Interview with John Bice

Here’s the long awaited interview with John Bice, author of A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America. It’s quite long, so I’m breaking it into two parts. Check back tomorrow for part 2, which includes an excerpt from the book.

Skepchick: What inspired you to start writing a newspaper column?

Bice: I addressed that a bit in the preface of the book. Like many atheists, I saw the terrorist acts of September 11th as a faith-based initiative. It’s certainly arguable that there were many reasons for the heinous attack on this country (which had nothing to do with “hating us for our freedoms,” and much to do with our policy and behavior in the Muslim world) but at its root the attack was motivated by fundamentalist religious beliefs.

On that same day, September 11th, 2001, my wife and I had planned to attend a presentation on Intelligent Design Creationism. The talk was to be given by a Philosophy of Science Professor at Michigan State University — an expert on creationist tactics in the United States — describing how fundamentalist Christians were mounting an increasingly aggressive attack on evolutionary biology in public schools. The discussion was canceled as a result of the terrorist attacks of that day.

I later learned, when attending the rescheduled creationist presentation, that I was among a minority in this country who took evolutionary biology seriously. Prior to that, I had naively believed that the largest fraction of Americans accepted the powerful and multidisciplinary dovetailing evidence for evolutionary theory, and rejected biblical creation myths. I learned, however, that the reverse was true.

I was inspired to begin writing because I began to see that religious fundamentalism, regardless of which religion it might be, represented an unacceptable and unnecessary danger.

The achievements and progress humanity has made in the last few hundred years aren’t necessarily permanent, it is perpetually threatened by the existence of fundamentalist religious zealots, who are hell-bent on turning the clock back on the Enlightenment.

Fundamentalists don’t represent a majority of Christians or Muslims, but, as Sam Harris has noted, the mainstream religious in both communities serve as enablers and are rarely critical of the core beliefs the fundamentalists embrace, because mainstream believers embrace them as well. As a result, addressing the root problem of religion — unsupported and fantastical faith-based beliefs — must fall to people in the rationalist community.

Skepchick: How did you find the time and inspiration to write so many columns on a regular basis and on deadline?

Bice: Well, finding time is rarely easy for anyone these days. In my case, it was a matter of getting up a little earlier in the morning and trying to squeeze my writing into those quiet times. That’s the same way I put most of the book together, in small segments during the early morning hours. Inspiration, on the other hand, was the easy part. If rationalists aren’t willing to put in the same time and effort as the religious zealots, the zealots will win.

Skepchick: Do you have any advice for those of us who might decide that we’d like to write for our own local newspapers?

Bice: Be persistent. Even successful authors will be turned down from time to time. Don’t take a rejection personally, and inquire about the reason for the rejection.

When possible, I recommend writing for a college newspaper. They are much more likely to publish columns or letters that are highly critical of mainstream positions, and will reach a readership that’s young and more open-minded.

Also, when criticizing a particular religious belief, frame your criticism as a reaction to something in the news, while backing up your opinion with facts and supporting references. Unsupported opinions aren’t particularly persuasive to anyone.

The important thing, in my judgement, is that we repetitively attempt to break down the existing cultural taboo against religious criticism, and the best way to accomplish that is for writers across the country to engage in religious criticism.

Skepchick: Do you think the material has been understood and accepted more by the mainstream, Christian readers of your columns or by the atheist and rationalist readers of your book?

Bice: Without question, and not surprisingly, atheist and rationalist readers have understood and accepted my points more than Christian readers. One of the most interesting examples occurs in reaction to my columns focusing on biblical criticism. To a believing Christian — especially a Biblical literalist — any criticism of the Bible is intolerable and will be immediately dismissed out of hand.

For example, in one column I quoted a particularly unseemly passage from the Gospel of Luke (14:26): “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” The most common reaction from my Christian readers was that I had taken Jesus “out of context.” I responded by asking under what context would that be an appropriate thing to say? Perhaps if Jesus had prefaced Luke 14:26 with, “you know, it would be crazy to say …”

Skepchick: In the preface, you said that you were surprised by some of the email responses you got from Christian readers. What surprised you most about the Christian response?

