She talked with Beliefnet's Patton Dodd about her own approach to speaking of faith--both the faith of others and her own--and how a new understanding of spirituality helped her survive the hardest days of her life.
How did you manage to get a show dedicated to talking about religion on public radio?
It was a hard road for many years. When I first pitched the idea in the late 1990s, there were still a lot of people in public radio who said, “We just don’t think religion is that important,” or, “This is something that should be kept private.”
But the world has changed. 9/11 happened and there was not only a huge religious dimension to that--people woke up to Islam--but there was a spiritual response. I was in Washington on that day and I drove back to Minnesota and suddenly there was this new urgency to having an hour of radio about religion. They actually asked me to do a program called, "Where was God?" Even in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would do a program on public radio called "Where was God?" And that has just intensified as the last two presidential elections happened.
I don’t think [religion] ever went away. It certainly didn’t go away in most of the world. We stopped talking about it in this culture, but now it’s out on the surface again and it’s not going to go back into its box.
Usually conversations about religion try to feature two sides—the religious view and the non-religious view, or the fundamentalist view and moderate view. Your show usually just presents one viewpoint at a time. Why?
I don’t accept the idea that there are two sides to any issue. I think that the middle ground is to be found within most of us. If you get beyond the strident voices who claim the ground at either extreme of an issue, most of us are somewhere in the middle and are living with some of the questions.
We did do a program on gay marriage where we had two evangelical voices—one of them, Richard Mouw, opposed to gay marriage, and one of them, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a lifelong evangelical Christian who loves her Bible and had come out as a lesbian thirty years earlier and wrote a book called "Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?" Even at those poles, they both had a longing for there to be a different kind of conversation. For them, being an evangelical Christian in that debate was not just about the positions they held, but about the way they treated others.
What do you think about the new wave of atheism, exemplified by high-profile authors like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris?
People have been asking me ever since these books started appearing if I’m going to interview Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. But I don’t see a constructive role for these pundits who just want to critique what goes wrong with religion; they decry the entire religious enterprise. I mean, I wouldn’t interview somebody who’d written a book called "The Science Delusion." How arrogant is that—[for Dawkins] to use a phrase like “the God delusion” when over 80 percent of people in this country say they believe in God.
I interview a lot of scientists on my program who reconcile scientific knowledge and religious faith in intellectual and creative ways. They completely reject the idea of Dawkins that religion makes people blind to the insights of science. It’s just not true. It’s not true in individual lives. It’s not true in a lot of famous lives.
Sam Harris says that moderate religious people are complicit in all the violence and damage that the extremes do. Well, I think that moderate religious people are the only hope we have of taming those extremes, of getting religions back on course.