David McAfee Featured

David G. McAfee – Hi, I’m an Atheist!

November 08, 2021

On today’s episode we introduce the show’s new guest host, Julia Sweeney and her interview with author David G. McAfee on his new book, Hi, I’m an Atheist!: What That Means and How to Talk About It with Others.

McAfee and Sweeney speak about the new book, how it helped Sweeney get back in touch with her atheism roots, his journey being raised in a religious household and becoming a non-believer, his challenges as an atheist in a Religious Studies program, what he sees in the bible from a literary perspective rather than from the perspective of a devout christian, and the role religion has in society.

David G. McAfee is a journalist, religious studies scholar, and author of Disproving Christianity and other Secular Writings, as well as a contributor to American Atheist magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with a dual-degree in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions. He lives in California.

Julia Sweeney is known for her work on Saturday Night Live and as a pioneer for atheism. Her inspiring one-person stage show, Letting Go of God, chronicles her personal journey from Catholicism to atheism. In addition to being an actress Sweeney is a new addition to the Center for Inquiry board.

This Week’s Music

“Bon Journée” by Chad Crouch / CC BY-NC 3.0
“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

Speaker 1: [00:00:08] Thank you for listening to another episode of Point of Inquiry. And today’s episode, we introduced the show’s new guest host Julia Sweeney, and her interview with author David Gee McAfee on his new book I Am an Atheist, What That Means and How to Talk About It with Others. McCarthy and Sweeney spend time speaking about the new book and how I help Sweeney get back in touch with her atheist roots. His journey being raised in a religious household and then becoming a nonbeliever. His challenges as an atheist and a religious studies program. How he sees the Bible from a literary perspective, and how that differs so wildly from the perspective that devout Christians have and how they both see the role that religion has in our society. David G. McCarthy is a journalist, religious studies scholar and author of Disproving Christianity. I Am an Atheist and Other Secular Writings, as well as a contributor to American Atheist magazine. Julia Sweeney is known for her work on Saturday Night Live and as a pioneer for atheism. Her inspiring one person show, Letting Go of God chronicles her personal journey from Catholicism to atheism. In addition to being an actress, Sweeney is a new addition to the Center for Inquiry Board. [00:01:15][66.8]

Speaker 2: [00:01:34] I’m Julia Sweet, and this is the point of inquiry podcast, and today I’m interviewing David Gene McCarthy and his book Hi, I’m an Atheist. What It Means and How to Talk About It with Others, which I just finished reading yesterday and enjoy very much. So please do. Welcome, David. [00:01:54][19.8]

Speaker 3: [00:01:55] Hello. Thank you very much for having me. Appreciate it and good to be here. [00:01:58][3.5]

Speaker 2: [00:01:58] You’ve written so many books about atheism, and it was really I’ve only read this one, but I’m already excited to read disproving Christianity and even the curious person’s guide to fighting fake news sounds so good. Thank you. Have so many great looking books for children and some science fiction you’ve got. You’re all over the place. I’m very impressed and I really enjoyed this help because I’ve been an atheist since, I don’t know, around two thousand. Really, it was two thousand one. So it’s been about 20 years. And I forget now I’m so comfortable being an atheist and saying I’m an atheist, so it was really great for me to read your book and kind of go back to the beginnings of the atheist. And I actually felt like it kind of let it tip through you that I can tell other people who are coming out as atheists to their family and friends. [00:02:58][59.6]

Speaker 3: [00:02:59] I did want it to be something that you could get something out of it, no matter where you are in your, in your stage, in your journey. I said that it works for even seasoned heathens, and it’s true a lot of people be able to find good stuff out of there. [00:03:13][14.3]

Speaker 2: [00:03:14] Yeah, I mean, I would say the one I’ve already said to, I think five other people so far this week was when you were talking about when you’re first coming out to people who are religious not to just come out right away, confrontational, but kind of ease your way into it, like saying, I don’t want religion to be my motivation for behaving in a moral manner and kind of preparing people for your point of view or even planting little seeds in their mind that can lead up to a later date. When you say I’m an atheist so that it doesn’t come out of left field, and I’ve already repeated that since I’ve been such a great that is such a great insight and such good advice. So anyway, I guess I want to ask you, I’ve read about you being raised at least initially by your grandparents and then being so religious. So how does it go down for you and them? Can you just explain a little bit about how you kind of came out to your family as an atheist? [00:04:21][66.4]

Speaker 3: [00:04:22] Definitely. So that piece of advice you just mentioned about taking it easy and easing into it is from my personal experience. That’s what I did when I let my family know that I was an atheist. And I say that because I feel like I always was an atheist. They would take me to church, and I loved church. More than anything, it was my favorite experience, but I kind of thought that it was all stories that we were learning and that nobody really took it seriously. It was just moral lessons like the other stories I read in school, and when I found out from my grandma when I said I didn’t want to go to church one one Sunday, and she said that I’m going to go to hell is when I was like, Wait, what you believe, stuff. And so from then on, I kind of made a conscious decision that I would let them know that I don’t believe that stuff, and I did so very slowly. I at first said that I was agnostic and [00:05:15][52.9]

Speaker 2: [00:05:15] I didn’t say, Oh, were you at this point at [00:05:17][1.9]

