More Than Preaching To The Choir?
Chris Stedman seems like a really nice guy. Smart. Witty. Interesting. Empathetic. I enjoyed his book. But I think he’s fighting a lost cause.
Here’s why. In his recent book, “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious,” he promotes the kind of humanism embodied by the late Paul Kurtz, the father of the movement. Like Kurtz, he sees a certain societal value in religion, at least the non-fundamentalist variety. In this vein, Stedman seeks to nurture healthy relationships between skeptics and those of faith.
Chris’s book is really his life story—his coming to faith as a teenager in an evangelistic youth group—his later coming out of the closet and wrestling with the tension between biblical Christianity and homosexuality—and his departure from the faith. He provides powerful insights into the depth of his struggle, his intense questioning, his season of despair, and finally the intellectual liberation he found in atheism. Though he initially took a more hostile view towards religion with Christianity as his “special target” (p. 86), he now promotes a more mature and empathetic humanistic outlook.
Chris says he wrote the book because he wants to live “in a world where love is more commonplace” by working to promote a healthy dialogue on how “atheists and religious relate to one another” (163). I think this is good and right and admirable. And I think a world where love is more commonplace is possible. I hope his tribe increases. But I think there are some really big limitations to his larger desire for cooperation.
I do think Chris’s work is important—because healthy dialogue and meaningful discussions are helpful and necessary. There’s way too much of the stereotypical sound byte bombing between Christians and skeptics. And if Chris’s exclusive focus is the Interfaith movement—I think he will likely find quite a bit of success. But as for the broader, growing, segments of orthodox faith—I think his initiative is dead upon arrival. Let me offer three interrelated reasons why:
1.The Myth of Neutral Ground
As we cooperate for human flourishing, at some point we will have to define what it means to be human and what it means to flourish. Orthodox representations of most major faiths will have clear definitions of both. In order to have an overarching goal, like human flourishing, it will be difficult, if not impossible, given the fundamental disagreements over the definition of such a goal.
Sure, there is much for which we can, and should, work together. For example, we can strive together to care for and cure children with aids around the world. But at some point we cannot avoid discussions about sexual ethics if we are to discuss long term solutions. Consider another example, we can work to end poverty in the inner city, but I think it will be shortsighted if such efforts do not take seriously the problems of fatherlessness. Since children in father-absent homes are five-times more likely to be impoverished, how can we give real attention to promoting well being without addressing the values of marriage?
Our endeavors to increase human flourishing will press us to define our values, even if it is while we are standing side by side in the trenches of the earth’s saddest places. I hope we can help sick and poor children together. I just think an impasse is unavoidable.
2. The Power of Story and the Inevitability of Propositions
I think what Chris writes about ten years from now will be really significant as it relates to his desire for an Interfaith humanism. While I was really moved by his story, at some point he will be forced to progress from narrative to propositions.
In other words, and perhaps I’m wrong, I find it difficult to imagine a lengthy writing career that is only filled with feel good stories about how some atheists and some people of faith can work together. At some point he will find himself in a position, whether by choice or out of necessity, in which he must take specific and even controversial positions regarding important issues.
3. The Secular Divide
In many undeniable ways secularization benefits Chris’ cause—but only to a limited degree. If Chris really wants to build bridges—then secularization only helps him connect with those already predisposed to his concerns. Chris runs the risk of preaching to the proverbial choir.
The more taboo that honest religious dialogue becomes in the broader culture—the less possible it will be for the kind of partnerships Chris promotes. In a day when celebrity speakers have to carefully avoid venues with any politically incorrect religious commitments, it will become more and more problematic, mainly for those like Chris, to partner with anyone with a biblically informed view on topics that are, well, important in the Bible. For a group or movement with a lower commitment to such values, this will not be an insurmountable obstacle. I would just contend that such a group doesn’t need a bridge to find common ground with Chris. They’re already there.
Here’s where I think Stedman will find success.
Chris may very well resonate with the liberal segments of many religious groups. He was, after all, able to get an endorsement from Brian McLaren, whose writings are considered by many to place him well outside historic orthodox Christianity. Additionally, the foreword to his book is written by Eboo Patel, who says his “Muslim-ness” depends on whether or not he is “merciful to those around him.”
I think there are likely many similar to McLaren or Patel, who are willing to adopt a broad definition of their beliefs, who will gladly line up with Chris with little to no amount of cognitive dissonance. But this group is already on board with Chris’s humanist agenda. If his book is about finding common ground with those already friendly with a pluralistic view of truth, then I’m not sure it is in any way novel. This sort of campaign has been going on for a long time.
But I think Chris wants more. And I don’t think he will get it.
The two groups that I think will generally ignore his campaign are ardent atheists and devout believers. These are the very groups, I would imagine, Chris would like to unite, and even needs to unite, in order to accomplish something bigger and different than what is already taking place.
It reminds me of the G.K. Chesterton novel The Ball and the Cross, published in 1909, about two characters, a Catholic and an atheist. The book ends with the two locked in an insane asylum, with the irony that they are the only sane people on the planet because they understand the seriousness of their convictions and are willing to stand for what they believe. In the end, they did become friends, but Chesterton makes clear that they didn’t compromise their convictions.
I have friends who are skeptics. And I’d like to add Chris to that list (we’ve connected briefly on Twitter about our shared love of James Taylor’s music). But I don’t think Chris just wants to merely nurture friendships. And I don’t think the kind of partnerships he desires will happen, except among those already inclined towards pluralism. I think the secularism that Chris heralds will eventually limit the very kind of partnerships he promotes.
I think Chris’s goal is a noble one. But then again what is nobility? And from whence do we derive such a virtue? My answers to such questions, and a host of other important ones, could make it very difficult for us to find “common ground.” If I have to truncate my convictions to fit within the Second Humanist Manifsto, then count me out.
This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy talking over coffee, or delineating the merits of James Taylor’s music, or discussing topics upon which we disagree.
That sounds great. But I think if we were to work together long enough towards the goal of promoting human flourishing, that eventually our differences over what that even means would become both clear and problematic.
It reminds me of the 1923 publication Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen, in which he presents the case for orthodox Christianity while contending that liberalism is a separate entity. Machen uses the categories of Christianity and Liberalism to describe two separate worldviews. I think Chris will find common ground for partnerships with the latter, but not with the former.
If this is all really just about healthy dialogue, robust conversations, and sincere friendships, then I’m all in. But I think he’s looking for more. And, unfortunately, I think he’s going to find that he is preaching to the choir.