Bice: The vitriolic hatred, violent hostility and foul language filled responses were what surprised me most from my Christian readers. I thought these were the “turn the other cheek,” and “love thy enemy” folks, but I guess religious hypocrisy is nothing new, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. Publicly criticizing religion is not for the timid or thin skinned. To be fair, though, I also receive many emails offering “prayer,” and a few from Christians who sincerely wanted to understand what I’m saying and why.

Skepchick: Have you also been surprised by any responses from atheist readers?

Bice: Only pleasantly. I was shocked by the outpouring of support by fellow rationalists/atheists/skeptics who were grateful for my columns. I’ve received hundreds of emails, often overflowing with praise and support, in reaction to someone finally speaking out against the insanity. It was eye opening to learn that so many others were silently suffering with the same frustrations I had.

You have to remember, back in 2002 and 2003, when I started writing, very little religious criticism was to be found in any mainstream publication. I’m delighted to note, however, that is no longer the case thanks to writers like Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens. They have sparked a national discussion, and the taboo against religious criticism is breaking down.

Don’t forget to stop back tomorrow for the rest of the interview. Enjoy the weekend!


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I take issue with Bice's contention the Biblical criticism is intolerable to any believing Christian. That would obviously be true for a Biblical literalist (as he notes), but in my circle of the faithful, I don't actually know a single person who espouses this viewpoint. Granted, we are all Presbyterians, and thus not "real" Christians according to many, but that can't be helped.

    I have often raised criticisms of specific parts of the Bible in my church and never felt that the response was hostile. I certainly don't claim that the group I am in is representative of the majority view, but I have no control of the majority of Christians. You works with what you gots and who you're with.

    As for picking out a specific text to criticize, I think Bice misses the boat with the passage from Luke. There are numerous examples of the use of hyperbolic language in the Bible that are intended to make a point, but not be taken literally, and I think this is one of them. Perhaps this is what Bice's correspondents meant by him taking Jesus out of context. Which, by the way, does not seem to be a response that one could describe as "intolerant" or "dismissing out of hand". Seems like more of a willingness to engage in a dialogue. Perhaps not.

    Here is a quote I found to be perceptive on this passage:

    "Bottom line — skeptics who think that Jesus is preaching literal and misogynist hate in this verse are doing no more than the usual — thinking out of time, out of mind with the text, and in some cases … letting their own "hate" get in the way of reading the text any way other than with wooden literalism."

    If you want to take some passages to criticize, try some of the stuff that Paul writes. Some of his stuff is really hard to wrap your brain around. That guy had some serious issues!

    Despite my comments above, I fully support Bice's efforts at religious criticism. A faith unchallenged and untested isn't worth having. If religious criticism leads anyone to lose their faith, then so be it. They'll probably be better off without it.

    "The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty." – Ann LaMott

  2. Interesting comment, SteveT. I agree with you completely about Paul, and I always enjoy Ann Lamott's writings.

  3. SteveT, I appreciate your comments on the Luke passage I mentioned. I think it's a mistake, however, to assume that a skeptic is simply taking Jesus literally when criticizing that passage.

    I certainly don't believe Jesus was actually talking about hate, I think he was making a point that his followers must put him first in their lives. Like many cult leaders, Jesus is foremost concerned with being ranked "first" in the lives and thoughts of his followers.

    Consider this related passage from Matthew chapter 10, "34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36 And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. 37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

    I think that passage makes clear that Jesus wasn't talking about literally hating your parents or self, rather, it was about putting Jesus first in your life, even if it meant tearing one's family apart.

    Instead of taking the word "hate" literally, it's probably more accurate to assume Jesus meant something closer to "despise in comparison to." Above all, a cult leader wants to be taken seriously and obeyed, they tend to be very needy of love and want to take preeminence in the minds of their followers.

    I think the best way to make sense of these passages is to see Jesus as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman does, as an apocalyptic Jew who is convinced that the end is near. The point Jesus made again and again was that this world was coming to a close, and that the things of the world weren't important. The coming Kingdom of god represented all that was important, and if one's possessions or family members stood in their way of the coming kingdom, they were to be discarded.

    As a result, these passages from Matthew and Luke are problematic not only for Christians who are biblical literalists, but also for those who believe the New Testament represents good "family values." Also, as an aside, Jesus was completely wrong about the end times.

  4. SteveT, I also feel that I should respond to the quote from Ann LaMott, only because I think it so severely mischaracterizes the distinction between faith and reason.