Speaker 3: [00:05:18] 13 years old? And I told them I was agnostic. And then from there I did say, I don’t want religion to be my moral guide, and I said, I don’t like that. So many people feel the need to have religion and base their beliefs on religion when they can just operate as people, as good people, loving caring people and kind of operated that way for years. And then when I was graduating high school and majoring in religious studies, I kind of had to tell them why, why I had such an interest in religion. And it wasn’t that I was a believer, so my family really took it very well, and I think it’s because I did go very slowly with it. [00:05:58][40.2]

Speaker 2: [00:05:59] And what about your parents? Were they? It sounds like they probably weren’t as religious as your grandparents, but tell me about your parents. [00:06:06][6.5]

Speaker 3: [00:06:06] They’ve gone through stages. When I was a kid, they were more interested. They were doing drugs and out there doing stuff like that while I was living with my grandma. But they’ve been clean for years now, and they’ve each adopted their own religion since then. And before then. My mom was a Jehovah’s Witness when I was very young. My dad was a Mormon up until about a year ago. A sister who’s a flat or who was a flat earth there and a very diverse population of beliefs in my family. [00:06:37][30.9]

Speaker 2: [00:06:39] And do you feel like you’ve influenced them? Do you feel like they’ve been influenced by your views? [00:06:44][5.3]

Speaker 3: [00:06:45] Oh, definitely my mom. She considers herself an agnostic atheist humanist now. She doesn’t have any religion, and she frequently sends me funny means. Sometimes means that I made like ten years ago. And she’s like, Look, it’s funny meme online. And I’m like, Yeah, I made that mom. And she she’s just awesome and has a really, really great activism streak. She she cares about humanity and people in society, and it’s just beautiful to watch how she’s grown. And she’s credited a lot of that to me in my book. So it’s just really nice of her to talk about that at all. And my dad, he did what he did leave the Mormon church, and he does. That’s partly my doing as well. It’s interesting. He read one of my books No sacred cows investigating myths, cults and the supernatural. He’s always been a big alien believer, a big. You want to believe in a lot of a lot of far-fetched stuff, ancient aliens, that type of stuff. And so he said he put my book down halfway through and I asked him why. And he said it made him physically uncomfortable. And I’m guessing it was the cognitive dissonance he was feeling from seeing some of his beliefs disproven. And so he was like, I’m just putting it down for a while and it never picked it back. [00:07:57][72.1]

Speaker 2: [00:07:59] Wow. And then what about your grandparents? Are they still alive or no? [00:08:04][5.3]

Speaker 3: [00:08:04] They’ve passed away now, and unfortunately, they never got a chance to see much of my writing or anything like that. But my very first book, Disproving Christianity, was written for my grandma. I didn’t. I didn’t. It wasn’t a book. At first, I was just taking notes in class at majoring in religious studies and taking notes on different biblical contradictions. She was the type of person who believed every single word of the Bible, even if it wasn’t in the Bible. You just said it was. I would say, Well, this is this, and she’s like, Well, then I believe it, and I’m like, OK, well, it’s not in there. So I was making a list of biblical contradictions just to show her that the Bible can be wrong, and it grew and grew and grew. And while I was writing it, she passed away, and by the time I was done with it, it was a small book and I decided to self-publish it. And then a publisher picked me up from there. And that was the first. That was the start of all. This was my grandma. [00:08:58][54.2]

Speaker 2: [00:08:59] Did you kind of ease into this vocation or do you feel like there was this moment where you just felt like you had to dedicate your life to spreading this information that you have in your point of view? I guess it was [00:09:15][15.6]

Speaker 3: [00:09:15] kind of all leading up to it. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was very young. I published stories in Reader’s Digest when I was nine years old, a vampire story and I just i to an essay contest in seventh grade. I was always like entering stuff to write. I always knew I wanted to write. And then when I went to UC Santa Barbara and I majored in English and religious studies, double major. And so when you marry those two concepts English and religious studies, you end up writing books about religion and about secular issues. If you’re a secular person and I really didn’t have a plan for how it would turn out, I kind of just went to school and started doing stuff. And after I wrote disproving Christianity for my grandma and turned it into a self-published book, people started asking me to do speaking events, and I went to Cal Poly and did my first speaking event there. And then I started getting American Atheist magazine wanted to publish an excerpt from the book, and I don’t know, it just happened from there. [00:10:15][59.6]

Speaker 2: [00:10:16] It’s kind of weird. You’re a very good writer is very clear, precise and profound. Do you have a lot of insights that I skirted around, but you just say them in a really plain straightforward way that is weirdly without judgment. Just like just the facts, ma’am. Now I want to ask you about your time at UCSB, because before we get into the whole kind of debacle of the graduate school thing being a religious studies major at UCSB, did you feel like there was a Christian emphasis? What was that like being yesterday’s major there as an undergraduate, [00:10:54][38.2]

