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Chris Stedman, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice”

Simran Jeet Singh Chris Stedman is a friend. He’s an activist, a community organizer, and a writer. He’s the author of IRL – which is short for in real life – Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives. He’s also the author of Faitheist, which is the first book of his that […]

 

Simran Jeet Singh

Chris Stedman is a friend. He’s an activist, a community organizer, and a writer. He’s the author of IRL – which is short for in real life – Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives. He’s also the author of Faitheist, which is the first book of his that I read. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. He’s written for multiple outlets, including The Guardian, the Atlantic, Pitchfork, Buzzfeed, et cetera. And he is formerly the founding executive director of the Yale humanist community and served as a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. And currently, Chris Steadman is an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

And I have to say before we get started, Chris is a friend who I met back in his days at Harvard. He kindly reached out and asked me to help set up a Sikh chaplaincy program there, and it was an incredible gesture given that he wouldn’t personally benefit from it. And when I asked him why he said someone had done the same for him and that he wanted to pass it forward, and that moment gave me a real sense of what allyship looks like.

Thanks for joining us on our program today. The program is Anti-racism as a Spiritual Practice, and it’s a real gift to be with you all. I’m hopeful that our sessions will prove fruitful to each of you and offer some guidance in a world that feels overwhelming and exhausting, and ultimately difficult to navigate.

Our vision is to offer two things that we believe the world needs badly right now. First, we want to offer you insight into what racism looks and feels like and its various forms. And that’s why each of our sessions will begin with listening. We’ll have insightful guests share their stories and experiences with us. And our goal here is to step into the shoes of those who, by virtue of their unique identities, have experiences and perspectives that are different from ours. This approach draws from James Baldwin’s incisive words, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”

The other thing we hope to do here is to receive guidance from our expert guests on how to move from just understanding racism into taking action. And I don’t just mean this in a superficial way of saying, so, what can we do about it? What I really want us to do is dig deep, with sincerity and vulnerability, and challenge the racist ideas embedded within each of us. This is what I mean by anti-racism as a spiritual practice; we’re not just here to point our fingers at the people around us and tell them that they’re wrong. There’s enough finger-pointing going on and it’s not serving anyone. Instead, we’re here to make a meaningful change with the understanding from diverse wisdom traditions that change starts with them.

So, thank you all for being here. Thank you all for being on this journey with me. Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that I’m currently sitting in my apartment in New York City, which is traditionally the land of the Lenape, the Indigenous nation that made their homes here, raised their kids here, and buried their dead here. We’re grateful to them, the Lenape people, for stewarding this land over the centuries.

How are you, Chris? Thanks for being with us. How’s everything going on your end?

Chris Stedman

Thanks for having me. I’m doing pretty well and very nice to take a trip down memory lane, as you were speaking just now. It feels like another lifetime ago when we had that interaction.

But yeah, I remember just how, how helpful you were to me and, you know, cause I, I had connected with a student who was, you know, looking for resources and we just, you know, there wasn’t a Sikh chaplaincy and it just and you know, Harvard at that point had over 40 chaplains representing a variety of different worldviews and it just kind of blew my mind that that was the case. And I was just so grateful to have a resource in you. So, thank you for, for being that for me.

Singh

Yeah, of course, my pleasure. And tell us where, where are you right now? Where are you sitting, and what’s life look like for you these days?

Steadman

So, I’m in Minneapolis. I moved back to Minneapolis in 2017. I’m from the area originally. All my family is here. I came back for a number of reasons. In fact, I saw you very shortly before I moved back to Minnesota. You came and spoke for the Yale Humanist community, which was such a treat to get to listen to and learn from you as I have so many times over the years. And so, yeah, I mean, I came back for a number of reasons – in part, my stepdad has Alzheimer’s and I came back to help with taking care of him. I have been working on a book, which came out in October, as you mentioned. And I also am teaching now at a Lutheran university where I teach a class on vocation and the search for meaning. And so, in that class, which is one of two required religion classes at the university which, you know, Augsburg, it’s very interesting because it was founded as a school for, a training school for Lutheran missionaries.

