Agnostic Monuments and Other Forms of Secular Commemoration


As Washington University-St. Louis religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt points out, religion, patriotism, and lost causes are not the only things people in America commemorate.

Here is a taste of his Aeon piece, “Monuments to Unbelief

Materialising secularism, giving it ritual shape and monumental expression, has picked up again as the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company – have become bestsellers, and as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. Defenders of scientific rationality and free enquiry have mounted new festivals such as International Darwin Day on February 12 and International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30 to keep up the battle against superstition. This past summer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation orchestrated the dedication of a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. (His anti-evolution opponent, William Jennings Bryan, had already been memorialised some years earlier with a statue outside the courthouse, but now Bryan’s likeness – thanks once more to Frudakis the sculptor – must share public space again with his infidel adversary.)

Atheists and nonbelievers have also launched new congregational ventures – most prominently, the Sunday Assembly and Oasis – in several cities across the country, and humanist chaplaincies have flowered on a number of college campuses to afford a community for openly secular students. The UK-based philosopher Alain de Botton has crystallised much of this recent ritual creativity in Religion for Atheists (2012), in which he expressly reimagines Comte’s religion of humanity for contemporary nonbelievers. Restaurants and art museums, de Botton suggests, are potential sites for humanistic liturgies of communal solidarity and unbuttoned conviviality. Whether in Sunday gatherings or funeral rites, the new secularists court temple, sacrament and monument much as the old secularists long did.

Perhaps the most successful instance of that courtship has been the Satanic Temple – a group of freethinking activists, led by the pseudonymous Lucien Greaves, which has puckishly deployed an occult statue of Baphomet to challenge a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Oklahoma. Winning its case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015, the troupe forced state officials into the bind of removing the Decalogue or having it share space with a winged, goat-headed, pagan idol – a topsy-turvy symbol to these ‘Satanists’ of equal liberty, rational enquiry and free expression. Reluctantly, the state’s Republican leadership decided that it was better to take down the Ten Commandments than to make room for such sacrilege. Deprived of a space in Oklahoma’s public square, the statue of Baphomet went instead to Michigan where it has been installed as the showpiece of Detroit’s chapter of the Satanic Temple, the latest US monument to blasphemy, infidelity and strict church-state separation.

Read the entire piece here

A Secular Thanksgiving?

villageatheistsLeigh Eric Schmidt, the author of the recent Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, turns to the pages of The Atlantic to remind us that the religious nature of Thanksgiving has long been a contested one.

Here is a taste of his piece “Thanksgiving, a Celebration of Inequality“:

To secularists, that holiday, sanctified by the story of the Pilgrims and by solemn invocations of divine blessing, was definitely worth fighting over. As one freethought editorial proclaimed in 1889, “We hope to live long enough to see a purely human thanksgiving day, with no hint of God in it, with no religious meaning ascribed to it.”

The debate over what tone presidents should set with their Thanksgiving proclamations was as old as the nation itself. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had famously split over the issuing of such civic religious pronouncements during their presidencies (Adams assented; Jefferson refused). But the conflict escalated during and after the Civil War, as the holiday was promoted as a national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in language replete with religious allusion, imagining the Union under the “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” and imploring “the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

Freethinkers and secularists—a small but vocal and vigilant minority—watched with disappointment as American presidents thereafter made an annual routine of such exhortations, effectively fusing Thanksgiving with the politics of religious nationalism. “The American people,” President Grover Cleveland typically intoned in 1885, “have always abundant cause to be thankful to Almighty God, whose watchful care and guiding hand have been manifested in every stage of their national life.” He encouraged all citizens to assemble in their respective houses of worship for prayers and hymns in order to give thanks to the Lord for the nation’s innumerable bounties.

Liberal secularists could not stand to let this recurring presidential call for devotion go unchallenged. It fundamentally violated their sense of strict church-state separation—they believed that elected representatives, from presidents to governors to mayors, should not be in the business of enjoining religious observance upon Americans. They maintained that the government should not elevate believers over nonbelievers, whether by employing state-funded chaplains, granting tax exemptions to churches, inscribing “In God We Trust” on coinage, instating bans on buying liquor on Sundays, establishing religious tests for public office-holding, or by sanctifying fast and thanksgiving days. To these secularists, all the ways, big and small, in which the government signaled preference for a Protestant Christian nation over a secular republic had to be combatted.

