“I always strive to see the humanity in others, even people who don’t see mine.”
I suppose it’s no real wonder that I first met Chris Stedman, a writer and community organizer who describes himself as “Very Online,” the same way most of us met anyone in 2020—on the Internet. Toward the start of the year I followed him on Twitter, and found his posts to be a needed respite. Stuck in my conservative family household, I’d often retreat to Stedman’s timeline, where a heady blend of socialist memes, Queer Discourse, and tributes to Britney Spears awaited me. Among these shards of humor and pop culture were moments of brave vulnerability: wordless memoria to his beloved dog Tuna, who went viral back in February as an avid Bernie Sanders supporter, and who suddenly, unexpectedly passed away on July 24th, 2020. Later, I’d discover that this effortless vacillation between irony and authenticity within his online persona is echoed in the prose of Stedman’s published works, which I read over a lonesome autumn.
Stedman’s first book, Faitheist (2012), published when he was twenty-five years old, accounts his gradual separation from evangelical Christianity, which he first sought as a form of community in the wake of his parents’ divorce, and toward his subsequent adoption of an “inclusive atheism,” which serves to fight against what Stedman labels the “toxic, misdirected and wasteful” brand of “New Atheism—the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its number one target.” Around this time, he served as a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, and later became Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, facilitating interfaith dialogues among people of diverse religious and nonreligious beliefs. Shortly after the book’s publication, Stedman appeared on FOX News’s The O’Reilly Factor, dismantling the mythos of the so-called “War on Christmas.” Donovan Schaefer, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked upon Stedman’s dedicated unwillingness to engage in a verbal fight with Bill O’Reilly; rather than match the pundit’s anger, Stedman instead brought to the debate what seems to be his trademark rhetorical style: a calm response that “mixes measured agreement with principled, but non-confrontational, reaffirmations of his own perspective.”
In Stedman’s latest work, IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives (2020), the author similarly turns his thoughtful yet thorough gaze upon the Internet as a means of constructing purpose and identity, particularly amongst “religiously unaffiliated” youth, who assemble and adopt a syncretic community online based on personal interests and political beliefs. His book itself is a hybrid of memoir, criticism, and reportage, as Stedman investigates analogous means to formulate identity—activities and subcultures as diverse as tarot, drag, astrology, cartography, furries, and Dungeons & Dragons—all held together by Stedman’s moments of bracing honesty, in which he relates his struggles with OCD and anxiety, and his relationship with his stepfather, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. While, at first, these explorations might seem tangential to the ways we foster relationships and meaning online, it feels vital to explore historical models that can provide guidance to the way we live our Internet lives. Besides, as Stedman tells me later in our interview, “sometimes those tangents are where the most unexpected things come out.”
I spoke to Stedman on the phone—we’d both admitted to a mild case of “Zoom fatigue,” and needed to step away from the Internet for a bit—a couple of hours before he taught his online class for Augsburg University, in his home state of Minnesota. We’d both had a lackluster start to our Mondays, waking up around 4 AM, buoyed only by four (or six) cups of coffee. Yet Chris was personable and gregarious, laughing at our imminent need to be philosophical and profound for this interview, despite our mutual exhaustion. “Well, sounds like we’re sufficiently caffeinated,” he told me right before our conversation. “I guess we connected at just the right time.” As someone who was able to find immeasurable comfort in the midst of this unequivocal year, I could say the same for Stedman and his work.
I. Mapping The Internet
THE BELIEVER: Early on in your professional career, you experienced this distancing from the church. In IRL, you talk about how that’s an example of a much larger mass migration among people of our generation away from organized religion as a whole, and more toward finding community online through the Internet. I was wondering if you could speak about that supplanting of the church as a source of community.
CHRIS STEDMAN: So I’m really fortunate because a few years ago, I started working with a couple of sociologists at the University of Minnesota and UMass Boston on a project to study the lives of the religiously unaffiliated. For the better part of a decade, I was a humanist chaplain and community builder, working specifically with religiously unaffiliated young people as they worked to make sense of their lives and sift through questions of meaning and belonging. As much as I was learning both from my own experiences as a religiously unaffiliated person, and in working with these people, I wanted to get a more macro understanding.
