Exclusive: Bruce Sheiman Interview

bookI recently had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Sheiman, the author of An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. His book, which came out last year, has raised eyebrows in both religious and non-religious circles for proposing that religion plays an important and perhaps even necessary role as a cultural institution — even for so-called “rational Atheists.” This is a point with which I obviously sympathize, and I’ve enjoyed his book a great deal. Bruce recently agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his book and other things, including Pat Robertson, Unitarian Universalism, hipsters, and what music he’s listening to.

NonProphet Status: Bruce, thanks again for agreeing to speak with me. Let’s start large: Why did you decide to write this book? Why is it important?

Bruce Sheiman: The debate about the existence of God is never-ending. What is not in dispute is that God exists in people’s hearts, minds and spirits. What is not in dispute is that religion is adaptive, constructive and healthful – and thereby makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Reflecting James’ pragmatic conception of belief: When we act as if religion is true, we act with greater optimism, hope and benevolence. In the end, An Atheist Defends Religion cogently explains that the most rational and definitive argument for dismissing atheism is not found in the interminable debate over the existence of God, but in elucidating the enduring value of religion itself.

NonProphet Status: That’s a great summary of your work, which I find to be very important and totally in line with my own. In other words: you’re preaching to the choir here. So since you and I are in agreement, who do you think will benefit most from reading this book?

Bruce Sheiman: This book affirms both sides of the religion debate: on the one hand I am an unbeliever; on the other I am affirming the value of religion. Thus the book appeals to moderate believers and moderate unbelievers. The book does not appeal to extremists on either side of the debate. Indeed, the book makes an explicit case against extremist fundamentalism, and asserts that fundamentalism applies to religion as well as atheism.

NonProphet Status: You say you are both an Atheist and an “aspiring theist.” Tell me more about what you mean when you say this. What makes you want to be a theist?

Bruce Sheiman: The argument I make is that religion offers many benefits (emotional, communal, psychological, moral, existential, and even physical health) that are not offered by any other cultural institution.  I view religion in the economics context of expenditures and rewards; and if we could equate these minuses and pluses, religion would offer greater “profits” than any other cultural institution, even any secular ideology.  However, I can only justify that qualitatively, not quantitatively; so maybe the issue is unanswerable.

NonProphet Status: What has the response been to this book, both by the religious and by non-religious / Atheist folks?

bruce sheimanBruce Sheiman: It should surprise no one that believers have generally reacted very favorably; they see me as on their team (except for literalists). Unbelievers surprised me in being overtly hateful; they have called me everything from “fraud” (that I am not really an atheist) to “traitor” (I am inauthentic). What became apparent in writing this book is that there are at least two distinct kinds of atheists, what Daniel Burke of Religion News Service distinguished between “Atheism 2.0” (the so-called New Atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and other extremists) and “Atheism 3.0” (those given explicit recognition for the first time as expressed in my book: a more accommodating, tolerant and kinder, gentler atheism). For more, you can see the second blog dated December 8, 2009 at my blog.

NonProphet Status: You mentioned that some Atheists see you as a traitor. I can relate to the “traitor” tag; per a comment on my WaPo op/ed: “…maybe then our young Atheist Pastoral Student will find a society waging peace in a secular society. He’s in hell and making friends with the fire fuelers. He’s complaining of all us [fire] fighters squirting water on all the theocrats and heaven bribers.” Charming, no? Why do you think our positions — which I think are pretty politically correct and inoffensive — inspire such outrage among some folks?

Bruce Sheiman: Remember, believers generally like me (except for a contingent that does not take me seriously: I am still “wrong” in the minds of these literalists because they think it is misguided to look upon religion or God in a purely utilitarian sense; and besides, “God does so exist and how dare you say otherwise.”), so it is not all “outrage.”  The reason for such expressions is that many people are only comfortable with belief systems so long as other people embrace their version of the divine truth in a totalist, literalist sense. Deviating at all generates cognitive dissonance and a backlash.

NonProphet Status: Exactly. So why do you think it is that this literalist, militant Atheism has been more successful in capturing the public’s attention than our “kinder, gentler” non-religiosity? How does your perspective explicitly differ from those being advocated by the big-name Atheist / Agnostic voices out there right now (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc)?

Bruce Sheiman: It is quite simple: the more vehement are more vociferous. They command more attention by virtue of being louder and more outrageous.

NonProphet Status: Alright, let’s move on to some possibly lighter subjects. Have you seen Bill Maher’s documentary film “Religulous”? If so, what was your response to it?

Bruce Sheiman: No, I have not seen it. Do you recommend it?

NonProphet Status: It depends. If you feel like watching a film that takes broad and lazy swipes at religion, then yes, I sure do! In other words, no, I didn’t really care for it. How about Greg Epstein’s “Good Without God” — have you read it?

