Bill Moyers: Faith & Reason

In his latest PBS series, the veteran journalist talks to writers about faith, reason, and religious conflicts around the world.

Bill Moyers's new seven-part series, "Faith & Reason," airs Fridays, starting June 23, on PBS. Click here to watch a video greeting from Moyers.

Series Sneak Peek
Bill Moyers With Pema Chödrön
Episode Seven
Check local listings
• Watch this week's clip

Previously
• Martin Amis
• Richard Rodriguez
• Anne Provoost
• Jeanette Winterson
• Mary Gordon
• Salman Rushdie


Bill Moyers: The Beliefnet Interview
By Michael Kress

Why did you decide to just interview writers, rather than speaking to theologians, pastors, etc.?
The PBS series "Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason" features interviews with provocative authors including Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Mary Gordon, and Margaret Atwood. To see more clips, participate in discussions, check airtimes in your area, and explore the many issues raised in the series click here: www.pbs.org/moyers  

I was looking for a fresh take. There's a spasm of fundamentalism in the world right now, and fundamentalism is at war with the imagination, at war with creativity, at war with freedom, especially freedom of the mind. And more often than not, the people who feel the weight of that war are writers, and [it is] writers who are exploring deep issues of faith and reason through language. Language gives them the capacity for nuance that you don't have in fundamentalist dogma or creeds or doctrines of any organized religion. So, if you want fresh takes on faith and reason today, go to the people who are thinking creatively about both and writing about both of them.

Writers struggle in their art and in their lives with the meaning of faith and reason and the experience of faith and reason. And if you want first hand witnesses to the reality of how most of us are neither wholly skeptics nor wholly believers, go to writers. Go to people whose work is imagining a different world.

What does the series aim to add to our understanding of faith in America today?

The violence in the world and the atrocities in the world over the last few years have divided us as almost never before in terms of religion and politics. It's all about confrontation, and we've allowed the fundamentalists--the Orthodox Jews, the fundamentalist Muslims, the fundamentalist Christians--to dominate the political discourse. If you watch the mainstream media in this country, you would not know that there was something called mainline Protestantism. You wouldn't know that there are Catholics who are independent and have remained in the church, even though they are at odds with the church.

You just singled out three groups--Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims. Why? What do you see that they have in common?

They have in common a belief that they know the mind of God. The young man who killed the prime minister of Israel said, "What I did, I did for the glory of God." He killed the prime minister of Israel for the same reason that the Islamists want to kill Rushdie. General Boykin has been going around the country in uniform talking about a holy war against Islam. They believe they know the mind of God. And when you believe you know the mind of God, you've got no room for compromise in the United States Senate or the United States House of Representatives or on the street corner. Truth becomes absolute. And absolute truth, like absolute power, is a terrifying sword.

So why are fundamentalism and extremism so attractive to so many people?

The Attraction of Fundamentalism
Fundamentalism is attractive because it offers certainty in the chaos of modern life. It offers a prescription you can take to treat your illness. The illness of the day is confusion and ambiguity and fear about the forces of modernity that are shaping and reshaping our world. And fundamentalism has easy answers for people who are besieged by insoluble conflicts and problematic politics. So, fundamentalism offers people safety from a world that is changing so rapidly around them.

Furthermore, fundamentalism is a way of identifying yourself against the other. It gives you an easy identity. It makes access to God a simple thing. It's what you believe and not what you experience. So, I can understand the attraction of fundamentalism to people who are besieged and poorly equipped to confront the contradictions of our day.

At the same time, I personally believe, and so do many of these writers, that the most pernicious force in the world today is fundamentalism because it is a war against the imagination, against creativity, against freedom--freedom of the mind, above all. Fundamentalists would have us believe that violence and competition are the only ways. Fundamentalists would have us believe that women aren't equally human beings.
Fundamentalists would have us believe that the nation and the state are one and the same, and I believe, therefore, that fundamentalism is a pernicious force. It will not enter into conversation with others. The way so many of us get to illumination and insight and even revelation is through conversation with the other. We need to be in discourse with the other. But, the fundamentalists of the world don't want to have that conversation. I have invited fundamentalist Christians on many of my shows over the years. They don't want to do it. They don't want to come in to engage in dialogue.

David Grossman [an Israeli writer featured on the series] says about Samson that he was the first suicide bomber. There's no record in the Bible of anybody before Samson using his body to kill other people. And Grossman went on to say that fundamentalists like Samson and like the [extremist] Muslims of today, live in hermetic realities, closed systems. Systems that invite no criticism, invite no conversation, invite no commentary--and that's very dangerous in a world where there are almost nine billion of us, and each of us comes stamped with a different DNA, and we have a need to try to see the other, so that we know when to fear him and when not to fear him.

So how does one oppose extremism? Is the huge attraction for it a sign that secular enlightenment has failed in some way?

Yes. I think fundamentalism appeals in no small part because secularism—secular politics--failed to feed the soul. We're not going to change the fundamentalists. But we have to stand up and champion a secular democracy in which fundamentalists belong as comfortably as liberal Catholics belong. Secular democracy is about protecting everyone's identity and everyone's faith from the encroachment of others. We have to stand and defend a secular society against the fundamentalist forces that would like for the state to be the tool of their theology.

And is the only way to be in, or participate in, a secular democracy to not bring your own beliefs to the debate? How do you understand or make room for those who say, "My faith is who I am and imbues everything I do, I can't separate it from my politics"?

