My guest this week is Jimmy. As early as the beginning of 2020 Jimmy was still in the closet trying to determine how he would come out as an atheist and humanist. By mid February he had told his family and was bracing for his church to find out. Jimmy was a serious and dedicated Christian drawn to Calvinism by family and the intellectual rigor.
It wasn’t that I was running away from it. But I think at that point I had internalized that I wasn’t a believer … I realized I was going to have to come out at some point. I couldn’t maintain a charade.
As the years went by and his attempts at self-betterment were not realized he began to be drawn by the pragmatism of Stoicism. He eventually realized that counseling would be beneficial, though this had so far been off the table. Through these active measures he began to see some success at self-betterment.
[Stoicism has] this very pragmatic approach to making yourself a better human … [Stoicism] hit me at a time when I needed something.
Jimmy’s chief concern was not damaging the relationships with his believing friends and family. He was very careful to show them he loved them and had no contempt for their faith.
It is one of these things where I think, this has got to be a band-aide I am ripping off and not a cancer I am injecting into my family. And I am going to do my darnedest to make sure that this works and that they know I love them.
I love these people How can I not harm them? Or how can I minimize the harm?
Jimmy is eminently quotable so here are more quotes from the episode
I had a long list of potentially scary things that could happen … I wanted to see it in writing to remind myself why I am trying to be careful and it is because of people I love. The best people I know are die hard Christians. The would die for their faith. Like I would have 10 years ago.
So I don’t want to harm these people and I don’t to make them think that I think they are idiots … I don’t want to conjure up of images of Christopher Hitchens sneering at them whenever they look at me.
The whole feeling alone thing. That is just hard. All the people you really care about you can’t tell
Jimmy’s book recommendations
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B Irvine
Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary, by Kenneth W Daniels.
My guest this week is Dr. Anthony Pinn. Dr. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, the Professor of Religious Studies. the Founding Director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning Rice University, and the Director of Research of the Institute for Humanist Studies. Dr. Pinn has written a number of books on the intersection of humanism and race. In this episode, we discuss his book, When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer.
We spend so much of our time making fun of and belittling theists. That’s not very productive. You don’t transform the world that way.
I learned quite a lot from Dr. Pinn. Both about humanism and the experience of black humanists. Ultimately I was challenged to change my behavior, to “do my homework,” and to understand that it will take dismantling of white supremacy in humanist communities in order to gain the great benefits that diversity brings.
This sort of fundamental change this movement towards diversity and equity means giving up comfort. You cannot request comfort and say you are interested in change.
Throughout his book(s) and in the interview Dr. Pinn calls on our humanist values to be less ignorant, to include black and other historically disparaged voices, and to develop our own vocabulary and ways of experiencing awe without calling on theistic traditions. “We can do better.”
[Our] goal should not be removing religion … Religion is really simply a way of naming our effort to come to grips with who what when and why we are … But it seems to me, the larger more compelling goal is decreasing the harm that we do in the world.
NOTE: This transcript is AI produced (otter.ai) and likely has many mistakes. It is provided as rough guide to the audio conversation.
David Ames 0:11
This is the graceful atheist podcast. Welcome, welcome. Welcome to the graceful atheist podcast. My name is David, and I am trying to be a graceful atheist. First off, I just want to thank my newest monthly supporters. Again, I want to say the caveat that in a time of COVID-19, and the economic problems that we are facing, unless you happen to have literally expendable cash on hand, I'm not asking for you to support but it does help, we will go back into the podcast. Anyway, I want to thank new supporters, Libby n. And James T, along with Joel Wu and John G. Thank you for your support. The first thing I'm going to do with the money that comes in is to pay MCI beats for the rights to the waves track. It is currently being used as a creative commons. I will be purchasing that so that MCI receives some support as well. If you find the podcast useful or helpful, I would ask that you please rate and review it in the Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. I have a bit of exciting news. My wife Michelle and I have been talking about deconstruction lately. I don't want to get too excited to hear that I don't think that she's changing her mind in any way. But she rightly points out that after we went to Bible college together, the two of us went our separate ways. And when we came back together and eventually got married, we had both gone through ministry a bit of burnout, and ultimately, what she now calls deconstruction. And she's right. We've also recently been listening to the Michelle Obama podcast and one of the first episodes is Michelle Obama and Barak talking with one another. And I commented about how cool their rapport is with one another. And I jokingly said, We should do that some day. And it was her idea, my wife, Michelle, to do an episode, and it was also her idea to request questions from you, the audience. So I know that there are many of us out there that are in relationships where one partner has either D converted or deconstructed in some way and the other partner is still very much a believer. We jokingly sometimes call this the unequally yoked club from Captain Cassidy's blog role to disbelief. If that's your experience, I would ask that you would send me and my wife in some questions about our relationship how we are or not making it work. And you can do so either via email graceful firstname.lastname@example.org Or you can send me a voicemail on the anchor app or through any recording device and send it in through email. Michelle and I will answer those questions on the episode that she and I are going to record shortly. On today's show. My guest today is Dr. Anthony Pinn. Dr. Pinn's resume is a thing to behold but I'll hit the highlights here on his website. He is the Agnes Colin Arnold professor of humanities at Rice University. He's the professor of religious studies. He's the founding director of the Center of engaged research and collaborative learning at Rice University and the director of research at the Institute for humanist studies. Beyond that Dr. Pinn has written a tremendous body of work on humanism and race. Today, he and I discussed the book when colorblindness isn't the answer, humanism and the challenge of race, and we will have links in the show notes for Dr. Anthony Pinn's books. I learned a tremendous amount from this book, not just about the issues that black humanists face, but about humanism itself. Obviously, the most challenging part of the book is on the issues of race. And what Dr. Pinn does brilliantly in the book is The uses the very values that we humanists say we hold dear to point out where we have fallen down where we have been hypocritical, where we have not applied those values when it comes to the topic of race. I cannot do justice to the full argument that Dr. Pinn puts forth. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Dr. Anthony.
Dr. Anthony Pinn. Welcome to the graceful atheist podcast.
Anthony Pinn 4:50
Thanks for having me.
David Ames 4:52
Dr. Pan I'm very excited to have you on I feel like I can't quite do justice to your CV but some of The titles that you have in your bio, the Agnes Colin Arnold professor of humanities, the professor of religious studies, the founding director of the Center for Engaged research and collaborative learning at Rice University, and Director of Research of the Institute for humanist studies. Does that do you justice at all?
Anthony Pinn 5:17
Yeah, that's fine. Thank
David Ames 5:19
you. And you've written just a, an enormous body of work, a number of books that began with a book entitled, Why Lord, suffering and evil and Black Theology. You've written a book with your with your mom, as I understand it, the fortress introduction to black church history. And then the book that we'll be discussing today is when colorblindness isn't the answer, humanism and the challenge of race. What I'd like to begin with is your experience of faith and maybe what gets you from growing up in a religious household to writing a book like, Why Lord, not suffering?
Anthony Pinn 5:56
Well, I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and a portion of my family was deeply religious, my mother's side of the family. So church was part of our week. We started out attending a Baptist church in Lackawanna, it's outside of Buffalo. Bethlehem Steel was the anchor for Lackawanna. Okay. My grandfather was a deacon in this small Baptist Church. And that's the church we attended. My mother eventually decided that was not the place for us. And so we started attending a non denominational church, maybe five minutes from our home in Buffalo. That church was very small, so small that the senior minister was also my Sunday school teacher. One Sunday, we're sitting in a circle in his office, and he asked a question, and what do you want to be when you grow up? And so you heard the typical things while your Doctor President, when he got to me, I said a minister. And I wasn't quite certain wise that it perhaps it had something to do with the kind of status that ministers have in the community, right, that there was something about the minister that marked out future that marked out visibility, importance, and I claimed it and his response was, okay, we start next week. Yes. And so as a little kid, might I'm lining the hymns, offering prayers, opening the doors of the church. And this goes on for a while. And eventually, I'm ordained a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, oldest black denomination in the country. And as a deacon, I can marry Barry and baptize, right, went to college in New York City, in part because I wanted to get out of Buffalo. I just didn't think I could be myself my best self, and buffalo. There was just something about it that that wasn't to my liking, right. And so I went to New York, and park to get away from Buffalo, but also because the person who had been the pastor of this church, it was a fairly new pastor, young guy was also moving to Brooklyn, he'd been given a large church in Brooklyn, and I'm in New York, I'm working at this church, and I'm in college. And my assumption was, I'm going to change Colombia for the Lord, right that yeah, power of the Lord is going to transform this place. But these people didn't believe as I believed, for the most part, and they weren't nervous about it. Right? I'm thinking they're going to hell. And they're thinking, what should we do this weekend? Right, that they're, that just weren't fearful of hellfire. And something that was particularly troubling for me as these folks who did not claim belief in Christ often treated me better than people who did say, they loved the Lord and they were leading they were living in accordance with the Lord's will right often treated me better than those folks. I'm working in Bedford Stuyvesant at this church, and if this is the early ad, so crack cocaine, gang gaming, a hold on Big City Life, right. And so I'm encountering young people who are having a easier time planning out their demise and thinking in terms of a bright future, and nothing that I had in my theological bag made any difference. So over the course of time in New York, it became increasingly difficult to preach this faith to believe this space, when it seemed to make no substantive difference in life that I was answering the questions people didn't ask and condemned questions that they did. Hold here, right. And so my, my sense of faith, my sense of God is radically changed. Changing. But I needed to get out of New York after college because people needed Reverend Pinn to have answers, not questions, right. And I didn't have answers. I was finding it extremely difficult to hold on to this faith. Still interested in ministry, but a very different form of ministry. It was a form of ministry that understood the church as an occasion to make change in the physical lives of people, right to make a difference in daily life that this church was the occasion for that it wasn't about personal salvation, it was about social transformation. I went off to seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, still interested in church, but a very different sense of church. I'm working at a church in Roxbury, and that's Roxbury, late 80s Not Roxbury, 2020. It's not a highly place, it's the place struggling, okay. And I'm encountering again, kids who are having an easier time thinking about their demise than their future who understand wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood could result in death for whom Economic Opportunity revolved around selling crack on the corner, not college. Yeah, right. And the faith had nothing that was on this. And so it reached a point, I'm finished the Master of Divinity program, I'm moving into the Ph. D. program. And it reached a point where I had to make a decision, I could not continue to participate in an institution that I did not think that any worldly good, I could not preach a theology that I no longer believed. I could not invite people to be close to a God that I wasn't convinced was there. And so I was willing to be a lot of things, but I was not going to be a hypocrite. So I decided I needed a different way to be of service. I contacted the minister in charge of the church and told him I would not be returning, I contacted my bishop to surrender my ordination. And I left. Wow. And for a while I wasn't quite certain what to call myself. I knew what I wasn't. Right, Christian. But for me, it wasn't simply that Christianity was faulty. From my vantage point, theism was faulty. So it wasn't a matter of moving from Christianity to a different theistic tradition, none of it, I thought had any substantive ability to make a difference in the world. But with time, I came to call myself a humanist in terms of what I do, and an atheist in terms of what I no longer hold to be true.
David Ames 12:34
Wow, so much is there I think what is really interesting is you're describing the failure of theistic traditions to meet real world problems, to meet people where they're actually out. And the flip side of this, and I see this definitely in your work, and it's something that I'm constantly trying to get across as well is that I want humanism to be blood, sweat, and tears boots on the ground, something that is living and breathing and actually touches people's lives. And you've touched on on this already, and we'll talk about it from your book, but you differentiate between religion and theism. Could you expound on that a little bit?
Anthony Pinn 13:14
Yeah, theism is the belief in God or gods. Religion is something different from my vantage point, religion is a kind of quest for a complex subjectivity. That is to say, religion is a wrestling with the who, what, when, where and why we are questions, you don't need God or gods for that. You just need to be committed to a desire for meaning, right? And I get a lot of resistance from from some humanists and a lot of atheists when it comes to issues of, of meaning, right? That we are not seeking meaning we are not ritually driven. But of course, we are right. Folks who go to the American Atheist meeting every year, sit and listen to talk, have a certain procedure for listening to talks are involved in ritual. You don't have to have God rituals, repeated activity and founded space. Atheists have ritual. Humanists have ritual. And so my argument is, ism is one thing, but religion is really simply a way of naming our effort to come to grips with who, what, when, where and why we are.
David Ames 14:21
I love that because, you know, I think ironically, sometimes theists will say that atheism or humanism is a religion and I think, yeah, and like it's, you know, we often as as particularly the atheist community will respond with, you know, horror at that statement. And yet, really, just as you've described as a way of organizing people to come together to seek meaning with one another. That's not a bad thing necessarily.
Anthony Pinn 14:45
No. I think my from my vantage point, I think humanists and atheists surrender language too quickly. Right, simply because theists have claimed terminology doesn't mean they own terminology. Right? Right, and that there may be some elements of the vocabulary, that grammar that is still useful for us that allows us to explain and explore the all we feel when we encounter the world, that sense of wonder, is it restricted to theist? Right? The atheist and humanist ought to be able to understand themselves in relationship to something that is much more profound and bigger. And that might simply be a larger arrangement of life. Right? A larger sense of community doesn't have anything to do with God or gods. Right.
David Ames 15:39
As I mentioned to you Off mic, you know, I use this term secular grace. And what I mean by that is that the thing that we need most the thing I think, that is just hardwired as a human being, is to feel known to be understood to be loved to be accepted. And we actually get that from one another. It's my having conversations like this, it's my deep friendships, it's my significant others relationships. It's, it's our interaction with one another that we derive meaning from. And that's really what I'm trying to do with this idea of secular grace and again, sounds exactly like what you're describing. The book we're going to discuss today is how colorblindness isn't the answer, and humanism and the challenge of race. Clearly, this moment in time, after the killing of George Floyd, the number of black Americans who have died at the hands of police, Breanna Taylor, the list is so long that it's ludicrous. And one thing that I am definitely concerned about is how humanism can participate in Black Lives Matter and be again, boots on the ground and something real, something meaningful. And when I asked you which book I should read in preparation for this, this is this the book that you suggested, and boy, it is it's a profound moving book, it is challenging on every level, we'll get into that a little bit, what I'd like to do is just, I want to tell a little bit about my experience of reading the book, and then we will go through the questions that you pose throughout it. My feeling of the book is that the first half of the book is questions you've been asked 1000 times that out of exhaustion, you finally wrote these down to say, read the manual. I'm from the tech world, we do things called frequently asked questions and RTFM means I spent the time to put this down on paper, please go look at that rather than wasting time. Maybe that's unfair. But it strikes me as the exhaustion of black people in general being asked to explain what should be abundantly obvious to everyone. That was my experience of the first half. The second half I think you are posing, or suggesting to humanist in particular, the questions we ought to be asking ourselves the questions that would provide a meaningful change or a meaningful interaction to help black people in America. So maybe we could go through some of those questions. And you can explain just a little bit about about each of those. Sure. So in that first section, where we're these are kind of the questions you probably have been asked 1000 times and in some ways they they reveal an ignorance maybe of the questioner. But at the same time, you're you're gentle in suggesting that you understand why, particularly white humanists might ask these questions. But So beginning with, why does your community embrace religious traditions that have been used to do harm?
Anthony Pinn 18:44
Well, what we need is a much more complex understanding of how let's take Christianity, for example, how it is functioning within the context of black communities, that on some level, sure, blacks embracing it, are embracing strategies that were meant to dehumanize. But you cannot explain a Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser or Denmark vz, that way, who argued that this same religion required them to physically fight for their freedom, and if folks had to die in the process, so be it right. So here is a kind of revolutionary stand that this same Bible, the same doctrines motivated them to make change. Can't think of the civil rights movement and have such a narrow understanding of how religion has functioned within African American communities, regardless of how one might think about it. Religion was a factor. And it wasn't passive. Right. So religion, on one level, used to harm blacks, but there are also ways in which blacks have actively tried to reshape the Stockman so as to provide a sense of their own humanities. It's a complex story, right? But it seems to me coming from humanists and atheists the better question in this is this, why hasn't humanism been more attractive? Rather than blaming victims? Let's look at this orientation and figure out why it hasn't been more attractive, in part because humanists and atheists spend so much time dogging out religion and the religious and not as much time offering people a safe place to land, right. And if you're talking about African Americans, you are talking about a population that already faces double jeopardy, at least double jeopardy. And so to claim humanism, or atheism is to add another way in which you are despised, and what do they get for their effort? Nothing other than a critique of the churches they've
David Ames 20:59
Anthony Pinn 21:02
And it requestion is about their culture. Right, so the question is, why hasn't humanism been more attractive?
David Ames 21:10
Right? I wanted to touch on just a couple of things that you bring up in this section. I love the way that you describe I use the word earthy several times and you're describing a humanism as earthy and I love that you used the Blues as an example almost of anti spiritual is kind of the the opposite of spirituals. And, you know, I, you mentioned Willie Dixon's coochie coochie man, and my all time favorite is muddy waters mannish boy, which is also a reference to Bo Diddley's. I'm a man which is a part of it. It's a reference to Willie Dixon's. And I've never thought of those as manifestos of humanism. But as soon as you said it, it clicked. Like, it is the opposite. It's it's a breaking away from the religious constraints.
