Beyond Beliefnatalie_angier.jpg

By Jesse Tisch 


A vocal defender of science and evolution, journalist Natalie Angier has covered science for The New York Times since 1990, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. But it’s her writing on religion that’s drawn the most attention. In a 2001 Times magazine essay, she took on Christianity and President Bush, noting his recourse to prayer (as if “prayer is some sort of miracle Vicks VapoRub”) and his open religiosity. Since then, she’s lampooned creationism while defending her right to send up “religious sentiment.” “It’s not that I would presume to convert a believer,” she wrote in her 2001 Times piece. “Still, the current climate of religiosity can be stifling to nonbelievers, and it helps now and then to cry foul.”

Angier, whose latest book is
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, spoke in 2007 to Secular Culture & Ideas about those subjects and her other notorious essay, “My God Problem—and Theirs” (The American Scholar), in which she needled scientists who “kowtow” to religion.

Excerpts from the conversation follow.


Your essays in the Times and The American Scholar got quite a reaction. In addition to outing yourself as an atheist, you also managed to “out” several readers who loved or loathed your writing, and said so in letters to the editor.

The problem with the Times piece is that they found the half-dozen negative responses, whereas the overwhelming majority was supportive. Readers said how glad they were to hear somebody express their dissatisfaction with the situation in America today. And everyone started off the same way: “I’m sure this will be the only good letter that you receive…”

Do you think that’s because there are so few atheists out there? Or are they just very disorganized?

I think it’s probably a combination. The problem with being an atheist is that you’re not often in a position where you’re publicly declaring your stance. You’re not going to church; you’re not talking about your faith to get votes. It’s just not something you normally discuss.

You’ve written about a first wave of atheism, which ended rather badly. Do you see a more positive campaign emerging today?

Absolutely. After the 2004 election, I think that most people, even believers, felt like the religious right had taken over, and we just had to push back. Now you do have this very vigorous kind of atheism coming to the fore, expressed in books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.

They seem to be the rare scientists who criticize religion. Is that because, as you’ve suggested, scientists are afraid to jeopardize their (publicly funded) research grants?

It’s true—scientists are in a position of depending on taxpayer money. But then they get into this funny game of cherry-picking, “Well, you can believe this but not that…” They’re pretty vitriolic when it comes to attacking astrology or spoonbending, but when it comes to the idea of an all-knowing God, they just won’t go there.

What are your thoughts on the afterlife?

As far as I can see, there is zero evidence for a sustained personality after death. Now it’s true that our atoms and molecules are definitely recycled. But that’s not what people want. People want to have their personalities survive along with memory of every game of soccer their kids won. Then you have to say, well gee, the evidence looks pretty bad. One of the problems I have with religion, in fact, is that it’s stifled the ability of society to deal with death. We’re this highly aware species, how do we deal with the fear of death? Oh! I know. Let’s pretend we don’t die! Which is what religion is, it’s pretending we don’t die.

You mentioned having a hair-trigger temper, but you seem to have more of a hair-trigger sense of humor when it comes to needling religious types.

Well, I try to use humor because humor is perhaps the best of all the human qualities. We all know that if there is difficulty in any situation and somebody cracks a good line, it just is a tremendous stress reliever.

At this point, some readers are probably wondering what our interview is doing on Can you talk about your connection to Judaism?

Sure. When my parents met, both of them were basically running away from their religious upbringing. At some point, my father kind of rediscovered his Christianity and went through a period of going to church and even took my youngest brother off and had him baptized on the sly, which my mother was really upset about. And so that kind of started off a little bit of religious wars. So we celebrated Christmas and we celebrated Chanukah, and we went to Passover Seder and there was a whole mix of all this stuff. I had a funny upbringing in that regard.

But you don’t seem to identify as a cultural Jew.

It seems to me that the two things about Judaism are the food laws and the Sabbath. Right? These are the things. Can I identify as a Jew, when identifying as anything is fraught for me? So it’s much more complicated than usual, whereas my husband Rick has none of that problem. He definitely identifies as a Jew, even as he is, as so many American Jews are, vaguely anti-Semitic.

How do you mean?

We were sitting in a restaurant once, looking through this window, watching a Jewish New York guy tying a table to the top of his car. And he’s winding this thing up until it looks like some kind of insect inside a spider’s web, this thing’s so tied up. And Rick’s watching this, going, “Oh, this is so embarrassing. This is terrible.” Rick just sees this kind of thing, and he thinks that it’s somehow part of the whole culture that he doesn’t care for.

Are you saying Jews can’t tie knots?

I’m saying that Rick thinks that, and that I may not disagree, having seen some of the members of my mother’s side of the family when it comes to this. But—you don’t think the term Jewish handyman is something of an oxymoron?

Jewish point guard, maybe…

It’d be interesting—if you could put that question to the readers. It’s almost just part of what different cultures emphasize. Sort of the life of the mind and the life of scholarship that has been a legacy of the Jewish upbringing, verses the kind of handiness, knowing how to fix a leaky sink, or knowing how to tie a table to a car top without needing to clean out Home Depot. It’s kind of hard to have a cultural identity without naturally giving rise to stereotypes, though, isn’t it?

Jesse Tisch is the assistant editor of Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.

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