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BILL MOYERS ON FAITH & REASON
BILL MOYERS: Greetings. I'm Bill Moyers. One of the intriguing questions about faith and reason is how it is two finely-honed minds can examine the case for belief and come to totally different conclusions. Consider Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn. One's a novelist, the other a philosopher. Both were born to Catholic families. One remains a believer, the other is an atheist. Yet both are champions of reason. Here is Mary Gordon:
MARY GORDON: Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen. The question is not then are we people of faith, which we as a species seem to be. But rather, what then is the nature of that faith? And what actions does it lead to?
BILL MOYERS: Mary Gordon has made quite a name for herself with novels, essays, and memoirs chronicling Catholic life in America. Her first two novels dealt with young Catholic women making their way in the secular world. In THE SHADOW MAN she wrote of the early death of her father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and his deceit about his past. Pearl portrayed an Irish-American mother whose faith is challenged as her daughter slowly starves herself on a hunger strike. While teaching English at Barnard College, Gordon has published a stream of work in addition to her novels. She's won three O. Henry awards for best short story. Not surprisingly, when writers from around the world convened in New York recently to talk about faith and reason, it was Mary Gordon who framed the issue:
MARY GORDON: I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who had come of age during the Second World War. One of the surprises of our age, he said, is that religion still seems to be a burning question, and we had thought of it as a dead letter, a way of thinking that would simply fall away. Rather than falling away, religion has become an essential category by which we must come to an understanding of the world. So that now it seems that one of the most important human divisions is between those who think of religion as a major threat to our survival as a species. And those for whom our survival without it would seem to have no meaning.
BILL MOYERS: Mary Gordon, as a Christian, did you feel out of place at a festival of writers so many of whom are not believers?
MARY GORDON: Well, most of my life is spent among non-believers which is the way I like it. I went to parochial school for twelve years. Couldn't wait to get out of the parish, which is the root of parochial. And these people are my friends and my colleagues and people whom I respect. So I have to endure the irony of the fact that most of the people whom I admire slightly suspect me of perhaps sucking my thumb at night. Because I am a person of faith. So I'm very used to it. And I rather like it. I wouldn't like to be in a world where everybody was a believer and we all sort of fell back into this comfort zone of agreeing with each other all the time. I think there are many more good reasons for not believing than believing.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MARY GORDON: Well, if you look at the evil and suffering in the world, it's very hard to believe that there is a personal God looking out for us, watching the sparrow, counting the hairs on the head. If you look at the behavior of institutional religions, it's very scandalizing. Not just my own church which is the Catholic Church, but the history of religion proves that religious people are no better than people who are not religious.
It seems to be to not make a lot of difference in terms of virtue. And often, if a religion is connected with power, it enables them to act worse than people who have less power. So, I think it's a very strange thing, a very mysterious thing to believe.
BILL MOYERS: Agnostics and atheists however stand outside the frame of belief. They stand outside the language of belief. They stand outside the experience of belief. Why should believers take them seriously as if they have anything to say that a believer should appropriate?
MARY GORDON: Because if it weren't for atheists and agnostics, there would have been no enlightenment, for example. And I'm immensely grateful for that. Many of the ideas which I most prized as an American, as a woman, as somebody living in a relatively free society have come to me through people who were agnostic or atheist. The ability to question, the ability to take a skeptical position is absolutely central to my understanding of myself and my understanding of myself as a religious person. It's very important to experience doubt. I think faith without doubt is just either nostalgia or kind of addiction. And I'm not interested in that.
BILL MOYERS: Do you feel that what you value as a humanist, as a woman, as a believing skeptic is threatened today?
MARY GORDON: I think most of what I treasure seems very vulnerable to me right now. And it seems vulnerable to me on several different fronts because I think there are two major narratives in the world, the narrative of fundamentalism and the narrative of consumerism. And I think that what I value is threatened by two opposing forces. One, the fundamentalist force, which wants to censor doubt, censor questioning. And one which wants to make everything about money. And one of the most disturbing phenomena in the world as I experience it now is that everything seems to be about money. What can be commodified, what can be sold. The notion that there's never enough money. That greed seems to be okay. That the value of an artistic or a literary production is how many mega bucks it makes. That the value of a vocation seems to be gone. It's what can you do that would make money. And so, I feel that these two narratives which intertwine in some poisonous way that I don't quite understand, both of them make me feel very vulnerable.
BILL MOYERS: At your discussion the other day on Writing Faith you told your fellow writers that the most important division today may well be between those who think of religion as a major threat to our survival as a species and those for whom a survival without it would have no meaning. What's the work of the writer in a world where religion is salvation to many and poison to others?
MARY GORDON: And I think one of the most dangerous linguistic or epistemic phenomena in the world is the either/or. Because we are hybrid creatures. We have bodies and souls. We have appetites and duties. We have many, many things that contradict. We're spirit and flesh. And, so it seems to me, the work of the writer is always, to use a religious term, incarnational. How do we witness to the mix of being human? How do we witness to the inherent contradiction of being human? And also, I believe that if a writer can do her or his work, it is to try to imagine the other, not the comfortable other. I'm actually much more comfortable thinking of a suicide bomber as another than I am of Donald Trump. Donald Trump--
BILL MOYERS: The inner life of a suicide bomber-
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: --intrigues you more than the inner life of Donald Trump?
