What inspired you to write Faitheist? What sparked your interest?
I didn’t think I would write this book—not now, anyway. After the idea first occurred to me, I’d tell myself that I would write it in five or ten years, perhaps… [but] when I started blogging about doing interfaith work as an atheist, the intensity of the responses I got—both good and bad—really surprised me. So I knew it was a conversation that other people wanted to have. But I didn’t think I would, or could, write a book yet.
I sketched out ideas here and there, but one discussion really pushed me to give it a serious try. On my last day as a contract employee at Interfaith Youth Core, I had lunch with the organization’s founder, Eboo Patel. As someone who has played a sizable role in informing my perspective on the urgency of constructive interfaith engagement, I wanted to let him know about my aspirations to write about the experiences that have informed my conviction that it is important for atheists to participate in such efforts.
He expressed enthusiasm at the idea, but during our conversation, he kept returning to a single question: when was I going to write this book? When I told him that I planned to do it someday, he replied: “Why not start writing it now?” So I decided I would, and before I really knew what was happening I had written a third of it. I’m very glad he pushed me to try my hand at writing it… I probably would’ve told myself I was too young and inexperienced to write it for another few decades. And though it is far from perfect, I’m really proud of this book, and think it is timely.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
I wrote Faitheist because, as I started doing interfaith work, I noticed that there was a paucity of nonreligious people involved. At the same time, I started to explore the atheist movement. I noticed that my colleagues in the interfaith movement were quite connected to their own communities, and I was studying religious communities as a graduate student, so I wanted to see how atheist communities functioned. Frankly, I was a bit astonished by what I found. I noticed right away that one of the only unifying characteristics among many people in attendance at atheist meetings was that many maintained a very strong disdain for religion—one that often carried over into a strong disdain for religious believers.
I loved working for Interfaith Youth Core, but in talking with others I realized that my work would be stronger if I could root it in an atheist context. In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell reported that religious Americans are more civically engaged than nonreligious Americans. They give more to charity (both religious charities and entirely secular ones), they are more prone to run for political office, they volunteer more of their time to various causes; overall, they’re just much more involved in their local communities.
However, they suggest that the difference in civic engagement is not correlated with the intensity of an individual’s religious beliefs but instead the degree to which they are involved in their religious community or congregation. Because of this, they suggested that moral nonreligious communities could serve a similar function. Along these lines, I decided to take a position at the Humanist Community at Harvard as a Chaplain and coordinator of interfaith dialogue and community service program, because I believe that involvement in such a community can help provide opportunities for the nonreligious to be more civically engaged and to participate in constructive dialogue with religious allies.
In that sense, I hope people—atheists and religious people alike—walk away from this book more willing to reach out to those they see as unlike themselves, less willing to out-group people over religious differences, and motivated to give voice to their own experiences and values. That kind of attitude is where change begins, and it is desperately needed in this era of religious polarization. Finally, I also hope this book will humanize my experiences as a gay atheist to those who find it difficult to understand LGBT people and the nonreligious.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
Oh, plenty. I’m not good at being concise—just ask my high school English teachers, or pretty much any teacher I’ve ever had. My Master’s thesis was supposed to be around 30 pages long but ended up being over 450, including supplemental material. To this day I can’t explain what compelled me to write so much… I guess I just kept finding new aspects of the issues I was writing about that I wanted to explore.
I didn’t have that luxury when writing this book; we needed to keep it around a certain word count. I wrote a concluding chapter where I described my tattoos in chronological order, as a way to reflect back on some of the stories and themes I shared throughout the book, but it just went on much too long and, if I’m to be honest, felt a bit self-indulgent. Also, I had essentially already concluded the book before that chapter even began. So that entire section was cut, and the book felt stronger without it. This is just one reason I really benefited from working with my wonderful editor Amy Caldwell, because I’m not sure I would’ve seen that the book was better without that chapter on my own.
More broadly, while this book is in many ways a memoir, it is primarily about my evolving relationship with and understanding of religion and religious diversity. There are many life events I feasibly could’ve and would’ve liked to include in a memoir, but I decided early on in the project to try to focus on the occurrences and realizations that have most informed my outlook on religion. I went through a bit of a mourning process when I realized that there were deeply transformative personal experiences that I wouldn’t write about in this book; but I made peace with that fact when I realized that Faitheist is a collection of stories that paint a narrative picture of why I am passionate about the work I do now, instead of a definitive statement on everything that, and everyone who, has ever mattered to me.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Where to begin? Seriously, this subject is an absolute minefield. People on both sides project all kinds of things on to people who are trying to facilitate dialogue between atheists and the religious—that we don’t care about “truth,” that we avoid conflict because it makes us uncomfortable, or that we’re dishonest about the very real differences that exist between religious (and nonreligious) communities and individuals. I can promise you there are no kumbaya drum circles in this book—if that’s your thing, great, but it isn’t mine, and it doesn’t have to be your thing to get involved in efforts that promote religious pluralism.
