Recently I had the honor of interviewing my favorite atheist blogger, retired Marriage and Family Counselor and addiction medicine specialist Richard Wade who writes the “Ask Richard” column at Friendly Atheist. In his column, which was inaugurated two years ago this upcoming Sunday, Richard wisely advises atheists and religious people who seek his help in being true to themselves and to each other in matters of belief and (especially) non-belief. His responses to letters are unfailingly humane, affirmative, creative, constructive, compassionate, and pragmatic. I had a lot I wanted to ask him and Richard proved extremely generous with his time and his ideas. Over the course of four long interview sessions held in real time over instant messenger this spring, we talked about enough to fill eight blog posts. Below is the first installment of our entire freewheeling conversation, as it took place, with only minor editing for clarity and presentation. Over the next week, I will post the rest of the interview.
Daniel Fincke: How long have you been an atheist and how long has it been an important matter of self-identity to be an atheist? And how did you become an atheist and come to see it as important to self-identify as an atheist in an outspoken way?
Richard Wade: My belief in supernatural things was never very strong or focused because I grew up in a nonreligious family. My dad called himself an agnostic, although I suspect that he really used that term because it was a more socially acceptable word than atheist. My mom rejected her parents’ Baptist religiosity in her late teens, but she has remained what I’d call a deist with as little interest in any supreme being as it seems to have in us. They both worked at a major natural history museum as illustrators and exhibit designers, so all of their friends were scientists of many kinds.
So I spent many free days at the museum, and I loved it. I was surrounded by science and scientists. I went out on digs and helped in the lab. Listening to their conversations, I was impressed by how tough they were and how willing they were to risk having their ideas shot down by their peers. I realized that science can be a very demanding field emotionally, not just intellectually. As I grew up, I acquired a few vague deist ideas, basically because god belief is everywhere in the U.S., like the air. The most organized my beliefs ever got was when I became a lay member of a Zen center, and practiced zazen.
I began to lose interest in all of that, and for several years thought very little about such issues until 9/11 happened. Seeing those two towers come down, they were like the last two nails in the coffin of my interest in anything supernatural in any form. About I think 3 or 4 years ago, I stumbled across a website called On Faith, run by the Washington post.
I now call it the world’s largest text-only bar room brawl. I’d never done any blogging or commenting before, and it was fascinating, both in its intellectual demands and in its sudden brutality. I learned to be just awful there. I got very good at eviscerating people along with their arguments, and I’m not proud of that.
Interestingly, it was because of a young woman, a Muslima she called herself, that I woke me up to how brutal I was. She was an American who had converted to Islam. She took and took and took terrible abuse from other commenters there at On Faith with an amazing patience. I admired her for that, and I began to realize that I could do this in a completely positive and constructive way.
It was about that time that I noticed myself repeating a phrase that, I guess, is my motto of sorts. “Agreement is not important, only understanding is.”
So I got tired of the negativity and futility of On Faith, but I was hooked on commenting on blogs. It had this wonderful combination of intimacy and anonymity at the same time. I cast about and found Friendly Atheist. Great name.
Daniel Fincke: Yes, when I was starting my blog I thought of it too–only to discover it was taken.
Richard Wade: The level of discourse was so much better and so filled with possibilities for understanding, rather than just futile verbal combat. I was able to meet and befriend several people of faith as well as atheists. I learned so many things that I never would have encountered. Although there’s a wide age range of the frequent commenters, I am older than most and I think that has given me an ability to control my emotional reactions when in discussions that can get quite heated. So people began to make remarks about my ability to reconcile or to go for the high road in an argument.
After a few months of almost daily commenting, Hemant invited me to be a guest contributor. I posted several articles about things I thought were interesting, but it became harder to be the initiator of a conversation. I realized that I prefer to respond to someone else’s ideas, propositions or questions.
Daniel Fincke: Yes, I get that, I think very dialectically too. Initiating a blog post without provocation often feels like starting a conversation before anyone’s in the room with me yet.
Richard Wade: Yeah, exactly. It’s much easier to build on a preexisting foundation. About that time, in a discussion about Billy Graham’s Christian advice column, Hemant Mehta publicly proposed that I should be the advice columnist for atheists. I immediately laughed. But, just as immediately, people were seconding the idea. I thought that would be interesting. As a marriage and family therapist, I had been trained to avoid giving advice, but to help people discover and clarify their own problems and their own solutions, so giving advice was alien to me. But I thought, “okay why not?”
Daniel Fincke: Really. I must say you’ve already blown apart like 5 major assumptions I would have had here.
Richard Wade: We set up the email address, and when I first opened it, it was like that scene from the old Star Trek series when Captain Kirk opens the overhead bin and out pour thousands of Tribbles covering him up in a pile. There were so many letters, and I immediately realized that I would never be able to catch up.
Daniel Fincke: Major untapped market.
Richard Wade: Yeah you’re right.
Keep reading the next 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about: