The popular talk show host, San Francisco State professor and author of Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest describes the experiences that caused him to go from spiritual believer to doubter.
Radio show host Michael Krasny
Tavis Smiley: If you spent any time in the Bay Area, you surely know the fine work of Michael Krasny. He is the host of the award-winning public radio program, “Forum,” heard on KQED, the nation’s most listened to locally produced radio talk show.
He is also a professor of English at San Francisco State and author of a powerful new text called “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest,” one of my favorite talk show hosts in the country. Michael Krasny, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Michael Krasny: Thank you. It’s a pleasure and a delight to be with you.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. When I got the book and started going through it, I knew I wanted to talk to you because I’m always curious to get inside the head of those who are either agnostic or atheist because I want to understand their own process and their own journey.
But I love the title of your text, “Spiritual Envy.” I’ve always envied you as a great talk show host. Wish I were half as good as you. But who knew that you envied me for being a believer, for being a spiritual being. What is there to envy about those of us who are believers?
Krasny: Well, if you have faith, you have something very dear and worthy of cherishing because it can give you consolation. It can give you hope in ways that I think people who don’t have faith can’t have. It can give you meaning. It can give you morality.
I mean, you can have all of those things, particularly meaning and morality in a secular sense or without God or without faith, but I think that faith provides particularly solace that you can’t get without it.
Tavis: If there’s spiritual envy on your part, then why not become a believer? You don’t have to envy. You could be one of us.
Krasny: I could, but I haven’t been able to make the leap. In fact, that’s why my book is about. It’s about losing faith and losing faith for me was also losing kind of the innocence of my childhood. I mean, because I believed God was watching over me and God was seeing to it that things were going in a certain way and even when things went bad. As you know, I write about some things that went bad.
At least, God knew that they were there and that I was a part of it and so forth and was looking over me. To lose that is to, as I said, lose something that’s very precious. When I started writing this book, I think I was looking for regaining that or refining that, either my heart or my head. Sometimes there’s a real split between those two.
In a cerebral sense, I couldn’t come to that kind of leap of faith. I just couldn’t make it. In my heart, there was a longing, but it was never really satisfying. It was never really given a kind of certainty, I guess, or even temporary certainty that I was looking for.
Tavis: I’m sure these persons exist in the world, but in my 20 years in this business of interviewing and talking to people who happen to be either agnostic or atheistic, I have not yet met anyone who started out that way.
To your point, there is a process, there’s a journey, and somewhere in the process, somewhere along the journey, something happens that causes them to doubt. But they mostly started out as a believer of some sort. So you intimated a moment ago about what happened in your life that caused you to go from believer to doubter. What was that?
Krasny: Although I must tell you, since I’ve written this book, I’ve heard from people who started out atheist because their parents said there’s no God and they started out agnostics or secular or whatever.
Tavis: I’m sure they exist. Yeah, I haven’t, yeah.
Krasny: Some of them have morphed into faith [laugh]. It’s just a reverse of what we said, yeah. I think a lot of people lose faith because they believe in this omnipotent all-knowing, all-purposeful God who is also all good and then they can’t reconcile that perhaps at a certain time. Or they read people like I did, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Splengler and people who have an effect on your intellect.
But a lot of people lose faith in God, it seems to me, because their prayers aren’t answered or because they have to deal with death and they have to deal with tragedy and they feel where was God?
It’s what many people say when children die or when children particularly get Leukemia and things of that sort or when evil things happen or when Katrina hits or when a tsunami hits or when, for example, the holocaust hit or any kind of genocide, where was God and why wasn’t God looking over this? How can God be all good and allow it?
Most theologies will say you can’t really divine the divine. You can’t understand what God is thinking nor, in your mortal helplessness, should you presume that. But for me, it was more of a different kind of journey. It went kind of in reverse.
I write about having been abused physically, not sexually, but physically at the hands of a sixth grade public school teacher who was British. At the time, I believed absolutely in God. I mean, I was getting beat up pretty badly and I was thinking to myself God knows about this and I can rest assured that He knows I’m trying to be a good boy and I’m getting beaten up in spite of trying to be a good boy.
Years later, I think it when I read Dostoyevsky in “The Brothers Karamazov” and a child is being beaten and, again, Ivan Karamazov says how can God allow this to exist? A good God, a benevolent, a merciful, a kind God?
So then you begin to wrestle with this whole idea, at least I did. I thought to myself, well, maybe God is just a creator and maybe he allows free will to us and maybe our faith is based on tragedies and on putting up with these kinds of things, enduring, if you will. But you’re wrestling with some of the bigger questions here and you either have to take a side or you don’t take a side.
Tavis: I want to come back to some of the bigger questions in a moment. Let me admittedly start now with a couple of the smaller questions, given what you’ve just said now.
For those who are watching right now, again, small question. In many ways, I know, an over-simplification, but for those watching right now who say this is the problem with people who become agnostic. This is the problem with atheists. That they start to over-intellectualize.
The irony of it is that, if we believe that there is a God, the same God that gives you the intellect that you have, then allows you vis-à-vis free will to over-intellectualize to the point where you believe he doesn’t even exist anymore.
Krasny: Yeah. In fact, there are both ways of looking at it, of course, that he allows that in me or that I allow it in myself and it is free will. I always like the line of the great Nobel Laureate Isaac Singer when I asked him about free will. He said, “Of course, I believe in it. I have no choice.” [laugh].
I’m struck by that sense as you are, the division between heart and head. I’ve been too cerebral and too intellectual in my life and I recognize that. So there have been times when I thought just surrender to it.
You know, it’s like love. You surrender to it and it’s maybe irrational, but it’s a force that’s stronger than you are and you give yourself up to it. But I think there has to be that longing. You know, unfortunately, the line that comes to my mind is Woody Allen’s line when they said to him why did you go to [inaudible]. I guess that was love too. He said the heart wants what it wants.
I came to a point in my life where, in fact, your namesake, Jane Smiley, once said to me, “I used to be agnostic, but now I just don’t care. I’m indifferent,” she said. I couldn’t be indifferent about it, but on that kind of macro level, I couldn’t find it somehow in my heart as much as I wanted it. I really did want it. That’s why I’m envious of it.
Tavis: For those of us who believe in a God or believe in God, we believe that God is love. So to your point now, if you can find it intellectually or in your humanity to surrender to love, aren’t you then really surrendering to the God force?
Krasny: Well, you may be surrendering to ‒ I mean, a lot of people surrender to hate. A lot of people surrender to nature. A lot of people surrender to various kinds of things that they identify with, a transcendent force, which doesn’t necessarily have to be God.
We’ve come to identify in the Abrahamic religions and Judaism, Christianity, Islam, God as being love and therefore one’s duty to God, one’s glory to God, is to find the way and the path to love, to love one’s own creatures, for example, one’s fellow humankind.
It’s very difficult to do sometimes when you think of some of the creatures that are out there [laugh]. I mean, it’s a very strong demand on the human spirit to say that you should love all of your fellow human beings or, for that matter, all of your fellow creatures.
I mean, I think that part of the bounty and the grace ‒ and I use these words advisedly of our lives ‒ is the ability to love and the recognition that we can find love. But whether that’s identifiable singularly with God or not, we don’t know. And that’s really what I’m saying here. We don’t know.
Tavis: The other simple question, small question, I want to get to, given what you said earlier, Michael.
Krasny: You’re asking some big questions, Tavis.
Tavis: No, this is the small stuff. When you suggested a moment ago that, in your childhood, you were being physically abused and that in part is what makes you doubt the fact that there is a God, how could there be a God who allows this bad thing to happen to a good boy?
Krasny: That’s what started the thinking.
Tavis: You started thinking.
Krasny: The trajectory of –
Tavis: – precisely. I had the same experience when I was a child. I had a beating that landed me in the hospital for ten days and it was during that very same period that I went through these same doubts, these same thoughts.
How is it that a God could exist who sits high and looks low and knows that I did not do what I was accused of doing, the minister of my church stands up in front of the entire congregation and calls me by name, accuses my sister and I of doing something that we didn’t do.
We both get beaten so severely we’re in the hospital for ten days and I’m wrestling in that moment of my life with how a good God could allow this to happen to me if he knew that I had not done anything wrong. So I know the journey well that you speak of.
I guess the question is, why is it that we doubt God when bad things happen in the world to us or to other people around the world, tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes. We question God when the bad stuff happens, but nobody questions God or thanks God more routinely when good stuff happens to us every day.
