Nica Lalli – Nothing: Something to Believe In

March 30, 2007

Nica Lalli is an art educator working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She also writes a weekly column in the Brooklyn Paper.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Nica talks about her new and acclaimed memoir of growing up nonreligious, Nothing: Something to Believe In. She also explores how to relate to devout relatives, the need to “come out” as a nonbeliever, and what she does believe in, if she doesn’t believe in God.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 30th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo. See if I has branches in Manhattan. Tampa, Hollywood. Washington, DC. And Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in addition to 14 other cities around the world. Before we get to this week’s guest, Nick Alali, I want to thank all of our listeners who have written in or posted in the blogosphere. I guess they call it very positive things about point of inquiry. It helps get the word out, of course, and it also helps us advance our educational mission. Point of inquiry seeks to advance science and reason through these fun discussions we try to have each week. I also want to invite our listeners to get involved with our online discussion forums at CFI dash forums dot org. Here you can meet and argue with thrash it out with people from all over the world who care about the same issues. Ostensibly, if you listen to point of inquiry every week that you care about and you’ll have a lot of fun in the process. So get to those forums and dig in CFI dash forums, dot org. And now, before we get to the guest, a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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My guest this week is Nico Laali, an art educator working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She also has a weekly column in the Brooklyn paper. 

She’s on the show to discuss with me her book. Nothing. Something to Believe In. Which is a memoir of her experiences growing up and coming to terms with really being someone who answers to the question, what religion are you? With the word nothing. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Nico Laali, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you. 

Nikka, let’s start out talking about the book itself. Nothing. It’s just out and it’s already been receiving really positive reviews. Publisher’s Weekly said, and I quote, that the book is well-written, acerbically, funny. It’s an edgy quest for meaning outside the boundaries of organized religion. There are a ton of other positive reviews as well. Let me ask, are you surprised that such a controversial book about nonbelief? I mean, you’re talking about not believing in God. Are you surprised that such a controversial book or at least a book about a controversial subject is getting such positive reactions? 

I’m really not, because I think that there are a lot of people out there who do not believe, as I do not believe. And what I mean by that is that I’m not a sort of a chest beating, angry polemic atheist. I’m a sort of a quieter, more personal. I actually like to call myself a pink atheist because I’m I really don’t have that much of an ax to grind with the world around me. I would like people to respect me. And what I find that these reviews show is that there is respect for nonbelief out there. 

So there’s respect for nonbelief out there. Some people are easygoing enough not to mind that you don’t believe in their God. But you’re talking about these big questions, controversial questions. And you’re not a theologian. You’re not a scientist. You’re not a philosopher. Yet you’re treating questions that give most people the meaning that they have in their lives, or at least that they think they have questions that most people think are the most important questions that you could possibly ask. You’re talking about not believing in God. What gives you the qualifications to treat such big topics? Why should anybody be paying attention to your message? You’re writing a memoir about being what, an atheist? Is it just an interesting story or do you have some authority to be speaking on this? 

The only authority I have is that I’m a human and that I spend time thinking. I spend a lot of time wondering, you know, my own sort of brand philosophizing about why things are the way they are, why people believe what they believe in and what where I sit in on the spectrum. I’m definitely do not want any knowledge of this book and think they’re going to get a scientific explanation of why God is right or wrong or good or bad. I just wanted to put my story out there as a person in America in this time and this place who has lived a pretty normal life. I mean, I don’t have any real skeletons in the closet. I was not, you know, locked in isolation as a child or anything terrible like that. I had a very normal childhood and I’m an active member of my community. I’m a very positive thinking person. I have lots of things that I believe in. That I hold dear. But I just don’t believe in God. 

And I I wrote the book really as an answer to people who tend to demonize, for lack of a better word. Those of us who don’t believe and who tend to think that what we are is people who need to be saved. People who have a void that needs to be filled. And I strongly think that this book speaks to that and says, no, I really don’t. I don’t need them. 

So you didn’t just write the book to tell these beautiful these funny stories of your childhood. There is more of an agenda. That’s the agenda to tell people, hey, it’s all right to not believe. Let me ask. Do you buy the argument that some atheist writers have these days with this current slate of these bestselling books about not believing in God that the time is right to finally start speaking out as nonreligious people? These books kind of show a righteous indignation at the excesses of religion in our society and that it’s time to organize and and come out, as it were. 

Well, I read the Richard Dawkins book. I’m actually reading it right now, The God Delusion. And I’ve read the Sam Harris books, The End of Faith and Letter to Christian Nation. 

