “Chris is an atheist / secular humanist working to foster positive and productive dialogue between faith communities and the nonreligious.” Are you getting the picture yet? To steal yet again from his blog, guest blogger, Walker Bristol, Freshman Representative of the Tufts’ Freethought Society states, “Humanism, as a philosophy, is dedicated to the betterment of the global community as a whole and seeks to dispel discrimination and unfounded bias. Behind Humanist philanthropic efforts and community service projects is a unique commitment to action untainted by goals of conversion or self-promotion.”

And Chris, this 24 year old, tattooed, gaged eared, skinny jean wearing, symbol of sexiness is utilizing academia, pop culture and kindness to bridge the gap between secular and religious identity. When we initially approached him for this interview, stating we wanted to find out more about him because he seemed so interesting, he laughed and said “I’d say that I’m just like anyone else — in fact, I don’t actually handle praise all that well because I see myself as really average, and I live a very average life. I talk about my story not because I think that I’m particularly special, but because I think that everyone has a story to tell, that sharing these stories will make the world a more loving and compassionate place, and that one of the best ways to invite others to talk about their experiences is to share your own. When we exchange stories with one another, I think we discover that we’re not really all that ‘special’ — which is to say, we’re all special, in our own way. But we stop thinking of ourselves as the most important person in the world, and that gives us empathy for other people.

Photo Credit Meadville Lombard Theological School

1. What does it mean to be the “Interfaith and Community Service Fellow” for the Humanist Chaplaincy for Harvard University?
My role at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard is really the first of its kind – it’s a position within an atheist / humanist organization specifically devoted to promoting interfaith cooperation and planning community service. I’m so lucky to have this job, because it marries three of my biggest professional (and personal) interests: building interfaith understanding, cultivating humanist community, and advancing social justice work. My fourth biggest interest is writing, and that’s where my blogging work comes in.

2. At 11, you entered the Evangelical Church and now define yourself as an atheist. What inspired this conversion?
It’s a long story, which is why I’m writing a book about it! But I’ll give you a hint: my conversion to Christianity came shortly after I began to recognize that the world is an imbalanced place – I started reading books like Roots, Hiroshima, The Diary of Anne Frank, and so on – and I was looking for a way to make sense of all of the injustice and suffering in the world. The only folks I heard talking about justice, and about improving the world, were Christians. My conversion also coincided with my parents’ divorce, and church created a community of support that essentially substituted the support I had gotten from my family. So when I began to critically evaluate my conversion later when questioning my faith, I realized that Christianity had never felt like a first language to begin with; that it had been a package deal, but that a belief in God wasn’t true to my roots.

Photo Credit Deanna Mandarino

3. Why is it important for people of religion and atheism to work together? What would you like our readers to learn from your work?

We live in a world sharply divided by religious identity – perhaps most of all along lines of religious and secular identity. Looking at the shouting match in popular discourse, between the so-called “New Atheists” and the “Religious Right,” the idea of identifying common ground between atheists and the religious might seem impossible. But truth be told, there are a lot of shared values we can all rally behind, and I think it is especially important for atheists and the religious to combat the significant misconceptions that exist on either side and attempt to foster understanding and cooperation to work toward resolving the most important issues of our time like poverty, global climate change, HIV/AIDS, and so on.
4. What does it mean to be a “secular humanist”?
There are many different definitions of “humanism,” but in my mind a humanist is anyone – religious or not – who maintains a worldview grounded in reason and guided by compassionate action. I put “secular” before “humanist” to signify that my worldview is specifically naturalistic and nonreligious. To borrow from the title of a recent book by the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Greg Epstein: in short, a secular humanist is someone who believes he or she can be good without God, and who strives to live this way. I prefer “secular humanist” to “atheist” because it suggests something about my values, rather than the mere fact that I do not believe in any gods.

Photo Credit faith and fashion

5. How does being gay contribute to your belief system towards religion?
It’s funny; at various points in my life, I would’ve answered this in very different ways. Hell, I’ll probably answer it differently two months from now. But, right now, I credit the recognition I had at 11 years old that I am queer with setting the course for the work I do now. Being a member of a marginalized community helps me empathize with experiences and worldviews that are different from my own, and I believe that has made me more compassionate. At one point in my life, being gay might’ve contributed to the bitterness I had toward religion and the religious, but now being gay means being deeply and personally invested in active religious pluralism, or the idea that we all – religious or not – need to work to understand one another better. We’re all “other” to someone, and I’d like to see that change.

