Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason
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Episode I: Salman RushdieEpisode II: Mary Gordon and Colin McGinnEpisode III: Jeanette Winterson and Will PowerEpisode IV: David Grossman and Anne ProvoostEpisode V: Richard Rodriguez and Sir John HoughtonEpisode VI: Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis


You've been watching Bill Moyers and his guests discuss some of the central issues of our time. Why not explore those issues further on your own, in the company of your own family, friends, and colleagues

Around the world and throughout modern history, thinkers have struggled with faith and reason — some have reconciled the two, others have sought to disentangle them, and still others have privileged one over the other.

In the history of Western thought, one of the most influential statements about the relationship between faith and reason, between the demands of belief and the needs of the human community, comes from the 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian S¯ren Kierkegaard.

In his book FEAR AND TREMBLING, Kierkegaard makes a detailed study of the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis, and finds in it a paradigmatic example of the struggle between faith and reason.

Acting on God's command, Abraham — the founding father of the monotheistic religions — is willing to murder his son, jeopardize his family, and alienate himself from his community to commit what appears to be an immoral act. Kierkegaard calls this a "teleological suspension of the ethical" — a leap of faith in which an individual leaves behind a community's apparently universal moral structures in favor of the higher goal of satisfying the absolute requirements posed by religious belief.

Does this notion of the leap of faith shed any light on the small and great problems of faith and reason discussed by Moyers' guests, from Mary Gordon's fantasy about running Hummer drivers off of the road; to Jeanette Winterson's mother's choice between happiness and normality; to Richard Rodriguez's continuing commitment to a Catholic Church that in its doctrines questions his very identity; to even the thoughts of those who feel divinely inspired to commit acts of terror? Where is the line between faith and fanaticism?

But while current events tempt us to narrow our interest to fundamentalisms and their impact, in doing so we miss a host of other issues concerning religion and its place in the modern world. Mainstream adherents of the world's major religions — within and without the Abrahamic tradition - are grappling today with the impact of technology, of environmental change, of globalization, and are ever more coming into contact with one another, offering a possibility of exchange of ideas on an unprecedented scale.

We can ask ourselves, along with the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, how religions and cultures can coexist in a contemporary context. For Chodron, getting along in the world can be seen as a matter of breaking addictions: addictions to criticism, to escalation of aggression, to received ideas and prejudices. Can we educate ourselves and our neighbors into acceptance and understanding of our fellow human beings and their belief systems?

Or are we committed to a notion of tolerance that is purely secular? Should we, with Salman Rushdie, look to a future where we "don't bring religion to the settlement of our political differences"? Can we ever really avoid bringing religion to the table? Even when we attempt to put aside religion to make a better world, as Mary Gordon points out of Soviet Communism, we tend to replicate its forms, so deeply is our reasoning, our sense of moral progress, and the very language we deliberate in formed by the religious experiences of our cultures. Can this be avoided? If not, can we imagine a world that incorporates - peacefully, progressively, and even reasonably — the varied faiths held by human beings.



Salman Rushdie tells Bill Moyers that he'd contacted writers rather than theologians or philosophers because - in what he describes as a period of "imaginative failure" - he wanted to generate "imaginative acts of response" to questions of faith and reason.

How do you understand this imaginative failure (or, "failure of empathy" as Bill Moyers puts it)? Is it a matter of mutual incomprehension between the West and the Arab world? Do we in the West even understand what we are talking about when we talk about "the Arab world" or "the Islamic world"? Conversely, do people in the Arab world understand what they're talking about when they're talking about "the West"? Can you easily define these worlds?

Can imagination bridge the gap? Is the very act of imagining something all human beings have in common? If we're all "dreaming creatures" as Rushdie puts it, with a common drive toward transcendence, toward imagining a world which is more than simply the sum of physical objects, can simply recognizing this be a starting point for mutual understanding?

In the contemporary world, does religion fail to build such understanding? Does politics also fail, as Rushdie points out, to "address itself to the grieving and achings of the soul"? Should politics fill this role?


Along with a group of other writers and intellectuals, Salman Rushdie this year signed a statement, published in the French paper Charlie Hebdo, calling for "resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."

While many of the writers involved — most famously Rushdie himself - have personally experienced persecution by religious fundamentalists, nearly all at the hand of Islamic fundamentalists — the events that inspired this manifesto were the series of violent protests, in Europe and across the Islamic world, in the aftermath of the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Rushdie feels that freedom of religious observance and freedom of speech are inextricably intertwined - that one cannot exist without the other — but that "when there is conflict between the liberty of speech and the beliefs of private individuals, the liberty of speech must always take precedence," because to do otherwise calls all other forms of liberty into question.

