As the global “Occupy” movement continues to grow, last week the Huffington Post published a compelling article headlined Occupy Interfaith: Why Millennials, Including the Irreligious, Need to Care About Religion.
The author joins Welton on this week’s show. He is Chris Stedman, the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, and the Founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. His memoir is due out next year from Beacon Press. It’s called Faitheist: How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Chris Stedman, Nonprophet Status[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: We first met our next guest last year just about this time. As a prominent young leader in the interfaith movement, and an atheist, he was participating in the Interfaith Leadership Institutes in Washington, DC as a mentor. He hasn’t slowed down since then – and there’s no sign that he’s going to slow down, thankfully.
Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, the Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the Founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, called
Chris, I’m really happy to have you back on the show, and for anyone who doesn’t yet get the level of sophistication you bring to the discussion, I’ve got just one word and it’s the name of your upcoming book: Faitheist. Man, I wish I’d thought of that! Chris Stedman, welcome back to State of Belief Radio.[CHRIS STEDMAN, GUEST]: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be back. [WG]: You really do have a way with words. As the world watches the growing Occupy America movement, your latest piece on Huffington Post is headlined “Occupy Interfaith: Why Millennials, Including The Irreligious, Need To Care About Religion.”
OK. Why?[CS]: Well, the reason I wrote that piece is because, you know, I’m 24 years old, the majority of my friends are in their early to mid twenties; and one of the things that I have noticed in conversations with my friends about religion is that there seems to be a really significant percentage of people my age who don’t consider themselves religious, nor do they consider themselves explicitly atheist; they’re sort of somewhere in the middle. You can call them irreligious in the sense that they think that, you know, for a number of different reasons, they believe that religion is not hugely important to their lives, you know, they perhaps haven’t put too much thought into how they personally identify religiously, and they seem to believe that it’s not something that’s particularly relevant to their day-to-day life.
And so, as I watched this Occupy movement grow, and as I participated in it some, I was hugely inspired by what I saw as a rejection of apathy by a lot of people my age; people who decided, you know, it’s imperative that we become involved in the political and democratic process, and it’s imperative that we care about these issues that affect us. And I watched that passion, and it got me thinking about the ways in which, you know, I really believe that more people in my generation need to become involved in these conversations about religion and religious identity, and the ways in which they impact all of our lives. And I see the two – especially in the involvement that I’ve had with The Protest Chaplains Movement – I see the two as really intertwined: that in order to reject apathy about politics, we must also reject apathy about religious identity.[WG]: That’s a great way to get into this discussion. Now, you know and I know that there would be some people who, overhearing this discussion, would probably have a lot of questions about it. I don’t think listeners to State of Belief necessarily fall into that category, but talk about the concerns that you have regarding apathy in the millennial generation, your peers. The statistic that you quote indicates 22% of 18 to 29-year-olds identify as non-religious, but only 2% of them claim the mantle of atheism. Now, some people would say: “Well, then, so what? If they don’t care much about religion, who cares about their identity?” Well, you do, I do; why is it important to develop this identity, and what are the implications beyond issues of faith in society at large? [CS]: Sure. So, you know, as you said, 22% of people in this millennial generation consider themselves non-religious. In other words, they don’t check any box that puts them in a particular category be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish or even Atheist or Agnostic. [WG]: Right. [CS]: However, I very strongly feel that the assumption that religion has no application to one’s life – even if one personally doesn’t really think that much about religious ideas or beliefs or claims – I think that that idea is wrong; I think that it doesn’t account for the reality that the world that we live in is, in many ways, largely defined by people’s religious beliefs. We live in a world where, you know, a large number of people do care and do think about religion, a lot!
And even here in the United States, even among millennials… There is a Pew study that came out in 2010 that found that, actually, the intensity of religious millennials’ beliefs are as strong today as they were among previous generations, and that levels of certainty in beliefs have actually increased from previous generations; and that millennials are more inclined then previous generations to believe that their own beliefs are essentially the, you know, one true path. So this idea that religion is going to decline with modernization is actually – it’s a theory that’s been roundly debunked. Most sociologists of religion who, sort of, survey the world, at one point thought that secularization led to the decline of religion; but they see that that doesn’t actually fit the way that the world works.
So, my feeling is that even if an individual doesn’t particularly have a strong personal interest in identifying as religious, or as atheist, or in entertaining those questions for themselves, they still need to care about the beliefs of other people, because they have ramifications in pretty much every aspect of civic life.[WG]: Yeah. Well look, I want to be even more specific. What’s been your involvement in the Occupy movement, and I’m particularly interested in you talking about where your aims in humanist interfaith work, where do those aims intersect with the Occupy movement? [CS]: So, you know, I have to tell you the truth; I have a lot of commitments, and so I haven’t been able to be as involved on the ground with the Occupy movement as I might like to be.
I have spent a fair amount of time at Occupy Boston. I was there the night that over 140 people were arrested, you know, I was there with the Protest Chaplains to make sure that people weren’t hurt and that their civil liberties weren’t violated, and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time there – but not nearly as much as I might like to. So, I think that the stories of the Occupy movement are best conveyed by those who have been there day in and day out; at the same time, I do believe that everyone who falls into this 99% has a stake in this movement.
You know, we are the most class-divided of all the world so-called developed nations, and what I see coming out of the Occupy movement is a feeling that people are, you know, they are just frustrated and tired of a system that seems to largely serve those in positions of power, while marginalizing the concerns of the vast majority of people in this country and around the world.
But more specifically, I see an intersection between the work that I do as an atheist advocating for religious and non-religious dialogue and actions regarding shared values, because I see and love that the Occupy movement is about the democratic ideal: ensuring that a multiplicity of voices are heard and that a multiplicity of concerns are expressed; you know, this idea that everyone has a voice, everyone has a story, everyone has value – I mean, that’s the bedrock of interfaith dialogue right there. And so to me, they seem to be natural parallels. And similarly, having spent some time at Occupy Boston, I’m so inspired by the model of the Occupy movement being rooted in notions of both interdependence and personal responsibilities, simultaneously; it’s a movement that’s guided by a recognition that we all benefit when people band together and contribute based on their unique skills and passions, and lift up others.[WG]: You, in your capacity as liaison between the Humanist chaplains at Harvard and the Humanist graduate community at Harvard, you took members of that group on a field trip to the Occupy Boston protest, right? So, what did you want those students to see? [CS]: Sure, so a good number of our graduate students have been involved in the Occupy Boston movement, on the ground, from pretty much the beginning. We have some students that are at Harvard Divinity School who have been working with the Protest Chaplains; we have students who have been sleeping there, students that have been involved in many different ways – and so it’s a conversation that our students have been having anyway. But one of those things that we thought about, when we were discussing with the grad students about taking a trip down to Occupy Boston and seeing what was going on and having a conversation, is that there seems to be a natural alliance between these values that the Occupy movement is based in, and the issues that people are discussing as humanism; and the idea that, you know, as I said, everyone has dignity, everyone ought to have a voice and that power should be challenged; and that people should be working together and building communities. And one of the things that I have most loved about what I’ve experienced at Occupy Boston is that the encampment that’s set up has specific tents where people take responsibility for different things: there’s a media tent, there’s a food tent, there’s a faith and spirituality tent, there’s a library… And so, people are able to use their skills and their gifts and their talents in different ways, so they can essentially function as a community; and that’s what we’re trying to do here at The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. We’re about to launch a new study called “The Humanist Community Project,” where we’re going to survey nonreligious communities in the United States and around the world, and see what people’s best practices are, how communities function – and try to help people share information with one another. And, you know, that’s a very natural reflection of what’s happening on the ground at Occupy Boston.
So it’s something that our students are very interested in and we just felt like it made a lot of sense for the students to go and see what was happening and in the hopes that it would, you know, generate good conversation and inspire them to be involved either in the Occupy movement or in, you know, whatever it is where their passions lie and their interests lie.[WG]: Chris, what are The Protest Chaplains? [CS]: So, The Protest Chaplains, if I’m not mistaken, actually started up from a student at The Harvard Divinity School who was interested in serving the Occupy movement in the way that chaplains do in various contexts like colleges, universities, military chaplains, hospital chaplains – essentially to be there for people and to, you know, help connect them with resources, and help them feel connected to whatever their tradition is or whatever their values are in the context of this movement. And it’s just blossomed. Now there are, if I’m not mistaken, Protest Chaplains at the majority of Occupy sites around the country. [WG]: You’re listening to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy. My guest is Chris Stedman, founder of the website NonProphetStatus, and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, the Washington Post on faith and other publications. Chris, ever since you were on last time when we didn’t have much time, I’ve been wanting to ask you: how did you get here? Talk about your journey. [CS]: So, you know, I have this background: I grew up in a non-religious – actually, really, irreligious, we just didn’t really talk about religion as a family – and then when I was eleven years old, I had a born-again experience and I became a born-again Christian.
