Cathleen Falsani – The God Factor

June 09, 2006

Cathleen Falsani is the religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, where she has covered spirituality and popular culture from Vatican City, Ireland, the White House, the Playboy Mansion and the dugout at Wrigley Field. In her first book, The God Factor, she recounts her discussions about God and morality with more than 30 prominent figures who hold various religious and nonreligious worldviews, including such diverse personalities as Sen. Barack Obama, Melissa Etheridge, Hugh Hefner and Jeffrey Sachs, the noted economist. Falsani is a graduate of Wheaton College, and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University as well as a master’s degree in theological studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In this discussion with DJ Grothe, she comments on the religious or skeptical perspectives of the famous public figures profiled in her book, exploring a possible correlation between science and religious skepticism, and argues for the need for a more tolerant, open dialogue on religious issues.

Also in this episode, Point of Inquiry contributor Lauren Becker shares a secular and humanist view of traditional marriage.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 9th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York on the new science and the public master’s degree. We also have branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and eleven cities around the world. Every week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most central questions of our culture. The big sacred cow issues, we focused mostly on three research areas. First, there’s pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, secularism and religion. The intersection of religion and science in our society. We explore these areas by drawing on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Cathleen Falsani. She is the religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of the new book The God Factor Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. But first, here’s our favorite, Lauren Becker, with a look at the historic political and socio economic role of marriage in pre Hellenistic Mediterranean cultures. Wait, what’s that? 

Let’s talk about sex. No, wait, marriage. I’m supposed to be talking about marriage. But perhaps you can forgive my confusion this past week. Americans witnessed the greatest confusion over sex and marriage since, well, since we suffered through the same thing last year. It’s June. And marriage is in the air. But since it’s an election year, same sex marriage is filling the airwaves. Conservatives and the religious right spent three days this week furiously working to protect marriage from an evil homosexual plot to redefine their most traditional institution. Since there is no constitutional reason for limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, the only option is to change the constitution. And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. Enter the Marriage Protection Amendment. An amendment to the Constitution that says marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Supporters claim to be protecting the most fundamental institution of civilization, as evidenced by thousands of years of tradition. Of course, as far as definitions go, this is nonsense. And I don’t mean that in a trite, flippant way. It’s literally nonsensical. Any historian, anthropologists, sociologists will tell you the only thing traditional about the definition of marriage is that it’s always changing. It’s too tiresome to delineate the many variations of marriages across time and cultures that so easily refute today’s traditional marriage claim. Suffice to say that there are so many examples of marriage traditions that encouraged polygamy, homosexuality and out of wedlock sex that today’s definition where boy meets girl, they fall in love. That love is made legitimate with a public ceremony after which the couple begins to have sex, create children and remain monogamous till death do they part. This fairy tale is so historically uncommon. It’s more often the exception rather than the rule. So they say we’re not talking about traditional harems in Egypt and India. We’re not talking about homosexual coming of age rituals in New Guinea and Indo European peoples, gay Greeks and lesbian marriages in China. Irrelevant. We’re talking about America here and the sacred Judeo Christian marriage tradition as ordained by God. Setting aside the fact that this whole issue now becomes moot in light of the First Amendment establishment clause, let’s consider traditional Judeo-Christian marriage. Though the traditionalists would rather us believe otherwise. Even this has been changing. But this change is hardly the fault of gays wanting to marry. In fact, there’s a good argument that our heterosexual founding fathers are responsible for the redefining of marriage. That is so troubling the religious conservatives. America’s revolutionary ideas of individual liberty, freedom from tyranny, freedom of religion and conscience and equal justice. These ideas have permeated American society since our founding. They’ve affected and reformed every social institution. Divine kings are gone. State churches are gone. Slavery is out. And civil rights are in. Marriage, especially traditional Judeo Christian marriage has been the last holdout of patriarchal privilege and acceptable inequality. The last place associated with a loss of liberty and freedom. That’s why the push to legalize gay marriage elicits some great jokes. Of course, gays should be able to marry. Why shouldn’t they be as miserable as the rest of us? This sentiment reflects an honest portrayal of history. Far from love and happiness, traditional Judeo Christian marriage has been defined by legalized hierarchy, preservation of power and property. Women in labor and child laborers. In other words, marriage was defined by sex and the sexual reproductive functions of a male female coupling. When people talk about protecting the traditional definition of marriage, this is what they mean. Women and children subordinate to men and the state for the purpose of propagating power and populating a domain. They are talking about protecting limited traditional roles that, against a backdrop of American individualism and self actualization, have lost their credibility and their appeal. Americans don’t do well with limitations. We are famously free. And freedom is having the ability to make choices. So long before a gay marriage entered the picture, we started to change the meaning of marriage to match the meaning of America. Over the past century, the meaning and purpose of marriage has evolved from a limited role of reproduction into a full-blown expression of individual desires for life, love and happiness. That in it, wonderful come together by finding a joining a soulmate and an intimate and lasting relationship with a few rare and accidental exceptions. This is an entirely new understanding of the purpose of marriage, though intimate sexual relations are certainly a part of this new equation. They are no longer the reason for marriage. The only difference between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple is the sex part, the physical part. When people say that same sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry, they tacitly admit that to them. Marriage is primarily about sex. A limited and restricted definition that actually diminishes marriage if this traditional definition of marriage is failing. It’s because marriage for sex is no match for marriage, for love. When you remove the spend and double speak of the past week, supporters of the Marriage Protection Amendment aren’t really interested in protecting marriage. They’re trying to protect a very limited interpretation of marriage. That flies in the face of our American principles of freedom, choice and the pursuit of happiness. Religious contracts based on sex are as out of place in America as arranged marriage and feudalism. If we really want to protect marriage, we must redefine it. When marriage is about more than sex, when it’s about life, love and happiness. It makes sense that everyone, straight or gay, will make the commitment and it makes sense for society to encourage them. 