Freethinkers, as the irreligious editors of the Boston Investigator explained, wanted instead “eternal separation” between church and state, a breaking of all the “politico-theological combinations” that they saw sullying American public life. They wanted, in short, the full secularization of the state. Hence Thanksgiving was, to them, nonnegotiable: “If ministers desire a religious festival, let them appoint it in their churches,” the Investigator further editorialized. The president had “no constitutional right” to set apart a sacred celebration and entwine good citizenship with ecclesial supplication.

Read the entire piece here.


The Author’s Corner with Leigh Eric Schmidt

villageatheists.gifLeigh Eric Schmidt is Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Village Atheists?

LS: The question of how religious belief has been used to define the rights, limits, and norms of American citizenship pulled me in initially.  In what ways were the irreligious marked out as deficient?  Were they to be barred from holding offices of public trust or from serving as witnesses in court?  Was liberty of conscience a preserve for the devout that excluded the ungodly?  Did religious freedom include irreligious freedom?  Did it include a right to blaspheme and ridicule Christianity?   I wanted to see how those questions looked on the ground in the everyday lives of American atheists and unbelievers, to see them as more than abstract legal and political debates but as rough conflicts in which social antagonism and moral outrage ran high.  I also wanted to see how those issues shifted over the long haul, how a principle of neutrality—that the state was to treat the religious and irreligious in equal terms—ultimately came into the ascendancy, however disputed that principle remained and however despised atheism continued to be in America’s God-trusting culture.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Village Atheists?

LS: Histories of modern atheism have often kept Christianity at the center of the story, emphasizing the ways in which well-intended theologians abetted unbelief through a series of philosophical, ethical, and naturalistic compromises—in effect, a history of atheism without atheists.  By contrast, I put the emphasis squarely on the infidels and freethinkers who created a lively and assertive secularist minority—one that was in no danger of defining the age in exclusively secular or humanistic terms, but one that nonetheless effectively pressed the case for equal rights and liberties for unbelievers.

JF: Why do we need to read Village Atheists?

LS: Those who are interested in American religious history would do well, I think, to attend more to the nation’s irreligious history.  Certainly, the back-and-forth between evangelical Protestants and freethinking secularists has been an especially defining struggle.  Diehard combatants, to be sure, the two camps are also inseparable partners in a whole series of long-running debates—about God’s existence, about evil, about Darwinian naturalism, about the relationship between religion and the state, about free speech and blasphemy, about the Bible.  On one issue after another, it is very hard to study America’s God without studying those who were fervently devoted to undoing that God’s sway over the republic.

At the same time, the book pictures the relationship between religion and irreligion as more than one of only an out-an-out war. Samuel Porter Putnam, one of the figures I concentrate on, tried in the 1890s to write his own comprehensive history of American unbelief.  He had about a thousand pages to work with and included dozens upon dozens of biographical profiles of American atheists and freethinkers.  And predictably when the reviews came in, most wondered why he had left out one person or another, why he had made the selections he had made.  Having himself painfully left the Congregational and Unitarian ministries, he had simply refused to include certain figures when they did not fit his model of the hard-and-fast, wholly converted atheist. He wanted materialist purity for the movement, but I found myself far more interested in the impurity—the times when an infidel lecturer made peace with a Baptist congregation to conduct a funeral or when a golden-boy atheist decided to become a spiritualist and start an occult journal.  I wanted to understand the conflicted experiences of an infidel lecturer or a disaffected teacher as they engaged—civilly and uncivilly—their more devout compatriots.   I wanted to see the moments of mutual recognition and civic acceptance, alongside the occasions of rioting and book-burning.  The former were finally a lot more common than the latter. 

It is also important to me that scholarship be readable and publicly engaging.  I want to tell good, character-driven stories, so I would hope that the book would be worth reading because it is actually enjoyable to read.  I worked to identify colorful characters with complex lives who embodied crucial aspects of American secularist experience.  Samuel Putnam stands for the gradual attenuation of the Puritan and evangelical Calvinist inheritance, the creation of an expressly secular identity in opposition to the Protestant model of the pilgrim soul.  Watson Heston evokes the power of cartooning and satire within atheist ranks, the urge to ridicule Christianity and the Bible and to offend the devout. Heston’s pugnacious art (he created well over 1000 irreligious cartoons between 1885 and 1900) is a window into an issue that very much remains a life-and-death question.  One need only call to mind the global controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo.