Anthony Pinn 22:01
Yeah, right. And so in the same way, you have folks who use Christianity as a way to counter Christianity, think think in terms of Ida B. Wells, who was deeply religious, deeply Christian, and extremely critical of violence against African Americans, right. She provides a profound critique of lynching and terms of the blues you have someone like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, who celebrates black bodies that are otherwise despised, that celebrates the pleasures that black bodies give other bodies, and a larger society where these black bodies are demonized, despise, and destroyed. Right? So you get on one hand, the blues, critiquing theism, but on the other hand, you have the blues, critiquing anti black racism and dehumanization through a celebration of black life.
David Ames 22:57
And, in fact, the mannish boy is about saying, I'm a man. Very famous pictures from the civil rights movements of black men with signboard saying, I'm a man to say, I'm a human being I exist in this world, I'm embodied here,
Anthony Pinn 23:13
rightfully occupying time and space.
David Ames 23:16
Absolutely. Yeah. The other other thing that I think that this touches on with the the blues, and obviously has been a part of the black culture of the black experience is kind of outsmarting the white culture around them that all the way back into slavery of being able to have the songs where they're passing on information, passing on hope, what have you, in a way that is coded such that the white people around them are not getting that and it strikes me that the blues isn't anyways, is that as well, during that civil rights time period?
Anthony Pinn 23:50
Yeah, there's something deeply poetic about it, you have a population, using the language forced upon them. Right, a language that was initially used to belittle them to dehumanize them, right to construct them as something that as as other and here you have the them using it to critique that very system to celebrate themselves to critique that very system, and why it's not even recognizing what's taking place.
David Ames 24:21
So let's go on to the second again, this is a question that just are not a question, but a statement that sometimes people make that again, may reveal some ignorance. And the idea is humanism is driven by reason and logic. So it doesn't see race as a biological reality, that should determine any significant dimension of life. And yet it does, correct.
Anthony Pinn 24:42
Right? It is not a biological fact. But it is a social fact. And it's a social fact that can be deadly. And so humanists and atheists don't gain ground by simply saying, it isn't biologically real. It isn't about us and simply pointing the finger at the religious right, pointing the finger at theists saying, Well, if we didn't have religion, we wouldn't have these problems, which is just it's not true, right? It is not true, that we can turn to the enlightenment that so many humanists and atheists uncritically embrace, and you find a deep anti black racism from folks who are not claiming church, they're claiming reason,
David Ames 25:25
Anthony Pinn 25:27
And so there's, you know, we have to move away from the assumption that humanism and atheism are prophylactic against nonsense. This is not the case that humanists and atheists can be just as racist, as fundamentalist Christians can be.
David Ames 25:44
Right. Yeah, it's interesting, I think, the experience of deconversion of having had a faith, a theistic faith and then becoming a humanist. I feel like that what one of the things I bring from that experience is some humility. I've had the experience in my life over and over again, of being wrong, deeply wrong, profoundly wrong about the most important questions in life. And I think that one of the great criticisms of the atheist community is that they are blinded by their own sense of the power of their own reason. And I think that what we need as a community and Titan, the entirety is some humility, about recognizing that our reasoning didn't go haywire. It can lead to, you know, undergirding racism, rather than defeating racism, it can lead to terrible atrocities, if you think of the time of Eugenics and things of that nature. So you know, reason can go terribly, terribly wrong. And we need a quite a bit of humility as we come to this, to have other people challenge our own reason and be willing to say, I might be wrong.
Anthony Pinn 26:57
And I think humanists and atheists often have a misguided and go, mind that the end goal for too many is the dismantling and removal of traditional forms of religion, right, getting rid of this stuff. It seems to me a better end goal is radically decreasing the harm that theists and non theists do in the world. Right? Right, that the end goal ought to be the development of ways of living that are more nurturing and healthy for the larger web of life. And if folks want to continue to go gather for worship services on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so be it. But it seems to me the larger more compelling goal is decreasing the harm that we do in the world.
David Ames 27:47
Couldn't agree more, again, just alleviating suffering, providing the environment for people to thrive. That should be the goal of humanism. I've loved the way you much throughout the book, you kind of speak to humanist ideals or thinking and turn them in such a way that particularly white humanists are forced to look at themselves. One of the ways that you do that, as you describe how we humanists, or atheists will long for spaces in which they can talk about the atheist bias within the world. And then you point out the need for cultural spaces for black Americans, black humanists to have the same, right that they the exact same way that we need to have a space where we feel safe and comfortable, we can talk to one another. And we're understood, we don't we're not going to be misconstrued that black humanists need exactly the same,
Anthony Pinn 28:43
right, right. A space in which we can catch our breath space in which we don't have to explain why we're angry.
David Ames 28:55
The third question that people might ask human is would be of great benefit to your community, wouldn't it if only we could get more of you involved?
Anthony Pinn 29:04
And the question again, one, why isn't it more appealing? Yeah. And secondly, when I get that question, for me, the answer is a question. More of us for what reason, right, that often what humanist organizations, humanist communities want, are more shades of the same. That is to say they want African Americans to come but don't change anything. Right? Right, just fit in, don't change anything. And it seems to me if we're really serious about diversity, it means fundamental structural change, right? So organizations have to then reinvent themselves so that they are compelling with respect to this range of participants, radically rethinking leadership and leadership structures, radically, reimagining communities of concern, radically rethinking our vocabulary and our grammar, right that this requires a tremendous amount of change. And it seems to me that what humanists and atheists have to become aware of is this, that this sort of fundamental change this movement towards diversity and equity means giving up comfort. You cannot request comfort, and say you're interested in change,
David Ames 30:29
right. And, as has been commented on in a number of contexts, the feeling of bringing a subjugated group up to equity can sometimes feel by the group that's in power as a loss of something a loss of power or what have you. And we have to be willing to include a diverse group of voices, including in leadership roles, including in a being voices for our movement, that includes a wide variety of perspectives.
Anthony Pinn 31:03
It means recognizing and wrestling with something that so many would rather ignore white privilege, right, that this has to be acknowledged and dismantled, that all of this has been set up for the benefit of a certain population that has to be rethought and rearranged. And that can't be done, if the demand is to remain comfortable.
David Ames 31:28
That's a good segue, the second half of your book you are suggesting to the humanist the questions that we ought to be asking ourselves, and the first one is about the nature of privilege. The idea here is an end, let me quote here, white privilege isn't about having wealth. No, it's about the positive assumptions that follow and inform the life of white Americans. It's the often unspoken and unrecognized access to the workings of social life that come with a membership card of whiteness. What of this privilege, are you, me, US willing to surrender in order to promote equality, and justice and what is gained by doing the right thing regarding the negative effects of privilege, I want to linger here just a little bit, and just mention a bit of personal story. I have a slightly complex relationship with race in that my father's side of the family, I have a Mexican American grandfather and Spanish American grandmother, which makes me you know, genetically three quarters white. And yet my father's side of family is very culturally Mexican American, very, you know, they were Catholic. They were Gatos, they were you know, cowboys, really. So me and several of my cousins, you know, when whenever we get back together, we talk about how it what it's like to have to be wise we are, I mean, in all ways I pass as white, but to also have this part of part of our lives and, and I sometimes think of it that I haven't experienced racism myself, but I feel like maybe through a dim glass darkly, I have a sense of something that's out there. And I say all that to say this, that. Even with that dim perspective, the events of the last year, including up to including your book, were revelatory in breaking down my naivete. By a twist of fate. My last name is very Anglo, and not Mexican sounding, understanding. And so I know how many times I've had the benefit of the doubt that the career that I have now, you know, I worked my butt off, but I absolutely understand how many points along the way. Privilege played a role in allowing me to be where I am today. So again, just to set that all up to say, I think that white America, in 2020 is going through, as you mentioned, uncomfortable, but a process of learning of recognizing, in a new way that the modern day suffering that black Americans are going through in a way that we were probably trying to lie to ourselves to hide, to minimize to rationalize to, to ignore. And now we are unable to ignore it is in our faces and it must be addressed.
Anthony Pinn 34:38
Yeah. And it's not about purity, right. I mean, that doesn't exist. And so it's not simply a question of lineage. It's a question of social perception. How is one perceived socially, right? That makes a world of difference how one is perceived socially can be deaf clearly. How to the relative Those of George Floyd, right and this word we're clear on. And so we make a mistake when we assume that white privilege is synonymous with economic advantage. That is not the case. But even how economic struggle gets mapped out and articulated, differs. So it's often the case for African Americans are struggling economically, the popular conversation is they just don't want. They're unwilling to work to get. But for whites, it's a matter of the system being unfair, right? So they are not understood as being inherently flawed, right. Whereas African Americans based upon white privilege and anti black racism are understood as embodying the problem. For whites, the problem is external to them. And we often and there's an added dilemma there, that we often try to get at this through the individual. And that doesn't work. Right? We're not talking about Jim Smith over here, versus Robert Jones over there. It's systemic, as a group, whites have done so much better than any other group. And there is privilege in place unspoken social privilege in place that makes that the case. So it's not a one, one, it's not the end of it. We're not talking about this on the level of the individual. We're talking about this on the level of communities.
David Ames 36:37
I think that's the word systemic is the revelation that feels like White America is experiencing right now is, and let me be clear, black people have been saying this forever. It's not. And we're gonna get to that we have no no excuse, right? There is no ignorance is not an excuse. But that the visceral experience of seeing the system work against black people, black bodies, black lives, is again, unendurable at this moment in time. It should be. Yeah, yes,
Anthony Pinn 37:15
it should be. But it's, it's surprising the number of people for whom this isn't a turning point.
David Ames 37:24
I feel the burden of having now read your book. Again, you don't give any space for ignorance as an excuse. But even having read your book, it feels like I am more compelled now. To be more vocal to be more outspoken. Again, I feel guilty about all that, that it takes. It takes something like this, but I'm trying to be honest here to bring out what it feels like this experience of trying to learn to try to be less ignorant. In this chapter, you you make one provocative statement that I'd like you to expand upon, you say that the term people of color is not helpful. Why do you say that?
Anthony Pinn 38:08
It isn't helpful, because when we use that phrase, we mean everyone other than white people. Right, so what it does, from my vantage point, is allow whiteness to remain normative. Because then there's whiteness, and everything else that has been othered. Right? So it allows whiteness to remain normative. It also suggests that white people are not raced. When every population is raced, the difference is some populations are raised to their disadvantage, and others are raised to their advantage. And so this idea of people of color, again, allows whiteness to remain normative, that allows whiteness to go unchallenged, and allows whites to remain invisible when it's convenient. And it renders everyone else hyper visible. And so it seems to me more authentic to our history, to say people of a despised color. Or we can do what's even better than that. And that is to recognize how bulky and awkward our language is, and specify groups
David Ames 39:28
to enumerate them to list them out to call them out by notice that you in many times do you refer to the Native Americans as well in your book that as also a despised group that has been deeply affected by white supremacy deeply hurt deeply affected,
Anthony Pinn 39:46
and in ways that we we have often been rendered invisible, right. We don't often talk in terms of the land we occupy. And how we got that land right Even so even despise populations existing within geographies that were violently ripped away from others, right. So there's this animosity, this racism, this anger, this violence is layered, right. And we often fail to acknowledge that.
David Ames 40:25
And it's interesting the way that we the education system as well that we just gloss over. Even the way we teach about slavery, the way we talk about states rights, quote, unquote, the way we talk about Manifest Destiny, the way we are taught these things is whitewashed. To begin with, I'm definitely more and more aware of that as time goes on of the simplicity, in the way that we we talk about our history without acknowledging deep problems.
Anthony Pinn 40:57
David Ames 41:00
So again, another of your your posed questions, setting that up, knowledge is a certain form of power. And humanists read and study, they work based on logic. And with much energy they suggest that theists do likewise, logic and reason rule the day, the question is, how much of this call for knowledge information is applied to the issue of race, and racism. And again, this is where I've mentioned that, you know, this book was uncomfortable, every time my inclination was to squirm a bit and to look for excuses or to find a way out, you very effectively stop that from occurring. But again, I love the way that you are using the humanist ideals to say, you need to face this truth, if you say that knowledge and study and and understandings important than race has to be at the near the top of that list.
Anthony Pinn 41:52
Yeah, the number of humanists and atheists who believe that ignorance on this issue is okay, right, that ignorance should stop the conversation? Well, I just don't really know anything about this. That is unacceptable from a population that understands itself to be deeply committed to reason, logic and learning that learn something about this, right and stop assuming that African American humanists and atheists have some obligation to teach on this. Right, if that is the case, if we have to deal with these with toxic attitudes, toxic understandings toxics arrangement, then we ought to receive hazard pay. Yes, it seems to be humanists and atheists rather than saying, I don't know, and patting themselves on the back, or to say, I don't know, and start reading. The materials are easy to find so many of them on our New York Times bestsellers list, you define, exactly. Get them read them learn. Yeah. Because humanist communities cannot say they are taking seriously African Americans, for example, and learn nothing about us.
David Ames 43:18
Using the idea that the value of education and saying that we have no excuse that the information is available, and that should be a top priority of humanist organizations is providing or pointing to black humanist voices to learn.
Anthony Pinn 43:37
Yeah, and I think, in addition to that, we've reached a point where white humanists have to take some accountability and responsibility for this, because black humanist didn't create the problem, we suffer from it. And it seems to me that white humanist have to also start talking about the need for change and addressing strategies. So we ought to be able to go to these large gatherings of humanists and atheists and have more than the usual suspects talking about racism. The population that benefits from it should be publicly trying to dismantle it.
David Ames 44:21
There are lots of parallels to the deconversion experience of the systemic part of systemic racism means that it is so culturally ingrained. It's like asking a fish what is wet feel like? We as humanists should be better at recognizing when we have failed to see the wetness to see the systemic racism and yet, that is just as pervasive within humanist organizations as it might be envious or just secular environments.
Anthony Pinn 44:53
Again, we have a commitment to learning. Right? We have a commitment to discovery we have have a commitment to critical engagement. So we ought to be able to get our thinking on this, right?
David Ames 45:07
Absolutely. I think one of the notes that I took reading this chapter was Do your homework. Just yeah, to the to the overachieving kid, you know, do your homework. We know what we need to go learn and where it find it. We just need to do it. Yeah, yeah. On to the next section here, you describe difference as an opportunity. And you say that quotes, more shades of the same end quote, is a comforting strategy, because it highlights the familiar while giving the pretense of difference. Its natural, but unproductive default position when racist the topic or the challenge? And the question, what kind of racial justice work? Might you find and promote if differences understood differently?
Anthony Pinn 45:55
My understanding is the way in which US society is framed, the way it is constructed, it's very logic is premised upon a sense of difference as a problem to solve, right, that we've got to move from all these different things to one unified thing. And that is just poor thinking, right? It seems to me, we really ought to reach a point within humanist circles in which we understand the value of difference the way in which different gives us opportunity to adjust and to rethink our assumptions that it provides a certain type of strength that provides opportunities that don't emerge, if everything and everyone is the same. Yes. So just in terms of practical elements, so rather than bringing in African American Humanist into our organizations, and assuming they should just blend in, recognize that in bringing in African American humanists, we're called to change our organizations, that their presence provides an opportunity to rethink what we've been doing.
David Ames 47:04
Yes. And it occurs to me that we often talk about diversity as almost like a checkbox, like we need to have diversity, check whether it's done or it's not done. And yet, what you're making a compelling argument for is the the benefit of diversity. And it strikes me that there's a strong parallel between the ethos of the scientific method, which kind of relies on almost antagonistic skepticism, in order to better come to closer to the truth, a closer approximation to reality. And in a similar analogous way, the diversity and competing ideas, computing, cultural perspectives, competing life experiences, can help a group come to a better understanding of how to live life to thrive, to be human in this world. Yeah. The last section, and I love this, this was so this was so much fun for me learning from unlikely sources. So you talk about hip hop culture and the built in diversity that's within the hip hop culture. You say that, you know, some people can come to the hip hop culture and say, Well, why is it violent? Why is it so materialistic, that kind of thing, but you say, a better question is, what can we learn from hip hop?
Anthony Pinn 48:27
You know, I mean, because to to raise the question of why is it so violent? Right? Why is it so antagonistic? Why is it so committed to dollars? doesn't distinguish hip hop from the larger arrangements of economic life in the United States? Right? What's the difference? Right? Can we say the same thing about so many other organizations and development, right, that that doesn't make Hip Hop unique? And so I bring up hip hop for a couple of reasons, one, to reinforce the necessity of discomfort, right that this is not a population that humanists and atheists necessarily turn to, although we share quite a bit so for example, hip hop culture, develops within a context of black and brown despised young people trying to come to grips with the world. Humanists and atheists understand themselves as being despised disliked within us society. Yeah, right. So we share that, right. But whereas hip hop has grown from that point, to become internationally, influential Hip Hop shapes, popular imagination, it shapes our vocabulary and grammar, it shapes our aesthetics. It seems to me rather than getting on board with a traditional critique of hip hop, we humanists and atheists who are also despised might want to ask the question, what are they doing right that we're doing wrong? Right and just look systematically and strategically at how hip hop culture has grown. So for example, one of the things that hip hop culture has done that we have not effectively done is develop a vocabulary and grammar that is organic. That speaks from and to us. We've not really done that night. So hip hop culture has developed a way of naming and communicating the world that is organic. And in part, what they've done is highly poetic. And by that I mean, they have destroyed language in order to free to express a different reality. Right? We have not effectively done that. Right. So again, my argument is simply we need models of successful transformation. And Hip Hop culture provides one of those models it has done over the course of a relatively short period of time, what we have been unable to accomplish in almost 200 years.
