Non-believers welcome

On Feb. 11, as part of its “Big Questions” series, the Center for Faith and Vocation welcomed interfaith activist Chris Stedman to campus.

The title of his talk was “Secular Humanism and Interfaith Action: Is There Room for the Non-Believer?”

Stedman serves as an interfaith and community service fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. He regularly writes a blog, “NonProphet Status,” and is working on a book due to be released in 2012.

Stedman is currently on an eight-stop college and university speaking tour.

As a self-proclaimed atheist, he discussed the importance of interfaith community involvement, and the cost of radical atheism versus the benefit of working for interfaith cooperation.

He spoke of his difficulty of relating to the atheist community, many of whose members hold a strictly anti-religious worldview. Stedman believes that this radical approach only undermines the effort to build bridges, and that in order to be taken seriously, atheists must show respect for other religions.

“Religion is not monolithic, nor is it inert,” Stedman said.

He believes the United States is both religiously diverse and religiously illiterate, and that both secular and religious Americans need to engage in a constructive and respectful exchange.

One of the issues he pointed out is our society’s irrational exclusion of those who are religiously, culturally or ethnically different. This results in a wall of separation to keep out others, which only further disintegrates society.

“We must create an expanded network that is truly inclusive and inviting to all people,” he said.

Stedman’s personal experiences color his approach to faith. His speech was interspersed with interesting stories and anecdotes about reconciling his identities as a former Christian, a gay man and an atheist.

Stedman described himself as “humanist,” or someone concerned with establishing a positive life for all. This is reflected in his interfaith work and political advocacy, which includes causes from transgender rights to promoting a national interfaith dialogue.

“I would love to see our politicians talk about faith in a different way,” Stedman said. “The interfaith effort should become more of a national priority.”

When asked how to best relay the importance of his cause, Stedman said people’s negative attitudes toward religion either stem from personal experience or witnessing others’ negative experiences. Because of this, it is important to get people of diverse worldviews to interact with one another and understand the importance of bridging these divides.

“I see interfaith cooperation as a way to solve the world’s problems,” Stedman said.

The topic of the speech drew many students and faculty members not just from Butler, but surrounding universities as well.

Director of the Center for Faith and Vocation Judy Cebula said bringing Stedman to campus was an important first step in initiating this kind of dialogue.

Part of the initial idea came from students who saw Stedman speak at the Interfaith Youth Core Conference in Washington, D.C.

“It’s the topic that we really liked,” Cebula said. “We usually look for something that students at Butler would be interested in.”

She hopes to see this movement progress and is happy to see a significant level of interest from students.

Senior electronic journalism and marketing major Ann Govert, who helped market the event as an intern for the Center for Faith and Vocation, said that the event was a success and the turnout was great.

“A lot of ‘Big Questions’ are bigger than usual, and we were at capacity for this event,” Govert said.

She is currently working to plan the next two events in the series, which will take place later this semester.