And you know, the EFCA of which it’s a member university, is, I believe, the whitest denomination in the United States. And so, you know, it was founded as this, you know, Lutheran training school, but now today Augsburg has the highest percentage of students of color of any private college in Minnesota. The neighborhoods surrounding Augsburg are majority Somali. I believe that the neighborhood has the highest population of Somalians anywhere in the world, outside of Somalia. And you know, we have a really large number of Muslim students, a really large number of religiously unaffiliated students. And yet there’s still this sort of two required religion classes.

And so, I teach the second of those and in that class, we, you know, spend the semester talking about vocation. What is it, what does it mean? And how do students sort of bring the various lenses through which they sort of navigate life including their religious and spiritual identities, but also all of their identities? And how did that shape their understanding of how they want to show up in the world? So, we talk about vocation as being an intersection between. Your particular passions, skills, gifts and what the world needs. And so, and we spend a lot of the semester talking about that in light of many different things, including, you know, through the lens of anti-racism.

And so, yeah, I’m very excited for this conversation because I feel like I’ve spent you know, I’m, I’m in the middle of another semester right now, and I feel like I spend so much time having this conversation with students, but it’s very rare that I’m sort of in the seat that I’m in right now. So it’s cool. And yeah, I’m, I’m excited to have the conversation, so, yeah.

Singh

Yeah, I appreciate it. I was thinking, as you were describing it that the, that the tables are turned a little bit, because I want to know about your search for meaning and what vocation has meant for you. And I imagine that’s, that’s evolved over the years. Like, could you take us through a little, a little arc of, of how you became who you are today?

Stedman

Sure. Yeah. So, I mean, I grew up in Minnesota in a non-religious family and you know, I would really say that we were more than anything. We were irreligious, so we weren’t religious, but also, we didn’t really talk about it.

Like, I didn’t hear talk about God in my household growing up, but I didn’t hear the word atheist either. We were just sort of what sociologists call ‘nothing in particulars,’ which I’m sure we’ll get into today. But so, you know, it was, what was interesting about that is that as I started to get a little bit older and became aware that religion was this thing that existed in the world it was kind of this very unfamiliar thing to me.

So, we moved when I was in third grade and we moved to a neighborhood where there was another kid, my same age, on our same street. And she was being raised in a multi-faith household. So, her mom was Jewish. Her father was Catholic. She was adopted from South Korea. And so she, you know, was, and her parents were, very supportive of her engaging with sort of all of these different pieces of her identity. And so, I would come over to her house for holiday celebrations. And I was, I was learning so much about the traditions that shaped who she was and who her family was. And then I would kind of look at my own life and my family and say like, well, what do we believe? Like, what are, what is our story?

And so that was sort of where some curiosity began, but I was also in third grade and, you know I could only sort of maintain my interest in that person so long. But when I was around 11 years old, I had a conversion experience and I became a born-again Christian, and looking back on it now, I think there were two primary factors that contributed to that happening. The first is that about a year prior to converting my parents divorced.

And so, you know, because we weren’t a member of a religious community, my family really had been my foundation growing up. You know, that was the place where I went to sort of sift through big questions in life. You know, we weren’t religious, but I remember we would talk about my mom’s mother, who had died when I was three. And we would talk about, like, when there was an ethical dilemma, my mom sort of used her as this touchpoint. She would say, well, what do we think Grandma Judith would say about that? And so, you know, my family really functioned like that. But when my parents divorced and my mom started working three jobs and, you know, life became much more chaotic, I was, I had been invited to this after-school youth group that met at a church by some friends from school and I found this sort of stabilizing place. And so, it met that need that I had for community for a safe place. But it also met this other need, which was the sort of second piece, which is, a year prior to converting.

I had started reading books like John Hershey’s Hiroshima, about the atomic bombings in Japan, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Alex Haley’s Roots. Actually it, it really started with Roots. And it started in this very prideful way. I went to the library at school and I was like, I’m going to find the biggest book. I can sign to show off what a big reader I am. And I ended up finding the unabridged version of Roots and you know, fast forward to me on my bed, a couple of hours later, just weeping and you know, I felt like, so I was reading all of these books about some of the greatest atrocities in human history. And I felt like I had learned about the events described in these books at school, but really just this, sort of historical facts, they were just presented as like, here are things that happened. Not as these sort of, you know, events that raise these profound questions about what it means to be human, that we can be so cruel to one another.

