Can religion and reason peacefully coexist? From a scan of the headlines it doesn’t seem so. The world appears polarized, incapable of even agreeing to disagree on matters of faith.
Journalist Bill Moyers believes that conversation can lead to a cure for what ails us — but not conversation in which people simply shriek at each other. Moyers, who describes himself as “neither wholly a believer nor wholly a skeptic,” thinks we can move away from pitting reason against faith and give equal weight to both in our discussions. Science can illuminate faith, and faith can inform science.
He launches the discussion on a new PBS special “Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason,” which premieres Friday at 9 p.m. The seven weekly episodes explore new ways of thinking about religion and its role in the modern world. Each program features a conversation with one of the writers who attended the PEN World Voices Festival in New York last April: Margaret Atwood, Mary Gordon, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and others.
I interviewed Moyers by e-mail last week as he completed last-minute editing of the show before its premiere.
What was the catalyst for “Faith & Reason”? Was there a specific incident or moment that gave you the idea for this show?
I had been thinking of a series like this for some time and weighing who should be part of it. Faith is such a smorgasbord that everyone’s taste is different. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to pick the “representative” Christian, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim or atheist.
Then I heard that Salman Rushdie, the president of PEN’s American Center, thought religion was such a hot-button issue that he had asked over 100 writers to meet in New York to discuss faith and reason. The light did go off in my head. “That’s it,” I told myself. “That’s my organizing principle. I’m a journalist. I’ll cover that event.” And that’s what we’ve done for this series.
Joseph Campbell did tell me once that if you decide on a large project that is right for you, invisible hands will materialize to lift you toward its achievement. Or, as my mother would have said, “The Lord will provide” — although she would never confuse Salman for the Lord.
It’s sobering that in less than the two decades since you interviewed Joseph Campbell for the “Power of Myth” series we’ve gone from discussing the magic of mythology — a time when people seemed relatively open to religious ideas — to Salman Rushdie trying to explain the insanity of a God who is thought to be offended by cartoons in a Danish newspaper. Why do you think we’ve cycled back around to religious intolerance and violence in the name of God?
A lot of things — the rise of fundamentalism, for one, in the Muslim world, Israel and America. These are people for whom secular politics has failed. It doesn’t provide their lives with meaning.
The chaotic events of the world have fueled a yearning for certainty, and fundamentalism is nothing if not certain — it offers propositions that can be affixed as bumper stickers; it gives people sound bites to which they can assent. It’s a life jacket in a stormy sea, solid ground in the earthquake of life.
Furthermore, if you believe a sacred text is literally the word of God, you don’t need any other proof. And you don’t want to waste time with people who disagree with you. You know God’s mind — who are they to stand in your way? Around the world, fundamentalism is waging war against the imagination — against creativity, freedom (freedom of the mind, above all), and against the tolerance that is necessary if people of different beliefs are to live together.
I’ve seen a theme in much of your writings and speeches over the past year or so — the idea that believing the Bible and the Koran are literally true and 100-percent applicable to today’s world is causing real damage on many levels. Is that a fair assessment of what you believe?
Yes, true believers brook no dissent, seek no debate, accept no compromise. American politics is polarized today because the base of the Republican Party is composed of true believers: “My way or the highway.”
When you have time, read the platform adopted at the recent convention of Texas Republicans. It declares, “America is a Christian nation.” The delegates pledged “to exert our influence toward a return to the original intent of the First Amendment and dispel the myth of the separation of church and state.”
A scholar I greatly respect, John Green, who studies church-state issues at the University of Akron, sums it up better than I can. He says: “The GOP has defined itself against Democrats by making religion, particularly issues such as abortion and gay marriage, part of its politics. This is not a political disagreement. This is a religious disagreement.”
A shudder runs down my spine. Religious zealots don’t want compromise, which is why they loathe democracy.
But it’s not just America. The New York Times recently reported that despite years of work aimed at changing Saudi Arabia’s public school curriculum, the country’s newest textbooks continue to promote intolerance of other religions. A first-grade student is taught that “Every religion other than Islam is false.” Fifth-graders learn that “It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and his prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam.”
The world’s aflame with intolerance, and millions of true believers are passing buckets of kerosene to throw on it.
One of the primary ideas of “Faith & Reason” is that any transformative discussion must be “one of reason and faith, not reason versus faith.” But people’s positions on faith appear to be hardening over the past few years. How do we get back to a place where we can discuss things with each other without getting angry?
You’ve seen enough grade-B movies to remember the phrase when a plane’s in trouble and the control tower says, “I’m going to talk you down.” Well, that’s what this series is about. I believe in the conversation of democracy. I want my audience to see that they’re not alone — there are people like them who don’t live polarized, one-sided lives. Most of us move back and forth in the twilight zone where faith and doubt stroll together like old lovers, once estranged, now reconciled, conducting a quiet, respectful and intimate conversation in the hope of understanding each other better.