Tom Flynn here. Did you know millions of Americans lead value rich, exuberant lives without religion? Their magazine is free inquiry. I’m the editor. And I invite you to call one 800 four five eight one three six six. During business hours, New York Time request a free sample copy or subscribe mentioned point of inquiry for our biggest discount. That’s one 800 four five eight one three six six. 

I’m pleased to be joined this week on Point of Inquiry by Cathleen Falsani, the religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her tenure at the paper, she’s reported on religion and society from such diverse locations as Vatican City, Ireland, Germany, the Caribbean, the West Wing, the Playboy Mansion and the dugout at Wrigley Field. She writes a weekly syndicated column on religion and science, and her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Christianity Today and the Chicago Tribune. She’s here to discuss her new book, The God Factor Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Kathleen. 

It’s my pleasure to be with you. 

Kathleen, I think there’s just about nothing is fascinating is the study of religion. So I really enjoyed reading your book. Why don’t we begin by your telling us just about the circumstances that led to you writing it? 

Well, it started as a series in the paper today where I’m The Religion Reporter, which is the Chicago Sun-Times, back almost a little more than two years ago. I was asked to a three day project for our kind of sweeps month at the paper, and my only operating instructions were a three day series on religion, which is a little broad. So I start to think about some of the things that I had done in years past that I really enjoyed, and that seemed to elicit a fairly large, passionate readers. And one of them was a series of pieces I did when I traveled with Bono of U2 back in December of 2002, when he was traveling through the Midwest and South with his nonprofit organization Data trying to raise awareness and action among evangelical Christians, in particular for the AIDS emergency in sub-Saharan Africa. 

And I was filing daily stories wherein Bono and I talked a lot about his faith and how it motivates what does local activism and how he live. And from there, I you know, I’ve spent more time with him over the years and written a couple of policy pieces on a cover story for a magazine. And I really enjoyed that. It was it was challenging. It was intriguing. And so that was one of the things that I’d done. A couple other pieces columns was a reporter at the paper talking to a writer and an artist and a musician about their faith in the context of something that they were doing. And so they decided to turn that kind of attention to a very hot Senate race we had in the state at the time. It was Barack Obama. So obviously won the seat running against a fellow named Jack Ryan. 

And so I approached those two men and our sitting senator, Dick Durbin, and asked if they would talk to me about their faith. And they did privately. And so we we started the God Second project in the Sun-Times as a three day period. 

Barack Obama was the first God factor profile, Kiran. And we got a huge response and sort of expanded a little bit from there in the Chicago area. I interviewed Dustin Baker, the manager and a radio personality, Mancow Muller, and then I traveled to California and interviewed Hugh Hefner and a few other people. And by the time of that California trip and I think there was probably a book in there and I happily had an agent agree with me and we fairly quickly sold the book. 

So it started with your call it Discovering God with a major rock and roll legend. And then you explored it with all these other public figures. 

Right? I mean, the stuff I had done with Bono was kind of the catalyst. But, you know, this was not the first time I had gone looking for God and unlikely places or places to because that’s the day. 

What’s the most unexpected place you’ve found? God. I’d also be interested to know what’s the most unexpected place you’ve discovered some skepticism about God. 

Oh, goodness. Well, I mean, just superficially speaking, I don’t think people would expect to find anything intriguing about God at the Playboy Mansion. But I did have a very thoughtful man. 

Is he religious? No, he’s not religious, but he’s quite spiritual. 

Would you do me a favor? Draw draw a distinction between those two terms? I hear that distinction being made a lot, and I want to wrap my head around it. 

Well, I can tell you how I define them. There’s an analogy I like to use to sort of explain that. Between religion and spirituality is kind of the difference between bourbon and whiskey. All bourbon is with you, but not all whiskey is bourbon. 

All religion and spirituality, if not all spirituality, is religion. And by that, I mean that not all spiritual pursuits happen within the context of institutionalized religion. 

So kind of the existentialist critique of organized religion that sometimes sometimes is bad. 

And sometimes it’s not that. Sometimes it’s just, you know, personal, personal faith or ethical wrestling or philosophical pursuits. I mean, all of that has a spiritual quality to it, but it’s not necessarily religious. Religion, to me kind of implies a dogma and doctrine and practice a regular practice. 

But very specific historical context. And that’s not necessarily what people mean when they say they’re they’re spiritual. And so we have is a prime example of a man who is given quite a lot of thought and surprising to some people, to questions of faith, his own and others, and has constructed this moral universe for himself much. I’m quite outside of anything that would remotely look like Orthodox religion. 

And within that construct, he really does believe that he’s a moral man and wasn’t being flip when he said that. So, you know, that’s probably one of the more unlikely. But I suppose although I’m never surprised I a guy to show up, but as I understand it, that’s kind of God’s nature. You don’t you can’t box God in. And when you try to God usually prove otherwise. So I’m not surprised. But other people seem to be. 

And then, you know, there’s plenty of skepticism among people who we would consider our religious figures much more so than you might think. 

And by skepticism, do you mean skepticism of Orthodox religion or skepticism of existence of God in the first place? 

Sometimes it’s the latter, often the former. Sometimes it’s something all altogether, apart from that skepticism of their own faithfulness of their own worthiness. Do they really have what they think is truth? 

Is it. Is it really. Right. What if they’re all wrong? I mean, there’s plenty of that out there. And it was trying to say is that we intentionally not ask religion to be part of the book. It’s a very different kind of a book. 

Except maybe Sharpton. Right. 

I interviewed him because he’s an activist, a politician because of the cultural role, not because he’s a religious figure, because I don’t think he is. I don’t think he considers himself one. But I also know that he is a religious man. 

He’s also a very spiritual man. And I wanted to talk to him about his faith, his faith, not the role of faith and culture, not, you know, faith and politics, not an agenda. They told him I didn’t want to talk about politics. 

And you seemed to kind of even get away from doctrines in your discussions. You wanted people to talk to you about what they believed. Not necessarily about their arguments for why they believed that you weren’t very you didn’t put people on the hot seat in these interviews. 

Well, that was that was also very intentional. You know, I intentionally I’m certainly perfectly capable of it. 

If anybody is familiar with my work in the newspaper world, confronting and pointing out disconnects and things like that. But that was not the purpose of this particular adventure when I approached people to be in the book. I made it very clear that this was an opportunity for them in a safe place with a person who speaks the language of faith, my own and other words, and years of experience covering all kinds of religions, all kinds of spiritual practice to really say what they actually believe without the fear of being judged, without fear of being condemned or with me, without the fear of the writer eventually thing, whether right or wrong, whether genuine or not. Now, that said, if I thought somebody was, I think I knew they were not included in the book. That happens only once. 

I bet you a million you won’t tell me who that was. 

No, I don’t. People have asked it before. 

The reason I don’t answer it is if you can find in the chapter on John Mahoney where I said what? Which I’m only doing. Wouldn’t be very kind of person. 

Interesting. So you kind of left it up to the reader to decide for him or herself about claims of religious people or even non-religious people that you interview in the book? 

Yeah, I have a great respect for readers. And I think when you put it when you let someone talk and you let them talk in more than a few soundbites that the readers consider judge for themselves and draw their own conclusions, I don’t need to do that for them. 

And I think that’s been quite successful. Fight with one or two critics said, I really do. I mean, I have wonderful readers in Chicago who, you know, are average Joes, many of them. And they get it right. 

I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews. There have been a couple of critical ones. 

I’m very fortunate to, you know, negative reviews out of dozens that were very, very kind. 

And those were unfortunately written by women who self identify also as, in essence, Christian, who have condemned me for not condemning other people. 

I find that interesting. You’re a born again Christian yourself, identified kind of, if not very public, as public as you are. You’re out about being a born again Christian. What’s been the reaction among the evangelical community to your book? Because you seem to be really easygoing about other people having views unlike yours. And that’s not what we often think of when we think of evangelical Christianity. 

