Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, promotes storytelling as a way to build bridges between people of different values and backgrounds at his Thursday Interfaith Lecture at the Hall of Philosophy. Stedman shares his personal experiences as a gay atheist in order to spread an understanding of nonreligious people as well as the LGBT community.
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Chris Stedman was unlike any of the other Week Two speakers, which all focused on the theme of religion and spirituality in the next generation. For one thing, he is part of the next generation, at 26 years young. And his lecture was not really about religion or spirituality; Stedman is an atheist — and an interfaith activist, to boot.
At 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, Stedman delivered an Interfaith Lecture titled “Finding Our Common Humanity: Building Bridges Between Atheists and Believers.” He began his lecture by answering the obvious question, “Why would an atheist care about interfaith work?”
Interfaith work, he said, brings together people with different religious identities or convictions to have them understand one another, find areas of shared concern and work together for the common good.
“This work surely includes religious voices, but it must also include nonreligious voices if the goal is to foster greater understanding and cooperation across lines of religious difference,” Stedman said. “Because one of those lines — perhaps one of the most divisive and volatile lines in many instances — is between people who are religious and people who are not.”
Influenced by his past involvement with Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit aiming to to inspire interfaith cooperation, and also by the book American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Stedman believes that community is key to inspiring atheists to be civically engaged and to have constructive, cooperative relationships with religious people.
“I met so many wonderful people [in Interfaith Youth Core] who would talk about how their religious community enriched their lives,” Stedman said. “And I noticed how most of them had come into our work together because of some connection to their religious community or their religious identity.”
Stedman’s first encounters with atheist communities were not positive. He found their exclusivity and rejection of outsiders reminiscent of the Christian fundamentalist community he belonged to for part of his youth.
“I began to wonder if having more community resources would enable more atheists to enter the kinds of interfaith relationships that I and others were hoping to foster,” Stedman said.
According to American Grace, an extensive report on the religious lives of Americans, religious people are more civically engaged than nonreligious people because of their membership in communities. The book’s authors thus speculate that communities for the nonreligious can make them as civically engaged as religious people.
Creating civically active communities for the nonreligious is now a central part of Stedman’s work. He is the assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and coordinator of Values in Action, the interfaith outreach branch of Harvard’s humanist community. In partnership with various religious organizations, Harvard’s humanist community has improved people’s condition of life through activities such as packaging meals for food-insecure children, writing letters to elected officials and working with homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
The organization is also working to increase the public profile of the robust local community of atheists, agnostics and nonreligious people. This is important, Stedman said, because of the all-too-common negative depictions of atheists in the media.
Referencing a study by the Public Religion Research Institute, Stedman said, “Atheists are feared more than any other group in the United States, with 39 percent of respondents saying that atheists are changing this country for the worse and only 10 percent saying atheists could be changing it for the better.”
Though these numbers may have their roots in cultural anti-atheist bias, Stedman believes that negative representations by the media are sustaining these biases.
It is understandable that conflict between atheists and religious people will always receive more media attention than cooperation between the two groups, Stedman said, but it is important to try to push out a different narrative about religion and atheism, one that focuses on compassion and collaboration.
In order to destigmatize the cultural climate, Stedman suggested that minority communities must be publicly represented.
It is true that religious and nonreligious people will not always agree, he said, but interfaith platforms built upon mutual respect and a desire to understand differences can show people that, even though they may have disagreements, everyone has to share the world with each other.
“From there, we can begin to see that our world actually might be much better if we are in relationships with people outside of our own communities,” Stedman said.
By forming relationships and sharing stories with one another, he said, assumptions and stereotypes that one group holds about the other can come to an end.
Stedman does not want people of different convictions to turn away from each other. Instead, people need to step out with their stories, listen to the stories of others and then act upon the shared values that are discovered. Religious differences do not have to lead to conflict.
“In the words of native novelist and scholar Thomas King, ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’ ” Stedman said. “Want a different ethic? Tell a different story. So let’s tell a different story about our religious differences. And let’s be sure that the nonreligious are a part of this conversation.”
The increasing number of people who do not affiliate themselves with a religion, Stedman said, are probably going to stay unaffiliated. However, it also seems that they are likely to be open to identifying areas of shared concern and shared value with the religious.
Stedman cited a Pew Research Center report to support this claim: “While 70 percent of the religiously unaffiliated under the age of 30 think that religious organizations are too involved in money and politics, about 80 percent of them think that religious communities help build community and play an important role in helping those in need.”
“Together, as people of many religious and philosophical convictions, we can change the world. And I believe that it all begins with hearing and listening to one another’s stories.”