In turn, another figure I explore, Elmina Slenker, raises the larger question of how atheist dissent related to sexual politics—to ideas about marriage reform, women’s rights, and reproductive control.  Atheism and freethought could produce progressive views on gender and sexuality, but they could also reinforce a masculinist culture of bravado and aggression in which women were dismissed for their sentimental piety.  Slenker embodied all of those dilemmas and challenges as a self-avowed “woman atheist.”  The same quandaries had already been faced by Ernestine Rose, a secular Jewish atheist and a role model for Slenker.  Likewise, the racial politics surrounding David Cincore, promoted for a time as “the colored Bob Ingersoll,” reveals how deeply engrained the white male prototype was for enlightened secularism.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LS: It was in college, especially through the examples of Edwin Gaustad and Robert Hine, both of whom made it abundantly clear to me the demands involved in producing artful historical prose.  Both had a keen eye for American dissenters and utopians, and Ed especially trafficked at the same intersections that most captured my curiosity, those of religion and history.

JF: What is your next project?

It’s a little early to say, but I remain drawn to questions that swirl around the relationship between Christianity and secularism, including the efforts of nonbelievers to create humanistic community and ritual out of the ruins of religion.  These could merely be loose ends from Village Atheists that I will eventually let go, but I have a series of stories about agnostic brotherhoods, humanist churches, atheist towns, and freethinking liturgists that I continue to ponder.

JF: Thanks, Leigh!

Peter Berger on Denominations and Atheists

Worship at an atheist mega-church

According to Peter Berger, denominations are not dead.  In fact, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are all embracing various forms of denominationalism.  So are atheists. This is how Berger explains the development of so-called “atheist mega-churches.”

A taste:

The AP story links this development to the growth of the “nones” in the US—that is, people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in a survey. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a major center for religious demography) found that 20% of Americans fall under that category. But, as the story makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand all these people to be atheists. A majority of them believes in God and says that they are “spiritual but not religious”. All one can say with confidence is that these are individuals who have not found a religious community that they like. Decided atheists are a very small minority in this country, and a shrinking one worldwide. And I would think that most in this group are better described as agnostics (they don’t know whether God exists) rather than atheists (those who claim to know that he doesn’t). I further think that the recent flurry of avowed atheists writing bestselling books or suing government agencies on First Amendment grounds should not be seen as a great cultural wave, in America or anywhere else (let them just dream of competing with the mighty tsunami of Pentecostal Christianity sweeping over much of our planet).
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family.  This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety).  Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”.  This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.

The Cross at Ground Zero

An organization called “American Atheists” has been protesting the inclusion of the so-called “Ground Zero Cross” in the taxpayer-funded National September 11 Museum in lower Manhattan.  In American Atheists, Inc. vs. Port Authority of NY and NJ, a New York federal district court said that the inclusion of the 17-foot high cross–which is made up of two steel beams that survived the attack on the World Trade Center–does not violate the Establishment Clause.

The court ruled:

Because a reasonable observer would be aware of the history and context of the cross and the Museum– especially given that the cross will be housed in the “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero” section, accompanied by placards explaining its meaning and the reason for its inclusion, and surrounded by secular artifacts–  no reasonable observer would view the artifact as endorsing Christianity.

American atheists will appeal the ruling.

The members of the court, whether they realized it or not, made a public history argument here.  The cross provided a sense of hope and meaning to thousands of New Yorkers and Americans in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy.  Father Brian Jordan spoke for many when he said that it was “a symbol of hope…a symbol of faith.” Some folks may not like the fact that people saw the cross as a source of spiritual strength, but that does not make it any less true.  As a result, the cross has historical significance and thus should be a part of the story the museum tells about the event.  To take the cross out of the museum would be the equivalent of leaving a Bible out of a tax-payer funded museum on the history of Massachusetts.

This is a history issue, not a church-state issue.