David Ames 51:04
Along the lines of the point, you were just making you say this, that humans are still playing by the rules offered by theists. And that there's almost a sense of the humanist is asking to be liked, please like me. And so we're still using the theists language, we're still defining ourselves in opposition to the essence. So I think what you're trying to say is, we need to be creative and create our own vocabulary, our own way of talking about the world and about ourselves. That is not just within the confines of the theists game,
Anthony Pinn 51:37
we need to be proactive rather than reactive, that we spend so much of our time together, making fun of and belittling theist, right. That's not very productive.
David Ames 51:51
Yes, no, it is not.
Anthony Pinn 51:54
You don't transform the world that way.
David Ames 51:58
Some of the points that you draw from the hip hop community, we'll just touch on them and ask you to expand on them this idea of thick diversity. What did you mean by that?
Anthony Pinn 52:09
Well, within hip hop, it seems to me you have a significant appreciation for a range of beings a range of expression, a range of ways to occupy time and space. Right? There isn't one way there is all of this, all of these possibilities, these conflicting and competing ways that all constitute an element of hip hop culture. Right? Well, it seems to me humanists and atheists have been too preoccupied with trying to boil things down to one way of being right that atheists do this. They're concerned with church and state, not gay rights, right? They're concerned with this. They're not concerned with that humanists are concerned with these issues, not those issues. Humanists talk this way they conduct themselves this way they think about ritual this way, we need a greater sense of diversity, and difference, right, a greater sense of what our culture has the capacity to hold.
David Ames 53:15
Right. Another thing that you point out is the significance of the ordinary and live this I'd like to but please expand upon it.
Anthony Pinn 53:23
And it seems to me one of the things you get in hip hop is a profound appreciation for the ordinary, the mundane markers of life, the mundane elements of pleasure, and engagement. And I think that sort of appreciation would give humanists and atheists a different way of valuing ritual, and the production of meaning. Right, that none of this is lost on hip hop culture. And so it seems to me it provides humanists and atheists with a way of gaining greater clarity concerning the web of life, and the role we can play and nurturing that.
David Ames 54:13
Again, to maybe play off of the theist for a second, the what's interesting about this is that theism in many ways is the denial of our humanity. It is saying that our natural passions are wrong, that it's trying to make us less human in some ways. And I think this idea of significance of the ordinary is to embrace one's humaneness. Right, and to, to revel in some ways in that that earthiness to use that internal use.
Anthony Pinn 54:44
Yeah, I wouldn't, I wouldn't say it's a denial of our humanity. I would say it's a distrust of our humanity. Okay. Right. It's the assumption that it's the assumption that we have necessity are going to do the wrong thing that we start out Behind, right. And in that thinking there is a preoccupation with rejecting anything that might constitute an opportunity for sin, this kind of distrust of ourselves anything that might lead us down the wrong path. It seems to me that what we have with hip hop is what we have with the blues, a celebration and an appreciation for connection, togetherness for the messy nature of life, right that both of them the hip, hip hop, and the Blues have a deep appreciation for the messy arrangements, the messy nature of life.
David Ames 55:40
Right. One of the last things you mentioned here is and I love the way that you frame this call it measured realism. Can you expand on that for me?
Anthony Pinn 55:51
Yeah, it seems to me that, I'd argue it makes sense for theists to be hyper optimistic, radically optimistic in terms of possibility. Because from their vantage point, they don't wrestle alone, right there. They're not trying to change the world alone. There is a cosmic force that shapes the universe that is on their side, so they can be highly optimistic, right? That is not the case. For humanist and atheist, it's just us. And history demonstrates, we are likely to get it wrong. But it also demonstrates we have the capacity to start over to try to get it right. And so what I'm calling for is a sense of that messiness, the way in which we are prone to get it wrong, that all we have is human accountability and responsibility, and that alone won't win the day. Right. So I one of my favorite thinkers is Albert Kumu. And I like witty, I like the way in which he frames the myth of Sisyphus that he argues that Sisyphus is not defeated by this ongoing chore given to him by the gods, right, he's going to be responsible for rolling this rock up the hill forever. And this was supposed to break him for commu. He says, No, he is not broken by this he reaches a point of lucidity of awareness, he becomes better he develops a better understanding of his circumstances. And that alone is the when one must imagine Sisyphus happy. And so what you get from Kung Fu, and I think this is absolutely right, is a need to understand that our struggle is perpetual. That we will find ways to do harm. Our struggle is perpetual. And so I want this measured realism is a move away from outcome driven strategies.
David Ames 57:46
Right, I want you to expand on that as well. Yeah. So rather
Anthony Pinn 57:49
than so what would you get with the civil rights movement, for example, and even more recent conversation 2020 conversations is, if we get our actions, right, if we think properly, and we act properly, we can transform the world. I don't know that that's the case. So rather than the kind of hope that that generate, I'd much prefer to think in terms of persistence. Right? I don't know that we will fundamentally change any of this. But we do this work, not because we know we will, when I leave that a theist, we do this work, because it's the last best option. Regardless of whether or not it wins the day, it's what we can do, that perhaps the best we can do is to generate a loud and persistent no to injustice, and measure our success by the persistence and the volume of that no perpetual rebellion. I don't think humanists and atheists ought to be talking about transformation the way he is talking about it, right? Because we're not working with the same tools, right?
David Ames 58:59
Because I want to hear criticisms of the things that I hold, dear. I think one of the criticisms that is out there from secularists about humanism is that there's some implicit teleology that there's something that's drawn from Christianity. And what I find interesting is that that is not what I think at all, I think it's precisely because we don't know that everything is going to turn out okay. That we must feel compelled to do something to do the right thing. Because there's no teleology, nothing is driving the moral arc of the universe in the right direction. We have to go out there and try to bend it to be a part of that process to be a one of those voices.
Anthony Pinn 59:43
Yeah, we don't. Yeah. I don't think that it's teleological in nature and that we don't assume that there is purpose behind any of this. Right, right. The universe has no particular purpose for us. I alberca. Mu is correct. We ask the universe questions and answer with silence, right, it is not here for us. It has not generated some sort of purpose driven existence for us. From my vantage point, what we have is an unreasonable level of optimism that history should demonstrate this level of optimism with respect to human activity. And human capacity for change isn't reasonable?
David Ames 1:00:28
Yes, history is painful when it's looked at unfiltered. Absolutely. If
Anthony Pinn 1:00:33
anyone, if we just look at the the history of this country, there is no justification for that high level optimism. We have continuously gotten it wrong. And we move from Obama to Trump. We have continuously gotten it wrong. Yeah.
David Ames 1:00:53
So I think we've gotten through your book at this point, I have a handful of questions that I legitimately just want your take on the question that I brought to the table before reading the book that might also be naive. And we've answered it to some degree is the broader question of why why humanism has failed to capture hearts and minds in general, not just the black community. But then to frame that just a little bit. I went through the this, you know, loss of faith experience. And the first things that you find are, you know, the four horsemen, you find debate culture, you find hostility towards Christianity, which is justified, don't get me wrong, it's all that is justified. And I felt all that and, but it took a while to find kind of humanist voices talking about what do we do now? So okay, you know, we we now understand what we don't believe, what do we believe? And and what do we value? What do we find out? What do we do about it? And I find like that those voices, they're all out there that people like yourself, there are lots of podcasts. There's lots of tons of books. But those aren't the first things that people find. So how is it that we have failed to be compelling to the nuns? Let's say that
Anthony Pinn 1:02:07
NES? I think, because we by and large, had we offered little that is constructive. Right? When we tried to develop a language of life when we try to develop community and, and rituals of meaning, we often strayed into something that is fear, some light think in terms of ethical culture, or the UAE, right, that we haven't developed ways of thinking of speaking and doing that are uniquely us, we do so much of this by negation. Why would that be compelling?
David Ames 1:02:45
Yeah, I think we have a lot of work to do. You point out in the book, the humanist tendency to look uncritically at particularly Enlightenment thinkers, particularly when we look at the founding of America and slave owners who wrote our founding documents. I'm also reading at the same time, Daniel Allen's our declaration and finding the beauty of the egalitarian nature of that document. And we're also in the moment in time in which Hamilton just came out on on Disney plus. And so I think it's on everyone's minds, how ought we to look back at what there are some very humanist ideas built into some of the America's founding documents? How should we be looking at those?
Anthony Pinn 1:03:36
Right, so here's the example I often give that I don't know very many humanists, or atheists or free thinkers or skeptics who don't have deep appreciation for Thomas Jefferson. And while they should, embracing Thomas Jefferson, bringing him into our various movements, also brings in sexual violence and anti black racism. Right, so we have to have a kind of critical and informed appreciation for these figures, right, what we often do is shift into a kind of celebration that ignores shortcomings. And so it seems to me and embracing these figures. We are then held accountable to do two things. Recognize the anti black shortcomings within our our movement, our thought, the gender bias within our thought, right, and do better. But we have to get to that point, right. But we It seems to me to many humanists, and atheists still want to think about our movement outside of the confines of anti black racism and other forms of social injustice. Not recognizing that these things are deeply embedded in a humanist understanding of the world, whether one's thinking about David Hume or, or Thomas Jefferson or the list goes on, right, it is deeply embedded, and we have an obligation to wrestle with that.
David Ames 1:05:15
Right. And even the Constitution itself has amendments, we can do better. We can rethink, and better.
Anthony Pinn 1:05:22
Yeah, because it My attitude is the constitution in and of itself is a fantastic document. It celebrates a wonderful experiment. It just didn't include everyone. Right? And then moving to include everyone requires not just a shift in the language of that document, but it requires structural change in the country to accommodate those new ideas.
David Ames 1:05:50
One last question that I have for you. And again, this is me being a bit vulnerable. I think, my hesitancy to address the topic of race is a balance of not wanting to be performatively woke, and to not make it about me, which I know I'm guilty of that in this conversation. I'm still learning. And I, you know, I want to know how to be a better ally how to participate, how to be a voice that supports black lives, and yet doesn't make it about me doesn't make make it about Yeah, my wokeness my, yeah, my experience. What advice do you have for me or people like me,
Anthony Pinn 1:06:38
I think there are several things that are important here. One is to be in conversation with the community of concern. Ask that community of concern, how you can be helpful, what you should be doing, get your marching orders, and be quiet. And by that I mean to say, you don't get to lead anything here. Right, right. If you're committed to addressing anti black racism, find an organization find a community, ask what you can do. And don't assume you get to be in charge of anything. Right. That's how that's one way. You keep it from being about you. Because you're just you're getting your instructions, and you're doing what this community says would be helpful, and you're leaving it at that. I'd also say finally, it requires avoiding the litany of what folks have done, right? Right. So don't don't ask to be a part of a movement. Don't ask to be an ally, and then rehearse all of the wonderful things you've done to make a difference,
David Ames 1:07:48
right? Absolutely. Well, thank you, Dr. Pinn. You have been incredibly gracious with your time. Oh, my pleasure sharing your wisdom. Can you tell people how they can get in touch with you and your work?
Anthony Pinn 1:08:01
Yeah, you can. Most of my stuff is available on my website. It's just Anthony pen.com. Or you can follow me on Twitter that's at Anthony underscore pen. Those are probably the best two ways to reach me.
David Ames 1:08:16
Fantastic. Thank you, sir. I appreciate it so much.
Anthony Pinn 1:08:19
Thank you. Thank you.
David Ames 1:08:27
My thoughts on the episode, some of the conversations that I get to have change me, this is very much one of those conversations, I cannot unsee the arguments that Dr. Pinn has made both in his book, and in our conversation. I hope you can hear during our conversation I was attempting to be honest. I also realized that in many ways, I was also making it about me and the exact way that I was trying not to do but I hope if you happen to be a white humanists that you could hear what needs to change what needs to be learned, what excuses that we would tend to move towards no longer apply, based on the argument that Dr. Penn is making. I want to thank Dr. Penn for his graciousness in giving of his time, sharing of his wisdom and being patient with yet another white person talking to him in ignorance. I am a little less ignorant. Having had this conversation you haven't read this book I highly recommend not only the book when colorblindness isn't the answer, but all of Dr. Pinn's work. I am profoundly changed even in the way that I understand humanism in general, not just specifically about race. In talking with Dr. Penn. I'll highlight here the distinction between religion and theism. The point that Dr. Pinn is making is what we actually want as humaneness is to come together and community and to find meaning and purpose and wonder together. And that kind of is a definition of religion. So it isn't religion that we have a problem with it is the supernaturalism it is theism it is believing in something that doesn't have evidence. I'm also fascinated by his discussion of using the theists vocabulary and the desire for some in the atheists or humanist community to be liked. It's almost like we are we're trying to get the theists to not agree with us, but to like us somehow. And in that sense, we are using their vocabulary and we are playing by their rules. I'm inspired by Dr. Pinn to see how we can have a humanism that is boots on the ground that develops its own language that develops its own way of speaking about its own way of reaching out to the world and effecting actual real change of alleviating suffering, of making the world a better place without referring to theistic or teleological frameworks. Lastly, I'll just say that we as humanists, and those of us who are not a member of a historically disparaged group or race, need to do our homework, we know where that information can be found. And we need to go do that we need to have empathy to recognize someone's experience that is not our own. The history of black people telling the white community about the systemic racism that they were experiencing that horrific tragedies that they have faced, throughout at least all of American history, if not well beyond that. And the unfortunate truth is that the white community has typically ignored this 2020 has made that impossible. My naivete over the last 16 years or so watching the election of President Obama and then the violent response to that has broken down that naivete on a daily basis, to the point where I think how could it possibly be worse, and yet, every day something new occurs? Even just recently, there was a discussion on Twitter, it was a philosophical discussion that really isn't pertinent. A black mathematician, chose to share the memes of hatred and racism that in his direct messages from people, I just horrified and knew I couldn't believe it. If this killing of George Floyd hasn't shocked us, I don't know what will. So my secular Grace Thought of the Week is do your homework, go find a book from a black author from a disenfranchised, disparage group, read it, empathize with it, try to put yourself in that person's shoes. Try to understand why they might be angry, try to understand why people might riot people might be so mad that they go to the streets, what drives a person to be angry. We should recognize this above all other people as atheists and humanists, the entire x Evangelical community is about the anger that is felt having grown up in an oppressive culture. We should understand this more than anyone else. And yet, we often don't apply that when it comes to race. Do your homework. As I mentioned in the intro, I'll be talking with my wife, Michelle, about our relationship on mic coming shortly. And if you have any questions that you'd like to pose to one or both of us, I'd ask that you please send that in, either as a voice message or as just an email at graceful email@example.com. Until then, my name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist join me and being a graceful human being.
Time for some footnotes. The song has a track called waves by mkhaya beats please check out her music links will be in the show notes. If you'd like to help support the podcast here are the ways you can go about that. First help promote it. Podcast audience grows it by word of mouth. If you found it useful or just entertaining, please pass it on to your friends and family. post about it on social media so that others can find it. Please rate review the podcast wherever you get your podcasts. This will help raise the visibility of our show. Join me on the podcast. Tell your story. Have you gone through a faith trend? position you want to tell that to the world? Let me know and let's have you on. Do you know someone who needs to tell their story? Let them know. Do you have criticisms about atheism or humanism, but you're willing to have an honesty contest with me? Come on the show. If you have a book or a blog that you want to promote, I'd like to hear from you. Also, you can contribute technical support. If you are good at graphic design, sound engineering or marketing, please let me know and I'll let you know how you can participate. And finally financial support. There will be a link on the show notes to allow contributions which would help defray the cost of producing the show. If you want to get in touch with me you can google graceful atheist where you can send email to graceful firstname.lastname@example.org You can tweet at me at graceful atheist or you can just check out my website at graceful atheists.wordpress.com Get in touch and let me know if you appreciate the podcast. Well, this has been the graceful atheist podcast My name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheists. Grab somebody you love and tell them how much they mean to you.
This has been the graceful atheist podcast
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
My guest this week is Leighann Lord, comedian, author and podcast host. She has traveled the world doing comedy and has been on VH1, Comedy Central and HBO. She has co-hosted on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Start Talk Radio and on CFI’s podcast, Point of Inquiry. She hosts her own podcast, People With Parents. She has written two books: Dict Jokes and Real Women Do It Standing Up.
Leighann went to Catholic school growing up and is now a humanist activist. Leighann was awarded the 2019 Humanist Arts Award for her work as the New York City face of the African Americans for Humanism outreach campaign sponsored by the Center for Inquiry.
[First attending humanist gathering]: I had my discovery and my sincerity.
We talk about humanism and what it can add to the conversation about race in America. Leighann handles my naivete with grace and elegance while still pointing out the world is a complicated place and racism is a persistent problem in America.