Shortly thereafter, I realized that I was gay; and I really struggled with those things for a long time until eventually, in college, I decided that I was an atheist. And there were a number of different reasons for that which I go into more in-depth in the book, but largely, you know, I just felt as if my conversion in the first place was sort of impure, and that I was converting not because of the theological claims, but because of the community. But given the negative experiences that I had had, you know, I really struggled with this idea of religion for a number of years. I essentially decided, though I was studying religion in college, that I didn’t want to talk about religion in my personal life, to my personal relationships or in the work that I was doing. I strictly studied it academically. But what I eventually realized was that it inhibited me from having meaningful conversations with people who had different worldviews and different metaphysical beliefs than I did; and that that resentment was holding me back from these meaningful engagements and from collaborating around the shared values that we held. So that’s a very short version of how I got to where I am.[WG]: Where do you feel more at home? At Occupy Boston, or at Harvard? [CS]: Well, you know, my background is: I grew up in the Midwest, I grew up in a low-income family, my mother worked several jobs when I was a kid, I went to a small private liberal arts college, I worked full time while I was in college, I worked full-time while I was doing my master’s degree, again at a small institution… So I’ll tell you, when I came to Harvard about a year ago, it was culture shock, absolutely. It’s a world unlike, you know, the worlds I had experienced before; but I have to say, I feel at home in both worlds.
The Occupy movement feels a lot more like the environment that I grew up in. I was very involved in a lot of civil disobedience movements when I was younger, protesting the Iraq war and so on.
But Harvard is a bastion of ideas and enthusiasm, and people here genuinely do care about improving the world and using their skills to make the world a better place for people. And so I actually see the two as somewhat similar in that respect; in the sense that Occupy Boston, is a container for ideas to revolutionize the ways in which we engage with one another and the ways in which we care for one another; and I see that here at Harvard, especially here in the humanist community and in the various chaplaincies that I work with here at Harvard.[WG]: And honestly, my motive in asking that question was to get where you brought us to, and that is: that you are at home in bringing very different worlds together. And that’s a great gift. [CS]: Well, thank you. It’s been a very great experience being at Harvard for the last year, even though when I first strolled into a meeting with some of the other chaplains that are here, you know, I was wearing a short sleeve shirt, all of my tattoos were exposed and it was sort of a moment of culture shock; we looked at each other like, can we trust each other, can we work with one another? And as soon as we started talking, you know, those barriers came down… [WG]: I didn’t know you had tattoos. We might not have had you on the show… Listen, Chris, what’s the best way to keep up on your work? How can people follow what you’re doing? [CS]: I would say, you know, I try to update regularly at nonprophetstatus.com. I also have some other panelists who contribute regularly there. I tweet a lot; I’m also on Facebook. Those are all great ways to follow what I’m doing. [WG]: I want to ask you as well: what do you see as holding the biggest promise for the interfaith movement in this country, and what do you see as the biggest threat? [CS]: Well, honestly, I think the interfaith movement, for some time, you know, it has a lot of roots in inter-Abrahamic work; and that work is so important, and I would never denigrate that work. But I see the tipping point of this movement – and I think we’re approaching it now – but I see the tipping point as bringing in the communities that have been so difficult to bring in, historically: the non-religious, the irreligious, you know, the folks who identify as Evangelical Christians. Once this movement grows to the size where it can be flexible enough to accommodate such a diverse coalition of perspectives, that’s when the movement begins to have real impact on a broader level than it had in the past; and again, I say that not to denigrate all of the amazing, incredible work that’s been done in this movement in the past.
I see the challenge as being that very same thing. The challenge lies in making this a movement that is a safe space for everyone; and as it expands, it’s important to ensure that it doesn’t become so watered-down and meaningless that it doesn’t hold meaning for folks who have been involved in it for a long time.[WG]: Chris, you have a very busy schedule, and I wonder what someone like you does. Talk to us just for a second about recent events in which you’ve been involved, what is on the horizon for you – and we don’t have but about a minute. [CS]: OK. Well, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we organized a meal-packing event here, where we packaged over 10,000 meals for food-insecure children in Massachusetts. We’re going to replicate that event in November, but do it on a larger scale – doubling our effort to over 20,000 meals. If you’re interested in helping to support that event, you can find more information on harvardhumanist.org, an interfaith event. Similarly, we’re hosting an interfaith event at Park 51 next month in New York City on November 15th, you can find information on that event, also, at harvardhumanist.org. [WG]: Great. Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University; he’s the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status.
His memoir – and that’s not my word, you heard him use it as well – his memoir is due out next year from Beacon Press. It’s called Faitheist, How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together. I know that’s going to be fascinating reading, it’s always fascinating talking with you Chris, and I thank you for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.[CS]: Thank you so much. It’s been completely my pleasure, and please keep up the great work that you’re doing.