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!