What [BLM is] doing, I believe is the work and ideal of humanism. Which is human beings realizing that they have a stake. You want to light a candle? That’s great we still going to have to get in here and do this work. And to me that is humanism. Human beings trying to be better humans. Actually doing the work.
Leighann’s podcast, People With Parents, deals with the role reversal of taking care of elderly parents. It is also a raw and real look at grieving the death of parent. We discuss secular grief and the need to be more public about grief as non-believers.
[Regarding grieving a loved one] Everyone is there for you week one. And most of them are saying the absolute wrong thing. So while you are trying to grieve you are also busy being angry.
We geek out about comedy and how it can let truth sneak past our defense mechanisms. Leighann shares her top five comedic influences. She talks about first seeing Marsha Warfield on stage, “I didn’t know we did this. Which tells you the power of role models.”
Leighann’s comedy specials which are available on YouTube, Spotify, Pandora and Amazon Prime have much to say about living in 2020 though they were recorded a few years ago. They cover race, religion, sexism, sex, wealth disparity, and the lack of education in the current administration.
You realize nobody changes their opinion or even starts to hear your side when your finger is in their face. That’s just not how humans work.
My guest this week is Bart Campolo. Bart is the host of the Humanize Me Podcast. He is the author of “Why I Left, Why I Stayed.” Along with his famous Evangelical father, Tony Campolo, Bart is the subject of John Wright’s documentary: Leaving my Father’s Faith. If that is not enough, Bart is also the Humanist Chaplain at the University of Cincinnati.
Bart and I discuss graceful ways of talking with people with whom we disagree, having conversations that are difficult that touch on religion, race and politics and changing one’s mind. I point out that Bart has been particularly public with some of these conversations, including a book and documentary with his dad, Tony Campolo, a podcast episode with his son, Roman, where they disagree on the hope or lack thereof for our species and a recent podcast episode on race. In short, Bart wears his heart on his sleeve and lives his life out loud with humility, honesty and grace.
We discuss humanism and the burden of being hopeful. Bart pushes back on my assertion that everyone needs awe, belonging and community. According to Bart different people need different amounts of each of those things. At the same time, Bart is facilitating a healthy secular community in Cincinnati providing just those things for the lucky few who attend. They put it this way:
Commitment to loving relationships
Making things better for other people
Cultivating gratitude and wonder in life
I normally have a few quotes from the episode, but as I was writing them down it became a transcript. Bart is eminently quotable. Listen to the show to find out. I will leave you with just one which you will need to listen to the show to understand:
Show your work!
Be sure to listen to the end for a funny story I tell that relates to Bart’s father, Tony Campolo, during my time at bible college.
NOTE: This transcript is AI produced (otter.ai) and likely has many mistakes. It is provided as rough guide to the audio conversation.
David Ames 0:11
This is the graceful atheist podcast. Welcome, welcome. Welcome to the graceful atheist podcast. My name is David, and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. As always, I'm going to ask if you enjoy the podcast, please rate and review. In the apple podcast store or wherever you listen to this podcast. It helps others find the show. On today's show, my guest today needs no introduction. But I'll attempt one anyway. Bart Campolo is the son of the famous evangelical preacher Tony Campolo. He is the podcast host of the humanize me podcast. He is an author of the why I left and why I stayed book, he is the subject along with His Father in John rights, leaving my father's faith documentary that's available on Amazon Prime. He is also the humanist chaplain at the University of Cincinnati. As you're going to hear, BART has had quite an influence on me personally, finding his voice post deconversion was really important. I've talked a lot about the debate culture that's out there, the pure rationality, the ivory tower perspective of many atheists, and how unsatisfying that is after about 15 minutes. So finding someone who was talking about a humanism that was boots on the ground, loving people, real blood, sweat, and tears, humanity was really important. And that does have a deep and profound impact on what you hear here on this podcast. It's also hard to overstate the impact of finding the son of Tony Campolo, to have D converted, I don't waste much time in my conversation with Bart bringing this subject up. But for those of you who maybe have been atheists all your life, Tony Campolo is huge in the evangelical community. And so finding Bart Campbell, oh, his son had D converted and was a humanist, was just like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Suffice to say, this is one of my favorite conversations that I have had so far. One of the great things about doing this podcast is I get to speak with people that I have a great deal of respect for, and Bart is certainly in that category. I'll stop fanboying out here. Now, I do want to point out that a couple of humanized me podcast episodes will inform this episode, they are almost assumed knowledge in our conversation, and so I'll just highlight them here. One is an episode a few months back where Bart Sun Roman really challenged Bart on a previous podcast episode that he had done in which he was a little less than hopeful about the continuation of the species of human beings. Roman really laid into him on this. And what's important about this is that BART allowed this to take place in public. As I've stated before, many times, the ethos of this podcast is about brutal self honesty. One of the subjects that BART and I discussed is having our minds changed, having our minds changed by other people. And the second episode that you should probably listen to is the June 15 episode on facing up to collective trauma in which he discusses Black Lives Matter and ways that BART himself needs to change his mind. And finally, a third episode, the July 1 episode with Leah Helbling, who by the way, is the podcast host of women beyond faith, which is excellent. But in that Leah and Bart discuss the Cincinnati humanist group, there are four ideals that that tried to live up to. And that is a commitment to loving relationships, making things better for other people, cultivating gratitude and wonder in their lives and world view humility, and that's the one that BART talks about in this episode, but never uses that term. And so it might be a little confusing. Whether you listen to those before you listen to this podcast episode, or afterwards, they will help to bring in the context of what we discussed. I often write down quotes from people during an episode and I found myself basically doing a transcript this episode. It is target rich for quote, mining, if that is your thing. BART has just some amazing turns of phrase here that I think are really important. I want you to pay attention. I want you to listen to this Episode more than once it is that good. I need to add one more thing. I also have learned that the day after BARTON I recorded this session, Bart's father, Tony Campolo had a stroke. I just want to wish him well. And the family well salutes to you all hope a speedy recovery for Tony Campolo. Please also stay to the end of the episode in my final thoughts area, I'm going to tell a funny story that I had in Bible college that relates to Tony Campo. Without further ado, I give you marched Campbell.
Hello, welcome to the graceful atheist podcast.
Bart Campolo 5:47
Well, thank you, David. It's nice to be here.
David Ames 5:49
I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. You bet. So for the one or two people in the universe who listen to this podcast who don't know who you are, you are the humanist chaplain at the University of Cincinnati. You are the podcast host of the humanize me podcast. You're an author of why I left and why I stayed and you were part of the documentary with your dad, leaving my father's face, which is on amazon prime these days. Is that correct?
Bart Campolo 6:17
All of those things are true. Yes.
David Ames 6:18
So one of the things that I've noticed, I've only been doing this for, you know, a couple of years, but you start to hear people say things back to you that you've said before. So the first thing I wanted to say to you is you're probably going to hear a lot of things that are your way of saying things. Because if anything, this podcast is an homage to your work.
Bart Campolo 6:37
Oh, what a nice thing to say. Thank you so much.
David Ames 6:40
I really, really appreciate it. So you had suggested a possible topic. And that kind of has not on me overnight. So let's start with that. And that is this idea of gracefully, talking to people with whom you have serious disagreements. And just recently, you've had a number of conversations that have been really interesting, of course, your book and the Amazon Prime story is with your dad, which must have been a very difficult conversation in the beginning. And then recently, you had a conversation with your son, where you had some disagreements. So talk to me a little bit on the on the podcast. Yeah, yeah, on the podcast. So talk to me a little bit about how you approach talking to people with whom you disagree?
Bart Campolo 7:26
Well, you know, this is a strange moment in our world, and in our country. Like, you can't, there's no way to overstate that. This is a weird, weird moment. And, and I think what's happening is, is that unexperienced that I've had a lot around spirituality, which is like, how do you talk to somebody who really sees the world differently in such a way that it's almost like they're, they're in a different universe than you are? Like, they have a different set of rules, and a different kind of worldview? I think like that's happening in this country to everybody politically, that it used to be that Democrats and Republicans were sort of different flavors of the same coffee, you know, and there was a sort of an understanding like, oh, yeah, like, we share the same goals. But we have different sort of intuitions about how to get there. But it's now so polarized that it's sort of like, if you don't see the world the way I do, I think you're bad. Yeah. And I'm afraid of you. And, and our media is such that we have not only different worldviews, but different facts, like, literally, we get our information from different sources, and it looks very different, you know, and now now around race. Yeah, there's this conversation that's happening about race. And what I'm finding is, is that in this kind of a setting, it is really hard to have a speculative conversation with somebody. And by that, I mean, where you go, like, Hey, I think it might be this way. And the other person was like, oh, no, I think you're really missing this point. But like, they sort of assume that you want to be corrected, and that you're a good person who, who maybe has a different has a wrong angle, rather than you racist, or you fascist or you know, you person that hates America, or, you know, there's a sense in which it's very hard to have a conversation right now, where you can float an idea without fear of being judged, you know, where you can go like, right now I'm seeing it this way. And then also where you can listen to the other person and go like, Oh, that makes sense. Okay, and change your mind. Right? And I feel like I got a head start on those conversations because When I left the Christian faith, you know, all the most significant people in my life, were still in it. And so I had to figure out a way to talk with those people. And it wasn't an option to go like, well, we just won't talk about Christianity, or we just won't talk about faith, yes, because like, that was the center of their lives. And that is the center of many of their lives. And my pursuit of goodness on the other side of faith is at the center of my life. Like it's not, for me pursuing loving kindness as a way of life. That's not like a peripheral issue. For me. It's the center of everything. Exactly. And so we're not going to talk about our spiritual lives, if you will, even though my spirituality is secular. If we're not going to talk about that, we're not going to be very close.
David Ames 10:47
Yeah, you would lack an intimacy with the people that you love, if you weren't talking about these things.
Bart Campolo 10:52
So in some ways, it's a little bit like that with like, I live in a black neighborhood. And if we're not going to talk about race, then we're not going to be very close. Yeah. And so we have to find a way to talk about this thing, even though it's really fraught, and it's really painful. And I need to be open to changing my mind. And I think that that's the thing, that if there's anything I've learned, over the last 10 years, since I left the faith, it's been about what are some of the rules of engagement for that kind of conversation?
David Ames 11:35
Yeah, very interesting. So just a topic or an idea that is a part of this podcast is what I call secular grace. And it's this idea that I observed while I was a Christian, that what we really needed was Grace with each other with human to human. And then through the deconversion process, I realized that well, actually, yes, that's really critically important. We need to be not only loved but accepted by one another without feeling judged. And it really does feel like that is something that we need for this moment in time. The thing that I find interesting about you and your work is that you tend to do this very publicly. So again, I mentioned the conversation you had with Roman, but also just recently, you did, but you're on your podcast about Black Lives Matter and the ways that you need to learn. And so it's approaching it with humility, from your own side to be willing to recognize that, yes, I'm probably wrong in some areas, and I need to learn. And at the same time, being loving or having a loving conversation in which everyone can participate.
Bart Campolo 12:45
You know, I think, I think one of the crucial moments for me, and this is back in my Christian days, but like, I was working with three or four friends on a big youth project, we were organizing, we got a huge grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, and we were trying to put together this program, and we had put it together and the guys, these guys that were buddies of mine, were working on this one part, I was working on another part of it. And at one point, they came to me and they said, Listen, you need to let us go, we need to take this money, what's left of it. And we've got the thing going and, and the thing that you're doing isn't like we need to separate. And I was furious. I felt like they were so ungrateful. I had gotten this grant, I had hired them all on, and now they wanted to kick me to the curb. And, and we went down, and we were in this huge argument about it. And, you know, what was funny was like, there was race involved in this one of them was black, one of them was Hispanic. And they were the strongest voices. And there was a sense in which they were saying, like, you know, this is a program for inner city, young people, like we know what we're doing you what you're doing is a whole different thing. And it's taking away from the project. And now, the short is we're in this huge knockdown drag out argument. And the good news for me is I hold all the cards. I'm the one in control of the money. And, like they're asking me for something or demanding something, but like, I can fire them all. I can do whatever I want. Yeah. But in the middle of the meeting, like as they're as they're arguing, I sort of almost yell back at them. So what you're saying is, and I repeat their arguments, I mean, you're saying this, because of this, because of this, and they and one of them goes, That's right.
David Ames 14:32
Bart Campolo 14:35
And all of a sudden, it hit me. They were right. Like, I put it together. Like, in my own words coming out of my mouth. I was like, Wait, that's true that oh, my gosh. And I sat there for a long second. I looked him I said, Oh, I get it. Oh, so you're saying this, right. And he goes, Yeah, that's what he said. And I said, Oh, that makes sense. And one of them looked at me and said, like, what are you trying to do here? What's the game? I was like, no, no, I get it now. You're right. And you let it go. And one of the guys in the room, I still remember this friend of mine named Chris Rock looked at me and he said, I've never seen this happen in my life. And I said, What? He said, I've never actually watched somebody changed their mind in real life, in real time. Yeah. But you just changed your mind.
David Ames 15:35
It is incredibly rare and publicly.
Bart Campolo 15:38
But what was weird about it was, is that all the flood of love that flowed into that room? Like those guys loved me in that moment. And if state like they would all they're all loyal to a fault to me now. Yeah. And there was such an exhilaration of going like, Oh, I was wrong. And like, changing my mind meant I took a step closer to being right, or to being good to being in the truth. And for the life of me, David, I don't understand why we don't teach kids when we beat them in an argument to go like, how does it feel to be truer than you were? Or like, when we win an argument, I don't know why we don't stop. And instead of going like, Haha, I beat you go like, Oh, my gosh, you did it. Yeah, you did it. Because changing my mind, or having my mind changed for me by the evidence or by somebody else's better argument, to me is like the ultimate expression of my human potential. Like every human advancement, every bit of progress, everything good that's happened in our species, has been the result of somebody going like, I was wrong.
David Ames 17:03
Bart Campolo 17:06
Like, oh, wait, so all the punches don't revolve around the earth? Or, oh, my gosh, you mean, all this differentiation of species like, complexity grows out of simplicity, not the other way around? You go like, this is a mate. It's all about changing your mind. Yeah. And so for me, what I found in that moment, and it found subsequent to that, is that the ultimate, like, in a sense, what strengthens us, what makes us feel powerful, is not when we have the ability to, to manipulate or to change other people to bend them to our well. But when we have the ability to change ourselves, yes. And so for me, I guess early on in the game, I sort of figured out like, Oh, this is real power. And this is real security. And this is also like, very selfishly, you want to get people to like you let them change your mind. Yeah. Like be open to them changing your mind. And what's interesting, too, is is and then they become more open to you change in their mind.
David Ames 18:21
Right, you've built some trust.
Bart Campolo 18:24
So for me, that's the key. I have this wonderful quote from Alan Alda, where he says, like, I have this radical idea that if I'm not open to letting you change my mind, I'm not really listening to you. Hmm. And I think so much of the conversation I see going on right now is one person's talking the other person not even listening. They're only listening to try to craft what they're going to say in response, but like, there's no openness to having their mind change. They're just, they're just looking for like, how do I return to this? Nobody's listening?
David Ames 18:54
Yeah. Ironically, we, as the converts have the experience of discovering that we were mistaken, discovering that we were wrong on something deeply fundamental. In some ways, we have a leg up to have that kind of humility when we go into a conversation.
Bart Campolo 19:15
Some of us do. I mean, one of the big questions when somebody loses their faith or deconstructs or however you want to describe the process, whether it's passive or active, and because in many ways, you know, my mind changed, I didn't change it. Right. You know, if I could have stopped the process halfway through, I probably would have it would have saved me a lot of time and trouble
David Ames 19:41
and money. Yeah. And so you know, and so
Bart Campolo 19:43
somebody's people are feel very betrayed by you when you leave the faith. And you know, I'm always at great pains to say like, Hey, like, I'm really sorry that this is hurting you but like, it wasn't my choice. This happened to me right now. I have to figure out how to make the most of it, but like, it's not that I won't Believe in God, or I refuse to believe in God. I can't I don't, you know, and I'm unable to. But the real question is, when that happens to you, some of us end up that ends up being a liberation into a new kind of in enthusiasm and a new kind of opportunity to live in, because we replace that worldview with another one that sort of inspires us to want to keep growing and to keep loving, and to keep building connections, like, we create a new religion in place of the old one. And for some people, it's just, it's just a loss. And so I think that having your mind changed, feels really different. If it gets changed from something into something else, and that something else is freer, and more vibrant, and fits better. And I think it's very different. When you have your worldview gets broken. And you, you just sit there with the broken pieces, trying to figure out how to get back what you've lost. Yeah. And so you know, that's why I'm very, very cautious about undermining somebody's Christianity, because there's no guarantee that if you undermine their faith in God, that they will then turn into a vibrant, enthusiastic humanist, there's a very real chance that they will just be broken.
David Ames 21:33
Yeah, and that is actually something that I say, on this podcast, often that I just have no desire to try to take away the faith, particularly from the people that I love, who I perceive aren't ready, they would be asking questions if they were ready. And so I have all the patience in the world, with the people that I love and their faith,
Bart Campolo 21:55
unless they're hurting people with it, or unless they're hurting themselves with it, you sometimes see that, like, there are people for whom I'm like, Listen, you know, that's, that's hurting you, baby. Yes, you know, people for whom that narrative always cast them in the loser light. And in the, in the failure light. And so there's another way of looking at the world. There's another way of of living. But yeah, when you see somebody who's sort of bearing fruit in that Christian world, and you'd like, Yeah, but it's, it's, it's insanity that none of it makes sense. There's no evidence for it. Okay. But be careful, because you take away their illusion, they may not be able to piece together a reality that works for them. Yeah. In this moment, I think the essence of the big thing is there are a bunch of us that have changed our minds for the better, or have experienced sort of like, the thrill of going like, Oh, I was wrong. And the sort of sense of power and the security that it gives you because you go like, Oh, what that means is like, maybe if I'm wrong about something else, like I'll figure that out, too. Or maybe, maybe there's a way in which this bad relationship that I'm in hate. Some of it might be my fault, or maybe that terrible conversation that we had. If it's all about them, I have no control. But like, if I have a part to play, maybe I can make it better. Yeah. And so once you have that experience, like there's almost like a giddiness that says, Please help me understand, like, what am I doing in this conversation that's making me so angry. And I think that that's for me, the key to the whole thing is, is that when I fight like it when you talk about like, there was this episode that I did with this guy, Michael Dowd. And it was about kind of what's going on in the world and sort of collapse Aryan thinking, and Michael Dowd, and I got going on that stuff, and I can get going on that stuff. And my son called me the next week, he's like, I hated that, that it was a horrible thing. And like, I ended up bringing him on the podcast, and he just rip me to shreds on this podcast. Yeah. And the thing is, is if you listen carefully to the podcast, what you'll see is, is that we're arguing about the thing. But we're also having a meta conversation about how we're talking to each other. And that's the thing is that like, even when he and I are really on the opposite side of the issues, say my dad, like, this is like a thing that we've learned is that you still need to have a conversation that says, Listen, when you use that really calm voice, it really bothers me, like, could you just or, you know, like, you're not letting me finish my sentences. And I need like, you gotta let me finish here. And so then we're not talking about the collapse of the world or about global warming, then we're talking about how are you talking to me? And how am I talking to you, right? And on that conversation. Roman and I are both committed to like, oh, we want to have a good conversation. And so like, if I'm messing up the conversation, tell me and that's the first place where you can give ground and get easy. If somebody says, I don't like the way you're too talking to me like, Oh, I'm sorry.
David Ames 25:02
Yeah, that's, that's easy to change. It's an
Bart Campolo 25:05
easy place to give ground. But that's also the place where you demonstrate you, my friend, are more important than winning this conversation, you may not be more important than the issue that we're talking about. But you're more important than this conversation about that issue, right? It's more important that we live to fight another day, as a team or as a family or as a friendship than me winning this no one battle is worth losing that war. Yeah. And you demonstrate that when you're willing to modify the way you talk.
David Ames 25:41
So I want to kind of synthesize what we've been discussing here. And I want to ask you directly as a humanist chaplain, and, you know, you have a famous dad, and you have this platform on your podcast, in a moment, like now in the middle of COVID-19, in the middle of race relations, the tragedy of George Floyd, the problems with police departments, all the things that we're experiencing in the United States, you mentioned all the politics and we can't talk to each other. Do you feel a responsibility to be hopeful to be a prophet of hope, a proclaimer, of hope.
Bart Campolo 26:25
It's funny, because I think that people, people often will say to my family, Bart's such a positive guy, you know, he's such a positive guy, and my family just laugh. And they just go like, Oh my gosh, like, this is the most relentlessly negative person ever, like, who explained you why this car won't work, why this new piece of furniture won't work? Why are vacations going to suck? Like, I struggle with negativity in real life? Yeah. And so I think for precisely that reason, perhaps I've become a student of hope. And I do feel a responsibility to be hopeful, but to be hopeful, in a way that like, I'm hopeful, but not optimistic, like optimistic, says, I think everything's gonna work out. And I don't, I don't think there's any reason to think everything will ever work out like anybody who comes telling me that like, in the end, if we, you know, if we use their system, or if we buy into their religion, like there will be eternal Nirvana at the end of it. I don't believe in eternal nirvana. I don't believe in Utopia. Yeah, I think the conflict is baked in. I don't even know if the species makes it out of here alive. The universe just keeps churning. And at some point, I think we get turned into my commitment to humanism is like, this is the species I'm part of this is my tribe. And as long as we're here, I want to make the best of this human experience. I love the human experience. I'm not saying it's eternal. I'm not saying it'll ever be perfect. I'm just saying like, I'm committed to it, right? So my hopefulness is not about utopianism. My hopefulness is this idea of like, things probably won't work out. But in the midst of them not working out. I think that what I do might make a difference for somebody. I think I have some agency here, I think I might be able to offer some comfort, I think I might be able to prolong our time a little bit. I think I might be able to make things brighter on the corner where I live. And so I think what happens is sometimes in the face of these large issues, people go like, listen, nothing I do, makes a difference. Like there's nothing I can do about it. These issues and these forces at work in our society are beyond my control. And like yeah, that's, that's true, but you still have agency, you still can make a difference. There's still something you can do that matter. Yeah. And so I do feel an obligation to tell that story. Right. And try to, in a sense, motivate people to make the most of this opportunity. Yeah, I mean, when you leave Christianity some people are like, Well, if there's no heaven and there's no heaven, we don't live forever, then what's the point of all this anyway? Like if if nothing lasts, why bother? And I go, like, you have this moment? Yeah. Like this. This matters. Like yeah, like this day matters. And I feel like that's, that's the same reality where you go like, well, if I can't really affect the whole system, if I can't change everything for the better than what's the point I got, like, ah, but because this day matters, this moment matters. This person matters. And they matter because you care about them. Yeah. So I do feel, I do feel dry. Part of it is I have to talk my self into acting hopefully every day. And so part of it is, you know, just like that preacher who's in the pulpit saying, pornography is the great evil and we must fight against sexual immorality. And you're like, Hey, I wonder what I wonder what's on his computer? Yeah. Because the ones that rail against it the loudest it's because like they're struggling with it. And so like, when you see somebody like doing like the super upbeat, warm, fuzzy hopeful, humanize me podcast, you go, like, I wonder if that guy has a heart of darkness? Of course he dies. Of course he dies. Yeah. Yeah. And he's preaching to himself. Yeah.
David Ames 30:38
Well, I think when you did the conversation with Roman, one of my comments was that you are at the top of your game, when you are talking about hope. And it may be barks, that because we lack that we lack that kind of leadership in the world, there are very few voices who are proclaiming hope. And so I think maybe that was what Roman was reacting to, is when you are not hopeless, but less hopeful, that that is kind of diminishing, somehow the work that you do.
Bart Campolo 31:11
Yeah, he's sort of like, we count on you. We Hey, buddy, we're counting on you. This is what yeah, we need you in the family. Like, this is what like, we need you like be you gotta be your best self for us. Yes, yeah. And I think that that is as good a reason as any, I think for a lot of people that are struggling in this COVID thing, and struggling in this racial moment, is that part of the problem of being caught off from each other is that it's the other people that tend to motivate us to do our best. Yes. And so when we get isolated, a lot of times we lose momentum, because you know, all this idea of self interest to the contrary, human beings are a tribal species, and we're motivated by one another, and by our concern for one another. And, you know, that's sort of our evolutionary trick, that that's how you get people to, like, give it up for the tribe, and, you know, to make great sacrifices is, is you build into them a sense of like, that my destiny is wrapped up with yours. And that, you know, in a sense, like, I'm more concerned about my DNA going forward than I am about my body. What do you think, which is a very sciency way of saying it, but like, what it says is like, you know, I'm part of something bigger than myself. Yes. And when you leave religion, people call it Oh, I missed that. I missed that sense of being part of the Kingdom of God being part of a larger destiny. And it's critical, like, you know, there's this other story about, you know, about life sort of emerging out of nothing, like out of the elements, and organizing itself into a place of consciousness and meaning. And then discovering a pathway that says that, like, love is the ultimate survival skill, like you actually are part of something much bigger than yourself. Yeah. And actually, if you check your impulses, to breathe, and to have sex and to eat, and to find shelter, like they are all wrapped up in, and not just surviving, but propagating this way of life, right. And this form of life, and so yeah, you know, what, you cut people off from each other, and you cut them off from literally the thing that makes life worth living.
David Ames 33:36
So we've been dancing around it just a little bit. I find after deconversion you know, the first thing that you see online is a lot of what I call debate culture, very, Christians are wrong, and atheists are right and, and it took me a while to find the humanist voices like yourself. Tell me, what does humanism mean for you? Why do you use that label at all? And just define it for me?
Bart Campolo 34:04
I'll yeah, that's, that's a good question. Because like, I'm not, you know, for somebody who's like a fairly well known humanist like, I'm not really that comfortable with the term. Okay. Winston Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, right? And I tend to think like humanism is the worst thing to call myself, except for all the others. Like, I don't call myself an atheist, even though I am one. Because atheist means without God, and I live my life without any kind of connection or consciousness or, you know, belief in God. But when you see the word atheist in our culture, a lot of times people interpret that as against God or against people who believe in God, right? And so like, I don't want to be associated with that. I'm not one of those angry people that wants to tear it all down. And I have a lot of respect for what believing in God did for our species. It was a stage along the way. Yeah, it was the best story we had at the time. And a lot of the good stuff that we have now, in fact, the ability to conceptualize a world without God, that stuff got hammered out by people who are educated in the universities built by the wave and God. You know, so I'm a great respecter of what brought me here. So anyway, I don't want to be called an atheist agnostic. I know what it means is like, doesn't know or sort of, again, technically, I am agnostic, like, I can't prove that there is no God, or that, that I can't even prove that this universe isn't a simulation in somebody else's computer model, right? We're not all in the matrix. I can't prove that definitively. Yeah. So I am agnostic. But again, like it makes it sound like I'm not sure. And I'm really sure about what I value. And I'm really sure about the way I'm living my life. And like, I'm not like paralyzed by uncertainty. So I don't use that word, right? free thinker. Like, I understand, like, that's a lovely term. And like, I aspire to be a free thinker. But like, come on, you don't have to, you don't have to study cognitive biases very long. Yes. Or anthropology very long to know, like, even the fact that I don't believe in God, I can't take really credit for it. Right. Like I was raised in such a way that I am able not to believe in God, if I had been raised in a different place. If I had a different brain, if I had a different cultural mindset. I wouldn't like, I can't even take credit for the way I think. So yeah, no, I'm not going to call myself a free thinker. I wish it was. And skeptic, again, makes it sound like I'm walking around the world looking for things to take issue with or trouble with. And again, like, technically, skepticism is kind of like a scientific word. And it's a good thing to be sure. But in the end, what I want to communicate to people is like, yeah, I don't believe in God, but I'm really committed to life. And in particular, I'm really committed to human life and to try to make as much meaning as I can, in the context of this human life by loving other people. And so like, humanist is kind of the it least connotes the idea. Like, it's not what I don't believe in that defines me. It's what I am committed to. Right. And if somebody says, so you're committed to humanity, I got like, yeah, yeah. Yeah, that would be my ultimate commitment. Right? Yeah. So you know, calling myself a humanist, like I said, is better than all the others. But like, if you asked me to define humanism, I would go like, Oh, man, it's like Christianity. Like, there's 1000. You know, there's as many different forms of Christianity as there are Christians, Bret, to me, when I realized that I had to figure out how to get on without God, you know, I sort of like, well, I don't, I started to sort of go like, I want to make the most of this life, it still feels really like a privilege to have it. And I did some research and I looked around, and I read a bunch of books by people and kind of came to the conclusion like, you know, loving relationships is the thing. Like the people that live their lives, the longest and sort of die. The happiest are people that have a handful of loving relationships, and that spend their lives doing things to make things better for other people and have a sense of gratitude and, and cultivate that and that like, like, the more grateful I am, the happier I am. And so like, I came to the place where I was like, that's what I want to pursue. So if somebody says to me, what's your humanism, because I'll let you know, a humanist is somebody who like is really committed to loving relationships and making things better for other people, and cultivating gratitude and wonder in their life. And who's smart enough to recognize that like, just because that works for them, doesn't mean it would work for everybody. Right? Exactly. And so that's my definition of humanism. Like, like my little fellowship here in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati caravan, those four values, like, we ran them up the flag and a bunch of people secular people were like, that sounds ridiculous. That sounds like Old Time Religion, like, you know, and then a bunch of other people were like, Oh, my gosh, that's what I've been looking for. Like I miss, I missed that sense of focus. So it's like, we're going to be a community that helps each other pursue loving kindness as a way of life. And they were like, count me in. Yeah, like, Okay, so for us, that's our humanism, right? But like for somebody else, it means something very, very different.
David Ames 39:23
So yeah, man, you've touched on several things there. What I talk about a lot is that just because we no longer have a particular set of metaphysics does not mean that we don't need each other that we don't need community that we don't need to have a sense of belonging that we don't need to experience all we need all those things. Those are hardwired human needs.
Bart Campolo 39:43
But you know, David, different people need different amounts of them. That's interesting. Yeah. See, when I came out of Christianity, the Christianity went first. But the fundamentalism stayed with me a lot longer. And I went from thinking that Jesus was the one true Path to going like, I got to figure out what the one true path is. And like I was, you know, I became convinced it was this like commitment to like community, and that human beings were tribal species and stuff like that. And then I started meeting like, autistic people, you know, yeah, or people that had, you know, had been traumatized by certain kinds of relationships. And they were like, Yeah, I don't want to, like, I don't want to venture into that. And these people, were still finding ways to be connected to something, some of them to music, some of them were connected to other humans in an indirect way, like, they would stay alone in their room coding, and create things that would be helpful to other people, but they didn't want to talk to those people.
David Ames 40:43
Right? I can relate.
Bart Campolo 40:46
And so all of a sudden, like, not all of a sudden, but slowly, it dawned on me, you're still a fundamentalist part, you still want to come up with a way of life that works for you, and then suggest that that's what all human beings need. You know, at this stage in the game, that's part of my, I guess, you would call it worldview humility, where I go, like, think of about a bell curve, you know, where like, most people are in or close to the center of it, I'm gonna go like, I think for the vast majority of human beings, this business of like, a handful of loving relationships, and a sense of doing something that makes things better for other people and is meaningful, and a sense of gratitude. I think that will work for a lot of people that, but I'm not here to impose it on anybody, because I know that there are people for whom that wouldn't be the right. Cocktail, that wouldn't be the right formula, right. And so, I think there are a lot of different ways to make meaning. This is the one that sort of works for me. And so when I meet people that are struggling, and they're sad, I tend to say to them, Hey, this is the thing my friends and I are doing, and it's working for us, like, maybe this would work for you. But when I see somebody who's happily moving through life, in a different way, I am not prone to go like, Listen, you really need to, you know, like, I'm telling you, you, you're fooling yourself, you're not really happy behind that computer screen, you really won't be happy until you're more like me,
David Ames 42:11
right? Okay, so I'm taking that all in. And I totally agree with you. In fact, one of the things that I talked about whenever I talked about humanism is the beauty of it is that you can choose not to do that. Unlike more enforced religious doctrines, humanism allows for the great diversity within humanity. Yeah, because
Bart Campolo 42:34
you're because somebody's doing it a different way, isn't an implicit challenge to mind. Like in Christianity, if somebody's thriving outside of Christianity, that's a problem, because my religion teaches that you can't thrive outside of Christianity. So I have to find a way of explaining like this, my dad used to do with me when I first left the faith. He's he just kept trying to like, poke holes in my humanism, and sort of go, this can't be working for you. Because if this works for you, it implicitly challenges my sense that without Jesus life is meaningless, right? And at one point, I finally Dad, it's like you want my humanism to fail? And the thing is, like, do you think if you convince me that without believing in God, I'm bound to be suicidal and miserable? Do you think that will make me believe in God again? Wow. And he said, he said, No, I said, Yeah, I can't believe in God that makes it. Like, it doesn't make sense to me. So I said, If you convince me that I can't find meaning without God, all you will do is convinced me that I am a hopeless wreck of despair. And that kind of backed him off a little bit, is what it says, like, you need to hope that there's meaning outside of Christianity, or else your son is doomed. Right. And I think as a humanist, I need to do the same thing. I need to hope that there are multiple ways because there are a lot of people for whom this way of thinking like there are a lot of people who are hardwired to believe in a supernatural force. Yes. And they're not able not to. And so we better hope that there's a way for those people to thrive. And there's a way for those people to feel a sense of joy in their lives. Yeah. Because otherwise, we have nothing to offer them. And so I like the thing is like, it's not threatening to me when somebody thrives by another path, right? It doesn't bother me, you know, my evangelism. I'm not looking to talk anybody out of anything that's working for him. I'm looking for people who their shit is not working. The stuff is just not working. And those are the people that I'm like, Look, you've tried all these other things. Have you tried this thing? Because here's a way of living. Here's a way of looking at the universe that might work. for you.
David Ames 45:01
I want to tee up kind of a last idea teed up, David. You hit on this and that what you just were talking about, we often hear from particularly apologists, right? I often make the distinction between the regular believer in the pew and the apologist, but they're often trying to invalidate humanism or anything outside of Christianity. Of course, we come along as humanists, and we say, you know, there may not be inherent meaning in the universe, but we as human beings are meaning makers. And we find somehow, you and I, and many others have found a way for that to be really deeply, profoundly useful, purposeful, meaning making. How is it that that you make meaning how do you teach others to make meaning?