Krasny: Well, I think people ‒ in fact, somebody just said to me earlier today. I said, “How are things?” She said, “Blessed.” You know, I thought it’s a wonderful feeling. And if you have that kind of gratitude, and you should have it perhaps as some kind of source, but if you don’t know what that source is or if you can’t identify it, if you can’t feel it palpably, then I think you’re in an agnostic role. And agnosticism has become more a sense of skepticism and doubt than it is the certainty with which particularly today’s militant atheists seem to say there is no God.
I mean, when I say, for example, to the atheists I’m not sure, they think it’s cowardice and I think it takes a certain amount of courage to say I don’t know. That’s precisely my point. I remember interviewing Studs Terkel once. He said, “I’m an agnostic.” I said, “What does that mean?” He says, “I’m a cowardly atheist.” I thought that’s a pretty good definition, you know, as far as definitions go.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s something in the human fabric or in our DNA that makes us think of tragedies. Because, after all, we’re taught that God is good and that God is looking out for us. Therefore, if you’re beaten up and denounced by your minister, you’re gonna doubt and question God’s authority, especially if it’s somebody who was a minister who’s supposed to speak in the name of God.
Tavis: You mentioned the word skepticism a moment ago. The older I get, the more I think I believe this, that skepticism is healthy, but cynicism just drives me insane. So I can handle having a conversation with a Michael Krasny who is an admitted agnostic because I understand skepticism. I just can’t stand cynicism.
I raise that because I think that there are a number of examples. I won’t call the names of these authors. Some of them have been on this show, in fact, who I think are cynically attacking God. There are so many books over the last few years, as you well know.
I’m sure you’ve interviewed some of these authors on your show who have made the “New York Times” best seller list not because they’re skeptical as Michael Krasny is in “Spiritual Envy,” but because they’re cynical and they go on a vicious attack against God. Agnostic though you may be, how do you process those kinds of individuals and their positions?
Krasny: I went after them in my book. I mean, I did because not only of their certainty and my uncertainty, their cynicism as you describe it and my skepticism and, by the way, cynics are often people who start out as idealists and then they become cynics. So I give them a little bit of slack for that because I feel that maybe they’ve gone on a trajectory that I don’t understand or I want to know about.
But the attacks on religion and the contempt for religion was something that bothered me. I saw too many people who got off addictions because of religion, who got away from recidivism gangster behavior of one kind or another, hoodlum behavior or whatever you want to call it, outlaw behavior, because of religion.
I saw religion really reshaping peoples’ lives and I thought this is something that people find dear and I knew too many people who had faith and faith meant the world to them and they were wonderful people and it was tied in in many instances their virtues and their goodness with their faith.
So that kind of attitude ‒ Bill Maher has it too, you know. I mean, just to name names of somebody on television. “Religulous,” the movie he made, that as well as about Dawkins and Hitchens and the more prominent atheists and Sam Harris, is their contempt for religion and their dismissiveness about religion. Religion has been a force for evil; it’s been a force for what I see as inequities. Just think of the Inquisition. Just think of the Crusades. Just think of 9/11.
Krasny: Hitler, and things done in the name of religion or ideology of any kind. But also, you know, I think of religion, I think of the civil rights movement, I think of the abolition movement, I think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, I think of Malcolm X later on when he went to Mecca and had that enlightenment.
So religion is a mixed deal to me. It’s like God is a mixed deal to me. Sometimes you can call it wishy-washy. Sometimes I feel like I want to move toward faith and then other times I just find myself too skeptical to be able to do that.
Tavis: I started this conversation off by admitting publicly, which I’ve done any number of times, that I’m a huge fan of your work over the years on radio up in the Bay Area in part because you’re curious, because you are bright, because you are well read, because you are learned, all those things that make you the certain Michael Krasny that I revel in and celebrate.
That certainty is what I like to listen to when I’m in the Bay Area or when I’m online. What I can’t understand, though, is how a guy who could be so certain in every other aspect of his life can be so uncertain about this, and how does one navigate a life where, on something this big, something this important, there’s uncertainty?
Krasny: Well, you’re very kind in all your plaudits and I’m grateful for them. There are plenty of things I’m not certain about in this world, but what I’m particularly uncertain about is what’s beyond my kin, what’s beyond my understanding.
I don’t know what’s out in the universe or universes, because there really are probably many, many universes. We used to think there was just the Milky Way and now we know there are many, many galaxies. I don’t know what’s in the depths of the ocean. None of us.