One thing I have to say about those those books is that those were the first books that I read where I said, oh, wow, there are a lot of people out there who are like me. 

And in the beginning of the Richard Dawkins book, he makes a. Call out people and says it is time. And what I think. I don’t necessarily think that we have to be a marching army of nonbelievers, but I think that we have to stop being ashamed of ourselves. And I think that we’d have to start having confidence and that that was very difficult for me to have as an adult without God in her life. But I do think we need to start gaining confidence. And when people talk about what church they go to war or what religion they belong to, I think that, you know, for me saying I’m nothing, I don’t have a church I don’t believe in God is no longer a scary thing for me. And it is partly because of these other books that I have felt more comfortable and of course, partly because I went on my own journey and recorded it and have it now as a book to point to as well. 

One of my favorite sections of the book is early on. When you talk about that struggle of of where you fit in as a non-religious, a young person, would you mind reading a section from that that kind of expresses being nothing? 

Yes, well, in the second chapter, I’ve decided to ask my parents, what are we? And I ask. I decided to ask him that question because my friend Michel was having her first communion. And I wanted to have that that outfit that that you get when you get to go to the church and have that little ceremony. So I decided to ask them and this is what they told me. 

So I said, what are we? Both of my parents had looks of utter confusion on their faces. I had really stumped them. After a pause. My dad asked for clarification. You know, what are we. What do we believe in? I asked. I mean, like, are we Catholic? I asked the last part, hopefully raising my eyebrows at them and nodding a little as they waited for the answer. When I said my mother, your father was Catholic, but he isn’t anymore. And then I’m going to skip over to to the next page where I say. Look, I repeat it. It’s like this all my friends or something. Stephanie is a Unitarian. Suzy is a Jew. Michelle’s Catholic and Lucy’s Presbyterian. So I just want to know, what am I? I smiled at them to make them feel better. But I was getting pretty nervous, too. Nothing. My father was looking right at me. He had a pleasant, friendly kind of expression. Nothing. He said again. That’s right, said my mother. She seemed relieved that dad had just said it. Nothing at all. Not any religion. My family’s Jewish. Of course. But we don’t practice Judaism. We don’t go to temple. She was losing me. How can we be nothing? We have to be something. Everyone is something. I was beginning to get upset. Not only were my dreams of marching down an aisle, just an immaculate white with stained glass and candles all around fading. It was worth fireworks. We were actually nothing. Zero. Not really here. Absent, not a part of the rest of the world. We were outsiders. Losers. 

A void that sums up what you were dealing with as a child. That that everyone something you should be something to. Now you’re advocating that being nothing isn’t really being nothing. It’s being something. What is it being? 

Well, that’s an excellent point. I did spend a lot of my childhood very frightened about this word, this idea, especially the part where nothing feels like a void that is waiting to be filled. And I did spend a lot of my childhood and young adulthood thinking that there were religious people who were going to come in and force things on me. Actually, that did happen. My in-laws, my sister in law and her husband are fervent believers. They’re Christian Born-Again or Fundamentalist. And they told me that I was actually mistaken, that I wasn’t nothing. What I was, in fact, was wrong. And I hate that word even more than I hate the word nothing. Or at that point, hated the word nothing. I don’t like being told I’m wrong. And I felt it was just a terrible thing to say. I spent many years being very upset about that. And in some ways, that’s part of the reason that I decided to start writing, was to figure out what I really was because I realized that I like I couldn’t possibly just be wrong. And when I thought about the other word that I was familiar with in terms of describing what I am, it was nothing. And I thought, well, neither of those words are really very good. But what has happened is I’ve embraced nothing because to me it sort of turns inside out on itself and becomes everything. 

And that’s really where I am. And in terms of wanting to convey a message, if there is a message, it’s that that nothing really is. Indeed, it can be embraced. It can be celebrated. It can be part of your life in a positive way. 

So you don’t call yourself atheist. It’s like you don’t even want to use the word theist because it’s referring to something you don’t believe in. You call yourself nothing when someone asks what your religion is. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t believe in anything. 


I’ve toyed with a lot of different titles in this department and I’ve rejected a lot of them. I mean, Agnostic was really safe for a long time. It was just easy to leave it as a question mark and kind of move on. But that didn’t really feel honest. Didn’t feel right. I used to say atheist until a friend of mine pointed out, well, but you still you know, it’s still an ism. It’s you’re still in effect. And I thought, well, I don’t really want to be an ism. I don’t want to be part of anything. And and so nothing became very comfortable. 