6. What does being gay mean to you today?
Being queer to me means being a border-crosser and a translator. We occupy liminal spaces in American society and around the world, so we need to know how to navigate fraught intercultural issues, as most of our actions are, in a sense, intercultural exchanges. I think this makes us especially adept at bridging divides – or, at least, it has directly contributed to my sense of feeling empowered to do so.

Photo Credit Natalie Parys

7. If there was a God, what would God be like?
Honestly, I’m not willing to say that I’m absolutely, positively, 100% sure there is no god. However, if there is a god (and that’s a big “if”), I believe that god is an uninvolved one – one that exists, possibly created the world, but has since been mostly “hands-off.” And if such a god exists – and I do see it as a possibility – then I think it really doesn’t matter. If an uninvolved god is out there, it doesn’t concern me one bit. These days, I’m a lot more interested in what is happening in the world around me than whether or not a god exists; about whether people have the things they need to live happily and peacefully. And the kind of god I certainly can’t fathom is one who would condemn people who honestly tried to live and learn the best they could to an eternity of suffering; so if I’m wrong and there actually is a benevolent, loving god, I will welcome being proven wrong with humility and with curious wonder. And maybe a long laugh and a beer.

8. One of the first things we noticed about you was your interesting and eclectic style. How does your style reflect your belief system?
Well, my tattoos each reflect various stages in my evolving worldview… It’s a cheesy metaphor, but I often liken my tattoos to a scrapbook. It’s the best documentation I’ve got of how I’ve matured in my adult life, and I wouldn’t change any of them. As for my general style; I’ve always experimented with different attire, but from a young age I was interested in expressing myself visually. The style I’ve got now is… well, let’s just be honest, I dress like a stereotypical hipster (as my friends all love to point out). I’ve been dressing this way since the end of college, and so far I’ve managed to carry it over into my professional career. You’d be surprised what you can get away with if you just add a tie! But honestly, one of the reasons I love my style is that I really do feel that it reflects who I am at this point in my life, and I hope that it suggests that I don’t have too many pretensions about what I do.

I’ve tried to “dress professionally” but it just isn’t me; I always expected my tattoos and my style to be a professional hindrance, but I’ve honestly been amazed by how it has helped me connect with people in my work. I think a lot of people don’t expect someone who looks like me – tattoos galore, including an almost-finished sleeve, stretched earlobes and a nose ring, skinny jeans and concert t-shirts – to be talking about interfaith cooperation. But I think it’s such an important issue and that everyone needs to care about it, so I hope my style helps some people who might not have cared before to see it as important, and to see that they too have a place in this movement – that it’s not just for older folks and religious people.

Photo Credit Erin Williams

9. If you could only listen to three CD’s for the rest of your life and they couldn’t be mixed, what would they be?
Wow; after questions about the existence of god, my sexuality, and other so-called “difficult subjects,” this is far and away the hardest question yet! In fact, I think we’ll know the answer to the god question before I can narrow my favorite albums down. Every year, I write a blog post detailing my 50 favorite albums of the year, and it always takes me weeks. But I’ll just go with something “old,” something “new,” and something from my youth. Old: Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones. New: Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. Nostalgic picks: Garbage’s Version 2.0 or The Fugees’ The Score. Also, I recently got really into an amazing gay artist named John Grant – pick up his debut, Queen of Denmark, if you haven’t heard it yet. It’ll change your life.

10. What are your three favorite fiction and non-fiction books?
Everything by Flannery O’Connor – I’m obsessed. I have one tattoo for her, and others planned. Also, Acts of Faith by my mentor, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, played a very formative role in the work I do now – in fact, describing my reaction to it is essentially the climax of the narrative in my book. (How nerdy is that?!) Finally, my current boss, Greg Epstein, has a really fantastic book for anyone looking to explore humanism called Good Without God.

Photo Credit Adrienne Baker, IFYC

11. How do you define “sexy”?
Oh man. Superficially, I go weak in the knees for a subtle but intoxicating cologne, a scruffy face, … and skinny jeans! But more than anything (cliché alert!) I find confidence, creativity, empathy and humility sexy. People who just see the world in a different way – in a way that forces me to challenge my approach and my perspective – there’s nothing sexier than that. Same goes for an open heart; not just a posture of “caring for others,” but people who genuinely experience heartbreak because of the suffering in the world. Okay, that sounds pretty cheesy and dumb, doesn’t it? Also, it’s probably kind of bullshit: at the end of the day, James Franco is just flat-out sexy, regardless of whether he cares about the world’s suffering or not.

12. What is the most important issue on the gay agenda today?

Full inclusion and protection for transgender individuals. For too long, trans folks have been marginalized, ostracized, and largely ignored by the so-called “LGBT agenda.” Every month at least one transgender individual is killed in a hate crime in America – a fact largely ignored by the media. With the increased attention on gay and lesbian suicides this year, we must not forget about the emotional and physical violence that trans folks experience. It’s crazy to me how pervasive transphobia is, even within our community. I’m certainly not an innocent party in this respect, but I’m working on it.

