An acting teacher once told me, “no one wants to see your stupid, little life on stage. People aren’t interested in the boring things you do. When something gets dramatized, its because it’s a big, exciting thing!”
I think about that a lot when I read memoir. In biography and history, someone decided that some event or life was notable enough to be worth reporting. In memoir and autobiography, the author decides what counts as dramatic. Usually, things that feel really notable to us personally just aren’t that interesting.
That isn’t to say that Chris Steadman’s very good book isn’t interesting! His coming out story and struggle with religion are at the same time detailed in how personal they are and yet universal in their overall arc. Sometimes its just nice to know there are other people dealing with the same shit you’re dealing with.
But writing anything like a memoir in your 20s seems a little foolhardy, which becomes apparent in the later chapters of Chris’ story. He recognizes this, of course. He is, like everyone, a work in progress and he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. A lack of answers is somewhat unsatisfying in a book, which we generally turn to for answers! I don’t know if that means he should have written this book in a different way, the memoir aspect is a large part of what makes this engaging. But maybe giving it a few more years he might have found a stronger punchline to the end of the story.
If there is a conclusion to his thesis, it is that we’re better off interfacing with people of disparate religious traditions rather than shunning them. The conclusion is: “Interfaith dialogue is good.” I don’t think that was in question, of course, and it seems a little reductive to take all of his struggle and pain through adolescence and reduce it to: now I can talk to religious people for my job.
Chris does a great job of promoting humanism in a personal way, even at the expense of a harder philosophical approach. The logical, argumentative way hasn’t worked, clearly. Philosophers and pundits have very clearly destroyed every premise upon which traditional religion rests, and yet still the vast majority of people continue to believe. Chris’ personal stories give us an alternative to the militant “new atheism” that has previously been popular (well, among atheists at least), even if it stops a little short of prescribing a template for how others can universalize this experience.
At the end of the book Chris explores two challenges to including atheism in interfaith work. One is that doing so validates religion in a way which more combative strains of atheism refuse to do, the other is that including atheism in interfaith work denigrates atheism and humanism as “just another religion.” Chris answers both of these in a practical way: that it is better to engage in the dialogue than not. He doesn’t, though, necessarily engage with the logic of the argument. These issues are the reason why atheists seem so angry! It isn’t just that they don’t like the religious, they know them to be actively propagating a lie. A lot of interfaith dialogue rests on the assumption that we have more in common than not, and atheists could be included in this assumption. The problem is the only way to those commonalities is for theists to abandon or at least recognize their fundamental rejection of material reality, otherwise the dialogue is hardly in good faith. An interfaith dialogue where the parties hold to different epistemological rules is useful in a facile way; it might allow everyone to leave each other alone enough to happily co-exist. Unfortunately, it will never ultimately reconcile the disagreement at the root of their confrontation.
I’m guilty of taking the side of the “new atheists” to which Chris is trying to voice an alternative, of course. I don’t recommend the sort of aggression or Islamophobia or intolerance which some “new atheists” are guilty of, so I respect Chris’ search for a middle way. Maybe he’s offering the beginning of the path to which I can’t see the end and I need to trust his work in the field as evidence that there’s a better outcome than I can imagine. I certainly appreciate his gentle approach to validating the atheist and humanist experiences. I just can’t help but think that, like most compromises, this one leaves all parties unsatisfied.