SCOTT SIMON, host:
Eric Sevareid had a nice phrase that might be applied to many agnostics. He once wrote: I hope that I have not only the courage of my convictions, but of my doubts.
Michael Krasny has a new book that tries to describe the inner terrain of agnostics who crave spiritual lives, but don't necessarily find them in religion. His book is called "Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest." And Michael Krasny, who is a professor of literature at San Francisco State University, joins us from the studios of KQED, where he hosts the popular and laurelled program FORUM each day.
Michael, thanks so much for being with us
Professor MICHAEL KRASNY (Host, "Forum"): Delighted to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: What do you say to atheists, who as you note in the book, say that agnostics are essentially atheists who lack conviction?
Prof. KRASNY: They do say that and there is a certain disdain from particularly a lot of the atheists, I've noticed, where agnostics are concerned. It's like we don't have the conviction or we're wishy-washy or we simply aren't resolute enough. I see things differently than that, obviously. I think that it takes, like Sevareid's quote, a certain modicum of courage to say I don't know, and not to even necessarily flirt with absolutes, although one would like them in one's life. I think nowadays many of the atheists are simply really quite militant about their atheism and pretty certain about it as well.
SIMON: Do times like these, meaning the season as much as anything else, do agnostics crave the comfort of ritual?
Prof. KRASNY: I personally crave the comfort of ritual not only in the season but throughout my life, and I think that there's something to be said for ritual, there's something to be said for the mystery of life, for the elevation of what we call the soul, although we don't know that we have one. What agnostics, I think, who feel this kind of spiritual hunger are sensing and experiencing, as I understand it, and it does seem to me to be universal and certainly is something I've heard from many other agnostics, is a desire for the knowledge that would give them faith or would give them a greater understanding of the impenetrable mysteries. It's just a recognition that that knowledge is not there. It may be there. It may be sort of like Godot's characters, as I often see it, waiting for a knowledge to come that may indeed come or may simply not come.
SIMON: We are more or less in the same line of business and we have to learn how to get along with all kinds of people. This being said, do you tend to be more comfortable with believers or non-believers?
Prof. KRASNY: I think it depends. I think actually, I would like to throw the question back to you, because this is what we do for a living, this is our business, asking questions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KRASNY: But that's not because of timorousness. It's just because I find some people of faith to be delightful and pleasant company and interesting and highly intelligent.
Mr. KRASNY: For you too, Scott?
SIMON: Yeah, that would absolutely be my answer. And I guess what I am trying to figure out is, is there some lesson to be abstracted from that, that ultimately belief or non-belief doesn't matter when it comes to being a decent human being.
Mr. KRASNY: I think that's very well said. And I would say here-here to that. It's the individual and what the individual has to give and what the individual feels in the way of kindness and compassion and all those things that we value or should value as a civilization.
SIMON: How do you feel about the - what's often decried as the secularization of the holidays?
Mr. KRASNY: I'm not so concerned personally about the secularization of the holidays as I am by the commercialization of the holidays. I think if you're going to give a kind of deference to your faith and invest the time and the sacred notion of what it's all about, then it ought to be about that.
But I think people of faith - and I speak here as a person who has wanted faith and, you know, had envy of those who have faith - I think people of faith ought to be more anchored in their faith. They can certainly be afflicted by doubt.
And I think this is something I've learned from writing this book, that so many people of faith have read this book and found it meaningful because they've wrestled with doubt in ways that, frankly, I wrestle with doubt and many people wrestle with doubt, whether they're anchored in a strong faith or not. Some of the greatest religious thinkers of our time have wrestled with doubt to a great degree.
But I think the holiday ought to be a time of what it's supposed to be -spirit.
SIMON: Do children change everything when it comes to working these issues out?
Mr. KRASNY: I think children can provide dramatic change. I have noticed a lot of people coming up to me in the wake of this book of mine and saying I feel the way you do. I'm uncertain. You know, I believe in the uncertainty of certainty - or the certainty of uncertainty, the uncertainty of certainty, or I just don't know and I'm willing to say I don't know. But what do I tell my kids? And I think this really gets very deep and profound in many people. Dare I say in their souls.
And one of the answers that I try to provide - and I don't, like I say, try to provide answers had a lot of the right questions, I hope but is - maybe have the courage to say to your children I don't know and let them find what they need to find on their own path, whatever that may be. But that doesn't mean necessarily turning one's back on what religion can offer in the way of ritual, in the way of community.
You know, there's this new book out by Robert Putnam which says that people derive so much from religion, but it has more to do with the community, with meeting in worship and with seeing each other and with having groups as a result of whatever they do in the way of worship.
And this is, I think, an important thing for people to remember. If you like the music, if you like the food, if you like the fellowship or whatever you want to call it, what's wrong with that? And that's something that elevates the spirit as we may understand the spirit.
SIMON: Michael Krasny, who hosts FORUM on member station KQED in San Francisco, has a new book, "Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest."
Michael, thanks so much.
Mr. KRASNY: Thank you so much, Scott.