I agree with that. None of us can set aside our DNA when we are engaged in the world, as citizens, with each other. It's impossible for me to be a journalist without being influenced by my upbringing as a Baptist, as a Christian, as one who experienced the civil rights fights of the 1960s.

Martin Luther King is the epitome of what you're talking about. Martin Luther King was led to struggle for civil rights because of his moral beliefs. But, he didn't insist that other people be forced to accept or adopt his moral beliefs. Only that society be rearranged so that people like him, black people, had an equal voice in democracy. It's inevitable that you will bring your beliefs into the political struggles of our time, but it is essential to realize that your theology, your beliefs about God, cannot be enshrined in legislation or in policies of the state.

We mustn't miss the great significance of that verse in Isaiah that says, "Come now and let us reason together." This was spoken by a mighty prophet of God who had believed he had read God's mind and heart. He was saying, "Come now and let us reason together." That, to me, is the embodiment of how all of us, with belief or without beliefs, need to be involved in the public square.

I've never thought of that verse that way. Do you have a favorite biblical character or story or verse?

His Favorite Verses
I live by that verse from Isaiah, "Come now and let us reason together" and by another verse in The New Testament that says, "I believe. Help thou my unbelief." I am neither wholly a skeptic nor wholly a believer, and I believe, as [the writer] Mary Gordon said, "Belief is only strengthened by doubt. That without doubt, religion becomes nostalgia and Utopian. And that doubt is what keeps us tethered to the realities of our own human nature and realities of the world."

So when I take those two verses together and hold them in front of me, one says, use your mind and your intelligence to relate to the other. The other says, relate to God, but relate to God by recognizing much of religion is incomprehensible and must be a journey and not a prescription.

How did you end up getting so fascinated journalistically by faith?

I spent five years getting a master of theology in seminary, the University of Edenborough in Scotland and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, and I grew up in a small Protestant culture where religion was as much a part of our lives as the humidity in the summer. We were drenched in religion. And so, I've always seen religion as a human appetite, in the same way that our appetite for food and drink is part of our nature.
Then I was in Washington for seven years working with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations helping to organize the Peace Corps, working on the civil rights legislation of the 60's, and I realized that so many people I was dealing with. no matter what the cause of the moment, were there out of strong religious conviction, deep moral imperative, and I've just simply always recognized that, like sex and hunger, we are religious creatures. That is, we are constantly asking, where do we come from? Who are we and where are we going?

Hovering over the whole series is the general question, is religion a salvation or poison? Ultimately, what do you think?

I would have no way of measuring whether it's been more poison than salvation. You look over the whole span of history, and you see that if it weren't for the Hebrew prophets, Israel would not have been redeemed. You look over the whole span of history and see, nonetheless, that jihadism is part of the Muslim experience and the Crusades are part of the Christian experience and that religion has been used as a heavy bludgeon to compel and kill other people. On the other hand, religious believers fought for justice. Religious believers fought slavery. Religious believers fought for the Civil Rights movement.

Faith and reason are embedded in the basic cells of the human experience and human history. And constantly trying to understand them, trying to come to terms with them, trying to see how they can co-exist together and how they do co-exist together in each and every mind is one of the great experiences of being a journalist.

What advice would you give to people who have a strong, traditional belief in the righteous of their own system and yet want to have an open mind and be part of a pluralistic society?

Advice for Righteous Believers
Open your monologue to a dialogue. Deliberately seek out people who disagree with you. Begin from a position of respect, and listen. Too few of us listen in this world today. This is likely to fall on deaf ears, because the people that we've talked about live in that hermetic or closed system of belief. But, nonetheless, walk out on the street of New York, as I did this morning, and I see every conceivable form of human being, and I know and contained in their own lives is the great diversity of human experience. And I would like to see people set aside the politics of confrontation in order to try to see how other people see themselves.

I've been reading a wonderful book by Amartya Sen, who's a professor of economics at Harvard. It's a book called, "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny." He has a wonderful line in there. He says, "The same person can be without any contradiction an American citizen of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long distance runner, a historian, a school teacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there're intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk, preferably in English."

It goes on to say, "Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity." None of them alone can be taken to be the person's only identity or singular membership category. The point is, we need to realize we're not just a Christian or not just a Muslim or not just a Jew or not just a Buddhist. Each of us is a pot of mixed everything and that we need to see that other people have as many complexities to their identity as we do to ours and approach them then as a wondrously, if confused, jumble of human values and needs and start a conversation based upon the fact that each of us is many things.

Are you optimistic about the future in this regard? There's so much pessimism out there, especially since 9/11 about fundamentalism and extremism and the direction that religion is going.

Optimism vs. Pessimism
I said to a friend of mine on Wall Street once, "What do you think about the market?" He said, "I'm optimistic." I said, "Then why do you look so worried?" And he said, "Because I'm not sure my optimism is justified." I'm the same way.

There's an Italian philosopher who's had a big influence on me, name is Gramsci. He talked about practicing the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will, and by that he means--and I take this as a journalist--my job is to look around and describe the world as it is without any whitewash or illusions or romance. To say, "This is how the world looks. This is what's happening in the world." That's the pessimism of the mind. To look around and see that all the signs add up to potential calamity, whether it's global warming or the clash of civilizations or the uncompromising nature of present American politics.

But, as a human being, as a father, as a husband, as a citizen, I don't know how to live in the world except to expect a more confident future and then, get up every morning and try to do something to bring that future about. That's the optimism of the will. I will will myself to try to change the realities that I see that are so disturbing.

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