    The quote was, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”

    There is very little in this life we can be 100% certain of; however, some beliefs have so much supporting evidence in their favor we colloquially speak of them as facts. Whereas, other beliefs have so little supporting evidence (or none) we have no reason to take them seriously; although, we always must admit to their possibility, if not probability.

    Rational beliefs, despite the implication of LaMott’s quote, aren’t formed in a binary fashion, with certainty for or against. Rational beliefs are formed through strength and quality of evidence. The stronger the evidence for a belief, the higher one’s confidence becomes; the weaker the evidence, the lower the confidence. Rational beliefs exist on a sliding scale of certainty, inexorably tied to strength of evidence.

    With irrational beliefs, like religious faith, this normal relationship between the confidence in a belief and the strength of evidence breaks down. Religious faith, or some other form of irrationality, is necessary for strong beliefs to be held in absence of supporting evidence (i.e. The Trinity, or divinity of Jesus) or for beliefs to be held in contradiction with evidence (e.g. Transubstantiation). Once good evidence for a belief emerges the need for faith disappears. For example, no one speaks of having faith that that 2+2=4, or that Uranium is radioactive.

  5. Thanks, bice. I was going to come back and say something similar about Ann Lamott's quote. I don't really think that faith and certainty are opposites. In fact, those who take the Biblical definition of faith, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," are using faith to come to certainty about things for which there is no evidence.

    This type of certainty is the epitome of faith and is exactly the reason that I don't see faith as a virtue. Believing "just because," or "because so and so or such and such book says so," or "because it makes me feel good," is no reason to believe at all.

    I think Lamott is just trying to separate herself from the fundamentalits by saying that they are not really people of faith, but her doubting kind of faith is real faith. It's like so many of the other moderate religionists who waste their energy arguning that we should not criticize faith or religion and, as a result are making it easier for fundamentalists and extremists to gain power.

  6. Thanks writerdd, I think your perception on Lamott is probably correct. A criticism I invariably run into from "believers" is that they represent the "true Christians," who don't happen to believe in whatever it is that I may be finding fault with. Of course the zealots will argue just the opposite, that they are the true faithful and the rest are heretics or misguided followers. The problem, of course, is that neither side has objective or empirically testable evidence which could can be called upon to settle the issue. This is also why we've seen Christianity splinter into thousands of various sects; each disagreeing on Biblical hermeneutics, or issues of dogma, ritual, etc.

    This problem always reminds me of a great quote from Bertrand Russell, "When two men of science disagree, they do not invoke the secular arm; they wait for further evidence to decide the issue. But when two theologians differ, since there is no criteria to which either can appeal, there is nothing for it but mutual hatred and an open or covert appeal to force.”

  7. I would never claim to represent "true Christians" any more than I would claim to represent a "true Democrat." In both cases, I know that I hold certain views considered completely heretical by the majority of those groups. And yet I strongly identify with both groups on many issues. What's to be done? I am sure that Calvin would gleefully burn me at the stake for heresy were I to have been his contemporary.

    I also acknowledge freely that I have no empirically testable evidence for my beliefs. Furthermore, I don't believe any such thing could possibly exist. My "evidence" (such as it were) is meaningful to me, and that is quite enough. I understand how frustrating that can be for someone like Bice (or Dawkins), as they feel like people like me are constantly "shifting the goal posts." Sorry, can't really help that. But I am also smart enough to know that people like me are not the real targets of Bice (or Dawkins). I would NEVER argue that you folk should not criticize faith or religion. I might argue that the tactics used are not always conducive to dialogue, but if that is not your objective, then so be it. I quite honestly wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

  8. SteveT, thanks for your comments, you are quite correct that believers like you are not the target of my writing. I was raised Christian (Methodist), and most of my family are Christians of one stripe or another. I rejected Christianity as an adolescent, but have nothing against religious people, or their right to exercise their freedom of belief. However, I have lost tolerance for religious beliefs — or their ramifications — being pushed onto others, or used as a rationale for public policy.

    I have several goals with my writing, but bringing an end to religion isn't among them. I'm convinced, for a variety of reasons, that some type of religious or supernatural belief will always appeal to significant fraction of the human population. My primary reasons for writing have been to make the non-believing population (whatever they choose to call themselves) feel less alone, and to spark an ongoing debate with the hope of eliminating the cultural taboo against criticizing religion.

    Thanks again,


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