Author, Interfaith Leader Chris Stedman Discusses Faith & Sexuality
One of the most profound changes that occur after we realize that we are LGBT is how we begin to analyze every other facet of our lives. As a result of realizing our sexual identity and nature, we question the validity of everything we’ve been told to believe throughout our lives. From rules set by our caregivers that guide and discipline us to what our religious and spiritual leaders tell us about God, this becomes a time of great introspection and discovery. Most notably the time is marked by a series of questions and what religion and our faith are able to bring to our lives. We question if we can still believe in a religion or rather teachers of that religion that being gay is wrong.
Faith is believed to be blueprint to our morality as it sets to guide us through all aspects of our existence. To an extent, faith is believed to be the figurative parent to our morality. We know that this construct of what faith means is different for everyone. As we have our own unique experiences and upbringings we discover that no two people believe in the same way. So when I was asked a while back to discuss religion and sexuality I had a hard time collecting my thoughts in a way that made sense.
Luckily through social media I had the great privilege of getting to know author and interfaith leader Chris Stedman and he was able to shed some light on how our beliefs growing up may effect how and when we come out. And as time went on he agreed to have a phone interview to learn about his latest book, Faitheist. This narrative work that is both biopic and applicable principles to today’s society chronicles Stedman’s journey of self-discovery as a result of initially wanting others to come together and share differing ideas all the while building a sense of community and acceptance. This serves as a steady bridge for me to approach the subject of faith and sexuality.
I knew that discussing Stedman and his principles would provide clarity of my own thoughts on religion/faith in this discussion and how it could relate to the LGBT community. Let’s face facts; this is a sensitive issue regardless of your stance because our beliefs are always associated with our morality. We are passionate about what we believe in and too often when the subject comes up, especially when it relates to members of the LGBT community, emotions are heightened to a state where emotions overcompensate for reason. Facts are misconstrued and beliefs are treated as vengeful weapons against any opposition. I don’t want this discussion to go in that direction. That’s why reviewing Stedman’s position on the matter shows how differences in beliefs can come together.
Within the first five minutes I learned initially as we discussed atheism and group identity how different my own beliefs are from Stedman’s principles but still related to so much with what he advocates. Always at the ready to having meaningful dialogue, whether that be on his blog or his twitter account, I know that we can discuss this without conflict. When he explained pluralism and how Faitheist demonstrates inclusion of all beliefs it helped erode this stoic, detached persona so erroneously associated with atheists because of their beliefs. Even when Stedman admitted he feels that most of those that have a belief in God or deities are wrong that does not prevent us from knowing one another. His belief does not condemn me or anyone else and we can still relate to each other.
To further advance the reasoning behind his principles, Stedman brought up that while growing up he felt that he couldn’t be both gay and a Christian. He then told me about a religious cross he wore as a symbol of his faith and how he received a lot of teasing and criticism. Of course he was not suggesting that this lead him to atheism but it is something we need to observe because it shows an example that as LGBT men and women we do not belong to just one identity or community. Dichotomies exist within our community that we often enough do not discuss and duality can affect many aspects of our lives. Not only in faith but in racial/ethnic minorities, and even gender and socioeconomic status… Stedman believes that when we talk about this it creates an ethos that will foster experience.
Stedman helped me realize again how cooperation and acceptance are paramount as he discussed how his experiences shaped this principle. When he talked about him growing up in what he described as an irreglious home, he became a born again Christian at age 11 after his parents separated. Before he recommitted to the church he read about different cultures and perspectives and it taught him a greater depth of empathy. Shortly after his parents separated he sought out religion for normality and structure, and a community that was willing to support him all the while giving guidance from a position of authority. Felt their rigidity would provide clear answers.
As I write this I remember a song by George Michael, How you gotta have faith. The video was expressive about sexuality and having faith in your ability to love yourself. Looking back on it now I know the reason I was so drawn to this music video at 8 years old was because George Michael had a nice smile was doing throughout it was because of my developing sexuality. But it also made me question what faith was because I remember asking my mom after watching it what faith meant. She simply referred to it as “something you know to be true”. At that time I wanted faith because I thought it was cool. But I did begin to seek out comfort from it.
Both of our narratives, though completely different in our youth were looking for answers to faith with different environments and outcomes but the stories do reflect how we search for meaning at a young age. Looking for answers to why we feel the need to belong and what that means for ourselves. I think one of the greatest lessons we learn is deciphering what faith means to our self-worth. No matter what one’s own beliefs of faith or non-faith you have to reach a point in which you rely on the strength that resides inside you. A willingness to trust that we are indeed made this way naturally as it was meant to be, by biology or God.
We know that there can be many obstacles that we face before, during, and sometimes even after we come out of the closet. One of the things that we question most is our belief in God. We begin to speculate if we were truly meant to be LGBT because of what we’re taught about homosexuality and wonder if our sexuality is natural. Faitheist is a narrative of someone’s own journey that is continually seeking a sense of community and a celebration of our various differences. The concept of pluralism the respects the differing opinions, beliefs, and philosophies without the need of ostracizing. It gives the reader a relatable account of coming to terms with faith and sexuality.