Bart Campolo 45:55
Oh, that's, that's your that's your question. Yeah, question. Oh, thanks.
David Ames 46:01
Yeah, just an easy one for the on the way out. Yeah.
Bart Campolo 46:05
It's funny when you mentioned apologist, I just got a note from somebody that there's evidently this apologist out there. I guess she's fairly well known. Her name is Alyssa Childers. He sent me this interview that she was doing in which she talks about me. And, and I thought she was gonna say crappy things about me. And he said, No, no, what she says is, she says, she doesn't understand progressive Christianity, because she's like, if you don't believe in the resurrection, and you don't believe that, you know, God made the world in seven days. And if you don't believe in the virgin birth, she said, I like BarCamp Hola, because like, he admits it, like if you don't believe in it, in a sense, you probably should stop calling yourself a Christian. Right? But but then I listened to a little bit more of what you said, and I and I'm apologist, they just freaked me out. Because what she basically said is like, the great thing about apologetics is, is that it convinces you that God is real, even if there's no evidence, even if you don't feel anything, even if God never answers a prayer, like but you still know it's real. And I just thought, gosh, you know, lady, you and I are wired differently. That is not a selling point for me. Yeah. So but the thing is, is that we see people make meaning in different ways. And I think that the thing that troubles me the most, is not when somebody is making it in a way that doesn't make sense to me. But when somebody seems to have no appetite for meaning, when somebody is seems unmotivated, when they are listless when they're when they're willing to just exist, rather than to live. My one of my favorite send off lines is Maurice Sendak, in his last interview with Terry Gross before he died, he just told her how much he loved being alive and how much he had had a great time and how much he loved knowing her. And he said, Terry, I'm never going to talk to you again. So let me just say it to you. Live your life. Live your life, live your life. And, you know, it broke her down and broke me. Yeah, you know, because there's a sense in which there's a purposefulness to that there's a sense in which don't let your life just happen live it. You know, and so, the question, I think that's always, even before I became a humanist, even when I was in Christianity working in the inner city was, how do you give somebody an appetite for life? That doesn't have one? And I wish I could say I knew the answer. What I do know is this is that when I was a kid in math, they would they would do these tests, and they would give you the question. And then they would say, you know, like, what's the, what's the square root of this? You know, or what's the quadratic formula? And then they would always be like, show your work? Right? Like, it wasn't enough to put down the answer. You had to show how you got there. Yeah. And I think that I see a lot of people like you, like me, who seem to be living their lives. And the question is, are you willing to show your work? Are you willing to, to articulate the process? You know, are you willing to talk about how you find the books that you read? Not just the books you read, but like how you found it? Right? And are you willing to talk about like, the hard conversation you had with your mom? Are you willing to share about your battle with depression? And are you willing to talk about not just what you love, but why you love it? Like it takes a lot of effort to explain to a child, why we're going to go on the trip that mom planned for us this on Saturday, even though none of us really want to go home because Mom, mom put a lot of effort into planning it, and we're not going to let her down. We're going to go and we're going to make it a good time. And it takes a lot of effort. To explain to kid like, why you sometimes do something you don't want to do, because you care about the person who planned it. Right? It's easier just to say to the kid, I'm Dad, you're the kid, get in the car we're going. And sometimes that's appropriate. But then you got to circle back and say, Hey, can I tell you how that worked? Can I tell you why I did that? Sometimes why I did the wrong thing. But sometimes why I did the right thing and why it matters. In my experience, people develop an appetite for something like coffee, not just when they taste it, but when somebody explains to them why they love it, and what to look for. And, you know, or fly fishing, or bicycle racing, or whatever it is, it's somebody has to not only sort of go like, Look, isn't this cool, but they have to say to you, this is what I love about it, this, look at the nuance here, like, you're not going to notice this, but there's actually a difference between that tire and this tire. And that's why we pick that tire for this kind of race. And they may not end up loving bike racing. But that's how you teach people what it is. To be passionate about something, to be interested in something to develop a taste for something. And frankly, I don't care what you develop a passion or a taste for nearly as much as I as I want you to have one. And so I think if I was a young parent, again, I'm a grandparent, so I'm getting to do it a little bit over. If I'm a friend of somebody who's discouraged, you're depressed, I think there's a tendency to want to talk at that person and tell them what they need to do. And I think you're probably better off showing your work, showing the work of being alive. And talking about it openly, and becoming articulate about why you do the things you do and why they mean something to you. And to that end, I'm gonna give you a book recommendation. Oh, it's gonna freak you out. Okay, okay. And it's the best book I've read in the last week. But it's a classic. I just finished reading Albert Camus, the plague, okay, it is a particularly apt book during the COVID-19 thing, although the plague he's talking about is the bluebonnet plague. And these people are locked down in a village and they can't get out. And people are dying, left and right. And the doctor at the center of it, is the true humanist, who makes meaning out of thin air, and figures out what really matters. And in the book, and I won't give you the trick ending, okay, because it's worth getting to, what I will tell you is, is it in the book, there's a sense in which the great skill of the writer is, is that the doctor shows his work. He shows what it takes to care at a time when it would be so easy to despair. And I think I think it's a beautiful example of what I'm talking about. I think one of the most humanizing things we can do for other people, is to show our work.
David Ames 53:09
I think that is a great place to stop, I'm going to keep that BART show your work, I'm going to for sure. Be telling other people about that as well. Bart, let people know how they can get in touch with you.
Bart Campolo 53:21
Listen, there's only one thing I do that has any significance outside of my little community here in Cincinnati, and that's my podcast, humanize me. And it's a place where I, I bring on other people and talk. And I'm always like, trying to find out from other people what they have to teach me about making the most of this life. And I'm glad that you listen to it, David, I'm glad you like it. I'm always glad when people like it. And for a lot of people they get on they go that guy's way too earnest, I can't stand them, I have to turn them off. That boy reminds me of a youth pastor. And it triggers me. But for those of you that can stomach it, that's probably the thing I do that has the most oath. And I send out a little email every week when I send out the podcast. That's my little sort of our daily bread devotional. And from what I can tell from the feedback that I get, there's a subset of human beings for whom that stuff is helpful. Yeah, and if you go to humanize me.com, like there's a place where it says contact Bart, the emails all come to me and I answer them slowly, but I do. So yeah, I'm grateful to you for for letting me into your circle and letting me meet your people. And if any of them are interested, I'm easy to find, as you know, but it is really good to talk with you. Thanks so much. That has
David Ames 54:37
been that's been a great conversation Bart, I really appreciate you giving me your time. Thank you so much. All right.
Final thoughts on the episode. As I said in the intro, if I began quoting Bart here, I would just restate the entire thing. Listen to the episode. Start again. It's fantastic. I'll just really harp on show you work. That is something that I literally have written up on my whiteboard to remind me it is a simple idea that has been haunting me for the past week or so after we recorded this episode. And it will affect the way that I parent my kids from now on. That's all I can say about that. The one thing I think that is interesting from our conversation that I'll point out here is Bart pushing back on me about what I call the ABCs of secular spirituality, all belonging and community, he pointed out that not everybody needs these things or not everybody needs them in the same degree or amounts. And that's important for me to hear that like I do think that that is a an important human need. But it doesn't mean that everyone needs it in the same way that I do. I'm assuming that if you're listening to this podcast that you think those things are important to some degree or another. But there are many secular people, many atheists out there who it sounds too much like religion, that sounds too much like their former church experience. And it could even be triggering or it could be drama inducing. So I just want to acknowledge that and I think that that's very true. While I will continue to talk about the secular ABCs of spirituality, I will do so with greater humility, the the worldview humility that BART talks about. I want to thank Bart for the amazing humility, integrity, honesty, Grace, with which he handles himself in public, as well as on this episode. I want to thank him for doing the work that he does for being hopeful in his home of hopelessness, and for admitting when he makes mistakes. And being willing to change his mind. I think all of that is an incredible example. And that is BarCamp. Polo showing his work. Thank you Bart. Again, I want to say I hope a speedy recovery for Tony Campolo after the stroke that he had on June 20. I hope that the Campillo family that all of you are well barked. I didn't bring this topic up because we had a short amount of time for our recording session. But I did want to tell this crazy story. I was in Bible college and very conservative Bible College in the 90s. And my roommate was a huge, huge fan of Tony Campillo. At the time, Tony was very famous for a provocative statement that he made in a speech, and I'll quote it here, quote, I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or disease related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you are more upset with the fact that I just said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night. As you might imagine, that had quite an impact on people. So in Bible college, I have a roommate, who was enamored with this statement who decided in chapel to quote, Tony, verbatim, as you can imagine, this did not go well. I just wanted to share that with you. It's a memory that is emblazoned in my mind. Thank you Tony for saying that. As always, my name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist join me and be graceful human beings. Time for some footnotes. The song has a track called waves by mkhaya beats, please check out her music links will be in the show notes. If you'd like to help support the podcast, here are the ways you can go about that. First help promote it. Podcast audience grows by word of mouth. If you found it useful or just entertaining, please pass it on to your friends and family. post about it on social media so that others can find it. Please rate review the podcast wherever you get your podcasts. This will help raise the visibility of our show. Join me on the podcast. Tell your story. Have you gone through a faith transition? You want to tell that to the world? Let me know and let's have you on? Do you know someone who needs to tell their story? Let them know. Do you have criticisms about atheism or humanism, but you're willing to have an honesty contest with me? Come on the show. If you have a book or a blog that you want to promote, I'd like to hear from you. Also, you can contribute technical support. If you are good at graphic design, sound engineering or marketing? Please let me know and I'll let you know how you can participate. And finally financial support. There will be a link on the show notes to allow contributions which would help defray the cost of producing the show If you want to get in touch with me you can google graceful atheist where you can send email to graceful email@example.com You can tweet at me at graceful atheist. Or you can just check out my website at graceful atheists.wordpress.com Get in touch and let me know if you appreciate the podcast. Well, this has been the graceful atheist podcast. My name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheists. Grab somebody you love and tell them how much they mean to you.
This has been the graceful atheist podcast
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
My guest this week is Bryce Harrington. Bryce and I have been colleagues off and on at a couple of different companies over the years. But most importantly he and I had a seminal discussion back in 2012 while killing time in an airport. At the time I was a dedicated Evangelical Christian and Bryce has been a life long atheist. Even though I had an ulterior motive at the time Bryce was kind, gracious and genuinely curious as he wanted to understand how and why I believed. As you will hear, ironically, my former believing self changed Bryce’s view of religious people.
And so I went through a lot of my childhood with this kind of weird relationship with religion. It was like, I just didn’t get it, it didn’t make any sense to me. And everyone around me seemed to be just totally bought into it. And I just didn’t understand why.
Fast forward to today, I told Bryce I had deconverted last year. He was shocked and amazed and wanted to understand how I had changed my mind and why I was doing the podcast. This turned out to be a really fun and interesting conversation that I am glad to be able to share with you. We did not pre-plan the questions. What you hear is Bryce’s genuine curiosity. He may have a career in podcast interviews.
I felt very alone. Everyone else in my family that I knew was religious but I couldn’t share with them at all about these questions that I had or these feelings.
We also get to hear Bryce’s story. The isolation and loneliness he felt growing up the only non-believer in his community. That sense of isolation lasted for much of Bryce’s life. I think many of you who are life long atheists or who have just recently deconverted will be able to relate.
You certainly should not be rude to other people but you should also not pretend to be somebody that you are not just for someone else’s sake. And I have found myself in that role from time to time and it is very uncomfortable.
For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.
Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan from Contact
Sasha and the book she has written embodies Secular Grace and carries on the graceful life philosophies of her parents. Sasha has a galaxy spanning perspective on life that only the child of physicist can have. Sasha has an infectious joy about life. Listening to her or reading her work it is hard not to share in this joy.
In her book, Sasha argues that we as human beings need ritual in our lives to mark the passage of time, to celebrate the momentous moments in our lives and to mourn the loss of loved ones.
[Ritual] is really important to us. Sometimes, when people are not religious or were religious, there’s an urge to throw the baby [ritual] out with the bath water. We still need these [rituals] even if we do them in a secular way.
We discuss secular grief in the face of the loss of her father, Carl Sagan, when she was 14 years old. Sasha shares the wise parting words he had for her and the ongoing impact he has had on her and the world.
Seeing life itself as worthy of celebration, For Small Creatures Such as We is part memoir, part guidebook, and part social history, a luminous exploration of all Earth’s marvels that require no faith in order to be believed.
NOTE: This transcript is AI produced (otter.ai) and likely has many mistakes. It is provided as rough guide to the audio conversation.
David Ames 0:11
This is the graceful atheist podcast. Welcome, welcome to the graceful atheist podcast. My name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. Well, as usual, I'm going to ask you to go to the Apple podcast store and rate and review the podcast. This really helps other people discover the podcast. If you found value or entertainment in the podcast, please tell somebody about the graceful atheist podcast. On today's show, I spent a fair amount of time talking about deconversion and interviewing people who have gone through the transition of a loss of faith. But actually, my favorite topic is what I call secular grace, or putting humanity into humanism is the answer to what now post deconversion. After you've left your faith, what do you do? That's actually the impetus that drives me to continue to do the podcast. So it is a treat for me when I get to interview somebody who is also a humanist who is concerned with putting humanity into humanism, and that is my guest today. Sasha Sagan. Saucer is a writer, a television producer, a filmmaker and an editor. She is an essayist, she has now written a book called for small creatures, such as we, which is actually a quote from her very famous parents, Andrew Yan and Carl Sagan, in the book contact. The full quote, that the title comes from is for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love, which may be the most secular Grace quote I've ever heard. Sasha has book incorporates her parents graceful life philosophies. And she focuses on the rituals that we as human beings come back to over and over again, for those of you who may have D converted or deconstructed, the idea of a ritual might be terrifying, actually. And that's okay. But Sasha points out that cultures throughout history and all over the globe tend to come up with rituals around the same time periods. for the same purposes. The obvious examples are births, weddings, and funerals. And so this is not necessarily something to be frightened of. saucers book is beautiful, and beautifully written. And I recommend it to everyone. There'll be links in the show notes. And now I give you my conversation with Sasha saying
Sasha Sagan, welcome to the graceful atheist podcast.
Sasha Sagan 3:02
Thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here.
David Ames 3:05
Well, thank you for coming. So Sasha, you are a writer, you've done television production, you're a filmmaker, you're an editor, you've been in major newspapers, you're an essayist. And now you've written a book called for small creatures, such as we rituals for finding meaning in our unlikely world. It also turns out that you have very famous parents. So can you tell us a little bit about yourself about your work and about your book?
Sasha Sagan 3:31
Yeah, um, I was very lucky to grow up in a household where wonder and awe for the universe, as revealed by science was part of our daily life and dinner table conversation. And part of the way I was raised to see things. So I'm sort of goes hand in hand with that, but maybe not necessarily, is also a secular household. And so what I became really interested in over the course of my life, I lost my dad when I was 14. And then as I grew up, and got married and got ready to start a family of my own, I started thinking about, well, how do we celebrate and mourn and do the daily or weekly rituals that make up life in a way that is a reflection of our modern understanding of where we are in the universe, and how we got here, when the infrastructure for that kind of thing historically has been religion. And, you know, I think that those of us who don't believe are still entitled to mark time and have weddings, and have funerals and we still need those things. So combination of the way I was raised, and then what I experienced and just being generally kind of an outgoing social person who likes parties and celebrations led me to just talk Fact. And I've found that, you know, it's something really relevant to a lot of people, especially when you get to those points in life where you have to really examine these questions, whether it's when you plan a wedding, or you have a little kid who has a lot of questions about why things are the way they are, or when you lose someone, and you have to sort of really examine what that means. If if you don't believe that there's anything beyond what we have evidence to support.
David Ames 5:29
Exactly. So my podcast, just very briefly, is on the subject of what I call secular grace. And really, that is simply just putting the humanity into humanism. I love that, and focusing on the fact that we still need each other even though we don't have a faith. But yes, it is, in fact, the human interaction our relationships with each other, that is the meaningful thing in life. So. So I have to tell you the just a brief story of the kind of emotional arc that I went through, yes, please, as I discovered you and your work. So I'm on the lookout for authors, writers, bloggers, podcasters, that are on the subject of humanism. And so when you began promoting your book, I just saw that the title, I didn't make the connection. And I thought, Oh, that looks really great. I'm definitely going to get that book and read it. And, you know, a little time passed, and I started following you on Twitter. And then I realized, Oh, you are that Sagan. I did not realize that you were Carl Sagan daughter and and Julian's daughter. And then I read the book. And I've got to tell you, Sasha, I just was really profoundly moved. Oh, thank you. By the time I was, I have the book in hand, I knew that we would eventually have this conversation. And part of what I wanted to do was to say, really focus on you and your work, and not exploit the fact that you're famous parents, but your dad is just in virtually every page. It's in Yeah. And the grief that is present there is just both poignant and beautiful. And so the first thing I just wanted to say to you, I know you speak Spanish is, is Lucia, anto I feel it, I feel it, I like it, just every page, it left it left off the page for me. So your your ability to convey the emotion and depth was just really profound. And I just thank you for writing this book.
