In a country where it seems like Christians and atheists will never get along, Chris Stedman has a radical message: Those of different faiths should work together to create a better world for all of humanity.
Stedman, the assistant humanist chaplain and Values in Action coordinator at Harvard, is the author of the new book, “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious,” and was the speaker for the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Lecture on Jan. 17. About 150 attendees filled a SUB ballroom and listened to the 25-year-old talk about his work as an openly gay, interfaith activist.
Stedman calls himself an atheist, but names the reverend King as one of his idols. “I think of him as an interfaith leader,” he said, referencing King’s commitment to working with those of other religious backgrounds and the inspiration he drew from Gandhi, a Hindu.
Though Stedman was raised in a secular household, he was not always an atheist — he joined a fundamentalist Christian church at the age of 11 after his parents divorced. However, his entrance in the church coincided with his coming to terms with his sexuality.
“I struggled with my sexual orientation and the relationship between that and my Christian beliefs,” he said.
As a result of these struggles, Stedman became involved with a more “progressive Christian community” in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., and worked with a pastor who continues to be an important figure in his life. But his experience upon entering Augsburg College with Christian professors who wanted him to “articulate his beliefs” showed him that it was service, not beliefs, that drew him to Christianity. This discovery led him to leave the church and become an atheist.
Since then, Stedman has spent much of his time at Harvard creating programs to “rebuild some of the bridges” between believers and non-believers. He works with the Interfaith Youth Corps, and last year mobilized hundreds in the interfaith community to pack 70,000 meals for children in Massachusetts. Such experiences reveal to Stedman the value of interfaith collaboration in addressing some of the world’s major problems.
“It’s going to take more than just Christians and more than just atheists to solve this problem,” he said, referring to the issue of world hunger. Though non-believers may call it “service” and Christians may call it “ministry,” he continued, “The work and values are the same.”
Drawing inspiration from King, Stedman said that the best way to bridge our differences is to “share our stories with one another,” and that stories are a “radical tool for humanizing diversity.” Many people believe religious discussions inevitably lead to conflict, he explained, though in his experience “that is not the case.”
Stedman may have an impressive resume, but he admits he still has a lot to learn. “I’m very young,” he said during an interview with the Exponent (http://youtu.be/3n78yhdT29Y). “I don’t think I have all the answers.”
However, as the MSU community learned last week, he is off to a good start.