There aren’t many of these kinds of communities, ones explicitly for non-religious people who want to find a sense of community and a lot of the things that religious institutions often provide.
With the majority of these communities, their approach is to look at religious models of community-building and create a secular version of that. But I was starting to suspect that there were some assumptions at work there that might not be correct—one of the biggest being that people who have either grown up without, or who have explicitly rejected, a religious affiliation would seek out something that, at least in form, resembled what they had walked away from.
Many religiously unaffiliated people, including me, even, feel as if we’ve sort of rejected the very idea of institutions, and that we are instead seeking out a more personalized experience of community, often online. There’s this idea that the Internet is this kind of personalization device where you can find your own sense of community, not based on family, not based on geography, but based on shared interests and those sorts of things.
But what I started to suspect, based on both my own experiences as a community builder and the research I was doing with sociologists, is that actually all we’ve done is swapped out one kind of institution for another. Because the digital platforms that we use to narrate our lives, to find a sense of community and connection, to express ourselves—all of the things that, again, we’ve often done in these other kinds of institutions—these digital platforms are themselves institutions. They have their own norms and conventions, just as the institutions that many of us have rejected do.
I spend a chapter of IRL using maps as a kind of metaphor for the ways that we map our lives online. When I first started work on that chapter, I was using maps as a way of thinking about how, in cartography, a mapmaker has to take this three-dimensional terrain and produce a representation of it that’s two-dimensional. That requires a process of reduction and selection. The representation can’t include every detail, otherwise it would be the size of the territory itself. And so, initially, I was thinking of maps as an example of how we sort of have to go through a similar process of selection and curation when mapping our lives online. But what I discovered, as I started spending time at the University of Minnesota’s map library and talking with the director of the Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota, is that these choices aren’t neutral.
We’re not just choosing what we put on the map based on our own whims; those choices are shaped by the conventions of institutions, and those conventions are shaped by the interests of power. And so, just as in map-making, what is shown has everything to do with what the people who hold power think is worthy of representing, and what matters. Those kinds of forces also show up in our digital lives. So it’s really easy to feel like we have rejected the very idea of institutions, and are now sort of creating our own “Build Your Own Community” online, but in fact we’re just often not aware of how these norms and conventions within our digital institutions shape how we understand what makes our lives meaningful.
BLVR: As you shifted away from organized religion, and turned toward trying to chart out your own meaning through the Internet, how would you describe the landscape of atheism at that time? There’s comfort in a monolithic, monotheistic religion: you have one book that you can cite, and people who follow that religion will also know of that book, so there’s this shared commonality immediately granted to you. While I’m not as knowledgeable about atheism as I’d like to be, I’m assuming it wasn’t quite as straightforward of a process as simply sitting down in Sunday School and having your fate foretold to you.
CS: Yeah, I think this is honestly one of the big challenges for people who leave religious institutions and try to set out on their own. It’s certainly something I’ve experienced—when you’re part of a religious institution, there’s this shared canon of stories that you all understand. Even if you have very different views of what those stories mean, there’s still this shared language, shared set of images, and stories, and practices, and those are the things that bind and cohere a community. And say what you will about religion, and there’s a lot I could say here, obviously…. [Laughs.] But the fact of the matter is, religious traditions emerged over a very long period of time, and the stories and practices that developed within these traditions were sort of time-tested, right? Rituals that really worked—that really helped cohere a sense of community, that helped people make sense of their lives—those were the ones that lasted. So obviously, the rituals and practices within religious traditions hold a lot of power. And of course, these institutions have wielded that power in ways that really hurt people. That’s a big part of why there’s this large cultural shift happening as people walk away from these institutions.