And of course, you know, growing up white in a white supremacist society, you know, these were questions I didn’t necessarily have to wrestle within the same way that a lot of my peers did until, you know, I was encountering these narratives that, that filled me with a desire to understand these things. And when I found this church, I found it was like, I found my people. I found people who saw the same problems in the world that I did, who were similarly, you know, trying to figure out what their, what our responsibility is in the face of these kinds of injustices. Unfortunately, the church was also very virulently anti-LGBT and my conversion coincided with my sort of emerging recognition of my own queerness.

And so that presented this big personal timer. Fortunately, so – the big irony is that I became a Christian because I was looking for community and meaning, right? These two needs that I think we all have. And instead, I really retreated within myself as I was struggling with my sexual orientation and this very anti-LGBT demonizing, you know, mindset of the church that I converted into. And you know, so, I sort of lost the community experience and my own sort of, I, I was trying to make sense of suffering in my own suffering ended up increasing significantly.

But three years into that, my mother found a journal I was keeping, or I was writing about this struggle I was having. And she did something really incredible, something that totally changed my life, which is that she went to the phone book – I’m very dating myself here – and she called up local churches in the community and she found a Lutheran church with an affirming minister and took me to speak with him the next day. So even though my mom wasn’t particularly religious, right, she said, okay, I don’t really know how to help him with what he’s struggling with, but I’m going to find somebody who can, and I really think that has deeply shaped the way that I move through the world ever since.

Because you know, like when I was, when I encountered this problem at Harvard, there was, there were Sikh students who were looking for support. You know, I felt like I, I’m not really equipped to help them. Let me find someone who can. And so, yeah, I mean, my, you know, I, I eventually went to college to study religion. It was there that my professors, all who are all Christian, really encouraged me to ask myself why I had become a Christian in the first place, which helped me realize that it was much more about the function of religion for me than about the theology. But the sort of driving principle throughout all of that has been, you know, this recognition that we all have the need for meaning for community.

We all see a world full of, you know, immense problems and need spaces and ways to try to sort of not only, you know, find comfort and support and community, but also, you know, concrete ways to, to address those things. And I came out on the other side of that journey, feeling like, you know, the things that brought me into church in the first place are needs that I still have, and that all people, whether they’re religious or not, have, and so that really has been the focus of my professional life. Even though, as you say, it’s sort of shifted.

I was a humanist chaplain – for years now. I’m teaching a religion course to a mixed group of students, but many of whom are sort of religiously unaffiliated themselves. And, you know, but ultimately my goal has been, you know, trying to support people as they sift through these huge questions and find spaces where they can act on their values and, and sort of determine what those values are. Particularly people who fall outside of traditional religious categories.

So, sorry, that was just a mouthful there, but hopefully that answers your question.

Singh

Yeah. I mean, it was, it was a great answer and super fascinating. I mean, I, I asked you a broad question of, tell us, tell us your life story and in five minutes. So, I, I appreciate the, the facility with which you did that.

And I think, you know, as you were telling the story about your mother finding your journal – I mean, that’s immediately what I thought of. And, and again, like it’s, it’s, it’s sort of the foundation of our relationship and our friendship. But this, this moment where you don’t, you know, have the same experience as people, but you, you might know and you care and so your move to figure out how to serve.

And, and so I guess, you know, what’s, what’s really interesting to me now is sort of your experience, you know, within the world of religion, as a student of religion, working as a humanist chaplain, now teaching religion and, and maybe not fitting into the traditional confines of religion anymore yourself. And so, can you talk to us a little bit about that experience?

I think, you know, a lot of the guests on this show identify with a particular, quote, unquote, major world religion. And so, there’s, they can speak from that sort of normative experience and perspective. I’d love to hear a little bit about what it’s like for you being on the outside of that equation.

Stedman

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know. So, one of the things I’ve been working on since I came back to Minnesota is, I’ve been working with a group of sociologists, which has been totally new for me, a really fun opportunity to learn, you know, so much about this other world. Because we’ve been – one of the things that, you know, when I came back to Minnesota I started, you know, working with some local humanist groups who were interested in opening a center to support religiously unaffiliated people.

And I said, you know, I’ve, I’ve been working now as a professional community builder, supporting specifically religiously unaffiliated people. And I feel like, you know, one of the sort of primary models right now, which is the model that I took when working at Harvard and at Yale is to say like, let’s look at what religious communities offer people and try to offer a sort of secular version of that. And I found myself, you know, starting to kind of question whether or not that was the correct approach, especially, you know, at least sort of recognizing like there’s some assumptions inherent in that approach.

And one of the biggest ones is that people who have either never been a part of a religious community or who have specifically walked away from one would want something that even structurally sort of operates like a religious community. And so, fortunately, I knew some sociologists who study the religiously unaffiliated who were willing to take on this project with me.

So, we’ve been working on survey design, all these things that, again, I’ve learned so much about. But one of the things that has been really sort of eye-opening for me is that, you know, for years, people who sort of study religious trends have fretted about the sort of rise of the religiously unaffiliated because you know, it’s happening very quickly. I think we all are familiar at this point with the fact that the religiously unaffiliated are the fastest-growing segment of the religious landscape. They now represent about a third of all Americans or a fourth of all Americans, a third of people under the age of 30. And, you know, one of the big concerns people have is, you know, they talk about how religious people are more civically engaged than non-religious people are.

So, they, you know, are they, they’re more charitable. They give more money to charities, both religious charities and secular charities. They vote much more. I think it’s evangelical Christians have a voter registration rate that’s three times as high as the religiously unaffiliated do. I believe Putnam, Robert Putnam at Harvard, you know, says basically that religious Americans are better neighbors than the non-religious. So they just, they’re more involved in society. They contribute more.

But one thing that has been really interesting to me is, as I’ve worked with these sociologists is I’ve learned that, you know, the religiously unaffiliated is sort of this big catch-all category that includes many different groups of people and includes atheists, agnostics, secular humanists. And it also includes these nothing in particulars which I mentioned earlier, which is people who when asked by someone doing a survey, what their religious identity is, you know, or what they believe religiously, they’ll sort of say, well, nothing in particular. And if you break those groups out, you actually find that there are profound differences between them.

So, atheists and humanists tend to have about the same levels of civic engagement as religious people do. Because you know, they’re, well, there’s lots of reasons for that because which we can get into, but it’s really the nothing in particular is that sort of bring down the average of the non-religious as a whole. So, then, nothing in particular is, you know, they have much lower levels of education. They’re basically just sort of checked out of society. And I think that this is a sort of broader phenomenon that’s happening. And it’s not just happening in religion.

We’re seeing this, you know, increasing sort of move away from traditional kinds of institutions that people use to structure and orient their lives, whether they’re religious spaces, political institutions, and we’re, we’re moving in the direction, sort of societally, of greater atomization. And I think that, you know, in the realm of religion, when we think about all the things that religious organizations and, and, institutions at their best – and we can, of course, talk about all the ways that religious institutions have failed and fallen short – but, you know, at their best they offer people opportunities to you know, regularly check in with themselves.

I mean, my mom now, she is a member of a Lutheran church, even though theologically, she doesn’t really consider herself a Lutheran. Because she finds that having a weekly check-in you know, it, it’s an opportunity for her to kind of ask herself, like, am I living in the way that I aspire to? She finds herself being challenged there. She finds herself, you know, she’s much more likely to sort of act on her values afterwards. And I think that, you know, that’s, again, something that we all need is you know, reminders that we’re trying to live in a certain way. Communities that will hold us accountable to our, our beliefs and, and offer us practices to sort of give some structure to our lives.

And, and I think the, you know, I, when I look at the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, you know, a lot of my fellow atheists and secular folks get really excited about that. You know: we’re winning the culture war – which there’s lots I could say about that – but I worry, I worry I’m a worrier by nature, but I worry because, you know, my worry is, where are these people who are leaving religious institutions or were never a part of one in the first place going to you know, to explore these big questions?