But let me ask you, you’re saying obviously you don’t believe in God. A lot of people don’t believe in God. They call themselves atheist or agnostic or Noller citizen or a rationalist or humanist or whatever it is. But surely you’re not latching onto the word nothing because you believe in absolutely nothing. What are you saying when you die, your dad that life ultimately has no meaning, that the world is called and without hope, that there’s no reason to do anything because there’s, you know, there’s just nothing to believe in. 

Well, you know, that’s that’s sort of the irony of the statement. I’m actually seeing exactly the opposite. I’m saying that life is so full of everything that I don’t need a belief in the afterlife in order to carry me through. I think that we live here on this earth and that everything we do is meaningful and important. I think that people make our lives complete and rich and add to our experiences in every way possible, both positive and negative, but always to just more experience. 

I think that family and community are extremely important. I have a lot of beliefs really that are based on. Humans, but I think that the word nothing allows me to feel comfortable with in all of that. And I don’t have to sit there and label every single thing as as you know. This is the first thing I think, and then this is the next thing. I don’t really have a manifesto. I just have. I just have a life that I live and that I really enjoy and that I try to share with as many people as I can. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you could purchase Nikolai book nothing through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg Ninka favorite section of mine that talks about that, meaning that you were just talking about. You know, if there’s no ultimate meaning to the universe or no God or no life after death while you still have important thoughts about those topics, it’s your chapter entitled Open Casket. It’s about what you do believe in. Would would you mind just reading a little section from that? 

Well, I had a very elderly Italian grandmother who died when I was in my 20s. So we had a Catholic funeral for her and add to graveside. 

There was this marvelous brother, Brother Bernard, and a baby came lazily buzzing through the flowers and he said that that was a very good sign. He told us it was a sign of everlasting life, of eternal life. 

Later in the day, I sort of was thinking about what death meant to my grandmother versus what death meant to me. And a rate as we eat of lobster, fried diavolo and linguini vongole. I thought of grandma. She had been born in a different century in a town that was most likely wiped away by an earthquake in a country she never saw again. She traveled by boat to New York as a teenager and had an arranged marriage to my cruel grandfather. She lived her life cooking, cleaning, working and raising her children after she was widowed. She went to church, to the market. She got old and then she died. Brother Bernard was sure she was a child of God and that God would take care of her for eternity. After all the suffering she had endured in this life, it hardly seems fair. Why did she have to suffer so much while on this earth? I tried to take comfort in the fact that there was the possibility of reward and death. And I thought of bee buzzing lazily in the flowers of her death. I wondered if a bee was indeed hauling to the world beyond offering hope of the sweet hereafter. I wondered if she would get to heaven just because she believed in it. I knew she was dead and in that dark, scary hole in the ground next to the old coffin that held her not so beloved husband. I knew that the idea of life after death was not one I could hold on to, not even for the comfort it could bring. I hadn’t liked to cough in the grave or the whole ritual that we had just gone through. I would be cremated. That was for sure. I can take comfort in that. As for my grandmother, if there was comfort for her in death, I hoped she had found it. But there was in the finality that I saw in death or in the eternity that she saw in it. 

What I like most about the book are all of these Welspun stories of your childhood about trying to fit in when everybody else was religious and you weren’t. Also throughout your whole life. What it strikes me, though, is you never really felt the need to get into fisticuffs with people about them believing things unlike you believed, about people believing things you thought were nonsense. 

One of the reasons that I never engaged in any real debate with people was because I was fairly terrified of the subject of religion. I knew from an early age that I was very ill equipped to discuss it or even to understand it. It remained a fairly taboo and sort of deep, dark mystery subject to me for much of my life. 

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and confronted by my in-laws and challenged by them that I really started to feel that I needed to define more who I was. And, you know, now if somebody wanted to debate me, I would feel a lot more comfortable. But that’s partly because I’m more confident about who I am. 

Do you think it’s important that if you develop that kind of confidence that you do engage in this kind of cultural competition in our society? Call it the culture wars, but it doesn’t have to be around those issues like stem cell research or cloning. It could just be about these big questions. Does God exists? Do we live after death? Do you think it’s important that people talk about these things even if you didn’t talk about them yourself earlier on? 

I think that religion is a deeply personal subject. I’ve never really understood why anybody wants to put religion into a public forum. 

Of course, and I’ve written a book about my beliefs. 

So that’s a bit of a statement. However, I do think that it’s time for us to have more productive discussions about religion. 

I think what we really need to do is understand one another, believers and nonbelievers. And then I think we need to move on in as much as that’s possible. And I know for a small faction of each group, that will not be possible. But I think there are many of us who don’t really want to fight. 