Sasha Sagan 7:32
Thank you so much. That's really kind. And you know, it's funny, because it's like, there's, of course, some part of me that's like, oh, I want to do my own thing or whatever. But like, because of the way my parents raised me and their work, and lots of my job like that, those are the major cornerstones of my identity, you know, yeah. And so I've gotten to a place where I'm like, This is me carrying on what I can have their legacy and their work, right. My mother's work continues. And she's an amazing science communicator, also and writer and producer. But I think that's who I am. And I think if I can sort of extend some of those things that they taught me that really were impactful, and maybe in my own way, continue that on, I'm comfortable with that. You know, it's I don't mind that at all. And I'm very proud to be their daughter, and very lucky.
David Ames 8:31
Well, I do want to talk about secular grief a bit as we move forward. But first, let's just start with the title of the book actually comes from the book contact. And it turns out that your your mom wrote that line. So tell us about the meaning behind that. Yes.
Sasha Sagan 8:45
So my parents started out with the idea of the story as a movie. And they worked on screenplays and you know, movies, there's a lot of moving parts, and it takes a lot to get a movie made. And this one took 18 years. And during the time, when they were trying to develop that and trying to get it made, they wrote it as a novel. And I parents collaborated on everything. And the line that the title of my book comes from is for small creatures, such as we the vastness is bearable, only through love. And I think that there's something about that that really sums up what you were just talking about as well. And it's sort of the antidote to the existential crisis. You know, that feeling of like, we're tiny, the Universe is big, we're gonna die. We're here for a second matter, like, you know, all this stuff that you're really concerned you off the deep end quickly. Yeah. And it's like, well, how do you get through to the other side? You know, the existential crisis that's real and sometimes you have to just freak out. But when you get through that part I think that it's like, well, then what do we have? When it's one another, and we're here right now. And this is the moment where we're here. And it's not forever, but at least, we have this moment, and we're in it together. And the farther out we see ourselves in the universe, it's tiny our planet is, the larger the cosmos is, it's makes it all the more precious that we have one another. Otherwise, it would be really, really hard. And so I think I think that there's something to that where you can find some of the comfort that doesn't always get associated with the really scientific worldview. And that perspective?
David Ames 10:42
Well, I like what you just said that the existential crisis is real, I sometimes feel like I, you know, I hit the genetic lottery, and I have a predisposition to see the wonder, in life, even from a purely naturalistic scientific point of view, it's still totally awe inspiring to me. And I don't work at that. It just happens. And I just wonder how can we bottle this up? What your parents represented what you are carrying on, you know, how can we bottle this up and give it out to other people?
Sasha Sagan 11:12
It's such a good question. I mean, I think the first step, if we were really doing it on like a grand scale would be to just like, pay public school teachers a lot of money and get people who are really enthusiastic about not just I mean, science, but math and history and all these things. I have the utmost love and respect for public school teachers, but it's really hard job. And it's a really hard job to do for very little money. And I can't imagine not getting jaded at some point. But if you have a couple of great teachers in your life, who are like, This is amazing. Look at this thing. And, you know, we stop sort of maligning facts as like cold and hard. And we have this a way of teaching children that there's beauty in what is real, and like, my daughter is like, almost two and a half. And like when she sees the moon, she freaks out. All excited. It's like, Mardi Gras. And like, we talked about it, and it's orbiting us, and we were at the sun. And it's so amazing. And we like make a really big deal about it when we see the moon. Yeah. I mean, it's easy to be like really blase. Yeah, Simone, congratulations. It's like, that's sort of really natural in a way. But there's something about once you learn something, and once it becomes really matter of fact, it's like you lose some of the stunning astonishment that you felt when you first discovered it as a child. And I think if we can preserve that, I mean, the example that I always want to give, and the thing that I still cannot get over is like, if we told children like, there is a secret code in your blood that connects you to your ancestors, to your relatives, and to everyone on Earth, and everyone who ever lived, and the earliest humans and the first one celled organisms, and like it's in there, and whether you believe in it or not, it, you can send a little bit of your blood or saliva off somewhere, and it will tell you who you are like, that's like out of a fairy tale. And by the time you're like, in middle school, and you have like a worksheet about alleles, and chromosomes, it's like, none of that. Astonishment is there, right. So I think it's really a matter of presentation. And if we could get some of the skill sets and enthusiasm that you so often find in religious settings, you know, as like a really like, a preacher who is just like, totally giving their all to what they're saying. And we could have some more of that in, in the sciences, among other areas of learning. I think we could make a dent.
David Ames 13:59
Yeah. I'm trying to resist the desire to just quote you back your book. But I loved that quote you just described about, you know, if we taught science and math in the same way that a good preacher does, yeah. The other quote is that somewhere along the line, and I'm probably not recording it well, but that as we get scientific and naturalistic explanations that we've lost the wonder we've lost that. Yeah. And so I think people like yourself, can bring that to the subject, and it's such a vital role.
Sasha Sagan 14:33
Thank you. I think you I think we have it in there. But it's like, I don't know the feeling of like a thunderstorm or something like that. It's like we innately being sometimes it's our experience of nature is fear, especially like a natural disaster. Oh, yeah. But that feeling of, Wow, this is enormous and majestic. And I think even when you understand it deeply, and I think you do this especially with weather like on the news like the meteorologists like when there's a hurricane like they are, they have a reverence and awe, and they understand it from a totally scientific point of view, right? Right think there are moments where we have this, we just sort of have to extend it a little bit, pull it out a little bit, dry it out a little bit in in society.
David Ames 15:26
So one of the things that I think I have struggled with quick history I was a was a person of faith for many, many years. And that faith dissipated on me. And here I am today doing this. But one of the things I thought was interesting about your book is you don't shy away from words like spiritual or magic. And I find myself always using scare quotes, when I use those words. How can we recapture those words or redefine them?
Sasha Sagan 15:57
It's such a good question. I'm like, Adam, logically they do come for me, even magical comes from the Magi. Right? These are like religious words, sacred holy, but I can't help but not use them, because they also illustrate how I feel about Nietzsche. And I think, you know, those words, developed in a language that was majority believers, you know, majority Christians. And so they have that history in that connotation. But words evolve and mutate also. And I think that as our understandings change, I think that those words can change, too. And I, you know, I use quotes too. And like, I've definitely gotten questions in the last few months, as I've been doing press for this book about like, well, how can you describe yourself as spiritual? I wouldn't use that word. But, you know, do you consider yourself spiritual even though you don't believe? And how can that be? And I think it's, you know, there are nuances that are missing in our vocabulary. You know, and that's true. So often, there are words, this thing and our language often, and we have trouble describing things sometimes because of that. But I think that those words are still the closest we can get because it evokes this feeling that I think we all really crave of like the just like the chill in your spine, and like feeling part of something enormous. And whether that is a theological concept, or a scientific concept, that like pit of your stomach, like sparkly feeling is something that I really think that we want, and that we almost can't avoid, because every time we understand something more deeply, or have an experience or you know, something scary happens, or something amazing happens. There is that sense. And I think as time goes on, we'll figure out what to call it. But yeah, just seek it.
David Ames 18:05
Yes, yes. Really, it was a compliment that you went out ahead on didn't hesitate. I find myself hesitating all the time. Can I use this word? Because when I say often woman for me is soul when I say yes. Oh, it has evocative, profound meaning. And, you know, I mean, the core of my being, I don't write, I don't mean something other than my body. I'm sorry. Anyway, I just think that we need to just redeem those words. There's another religious term.
Sasha Sagan 18:34
I know I mean, either. So many theistic expressions that I love, and you mean also, like when I like drop something, like I say, like Jesus Christ. Like, oh, my God, I mean, how many times do I say Oh, my God, and I'm like, I can't like I what am I going to do like make up something to explain that's like about, like, trials. Oh, my double helix. Like, I'm totally nervous. Like, it would be way too weird. Like, or like a one of my favorite expressions. And I wish I had a secular version of it is God willing, and like to say, like, oh, well, when we go do this, or whatever. What I really mean is, I hope it works out, right? No, or like, you know, people talking about like, a job or planning for a baby or like, all these things. And it's like that idea that like, well, we don't know how things are gonna shake out. We're terrible at predicting the future. But this is what we're planning at the moment. Yes, it's like, I wish there was a two word way to say that. But I don't have one yet. So sometimes I say that and they're like, what are you what are your whole thing is and I'm like, I know.
David Ames 19:51
I find it charming. I think that's. So the book is primarily about rituals. So I'd like you to talk about Some of them that you described, but also, why are rituals important to human beings?
Sasha Sagan 20:05
It's a great question. And it's so amazing because we're so all over the world and disparate cultures that had no contact with one another, we all decided we need some rituals, and a lot of them happen around the same time, same times of year solstices and equinoxes. And same times of life, verse coming of age death, you know, we all like these are really important. And we do them in really different ways. But and it's not every culture doesn't have exactly the same landmarks in terms of when when they but there's a lot of overlap. And I think it's really my mom always says, there's no refuge from change in the cosmos. Yeah. And I think that's really what it's about, we are on this planet, and the seasons change, and it gets cold and hot, or wet and dry, depending where you live. People appear, you know, out of other people's stomachs, and, and they grow up and they're kids, and then they're adults. And that's really weird. And then we go away. And we don't know where or what it is. And there's just so much to wrap our minds around that. We have to process all these changes. And I think the rituals, in the most basic sense, like a funeral, like, Well, why do we have that? Because we're like, Oh, my goodness, this person was just here. And now they're not here. What do we do? Yeah. And I think that, you know, no matter what the rituals are, we're like, Okay, this is the framework. This is what we've been doing for generations. This is how we handle this very difficult thing. Yeah. I mean, sometimes it's how we handle a really wonderful thing, like people getting married or something like that, you know. And I just think that it's, it's really important to us. And I think what happens is sometimes when people are not religious, or were religious, and then veer away from it, really, there's an urge to like, throw the baby out with the bathwater, right? But I, which is understandable, and I get it. But I think that we still need these things, even if we do them in a secular way. And that's what I'm really interested in is how, how we can do that. And sometimes how we can still honor our ancestors and what they did, or something you loved growing up. Without necessarily subscribing to the theology that it came from.
David Ames 22:36
Definitely, I think that when a person goes through, particularly a faith transition, where they had faith in and then lose that faith, kind of the first thing that you see online is the much harder kind of debate culture or style of that loses all the wonder that loses all the awe and there's a trepidation for being a part of a group being apart. Being part of a community, in even the word ritual might be terrifying to some people. for that. I think I came through that and realize that, you know, it's a very natural explanation to say that human beings need rituals, and that every culture, as you have mentioned, throughout history and time, has had rituals for these life stages, and that we derive something from that we derive some meaning from that. And so on the other side of faith, or if you're secular from birth, you still need these moments, to mark time, as you say,
Sasha Sagan 23:35
Yeah, and just I think it's like, in many cases, it's to like, increase joy. I mean, you know, when it's cold, and the days are really short. And the weather's really bad. You know, it's like, oh, well, we should make things really nice and like decorate them and make them be more light and have like delicious food and a party. Maybe that's like, seems so natural, and it's such a good call. Yes, that is a really like around the winter solstice is a really good time to try to cheer ourselves up with like, cookies and cookies and presents. Yeah, totally. Oh, yeah, definitely. Let's
David Ames 24:19
do that some
Sasha Sagan 24:20
more. Yeah. And I think that that kind of stuff. Once you peel back the specifics of the lore, or the mythology or the theology, you end up with the same throughlines and so much of them are rooted in nature. There are about astronomical Meteor illogical or biological changes, and that doesn't require belief.
David Ames 24:45
One of my favorite different authors, Jennifer, Michael Hecht, and she talks about a graceful life philosophies, and I definitely feel like that is something that you are conveying here of just a joy in life. But one of the things I was struck By in your book is that you'll be in the description of just a very human event. And then the scientist and you will just jump through there one that just literally made me laugh out loud was you were describing, being in the same the same position around the sun, you know, in a year and then taking the scope out and saying, Yeah, but that sun is actually orbiting the center of the galaxy as well. So we're really not in the same place. And I just, I literally started laughing out loud. This is a scientist as well. So how do you blends that scientific knowledge that scientific exploration with kind of this graceful life philosophy,
Sasha Sagan 25:39
I think it's like, the more we understand, I mean, if you get pleasure from like, learning, you know, the more we understand, and you know, it's always more amazing reality, when we just like really use the scrutiny of the scientific method, it is always more astonishing and more amusing than our than what we came up with, as human beings. And I think that that is really a source of joy. And think, wow, we couldn't possibly have imagined, you know, the scale of the Universe, or, you know, all these things that are so beautiful, or even like how the solar system works before we have the information to measure it, and all these other things that are so breathtaking. And that brings me a lot of joy. And I think that there's just something about the connectedness, the our desire to feel connected, and then realizing the thing we're connected to, you know, we're part of, it's in us we're in it is so much larger than, you know, 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, we imagined it to be and it's like, it kind of just puts a smile on my face this idea that, like, we're so bad at predictions. I mean, it's kind of like the god willing thing. But we have this system, where we can test things and try to figure them out. And we still know very little, but we're on the right track. And we will know a lot more than we used to. And it's like, there's just an endless number of, again, a sort of religious word revelations ahead of us, and we're gonna find out more and more, and, you know, we won't live to find out everything and but there's so much around the corner that will just take our breath away. And we live in a time where there's a lot of new information available, which is just so lucky. I mean, you know, if you're a really curious person who was interested in our place in the universe, and you lived, you know, in the year 1000, it would be like kind of a drag.
David Ames 27:49
Very much. So yeah, I often wonder how useless I would have been at any other moment in history.
Sasha Sagan 27:58
Right, where it's like, each of us is a both a product of our time. And we have these like anything's and but ya know, it's so true. It's like, another 1000 years, they'll say, Oh, my goodness, can you imagine if you lived in 2020? It would have been horrible, you know?
David Ames 28:18
This question kept coming to me as I was reading it, and I want to pose it properly. There are times where I wondered, are there times in your life where you are reluctantly, a skeptic? Are there times where you wish there was something bigger?
Sasha Sagan 28:34
Oh, that's interesting. Well, I don't feel that way. To me. The secular worldview is bigger. In my view, even though there is not a person like creature looking after us. I think it would be actually harder to try to understand why terrible things happen if there is a very good god who is taking care of everyone, then it is to be like, it is random and chaos. And the fact that anything ever works out is amazing. But, you know, like, that's sort of my do the way in which I am sometimes maybe not reluctant, but I feel that internal conflict is we all have these experiences, like really unlikely coincidences, where it's so hard not to be like, Wait Is race Raizy I write about that a little bit in the book happens all the time. I mean, little, like, cliche, is you think about someone and they call and like, of course when that happens, I'm like, holy
David Ames 29:47
Sasha Sagan 29:48
I think and I have that like innate reaction of like, this is like a clue into the inner workings of everything. But when I really think it is So is that we are really good pattern recognizers, we love patterns. That's why you can understand the random sounds I'm making right now to be words and ideas. It's a huge advantage as far as our species, but we're so good at it that we see patterns where there aren't any. And it would be impossible. Like if you think about how many random thoughts you have in the course of a day, and how many people you run into, or call or get a text from, over the course of your life, it would be impossible that they wouldn't line up once in a while, right? But I still think it's amazing and worthy of like celebration on my big freakout when it does happen, because it's like, Well, someone does win the lottery, you know what I mean? Like, like, the chances are slim, but sometimes it lands and you whenever you get the jackpot or whatever, and you're like, Oh, amazing, you know,
David Ames 30:52
statistically unlikely things happen all the time.
Sasha Sagan 30:56
So, so cool, but I don't, even though they have moments where I'm like, you know, the Twilight Zone theme in my head is like, I still I still think that it totally statistical explanation is still like, fantastic.
David Ames 31:15
Yeah, that's a great answer, though, that the scientific answers are the are the bigger perspective than magic?
Sasha Sagan 31:21
I think so i That's the way I see it. And they're intrinsically beautiful to me, too. And I think there's like this idea that it's like, oh, this emptiness of space is like, so scary and negative. Whereas I still find it beautiful and comforting in a way that, that in all that we're here, I'm this little evolved perfectly to, like breathe the air and drink the water and feel the light of the star. I mean, that's, that's amazing.
David Ames 31:51
Yeah, one of the ways that I tried to express this, this is back kind of back to the existential crisis. But that, you know, we learned the Copernican principle that we are not the center of the universe, we're not the center of the solar system that we have no special place in the cosmos. Right. And I would say the flip side of that is as, as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in this cosmos. And that makes us incredibly rare and incredibly precious. And the fact that we can communicate with each other, yeah, builds profound meaning and profound comfort. I just watched the movie Ad Astra. Oh, yeah. I don't know if you watch that. But
Sasha Sagan 32:30
I haven't seen it. I have a toddler. So I don't get Yeah,
David Ames 32:33
exactly. Sorry. Yeah.
Sasha Sagan 32:36
Do you have a movie reference from before?
