Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Invitation to Understanding

Book review: Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Chris Stedman. Beacon Press (Boston, 2012).

While walking through a lava tube in Hawaii, I came across a family alternating between English and a language that sounded completely unfamiliar to me. Two young men in their teens or early twenties were guiding their elderly grandfather, and they thanked me when I shone my flashlight on the various rocks and puddles in their way.

I watched and listened as they spoke in respectful tones to this frail old man, and as their father asked how grandpa was doing on the walk. What culture is this, I wondered. From the hair and features, I wondered if they might be Italian or Romanian, but the language had not the slightest resemblance to anything I’d heard. The young woman in the family cast her eyes down demurely as she walked past me, but she was dressed in Western fashion, modest but with nothing covering her beautiful black hair, so I dismissed my fleeting thought that they might be from the Middle East.

As they walked to their vehicle, I could not help myself. I nodded and smiled to the father and walked over, saying I wondered if he might answer a question for me. He smiled back and said sure. “I was admiring how respectfully your sons treated their grandfather. Would you mind telling me where you are from?”

“Previously?”, he asked, grinning. We’re from Cleveland, you moron, he might well have been tempted to say. I nodded. Then he hit me straight in the soft underbelly of my prejudices with his answer: “Iran.”

Trying not to show my surprise, I repeated how evident it was that his family treats its elders with respect. “Absolutely!”, he said, “That is the time of life when they need our attention the most.” We wished each other a good day, and I walked away just a little bit wiser than I had been.

Were they Muslims, or just immigrants from an Islamic country? I’ll never know. But, despite that and my clumsiness, I think this is the sort of interaction the interfaith dialogue advocate Chris Stedman would applaud. He spent some years getting to know and love Muslims like “a young woman who was motivated by her Muslim faith to work for the economically disadvantaged” in Chicago (p. 8). “After years of witnessing the ugliness that arises when rejection-based beliefs lead to the rejection of people,” Stedman now seeks “out ties that will bind us together” (p. 15).

He is gay and carries the scars of self-loathing from some years of trying to reconcile his sexuality with a conservative Christianity he once held dear. He is not naïve about “the atrocities committed in the name of religion around the world,” nor does he dismiss the role that religion has played throughout history (p. 8). But the great insight that he reveals in this book, along with a gripping personal story, is that religion is part of what makes us human, not just an abstract concept to be dismantled and discarded.

I fear that some atheists are doing what I used to do in my antireligious days: engaging in monologue instead of dialogue. After years of dismissing religious people outright, I realized that I was so busy talking that I wasn’t listening. I was treating religion as a concept instead of talking to people who actually lived religious lives. [p. 9]

I’ll be honest: This was a challenging book for me. I have a deep and lingering contempt for the way fundamentalist Islam degrades and constrains the people under its thumb, for its intolerance of dissent and pluralism, for its backward, demeaning view of women. The sight of masked black-clad Saudi women walking (because they cannot drive) while their husbands attend the local university fills me with dread, both for them and for the damage being done around the world by the toxic ideology foisted on their families.

But I will acknowledge that Stedman has one important advantage over me in his approach to Islam: He actually knows and respects some individuals who believe in it. “These were people I cared about,” he says of the Somali immigrant neighbors and co-workers he encountered in Minnesota, “and their beliefs mattered deeply to them” (p. 97). So Stedman, despite having become an atheist and gone through a period where he viewed all things religious with scorn, made those beliefs matter to him, too.

At a signing, smiles all around. Photo provided courtesy of the author.

Some of the religious people I care deeply about are the handful of friends I’ve managed to hold on to from my old fundamentalist church. A while back, one of them told me almost apologetically how he still believes in God and a savior sent for the forgiveness of his sins. The preachers call it confessing your faith, alluding to the difficulty of the task.

I assured this dear old friend that I respected his beliefs as much I enjoyed our candid discussions. He knows my own contrary perspective, of course. That’s one advantage to writing books and blog postings: When people can just look online to see what you think, you become much less compelled to say so in person.

The encounter was not that different from the one Chris Stedman had with “a deeply committed Christian staff member” at the Interfaith Youth Core where he worked, as an atheist, in Chicago. She told him, respectfully and carefully, that she did worry about his salvation at times. Yet she admitted that she was glad to have his perspective in the organization: “I feel like I’d lose out on something if you became a Christian again” (p. 132).

It was quite an internal conflict for her, and one I remember myself as a struggling believer who was seeing friends leave our childhood faith: Good for them for acting on their sincere convictions, but what about their salvation? What about mine? What really made us any different?

Stedman’s response was a gleaming alloy of grace and honesty: “Thank you. I mean, you could’ve kept that to yourself, but I’m glad you didn’t. And you must know that I, as an atheist, think your beliefs are probably wrong, too” (p. 132). Sure she did, but the two of them agreed that they had an amazing amount in common.

It turns out, really, that we all do. Stedman’s engaging combination of a great story and gentle invitation to understanding gives all of us, myself included, a much-needed reminder to focus on that instead of our intangible differences about invisible things.