Are there some situations in which leveraging freedom of speech above all other freedoms is unwarranted? Can religious belief and freedom sometimes collide, sometimes coexist, in free societies, and is it worth considering religious sensibilities before making political utterances, whether personally or in the media? Did the editors of the Jyllands-Posten cry "fire" in a crowded theater, in sociopolitical terms?


Rushdie tells us that "What's happened more and more nowadays is that...power has begun to take reprisals, you know...against artists around the world."

What is the role of the artist in a world where political forces - or the forces of politically-charged religion - consider artists and their works to be serious threats? Should artists provoke? Comment? Suggest visions of a better world?

How can writers and other artists whose work it is to produce "imaginative acts of response" help to build connections between cultures, especially when those cultures begin with a radical misunderstanding of one another? Are politicians and artists necessarily in opposition? Or can they work together, for better or for worse? Can you think of recent or historical examples of artists wielding — or resisting — political power?


Salman Rushdie feels that Islamic fundamentalists are "using the language of Islam" to frame what are really totalitarian political goals more akin to those of the Nazi Party or the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin.

We've seen in the last few years a number of instances in which fundamentalists have been elected through what appears to be a democratic process. Has the process itself been corrupted in these countries, or are people somehow voting against their own interests?

Does censorship in these countries, as Rushdie puts it, prevent scholars from "[going] back to first principles and reexamin[ing] the bases of the faith," thus keeping them from having a meaningful argument about the historical foundations of Islam that might have political impact?

And what can be done? Rushdie seems to endorse continuing to respond to Al Qaeda and similar groups militarily. Has that been effective? In what ways? Could it be more effective? What are the alternatives?


Rushdie believes that ultimately, "in the Muslim world the big change may come because Muslim women reject the oppression that they've been subjected to."

What shape do you think this rejection might take? Will it be inspired by women activists who have left the Muslim world and now work for change in Islam from the West, like Irshad Manji; or from women who have left Islam altogether, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali; or will it be left to women working for change within Islamic societies, like the women's groups in Iran who continue to agitate for change even under the current hard-line government?



Do you think Mary Gordon - who says in the series that she finds it easier to understand the inner life of a suicide bomber than the inner life of a real estate magnate — is correct in seeing in bin Laden a mirror, albeit a perverse one, of her own disgust with Western consumerism? She feels that the only thing that stops her from acting immorally — running Hummer drivers off the road, for instance, out of disgust at capitalism — is her adherence to the moral authority of her faith. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, seems to have come to the opposite conclusion, at least in Gordon's theory.

Does such a comparison make sense from a cultural standpoint? From a religious one? Is her impulse to clean the cultural slate and "start from zero" the same as his?


Do you agree with Colin McGinn that Americans are indeed deeply committed to the protection of religious freedom contained in the First Amendment?

Where is the line between insult and criticism? Do fundamentalists — from right-wing Christians in the US who feel their way of life is under attack to Islamic fundamentalists who feel under assault by cartoons in right-wing Danish newspapers — confuse criticism and persecution? Do non-fundamentalists, whether mainstream faithful or atheists or agnostic, tend to confuse these ideas as well? Do we, as McGinn suggests, have a tendency to think of "tolerance" as simply an absence of rational criticism?


While Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn would both proudly call themselves skeptics, Gordon feels her skepticism deepens her commitment to her faith, while McGinn's skepticism has led him to reject religious belief.

Gordon would say that there are many more reasons for disbelieving than there are for believing, but that doubt is an essential element of faith; McGinn, goes further, and states it would be impossible for a person to be a fully committed rational individual and also a person of faith. Indeed, McGinn states that were God accessible by reason, faith would not be necessary — that reason would cancel faith out.

Does McGinn make faith too difficult, and therefore make it theoretically impossible to reconcile with reason? Does Gordon — who sees faith as a force standing in opposition to the narratives of fundamentalism and consumerism — make it too easy?


Colin McGinn reminds us that while scientific reason can prove the existence of things based on evidence it is impossible to prove that something — especially something that by definition doesn't obey the physical rules of the universe — does not exist, so it's as difficult to prove the nonexistence of God as it would be to prove the nonexistence of unicorns.

Is this the fundamental difference between faith and reason? That faith demands belief without proof while reason denies belief without proof?

For McGinn, this means that the faithful find themselves involved in a paradox, since he feels no human being can believe in something without, at some level, having an explanation for it. He locates these explanations in culture, in psychology, and finds them wanting on the basis of reason.

But McGinn finds them lacking — even, he posits, if one believes that the world would be awful without God, that does not, technically, provide sufficient evidence to believe in God.


McGinn and Gordon — both children of the Enlightenment - feel that science does not give the full story of human nature. But their responses are quite different. Gordon still feels that religion provides the promise of an answer to the questions that science cannot address; McGinn feels such questions are answered by philosophy, by the arts.