Bruce Sheiman: Obviously, his book was mentioned in the same Daniel Burke piece; I would like to read it soon.

NonProphet Status: You attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation — tell me more about your experiences in this community. What drew you to it? What are your “spiritual life” and “religious community” like?

Bruce Sheiman: This is complicated. I am no longer an active member of All Souls in Manhattan for two reasons. First, my girlfriend is Catholic and she wants us to join a more conservative congregation. And, second, the Church administration and I have had some political (but not spiritual) differences. The “political” difference is with respect what speakers any church-sponsored group (in this case, The Peace Task Force) is allowed to invite to church premises to give a presentation. The PTF had invited someone virulently anti-American, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian. The Church administration argued that the Church should allow for a wide diversity of views. My counter-point was that All Souls is a “Church” and it is not a university, not the 92nd Street Y, not Ethical Culture, and not the public square – i.e., it is a Church, which by its very nature has standards with respect to the people it can invite as a political statement. All Souls is not a purely cultural, political or secular entity. In the end, I lost the debate – but then the Church lost my participation.

NonProphet Status: Thank you for sharing that. As you may or may not know, I’m just finishing up my Master’s in Religion. I go to school with a lot of Unitarian Universalists, and this has been a point of tension between myself and Unitarian Universalism — I have always maintained that a “Church” is in essence not a place in which we are obligated to invite every perspective; rather, it is a place of sanctuary, where we can choose to exclude perspectives that are other-ing, disempowering, and hateful. Of course, like in any religious tradition, there was disagreement among my Unitarian Universalist peers on this idea as well. Speaking of disagreement: Barack Obama acknowledged us as “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address, making him the first American President to do so. Some folks — including me — find this language problematic, in that is suggests that secularism equals “nonbelief.” What do you make of it?

Bruce Sheiman: I have no problem with his pronouncements. After all, freedom of religion also includes “freedom from religion” if that is what one chooses.

NonProphet Status: Do you have an opinion on Kirk Cameron’s activities of late? How about Pat Robertson’s? I could go on and on with examples, but I think you get my point. Though their ideologies are obviously on the extreme end of things and not representative of religion in general, how do you counter claims that religion is damaging and backwards — arguments that are especially popular in our community?

Bruce Sheiman: I would claim that religion is sometimes dangerous and backwards. I think an honest appraisal of religion should include the negative elements as well as the positive, with certain qualifications such as: All institutions have negative elements — perhaps we should look at the imperfect human dimension that is integral to every institution — [and] that much criticism of religion is with respect to the past, especially with respect to Christianity and Judaism.

NonProphet Status: I hang out with a lot of young people that often get mockingly labeled “hipsters” (though I’m not saying some of us don’t deserve to be mocked.) To many, my peers and I seem positively disconnected and disaffected, and yet, as we saw in 2008, the majority of this group also got swept up in the sentiment of “Hope.” How can we sell an equally warm-and-fuzzy message of interfaith cooperation to a group that is often very cynical, rabidly progressive, and generally associates religion with an unwillingness to adapt to changing times?

Bruce Sheiman: Young people’s skepticism is an especially difficult impediment. I have a theory why education is associated with atheism (i.e., that atheists are more likely to have higher educational achievement than believers). And it is not because religion is associated with ignorance, which is what sanctimonious atheists would have us believe.  Rather, it is because education’s highest goal is the cultivation of critical reasoning, and too much critical reasoning serves to undermine any Institution or Ideal. I call this the “Opening of the American Mind” because it encourages, first, the transition to relativism (based on the assumption that all cultural truths are equally valid and that no ideal is better than any other). In time, critical reasoning takes us a step further, to the view that all beliefs are equally dubious, equally subject to criticism and skepticism. The result is an inability to see anything important without great gobs of cynicism.  The solution is to take critical reasoning a step further – to the criticism of critical reasoning. Whether that will ever take place is open to skepticism… and so it goes.

NonProphet Status: That’s a great answer, thank you. Finally, a bonus question: What music are you listening to these days?

Bruce Sheiman: Yikes. There is a theory (I do believe in the scientific method to understand humankind) that the music with the greatest staying power is what acquired when our social circles were the tightest – i.e., adolescence or high school and college. And so it is with me (60s and 70s rock and classical).

NonProphet Status: That makes a lot of sense, and goes a long way to explain hipster music subculture (and mainstream, for that matter — I for one can’t come up with another way to explain the rise of Ke$ha). Anyway, that’s a conversation for another day; thanks again for speaking with me, and for the important work you’re doing!

Bruce Sheiman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to expand on my work.

About Chris Stedman