Speaker 3: [00:10:55] UCSB has and or had? I guess, I don’t know about their current status, but it was one of the best schools in the nation for religious studies or a secular religious studies program. And I went my full four years undergraduate there without having any real conflicts, because most of the professors understood that a religious studies program is not the same as a theology program. Religious studies, you’re looking at how religions intermingle, how they were grown, how they were built, and when you’re looking at that, you. Necessarily have to separate it from the supernatural stuff, and you’re looking at the human aspect. When did humans write down this religion? What, why did they do that? Where did this idea come from, et cetera? I think a lot of Christians were the ones that had the problems because I would be in a religious studies course and we’d be comparing the creation myths between Native Americans and Christians and like, Oh, they have the same concept here, and this is the same here. And this is why it’s the same as that in our humanity. It’s just an idea template that we have basically. And they would they did not like that. I saw about six people at one time in one class get up and leave because they felt that the professor was saying something against their religion. But they were just talking facts, you know? So, yeah, I didn’t really have a big problem. I did well in my classes and I enjoyed them, and I used a lot of what I learned in those classes to inform my books because it was learning about, you know, looking at the Bible from a literary perspective, you definitely find a lot of contradictions, a lot of flaws that you don’t when you look at it, when you’re a parishioner in a church and getting pointed specific verses. [00:12:41][106.3]

Speaker 2: [00:12:42] I love it when you said in the book, which is so true that most Christians don’t even know that much about their own religion because I’ve really found that to be the case. And in fact, over the 20 years, I guess I’ve been an out atheist and my I come from quite a religious Catholic, a pretty religious background with a lot of people I’m still interacting with. At first, I would try to like pique their interest in the not even the contradictions. I’m just talking about the facts of their relationship, you know, like, I wasn’t even disputing it, but they I thought they’d be so interested in their own religion. But I I found personally that they were actually not very interested in their own religion. Is that something you found to? [00:13:30][47.9]

Speaker 3: [00:13:31] Oh, for sure. Yeah, I think that honestly, I think for a lot of people, it’s uncomfortable to think in detail about the religion. Even if you are just talking about surface stories, even if you’re just talking about what makes it interesting to you because they don’t want to think more deeply about something that they’ve kind of just passively accepted their whole lives, even to kind of probe one of those stories, they have to have questions in the back of their minds like, Wait, is this a true story? Is this something I’m supposed to believe in? Is this something that really happened? And those questions can’t really be just shut down very easily? [00:14:07][36.4]

Speaker 2: [00:14:08] I feel like I was a bit of an evangelist for my point of view. I truly thought that if you just let people know what you knew, they would be as shocked and then changed their life as I did. Like, I just thought, that’s just going to happen. And then that really lasted about 10 years, I guess. And then. I really gave up because I just thought religion to them isn’t even religion, actually, it’s it’s really about belonging and showing energy to a tradition. It’s really more like being Irish. You know, everyone I know it was Irish Catholic. It’s kind of like inextricable with ethnicity. And so it’s sort of like denying ethnicity. And so then I backed off. But reading your book, I was like, I want to get back into the fray. [00:15:00][51.9]

Speaker 3: [00:15:01] Yeah, I don’t ever. My goal is never really to change people’s minds, but I do find that talking to them about these stories and about their religion and just like you said, letting them know what you know can plant seeds. And I’ve had people come up to me five years later, six years later and say, Hey, remember this conversation we had? And I’m like, No, not really. And they’re like, Well, it changed my life because from there on, I started actually asking questions about the religion that I grew up having it shoved down my throat every second. So all it takes is a few questions here and there, and then it kind of falls down like a house of cards. [00:15:36][35.7]

Speaker 2: [00:15:37] I think maybe it’s I’ve reduced my goals so much, but when I’m texting among my Catholic girlfriends that I’ve known my whole life in Spokane, which there’s so much prayer and God talk, you just can’t believe it. Just me rephrasing when somebody has something terrible happened in their family and everyone’s saying how they’re going to pray for them. I would say, I’m thinking of you and I’m hoping for the best. And I always like to think that just that little text, you know, and lands in some way because I’m not using the same language that they’re using. So I think it’s true, even little things like that, because I don’t think anyone even means it. Like you say in that in the book, when somebody said, I’m going to pray for you and you wrote, I really seriously doubt they went out on their knees and started praying for me. They’re really they’re really just sending you a message of their point of view. And they’re kind of us being this weird kind of superiority by your, you’re lost and I want to help you find yourself, but they’re not really going do. But I guess I feel like just those little things I just hope gives people a framework to remind them that what they’re saying, like I’ll pray for you, really isn’t even true. I don’t think anybody’s going to actually even pray. Three Bam. Like, like, you know what they’re saying? [00:16:53][75.9]

Speaker 3: [00:16:55] It’s definitely it’s definitely true that I would say the majority of people who say I’ll pray for you are are not going to actually pray for you, whether they whether they’re doing it condescendingly or not. I think it’s more about, like you said, it’s more about the message. It’s either them showing support. I’ll pray for you. Like I’ll I’ll ask God to give you a favor. But that doesn’t probably happen either. Some families will go to church and be like, OK, who is that friend that needs the OK? But that’s that’s not every time. And the reality is that it’s less about the prayer and more about, like you are saying, it’s more about their identity. It’s more about trying to preserve what they’ve known always as true and disproving Christianity. I talk about when I walked around UCSB and I started asking students what their religion was. And one kid said he was half Catholic and half agnostic. They was like thinking, like, does he have this complex, you know, religion in his head where he believes, but also he doesn’t. He does the rituals. But he questioned or whatever. And the answer was that he said that his mom was Catholic and his dad was agnostic. So clearly Catholic and half agnostic. [00:18:05][69.8]

Speaker 2: [00:18:06] So he really is thinking of it as ethnicity or some kind of thing you inherit from your parents exactly [00:18:13][6.4]