But you can’t just recreate that kind of power overnight. We’re now creating our own rituals, often online. I spend an extended part of IRL talking about my OCD, how it’s a maladaptive response to uncertainty. People who have OCD create rituals to try to ward off uncertainty in their lives. And even though only a small percentage of Americans have OCD, this is something we all do. We fundamentally resist uncertainty, we’re hard-wired to run away from it, and we create structures and practices in our lives as we try to deal with the necessary uncertainty that comes with being alive. We’re now creating brand-new rituals and practices that aren’t time-tested in the way that religious rituals and practices are. And because we’ve absorbed this message that the Internet’s not real, or it’s not as real as the other parts of our lives, we don’t really treat it seriously. We don’t bring as much self-reflection and self-awareness to our digital habits. And so we’re not looking at our online habits as being ways that we’re trying to make sense of our lives, to ritualize. Having OCD has taught me to become more aware of how and why I’m ritualizing, what needs I’m trying to meet, and whether or not those rituals are harming me or helping me. Bringing that same type of awareness to my digital life has really improved the kinds of experiences that I can have in these digital institutions.
BLVR: I was struck by a quote in Fatheist, so if you don’t mind, I will do the really embarrassing thing of quoting your own words back to you.
CS: [Laughs.] Oh gosh, especially embarrassing because it’s a book I wrote in the first half of my twenties, so….
BLVR: I do think that it still has power, though. You say here, “Constellating and creating our own sense of meaning from such moments can feel insufficient. Discovering some pre-ordained answer seems more compelling. In that moment, I wanted to be handed a faith, not fashion my own.” I think this is where the Internet starts to become institutionalized—sometimes it can be so comfortable to simply be granted a certain purpose or meaning, especially when you strip yourself away from religion. I’m thinking in particular of astrology. It’s not religion, but how magical would it be to have all of your behavioral quirks, all of your maladaptive behaviors, be explained away by the circumstances of your birth?
CS: Yeah, I talk in IRL about astrology, and it is very much what you’re describing. There’s a couple of things at work here. One is that we desire master narratives. We want to identify with larger stories that help connect us to a sense of community, a sense of identity. And these master narratives can help us understand who we are. They can be like the ritualizing we do as we try to make our way through this very uncertain world. They can be very helpful, they can open us up. But they can also be harmful. They can restrict us. And it all depends on the kind of story and our relationship to it.
As I was beginning to come out as queer, it was vital that I encountered other LGBT people who could show me through their own stories that it was possible for me to imagine some kind of a future for myself. That was very helpful. At the same time, there are all kinds of ways that master narratives about who LGBT people are and what they can and can’t be really restricted my imagination when I was younger, and made me think that I had to adapt myself to something that I wasn’t in order to feel like I could be truly myself. I think with astrology, there are all kinds of ways that it can be a tool that helps us reflect on our lives and feel like we’re a part of something larger than ourselves. It can also be really restrictive. We all know someone who’s like, “Well, I can’t date that person, they’re a Taurus.”
While working on IRL, I came to see that I’ve always had this big desire to figure out who I am. Because if I figure myself out, then I’ll know how to make my way through the world. I can deal with any challenge that comes my way, because I’ll never take myself by surprise. I think many of us have this desire to know who we are, to understand ourselves, as a kind of self-protective thing. We want to figure ourselves out so that we will never be surprised by ourselves. But the truth is that we are forever changing. There is no fixed self to be discovered or figured out. That’s why things like astrology or religion are so alluring, and yet that’s why a dogmatic relationship to them will always fail us.
II. Empathy Machines
BLVR: It can be enormously powerful to find some external narrative that validates your innermost thoughts. I know, for both of us, we really needed somebody to reach out and tell us, “Hey, yeah, guess what, you’re gay, and that’s also totally okay.” But even though you and I would both agree that accepting ourselves and coming out was a positive development in our lives, for many other people, especially those who are entering into atheism, there can also be the allure of a master narrative that can, especially through the Internet, drift people to political extremism. You’ve written for Vice before about atheism and the alt-right. I wanted to ask what you’re noticing in your research of similar people who are trying to find purpose or identity in their lives, and the way that the Internet is taking that uncertainty and using it to steer them further and further right.
CS: To me, this is one of the biggest challenges of the Internet. For as much as it can really free people up to be able to seek out community and a sense of identity in ways that weren’t possible before—to break through various restrictions that might have prevented them from finding a sense of belonging—it’s also true that people who are feeling isolated, like they don’t have a master narrative, and who go online to seek out a sense of connection, are vulnerable to being targeted by people who have agendas that are very troubling.