For McGinn, even if our world would be awful without the idea of God, that would still not provide a reason to believe. For Gordon, it is the concept of God that provides justification for the torment of belief itself that provides a moral center for human beings.



Speaking of her childhood, Jeanette Winterson tells Bill Moyers her deeply religious mother forbade her to read on her own, and refused to have any books other than the Bible and a few texts about the bible in her home. Winterson says her mother was "terrified of any secular influence entering our livesÖShe had simply barricaded books out of her life, and they had to be barricaded out of our lives, and when challenged with her defense, she always used to say, 'Well, the trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late.'"

As an adult, Jeanette Winterson came to believe that "...reading is an act of free willÖ that cannot be controlled, either by the state or by the media. It's private. When I pick up this book and read it, it's a conversation between myself and the writer. And it's one in which nobody can see what thoughts are going on in my head. It's entirely self-contained."

There are 2 opposed concepts of reading here. What do you think explains Winterson and her mother's respective notions of the experience of reading?

Is reading, as Winterson suggests, intrinsically more "free" than other artistic acts that depend on a group reception such as performance? When many within a community read, are they connected in a way that might be akin to that of an audience experiencing a performance?

Consider how central the reading of texts — whether in public or in private — is to the religions of the Abrahamic tradition. Is a type of reading of religious texts that resembles a conversation between a reader and a writer an essential part of exercising religious freedom?

How do you understand this in the context of your own religious observance?


For Will Power, myths hold "the values and the culture and the rhythm and the vibrations of a people." He points to the ability of mythic storytelling to capture things beyond the reach of pure reason, or at least outside of what we tend to think of as reason.

Power finds in myth a way to connect his present-day community to a past that communities worldwide share. Is he correct to see a connection to a set of shared — even "universal" — human experiences through mythic storytelling? Do we all share the same "internal struggle," as Power puts it, and do these stories work to express these struggles?

Or, on the other hand, are there culturally specific myths that connect to culturally specific truths? Would the stories collected in religious texts fall into this category? Does it matter to you whether or not these stories have roots in actual historical events?


For Jeannette Winterson, logos and mythos — the Platonic concepts of reason and myth — exist, as they did for the Greeks, as "different ways of arriving at the truth." Logos demands empirical proofs, while mythos relies on historical tradition and psychological truths.

Winterson feels that humans are intensely spiritual creatures, and thus need faith as much as they need reason. For her, the spiritual impulse is identified with creativity, love and emotion — with all of the human aspirations to things beyond pure material satisfaction.

Is the human "need to make a God for themselves" a part of the same deep-seated set of desires that inspires creative acts from writing poetry to nation-building?

Are deeply held cultural beliefs, positive or negative — in racial or gender difference, in moral restrictions, in modes of economic or political behavior - akin to idolatry? Are there elements of culture that remain unchanged for a reason?


Will Power sees in the story of Oedipus a classic account of the struggle between destiny and free will; a tale that resonates today in both religious and secular contexts.

Oedipus is trapped by destiny. According to Power, Oedipus is a man who's "trying to do right, but for whatever reasonÖhe can't do it... Now whether that's because fate is against him, or it's because he really could have made better decisions, that's the question."

In Power's version of the play, the DJ, who plays the role of the original Greek chorus, simply asks the audience "When are we gonna flip the record? When are we gonna remix this record?"

To "flip," Power explained, means to take an old story, or a fragment of an older work of art, and turn it to a new purpose. When Power asks the audience whether they can flip the story of Oedipus, what is he asking them to do?

Power feels that the notion of being trapped applies to all kinds of human activities, communities, and relationships, from the persistence of poverty in urban neighborhoods to the continued willingness of governments to fight wars. Is Power simply asking us to take personal responsibility and analyze our decisions? Or, is he suggesting that we find new ways of relating to one another, bearing Oedipus' example in mind. In what ways do you think you can "flip" the myths that underlie your own actions, or have a hold over your community?



Bill Moyers and David Grossman discuss the impact that fundamentalists have on mainstream politicians, not only in the world of Islam, but in Israel and the U.S. as well. Moyers asks Grossman: "Aren't the Orthodox, aren't the literalists, those who read the story of Samson as literally the word of God, aren't they driving the conversation in Israel? Are they just like the Christian Right and the fundamentalists here are driving our political discussions?"

How might you respond to these same questions? Do you see fundamentalist beliefs influencing mainstream politics in your community? In your country?

What are the differences and similarities between the fundamentalist movements within Islam, Christianity, and Judaism?


David Grossman tells Bill Moyers that "When I hear that this suicide bomber, like many others, wrapped up with paper and rugs his sexual organs to protect them, so he will be able to use them with the 72 virgins when he reaches Heaven, well, I really cannot understand such a mixture of reason and faith. I think that, for the benefit of all of us, we should pay faith a lot of respect." And, Grossman warns that, "We should be very afraid when faith mutates itself to fanaticism."