Like, and, and I think back to myself as an adolescent sitting in my bedroom, reading Roots on my bed, sobbing and having no idea where to even go with the questions that I was just beginning to recognize for the very first time. And unfortunately, I ended up in a community that very much had an ‘us versus them’ understanding of difference, you know, and that was exemplified in the way that they talked about LGBT people which ended up, you know, wreaking, immense havoc on my sense of self.

And, you know, I, I just have, I have a lot of concern about the rise of the nones. I think that there are there certainly are things to celebrate about, you know, people leaving institutions that have felt restrictive to them. I mean, we see in the data that the, you know, a large majority of people who are, now say that they’re religiously unaffiliated, and say that they consider religious institutions hypocritical, they don’t see them, you know, acting in ways that are in line with their purported values. And I think, again, we all are very aware of the ways that these institutions can wield their power to harm people, but they also use that power to like hold lock people into uncomfortable relationships, uncomfortable recognition that they need. And I worry what happens as, as that, yeah, as we lose that.

Singh

Yeah. It’s really interesting to hear you say that because it’s something that I actually think about a lot as well. That there’s, there’s something about, you know, when I, when I work in the diversity, equity, inclusion settings and leading workshops for students or employees of a corporation or whatever, right? Like the, the actual unlearning of, of racist ideas or biases in general requires a really thoughtful introspective practice. Like you can’t, I can’t tell someone what to drink. And lecturing on this stuff, it only takes us so far. Like you have to do the work yourself in the best models we have for that, that I know of are within religious practices, right? There’s this practice of self-reflection and introspection. And it’s not to say that you can only do it through religion. But when we, when we take those opportunities and those skills that we develop through religious practice out of the equation, then, then where are we going to be getting that from?

And in some places, people are finding that right in mindfulness is, is a good example of how people are doing this in a, quote-unquote, secular way. But it’s, but it’s not something that’s pervasive enough. That’s, that’s being engaged by people in a, in a, on a scale that we would want to see in order to really bring forward that kind of introspective practice that I think is necessary for, for not just a DEI or anti-racism, but just for personal maturation. So, I’m, I’m really interested to hear you sort of play that, that, that same idea back to me because it’s not something I hear people talking about often.

Stedman

Well, and here’s my worry, you know, so you and I have talked about this, so, you know, but you know, a big part of why, like, I think when my book, my most recent book on the internet came out, there were a few people who were like, I don’t see the connection here because, you know, I, my work has been specifically around, you know, the sort of relationship between religiously unaffiliated people and religious people. And, you know, what, what ultimately sort of, of why I became interested in the internet is that as I’ve been studying the religiously unaffiliated, working with them as a community builder, one of the things that I’ve observed is that as more and more people are leaving these institutions, they’re moving that work – you know, looking for meaning and belonging to digital space.

And one of my big worries about that and you know, anyone who knows me knows I’m very online, so I speak from an informed place here, but one of my worries about that is that, you know, religious rituals you know, whatever you think of religion obviously, you know, we could, that’s a very big conversation, but you know, religious rituals are, are, you know, things that emerged over long periods of time and that have been refined. So, you know, through practice and you know, they, you know, you, they encourage people to lead more reflective lives.

And online, we have almost the opposite experience. So, you know, the platforms themselves are inherently designed right now because, you know, we think of the internet as being public space, but it’s really not. It’s private space. It’s run by private corporations who ultimately, you know, their interest is in making money for themselves. And so, the very platforms like embedded in their infrastructure is, you know, they want to keep you online. That is their ultimate goal.

And so, you know, they’re, they’re out, the algorithms are basically sort of content-agnostic as what, you know, how people refer to it. They don’t really care what the content is. As long as it keeps you sort of clicking and scrolling. And so, they prey on our very human vulnerabilities, you know, whatever, you know, will, whatever keeps you online is, is a win for them.

And, and, you know, so if what keeps you online is content that makes you, you know, angry, upset, you know – that’s the stuff that’s going to rise to the top. And of course, so, we see this in the radicalization that happens on YouTube. And you know so well, religious traditions are sort of intended to like slow you down, give you, you know, structure to kind of be more thoughtful. The internet is designed to sort of like, do the opposite.

