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Q&A with Chris Stedman ’08 about life online and his new book

Chris Stedman headshotChris Stedman, an activist, community organizer, and writer, is the author of “IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives” and “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.” He has written for The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, and VICE, and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and PBS. Formerly the founding executive director of the Yale Humanist Community, he also served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and is currently Adjunct Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Q: What is IRL about?

Stedman: For years we’ve heard again and again that life online is “fake,” or at least “less real” than the other parts of our lives. But how do we square that with that fact that so much of what we do is now online? And what does “real” even mean, anyway? IRL examines how moving really big parts of who we are and how we live to the internet is transforming our understanding of what it means to be human — to belong, to express ourselves, to find meaning in our lives. I was surprised by what I discovered over my several-year investigation into what it means to be human in a virtual age, and I hope readers will be surprised by what they find in the book, too.

Q: This book seems to speak to the moment society is in now, with work from home and friends and family seeing each other virtually. Was this intentional? How did you decide to write about life online?

Stedman: I think we’ve been moving in this direction for some time, but of course in this year of necessary social distancing we hit fast forward in a really big way. I never imagined that the questions I spent the last few years wrestling with would become some of the defining questions of this year, but I hope IRL can be a useful tool for anyone struggling with how to make life online feel meaningful and “real.” I write to figure out what I think about things, but I only publish if I hope that what I’ve written can be useful for others who are wrestling with similar questions. So if IRL can help make this difficult year a little easier to navigate for someone, I will feel very fulfilled.

Q: You were an Augsburg First Decade Award recipient in 2018. What was the work you did after graduation?

Stedman: After graduating from Augsburg, I went on to get a master’s in religion, then spent the better part of a decade working with people who fall outside of religious categories — a group demographers typically refer to as the “religiously unaffiliated,” or people who, when asked what their religion is, say “none” — as they explored questions of meaning and purpose as a community builder and humanist chaplain at Harvard and Yale universities. But a few years ago I moved back to my home state of Minnesota to do a few things, including work on this book. During my years of supporting the religiously unaffiliated at Harvard and Yale, I noticed a lot of people were moving out of the institutions in which we’ve historically wrestled with questions about who we are, like churches, and shifting that work to digital space. Ultimately that’s a big part of why I became interested in this topic. I wanted to understand how this immense cultural shift out of traditional institutions and into this new, untested institution—the internet—is changing us.

Q: You are now back at Augsburg teaching in the Department of Religion and Philosophy. What is it like being back on campus in a new capacity and during a pandemic?

Stedman: I honestly never imagined I’d end up back at Augsburg! I’m just one semester into teaching, and of course it’s been a challenging semester in all kinds of ways, but being on the other end of things in the department that played such a big role in shaping the way I think about questions of meaning has felt so special. I teach Religion 200, a class I of course took as a student, which is on vocation and the search for meaning. Again, I never imagined while working on this book about what the search for meaning looks like in a digital age that it would end up being so helpful to me not just in navigating this pandemic year but also in teaching a class on the search for meaning. I feel really fortunate in that respect. And I feel even more fortunate to be teaching the students I am; I’ve learned so much from them, both as we’ve explored the themes of RLN 200 together, and also as we’ve navigated these really complex, virtual circumstances. I give them so much credit for all the work they’ve been putting in as we collectively try to figure out this new way of being and learning together. But, as I write about in IRL, I think having to live into these new, virtual ways of being human gives us all kinds of meaningful chances to stretch ourselves. I’ve definitely felt that this semester, and I’m really looking forward to teaching a couple sections of RLN 200 again next semester.

Q:What’s next for you? Do you have plans for another book?

Stedman: It took me eight years between my first book and this one, and while hopefully the next gap won’t be as long, I’m not actively working on a new book just yet. But I do have another big project I’ve been working on this year. I can’t say what it is just yet, but it’s something really different for me, and I think, or at least hope, people will really connect with it. If you want to find out more once I’m able to talk about it, my infrequent newsletter is probably the best place to get updates.

Q: Where can people buy your book?

Stedman: I always encourage people to shop local if they can—independent bookstores need our support now more than ever. Minnesota has so many amazing ones: Subtext, Moon Palace, and Magers & Quinn are just a few of my favorites. You can also go straight to the publisher. I really appreciate everyone who checks out the book and I’d love to hear what you think if you do!