Speaker 3: [00:18:13] inherited religion, as that’s the chapter, he adds. That’s really it’s treated like an inherited concept like hair color or eye color or anything else. [00:18:21][7.9]

Speaker 2: [00:18:22] Yeah. When people say, I have a problem here, will you give me advice? David, I have a problem because I love God as a metaphor to be really useful and not just useful. It’s a beautiful and poetic metaphor. And I like it. Like, I like all those old pioneer Christian songs with God in them. To me, that’s really appealing. It doesn’t mean that I believe in God, but it just means that I. I kind of find it poignant that humans came up with this idea and then laden it with such emotion and step and hope. And so I really as maybe it’s because I am artistic, but I I really like it. But it it confuses a lot of people. Do you have that? Do you feel that way about God like music or? [00:19:23][60.6]

Speaker 3: [00:19:23] Definitely. I have written about that before about the power of religious imagery, of religious art, of religious music. These are things that exist in our society and have power in our society, separate from the religion themselves. Like, you can look at a beautiful piece of art that is inspired entirely by religion. [00:19:47][23.7]

Speaker 2: [00:19:48] Right? [00:19:48][0.0]

Speaker 3: [00:19:49] Painted by the most religious believer in the world, painted for God. And we can look at it and feel all those feelings and see all that beauty and still not need to believe in a god for it to be that piece of art. I like to tell people to embrace that stuff. I mean, I don’t see any reason why not. People ask me, like if I if they need to stop saying the things that they’ve said all their lives are doing. And I don’t think that’s any of that’s true. You know, to be an atheist, you just don’t believe in the rest of it’s really up to you. And if you like those things, I think you should keep them make that a part of your identity and embrace it. I like it. It’s beautiful. [00:20:25][36.2]

Speaker 2: [00:20:26] Now, have you attended any Unitarian services because I belong to a Unitarian church and I’m not? Part of me is curious how many people are atheists there? I think it’s over half, but [00:20:39][12.6]

Speaker 3: [00:20:39] it’s definitely over half. [00:20:40][1.1]

Speaker 2: [00:20:41] But I don’t know for sure. But they use God as a metaphor all the time, and I have no problem with it because I know that most of the people there are viewing it like I do if I’m in a Catholic church, even no matter how beautiful the service says. I find it’s harder for me to enjoy it because I it’s sort of like being among natives who are worshiping something crazy and me enjoying it feels kind of condescending of me to even be there and enjoy it because I feel like they really believe in and I’m really not. Yeah, I just wondered how you dealt with that. Oh, that’s interesting. So you like that too, because there’s a lot of atheists I know who really won’t go there in any shape or form. [00:21:22][40.8]

Speaker 3: [00:21:23] Yeah, yeah. When you talked about just now about watching the natives type of thing, I felt like that when I was 13, and I realized that all those people in that church that I go to every week, I realized that they believed all those stories that walking on water and killing everybody on Earth and for a boat and all that stuff, I really was shocked by that. And then every time I went to church, from then on, I felt more like an anthropologist. As the years went on, I definitely grew to enjoy many, many aspects of different religions. And I’m talking, you know, Polynesian traditions. All kinds of religions all over the world have interesting insights, have fun traditions, have good stories, have valuable lessons we can learn from. All right. Like, a lot of atheists, shut all of that out because they don’t believe, and I think that’s a mistake and will correct that. [00:22:15][52.3]

Speaker 2: [00:22:17] Yes. Tell me some of your favorite other religions besides. Well, I don’t know if Christianity is a favorite to help me. Is there any particular religion that really appeals to you? Just I mean, not to the belief, yeah, but just the lies that are just tell me, give me [00:22:33][16.7]

Speaker 3: [00:22:34] my favorite tradition to write it and learn more about is Jainism. It’s fascinating to me because it’s a branch of Hinduism that is extremely pacifist. They don’t believe in hurting anything or any one sense that they go out of their way. They carry a broom around with them to brush bugs out of their way as they walk around the monastery, so they make sure not to step on any bugs. And when they drink their tea, they put cheesecloth over the top of it to make sure no bugs get in and die on their way. And so people like to use them as this supremely peaceful religion as an example. Sometimes they’ll say when you join Islam and you are an extremist, you start killing people. When you join Jainism and you’re an extremist, you just don’t hurt anyone. But I like to point out that extremist Jains are in fact, very violent, and they are segregationists. They don’t believe that women should be a part of their monastery because of the menstruation process. They say that that is violent, and they say that a woman’s body is inherently violent because it’s killing off bacteria every every month, according to there, according to their belief system. And so there’s also a lot of children of Jains who have died because they were starved to death because they chose not to eat, to harm animals or harm any plant life or anything. So in any danger, any religion can be dangerous in its extreme. So I like to tell people that, like [00:24:07][92.9]

Speaker 2: [00:24:07] I always thought, the genes I did know a little bit about them, not as much as you just told me, but it seems like with modern understanding of like, how do you even delineate what a bug is like? And it seems like they would update their views now based on scientific knowledge. But I guess that applies to all religions and they don’t seem to do it. [00:24:31][23.5]

Speaker 3: [00:24:31] So it’s just wrong to say religion’s updating their views based on scientific knowledge is not the norm. [00:24:35][4.4]

Speaker 2: [00:24:36] Right, exactly. Let’s just talk about when you apply to graduate school because I find this so fascinating. So you’re at UCSB, you’re applying to graduate school in religious studies and you get rejected because you’re an atheist with an ax to grind or something like that. [00:24:53][16.1]

Speaker 3: [00:24:53] Yeah, I actually didn’t even get the chance to apply. I went to the dean of admissions and asked for a meeting, so pre-application meeting to go over all my patient and I had had her for one class, and I did happen to know that she transferred from a theology school to this religious studies program. I just thought that maybe she’d should be able to distinguish the two, but I met her and she asked, you know, she just started Googling my name while we’re talking, just making small talk. Ask me how I’m doing and I see her Google my name. David G. Maccabee presenter and I see my first book cover pop up disproving Christianity with like a broken cross on hand. And she enlarge that picture on Amazon. And she turned to me and she said, I need to word this carefully. And she said, You wouldn’t fit in with our department’s mill you because you’re an atheist activist with an ax to grind. And I just was so shocked by that. The book was not part of my application. It wasn’t part of my. Ruling it wasn’t for a class, it was unrelated entirely, so I was very, very, very thrown off by that. And I just went home and I wrote a blog post about it and got picked up by Washington Post, got picked up by a bunch of big people and eventually the dean of the vice dean of admissions called me and asked me, What do you want from all this? And I had just woken up the next morning. I didn’t know that it got picked up by anyone. I was just like, What do you mean? Wow. And he was like, What do you want from all this, from from this, from this religious studies graduate program thing? And I was like, an apology would be nice. And so they did an apology letter and asked me if I wanted to reapply, and I chose not to reapply to that program because I would have still been under the same leadership that was so unfair to begin with. [00:26:45][111.9]

Speaker 2: [00:26:46] And I mean, first of all, as if the other religions don’t have access to grind, that’s what they’re completely based on. Well, that’s [00:26:53][7.0]

Speaker 3: [00:26:53] the truth is, even if even if this disproving Christianity book was part of my everyday life and I was going to bring it into the school, even into my classes, which there’s no evidence of any of that, there are missionaries, Christian missionaries who sat side by side with me in those classes who literally go to other countries and tell people they’re wrong and worse, their book on them. I just don’t see how me. It’s saying, Hey, that’s bad guys is is that is is going to be disqualifying as disqualifying. [00:27:24][30.9]

Speaker 2: [00:27:26] It just seems like they should want someone like you in their program, so much like the opposite of what they have because of somebody who knows, maybe you would become convinced to be a believer in a religion? I mean, now did you end up going to graduate school somewhere else? [00:27:39][13.7]

Speaker 3: [00:27:40] No, I haven’t done that yet. I still plan to, but I’ve been doing as well as I’ve been doing journalism since then and working my way up in that world and also writing books as I go. But I am planning to go back and get my master’s in religious studies and not from UCSB. [00:27:57][16.6]

Speaker 2: [00:27:58] And what? Why do you want to do that? Because it seems to me like you’re you’ve been so successful at creating this great need for yourself, your writing and being published, and many, many books like what would that give you to have the masters in it? [00:28:11][12.8]

Speaker 3: [00:28:11] Would you fulfill a desire that I had from back then when she denied me, honestly, is about it? It would be more. It would be a moral victory. It would be a lot of fun just to get back into it. And I think you made a good point a second ago when you said that she should have wanted me to continue. And I agree. I think that if she saw an atheist activist with an ax grind who did well in undergraduate program, why not? Why not let him into the graduate program to, you know, in her mind, really learn the truth about all the details of our religion and about how Christianity really is the true faith. And it seems like if if your answer is right, you won’t be scared of people getting more information about it. [00:28:55][44.1]

Speaker 2: [00:28:56] I really have found that people who come from an overly receptive religion point of view and I actually have a huge amount of respect for what religion then able to do to the psychology of human beings. I mean, it’s quite profound. Oh yeah. But when people are coming from a sort of defensive feeling about religion, they don’t want someone like you. I’m trying to put my self in the head of this woman because they have certain techniques of gobbledygook. They call it like they use a lot of philosophical sounding words and conflate, you know, to make people think, Oh, smart people really do believe this, and I can’t really follow what they’re saying, but they sound so smart and they have all these degrees. So what they’re saying must be true, and I think you don’t want someone like you in an atmosphere like that because you’re going to see through it and ask questions about it. And that will be uncomfortable. [00:29:58][62.1]

Speaker 3: [00:29:59] And it’s a really good point. I hadn’t even thought of that, but that’s really true. And on that point, there are there are a lot of very, very intelligent believers. So let’s be clear, they had scientists who head up programs that we can’t we haven’t even heard of. We don’t even know anything about these. And these people are breaking ground on new scientific discoveries and also believing in Jesus and their private time. And that’s the key there is in their private time. As long as they are compartmentalizing these issues, then it’s not going to cause a huge problem. If you’re a believer and you leave that at the door when you’re testing hypotheses in a lab and doing science right, then that’s fine. And that’s what these well, a lot of the people you’re talking about, they are they’re very intelligent people who throw themselves into their religion to try to understand it and to make sense of it. And they do end up running in philosophical circles with the religion thing and. They end up they think that they make sense, but in the end, they’re just kind of trying too hard to make it make sense, you know? [00:31:04][64.8]

Speaker 2: [00:31:05] Yeah, I mean, I definitely defend the right of them, of anybody to believe whatever they want, as long as their beliefs aren’t infringing on the rights of other people. So I don’t care if a scientist is really a Christian in their private time, as long as they don’t bring it into the lab. But I just really find that people who are in those kind of graduate level areas who are believers don’t want to have questioners among that. They want to have people who are going to. More than respect everything about the religions, but just think that there is some kind of wash of otherworldly supernatural ness about it that you have to respect and I’m sure just you applying made her very uncomfortable to have you around, but they should have had you around. [00:31:55][50.8]

Speaker 3: [00:31:56] Thank you. Yeah, I find that, you know, I was always very fascinated by religions. It was never that I was trying to bring down the establishment. And I know that people don’t believe that when they look at the books, I write and stuff, but I truly have always been fascinated. When I was 13 and I realized that these people were taking all this stuff seriously, I really was like, [00:32:18][21.8]

Speaker 2: [00:32:18] Whoa, [00:32:18][0.0]

Speaker 3: [00:32:19] whoa, OK, so you guys believe this so strongly. But then there’s another church across the street that believes entirely different things, and they believe just as strongly as you guys, it’s crazy to me. And so when I was in religious studies, I was always sitting there taking notes, like writing down everything like, whoa, they really believed all of this was like it was just, I loved those classes. It was really the reason that I wanted to pursue it. Further was my own interest. More than anything else is just something that always fascinated me. And now I get that in books that I read at home, and I just really, really still enjoy learning about what makes believers tick and what makes the religions, what forms them in the first place and what draws people to them. It’s just a lot of good questions there, and I do have a lot of respect for the religions themselves. They these are fascinating systems that have evolved through time in a way that allows them to capture more and more people’s minds is very interesting [00:33:20][60.9]

Speaker 2: [00:33:21] to some of the authors that you like that you go to. I like along the way. [00:33:26][5.5]

Speaker 3: [00:33:27] Yeah, I really like Bart Ehrman. He’s a really [00:33:29][2.0]

Speaker 2: [00:33:30] funny I was about to say, like Bart Ehrman, I love him. I just and I shouldn’t use the word a dork. I really have great respect for, you know, that’s my Catholicism coming there. I adored him. I worship him. [00:33:45][14.9]

Speaker 3: [00:33:46] I read, I read a lot of books by people who I don’t agree with. I read a lot of them by believers and Christian apologists and stuff like that. And I find that I I love to get inside their minds. But when I read our airmen or even like Joseph Campbell or something like that, I always have a deeper understanding and a deeper respect for what they’re writing. I feel like when it comes to myths and religions, you don’t really have better people out there in terms of knowledge and academia. [00:34:13][27.2]

Speaker 2: [00:34:15] Yeah, and they’ve gotten so much blowback to me. I mean, I follow a bunch of Catholic traditionalists on Twitter and man, do they hate him? Or so? [00:34:25][10.3]

Speaker 3: [00:34:26] Yeah, I mean, it’s cause and I get that. But he’s just doing his job. You know, he’s he’s [00:34:32][6.1]

Speaker 2: [00:34:32] doing well, who [00:34:33][1.3]

Speaker 3: [00:34:34] who knows what he’s talking about and people. A lot of apes don’t like Bart Ehrman because he doesn’t explicitly say that Jesus never existed or whatever. A lot of atheists want to believe, and I just feel like it’s his opinion based on research. And you take that for what it’s worth. You know, not to say you have to believe every expert who says something like that, but it’s good to know that it’s his opinion and based on what it’s based on, [00:35:02][28.0]

Speaker 2: [00:35:02] the jury is out on whether Jesus existed or not. I mean, that’s all. Those are scientific questions that are still up for debate among people like us who are fascinated by religion because I feel like once I entered the atheist community, there were those who just they didn’t just disbelieve religion. They really hated religion. I actually don’t hate religion. I just think it’s a sociological phenomenon that has had really great benefit and great impact and a lot of downside. I mean, we’ve moved past it, signed scientifically, of course, but it’s endlessly fascinating to me. But I find I’m in a minority among atheist. I I wish. I mean, I actually wish atheists were more interested in religion. It is fascinating. [00:35:48][45.9]

Speaker 3: [00:35:49] Well, let me just say that what you just said is exactly right from an academic perspective in it. Religion is a social beast. It is a phenomenon that exists. And when you look at it from a phenomenological approach, you do see it’s it’s had benefits over time. One thing that religions do is they they bond people together. They bond people of the same faith together. It works well in communities. It works well in tribal situations like you had thousands of years ago when they kind of needed to be banded together against their neighboring warring factions. And it also divides people and divides people into those factions. When you’re saying, you know, this tribe against that tribe, but that’s literally how humans work, we. Are a tribal species, and so religion was just a way to work within humanity’s already existing desires to be tribal and to have these higher beliefs and to have these feelings of emotion. Right. It’s all natural within us and religions were the way to bring that out and kind of leverage it for morality or whatever it was at the time. Most of them have moral guides built in because they needed a way to keep people in line in those times. These days we have we get entertainment from our art, we get law enforcement from law enforcement, we get things from different places. We get understandings of the world, from science. We don’t really need religion as much. So you’re also right on that point. [00:37:19][89.8]

Speaker 2: [00:37:20] Well, but what do you? Because I worry about religion just totally going away because I I feel when I see the statistics showing that in the United States that the nuns, people who don’t affiliate with any particular religion has increased more than any other religion or philosophy. A lot of the people in the community are so cheered on by that, and I am too like, I’m thinking, Yeah, I don’t know, how can that not happen? I mean, really? But I also feel afraid of it because I feel that for people who need to have tribal groups where they feel they’re better than other groups of people, religion kind of somewhat qualified for that for them. And then and then when it’s gone, they find other, more destructive ways to be tribal, [00:38:15][54.7]

Speaker 3: [00:38:16] like white supremacism. [00:38:16][0.5]

Speaker 2: [00:38:17] Exactly like, you know, a lot of white supremacists are also atheists, you know, like, it’s really frightening. People think of it as like Christian fundamentalist white supremacist. That’s not that is probably the bias. I broke the [00:38:30][12.4]

Speaker 3: [00:38:30] story that Richard Spencer was as an atheist. You did, yeah. On my blog, on my blog at the time, when all that, when he first got punched and I interviewed him and I was just like, What are your beliefs? And he wouldn’t tell me at first. And then he told me he was an atheist and I’m like, Wow, [00:38:44][14.4]

Speaker 2: [00:38:45] how do you how do you make sense of that in your head? Or do you worry about the future? Talk about [00:38:50][5.2]

Speaker 3: [00:38:51] that. The good news there is that religion will never go away from the fact that it’s existed long before any other, any other system that we have. Religion has always existed since humanity has existed since the first humans found a rock and threw it at something, and it happened and they were like, whoa, and they needed something to explain. In reality, what happened was they woke up and realized water is flowing through streams. Animal and plant life exists. Everything they need was right in front of them. And so the answer to that is a God. And that in their inherent tribal belief system aspect of humanity will not go away. And I’ve talked about this before in the context of atheists who want to destroy religion. They’ve even said, like I’ve heard, people advocate for killing all believers and their children in order to make religion the [00:39:47][56.1]

Speaker 2: [00:39:47] way it’s going to work. And what I’ve said is is [00:39:51][3.9]

Speaker 3: [00:39:51] the next generation of people would just invent their own new religions. Exactly. Even if you made them forget whatever, they would actually find a religion out of the oppression of you killing their families or whatever, you know, so it could never happen that religion is completely gone. So there will always be those areas for people to go. But yeah, I do find disturbing the cross-section of people who have bad morals and bad ethics, and they also don’t believe. But that just goes to show that belief in a god in atheism, you know, is just one answer to one question. It doesn’t tell you anything else about who you are as a person or what else do you believe or what other models you subscribe to. And and so as soon as people understand that, the better off will be because there will always be bad atheists out there, just like there will be bad anyone out there. But right, it’s not like they are our church officials. You know, we don’t have like atheist chaplains who are who are molesting boys or anything. We don’t have that type of leadership aspect. They just happen to not believe and also are bad people. So a little bit different than us, like electing them into our group and then and then having them behave that way. [00:41:06][74.7]

Speaker 2: [00:41:07] Do you feel like morality needs to be taught? [00:41:09][2.0]

Speaker 3: [00:41:10] Oh, in general, if it needs to be done in general, I think, yeah, I think to a certain extent, I think that morality does need to be taught and that morality is something that you can have naturally. Both are true. Yeah, I think that if you kind of just rely on one way or the other, you’re going to have people going going the wrong way on that and reinterpreting morality. And however, they feel it’s going to be beneficial to them. [00:41:35][25.7]

Speaker 2: [00:41:37] Because I feel like religion is really good at educating big groups of people to behave in similar ways like this, in whatever way that religion is. And we are living and we are animals that live in communities and we’re highly social and now we have these huge megacities and it seems useful. I mean, of course, you’re saying what you were saying is right in the book and here that there’s laws and there’s customs that are outside of religion and all that. But I do feel like I felt like with my daughter, it was all new for me to have to explain why she should be a kind person and think of others point of view without invoking God or in any way or hellfire anything. And that was more or less pretty easy. But what I didn’t give her, which I wish I had, was, you know, a community. I mean, that’s what I get now from the Unitarian church. Yes, I am. You know, I would say I go twice a month, you know, like and I’m not a big active person, but I do enjoy it and I like that there’s an equivalent of a baptism and you can get married there. And people, you know, there’s funerals and and people who come together all the time that go through what everyone has to go through in life, together with rituals and music and a shared sense of understanding of how the world works. And I did not, you know, I got that. It was just a system I did it disagreed with and and left for intellectual reasons in my Catholic upbringing. But I didn’t give that to my daughter, and I feel sad about it. Like I wish I had. I mean, I guess there’s not that many options for atheists. There’s a Unitarian church, there’s assembly sundaes, and I took her to all the atheist conventions, but it’s it’s different than that weekly getting together. You know, I I really admire religion for how it’s helped organize communities that way. [00:43:45][128.1]

Speaker 3: [00:43:45] There are atheist groups that are trying to fill that void, for sure. And in the book In Human An, there’s the chapter on establishing a new sense of community, and it talks in depth about building these groups up again. Because that’s the biggest part. The biggest problem that people have when they leave the faith tends to be the community that they leave behind with it, especially when it’s when you’re coming from a community where everything is based on that religion, from the school to that to the stores, everything has that tinge of faith. It’s going to feel weird when you’re no longer a part of that and you have to work to build that up. And you can do that online and you can do that through in-person meetings and you can do that. They have atheist groups who have modeled after churches who sing songs and hymns, and they do all of the same stuff in order to kind of recreate that for people who missed it. Because it is, it is something it’s an important part of. Why religions are able to spread so far is because they are entertaining and fun and make you feel togetherness. [00:44:43][57.9]