And so, you know, I worry that as some of the work that has historically happened in religious spaces is now being moved to digital space. You know, I, my, I’m concerned about the sort of impacts of that and, and so in IRL, the book is really me trying to sort of understand how is the shift out of these kinds of institutions into digital space, impacting our understanding of who we are. Because ultimately that is what you know, religion is about is, you know, answering this question of what it means to be human. What is our responsibility to the world around us? How do we show up in the world? How do we lead a life of meaning?

And so, yeah, I have as people are sort of leaving these institutions and it’s not just, you know, obviously, my focus is a little bit more on the religiously unaffiliated, but even among the religious, we see much lower levels of regular participation. What constitutes regular participation in our religious community today is much lower than what it once was. So, even people who still claim a religious affiliation are participating at much lower levels in their communities. And again, they’re, you know, they’re sort of doing a lot of this work of building the self-reflecting, connecting, mobilizing online.

And again, I think we all were aware of many of the positives of the internet. I mean, you know, I, I live in Minneapolis and I live just minutes from where George Floyd was murdered. and you know, the death of George Floyd has had a profound effect on my local community here. But it’s also resonated across the entire world and has changed the way that we’re talking about policing and public safety and has had a profound impact on how we’re talking about racism in the United States.

And you know, a lot of that has to do with the way that digital platforms give people, you know, for as, as much as, you know, the freedom that we can experience online, it can free us up, you know, in, in ways that are really harmful. Right? But it also can free us up from the restrictions of various institutions, including the kinds of gatekeepers who have determined, you know, what, what messages get out and what don’t.

And so, yeah, I think we’re all aware of the ways it can be harnessed for good. But I think right now, you know, it, there’s a lot of work we have to do to have an internet that helps us lead more intentional and thoughtful lives. As opposed to lines that are more driven by, you know, whatever is sort of, again, keeping us clicking and scrolling. So, all that is just to say I have, I have concerns. I have concerns about everything.

Singh

Yeah, no, I appreciate that. And if you’re just joining us, we’re in conversation with Chris Stedman. He’s the author of the new book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives.  

And, you know, one of, one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, Chris, is that, that sort of speaks to speaks to the kinds of things you’re talking about here. You wrote this piece a couple of years back for Vice called Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right.  And I think there’s a really interesting. I mean, I know there’s a really interesting connection to be made here with regard to atheism and racism. And I think, you know, the immediate place where I could imagine people jumping is to say right in, in the way that we talk about, quote-unquote, culture wars, is atheism. If you, if you don’t believe in God, you don’t have a sense of morality. So, of course, you’re predisposed to racism. That’s not what you’re talking about in the piece, and I’d love, I’d love to hear you reflect on what, what you, what do you mean there around atheist being drawn towards the alt-right? What does that look like with online, perhaps grooming, is the right word. And, and, and what is the, what is the sort of your, your personal experience with that as well?

Stedman

Yeah. Yeah. It’s wild. ‘Cause I wrote that piece in 2018, or really, I started working on it in 2017. I worked on that piece for at least a year. And I really, I started working on it because there was this interview that Richard Spencer did – Richard Spencer, I’m sure many people are familiar, but if you’re not, he’s the sort of self-appointed figurehead of the alt-right. He’s a white supremacist. And he did this interview with an atheist blog where he talked about his atheism and then he re-posted it on his own website and you know, titled it Atheist and Secular Humanism. And so, he was making these really clear links between his worldview and atheism and humanism, and I was kind of stunned that no major atheist or humanist organizations in the United States really said anything about it.

And I, you know, I’ve been involved in movement atheism for many years, and it is a very online movement and a big, you know, there are lots of reasons for that. And there are a lot of things about it that are really positive. I mean, a lot of people make their way into online atheism because they’re in an environment where it doesn’t feel particularly safe for them to talk about their atheism. Maybe they’re, you know, in a religious family, maybe they’re in a part of the country or the world where religion is really dominant. And, you know, there are very negative views that are widely held about atheists. And there’s a lot of stigma around atheism. And so, you know, atheism being this online movement can be very powerful in the same way or in a similar way to when I was an adolescent and closeted and I would go online and find resources and community as a queer person when I felt unable to do so in other parts of my life.