The Internet is not public space, but private space. It’s run by private corporations whose interest is not in whether or not we’re having an experience online that opens us up rather than closes us off. Rather, they are really just interested in whether or not we are spending time online. So the algorithms are “sentiment-agnostic,” as people put it—they don’t really care what the content is. If what keeps people clicking and scrolling most easily is content that’s inflammatory or radicalizing, that’s a win for those algorithms. Ultimately, we need systemic transformation of these platforms and the algorithms that guide our behavior and our actions online.
I make the parallel to climate change in [IRL]. I can change my own relationship to the planet and my own practices—I can recycle more, all those kinds of things. But if the major corporations that are responsible for the majority of carbon output aren’t forced to alter their practices, my individual actions aren’t really going to matter. It might change my experience of the world, but it’s not going to change the systems.
One of the risks with our move into digital space is that it can result in further atomization—us coming to see ourselves more as individuals and less as a part of a larger community. But I don’t think that that’s inherent to the Internet.
The Internet could help us continue the human project of expanding the circle of who belongs until it includes all of humanity. But it could also go the other direction. We can enter our digital silos, our little filter bubbles—and we see this in the rise of the alternative news universe and the kind of radicalization that happens online. As you said, I did this investigation into how white supremacist movements are targeting religiously unaffiliated, young white men who feel disconnected, and bringing them into the fold. And so, at the very moment when we’re living in a time where the challenges we face are so immense and global in scale, from climate change to the rise of authoritarian and far-right politics—at this very moment, when we need more than ever to see ourselves as a part of a greater whole, there’s this risk that the Internet could cause us to see ourselves as ever more individual.
I think we can transform our relationship to the Internet and harness it to help connect us. But that’s not just going to happen on its own. It’s a choice that we have to make. And as of now, the master narratives that we absorb online about what makes us worthy, what makes us whole—because these are profit-driven platforms, they tend to be narratives that have to do with capitalist notions of what makes one worthy: status, career, the possession of things.
BLVR: In the aftermath of the election, there was this call to action particularly among Democrats, saying, “Okay, now is the time to reach across the aisle. Now’s the time to foster empathy. Now’s the time to work all together and reconcile our differences.” And on its surface, it does sound similar to what you’re speaking of, which is, “Let’s fight against the atomization that this institution is instilling within us.” But Chris, I gotta be honest, the first time I saw those calls, my reaction was, “Absolutely not. Why should I try to meet with people who hate the fact that I’m gay?” And now I wonder, have I basically just been manipulated by the Internet to have that sort of behavioral response?
CS: No, this is where applying a power analysis is really important. Part of what it means to be human is to be a work in progress, to be changing, to be evolving. And that feels really difficult in a time when we’re publicly documenting these “Work In Progress” selves at all times. We need to bring more grace to the ways that we are all very inelegantly trying to build ourselves into being online. But you also have to think about this from the perspective of who has power and who doesn’t. We see this in the discourse around “cancel culture,” or the discourse around the election. “Oh, now that the Democrats won, it’s time to reach out to the other side and be magnanimous.” Those calls so often become a way of glossing over the fact that there are very real differences in terms of who holds power and what kind of power they wield. So if I’m supposed to reach out to someone who is actively advocating for me to not have the right to live my life in the way that I want to, we’re operating from very different places. And so at the same time that I fundamentally believe that it’s critical that we treat others with humanity—and I always strive to see the humanity in others, even people who don’t see mine—I also think that it becomes not nearly as simple as people try to make it out to be.
So no, I don’t think you’ve been broken by the Internet. [Laughs.] I think you’re very reasonably responding to something that fails to account for important parts of the equation.
BLVR: Perfect. I appreciate that. Feel free to charge me for therapy. I needed that reassurance, so thank you.
CS: [Laughs.] You’re welcome.
BLVR: I know you’ve had enough experience facilitating interfaith conversations in real life, but how does that translate in terms of the way that you interact with people with different beliefs online? How can you still foster those kinds of empathetic dialogues?
CS: Yeah. I think it’s really difficult online. I wrote this Washington Post piece a few years ago about how I had lost faith in the Internet’s power to open up space for dialogue across lines of religious difference. I’d been doing all this writing on atheism online for years and just feeling like I wasn’t sure what it was accomplishing.
But I haven’t lost all hope. One of the first people who ever followed me on Twitter, who wasn’t someone that I also knew offline, was this guy named Zain. For almost a decade, we followed each other, and I would only see these little glimpses into his life, just occasional tweets here and there. I assumed that he had a pretty regular life, whatever that means, and I didn’t really give it too much thought. And then when I was working on IRL, I decided, “I’ve followed this person for so long, but I don’t know much about them. I’m gonna reach out and find out more.” So we talked, and he told me these incredible stories that showed me how little I knew about his life offline.
It reminded me that online, we’re just getting these little glimpses into who people are, and then we project so much onto the empty space in between. I do this all the time. I remember early on in the pandemic, looking at other people tweet about their experience of being isolated—but in a large house, or with other people. And then I would look at my own life in this tiny little box of a studio apartment I live in by myself, and I was comparing the full picture of my life to these little bits and pieces I was getting of other people’s lives. I think it’s super easy to do that online too, in part because the platforms themselves encourage us to share certain kinds of things and not others. So it’s easy to construct a narrative about who other people are online.
I think for all the ways that the Internet can help us close distances—like the fact that I would have never connected with Zain without the Internet, and learned from him and his story—it’s also not built into the mechanics of our digital platforms that we’ll find that understanding merely from closing those distances themselves. We have to put real work into doing so. In that sense, it’s important to give ourselves a little bit of grace. I used to beat myself up when I would respond to somebody flippantly on Twitter, someone who was being kind of a jerk to me. But especially given the challenges inherent to our digital tools, I’ve stopped giving myself such a hard time about it, and actually come to see it as a way for me to be more honest with myself about who I am.
One of the books I read [for IRL], which I cite in a couple places, is The Future of Feeling by Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips. That book is all about efforts to harness technology to increase empathy. There are these broad categories of people when it comes to views on the Internet. There’s the utopians who think it’s going to make us more connected, more efficient, super humans. Then there’s the pessimists, who think it’s making us more selfish, more isolated, more siloed, more narcissistic. And then there’s the folks who are in the middle. I started a little bit more pessimistic at the beginning of the book, and I made my way toward the middle. In the middle are the practical folks who say, “The Internet’s not going anywhere, so let’s figure out how to harness it for good.”
I think that’s still where I fit, but I also go a step further. Through working on IRL, I came to feel that there’s actually something particularly valuable about how new the Internet is, because it gives us a chance to re-approach these age-old questions about what it means to be human. There’s value in the fact that we are bad at being human online. I make the comparison to joining cross-country in high school and having this experience, really for the first time in my life, of choosing to do something that I was bad at—rather than sticking to the things that earned me validation, things that had to do with books or creative endeavors—and explain how, by doing something that I wasn’t good at, I actually discovered new things about myself.
Online, as we try to cross these vast differences between ourselves and other people, we’re trying to do them in this new space, and that feels really difficult. We’re not good at doing it yet, and we’re gonna mess it up all the time. But I also think that it gives us a chance to ask ourselves, “What is the value of this? How do I go about trying to find understanding? How do I find empathy for other people? What is the value of that empathy?” All these questions that are really important. So there’s value in it. But I do think that we have our work cut out for us.
III. “Sorry, that’s just like a sports metaphor, and I’m gay, so I shouldn’t use that, but I’m using it.”
BLVR: I think we can all maybe definitively say that we’re pretty bad at dealing with a pandemic. This is a new species of uncertainty that we have to grapple with. Toward the end of IRL, you mentioned this 2019 University of Melbourne paper that says that oftentimes, the best chances for us to imbue our lives with meaning are with the peaks: the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. I know for a lot of us, myself included, it’s been an especially tough year. I’m wondering, in your own personal experience, what kind of newfound meaning you’ve found in your life due to the uncertainty of this year.