So to assume that we know what’s beyond the dividing blue which we think of as where God is or, for that matter, below us where we think Satan lies and so forth, we have to really form some kind of a code of our own. We have to form some kind of notion of what we believe. Kierkegaard said it best. You make a leap of faith, or you don’t make a leap of faith. I’m uncertain. It’s that simple.
That’s where the envy comes in. Because I know you’re a man of faith, I wish I had in my heart the kind of faith that you have because I think it probably gives you a lot of strength and certainty in ways that probably I don’t have certainty. So I have to find certainty in other ways.
Tavis: To your point now, it does ‒ I can only speak for Tavis. My being a person of faith does give me strength in certain moments, but conversely, one of the primary reasons I am a person of faith is because in those moments when I am weak, when I have no strength, I personally have to have something I can call on that’s bigger than me, something that rescue me, something that can help me when I can’t help myself.
Krasny: Boy, do that I envy that.
Tavis: So when you find yourself in those moments, what do you call upon?
Krasny: You feel helpless. I think you do as well, but you have something to call upon. When I feel helpless, you know, it’s the old idea of what’s a guy doing in a foxhole? He’s calling on God when he’s maybe been an atheist or an agnostic before that. In many cases, that’s indeed the case. But I don’t necessarily feel that power that you feel that summons me. I want to feel it and I’m envious of those of you who have it.
Tavis: You mentioned Christopher Hitchens earlier in this conversation. Hitchens is one of those persons who we know has been battling cancer of late. Unless he’s said something of late that I’ve missed, Hitchens has stood very firm even as he battles cancer that there is no God. He’s been very vocal about that.
Krasny: Hitchens has said if I say there’s a God, it’s the chemo working [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] My point exactly. So he has stood firm in his disbelief, as it were, in a higher being. But to your earlier point, Michael, there are many, many folk and I know some of them who had been agnostic and been atheist until they get in a situation where they need to call on something more divine, some sort of deity, and then they discover God. What do you make of that?
Krasny: Well, I write about that. In “Brideshead Revisited,” the Evelyn Waugh’s novel, is a good example where at the end, you know, a guy who’d been renouncing God and blaspheming God, at the end finally he wants the Last Rites said and he wants to make his peace with God.
Certainly there’s that and then there are people who toward the end ‒ my dad used to say ‒ my dad was a believer right up to the end. I’d see him reading the bible all the time and he’d say, “I’m studying for my final exams.” Because there was a sense of mortality which is really what brings us, I think, often closer to God.
I mean, to begin with, you think about why people have searched for God and why God was there in man’s mind. A lot of it probably has to do with the quest for not only not feeling helpless like we were saying and finding answers, but also how to explain what goes on after we live and how to give purpose to our lives. That’s something also that’s enviable.
I don’t know how it’s gonna unfold for me. You know, I hope I got a number of years left and maybe when I’m lying there like Hitchens with some kind of cancer eating my body and metastasizing, I may call upon God. I just don’t know, but at this point, I’m the skeptic and I remain a skeptic.
Not only with respect, by the way, to God, but also as much as I would love to feel God and feel that sense of love of God and be loved by God because nothing gives people more rapture in many ways, but it’s also that feeling that you get when you’re looking a parapsychology, for example, when you’re looking at answers to do we have a sixth sense? Can we be clairvoyant? Can we read peoples’ minds? Can we do telekinesis? You know, all these things that we think may be possible, but we really don’t know.
Tavis: To the point now of your father studying for this final exams and to your point that you might one day be lying on a death bed somewhere trying to figure this out before you make your transition to where I don’t know, but making your transition to someplace other than planet earth, if you were to depart this world without having figured this out obviously in advance of that, how do you think you might process that if you can’t figure this out before your transition?
Krasny: I think there are many people, and I may turn out to be one of them, who die without figuring it out, who just don’t know and haven’t figured it out. I mean, you can feel grateful if you have the light bulbs on above your head or your heart has been filled or whatever it is.
Spiritual enlightenment is a wonderful thing when it comes, but it doesn’t necessarily come. It comes to some people not even necessarily on their death beds. You know, it’ll come to them when they look out at nature or when they see something beautiful or when a child is born. All kinds of things can transport them to a higher level of feeling there must be something beyond me. There must be some kind of power.