Richard Dawkins Goes One Step Beyond Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson did not believe that the Bible was divinely inspired.  In fact, as we have noted here and here, he removed parts of the life of Jesus that did not conform to his rational form of religion. 

Nevertheless, Jefferson believed that the Bible was a moral guide.  In fact, he was a very devout follower of Jesus’s moral teachings.  It was for this reason that he created his famous “cut and paste” Bible in the first place.  He wanted a devotional in morality.  Indeed, my chapter on Jefferson in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

Now Richard Dawkins, the famous British atheist, is encouraging children to read the King James Version of the Bible.  But unlike Jefferson, he does not want kids to read it for its moral value.  He wants them to read it for its literary value.

Read his piece at The Guardian, which is a response to British education secretary Michael Gove’s plan to put the King James Bible in schools.  Here is his conclusion:

Whatever else the Bible might be – and it really is a great work of literature – it is not a moral book and young people need to learn that important fact because they are very frequently told the opposite. The examples I have quoted are the tip of a very large and very nasty iceberg. Not a bad way to find out what’s in a book is to read it, so I say go to it. But does anybody, even Gove, seriously think they will?


A Reverse David Barton?

This is what Jon Rowe at American Creation calls this atheist billboard.  Here is the story at the Huffington Post:

A billboard in Costa Mesa, Calif., is getting some attention, but it’s certainly not the kind its sponsors were hoping for.

The sign, paid for by atheist group Backyard Skeptics, includes a quote about Christianity attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But further research reveals there’s no solid evidence that Jefferson ever uttered or wrote the words, the Orange County Register first reported.

The billboard includes a picture of Jefferson with the quote: “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”

Experts at the Jefferson Library Collection at Monticello are constantly asked about the quote, the Orange County Register reports. Some say the former president wrote the words in a letter to a Dr. Wood, but officials cannot find trace of any
correspondence to a person by that name.

Bruce Gleason, a member of the group, told the Orange County Register that he should have done a bit more research before putting the words on the sign. The billboard was unveiled on Wednesday, the newspaper reports. Gleason explained that purpose of this sign and others around the city was to “expunge the myth that this is a Christian nation,” as well as to “share the idea that you can be good and do good without a religion or god.”

Major in Secularism at Pitzer College

Beginning in the Fall 2011 semester, Pitzer College, a liberal arts college in southern California, will offer a new major in secular studies.  According to this article in The New York Times, it is the first of its kind.

The new major will include courses with the following titles:  “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason,” and “Bible as Literature.”

I wonder how a degree in secular studies at a secular college (non-church-related) like Pitzer is different from a degree in religious studies.  It would seem that the courses listed above could also count toward a religious studies degree at most secular colleges or universities.

Here is a taste of the New York Times article:

The department was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, who describes himself as “culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on questions of deep mystery.” Over the years he grew increasingly intrigued by the growth of secularism in the United States and around the world. He studied and taught in Denmark, one of the world’s most secular countries, and has written several books about atheism.

Studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief, Mr. Zuckerman said, and the new major will make that very clear.

“It’s not about arguing ‘Is there a God or not?’ ” Mr. Zuckerman said. “There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious. You have some countries where huge percentages of people — Czechs, Scandinavians — now call themselves atheists. Canada is experiencing a huge wave of secularization. This is happening very rapidly.

“It has not been studied,” he added.

The percentage of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled in 20 years, to 15 percent, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, released in 2008. The survey was conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, which houses the Institute for the Study of Secularism, Society and Culture but does not have a distinct major in secular studies.


Jackson Lears on the New Atheism

Jackson Lears, a perceptive student of American cultural history, a history professor at Rutgers, and the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review, has a piece up at The Nation offering his thoughts about Sam Harris and the so-called “New Atheism.”  He is not impressed.

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. Rather than provide a thorough evaluation of evidence, Harris is given to sweeping, unsupported generalizations. His idea of an argument about religious fanaticism is to string together random citations from the Koran or the Bible. His books display a stunning ignorance of history, including the history of science. For a man supposedly committed to the rational defense of science, Harris is remarkably casual about putting a thumb on the scale in his arguments.

