Clearly, anyone who claims to be certain that Jesus was literally born of a virgin is lying. He's either lying to himself or he's lying to others. There's no experience you have praying in church that can deliver certainty on that specific point.

You're saying it's not verifiable.

It's just not the kind of thing that spiritual experience validates. You can pray in a room to Jesus and even have an experience of Jesus being bodily present. Jesus shows up with a whole halo and the beard and the robes and it's the best experience of your life. What does that prove? You wouldn't even be in the position to know whether the historical Jesus actually had a beard on the basis of that experience.

Yet one thing I argue in my book is that experiences like that are very interesting and worth exploring. There's no doubt that people have visionary experiences. There's no doubt that praying to Jesus for 18 hours a day will transform your psychology--and in many ways, transform it for the better.

I just think that we don't have to believe anything preposterous in order to understand that. [We can] value the example of Jesus, at least in half his moods, and we should want to discover if there's a way to love your neighbor as yourself and generate the kind of moral psychology that Jesus was talking about.

What is your response to people who like science, who agree with it, but who say "It's not enough, it doesn't satisfy me, I need more?"

With religious moderates, you have people talking about just wanting meaning in their lives, which I argue is a total non-sequitur when it comes down to justifying your belief in God.

If I told you that I thought there was a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in my backyard, and you asked me, why do you think that? I say, this belief gives my life meaning, or my family draws a lot of joy from this belief, and we dig for this diamond every Sunday and we have this gigantic pit in our lawn. I would start to sound like a lunatic to you. You can't believe there really is a diamond in your backyard because it gives your life meaning. If that's possible, that's self-deception that nobody wants.

What if people prefer self-deception to despair and chaos?

I would argue that is really not the alternative.

What is the alternative? If there's no God who orders things, some people would say there's chaos, it's all random, their life is meaningless. There really is despair out there--especially about evolution.

You don't have to believe in God to have the most extraordinary, mystical experience. Personally, I've spent two years on meditation retreats just meditating in silence for 12-18 hours a day. 

You can try to be a mystic, like Meister Eckhart in the Christian tradition, without believing Jesus was born of a virgin. You can realize the value of community and compassion and love of your neighbor without ever presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.

There are many ironies here. The [sacred texts] themselves are very poor guides to morality. The only way you find goodness in good books is because you recognize it. They're based on your own ethical intuitions. In the New Testament, Jesus is talking about the Golden Rule--a great, wise, compassionate distillation of ethics. You're doing that based on your intuition.

Hopefully, also, you recognize that stoning someone to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, or beating your child with a rod, as it recommends in Proverbs, and which millions of Christians do in our country, that's not a good thing. You know that based on your own intuitions and the evolving human conversation about what is ethical and most conducive to human happiness.

You're saying that we can figure out moral, ethical behavior on our own, without benefit of religious concepts.

All we have is human conversation to do this with. Either you can be held hostage by the human conversation that occurred 2,000 years ago and has been enshrined in these books, or you can be open to the human conversation of the 21st century. And if there's something good in those books, then it is admissible in the 21st century conversation on morality.

Some people say the good that religion does outweighs the bad things they get away with because they're religions. 

We can do all that good--and we are doing all that good--without any affiliation with religion. It's true there are Christian missionaries doing very fine work in Africa. There are secular groups like Doctors Without Borders doing the same work. They don't need to believe in Jesus coming out of the clouds in order to do that work.

It's not that people don't do good and heroic things on the basis of their dogma, it's just those things aren't best done on the basis of religious dogma. We can agree that famine in Africa is intolerable to us for perfectly compassionate and rational and modern reasons that have nothing to do with beliefs. We just have to believe that it is unethical that people are starving to death while we are throwing out half of our meals.