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The vitriol in the first chapters of Patience With God, regarding the New Atheists—the intensity of your anger almost saw me put the book down. The love you expressed in later chapters had me in tears. What is your gripe with the New Atheists?
My gripe is not with atheism as a philosophy. I have nothing but respect for a great many atheists even in the so-called New Atheist movement, like Daniel Dennett. They could well be right. I am not arguing for absolute certainty. My specific criticism of [Richard] Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens is that these people are flakes. They are exactly the same sort of people as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and all the rest that I abandoned on the right. And to find them showing up on the left arguing while pitching their websites, building their personal empires, writing off everybody they disagree with as idiots—I’ve seen all of this before. Trust me on this, if there is one thing that I have a good nose for is fundamentalist absolutism and where it leads. It’s a flaky, commercialized, fake spirituality even when it’s packaged as “atheism.” And if you want to dress it up as atheism as a former scientist—which Richard Dawkins is, because he is certainly not still practicing science, but instead pitching himself through his website and books—be my guest.
But why the intensity?
Let me give you an example. Christopher Hitchens used to be a socialist anti-imperialist who became one of George Bush’s biggest supporters of a completely illegitimate war. My son wore a US Marine Corps uniform and fought in that war. Where were Hitchens’ kids during this war that he was running around promoting? Nowhere. Hitchens was collecting millions of dollars from book royalties, appearing on talking head-shows and talking to magazines, while my son was getting shot at. Hitchens supported the worst president in our history from the progressive left, which is a laugh. In addition, based on his writing he comes off as a sleazy misogynist. Why should I have any tolerance for that? In fact, I’ll even pitch it the other way, and say atheism is a very credible philosophy, it’s a very thoughtful, serious idea. With friends like Hitchens, atheists don’t need enemies.
You were also harsh with the evangelical/fundamentalists, but
after Dawkins and Hitchens, the evangelical fundamentalist
chapters were a relief.
I wanted to make very clear at the beginning of the book in very stark terms where I wasn't coming from, and with whom my sympathies didn’t lie, so I juxtaposed those chapters on the Religious Right with what I’ll call the fundamentalist atheist right. Hitchens is a hard right, anti-religious, “bomb them” kind of guy. And I wanted to say that it’s not a choice between these bad alternatives. But in order to discuss these bad alternatives we have to try to be honest about them, and then move on to what I think is a better way to look at things.
In the second half of Patience with God, you talk lovingly about your granddaughter, Lucy, and share personal vignettes from your life. These stories elicit incredible emotion, to the point of tears, and at the same time you talk a lot about “God”; yet never come out and say what God is.
Well, that’s because I don’t know and I precisely disagree with people who say they do. How on Earth would I know what God is, or what anything is? I am struggling to be honest enough to say I don’t know. But at the same time, through these loving connections in my life, whether it’s my granddaughter, Lucy, or shedding some tears looking at pictures of little girls the same age who are sitting in Haiti tonight and literally climbing the walls—besides sending donations—thinking, “What can I do to get one of these little kids out?” It drives me nuts. It drives anybody nuts. In other words, what is it about the human condition that gives us this empathy for other people who suffer? Where does this empathy come from? To me, that’s what God is—that sense of empathy, of connection, of love. I also believe that we’re just very newly evolved creatures, and that these senses of empathy, love, and caring are just starting. One of the things I fault myself, Hitchens, Dawkins, and the fundamentalist Christians for, is this kind of conceit that we are modern, evolved creatures able to draw our clever conclusions. Ten thousand years from now the human race is going to look at our period the way we looked at Neanderthals who first discovered they could sharpen flint. We’re at the start of the process. This is no time to be drawing conclusions any more than the Haiti rescue effort should be defined by people who lay out beautiful tree-lined boulevards. That’s not where the planning should be. The planning should be how to get water from the airport to some little girl sitting crying alone by the roadside, not some grandiose scheme. Similarly, the argument isn’t between Hitchens, Dawkins, me, or anybody else about what God is or isn’t—or even what science is or isn’t. The argument is between the people who have the hubris to write off other people and their points of view, and/or those of us who understand that there has to be some humility where we say, “Look, we connect through love with other people. We connect through this sense of empathy with an idea that there may be meaning; there may be a God. (And I use the word maybe.) Let’s build from that and not draw these big conclusions founded on the hubris of thinking we can make summations of cosmology and theories of everything. We can look at some details here, and draw limited conclusions there, but we can’t paint this in capital letters. The big accelerator in the CERN laboratory near Geneva shooting protons around is a crude machine that is going to look like a Stone Age pot someday. Face it. We’re not going to be around to see anything about the conclusions humans will draw about why we’re here, or what we’re doing. The only thing that’s going to stand up is art, because art is never dated. Whatever Hitchens and I am saying is probably 99 percent crap, and will be shown to be so as time moves on. Let’s admit that, so at least people remember that we were humble enough to know we were crude and semi-evolved.