If we evaluate those arguments according to their resonance with public policy debates, the results are sobering. Harris’s convictions reveal his comfortable cohabitation with imperial power. From him we learn, among other things, that torture is just another form of collateral damage in the “war on terror”—regrettable, maybe, but a necessary price to pay in the crucial effort to save Western civilization from the threat of radical Islam. We also learn that pacifism, despite its (allegedly) high moral standing, is “immoral” because it leaves us vulnerable to “the world’s thugs.” As in the golden age of positivism, a notion of sovereign science is enlisted in the service of empire. Harris dispenses with the Christian rhetoric of his imperialist predecessors but not with their rationalizations for state-sponsored violence. Posing as a renegade on the cutting edge of scientific research and moral enlightenment, Harris turns out to be one of the bright young men who want to go back to 1910…

Read the entire piece click here. 

An Evening with Atheists

Last Friday night I traveled to Pittsburgh to give a talk on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation to the Center for Inquiry, a group of atheists with the mission of “fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” 

I had dinner with the leadership of the organization at Jerome “The Bus” Bettis’s restaurant near Heinz Field and then headed off to the Carnegie Science Center for the talk.  (We shared the venue with a bunch of elementary schools students who were having a “sleepover” in the Center).

I did not change my talk in any significant way because I was speaking to atheists (after all, I was there to present historical evidence, not to convert them to Christianity), although I did have some fun with them.  In the middle of my talk a large screen began to lower on the stage behind me. I told them that I did not have any images to project that evening so the only explanation for the lowering of the screen was God or some other supernatural force.  (It got a good laugh).

The question and answer session was the longest I have experienced thus far on this tour.  They grilled me for about forty-five minutes with questions about deism, the Treaty of Tripoli, the Enlightenment beliefs of the founders, and the Christian Right.  I told them that if there was one thing they could take away from my book it was the fact that atheism has always been a counter-cultural movement in a nation that has been predominantly Christian and has, for the most part, always seen itself as a Christian nation.

Thanks to Bill Kaszycki and the rest of the leadership of the Center for Inquiry for the invitation to speak and for the gracious hospitality that they showed me (including the brief stop at the Mr. Rogers statue!) during my visit to Pittsburgh last weekend.

Just Because You Have a Ph.D Does Not Necessarily Mean You Are an Atheist

According to this study out of Trinity College in Hartford, “educated elites” (people with masters degrees, doctorates, and professional degrees) are just as religious as the rest of America.  Here is a snippet from Cathy Lynn Grossman’s blog at USA Today:

  • Forget the old fear of university indoctrination in atheism or secularism. “The elite today look more like their parents than their professors.” While 82% of all Americans said in 2008 that they believe in a personal God or a high power, so did 85% of elites.
  • They also more closely resemble most Americans. In the past 18 years there’s been an 80% jump in the number people with post-graduate degrees, up from 6% of the USA in 1990 to 8% in 2008. Joining the ranks were “more women and more southerners — the two groups with the highest levels of religious commitment.”
  • Elites share the majority’s doubts about evolution although they are still more likely to support it with 48% saying humans evolved from earlier species of animals, compared to 38% of the nation overall.
  • Elites have high levels of household membership in a house of worship: 63% say they belong compared to 54% of overall. “They have higher incomes and can afford to join and to put more in the collection plate.”

Damon Linker on the New Atheism

From the The New Republic:

The point is not that atheism must invariably terminate in a tragic view of the world; another of Hart’s atheistic heroes, David Hume, seems to have thought that it was perfectly possible to live a happy and decent life as a non-believer. Yet the new atheists seem steadfastly opposed even to entertaining the possibility that there might be any trade-offs involved in breaking from a theistic view of the world. Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? Either way, the studied insouciance of the new atheists can come to seem almost comically superficial and unserious. (Exhibit A: Blogger P.Z. Myers, who takes this kind of thing to truly buffoonish lengths, viciously ridiculing anyone who dares express the slightest ambivalence about her atheism.) So by all means, reject God. But please, let’s not pretend that the truth of godlessness necessarily implies its goodness. Because it doesn’t.

Read the entire piece here.

Jacob Needleman: How Does an Atheist Come to Believe in God?

Religion Dispatches is running an interview with Jacob Needleman, Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State university and author of the recent What is God? (Penguin-Tarcher, 2009). The book describes his “journey from Ivy-educated professor and atheist, to talk about fundamentalist, atheism, separating the sacred from religion, and why listening is the first step of every ethics.”

