Chris Stedman: The Development of a Remarkable Humanist Leader

By Mary McLeod

Chris Stedman, a widely published, award-winning young gay humanist writer and advocate, is an important ally to Humanists of Minnesota now that he has returned to the Twin Cities. He is working to build a Humanist Center of Minnesota and conducting a study on ”nones,” or people with no religious affiliation. Mary McLeod profiles him below.

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Chris and I met up at a Kingfield neighborhood coffee shop to get acquainted, and an introductory subject set him off and running:  "Tell me about your childhood." Well. This was no ordinary childhood, and he was no ordinary child.

He's a Minnesotan, was born in Robbinsdale, then lived in Roseville and Coon Rapids. His grandmother was a Methodist, but dabbled in things like astrology as well.  She also wrote a progressive Sunday School guide on human sexuality. And yet they did not overtly talk about religion in his household. When an ethical question arose, they had a touchstone to consult:  What would Grandma Judith do? Grandma Judith had died when Chris was 3, and had apparently achieved mythical status in their household — and perhaps deservedly so.

The family did not attend church or pray when he was growing up, and Chris was encouraged to ask hard, deep questions.  He still feels grateful for that. He was surrounded by books, and read widely and delved deeply for such a young man.

His parents divorced when Chris was 11, and it was disruptive to all — two younger brothers, one older sister.  Amid this chaos, friends invited him to a nondenominational, conservative Christian youth group, and it became a haven of sorts.  He read widely for such a young boy, about atrocities like Hiroshima and slavery, and these truths shocked him. At some point, he converted to Christianity, but was nevertheless uncomfortable with its emphasis on sexuality and demonizing of gays.  He suspected, deep down, that he was gay at that time, but wasn't ready to come out.

First, he consulted the church library books about how to "fix" gayness, but this internal study and struggle isolated him from everyone, and he couldn't tell anyone about it. From ages 11 to 14, he was miserable over this.  

Observing that something was deeply troubling him, his mom found and read his journal (an act that shocked and appalled him at the time), and sent him to an LGBT-friendly Lutheran minister of a church that was passionate about social justice.  This became his spiritual home, for all the right reasons. (He is now grateful to his mom for violating that boundary and finding him a church that fit his young mind.)

In high school, he came out — perhaps the first in his school to do so — and started an LGBT support group.  That caused a ruckus! He was beginning to set the style he was to follow in other areas of his life. His mother’s family was  supportive of him, but he contacted his father’s side of the family and told them that if any of them voted for the proposed 2012 Minnesota amendment to ban same-sex marriage, he would no longer attend any family events.  Some did vote for it, and Chris has not been to a family gathering since. He is now torn about this, as one can imagine, but it was a forthright and courageous stand to take.

He chose Augsburg College (now Augsburg University) for his undergraduate education, studying religion and thinking he might want to become a minister one day.  His professors asked him to explore what he believed, and why. Since he had always struggled with theology and the idea of God, by graduation he was a nonbeliever, more atheistic than anything else.  He graduated summa cum laude in Religion from Augsburg University (with minors in English and Social Welfare).

He then went to Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, where he earned an M.A. in Religion, and was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement.

Chris is not a proselytizer.  He is more concerned with whether people are happy, functional, and have good values working in their lives than in converting them to his beliefs.

He now wants to find ways to bring people together in nonreligious community settings, with good talks — not sermons — and other group activities.  He is currently director of the fledgling Humanist Center of Minnesota, a project supported by HofMN. He is hoping to build the center into a place with  resources that can do more than just sponsor meetings. Though church works for some, and he supports those who find it fulfilling and meaningful, he envisions some alternative choices for those of us who don’t.

To explore this question, he is working carefully with sociology professors at the University of Minnesota to design a study to find out more about the growing number of “nones,” people with no religious affiliation. This will form the basis for many papers the professors hope to write based on the study's data.  

Chris has written one book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (2012), and is working on a second that has no fixed title as yet.  It deals with social media, and what it means to be "real" in this world.  Or, what does our online behavior say about the ways in which we tell our stories to one another and share our deeper lives?

(This old bird prefers the telephone first, longish emails second, and reserves her Twitter account for very, very special occasions.  But I know that's not the way of the younger generation, and welcome their astounding creativity and activism.)

Chris is now 31.  Before he returned to Minnesota, he was the founding executive director of the Yale Humanist Community and a fellow at Yale University.  He also worked as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and a content developer for the Interfaith Youth Core. He currently works as a fellow at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship and at the Christensen Center for Vocation, both at Augsburg.

Chris also writes a monthly column on the same topic as his current book, for INTO.  He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, PBS, and Fox News. He has spoken at hundreds of conferences and universities, and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, VICE, The Los Angeles Review of Books, CNN, MSNBC, USA Today, Salon, The Washington Post.  

Details magazine named him one of “five next-gen gurus who are disrupting religion’s status quo” and Mic called him “the millennial who’s busting every stereotype about atheists.”  In 2018, Augsburg selected him for their annual First Decade Award, which recognizes alumni “who have made significant progress in their professional achievements and contributions to the community” 10 years after graduating.

To quote Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  And did I say he’s only 31?