And that’s very intense on my part, because I think we should think of that, think about it. And it. It’s very disconcerting to me that the most radical revolutionary message of love and acceptance and grace we’ve ever heard has somehow morphed into the ideas of judgmentalism and mean spiritedness and unacceptance, as if Christianity is a private club. And I find that appalling. 

And so I very intentionally have begun to say that I am a born again Christian and then I am an evangelical, although I’m not quite I’m not very good at it. But I am and I have been for more than 20 years. And that that, as I understand, the Jesus of the gospel, the he seems to be fairly open to everyone. That was the idea. And not to say that he didn’t say I am the way the truth and the life, but there’s different ways to hear that. And I don’t think I think he was very, very clear about one thing. To think that you can’t argue away can’t exceed and interpret in some other way. And that was that we were called to love others and to take care of the people who who need help can take care of themselves very, very clear. And if we could just get those two things right. We’d be a lot better off and we wouldn’t have to. Maybe some of the minutia that we fixate on would take care of itself. 

But by and large, I’m starting to hear privately and now in more public ways from some prominent figures in the evangelical world who got what I was trying to do with the book and appreciate it and has been quite supportive of what I tried to do. And I have seen the value in the voices and in letting them talk. I’ve had a number of pastors, some prominent people say to me, I’ve preached sermons based on something I read in your book. Some people have reacted to it in the way that I was hoping they would. It wasn’t going to change their faith, but perhaps gave them a glimpse into the mind of the people that they say they’re trying to reach with the gospel in a way that they might not otherwise have a chance to hear it. 

I think it’s also given some people a new idea about how to engage people in conversations about faith. 

So your book is being used as a tool for evangelism among some evangelicals? 

In a way, I think I think perhaps that wasn’t its intention in terms of being an evangelical call. But I was trying to promote a kind of conversation that I don’t think we have enough of, which is a very personal conversation. It’s not a monologue. 

And I feel called as a as a Christian and as a journalist to be as respectful as I possibly can of the people that I’m interviewing and to listen very, very carefully and to represent what they’re saying accurately and truthfully, both in in exactly what they said in the spirit of what they were saying. And and that’s something I do because of what I understand my faith calling me to do, and that other people saw that and understood that and found value in it and are now pointing it to other people saying, hey, take a look at this. 

It is quite rewarding. As somebody who you know, on even my best days, a large portion of the more conservative evangelical, the more politically conservative evangelical crowd would like to take me out of the big evangelical tent and I’m holding onto the left side of tent flap. It’s rewarding. 

Your discussion about the evangelical response, both his positive response you just mentioned and the negative response. And I’ve seen some of the negative response in some of the reviews and I imagine some of the leadership of the evangelical right, if not the evangelical left. Don’t take kindly to the implications of some of your discussions, which is that we should listen to our cultural competitors more rather than just evangelizing and trying to convince other people of our own point of view. Well, that whole discussion. Your comments just now make me think about the role of religious role models. You began this whole project with Bano and you won’t immediately think of him as a religious role model. You talk about being a born again Christian, even though you’re not very good at it. But in a sense, then you then you talk about how that served as a model or at least this kind of engagement with the cultural competition, if you can let me use that term, has served as a model. Do you think that the evangelical right or evangelicals in general in America, Kathleen, have many role models who are exemplifying these kind of virtues that you explore in the book? 

Well, first of all, it is in response to a couple of things he said. I think Bono would throw up if he heard you refer to him as a religious role model. And he certainly did not hold himself up as one yet. 

He’s using his influence and his fame to do good works that you find not a whole lot of other evangelical Christians, at least that level of public figure doing right. 

Well, there aren’t a whole lot of evangelical Christians. And he is one, by the way, who are that well-known. There aren’t very many people in the world. 

There is one other thing is that there are plenty of people who are Christians who are doing the same kind of work and have been for for a very, very long time. And now they’re you know, as I just said, there aren’t many people in the world who have the kind of stature that Bono does. 

And for him to tie his faith and what he understands, explicit call of the gospel to the work that he’s doing on behalf of the poorest of the poor. 

And the least of those among us is unique in culture because of who he is. 

So he might not consider himself a role model, but. Others could, right? 

And I think rightly so. 

There’s always a danger in that because then you’re protecting pedestal on. Anytime we do that, it’s. The other thing I wanted to respond to is a cultural competitor. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. In my world, if you set up a paradigm of us and them, you’re in trouble. 

We’re all God’s children. God loves all of us equally. 