David Ames 32:41
I feel yeah, I've got teenagers now. So I remember. Very quickly, I won't bore you with this. But the premise is the father has gone out looking for proof of, of extraterrestrial life. And he's obsessed with that to the exclusion of everything else, and that the son grows up and is also an astronaut and goes out to find him. And the son learns the lesson the father didn't, that it's humanity, that we are not alone. We have each other. Right. Anyway, it was just deeply profound. It was very, very slow movie I don't recommend everybody is going to love that movie. But anyway. But I couldn't I couldn't help but walk away. Like what a deeply humanist message.
Sasha Sagan 33:21
Oh, wow. Yeah.
David Ames 33:24
So your book from literally the introduction? I think I tweeted this right after I read it. The first tear was shed, you know, in the introduction.
Sasha Sagan 33:34
David Ames 33:35
Yeah, exactly. And I mean, that is a very high compliment that there's so much pathos, there's so much of yourself vulnerability in the book is deeply profound. Just very quickly, I lost my father when I was three or four, I don't really have a lot of I don't like to have a lot of conscious memories of him. I'm so sorry. Thank you. And then I lost my mother in 2015, shortly after my deconversion, so a lot of Oh, wow, a lot of grief. You know, right, as I was also experiencing the loss of so I, you know, and I think I've spent a lot of time processing that that's not a raw emotion. I'm not trying to elicit anything here.
Sasha Sagan 34:22
I feel for you. And I'm that's really hard. And it's complicated, I'm sure. Yes. Yeah.
David Ames 34:28
It's very complicated. But so again, thank you for the book and for the rawness of the grief that comes out on on the pages. And I think one of the topics that I'm most interested in is this idea of how do we grieve in a secular way? Right. I think you mentioned when people come up to you and they don't realize that your father has passed away. And they'll say, Hey, tell them how much his work meant to me. Yeah, you have to be the bearer of bad news. It's like, like, oh, just crushed my heart. Like I couldn't believe that. What You must have to go through. So one of my first questions is having so much of your father be a part of the culture and including things like on audiobook. And early your mom and dad's voice on Voyager that's just left. I mean, it's inescapable Is that does that make that grieving process harder? Or easier?
Sasha Sagan 35:21
Oh, no, it makes it easier. I mean, I'm so lucky. First of all, because of, and I write about this a little bit, because of the nature of my dad's work. I have like all this footage of him talking in his voice and like audio book on like, his Cosmos, but also, like him on The Tonight Show, and like, all this stuff. And still, I mean, there's like video of him I've never seen that I know is still out there that I can like, look forward to 23 years after his death, so that I feel like so lucky. And that especially because, I mean, now everybody has video of everybody in their family, you know, whatever, opening presents, or whatever. But like, in 1996, it wasn't like that. And just because of the nature of his work, I have this, which is so lucky, and the love that people still feel for him and like, you know, once in a while, like the flip side of the, oh, tell him I love his work. And I have to be like, Oh, actually, he's not here anymore. And it's like, so awkward, partly because people are just generally so uncomfortable with death that like it's like, you know, we don't know how to talk about it. We don't especially and not in a secular way we don't know how to. We don't know what the right thing to say is there's all of that those experiences are really hard. But what I get much more often, which is the flip side is people saying, I just discovered him four years ago, and I've read 10 books, or I was born after he died. And I love him. He's my favorite writer, or you know, that kind of stuff where I'm like, wow, this really is, in a secular way. It's an extension, you know, he lives on a little longer in this non literal way. And I'm so grateful for that. And that makes it so much easier. And like, I feel like, what's really hard about grieving is being alone, um, you know, and isolated. And when I think other people miss him, too. And they still think about him and read his work and talk about him. I'm like, Well, that is extremely comforting. That's what really like, he honestly just like, helps me enormously so. So I feel like the majority of my experiences to do with him and his work and his legacy are extremely positive. But then once in a while, there's ones where I'm like, Oh, this is excruciating. But that's okay, too.
David Ames 37:50
Well, I again, one of the more touching moments in the in the book is you're describing him apologizing to you near the end, and that he understood what you couldn't at the moment that this would be a life defining moment for you that everything would be affected by it.
Sasha Sagan 38:08
Yeah, yeah. And I was 14, and I just didn't understand. At the same time, I'm like, What does anyone on Earth, like if I was, you know, 50? What I understand what I mean, like, we don't get it, and it's really hard, but like, I just didn't understand that this would be, in many ways, the defining event in my life. And that he, he understood that, that this would be a lot harder than I think I understood at that time, or for many years afterwards. And it was so but it was it may it was like the kind of the end he was very ill obviously. And so it was like the kind of thing that like made no sense, right? Of course, as the years went on, it became very clear why it was a really loving, thoughtful, true thing to say. And it's like a, almost like a riddle. You know, it's something that takes a long time to unravel to really understand, but it was really loving. And it was really, I mean, it's I still feel love from the last, you know, days and hours, even though more than two decades has gone by.
David Ames 39:25
Well, that's short, an incredible amount of wisdom on his part. Yeah, there's no one will doubt or two have that kind of foresight to pass that along to you. Yeah. The other thing I think is beautifully told in the book is this idea of that those that we have lost live on in our memories. You refer back to a culture that has a distinction between ancestors and the living dead, that they live on in our memory and you quote your mom is saying she recognized that there's there's almost a second death When the last person who knew you dies, yeah. Can you talk about that? Just
Sasha Sagan 40:05
yeah, I think about that a lot in the book I talked about someone we knew had a toddler. And they came by the house. They had, you know, my dad had met the toddler many times. And then they came by the house at some point in the months after my dad died. And and when they left me, this little boy was the youngest person, I think my dad, you know, knew, right. And my mom said, after they left, my mom said, you know, it's like, you win you, Oh, will you die again, when the last person knew you dies. And there is something about that there's, it makes me think of there's this. There's this record, somebody heard Abraham Lincoln give a speech, and then ran home and phonetically wrote down how he spoke, like, what his syntax and intonation was. And it was like, of course, this is so changed by technology now, like I was saying about, like having, you know, video of your friends now. And it's like, this idea that like, well, you know, now everybody who ever heard Abraham Lincoln speak is gone, too. And it's like, that's another way in which were done. And some people very, very small handful of people, you know, if your profile is on a coin, or there is a statue to you, or, you know, the most smallest, smallest percentage of people who ever lived, or we just know their name, even if we don't know really anything about them, the century when they lived the part of the world. But other than that, we go away. And that is something that, you know, there's two approaches to that, or three, maybe one is to deny it, you know, and if you say, Okay, well, that's not your belief system. If you believe that we don't go away, we just go somewhere else. And we continue on. Okay, that's one approach. Another approach is to sort of try to fight it with like, you know, I don't know, like cryogenically freezing, like, you know, all the things that we come up with to deny that in another way, and that's okay, too, you know, but the third way is to say, Okay, well, that's how this works. And we'll be gone at some point. And even if we figure out the, you know, whatever technology, you know, the sun's gonna burn out and 5 billion years, the Earth is, you know, maybe we can emigrate to some other planet, maybe. But things that we hold dear and the world, literally and figuratively that we exist, and now is not forever. And so, I think there's really something valuable. The third way way I would approach it is to face that and say, Okay, that's real. But we're here right now. And so let's do what we can to make the world better to find joy, to experience, love, give love, all these things that will make it so that when the time does come, it'll not feel as bad. I think.
David Ames 43:19
I've described kind of a parallel concept of giving up the idea of the soul. Where there's this psychological need to believe that we go on, I think, as well to believe that our loved ones
Sasha Sagan 43:36
Yes, I mean, more. So almost. Yeah, almost more so. Yeah, yeah.
David Ames 43:42
Yeah. And you know, and I would love to believe that I would get to see my mom and my, well, yeah, like, I'd love to be able to believe that. But I recognize that, you know, having again, for me personally haven't gone through that transition. That part of the reason that was so difficult was coming to grips with the finiteness of of life that Yeah. On the other side of it now, and I'm not this is not original in any way. But the idea that it is finite gives everything poignance there's Yeah, every moment with my my family, my loved ones, my daughters, my wife, friends is, is valuable, precisely because it is rare and fleeting.
Sasha Sagan 44:24
Absolutely, absolutely. If we lived forever, and there was no urgency to anything, it would be, first of all, it would be a totally different existence, people would operate in a totally different way. And there would be nothing unique or valuable or special about each moment. There's no beginning and no end. And I think that it's really easy to see that as a really painful thing, but I think it's also the source of all the positive things,
David Ames 44:55
right. And then just lastly, a concept that you hint at in That is just being lucky to have lived at all. You just I think you say we were we, you know we existed. That fact that we are alive today is its own profound miracle.
Sasha Sagan 45:13
Yeah. And I think that that's like a lot of what at the beginning of the book is about is like an all the different things that had to happen for you to be alive right now. And all your different ancestors who had to cross paths, and all this unbelievable plagues and invasions and wars that somebody had to survive, to get to the point where right now in the present, your you know, listening to this podcast, you know, is really astonishing. And I think that maybe there would be some other version of each of us, but we would have different ancestors with different combinations of qualities and idiosyncrasies and allergies, all sorts of other things. And I think the idea that, like you being exactly you at this moment happened, like if we can find a way to celebrate that. And I think the way that we find it the most is when we fall in love, because then you're like, wow, you're you and you're so amazing. And you have all these qualities that are so wonderful. And it's like that we sort of can glean it when it's an another person or when you have a new baby, and you're like, Oh, my goodness, you're this. Oh, I see my great uncle's funny expression. And like all these things, yeah. And so we get it like at the best moments of our lives, we get these little glimpses into that. And I think if we can find a way to to extend that into other parts of our lives, I think it would be really worthwhile.
David Ames 46:48
Absolutely. Yeah, that's beautiful. I'm sorry. I said Lastly, and really, I've got one another. One more, one more question. Again, on this on this side of faith, or those of us who were believers, church or synagogue or provides this community this built in Yes, community. I really love the story you tell you tell about your your girlfriend's getting together. Yeah, regular basis to talk about how you have built community in your life.
Sasha Sagan 47:15
Yes, I definitely. I mean, I strongly feel that the hardest part about being secular for me is that you have to like really put an effort to congregate, and I'm very social. And I like being in group situations. And it's just if I was really devout, I would have that in my life and all these different ways built in. And I because I'm not I have to make it. So one of the things that I did, sort of second half of the years, I lived in New York, I lived in New York for a long time, we moved to London for two years, and then came back and all of a sudden, I realized I miss my girlfriends so much. And that like seeing them one or two at a time was not enough. And I that I had all these interesting, amazing women who they would like each other it wasn't you know, and that together, we could really sort of form this like little tribe. And so it wasn't anything. I mean, it's totally doable. You can try this at home, just once a month, we had a dinner, we picked a restaurant, and I would send out an email. And sometimes it would be five or six of us. And sometimes it would be 12 or 13 of us. And the restaurant was extremely accommodating when we were constantly running away and being really loud, and all these things. So that was good. And we would once a month have like dinner and cocktails and talk and what was so for me rewarding was all these other friendships bloomed between women who, you know, someone I grew up with, or someone I went with, to college with, or someone you know, had worked with. And then after a lot of people started to move away from New York, which just happens, you know, and then and then I moved to Boston, and these friendships went on and all these different cities and people started doing ladies don't we call it the ladies dining society in other places. And even though I wasn't doing it anymore, it carried on and I that is something that I feel really grateful for. And I think there's something there is a real like you see it, there is a need in society for this kind of thing. And you see it as like there's, I mean, these things could be co ed or for men or whatever show seemed like these women's workspaces popping up in different cities. And you see like these will, you know, different groups where you're like, people want kind of a home base and like something in their life that's regular and steady and feeds them intellectually, emotionally in some way. Literally, dinner party. And I think that a lot of people crave that and I think if you're secular you know sometimes it's a little bit more of a drag and you got to put it together yourself, but I think it's worth it.
David Ames 49:59
You I think that the lesson from that chapter in particular is just being intentional about building friendships. And yeah, maybe setting a time and setting a place and making that happen. So yeah, in effect to ritualizing.
Sasha Sagan 50:14
And having a group to go through the ups and downs with
David Ames 50:18
absolutely, yeah, somebody there just to hear the good times and the bad. Yeah, exactly. Well, if it's not obvious, I love the book. So much the book is, for small creatures, such as we are rituals for finding meaning in our unlikely world. And the author is Sasha Sagan, Sacha, how can people get in touch with you? How can they find your book?
Sasha Sagan 50:40
Oh, it's sold wherever, wherever you get your books, you can find it. And I'm on Instagram and Twitter at Sasha Sagan. My website is Sasha sagan.com. And you can email me there. Tell me what you think I'd love to hear from you.
David Ames 50:56
Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and.
Final thoughts on the episode? Wow. All I can say is again, it was a joy to speak with Sasha. I find it wonderfully fulfilling to talk to another person who has the same sense of gratitude, awe and wonder at the world, while also holding purely naturalistic and scientific ideas about the world. And she so beautifully tells those both in the book and in this episode, about how her parents pass those things along to her. And now she's passing them along to us. I loved her answer when I asked about whether she was a reluctant skeptic. And she pointed out that the scientific answers tend to be bigger and more awe inspiring than any magical or theistic answers ever could be. That was a profound answer. I think in my interview, when we discussed her father, Carl Sagan, I often focused on the grief, I want to highlight here as well, the joy that comes across in Sasha's book, and in the podcast episode. Clearly, he has had a tremendous impact on her and the impact on the world continues to reverberate in her life. I just really appreciate Sasha, his willingness to share both the grief and her joy in her relationship with her father. I still can't get over the quote that the book title comes from, for small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love. And it turns out that it was Andrew Yang, who wrote that particular line that encapsulates so much of secular grace. And another theme that Sasha and I hit in the episode of she quotes her mom is saying there is no refuge from change in the cosmos. And Sasha talks about having to face the reality that everything will cease, including the sun burning out and the heat death of the universe. But we're here now. And let's do what we can to make the world a better place that to encapsulates secular grace. I want to thank Sasha for coming on the program for giving me her time and for sharing with us, her book and her insights and her graceful life philosophies. I will have links in the show notes for finding her online on Twitter and as well as links for her book, I highly encourage you to go out and get the book and read it. As the chaos and randomness of the cosmos would have it. Sacha also did an interview with Bart Campolo on the humanized me podcast. And I think it's a great discussion. And I highly encourage you to go and listen to that as well, especially if you can't get enough of Sasha Sagan. Are you still here? Oh, good. I've got a couple more announcements for you. One is that I have recently done an episode of the relationship podcast from long distance to marriage with Andrea and rich. You might ask why would I do that episode while they were doing a series on secular relationships or inter faith relationships, I went on with my friend Alice Gretchen from dare to doubt, Alice from the perspective of being very choosy about the partners that she chooses and what their faith positions might be in me from the perspective of being in a relationship with my wife, who is a believer, and D converting and middle of marriage, and trying to focus on the love that we have for one another and our shared set of values. Anyway, I highly recommend that you check out from long distance to marriage in the next week or so. I think that was a fascinating conversation. And then the second thing I wanted to bring up is that I occasionally do a call or a Hangout with people who are not interested in publicizing their story, but they need to tell it to somebody. And I generally will do a 15 or 30 minute call with people just to let them tell me their deconversion stories. And a common theme that I hear from them often is, what can I do? How can I give back? I just wanted to highlight that you can do many things, you can start a blog, you can start your own podcast, you can find groups with meetup.com. You can start your own book club, any secular activity of any kind that build some community is a great way to go. But I'm gonna highlight one more thing. I haven't pushed it very often. But I need to reiterate again, how much better I think this podcast could be if I had a bit more community support. So this is a call out to you if you have a talent in any area, graphic design, audio engineering, marketing, social media expertise, website, design, anything that could help make this podcast better, help more people. I'm gonna just put out the call to the community. If you're interested, please get in touch with me. Send me an email at graceful firstname.lastname@example.org I'm gonna slightly alter my typical sign off and say my name is David, and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. Please join me and be graceful in your lives. It's time for some footnotes. The song has a track called waves by mkhaya beats, please check out her music links will be in the show notes. If you'd like to help support the podcast, here are the ways you can go about that. First help promote it. Podcast audience grows it by word of mouth. If you found it useful or just entertaining, please pass it on to your friends and family. post about it on social media so that others can find it. Please rate and review the podcast wherever you get your podcasts. This will help raise the visibility of our show. Join me on the podcast. Tell your story. Have you gone through a faith transition? You want to tell that to the world? Let me know and let's have you on? Do you know someone who needs to tell their story? Let them know. Do you have criticisms about atheism or humanism, but you're willing to have an honesty contest with me? Come on the show. If you have a book or a blog that you want to promote, I'd like to hear from you. Also, you can contribute technical support. If you are good at graphic design, sound engineering or marketing? Please let me know and I'll let you know how you can participate. And finally financial support. There will be a link on the show notes to allow contributions which would help defray the cost of producing the show. If you want to get in touch with me you can google graceful atheist where you can send email to graceful email@example.com You can tweet at me at graceful atheist or you can just check out my website at graceful atheists.wordpress.com Get in touch and let me know if you appreciate the podcast. Well this has been the graceful atheist podcast My name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheists. Grab somebody you love and tell them how much they mean to you.
This has been the graceful atheist podcast
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