But at the same time you know, there are segments of online atheism that are increasingly overlapping with the alt-right and white supremacist movements. And it becomes this sort of gateway kind of like the YouTube radicalization I was talking about where, you know, you start by listening to Sam Harris, and then you sort of can, you know, follow the rabbit hole. You go down the rabbit hole and It, you know, what’s, what’s wild to me about that piece is I wrote it in 2018, but it just, it feels as if it could have come out yesterday. I mean, this problem feels just as ever-present to me as it did.

When I wrote that piece and this is, I mean, I’m far from the first person to talk about this. This has been, you know, for years in movement atheism, particularly people of color and women have been talking about these issues within movement atheism. And you know, I think there are a lot of reasons for that. And I get into some of them in the piece. Some of it is purely demographic overlap. So, atheists on average tend to be younger than the general public. More atheists are white than the general public. More atheists are male than the general public. So, you’ve got this demographic overlap already.

Then you have, you know, the fact that, again, a lot of these people are looking for community online where the alt-right is, you know, very much trying to sort of prey on, you know, disconnected, atomized individuals and offer them a sense of identity and community and belonging. And then you have, you know, the fact that a lot of atheists don’t have these kinds of religious communities and spaces. And so, you know, they are going online, looking for identity, looking for meaning. And, and so, you know, but my concern is that, you know, that movement atheism is kind of just trying to pretend it’s not happening or to ignore it.

And, and I think that part of that has to do with the fact that for some atheists, atheism can be a way to sort of feel superior. And I, again, I mean, this exists in all communities, right? We know that this exists in religious communities as well. But one thing that happens sometimes is when you decide that religion is, you know, where the, you know, it’s the cause of the back of bad things in the world, right?

Like religion is why we have sexism. Religion is why we have homophobia. But then if you ever leave religion, you feel as if you’ve sort of been in some ways you’ve like inoculated yourself against those things. You know, I can’t be homophobic because that’s a religious thing. When in fact I, as an atheist, have encountered a number, you know, I’ve had many experiences of, of, of homophobia among atheists. I remember going on cable news or and talking about my atheism and atheist saying, you know, that they, they don’t want me as their representative on TV because of my gay voice, you know or even, you know, maybe things that are a little bit more subtle where, you know, because I, you know, was sort of a champion in atheism for, you know, having dialogue with religious people or because I was critical of anti-Muslim sentiments being expressed by a number of really prominent atheists, like Sam Harris, and I, you know, sort of went toe to toe on that. You know, I was often referred to as, as, you know, wimpy and weak and you know, all these very coded sort of things.

And, and I think, you know, when you have decided that you are sort of inoculated against these things, then you, you no longer become critical of yourself. And it’s really easy, you know, I think again, if you’re not, if you’re more disconnected from a community, if you’re in an online echo chamber that increasingly sort of moves you down the rabbit hole and then, you know, beyond all of that. And again, I would encourage people to read the piece where my thoughts are more organized, but beyond all of that, I think atheists also need to consider that there might be, you know, it’s that, it’s not just a demographic overlap. It’s not just that atheists are isolated, but then, in fact, some of what draws people to the atheist movement is that there is this sense in movement atheism that atheists are the sort of, you know, the truth-tellers. That, you know, we’re besieged and, you know, we’re sort of fighting this culture war. And that, that is, you know, it’s really easy to jump from that to the kind of alt-right, you know, cancel culture, all of that sort of stuff.

And so, it’s not just a matter of demographic overlap. It’s not just a matter of atheist action. There’s actually some sort of shared characteristics there that maybe we need to be more self-critical about. And those are hard conversations to have, because as you say, you have to, you know, it’s, it’s not just a sort of one and done sort of thing. It’s a practice you have to live into. You have to constantly turn the sort of – it’s, it’s, it’s one thing to be critical of everybody else. Right? And this again has been like the voice that speaks for atheism in our culture tends to be one that is very critical of others and less critical of, of itself. And that practice of having to sort of turn the critical lens back at yourself is very difficult. And that’s why, you know, religion, with all of its flaws and challenges, one thing, I think it really offers people.