My understanding now, Kathleen, I should make it clear that most of the listeners to point of inquire are skeptical about the existence of God. But we like having this discussion with you on on the show. 

Well, thank you. And I appreciate that. And I’m just speaking from my own understanding. And I think it’s not a bad way to look at the world, even if you don’t believe in a God. 

And one of the things the book is backed up with a quote from a philosophy professor of mine, Arthur Home, who said, All truth is God. Now, that thing that’s working within the context of believing in God. That’s a very important point that I think a lot of people of faith kind of miss out on. I think they have a corner on the truth and it gets rather arrogant. And I’m not arrogant enough to think I have everything down pat. And I’m right about everything. And the point of my point of starting the book with that book is saying, if it’s true in my understanding of how the world is, it comes from God and it doesn’t matter who the truth is coming from. It’s it’s true. It’s God. And if it’s true, it’s right. And see it to honor that. And you even you have to approach people with that kind of respect. It’s the same idea in Indian culture, for instance, and Hinduism in Buddhism, the idea of an on off day, you know, the highest destiny. Great. 

The highest and best new, recognizing the sameness or recognizing the oneness or recognizing that entity. And each of us, however, you want to describe that every religion has that idea. 

And that’s that’s part of religion and some ethical, non-religious ways of looking at the world, too. 

And one of the people that I found most intriguing in the book is the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who is not religious, does not believe in God, and yet lived his life based on those very ideas that I read. 

Right. That leads me to maybe the last point of our discussion, something that we look at a lot on point of inquiry, the intersection between secularism and religion and ethics and why people are good, the arguments people have for their morality these days. There’s a lot of arguments in the public sphere about moral values, questions, and people argue that you can’t be good unless you believe in God, but you just held up. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the leading economists of our day, a major figure in public science and public health, who seems to draw a line between his world view, which is nonreligious and his ethical way of living in the world. When you interviewed Barry Scheck, the famous lawyer, Barry Scheck, he said something like and he doesn’t intuit the presence of God, but it doesn’t follow that he’s a rotten person. He calls himself a scientific humanist or secular humanist. Here’s here’s the question. You’ve said in your writings elsewhere that you’ve met people where the God gene is just missing. Maybe you meant that metaphorically, but over 90 percent of the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic. And we’ve had some of the world’s leading scientists and thinkers on point of inquiry. They tend to be skeptical about God and the supernatural. Barry Scheck, as I mentioned, is as a critical thinker. He doesn’t believe in God. 

Do you think that there is a relationship between being scientific, the kind of critical point of view of science and being a religious skeptic unserved or is I mean, if you live in the realm and function in the realm where you’re looking for physical evidence of whatever point you’re trying to make, where he thesis you’ve been through. 

Yeah. I mean, there is no scientific evidence to think that this is a God. That’s a leap of faith. 

But that’s a controversial claim among some evangelicals. 

There’s no scientific. 

Listen, I’m an evangelical and I mean, I can look at the world around me and say, I don’t see how this could have been the chance to see it that you see in this difficult world how that this happen by chance. I think that’s a big for me. I think a leap of faith and or an equal leap of faith. 

Well, I would agree it. Any scientists who says it’s all chance, I think he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I’d agree with you on that. 

You can’t look at the figures that you just cited and say that there is cornflake there. I think there is. But I also think that there. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. 

I know a number of scientists who are believers of various flavors. And I don’t think you necessarily have to check your faith in order to be a scientist or check your intellect or to be a believer. So, yeah, it’s very interesting, actually, that the project that I am thinking about exploring is for scientists about this very issue. 

Well, that’s a book that that I will wait to read. It sounds equally interesting, if not even slightly more interesting than this current project. Kathleen, after someone reads your book, what do you want them to be thinking about when it comes to religious worldviews? 

Aside from just knowing the religious world views of these 30 people, I hope that they’d be more willing to listen to the people around them and to ask you more questions and to wait for the answer. 

One thing that gratifies us most here at the Center for Inquiry is that even with people who believe, unlike us, we often agree in the questions. We might not agree about the answers. But we love that conversation. I appreciate you being on point of inquiry, Kathleen. 

Truly a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with contributors to the new book, Science versus Intelligent Design. Some people say we treat that subject too much. I think it is an important topic that needs ever more attention, especially from the critical rationalists, the scientific point of view. If you want to get involved with an online conversation about Cathleen Falsani, his book The God Factor and today’s episode go to w w w dot CFI dash forums, dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. The point of inquiry’s music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalan, contributors to today’s show. 

Thomas Donnally, Sarah Jordan and Lauren Beck. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.