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Was it true? Well, I had a man and an audience once who, during question periods, said to me, well, this story must be autobiographical. And I said, how could it be autobiographical? It sat in the future. I took it as a prophetic possibility. I don't do a prophecy. I know you don't. But it's a blueprint of the kind of thing that human beings do when they're put under a certain sort of pressure. And I made it a rule for the writing of this book that I would not put anything into it that human societies have not already done. Now, people said when they read the Handmaid's Tale, it could never happen to you, but the fact of the matter is it had happened here under the Puritans? Oh, yes. It's happened many times. To say it was a trial, for example. Well, the Salem Witchcraft trial, and as in my opinion, one of the foundation events of American history.
And it was an event we can call it a clash between mythology and politics, if you like, because it depended very much on a belief in the invisible world. I caught a mother who was a very prominent divine of the time wrote a book called The Wonders of the Invisible World, which was all about the behavior of witches and the devil. And this is what people believed. They weren't being hypocrites when they did these things. They were actually scared of witchcraft and the devil, and they believed that the devil could work his way into their community through witches, so a serious business. But it was also a hysteria. The surprise to me has been all of this stuff I learned long ago. I thought nobody's going to be interested in this again. So what good is knowing 17th century theology ever going to be to me, or anybody else, surely nobody's interested.
And now suddenly, it's all come back, because things do go around in cycles. 17th century theology. How would you sum it up? The argument about predestination, being the elect, or the not elected. Being the elect, or the not elect, there is a heresy called the antinomian heresy. And somebody says that Tony Blair is a member, but never mind that. Under antinomianism, you're convinced that you are one of the elect. All right, that you are one of the elect, that you're destined to be elect from birth, that you're going to be saved no matter what, and therefore you can do anything. As you're already marked as one of the elect. So that, of course, just lets you do all the most atrocious things you might be inclined to do while still believing that you are justified. I think it's the kind of event that replays itself throughout history when cultures come
under stress, when societies come under stress. Those kinds of things happen, people start looking around for essentially human sacrifices. They start looking around for somebody they can blame, and they feel if only they can demolish that person, then everything is going to be okay. And it's, of course, never true, but there are these periods in history. Things aren't going well, it must be the communists. Let's have Joe McCarthy. Things aren't going well, it must be them liberals, wherever it may be. Well, what the handmaid's tale illustrates so vividly is, is that society can give up its ideals, its freedom, its values in almost frighteningly normal ways. In an almost frighteningly rapid way, conditions change, there's too much turmoil or fear of some kind than people can handle, and that's the point at which they will trade their liberties
for somebody who comes along and says, I'm a strong leader, I'll take care of it. The trains will run on time. If you wanted to take over the United States government today and set up your government, how would you do it? Well, that is more or less how, and the handmaid's tale is the answer to the question. If you were going to change the United States from a democracy into a totalitarianism, how would you go about doing it? Well, you wouldn't say, let's all be communists, you wouldn't get any takers for that. You might say a rather twisted sort of thing that would say, in order to preserve our freedoms, we have to give them up for now. You might say something like that, which is kind of, I think, what's been floating in the breeze this last little while. In order to preserve freedom, we have to demolish freedom, something like that. But you're more likely to say, this is the true religion, follow our flag.
That kind of thing. I keep in mind notebooks, something you said once you wrote, what is needed for a really good tyranny is an unquestionable idea or authority. Political disagreement is political disagreement, but political disagreement with a theocracy is heresy. That's exactly right. If your government says not only am I your government, but I represent the true religion, if you disagree with it, you're not just of another faction, you're evil. But you don't imagine that could happen here. Wondabeat. Wondaleis and Betz, as to that. I would never bet against Margaret Abbott. You'd have to have quite a lot of uproar first, but it's amazing how quickly people rolled over for the Patriot Act.
They were scared enough, so they just said, oh, okay, if that's how we solve it, fine. Just don't tell me. I don't want to know, don't tell me. Did you anticipate that you would be so vilified for suggesting in the Handmaid's tale that theocracy could happen in America? Well, what is amazed me is that theocracy that I put in the Handmaid's tale never calls itself Christian, and in fact, it never says anything about Christianity whatsoever. It's slogans, et cetera, et cetera, all from the Old Testament. So what is amazed me was the rapidity with which a number of Christians put up their hands and said, this is an insult to us. What did it mean? I mean, they hadn't read the book, meant they hadn't read the book. Because in the book, the regime does what all such regimes immediately do. It eliminates the opposition. The Bolsheviks got rid of their nearest ideological neighbors, the Mancheviks, as soon as they had the power.