Tavis: To your point now, is there nothing in the world, the universe itself, the sun, the moon, the stars, nature, human beings, is there nothing in the world that makes you believe that something bigger than us, some deity, had to create some of this? Is there nothing in the world that makes you think that?
Krasny: At this point, I would have to say, again, and it’s so easy to say, I don’t know. I mean, it could be like I hate to mention founding fathers because whenever I do, I feel like Glenn Beck [laugh]. You think about somebody like, well, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Madison. They were all idealists.
They all believed, you know, God created the heavens and the earth and then kind of went MIA and then it’s up to us to glorify, to feel his glory and all that. Yet the fact of the matter is, I think you have to come to a reckoning.
You have to have a moment in your life where you say this is something I can embrace, this is something I can absorb and internalize. This feels right for me. When I go out and I look at the beauty of nature, for example, I can feel rhapsodic. I can be overwhelmed by it. You know, I can be just like any person who has that consummate feeling of the aesthetics or the beauty of nature. But its source I’m not sure of. I don’t know.
I just saw a film by Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life,” which is a beautiful film, I mean, just visually about the attempt to render creation and render the beauty of the afterlife and all of these really very deeply Christian kind of things that have to do with his own upbringing in Waco, Texas. It’s moving to me, but at the same time that I can be moved by it, I mean, moved to tears, I don’t necessarily feel that I can embrace it.
Tavis: My mother watching right now in Indiana and all the folk who are on her prayer tree are I’m sure on their knees as we speak right now praying for you that God will show you the light, that he will enlighten you. I’m being somewhat funny about that, but I’m also being serious.
Krasny: But don’t, because I appreciate all their prayers. I mean, I’ll take all the prayers I can get.
Tavis: I only raise that because, for those persons of faith right now who are watching you, who are praying that one day you will come into the light of all that we know and we believe, it’s one thing for those persons to pray for you and you welcome the prayers. The question is whether or not you think they should feel sorry for Michael Krasny?
Krasny: No, I don’t think there’s any necessity to.
Tavis: Poor Michael Krasny. He just doesn’t get it.
Krasny: No. I mean, if they want to and it makes them feel better, they can feel compassion for me, but it’s not necessary. When I say I welcome prayer, you know, I write in my book about my father was dying and I was doing a job in Texas for the old Rossborough Company. There were women there who wanted to pray for my father and I was very touched by this.
I think some of our militant atheists would have said, you know, I don’t need your prayers and would have been very dismissive about it. But these were kind women and a couple of men who really felt attached to me and felt concerned about me and didn’t even know my father. They were praying for some guy in Cleveland they didn’t even know and I thought this was very moving to me.
I think that who knows what the power of prayer is? I mean, Larry Dossey and a lot of people experiments where they say ‒ none of them are convincing to my skeptical mind, but they say it can move mountains.
I don’t know if it can move mountains, but I think it can do things for people. I can heal people. I mean, the idea’s perhaps neuroscientific and they may have to with our neurology, but people can suddenly feel faith and throw away crutches and get up out of wheelchairs and whatever.
Tavis: Back to the beginning of our conversation, Michael, there is to my mind a certain courage in being able in this world to say I don’t know about any variety of subject matter. I don’t know, and how unpopular and how uncommon is that these days to say I don’t know. So there’s certain courage in that.
So you don’t know, but do you know what would have to happen for you to know, for you to believe? Is there something that would have to happen?
Krasny: I think I’d probably have to have some kind of – again, this is gonna sound probably too cerebral or too intellect. I think I would have to have something empirical. My friend Jacob Needleman is a philosopher who makes a division in his book on God between the outer empirical and the inner empirical.
I’m not talking about the inner empirical, although it would be great if something lit up my inner life and made me see God or had a moment of absolute blinding faith of some kind. I don’t think these things necessarily revelation called them. You know, they don’t come with a catalyst that you can determine. They come sometimes in a moment that’s unanticipated.
But I would like the external empiricism and I don’t know that I can get that. I would like to be able to see God in some way where I could feel that presence and sense that it’s something concrete that I can give word to.
Tavis: To my mind, it is the best book I’ve ever read on agnosticism written by my friend Michael Krasny. The book is called “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest” with a foreword by the great writer, Joyce Carol Oates. Michael Krasny, an honor to have you on this program. Thanks for being so insightful.
Krasny: And thanks for your great questions. I appreciate being with you.
Tavis: Always. Glad to have you here.
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