I loved how inclusive his work is in both his literary work and his ability to apply that people of all walks of life. Faitheist is at its most general definition a story of inclusion. I truly marvel out how when there is conflict of beliefs, whether it’s critics or social media can be done diplomatically. As we delved deeper into this interview I asked Stedman about if the nature and principles of atheism makes it easier for LGBT men and women to process and accept their sexuality and come out. Detailing later in a humble response noted that the issues that face as we process our sexuality and our experiences are not that simple:
Once I began to question certain norms, it opened me up to questioning others, including the normative religious beliefs I had adopted. But I wouldn’t say that I became an atheist as a direct result of coming out, since I was a Christian for the first number of years that I was out of the closer as a queer person. Whether a queer person is religious or not, and whether or not that changes in conjunction with the coming out process, I think that there is a common experience of challenging assumptions and traditional ideas that most of us experience as we come out.
This is one of the reasons that I discuss the topic of coming out so much. Because so often when a person surprises one aspect of themselves, they are likely suppressing their ability to actively question other aspects of who they are. During our conversation I was completely fascinated with the empathy and compassion expresses throughout his work and his pluralistic approach. Onward as we discussed more about the principles he felt necessary like open dialogue are necessary to bridge understanding between belief and non-belief:
Sometimes it isn’t always clear which came first, but they necessarily inform and support one another. Meaningful dialogue, where all parties listen and strive to understand, engenders compassion and empathy; likewise, a compassionate approach enables dialogue in the pursuit of common ground, making it more accessible and more effective.
It takes people out of these their comfort zones when we discuss differences. When we hear stories about conflicts driven by media that are divisive “conflict is the exception to the rule” he stated which suggests that instead of defending their own beliefs we are simply arguing to see who’s right. So we need to approach of our own stories, our own identity as a whole, and not just about what we believe. It’s all about humanizing our differences. Options that both Stedman and I did were not afforded growing up.
But this made me think about the process more and how difficult it can be as a result of religion so I asked if he felt this would eliminate prejudices. We know how religion is used against this community so it’s understandable why many feel that if religion no longer existed that we would have an easier time processing and accepting our sexuality. However, during our conversation this assumption was the one thing that Stedman disagreed with most.
Stedman did not feel that the elimination of religion would lessen our issues as we are naturally have the dynamics of tribalism and a feeling of wanting to fit in with the majority. After thinking about it for a while I see why he came to that conclusion. We will always want to feel like we belong and as a result any inherent differences would potentially stagnate acceptance. It’s also important to note that Stedman expressed that the first people to accept his sexuality were his brothers and sisters from his church before realizing he was an atheist. He hadn’t accepted atheism until years after he came out.. So it is not about beliefs in God, it’s about tribal natural need to belong.
Attempting to think in even more abstract terms I asked Stedman if he felt that atheism was more a philosophy than a grounded, secular belief. When he decided he didn’t believe in God it was sadness and the way he expressed this epiphany felt to me that he was describing the loss of a loved one. Letting go of a concept that you have believed in your entire life has to take some time to process. But atheism brought comfort to Stedman because it taught him fortitude and a faith in himself because no one else could accomplish his goals and overcome any challenges. It motivated and empowered him to become more active.
The incentive of taking ownership becomes stronger and more rich. This concept reminds Stedman to live in the moment as time is finite. It suggests that at some point when we are accepting who we are that we have to take the initiative to persevere no matter what. We have to take control of our challenges and look at our actions in how they will affect that outcome. Being LGBT teaches us that it is up to us to make our lives and our environment better. It may not always come easy or in the time of our choosing but when we hold ourselves accountable for the direction our lives are going it truly invites us to be who we are. It encourages us to live. This point is what resonated with me the most during our discussion. You become appreciative of time when you know it is limited.
It’s important to note that Stedman and I are not suggesting that this discussion was meant to suggest we believe people who are LGBT and in the process of coming out would have an easier time if they became atheists. Far from it. But I do believe those that are going through this process should be ready for how this aspect may have on a subconscious level affected many other facets of their lives and personality.
I believe what Stedman expressed both in his book, and in our conversation, is that examining our beliefs in all areas of our lives gives us a greater sense of self. Throughout this process that we go through in coming to terms with our sexuality and our beliefs we have to trust ourselves more than anyone else, regardless of whether or not you believe in God. Homogeneity is celebrated in our community more than individuality and Faitheist provides examples of how we can approach our different outlooks with diplomacy.
The biggest advantage to reading Faitheist or starting any discussion about faith is that dialogue will allow you to process your opinion and your beliefs openly. No matter those beliefs, with an open mind you can be honest about them and I will always advocate for that. We need more dialogue and opinions and beliefs not only in this community but society as a whole. You can have meaningful relationships with people of different backgrounds and beliefs with respect. This interview along with Stedman;s book accurately and passionately demonstrates that faith is not synonymous with morality. Morality should always be met with humanity and respect. We have to always remember that when we talk about faith, no matter what you believe. But we have to be willing to make that first step. So reach out. Talk.