MARY GORDON: I find it much more comprehensible.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
MARY GORDON: I can very easily put myself in the imaginative place of believing that something is worth dying for and even worth killing for. And so, my imagination can understand somebody who would say, this is a life or death thing. This is about the truth. I will give my life for the truth. And if I have to take lives in order to defend the truth, I will do it.
BILL MOYERS: You say that I find Bin Laden's beliefs a grotesquely and murderously perverted version of beliefs I once held.
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And in some sense, still do.
MARY GORDON: Well, I think that Osama Bin Laden was a person who got disgusted. And sometimes when I look, there are some things in the world that disgust me to the point of despair. So that, for example, some of the things that kids will do on the Internet now. Somebody was telling me about young girls from very good schools who will photograph each other having sex, and put it on the Internet, so that people can, you know, see them, access them having sex. Thirteen, fourteen year old girls are doing that. And I see something like that, and it makes me despair. And I think there is something so wrong with this culture that, wipe it out. Start from-- start from zero. It's too corrupt. It's too far gone. There's an almost physical revulsion that I can have from some of the glut and some of the-- just some of the ugliness that I see. And I believe that that's what Osama Bin Laden saw in the West. That he saw a kind of disgusting corruption that made him feel very, very, very sick. Conrad gives us the example of some people who-
BILL MOYERS: Joseph Conrad.
MARY GORDON: Joseph Conrad, who was just disgusted by a kind of behavior that they found incomprehensible and so gross, that it made them want-- it's as if you were in a swamp. And you were covered with stink. And you just wanted to be on a high, dry rock. And I can understand that very well.
BILL MOYERS: I am sympathetic to the angst on the Christian right towards popular culture.
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Towards the banality.
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: The sheer ugliness of it.
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And I share that sense with them. You obviously do too.
MARY GORDON: Yes. And I think if you can put yourself in that place and say, you know, and sort of ratchet it up, you can say, I understand Osama Bin Laden. That, if I have to-- I mean, this is absurd -- but if I have to look at all the violence, all the stupid violence that's on TV and some of the stupid violence that teenagers seem to think is fine, and kids carrying guns. And kids shooting other kids. And eleven and twelve year olds having all sorts of sex that they can't possibly really connect to pleasure. And the greed that this, to tell you the truth, to see people driving Hummers sometimes makes me feel so sick that, you know, I want to just drive them off the road and say, okay, in the name of Christ, in the name of peace and justice, I'm just going to shoot you because you have to get out of your car now. We live in a very stupid, banal, gross, greedy and rather disgusting culture.
BILL MOYERS: But it does not lead you to do what Osama Bin Laden did, to kill.
MARY GORDON: And I think that I have to go back to a religious position, which is that if reading the Gospel means anything, if Jesus means anything, it's about seeing everybody, every human being as Jesus. That's what makes sense. That-- therefore, every human being is of enormous value. Every human being is sacred. So it seems to me the only thing that stops me from going out and shooting people in Hummers is a religious belief that, even though I don't like them, they are sacred and valuable in the eyes of God. And that does stop me. Because I could really, you know, go out on quite a spree.
BILL MOYERS: I remember on our series we did on Genesis, you said, I'm surprised I'm not a murderer.
MARY GORDON: I still have time as you pointed out.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you do. Did you ever want to be a martyr?
MARY GORDON: Oh, my God. When I was little -- I was about twelve -- I used to walk around with thorns in my shoes, so that I would prepare myself for martyrdom. And so, my feet would bleed, so I'd be ready for martyrdom.
BILL MOYERS: What was the appeal of martyrdom?
MARY GORDON: Because you went straight to heaven. No purgatory. You didn't pass go. And I was brought up literally, literally, to pray for a martyr's death. This was 1950's, early 1960's New York. I was praying for a martyr's death. And I would have all these scenarios where it was the Russian communists then. Somebody, you know, in a fur hat and a brown uniform would put a gun to my head and say, say you don't believe in Christ. And I would say, I will not say thee. Blow my head off. And I would be in heaven. And then, little girls like me would be praying to me. And have pictures of me in their rooms for all eternity. I mean, so what was my alternative? I was going to grow up and marry a cop? I mean, it didn't seem like that was a very good bet. Maybe I could be a teacher. Or I could go straight to heaven and be prayed to. I literally lived that as a young child and a teenager. And then at one point, I thought, you know, I really don't think I want to die a painful death. So I knew I wasn't really a good Catholic. And it made me rethink a lot of stuff. And I said, I don't think I want to die. I wasn't quite willing to die. And it was a religious crisis for me.
BILL MOYERS: Both of us had drummed into our ears this marvelous mysterious statement of Jesus, that no love has a man greater than to give up his life for another.
MARY GORDON: I think that has been the cause of a lot of the good things that I've done in my life and a lot of the bad things that I've done in my life.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MARY GORDON: I never feel like I've done enough because I'm alive. And so, that has both given me a kind of energy to I think do a lot of stuff, just because I have to.
BILL MOYERS: Eight novels. And God knows how many essays.
MARY GORDON: So it's given me a kind of energy. On the other hand, it always made me feel inadequate-- that I haven't done enough. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps me sane is Mel Brooks who, you know, had this-- Carl Reiner says to him, did you know Joan of Arc? And he said, yes. I would say to her, you save France, I'll wash up. And sometimes, I think, you know, I just need to be washing up, while others save France sometimes. I did write a book about Joan of Arc.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote a biography of Joan of Arc, right?
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Here's a 15th Century girl, seventeen years old, who has these visions of-- hears the voice of God. Goes out to become a brave soldier. Wins several victories over her enemies. And then, winds up being executed by the church.
MARY GORDON: At nineteen.
BILL MOYERS: At nineteen.
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Two years later, she's a heretic.
MARY GORDON: Yes. When I was a little girl, I used to sleep with a statue of Joan of Arc. Some people had stuffed dogs. I had my statue of Joan of Arc. And again, it's that double thing, where it allowed me, particularly as a girl, to have a vision of heroics beyond the domestic. Heroics beyond the obedient. Heroics beyond the well behaved. So, here was this peasant illiterate girl who stood up to bishops and kings and nobles and said, "I can do this." And, "I know I'm right." That was a wonderful model for a young girl to have. When we were being told to just behave. And interestingly enough, as a person of great faith, she chose not to wear women's clothing and to give up communion to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, they wouldn't give her the Eucharist.
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Unless she wore a woman's dress.
MARY GORDON: It's again that notion of vocation. That she could only do what God called her to do if she was dressed as a man. Because it was the only thing that would mark her as able to take her place in the world. She couldn't do her work signed as a woman. The work that she believed God called her to do required her to be signed as a man. I don't know whether it was Shaw or some wise guy like that who said, in fact, Joan was the first Protestant. Because she really believed in her private revelation trumping the revelation of the church. But she knew who she was and what her work was and what she had to do to accomplish it. And she wasn't going to listen to anybody who said she wasn't going to do it.
BILL MOYERS: Did that example, did that story of Joan of Arc inspire you to want to be a martyr? Or did it turn you away?
MARY GORDON: Oh yes, no. I was just an unbearable adolescent. You can not imagine how awful I was. I would do, you know, there was a very nice man who owned a candy story in my neighborhood. And then, he started selling Playboy. And I said to him, you know, you're just going to have to stop selling this because it's a dirty magazine. So, of course he stopped giving me free egg creams and went on selling the magazines. My life has been marked by a series of failed acts of witness in which I put myself at tremendous risk. And nobody cares. No behavior is changed. I think one of my greatest fantasies is somebody's going to say, 'oh, thank you, I never saw it that way before. You're absolutely right. My life is now changed. I'm going to be on the path of virtue.' It doesn't happen. But I think I was very marked by that notion of martyrdom, that you tell the truth, that you witness. And if you die, that's better than being quiet.
BILL MOYERS: I remembered you said, "Our calling is to be a witness to Abel," who was killed by his brother, to be a witness to the one who is not there. And I have often thought about that. If I had been raised in Munich, Germany, instead of Marshall, Texas, would I, as a Christian, have tried to save Anne Frank?
MARY GORDON: Well, I think about that all the time. And my greatest terror, actually, is not that I will die horribly, but that I will die betraying the weak, that I will save myself rather than performing an act of witness. That's my worst terror-- that at the moment when I am put to the test to witness for the oppressed or the weak or the persecuted, I'll choose my own safety. And that, to me, is worse than death.
BILL MOYERS: So what do you make today of Augustine's idea? "Our souls were made for God and will not find rest until they find their rest in thee."
MARY GORDON: It's very important to me, because it's somehow beyond behavior. In that it's almost a physical description, a desire for rest. It takes it beyond good and evil. It almost seems like the desire for God is something mysterious and yet rooted in the body. And that's a combination that's very dear to me, this desire for the ineffable which yet is somehow rooted in us as animals. And our combination of animal and immortal is, to me, very poignant. And it's the challenge of being alive. I think that's why I like a religious perspective, because it seems to create a language that explains more things about human beings than other languages do, without answering it. But it raises the questions. It creates a vocabulary where more questions can be raised. As long as you give up the idea that it will answer the questions, I think answering the questions will take place at that moment of rest, which will be in a dimension beyond our corporeal one.
BILL MOYERS: Where do you come out on the great debate between faith and reason in Dostoevsky's THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, where Jesus comes back to earth and he begins to heal people and to cure people, to perform miracles. And the Grand Inquisitor comes and has him arrested and goes to see him in prison. He says, "You know, I had to do this, Jesus. I had to arrest you. I'm going to have to kill you because you are disturbing the peace."
MARY GORDON: I think everything goes back to the Grand Inquisitor. All our religious debates and conflicts go back to: "Do you want control?" What Jesus does in that Dostoevsky chapter is he's silent, and he embraces the Grand Inquisitor.
BILL MOYERS: He walks over and gives him a kiss.
MARY GORDON: He kisses him, and then walks away. And there are these moments of silence and love beyond explanation that I think that's where you don't have to set up a dichotomy between faith and reason. Dostoevsky's very sympathetic to the Grand Inquisitor. He wants justice. He wants to relieve suffering. Who wouldn't want to do that? But I think we've seen in the effects of Communism. Communism was about trying to relieve injustice. That was the impulse. How do we redistribute wealth in order to prevent human suffering? They're the original Grand Inquisitors. But it's always our desire to control and to have the final word that leads to tyranny. And I like to believe that there's some silence and love that acknowledges our reason and our sense of justice. But that at the end is inexplicable and beyond it, and it ends in silence and a kiss.
BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with the Grand Inquisitor when he says, "All that man seeks on earth is someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience. There is nothing more seductive for man," he says, "than the freedom of his conscience. And there is nothing more tormenting either."
MARY GORDON: I think that we have to be able to endure living in torment. And if there is some point to the consolation of religious life, it is a consolation in torment that we have to look at the suffering of the world and be tormented by it. If we were complacent by it, that would be a gross insensitivity. But there has to be a love and beauty that is a consolation beyond our torment. So I think we always have to go back and forth between torment and consolation. And I think that's why I like a religious vocabulary is that it suggests that restlessness, that going back and forth between two poles, which will eventually, in some way we don't understand, end up in rest.
BILL MOYERS: Is it possible to be a Christian without this appetite for the absolute?
MARY GORDON: I don't think so. But I think it's very important to understand that-- and I guess the reason I like Christianity, I thought it was a hit-- is that it is incarnational, that Jesus is flesh and spirit. One of the things, details, that I like in the resurrection account is after Jesus comes back, he eats broiled fish. They actually tell us -- they give us a menu. Luke gives us a menu. He ate broiled fish. So in his glorified body, he is still with other people, with an appetite for specific food. I think the genius of Christianity is that it insists on a physicality, which is sacrilized. And it doesn't - the reason why I'm not a Gnostic is that-- the Gnostic privilege is the spiritual over the physical. And I think Christianity, at its incarnational best, honors the mixed lot of being human.
BILL MOYERS: You even call Jesus problematical.
MARY GORDON: He is very problematical. And I mean, you know, I have a great sympathy for Thomas Jefferson trying to clean up the New Testament but it's so wrong. The reason why I think Jesus is compelling is he is problematical. He's really a bad bet for anybody's agenda, because he's larger than any agenda. And he's very mysterious. What does that mean to curse the barren fig tree? I mean, who would do that? And what could that possibly mean? And it seems to me, as a figure, he is in his impossibility, in his contradictions, in his problematical nature, endlessly fascinating in a way that reason doesn't allow for.
BILL MOYERS: Yet the comedy and the contradictions do make it a good story.
MARY GORDON: Yes. You know, there's Peter's walking on the water. And all of a sudden he says, "Oh, my God. I'm walking on the water," and he sinks. You know, there are these wonderful comic moments. And moments of-- Jesus genuinely seems to despair in the garden. And, he says, "You know, I just-- can I please not do this?" And then he does do it. So it-- it seems to me--
BILL MOYERS: And-
MARY GORDON: -- a tremendously rich and evocative story. And it can't be flattened out. And that, it seems to me, is where literature and religion can come together. How can we insist that our religious figures not be-- our religious stories not be flattened out for our comfort?
BILL MOYERS: So when you bend your knee and bow your head, to whom or what are you inclining?
MARY GORDON: I don't know exactly to whom and what I'm inclining. But I know that it's greater than I am. And because I'm a Christian, I feel like the figure of Jesus gives me some character, some faith, some body to put it to. But also because I'm a Christian, I have the God of the Old Testament, with his create-- his endlessly generative presence, his presence of holiness, his covenantal presence. So I feel like I'm bowing to somebody I don't understand and to someone I can't put a face and a body to. And so it's very multiple. It also depends on how I'm feeling that particular day, whether I'm going to bow my head at all. And some days I won't. And to which of the many faces of God I will choose to bow my head to that particular day. And I like that richness of possibility.
BILL MOYERS: When you were eight years old, you wrote an essay called "What is Prayer?"
MARY GORDON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Here, many years later, many books later, what's the answer?
MARY GORDON: I think that-- a friend of mine said-- prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to. And I think that's what it is. It is a kind of language. I would go back to George Herbert's fabulous poem Prayer. He calls it the "bird of paradise, the Milky Way; the land of spice is something understood." So it's a way of being in the presence of beauty, in the way of being in the presence of love, and it's something to say and someone to say it to.