We just want to make our culture stronger and our society better. And I really do think that I’m one of those people. 

You seem unlike some of my best friends who call them village atheists, maybe, whose idea of a good time is just getting together with people who disagree with them about God and arguing it out all night, all day long. 

You talk about your sister in law and how she was religious and confronted you and in a sense told you you were wrong to not be religious. How do you navigate that territory when someone you love or someone in your family believes so, unlike you, regarding these fundamental issues? 

Well, one thing you can do is write a book about that. And that’ll really so am I. 

I have struggled on a very personal level with that because of my family, my husband’s family, rather, my family. Obviously, when you read the book, you will see they are much like me. 

But I think that without respect, we are lost. 

And one of the reasons that I really wanted to bring this book into the public eye, bring my story into the public eye, was because I was hoping that people might learn to respect me for my beliefs instead of saying, you don’t believe anything, you’re wrong or you’re at risk, your soul is at risk. We must save you. I would prefer people like my in-laws to say, OK, you know what? What you’re doing is good for you. And I just have to point out that my mother in law is like that. She’s a Christian woman who at one point told me that I was more Christian than Christian people. She knows because I care about people and because I make the phone call, you know, I send the card, that kind of thing. And that’s the thing to Christian people think that are believers, I should say, think that they have a corner market on that kind of thing. And it’s not really true. So what I’m really trying to do is say, you know, hey, I’m just like you. 

And a lot of ways, except for that whole belief thing, I’d like to remind our listeners that you can get a copy of Nicolelis book, this incredible and touching and funny read through our website point of inquiry dot org, nikah couple ask questions as we finish up. I was struck. I really appreciated how you appear to be an equal opportunity skeptic. You’re you’re not just skeptical about God and religion, but also about the paranormal and tarot cards. 

Yeah, I’ve dabbled in in those kinds of things a little bit, I suppose, in hopes that they would give me something but they didn’t really ever give me. Anymore than what the, you know, mainstream religions have given me. I’ve always thought that they were fun. Like a parlor game, whether it was tarot cards or for a while, my mother had this little bag of stones that she would say, oh, Paula, pull a stone. I think they’re called room from the room. Pull around and see what it tells you. And I mean, it was always fun to pull it. And. And then I would think about what it said, and I would wonder if it had any real meaning in my life. But it was nothing that I really put a lot of to use. Lack of a better word. Put a lot of faith in this. And, you know, I was thinking too recently about the paranormal. And I remember when I was at summer camp and I was very I was eight or nine years old, I had this very strange drama teacher who told me that humans only use a small part of their brain. 

And she said if humans can use their whole brain, we could make objects move. We could make things burst into flame. You know, we could control things that we can’t control now. 

And, you know, and then I went on to see, you know, movies like Harry, you know, and I thought, oh, that’s what she’s talking about. And so I always had that sort of idea that it was really all about the brain and that, you know, if you could learn to control your whole brain, that you could be the superhuman person. 

But that hope or that belief didn’t really seem to pan out as you looked into these subjects. 

No, it was always. 

It always ended up being a little bit more like science fiction, which was okay with me because I didn’t really need you know, the thing about me, as I don’t really need to understand why the universe is the way it is. I mean, I enjoy reading books about, you know, for instance, the Dawkins book The God Delusion that has a whole bunch of obviously, you know, evolutionary biology. And to me, that’s those are great things to know. But in my daily life, I just don’t need to know all these all these things. I guess I’m busy. 

I don’t need everything answered. 

But I also don’t really want all the answers. I like question mark. I don’t mind the ground shifting a little. I don’t mind not knowing. 

Do you think that’s maybe a basic difference between you and your lack of religion? You as someone who says she’s nothing and those people who are very religious, that you can handle the uncertainty, the questions not being answered. 

Definitely. I think that really I enjoy not knowing. And to me, that’s part of the richness of my day that the world is mysterious and you can enjoy that mystery. 

I have to finish up. People everywhere are talking about the new atheist movement, the secular humanist movement, especially in the context of these bestselling books. Do you see yourself as part of that movement? 

I do see myself as part of that movement, if for no other reason than because of the timing. But I also think that. Those books. 

Have strengthened me, and I hope that my voice can add something to the conversation, which I really hope takes a healthy direction and really starts to happen on more and more levels. 

Thank you very much for joining Round Point of Inquiry. Nikka. Your book is a book that I am going to enjoy giving my religious parents, even as I know they might not have enjoyed as much getting Dawkins book. This will be a fun read for them as it was for me. Thanks again for being on the show. 

Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz of Inquiry’s Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. 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.