Photo Credit Ky Dickens

13. What are three things you wouldn’t do no matter how much money you were offered?

I’ve come to a point in my life where it’s difficult for me to say that there are things I would never do, because over the years I’ve done many things I once thought I wouldn’t. I’ve come to recognize that it’s quite difficult to predict what you might do in any given situation until you’re actually confronted with the choice, and that sometimes we make the wrong choice. That said, I’d like to believe there are some choices I could never be compelled to make, and they’re the big ones: murder, rape, genocide, etc. At the end of the day, you have to be willing to be morally inflexible on certain things, and physically harming another person is one of those things. Emotionally harming is where it gets a bit more complicated, eh?

14. What would your friends say is your greatest weakness?
I’m not sure they’d know where to begin! I’ve got my vices, to be sure, but I think my friends might highlight the way I can get distracted by things that shouldn’t matter – how I can fixate on things beyond my control. I think I have a difficult time “letting go” when something is unsolvable; I like to imagine that nothing is insurmountable if you just persevere and push hard enough. This difficulty to relent to the forces beyond my control has caused me a lot of pain in my life, but it has also helped me overcome obstacles that I thought I could not. So it’s good and it’s bad, but I’m learning to harness it more for good and be more aware of when it is having a harmful effect.

Photo Credit James Croft

15. If you were to die tomorrow, what three things would flash in your mind?

I’m not sure; I think I’d be too distracted by my impending death! But I’m sure I’d think immediately of my family, and of the love I have for them. When everything is said and done, my family is what matters most to me, so I’m sure my thoughts would turn to them.

16. What are three movies that have greatly impacted you?
Dancer in the Dark, Dogma, and Saved! The first always makes me cry, and the others make me laugh and think – they tackle complex issues concerning religion with levity, heart, humor and humanity.

17. When Chris, the Harvard intellect, is put away, what are some trivial things that we wouldn’t know by looking at you?

Ha! Let’s see; my vanity is probably obvious in my hipster clichés. What else? Well, okay, so I really love Britney Spears. It’s weird; I never really cared about her when I was younger, which is unusual since I came of age in the era of Britney. But when I was a senior in college, Britney began to unravel, and I took notice. Now I won’t liken her to Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf, but I did see something in Britney’s public undoing that made me pause. Here was the real person beneath the façade; the animal behind the android. She had been tamed and domesticated her whole life, and she tried to liberate herself. The sad thing is that she didn’t know how to do it well, and she became quite unwell. Now she’s gotten her public image together and her career seems to be doing quite well, but I still see a caged animal when I look at her. I don’t know if I’m just projecting my love for tragic figures on to her, but I see some sadness in her. Or, at least, some boredom. So I root for her, you know? I want her to do well, and to be happy. There’s no way to know if she is, but I hope that the fact that even when she is “promoting” a new album she’s hardly in the public eye, means that she has the space she needs. Because I’m just tired of seeing her cry in interviews! Honestly, her 2007 album Blackout is probably the greatest pop album ever released, and I rock out to that like nothing else when no one is around. That said, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga could stop recording music and I’d be perfectly happy, so I guess I don’t fall for pop trappings every time. But my love for Britney is forever, ha.

18. You are currently working on a book. Tell us about your book which is due out in 2012.

My book is part memoir, part call for greater dialogue and collaboration between the religious and the nonreligious. I use my personal story of growing up irreligious, becoming a Born Again Christian and realizing I was gay, eventually leaving the faith and becoming very anti-religious, and then eventually becoming a passionate advocate for pluralism and interfaith engagement, because I think, like sociologist Marshall Ganz, that stories are the most effective way to communicate ideas and values. Still, it’s weird to be writing a memoir – especially at 23 years old! – because you open up your experiences for public scrutiny. But I’m learning to get used to it, and I’m doing it because I think mine is an underrepresented perspective. But ultimately, I don’t want my work to be about me – my biggest hope is that my story will prompt other people to share theirs. I don’t want to tell my story simply to make it known; I want to initiate a dialogue on religious and nonreligious identity and engagement in America.

Photo Credit Nat DeLuca

19. Boxers, briefs, jockstraps…or nothing at all?
Ha! Oh my. Um, well… I wear skinny jeans nearly every day, so it’s certainly not the first of those options. I’ll leave it at that; a gay atheist has to keep some mystery, eh?

Thanks Buddy!!! We Love Ya!!!

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