You may be asking yourself: What on earth is a ‘faitheist’?
It’s been years since I first heard the term “faitheist”—a pejorative used by some atheists to describe other nontheists who seem too accommodating of religion. As an atheist and an interfaith activist, I decided that I liked the word enough to embrace it. I used the word as the title for my first book, a memoir calling for conversation and cooperation between atheists and people of faith.
In reclaiming the word, I understand it to mean that I am an atheist in pursuit of common ground with the religious. That, as a naturalist and nontheist, I place my “faith” in humanity—in the idea that religious believers and atheists can overcome the false dichotomies that separate us, focus on areas of agreement, and work together to build a better world. I’m happy to say that this kind of conversation—one centered on shared values rather than solely on divisions—appears to be gaining traction.
In writing Faitheist, I didn’t set out to pen an authoritative book on the subject, but rather to contribute to an ongoing discussion about how atheists and people of faith live alongside one another in a religiously diverse world. I ended the book by inviting readers to reach out and share their stories—and they have. I’ve learned so much from these diverse responses—both from those who have embraced the idea, sharing unique stories and insights, and from those who have posed challenges.
In that spirit, I’m thrilled to continue the conversation—and continue my learning—as the new atheist (lowercase n, lowercase a) columnist for Religion News Service.
I’m eager to join the exciting conversations happening here, and I’m thankful to RNS for inviting me. I’d like to take my first post to give readers an idea of what I hope to accomplish with my writing.
1. Put atheism and interfaith work at the forefront. Atheism is a minority perspective. Though an increasing number of Americans (1 in 5 of the general population and 1 in 3 under the age of 30) no longer affiliate with organized religion, a significant majority of the nonreligious (around 70 percent) believe in a god or universal spirit. Atheists and agnostics constitute a minority even among the nonreligious (12 percent and 17 percent of the nonreligious, respectively). Thus, one of my priorities is to help amplify the voice of atheists and share our experiences and identities more broadly. Simultaneously, we live in what is perhaps the most religiously diverse nation in the history of human civilization. So while I will discuss how atheists are becoming increasingly visible and active, I will also comment on the quickly growing interfaith movement and the role that atheists can and are playing in a religiously diverse society.
2. Cast a critical eye on religion and atheism news. In a time when atheists are in the headlines perhaps more than ever—from so-called “atheist megachurches” (the Sunday Assembly movement) to atheists in the military and everything in between—I will unpack some of these issues from the point of view of an atheist community organizer and a student of religion. (Both my B.A. and M.A. are in religion, and I continue to study religion and learn from religious communities.) I strive to apply a skeptical lens to everything that I hear and read, and I will reconsider here some of the popular commentaries on religion and atheism.
3. Challenge manifestations of anti-atheist bias, stigma, or ignorance. Though atheists are becoming more visible, that does not mean that anti-atheist bias has disappeared. I’m increasingly passionate about addressing this ill, and I will continue to seek to expose it in both its explicit and subtle manifestations. (For an example of what this conversation might look like, here’s a recent discussion I participated in about it on CNN’s “Faces of Faith.”) I will also challenge expressions of bias or prejudice toward other religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs.
4. Challenge the idea that atheism is necessarily anti-religion. Sometimes atheists can be our own worst enemy. I frequently see atheist activism or commentary on religion that is either ill-informed or simply inaccurate. Worse still, clumsy atheist activism sometimes fuels hatred toward religious minorities or contributes to the spread of misinformation and ignorance. Religion is not a monolith—and when some other atheists treat it as such, or adopt a shallow and overbroad approach, I will not be shy about expressing my concerns. I’ve been critical of what I consider problematic activism in the name of atheism and I will continue to do so here. I will also seek to build bridges of understanding and respect between atheists and theists.
5. Elevate voices of cooperation. In a world that prioritizes stories of conflict, this column will offer a call for pluralism, civility, and cooperation. Our culture and our media frequently privilege stories of conflict, and this skews how we consider religion. Extremists have a disproportionate influence—consider how much attention the Westboro Baptist Church garners with fewer than 100 people. These few but loud voices of conflict often cloud our understanding of religion. I’d like to use this column to offer an alternate narrative about religious differences—one of pluralism, rather than the nihilistic and inaccurate clash of civilizations narrative.
6. Consider how millennials are approaching religion. From my work and travels, one thing has become abundantly clear: People want to have a different kind of conversation about atheism, religion, and where they intersect. Through my experiences as a Humanist chaplain who works with college students every day, but also as a 26 year old, I’ve seen that millennials are often at the forefront of this shift. I want to use this space to help elevate the distinct perspectives millennials are bringing to religious discussions.
7. Fix a queer eye on atheism and religion news. My first professional experiences (aside from high school jobs such as washing dishes at a restaurant) were in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) organizations. Over the years, my continued involvement has taught me a great deal about the intersections of social identity characteristics. My queer identity frequently intersects with the work that I do around atheism and interfaith dialogue, and I will explore those intersections here—unpacking how atheists, religious communities, and interfaith movements approach issues related to LGBTQ identity.
8. Advocate for social justice and religious freedom. I’ll try not to overextend myself into areas where I am uninformed, but I will write about important social justice issues and how atheists and people of faith can make a difference in the world. I’ll also refer to important takes from others whenever possible.
9. Explore the “yes” of atheism and Humanism. Atheists are often and broadly portrayed as never being for anything, focusing instead on opposition. But as an atheist activist, I know that this does not reflect the lived reality of many atheists. Atheists everywhere are doing important work, and communities play a powerful role in this. In American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that religious Americans are more civically engaged than the nonreligious—giving more to both religious and secular charities, volunteering more, and so on. But they also found that a nonbelieving spouse of a religious person was just as likely to be civically engaged if she or he was involved in the religious community of her or his partner. Thus, communities are vitally important in cultivating and communicating the powerful, life-affirming values many atheists and Humanists hold. So I will share reflections on Humanism and on living a meaningful, ethical life without belief in any gods. Much of this may take the form of stories and updates from my work with the Humanist Community at Harvard, with the fledgling Yale Humanist Community, and from my visits with nontheist communities around the world.
10. Highlight emerging voices. I’m always trying to learn more and consider new perspectives. In that respect, I’ll share stories, insights, and interviews with activists, scholars, community organizers, artists, comedians, and others. Want to see someone interviewed here? Please reach out (Twitter, Facebook, or email) and make a suggestion!
I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations—and surely others—here at RNS. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments and let me know what you’d like me to consider or write on. In the meantime, from this “faitheist” to all of you—thanks for joining me here!
Please note: The views presented in this column reflect those of the author, and not necessarily his employers or any organizations or individuals he is affiliated with.