I actually included a section in Faitheist responding to common misconceptions immediately after I lay out some of the biggest reasons I think atheists should get involved in interfaith efforts. You know, it’s actually adapted from a piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches! Since I’ve been doing this work, writing about it, and speaking on it for a few years now, I’ve had the opportunity to receive and respond to a fair amount of criticism, and I wanted to include that in the book.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I wrote this book hoping that anyone could pick it up and walk away challenged and inspired to action, but there were definitely a few audiences I had in mind. I directly address my fellow atheists most often throughout this book, because it is the community I belong to, and because when I started writing it I hadn’t encountered many other atheist voices challenging destructive expressions of in-group tribalism and encouraging other atheists to pluralistic activism.
That being said, I also wrote it with religious communities in mind. I’d like to see existing interfaith efforts prioritize cooperation and outreach that includes the nonreligious and challenge the anti-atheist bias permeating our culture, and I speak to that in this book. I also wrote Faitheist with evangelical Christians in mind, as I am a former evangelical, and Muslims, because I’ve done a lot of work with Muslims. Those are two communities that, in my experiences, have a lot of people who haven’t had many positive encounters with atheists, and I’d like to help build some bridges there if I can. Of course, I hope members of those communities will be challenged by some of what they read, too.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I mean, I’m not sure I’ll be able to avoid pissing some people off, even if I wanted to! This is, after all, a book about how I went from being a closeted evangelical Christian to an unapologetic, openly gay atheist. And it’s also a challenge to the atheist community to rethink its approach to religious diversity. So I’m sure I will continue to rankle some folks on both sides of the religious-secular divide. And while I do hope people enjoy reading this book—I discovered a real love for writing creative nonfiction while working on it—I definitely set out hoping to write something informative, not just pleasurable or incendiary. Marshall Ganz once said: “Stories are what enable us to communicate [our] values to one another.” I hope people will walk away from the stories I share in Faitheist with a sense of why I value and prioritize cooperation and compassion, and with an understanding of some of the ways in which atheists and the religious can find important areas of agreement.
What alternative title would you give the book?
I don’t think there is any other title I could have given it. In the first chapter of the book, I share a story about how I was first introduced to that term. It was used against me as an epithet the very first time I attended an atheist meeting, after I shared that I worked for an organization that promoted inter-religious dialogue and cooperative action. I am a sucker for clever worldplay and, for reasons I explain in the book, I liked the idea of “reclaiming” that word. At one point we toyed with calling it (F)a(i)theist but eventually decided that was kind of overkill. Also, can you imagine the complications that would cause for library shelving systems?!
How do you feel about the cover?
My publisher, Beacon Press, is so wonderful. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just the best. They’ve been more than tolerant of my desire to be really hands-on in the publication process, soliciting my input on many different things relating to the book. I actually told them before I signed my contract that I wanted to be able to assist with the aesthetics of the project, and they were totally receptive. The cover is actually a collaboration of work I did with a couple of friends and with Beacon’s in-house people. It may seem a bit superficial to care so much about things like the cover, but I know that when I’m walking through a bookstore, my reaction to a book’s cover has a lot to do with whether I decide to pick up an unfamiliar book or not. I’m very happy with how the cover turned out.
Also, I’d like to share a quick anecdote about the photo used on the cover. I was doing a photo shoot for the cover and the majority of the pictures were of me looking quite serious. The one we ended up selecting for the cover was an outtake—an accidental shot taken while I was trying to regain my composure after laughing because I felt a bit strange trying to look so solemn. We saw it and decided it was fitting, because I think—I hope—this book has a light, open, approachable feel to it. Even though it addresses some very serious subjects, including atheism, religious conflicts, homophobia, violence, and death, I want it to feel human and accessible and warm.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
There are so many; in fact, one of the first reactions I have to a good book is envy. In high school, I wanted to have written all of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. But while there are many books I wish I had written, right now I just feel grateful that I was able to write a book at all.
What’s your next book?
I’ve tossed around a few ideas—mostly as a result of puns and jokes I’ve made with friends. There’s one idea that I’m really leaning toward regarding religious and cultural memes on the relationship between emotion and rationality, but I need to flesh out my thinking on the matter a bit more before I’m ready to say much. More than anything, I’m primarily focusing my energy right now on the work I’m doing with the Humanist Community at Harvard and on this book. Ask me again in five or ten years?