Would you make the same kinds of distinctions between faith and fanaticism, and how would you define the mutation that Grossman describes? How do you define, and distinguish between, "fundamentalism" and "faith"?

And what does it mean to faith that figures like Samson or Abraham whose belief in absolute truth made them willing to sacrifice themselves or their families out of duty to God?


Anne Provoost tells Bill Moyers that "very often when I speak to people who believe in God, and I say what I believe, the relation is so close that I think we all believe. We only define it differently."

For Provoost, belief in God is equivalent to having an ethical conscience.

Are ethics and religious belief the same? Are there ways in which conscience and belief lead us in opposite directions? Can we find ethics inside of ourselves as Provoost suggests? Do we need God as a lantern lighting the way toward ethics?


Provoost suggests that "people are looking for the same things in religion as they are in literature." But literature, for Provoost, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she says, literature "empowers us. It emancipates us for the big moments in life," but it is also escapist, a way of getting away from a reality that "we can't quite cope with."

Can you think of ways that religion and literature empower us? How do they offer escapism? Does religion separate us from life as well as prepare us for it? Could you say this of mainstream religion, or only of fundamentalism or fanaticism?



"The science we do is God's science. The laws of science we use and we study and we discover, they are God's laws, because they're the way he runs the universe. So science and theology should not be opposed."

Do you agree that there should be no opposition between theology and science? What kind of questions does faith answer for you? What kind of questions does science answer for you?


For Sir John Houghton, acknowledging the limits of understanding is central to his existence as both a scientist and a believer. Houghton is not a Biblical literalist; in his reading, parts of the Bible are meant to be understood as history, while others are symbolic. He's also willing to admit that there are real processes - like consciousness - which "are not material...yet they are very real."

Houghton says, "One of the most important statements you should be prepared to make as a believer is: I don't know."

Do you agree that the willingness to doubt is central to both reason and faith? In your own faith, how do you distinguish between historical fact and symbolic, figurative language?


Richard Rodriguez tells Bill Moyers he feels that in America a religious person who is also in public life must learn to speak two ways: "you learn in public discourse not to be very specific about your religious life...if we talk about it, we'll find a secular way of doing it that will not be offensive to people of non-belief."

Do you think that in our culture there exists both a secular language and a language of faith? How would you describe these languages? If you are a believer, do you feel you've had to adopt different ways of speaking about your faith depending on whether or not you're addressing others who believe the way you do? And if you are not a believer, have you had similar experiences when discussing secular topics with people who do hold religious beliefs?


For Rodriguez, who grew up in what he calls a "medieval village," a small town where the "only people [he] knew were Catholics," part of the appeal of Catholicism is the sense of certainty and belonging provided by what he sees as the Catholic community's almost tribal sense of mutual belief.

Rodriguez feels that Americans are "communal people" who hunger for a sense of "communal assurance" that is harder to find in a more complex world. But at the same time, he feels that we hunger for individuality.

How does your own faith address your need for community and individuality?



Margaret Atwood considers atheism "a religion," saying that, like religion, it "makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven." And, Martin Amis explains that he no longer considers himself an atheist because he feels that there is simply no evidence to decide either way whether there is an intelligence behind the universe.

Do you think atheism is a religion? Do you see a clear distinction between agnosticism and atheism?


For Margaret Atwood, "The universe without an intelligence in it has got nothing to say to us. Whereas the universe, with an intelligence in it, has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are."

Atwood goes on to argue that our need to recognize ourselves in the universe - the need that Bill Moyers calls "the hunger for God" - is rooted in the basic ways in which our own brains work, in particular in our ability to organize our experiences into narratives:

"We want a beginning of the story. And we go as far ahead in the future as we can. We want an end to the story. And that's not going to be just us getting born and us dying. We want to be able to place ourselves within a larger story. Here's where we came from. Here's where we're going in some version or another. And when you die, this is what happens."

Does Atwood's statement reflect your own experience of belief or faith? Does Atwood's argument explain why myths and religious texts have lasting power?


Margaret Atwood asks "why didn't Jesus write down the Book of Jesus?"

Atwood suggests that perhaps Jesus never himself wrote "because once you write something down it becomes a permanent fixture and it becomes dogma, which is in fact what has happened with a lot of things that have been written down."

Do written traditions inevitably become dogmatic? How do readers' sensibilities change interpretations of the written stories of their traditions?


Since 2001, Martin Amis tells Bill Moyers, he feels that "there's been a kind of moral crash worldwide, like the Great Depression, the spiritual equivalent of the great depression. And any groping toward the species consciousness has been set back to a dire extent."

Do you agree that there's been a moral crash? If so, what are some examples that demonstrate a moral crash?

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