This interview with poet Christian Wiman has to be one of my top 10 favorite shows. He cuts to the quick with a generosity and truthfulness rarely heard. And his penchant for remembering poetry and weaving it into life experiences with cancer, love, and death is incredible.
We get a fair number of people asking us to include more overt atheists in our weekly public radio program and podcast. If you’re one of those listeners, this week’s conversation with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss will be right up your alley.
He’s an energetic, witty thinker in the New Atheist movement who takes aim — fairly or unfairly — at religious believers. But, more importantly, his way of thinking about science as an integral part of our cultural formation and how many of us are let off the hook all-too-easily when we don’t know basic scientific principles.
His latest book is A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. And if you’re at all a sci-fi fan, then The Physics of Star Trek is a great read for you.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
My Advent of Magnanimous Despair: Doubt and Depression Mediated Through Poetry
by Luke Hankins, guest contributor
For me, Advent means that God is coming into your life — is already there, in fact, has always been there, but you are about to experience that fact in an unprecedented way. I have come to view my experience of losing my faith and falling into anxiety and depression, into fear of damnation, into hopelessness, as being God’s advent into my life.
My first 25 years as a devoted member of a conservative, Protestant Christian tradition were never easy, and I had always been plagued with doubts and fears from early childhood on, but I never anticipated the traumatic loss of faith that I experienced in my 25th year.
About a year and a half ago, my doubts became unrelenting. And suddenly the only framework I ever had for understanding life and for making meaning was whisked away. This coincided with an event that sparked a year-long cycle of severe anxiety and depression unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was going through each day in terror and despair, literally shaking — for months.
On the one hand, I no longer believed in hell; on the other, I very much believed that I was destined for it because of my loss of faith and that I was experiencing only a foretaste of untold suffering in my anxiety and depression.
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
“The godless groups say they are mounting this surge because they are aware that they have a large, untapped army of potential troops. The percentage of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled in the last two decades.”
The billboards and posters, which haven’t been without controversy, aren’t completely new. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example, has been putting together marketing campaigns since 2007. However, this year four national groups are competing for believers, and the American Humanist Association is putting forth $200,000 into its “godless” campaign — thought to be the highest amount ever spent.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation designed a sign campaign for the sides of buses and highway billboards:
The organization American Atheist created this billboard campaign to target the Christmas season:
Watch for more of these ads coming to a cable television station, billboard, or bus near you.
In the top photo, the Greater St. Louis Coalition of Reason ran this billboard on roads in St. Louis, Missouri in September and October of this year. (courtesy of United Coalition of Reason)
The superlative for all alone is all.
Dr. Feynman’s Father
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Right now I’m reading (or listening to, rather — in audio book form) The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a collection of physicist Richard P. Feynman’s short works. Feynman was a unique and fascinating figure — not only was he a genius (he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965), but he was also a skilled explainer, storyteller, prankster, and bongo player (among other things).
The video above is from a 1981 BBC interview with Feynman, and includes some of his thoughts on religion, doubt, and uncertainty. Watching this, I couldn’t help thinking of our program “A History of Doubt.” His enthusiasm lies in the act of questioning rather than in belief: “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
This same interview is also excerpted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and one thing that stood out to me was how much Feynman referenced his father’s teaching. I’m excited by Feynman’s ideas, but in some ways I’m even more fascinated to hear him trace those ideas back to his father. With “The Spirituality of Parenting” broadcasting this week, it seemed fitting to share a few of these stories — to catch a glimpse of how Feynman acquired his faith in doubting, as he tells it in the following video:
Believing in Magic
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
I had a friend in college who summed up his personal theology by saying, ”I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in magic.” I thought of that phrase when I ran across an article in The New York Times about an effort by neuroscientists to study the workings of magic tricks on the human brain. As the Times puts it, “The brain uses neural tricks to [build pictures of the world]: approximating, cutting corners, instantaneously and subconsciously choosing what to ‘see’ and what to let pass…. Magic exposes the inseams, the neural stitching in the perceptual curtain.”
It’s a rare example of respect for an art form that is disrespectable almost by nature. The subculture of serious magicians, who treat magic almost as a religion, are acutely aware that only they can really appreciate their own work, because only they know what they are actually doing. As the magician Jamy Ian Swiss said in an article in The New Yorker, “Magicians have taken something intrinsically profound and made it look trivial.”
Magic has been called the oldest form of performance art, and no doubt there was a time when magicians were believed to have supernatural powers. But when a magician performs a magic trick today, we all know it’s just a trick. It’s as if the really great magicians are appealing to our ancient longing for wonder and mystery and at the same time making us suspicious of that very longing. Like Ricky Jay in the video above, they seem to be mocking their art, inviting us to doubt it, and then with a flourish, for a second, they dare us to believe.
The Weird Glory and Terrible Power of Nature
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
It’s hard not to see life as utterly random and meaningless in the face of disasters like the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. And this is an issue that comes up again and again in theological circles, referred to as as the theodicy question: How could a just god let innocent people suffer and die?
On our show A History of Doubt, the historian Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the theodicy question through the Book of Job. To test Job’s faith, God takes away his livelihood, his children, his status, his health, and finally Job breaks down and demands to know how God could do this to him, an innocent man. God appears to Job in a whirlwind and responds with a tirade.
Have you walked in the depths of the ocean? Have the gates of death been opened to you? Where does light come from? And where darkness? Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Has thou seen the treasures of the hail? Hath the rain a father? Who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice?
Hecht gives her wonderful reading of this passage in her book Doubt: a History.
This is how God accounts for himself. He does not say, Here is proof of justice or of my existence; he simply cites the weird glory of the natural world…. [The Book of Job] is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous.
Krista explored the same theodicy question with the geologist Jelle de Boer, not long after the December 2004 tsunami disaster, in our show The Morality of Nature. Jelle de Boer pointed out that the horrifically destructive power of earthquakes and volcanoes is actually the same power responsible for bringing water and nutrients to the surface of the earth, therefore making life possible.
So through these volcanoes, over billions of years, this beautiful blue planet has formed, and its watery expanse is what gives life. And so life is directly dependent there on these geological processes…the processes where these plates separate and crack and where they run over each other and crack, and as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the earth, they are brought to the surface, and they bring not only those nutrients I talked about earlier, but also water. And that is the essence of life.
That magma running under the surface of everything, ready to destroy and remake life, puts a dark spin on something the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote.
By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.