CS: So I finished the book in December of last year, and I was doing final edits in the early stages of the pandemic. I had people asking me, “Are you gonna change anything about the book?” But at that point it felt way too soon to be able to say anything useful.
I have this impulse to infuse something that feels meaningless with meaning in order to accept it. I lost a very close friend to suicide last year, in December as well. I remember in the weeks after he died, I busied myself. I made a GoFundMe campaign for his family to help cover the costs associated with his death. I helped his family plan a memorial service. I just was trying to make myself feel useful, to take this thing that felt so meaningless and try to create some meaning out of it.
We do that all the time. And I have felt that pull a lot this year. I keep asking myself, “Well, what is the meaning of this year? Or what is it teaching me?” In order to make it tolerable in some way. But I’m not really sure that I have good answers to that. I think I’m trying to resist that pull.
One of the real dangers of this immense cultural shift from this pre-digital age to this digital age is that we get the message that we can optimize all the uncertainty out of our lives with these digital trackers that monitor our steps and tell us our heart rate. But this desire to rid our lives of uncertainty—this year demonstrates so clearly how fruitless that is, because we’ll never be rid of it. We can never escape uncertainty; life will always throw us curveballs. Sorry, that’s just like a sports metaphor, and I’m gay, so I shouldn’t use that, but I’m using it. [Laughs.]
But at the same time that the Internet promises us this kind of certainty that is not possible, it also gives us a chance to see that actually, it can never give us that. Just like this year has shown that even as the Internet promises us that we’ll be more efficient, more connected than ever before, we still feel isolated and lonely. These challenges haven’t gone away. The Internet gives us a chance to recognize that we will never be rid of those things.
I think the other big “challenge/opportunity”—I love a “challenge/opportunity”— [Laughs.] But the other “challenge/opportunity” is that, when I was younger, the Internet was a kind of discreet space I would step into and step out of. I would bike to the library, log onto a shared computer for twenty minutes before the timer expired, and then I would go back to the rest of my life, which is a big part of where the supposed distinction between “real life” and the Internet emerged from. But now, and especially this year, the Internet is really integrated into all parts of our day.
The very first thing I look at in the morning when I wake up is my phone. The last thing I look at before I go to sleep at night is my phone. The Internet is less something that I step into and out of, and more a space in which I’m sort of always present. It’s been especially true this year. I’ve looked with horror at my screen time reports every week, like, “How is this even possible?” And so we have to make a real effort to step away from it in moments. Not because life online is fake, or less real, but rather because we need the kind of perspective that we can only get when we’re by ourselves—the kinds of questions and discomfort that can arise in moments of solitude. The kinds of recognitions that are so easy for me to run away from.
In the first moment of loneliness, I can just grab my phone, pull up Twitter and feel connected to other people. But sometimes I need to feel that loneliness. I need the perspective that I get from being by myself. It’s not that we should stay in retreat, but we do need that perspective sometimes. My loneliness, my isolation feels more heightened this year than it usually does, because I’m not able to do things that I would do in the past. I would walk my dog to the neighborhood coffee shop, and we would hang out and talk to the employees there, and that’s all stuff that I can’t do in the same way this year. So it’s easy for me, because I’m not getting that sense of connection, to just be on my phone all the time. Which means it’s taking that much more work, that much more self-awareness, to step back and make sure that I still have moments by myself.
BLVR: Totally. It’s the active resistance toward immediately trying to fill something with meaning and just sitting with the uncertainty.
CS: Yeah. Exactly that, and also the importance of taking time to be disconnected. I talk in IRL about The Velveteen Rabbit, and how, when I was a kid, my understanding of The Velveteen Rabbit is that what makes the toy rabbit real is being loved, is its connection, right? But when I went back and re-read the story as an adult, I realized that of course, that’s not the full story. The boy gets sick, and he has to discard all of his possessions, including the toy rabbit. So what makes the rabbit real is not just this experience of connection, but also this experience of disconnection, of loss, of separation. We need moments of connection, but we also need moments of disconnection, and that’s a hard truth. That’s a truth that’s really easy to resist, and this year really has underscored for me just how difficult that necessary truth feels sometimes.