Now fundamentalists and other true believers won’t take part in the conversation. The only way to deal with them is to stand up to them and beat them at the polls. But in the meantime, all of us who believe the most important verse in the Old Testament is “Come, now, let us reason together” have got to realize we’re not alone. That’s why I am doing this series.
Do you think the show could help balance what has become a very polarized world, or do you expect you’ll mostly be preaching to the choir — people who already believe what you believe?
If I were only preaching to the choir, that’s OK. The choir shows up on Sundays when no one else does. The choir needs nourishment to go on singing. But in fact, television cuts across all boundaries and reaches a wide variety of open-minded people.
Can I tell you a true personal anecdote? I was in San Francisco for two weeks in February, on the lecture trail. I was stepping out of the elevator one morning at the hotel. In came a loaded baggage cart pushed by a youngish blond-haired woman in her porter’s uniform. She recognized me and stopped with the elevator door banging against the cart, and she held my attention for several minutes as she talked about different programs of mine that she had seen over the years.
The same thing happened in a cab with an African American driver. And these are just two of the many, many incidents. If it’s the choir, it’s a big and motley crowd, enough to spark a counterreformation.
But that’s not the point. I do these programs for the people who watch. The important thing is not the size of the audience but the imprint left on those who do watch. Television remains, next to movies, the most important way for people to enlarge their world and to know the company they keep.
What did you learn while doing the interviews for the show? Was there one defining thought about the power of faith and reason in our world that you took away from speaking with all of these writers?
I came away convinced that Mary Gordon was right when she said that one of the most important human divisions is between those who think of religion as a major threat to the survival of our species — and those for whom survival without religion would seem to have no meaning.
I came away deeply impressed with writers, storytellers, who follow a thought or argument through all its twists and turns, who examine paradox and contradiction and reach their own conclusion as to the meaning of it all. Their respect for language — and their respect for one another — was something to behold.
I heard believers say that without doubt, religion becomes just nostalgia or an addiction. And I heard skeptics, agnostics and atheists say that you can dismiss religion without disrespecting the believer or dismissing the mystery of human experience.
I heard a rich, layered, complex conversation that was informative and inspiring, and I wanted to put it on the air because it is important for people to hear not only what they say but how they say it. We can learn to talk differently if only we see people doing it well.
You have a bachelor of divinity degree from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and worked as a minister. You’ve recently said you are neither a staunch believer nor a nonbeliever. Can you tell me a bit about your own spiritual life these days? What do you believe?
To quote my favorite New Testament verse: “I believe, help thou my unbelief.”
You recently apologized to the class of 2006 (at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.) for the mess the next generation is inheriting — the war in Iraq, huge debts, the polarized country, corporate scandals, corrupt politics and our imperiled democracy, among other horrors. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that this generation will be able to clean up this mess?
I said to a friend of mine on Wall Street, “What do you think about the market?” He said, “I’m optimistic.” “Then why do you look so worried?” I asked him. And he said, “Because I’m not sure my optimism is justified.”
I see many young people as committed to making a positive difference in the world as were the young people I met when I helped organize the Peace Corps in 1961 (and did my first recruiting trip in San Francisco!).
I [also] see a lot of young people who don’t give a damn. But as I told the annual PBS convention two weeks ago (I gave the keynote address), I practice what the Italian philosopher [Antonio] Gramsci called “the pessimism of the mind” and “the optimism of the will.”
As a journalist, my job is to see the world as it is, without whitewash or illusion. But as a husband, father, grandfather and citizen, I don’t know how to be in the world without expecting a confident future and getting up every morning to do what I can to help bring it about.
If you could spend some time with one spiritual leader (whether this person is a “recognized” spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama or just someone you know), who would you choose and why?
I don’t know. I’d rather spend the time walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, as I did with my 13-year-old grandson Henry a year ago when we were there at exactly this time.
Do you feel your journalism work is in any way your ministry?
No. Journalism doesn’t save souls. It’s a craft, and an important one. But it’s not salvation.
Many people are still inspired by your interview series “The Power of Myth” with Joseph Campbell. Did working with Campbell change you or your beliefs in any way?
Every day someone stops me on the street and says that series changed their lives. It happened when I was in San Francisco in February. I was having lunch at a restaurant on California Street, and the waiter politely interrupted the conversation and said, “I just want you to know that the ‘Power of Myth’ changed my life.”
“Why?” I asked. And he said, “Because I began to understand there are truths universal to all of us.”
What it did for me, David, was to awaken me fully to the power of metaphors. “Change the metaphors,” Campbell told me, “and you can change the world.”
“Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason” premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on KQED and other PBS stations, and runs for seven weekly episodes. After the broadcast, each episode will be available in its entirety for viewing online.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.
Read more articles in Millerīs Finding My Religion series.