Interfaith Better Together Week kicked off with a lecture titled “Finding Our Common Humanity: Building Bridges Between Atheists and Theists” by Chris Stedman Monday in the Campus Center Ballroom, hosted by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Common Ground.
Chris Stedman, fellow of Silliman College at Yale University and executive director of the Yale Humanist Community, spoke about the importance of interfaith work and the inclusion of atheists.
“Interfaith work surely includes religious voices,” Stedman said. “But I think that the work must also include nonreligious voices if in fact the goal is to foster cooperation and understanding across lines of religious difference. Because one of those lines is between people who are religious and people who are not.”
Stedman began his lecture by having the 40 audience members turn to each other and introduce themselves.
He said that it felt strange to talk about the importance of reaching out and having conversations across lines of difference without having an opportunity for audience members to get a chance to introduce themselves to someone new.
Stedman then told his experience with religion and his realization that he is atheist.
He said that his family was not very religious in his upbringing, which led him to not know much or understand it. When Stedman was eleven years old, he became a born-again Christian. He credits this conversion to the desire to be a part of a community, and an outlet to ask moral questions about the human condition.
Not long after his conversion, he came out as gay and felt that the church he found community in was not accepting to homosexuality. After struggling through that period, Stedman found another church that was accepting of who he was.
“It motivated me to want to work to help support people who felt disconnected, disenfranchised, marginalized and misunderstood,” he said.
After graduating, Stedman began to study religion in college.
“When my Christian professors at college challenged me to think critically about what I believed and why I believed it, I started to realize that I had converted to Christianity when I was eleven because I was looking for a community that oriented itself around building justice, and I found it in Christianity,” Stedman said.
“When I allowed myself to entertain that perhaps I didn’t believe, that I entered Christianity because it gave me something I needed and not because it actually was the way that I understood the world, I eventually realized that I was an atheist.”
Stedman said that at first this realization made him uncomfortable discussing religion with others outside of an academic setting.
“I wanted to continue to study it, but treat it as a phenomenon that I observed from a distance, something that wasn’t a part of my life but was a part of other people’s lives,” Stedman said.
“At the same time I was also angry about the way that religion has been used to dehumanize and hurt so many people, myself included.”
Stedman said that his view started to change after an interaction with a Somalian immigrant from a community center he worked at.
He said that she told him about her experiences with discrimination because she wore a hijab. Although her experience was different from Stedman’s, he empathized with her and also shared his experiences with discrimination. He was surprised when she was not judgmental of him.
“This was a very different kind of reaction than I’d ever had before when a religious difference came to light. She didn’t judge me, she didn’t condemn me, instead she opened a door to a very different kind of conversation about difference,” Stedman said.
Stedman went on to recount times of both success and failure in finding common ground among religious differences.
“Responding to deep and polarizing differences with patience can reap surprising dividend,” Stedman said. “The counterintuitive nature of such a response can destabilize suspicion and fear and open up an opportunity for understanding.”
Stedman concluded his lecture urging audience members to get out of their comfort zones and see the humanity in others that are different from them.
“Something that always resonates with me is the ability to forgive,” sophomore art and art history double major Damairis Lao said. “I had previously read his article about the woman who approached him about having a demon in his body that was making him gay. I was extremely impressed with his ability to instantly shift gears and be kind to her. He could’ve been malicious to her and be justified, but he chose to instead to talk to her kindly and see her humanity when she didn’t see his.”
Senior political science major Mariela Martinez, vice president of the Secular Student Alliance, said that she empathized with Stedman’s desire to find a community he fit into.
“As a Hispanic female immigrant attempting to become a community member in this American white patriotic community is hard,” Martinez said.
“Especially outing as atheist in a primarily Christian community, I feel like an outcast. His articulation of his experience lends me wisdom of how I can see my own place in this community with my fellow humans.”
Christina Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.