And one thing that I think would really benefit atheism and humanism would be to spend less time, sort of, you know, pointing to the faults and flaws and other communities and spend more time investing in practices, infrastructure that helps us lead more reflective lives. Which again, really has been a thing that I’ve tried to support over the years in, in the community that I’m a part of.

Singh

Thank you. That’s such a great and comprehensive response, both in terms of what, what the piece was about, but also then how that plays out within, within our circles. Not just yours and not just mine, but ours together and I really appreciate that.

We have a question from Andrew that I wanted to bring forward. And it’s, you know, in your experiences through all of this and, and in building communities and being inside of religious communities and outside of them, what proactive measures can be taken by both religious and non-religious communities to have better corrupt collaboration and anti-racism work?

Stedman

Yeah. So, I think that in general, you know, one of the things that I have found most valuable is to recognize that I need multiple kinds of spaces, right? So, I get one thing out of being among fellow atheists and humanists. But I get other things that are very important by being in spaces where I’m intentionally engaging with people who have different worldviews than I do. And so, you know, I mean, this is a thing that you and I have connected around. Many times over the years is, you know, when, like, you know, at, at the sort of heart of anti-racism work is recognizing that there are inherent limitations to what I can understand based on my own experience in the world as a white person, there are just things that I will never be able to understand and that you know, I, I need people in my life who can help me understand experiences, you know, beyond my own and what a gift that is that, you know, I have people in my life were generous enough to help me understand experiences outside of my own.

And so, you know, I, I think we’re all familiar or many of us have experienced interfaith work at its sort of worst when it’s tokenizing. Right? When it’s like, okay, we’re going to have, we need, you know, like I have felt this coming to an interfaith event and being expected to be the ambassador for all atheists and humanists, which I could never be. Right? And not only because like most of them wouldn’t want me to not even for homophobic reasons, but just because I’m not, I can’t possibly represent their worldview, but, you know – so that that’s, you know, that’s interfaith and anti-racism work, you know, when at its worst, when you are put in a position where you’re being asked to be an ambassador for an entire set of experiences when you can only, of course, be an ambassador for your own.

But, and this is where like, there is real value to the kind of one-off interfaith events that I’ve been a part of. You have an opportunity to connect with people you might not otherwise, but real change happens in relationships, right? It’s in friendships and trusted relationships where you can actually be honest with one another. And you know, it is where I have experienced the greatest amount of transformation in my own worldview and have been, you know, really forced to go to uncomfortable places within myself has been in those relationships with people who, you know, I trust to be honest with me and who trusts me to be able to receive that honesty. And so, you know, I think that the one thing I would really encourage us that, like, you know, it, it’s great to go to a program or an event, whether it’s an interface event or an anti-racist event. You know, we need bodies. We need people to show up at marches, all of those things, but really more than anything like that has to be a sort of first step.

And what you, what, for me, at least where I’ve experienced, true transformation has been in my relationships with people who are able and willing to hold me accountable to myself and to, to our relationship. So, that’s just, I mean, it’s, maybe that’s obvious, but that’s one thing I would offer.

Singh

I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you, Chris, for sharing that and thank you again for taking out the time to share your insights with us and your experiences and your knowledge. You do so much for the world already and it’s really generous of you to do this for us and with us today.

So, thank you, Chris. And for those who are inspired and touched his new book, IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives, it’s fantastic. I’ve read it. I don’t have my copy with me. So, I’m, I’m embarrassed to confess that I’m not holding it in my apartment right now. But it’s, it’s a really good book. It’s really helpful, especially given everything that’s going on in our worlds and in our personal lives right now. So, so thank you, Chris, for the work you do, and for taking time to share with us today.

Stedman

Please, thank you for the invitation. And yeah, I just, I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the many gifts of, of knowing you over the years. And this is just another one. So, thank you very much. And thanks everyone for being a part of this conversation today. I’m very grateful.