Speaker 2: [00:44:44] If you think of them spending thousands of years developing these technologies, which is really theater, you know, it’s a theater. Also, that’s like I you can’t just throw that away, you know? To me, I wish there was more of the kind of there’s I wish there’s a little more kumbaya, I guess, in the atheist community. [00:45:04][19.3]

Speaker 3: [00:45:05] I agree. Yeah, I mean, certain atheists need that and others don’t. And that’s that’s great, too. Each person can have their own individual beliefs, and I find that really nice. I know people, I know atheists who still go to Christian churches every week because those are their people and they get along with them and they don’t care that they have to sit through the nonsense to then afterwards gossip with their friends in the corner, you know, and I respect that right? I think everybody should kind of be doing their own thing as long as it doesn’t hurt others. That’s that’s the key caveat. [00:45:34][28.6]

Speaker 2: [00:45:35] I feel like one thing is the Jewish community. I’m married to a guy who’s Jewish, but always a third generation atheists may have, but still. And then in Hollywood, I’m I’m always it’s big Jewish community here, and I really admire the Jews ability to, you know, the secular Jews to still be involved in synagogues and the rituals of this religion. And when I point out, you know, at first when I would point out, you know, things about as well all the things that we know now that could predict everything in the first five books and everything, they were like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, those are big. Those are stories. And it’s almost like when you tell a story over and over again for thousands of years, the story itself becomes the sacred thing. Yeah. Whether it’s based on truth or not. And. It seemed to be a great model for not throwing all that away. Acknowledging it’s based on myth, but still respecting it enough that they will still, you know, like Yom Kippur is just happened and I have a lot of friends all with that. And I think it makes me wish the Catholics because that’s the tradition I came from. Have a robust secular cultural Catholic religion that still white in Easter mass or something, but none. But nobody really, you know, felt like it was real. [00:47:11][96.1]

Speaker 3: [00:47:12] Yeah, well, I’m I’m also married to an atheist Jew, and she was a Sunday school teacher at her temple. And so her opinion is still very Jewish, and they still they believe things. But they also acknowledge that they don’t know. And they also tell me, you know, for us, it’s it’s more about the community, it’s more about the hope, it’s more about feelings than about believing in the literal the the the oil that lasted the eight days. You know, it’s it’s not not all about the miracles, it’s more about the community and the feelings that you get from that. And that’s actually part of the Jewish tradition that’s written into their belief system, where they’re encouraged to question their own religion. When you encourage believers to question their own religion, you end up with this where with a system where they do have a large secular contingent who still stick with the tradition because they love it and they love their family and they love the system, but they don’t have to believe every single word in order to be a part of it. And so that’s what separates Judaism from a lot of these other traditions that, for the most part, are more concrete in how they look at [00:48:24][72.8]

Speaker 2: [00:48:24] outside the Orthodox. Yes. I’m hoping to get, you know, once the pandemic, when it’s safe and the conferences can are safe to go to again, I definitely want to go. So maybe I’ll see you at [00:48:36][11.4]

Speaker 3: [00:48:36] one of those. Yes, I’d like to go to all of them. Once everything is safe, we’re vaccinated here, so get everyone vaccinated and we can all get up and do this. [00:48:43][7.3]

Speaker 2: [00:48:44] Well, I really enjoyed your book and it’s such it’s a great resource for people who are just exploring atheism or even for someone like me who’s been an atheist for now a couple of decades to just be reminded of the basics and to get some good tips about talking to people who don’t think about this as deeply as we do. So I really appreciate that you wrote it. [00:49:05][20.8]

Speaker 3: [00:49:05] Thank you so much. It means a lot, and I’m really happy to be here. Thank you, guys. [00:49:08][3.3]

Speaker 1: [00:49:18] Point of inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry Center for Inquiry confronts the misinformation, conspiracy theories and magical thinking that are at the heart of many of the challenges facing us all today. These challenges are not getting any easier as people continue to believe in things that simply aren’t true and never have been. Climate change is not being confronted because people are told it’s a hoax. Viruses and infectious diseases run rampant because people are told that science is lying to them and to be afraid of vaccines. Everyone is not given equal treatment under the law, as so many people believe that their holy book forbids it. For over 40 years, the Center for Inquiry has been taking on the false and dangerous claims of conspiracy theorists, snake oil profiteers and religious extremists. This work is more important today than ever before. Point of inquiry provides valuable insight into these challenges with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Point of inquiry is a listener supported. This means that confronting these challenges is made possible only because of your financial support. Show your commitment to science and rational thinking by visiting Center for Inquiry that ohaji slash Pochi and make a donation today so that we can continue this fight. If you enjoy today’s episode, please be sure to share it with your friends. You can text someone you know about it right now or talk about it on social media. You want to learn more about the show and find past episodes. You can visit us at point of inquiry at Ohaji. Thank you for listening and talk to you again in two weeks. [00:49:18][0.0]


Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney

Julia Sweeney is known for her work on Saturday Night Live and as a pioneer for atheism. Her inspiring one-person stage show, Letting Go of God, chronicles her personal journey from Catholicism to atheism. In addition to being an actress Sweeney is a new addition to the Center for Inquiry board.