BILL MOYERS: What's your next book?
MARY GORDON: I've just written a book about my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease and also from polio. So it's about coming to terms with affliction and seeing past affliction. I'm also writing a book called Reading Jesus.
BILL MOYERS: Reading Jesus?
MARY GORDON: Yes. In which I am simply going to read the Gospel as a person trained in literary terms and as a writer and see what happens. And I don't know yet what I'll find.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn from your mother's Alzheimer's?
MARY GORDON: One of the most important things I learned is the limits of my own ability to change the world; that all my love and my imagination and my effort were able to accomplish nothing for her. Nothing I did made anything any better. And that I had to love her as one of the living dead. It also taught me that there are many, many things worse than death. And that's actually quite helpful.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MARY GORDON: Because you don't have to be so afraid of death. You can see death as a release. And you can see the mercy of death in some ways.
BILL MOYERS: Mary Gordon, thank you very much.
MARY GORDON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: In her talk at the festival of writers Mary Gordon spoke of the writer's privilege of following a thought or an argument through all its twists and turns, wrestling paradox and contradiction to a conclusion. I thought to myself: that sounds a lot like the philosophers privilege too. And sure enough, sitting behind Mary Gordon at a PEN event was one of our most provocative philosophers, Colin McGinn. He too is one of those people whose impulse is to question what is given. He, too, stalked the arguments for and against God, but came down on the other side from Mary Gordon. Reasoning himself to atheism, he became a scholar and philosopher. His best known book charts his intellectual journey, from his boyhood in a poor mining family of Catholics in England - to his studies at Oxford and beyond. An earlier groundbreaking work argued that although the mind is fundamentally incapable of comprehending itself fully, we humans can explore with joy the mystery of intelligence. He's written a philosophical study of how movies work on our minds - and will soon publish a study of Shakespeare. As everyone knows, atheists don't win popularity contests in a country where 80% of the people profess to believe in God. To counter "Godless Communism" in the Cold War, Americans put God - who is not mentioned in the constitution - in the Pledge of Allegiance and on the money.
[Pledge of Allegiance recited]
BILL MOYERS: Nevertheless, Colin McGinn remains, unconvinced.
BILL MOYERS: Colin McGinn, have you really settled the argument, have you proven to your own satisfaction that there is no God?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, it's difficult to prove that anything doesn't exist at all. It's hard to prove that a unicorn doesn't exist, especially hard to prove that God doesn't exist, because God, just by definition, is outside of space and time. So you couldn't prove he doesn't exist by going through space and time and finding him not to be there.
BILL MOYERS: But what comes to mind is that people don't believe in the unicorn. I don't know anybody who believes in the unicorn.
COLIN MCGINN: No.
BILL MOYERS: But I know a lot of people who believe in God.
COLIN MCGINN: Oh yes, well, there are lots of good reasons to believe in God; psychological reasons to believe in God which don't apply to unicorns.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean "psychological"?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, reasons having to do with your wishes and hopes for the future. And your fear of death and so forth. You know, if unicorns will save you from death, maybe more people would believe in unicorns. But that's not the story.
BILL MOYERS: The story of the unicorns died out a long time ago.
COLIN MCGINN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: The story of God didn't die out. What do you make of that?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, it's a very interesting question whether it has or is dying out or has died out or which gods have died out. I mean, different types of gods have existed at different times. The Old Testament God has died out, especially in Christian tradition. We don't any longer believe in the vengeful God of the Old Testament. So that God has died out. We now have a God who's etiolated compared to previous conceptions of God. You know, and in some religious people, God turns out to be nothing more than a rather abstract intelligence that lies behind things. It doesn't have very many personal characteristics. He's not vengeful. He doesn't punish you and so on. So, some of the myths of Gods have died out, but we still have, of course, a notion of God around.
BILL MOYERS: We do seem to come with this longing.
COLIN MCGINN: Absolutely, we do come with that longing. What is an interesting question I think is how much of the longing is part of human nature or how much is culturally determined. I found I was a little concerned when I was dropping religion that somehow I'd find my life emptier and I'd have a longing which would never be assuaged. I didn't find it. And I was surprised as my life went on. I didn't feel the lack of God in my life.
BILL MOYERS: What is it like to be a godless man, an atheist, in a society where God is everywhere? On our money, you know? In God We Trust.
COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: On our public buildings.
COLIN MCGINN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: On television, on radio.
COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: On the lips of preachers, politicians and pundits. Do you ever feel that you are an alien?
COLIN MCGINN: Yes. Oh yeah. It wasn't so bad in England because England was a much more secular society than the U.S. is. But I certainly find myself here puzzled and disturbed. You know, all the opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution to me is absolutely absurd and the dominance of certain kinds of religious beliefs especially when religion turns into a conservative, political agenda which doesn't seem to have much basis in the Bible anyway. So, yes, it's strange. And most of the people I know, most of my colleagues are the same as me. I know very few philosophers who are religious at all.
BILL MOYERS: The rise of the Christian Right in the last 25 years is in no small part, because they said they felt besieged by secular humanism. Do you have any sympathy for their sense of besiegement?
COLIN MCGINN: I suppose so. I mean if I believed that they were under threat by other members of society. And when I say "under threat," I mean threat. I don't mean under persuasion by other members of society. You know, if they were to say we don't like the fact that people publicly argue for a non-religious point of view, I wouldn't have any sympathy for that. They can publicly argue for their views. That's absolutely fine. We must have free speech. If they felt there was an application of power to prevent them from carrying out their religion, then they'd be justified. And I would deplore that exercise of power. They should be allowed to be religious.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think people understand that the Bill of Rights protects the right to be irreligious?
COLIN MCGINN: They do.
BILL MOYERS: You do?
COLIN MCGINN: I think they do understand it. I think American society very deeply understands the freedom of speech. Now there are local cases where it's not always held up, but I think basically people understand that it's extremely important. And it is one of the most fundamental values of democracy. And that's why I would defend to the death people's right to be religious and to express their religious beliefs.
BILL MOYERS: What brought this festival of writers together on faith and reason is the growing chorus of voices that are calling for the protection of religious sensibilities and sensitivities against offense, against the insult. There's something going on here. How do you see it?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, the notion of insult is a slippery one, isn't it? And does it include criticism? I mean, are you insulting somebody's religious beliefs if you criticize them?
BILL MOYERS: Well, the people think that you are.
COLIN MCGINN: They do think that you are.
BILL MOYERS: And they want protection for their beliefs.
COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, that, I think, is wrong. Nobody can have their beliefs protected from rational criticism. If insulting people includes shouting at them and calling them names, that's very bad behavior. But should it be prohibited by law? Maybe, if it's very extreme. But if people just want to have their belief system protected from every form of rational scrutiny, I don't have any sympathy for that. I think there's got to be a very firm distinction between criticism and persecution. And I think people misunderstand the idea of tolerance often. They think that tolerance is the same thing as lack of criticism. But to me, tolerating somebody else's beliefs is not failing to criticize them. It's not persecuting them for having those beliefs. That is absolutely important. You should not persecute people for their beliefs. It doesn't mean you can't criticize their beliefs. Those are not the same thing. I think people have tended to sort of run these two things together, and they perceive criticism as if it was persecution. But it isn't.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there was a time when you could die for being on the wrong side of this equation. You could be on the wrong side of God and that was it.
COLIN MCGINN: You could die for not just being on the wrong side in the sense of not believing in God, but also for believing in God in the wrong way. You know, Elizabethan England, if you believed in God in the Catholic way when there was a Protestant in power or vice versa, you could not just die, but you could be tortured to death because of it.
BILL MOYERS: When you came to this country, what was your understanding of the separation of church and state? And how do you see that issue now?
COLIN MCGINN: What is very interesting about this is in England there was no separation of church and state, because in our schools, we had religion every single day. And it was taken for granted. Nobody worried about it. I didn't even think about that when I was a child, of course. Now I look back at it and I say it was an outrage that they imposed religion on everybody. So I admired the way in America there's this separation of the two things.
I think that people should be taught about religions in schools. They should be taught the content of Christianity. They should be taught the content of Islam. They should be taught the content of atheism. All these things should be objects of education. They just shouldn't be indoctrinated in any of them, in any one of those opposed to the others. So, it's not that I think we should keep religion out of schools in the sense that nobody's ever allowed to discuss God in schools. They should. In fact, it's one of the best ways to think about the meaning of life, the importance of virtue and so on.
It's rather hard to see how people can think about those questions which are sort of philosophical and moral questions, without having religion as part of that discussion. So, I don't have such a black and white view that we must keep any tincture of religion out of our educational system. It can be there. It just should be there as another object of education among others.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think is missing in our conversation between faith and reason? You've been at this festival of writers for several days now. What's missing in our conversation between faith and reason?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, I think there's too much tolerance of faith, and there's not enough respect for reason. I think there are two sides to what's happening in contemporary culture. Let's talk about the reason side first. For the last 30-50 years, reason has been under attack. Subjectivism, relativism, multi-culturalism have been brought in to undermine the enlightenment values of the disinterested search for truth, the belief in objective justification, the belief in objective reality, the belief in science, the belief in history. And so intellectuals and academics have told the world that these are all illusions, these ideas of truth and objectivity and justification, and we ought to accept that people just have different systems and they have their different cultures with different views. So you get an attack on reason. So reason isn't taken very seriously.
At the same time, faith is flourishing because if there's no such thing as reason, how will faith ever be criticized. So we get the idea, well, people have different faiths, and since everything's relative anyway, there's no point in trying to criticize other people's faith and point out there's no evidence for it. It's internally incoherent. So, you've got a sort of resurgence of faith after what seemed to be a gradual wearing away of faith. And then you've got this way in which reason seems to be sinking in people's estimation. So I think those two things are going on. I think we need to reaffirm the values of reason.