Here are two parts of the interview conducted by Religion Dispatches senior editor Lisa Webster:

How did your ideas about religion change?

Well, as I say, in my life it was more or less thrust upon me. I needed a job. It was 1962—ancient times—I was hired at San Francisco State and I was obliged to teach a course called the History of Western Religious Thought. For me I had no desire to teach anything like that. I was totally allergic to religion. But I had training as a philosophy student, a grad student, a PhD. I did very well, was at the best colleges, best universities— Harvard, Yale—and I was willing to undertake preparing myself to teach such a course. Philosophers generally don’t want to come anywhere near that kind of stuff—nor did I. But I honorably tried to prepare myself.

It meant I had to read theologians, Christian writers like St. Augustine—whom I had hated. You see in my book where I talk about burning the pages of the book, that’s exactly what happened. I’m not exaggerating. I was so happy to see it go up in flames; I had suffered so much from that book. And later I read it and I loved it—a great, great man.

So it forced me to read and prepare myself, and I couldn’t believe how superficial my understanding of religion had been, even with a liberal education from the best universities. I discovered things about religion; I couldn’t believe how good, how interesting, how profound—and how distorted it had become, how shallow it had become. So more and more I got deeply interested in religion because I had to teach it. And then I got personally interested in my own personal, spiritual search which I started to undertake.

And you teach courses in religion, spirituality, so you encounter every kind of opinion. I was so interested in that encounter you describe with the dogmatic student, the fundamentalist…

What an interesting thing that was for me. Because I was always nervous when fundamentalist people came to my class. Mostly I let them speak but I don’t pay much attention, because I know they’re going to come back with the same old thing and not going to listen to anybody. They’re often nice people but they’re just impervious, waiting for the chance to come in and say Christ is this or that.

This guy, for some reason, there was something appealing about him. He’d greet me: “How are you this fine day?” He would sit in the middle of the room and he would plunk the Bible down. I was teaching a course on really spiritual esoteric thought: René Guénon, and P.D. Ouspensky. These are two heavy hitters in esoteric thought, and I thought, this guy is not going to swallow any of this. Well all right, as long as he takes notes and does the exam it’s fine.

But I liked him. He would always sit there with his bible and he would criticize. It was strong, but it was not hateful; it was not violent. So I took the chance of trying to listen to him. I would make an effort to practice what I preach and listen to a person I totally disagree with about a subject I know a lot about.

So we started having a conversation, and one of the subjects had to do with interpretation of scripture. At one point we were back and forth and I realized: this man, I disagree with him a lot but he has a heart. This is not a maniac—he has a heart, he’s feeling something. And I started respecting his being, really, in a sense, without any sense of agreeing with his thoughts.

Anyway, he started saying things like: you can’t have criticism, you can’t have interpretations, you can’t have commentaries—what is right is what’s in the Bible. It sounded like the old literalistic fundamentalist kind of thing. But it wasn’t, because he was saying something really interesting: let the Bible interpret itself.

And it’s true, if you could really receive the Bible, if you could really open to the words—this leads into the whole big question about how you read scripture. In its deeper sense, scripture was never meant to be an academic study, where you take questions in your mind. In its deepest sense you can only understand real scripture when you need something, when you need truth of a certain kind and you need help. Then scripture speaks. Whether it’s Christian, Jewish, or sacred books of the Gnostics, or whether it’s Buddhist—really scriptural texts.

Scripture is not just recording what Jesus said; scripture is men and women coming together, working inwardly to be true to something and together trying to produce something that has at least a bit of truth of the heart. Real scripture, though it might on the surface seem contradictory or violent, these things are often symbolic and can only be understood with the heart and the head together. Not just with the head.

So I started criticizing as a professor, but I didn’t want to stay in my head like that with this man for some reason. I could give him all kinds of good jabs, ask him questions that would refute him, but as I went on playing my role as a professor I started coming down into my own heart. This guy started being less rigid. He was a heart coming up and relating to a head, and I was a head coming down and relating to a heart. A beautiful meeting.

This so-called fundamentalist was a human being. Someone might look like an unpleasant fanatic in certain conditions, you begin to speak to them, and—well, you might be quite surprised.