BILL MOYERS: And what do you mean by reason?
COLIN MCGINN: I mean by reason simply the faculty whereby we acquire knowledge, and by knowledge I mean true, justified belief, beliefs that we have which are true and have justifications which we can produce to other people and convince them. So in the case of science, we have empirical justifications, experiments, observations.
BILL MOYERS: Trial and error, tests, re-test.
COLIN MCGINN: Trial and error. We carry out a test. We statistically analyze it. We observe what's happening to come up with theories. And we arrive at our scientific beliefs. And there's a consensus because the evidence is publicly available. It can be cited. It's not personal. Nobody says I know by revelations that the earth goes around the sun. No, observations have supported that. So you've got science, you know, a paradigm of reason. But I don't like to limit reason to science. I think that's scientism. I think that reason applies to morality, for example. I think reason applies to history.
BILL MOYERS: How does it apply to morality then?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, I think that morality is also a rational belief system. We can justify our moral beliefs. We can have intelligent arguments about moral questions. If we're discussing capital punishment, we can have an argument about it. We can discuss that rationally. We don't just say, "Well, I believe that capital punishment is wrong and you don't believe it's wrong." And that's the end of it.
We can have a conversation. We can say, "Well, why do we think that capital punishment is wrong?" We might say, "Well, it deters people." Now we can make observations. Does it deter people? It turns out of course it doesn't really deter people. You know, we can have a discussion about many subjects, and so it's part of reason. It's part of the ability to have a rational argument where you can resolve it and so on. That's what I mean by reason. It's nothing very spectacular. It's just the idea of arriving at objective opinions.
BILL MOYERS: Is it possible in a democracy of so many different kinds of beliefs and people, that we can ever have a truth we can all agree on?
COLIN MCGINN: People will probably never agree about large questions of life. And they can agree about simple things. But they can't agree about those large questions. What's important, I think, is that they hold their beliefs with the right kind of doubt and qualifications. And they're aware that other people have different beliefs which they can also believe in to the same degree. So, they can respect other people's point of view.
So, I think it's okay for people to have their different sets of beliefs. What's unhealthy, I think, is the decision on the part of any one group to prevent anybody from outside ever coming into that group, and ever expressing their opinions to that group. That's very unhealthy. But if a group has its own set of beliefs but is able to talk to others and welcomes others in with different views, and listens to their criticisms, that's absolutely fine.
BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that when you let slip the bonds or the tether of religion, you anticipated that you might find a big hole in your heart.
COLIN MCGINN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Or, in your soul.
COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But you didn't.
COLIN MCGINN: I didn't, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What filled it?
COLIN MCGINN: In fact, I felt the contrary. It felt to me a better world I was living in without God. I mean one of the things about God is everything you as a moral being do is under the scrutiny of this being who's gonna reward you or not as the case may be. I think it compromises people's moral sense, because they feel as if everything they do which is good, they're doing it because God will approve of them and reward them for it. And once you jettison that idea, you do what you should, because you should, because it's the right thing to do and that you don't feel that there's always some sense of self-interest involved in any moral action that you perform.
I think it's an oppressive idea that God is always looking into your soul at every moment of the day and weighing you up. It makes people too introspective. So, I found it was sort of liberating to not have that oppressive, Big Brother surveillance from God all the time. And I found the universe more interesting and more stimulating without gods. I thought, you know, investigating the universe without a religious impulse or religious perspective on it was to me a more interesting and stimulating thing to do.
BILL MOYERS: Have you heard any contemporary argument for God that impresses you?
COLIN MCGINN: No. No, I can't think of any. There are no arguments for God that are impressive. You know, you can point to the fact that death is the end of a person. And you can say, "Isn't that awful that people die and they're gone?" And I sort of agree with that. It's awful. And immortality would be good. But that's not an argument for God, of course. That's just wishful thinking. It would be good if we didn't die. It would be good if the just were rewarded in heaven and the evil were punished. That would be good. But those aren't arguments for the existence of God. Wouldn't it be nice if that were the case? But there are no intellectual arguments for the existence of God at all.
The whole history of 20th century theology of course has conceded that point, because the whole history of it is the necessity of faith. You don't need faith if you've got reason. If God can be proved by reason, by the ontological argument or the cosmological argument or the argument from design, faith is not necessary to underpin the belief in God. But 20th century theologians realizing that you're not going to prove the existence of God by reason have said, "Well, you're going to believe in God by faith" which is another kind of belief. And of course, anybody who doesn't think that you should be organizing your beliefs according to your wishes won't be very impressed by that.
BILL MOYERS: You said that faith is another kind ofÖ?
COLIN MCGINN: Belief.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
COLIN MCGINN: Well, in faith, you believe something. So you're meant to believe, for example, that God exists as a matter of faith. You're meant to believe in an existential proposition: God exists. And you believe it on faith. That is independent of evidence or argument. To anybody who's devoted to rationality, that's got to sound very strange, because it's saying: We want you to believe in something, but there is no reason to be given for that belief. You're just meant to believe it. Just the leap of faith. You're just meant to believe it.
So people get into a very strange state of mind where they believe in something, and they know that there's no reason they can give. Sometimes they'll half-heartedly give a reason which I think shows that they are still respecting the point that belief is guided by truth and justification. So they'll give some kind of argument, but very quickly when you point out what's wrong with the arguments, they'll say, "Well, you know, it would be an awful world if there were no God." Now maybe it would be an awful world if there's no God. That's not a reason to believe in God. It's just not. It'd be an awful world if all sorts of things were so. But it's not a reason to think it's so.
BILL MOYERS: How do you account for the fact that the Christian story is now 2000 years old and unlike the myths of Rome and the myths of Greeks and even the myths of your native England, Arthur, Camelot, this story continues to play itself out in human affairs?
COLIN MCGINN: I think the story of Jesus is a powerful story. It's got many important ingredients about justice, suffering, bravery. The content of Jesus' teachings still have a lot of relevance. The Sermon on the Mount still seems to me to have a lot of good things in it. So, there's a lot to be said for it in terms of just the religion itself.
But also I would say there's a huge institutional structure behind religion. There has been for a long time. That's why the best predictor of what people believe in matters of religion is where they were born and their families. I mean, why is it that most people in America believe in Christianity, not in Islam? The answer's not because of the intrinsic content of the two views. It's because they were born in a country where Christianity is what they're taught. If you were born in a country where Islam is taught, you believe Islam. It's to do with what people are taught and that's why it hangs on. It's just a huge, powerful, institutional structure.
BILL MOYERS: How do you account for this resurgence of fundamentalism?
COLIN MCGINN: I don't know what the reason is for it. Because especially as you say it's a worldwide phenomenon, so if we just considered say America and Europe, we might say, "Well, look, we've had the scientific viewpoint." And the scientific viewpoint is too narrow to encompass everything about human values. It doesn't encompass art. It doesn't encompass morality. It doesn't encompass emotion in many ways. And so there's a sort of backlash and I sympathize with that. I think having a view of the world which is solely dominated by science is a limited view of the world. I think everything in science is good, just not that science is the only way to think about things, as that's why I think philosophy is a valuable subject. It's not science.
But the trouble with that is it doesn't seem to apply very well to the Muslim world. It's hard to see it as a backlash against science, because science never gained a strong ideological hold there. So it's very difficult to see. It seems almost like a coincidence where this religious fervor is coming up in different parts of the world. I think some of it has to do with the ordinary as disappointing. The ordinary world is disappointing to people. It may have something to do with the kinds of lives they live in the ordinary world.
For example, they don't have the spiritual connection with nature anymore. That doesn't seem to exist in the way it did. An old pagan idea is fading away, and so people need religion to get them away from the boringness, the dullness of ordinary life. And it's true of course. And it's the same with myth. If you've been plowing the field all day in the rain and you come home at night and you're eating gruel and life is not very enjoyable and somebody starts telling you a story about these magnificent creatures doing all these wonderful things in myth or in religion, the human imagination can conjure up another world, and it gives you an escape from the ordinary world. So, part of it I think is a difficulty of living in the ordinary, humdrum world. The ordinary, humdrum world is often just that.
BILL MOYERS: You seem to revel in the life around you. I mean you write, you go to the movies. You write books about movies.
COLIN MCGINN: I do. Yes. There are things I like to do which I proselytize people to get them to try and do it. I like to wind-surf. I started wind-surfing when I was fifty. I wish I'd started wind-surfing when I was twenty. And so I say to younger people, you know, when they find out I wind-surf, and I say, "Wind-surfing is really an enjoyable thing to do. You really should give it a try." Because I find it so enjoyable. It's contact with nature. It involves skill. So many good things about it. So I try to get people to wind-surf, for example.
BILL MOYERS: That's exactly why people I know proselytize for religion, for God. Why they go out as evangelists. Why they go forth as missionaries. They discovered something that they want you to share.
COLIN MCGINN: It's true. And it's a creditable motive, isn't it? You find something that you've found valuable, and you want other people to share it. It's absolutely fine. They may not like it. They may go wind-surfing, and they just don't like it. Okay. They may not like religion. Fine. They may like it. That's all fine. I mean I'm sure that there was a time in going to church at the weekend and singing the hymns and the wonderful stained glass windows and the music and the stories, it takes you out of the humdrum, boring world, and that must be a part of the appeal.
BILL MOYERS: I will tell you that when it comes to wind-surfing, I am not only agnostic, I'm atheist.
COLIN MCGINN: I wouldn't recommend it for everybody.
BILL MOYERS: Anymore than you recommend religion.
COLIN MCGINN: No, I certainly wouldn't recommend religion. But you've got to find ways to derive from life what life has to offer obviously. I mean, you've got to pursue that, and it can take a lifetime to find out in life what you find enjoyable.
BILL MOYERS: Colin McGinn, thank you very much for joining me.
COLIN MCGINN: Thank you.