They killed the lot, you know, too close to them. They got rid of any other socialists. They wanted to be the only true church brand of socialists. So any theocracy in this country would immediately eliminate all other competing religions if they could. So the Quakers in my book have gone underground. And the regime is wiping out little pockets of resistant Baptists here and there, and stringing up nuns, et cetera, which is exactly how they would operate. Because that's what happens under those kinds of arrangements. You want to be the power, the only power, anybody who could be a rival power. You get rid of them. So I am one of those people who does believe in the America of Thoreau, for instance, Thoreau, the conscientious abjector, Thoreau, the man who stood upon his principles, who refused, for instance, to pay taxes to a government that was waging the war he considered to be
unjust, went to jail for it. That is the sort of essence of the kind of American that we have all looked up to for many years. And also in your David Thoreau, who said, to affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts. Well, there you are. Yes. Is that what keeps you writing? What keeps me writing? I don't know what keeps me writing. It's one of those things I don't know. But I know you were kidnapped by literature when you were young and you've never wanted to be ransomed. That's true. Yes, that's absolutely true. Sometimes people play these silly games. They say, what would you have been if you hadn't been a writer? And I say a ballet dancer, which is helpably absurd because I get dizzy. So the answer is really nothing else. I can't imagine anything else I would rather be. In church on Sunday, we sang a 200-some-odd-year-old hymn, Franz Joseph Heiden, with some contemporary words.
In the words, go, God, you spin the hurling planets, fill the seas and spread the plane, mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind and rain. Now the scientists wouldn't have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets were old, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn't enough for us. It's not enough to know how these things happen. We need the poetry, don't we? Are we hardwired to seek that kind of meaning in life that only poetry, religion and writing can give us? OK, probably so, because we are a symbol-making creature. We seem to need, create and exist within structures of symbolism of one kind or another. We seem always to have done that as human beings. We usually date humanness from the point at which we discover some form of art. Art is always symbolic.
OK, so we've even found Neanderthal Graves, there's argument about this, but some people say, OK, this was a like us burial. That is, people put flowers in it. They put implements. It was a burial that indicated that people thought, people who did this thought. The soul was going somewhere else. And that is part of a symbolic structure in which the visible world is only part of reality. It's very interesting to talk to people about dreams and experiences they may have had. And if you tell me you're a dream, that is an experience you have had that is part of the invisible world. I can't see you having that dream. I can't prove that you had it. Boeing got your say so, and I can't then tell you, no, you didn't have that dream. No, that wasn't real.
You didn't have that dream. It's an experience that you had. It says nothing about whether there is a material reality attached to that. And they can have a profound influence on you. They can alter how you're seeing life. Are you suggesting that in the same way that the dream is a reality that we cannot measure and cannot prove, except that our experience of it confirms it for us? That religious language, the language of the Bible is also symbolic of a reality that we do not believe in. Some of it is. Some of it. Yeah, it's a very mixed bag, as you know. The Bible. Yeah, because the Bible is what it is, that is its self-contradictory, it's a very mixed literary modes, it changes as you go through the Bible, the point of view changes, the way God has perceived changes. It has been very schismatic. That is, people will take a bit of the Bible, build a religion on that, more or less ignore the rest, or say the rest doesn't matter.
And there are all kinds of groups like that that have differentiated themselves once the Catholic Church split at the time of the Reformation. There were an infinite number or a large number of other splits. So little groups have pulled off and developed their own theology, really, based on certain passages in the Bible. So you can say the Christians, but you can't make a generalization about that group called the Christians, except that they all seem to have something to do with this figure called Jesus of Nazareth, and they seem to have something to do with the New Testament. But which parts of it is the question? There are some so-called Christians who do nothing but think about the Book of Revelations with great delight, contemplating the future spectacle of everybody frying to death, except them.
The rapture. Yeah. The rapture, in the rapture, it never happens to be you who doesn't get raptured. What does the rapture say about religion and the imagination? Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's a heretical belief. The rapture idea, which seems to consist mostly of fun on a cloud while other people suffer, that I think is just opening the door to some of the worst impulses in human nature, which is- How do you explain it? Well, we have a great capacity as human beings for being self-righteous and judgmental about other people, despite the admonition, judge not less DB, judge. We do judge, and some people take it to an extreme. If you were asked to design a new human being as an improvement on the current model, would you eliminate the hunger for God? Well, that's a very good question.
I think the answer is, could you eliminate such a thing? It has been tried. It has been tried. It wasn't much of an improvement, as I recall. Where? Well, Soviet Socialist Union replaced the Christian Western structure with its own which is, in fact, another version of it. It didn't seem to be that much of an improvement. So I don't think it's a question of God or not God or religion or not religion. It's what people do with their belief system, how they use that belief system, whether they use it to really improve things for other people, or whether they use it to tyrannize over other people. So I come back to the question, if you could design a new human being, improving on the present model, would you eliminate the hunger for God?
I could not eliminate the hunger for God without eliminating language. I might, however, eliminate the desire to use God as a weapon. In other words, if I could, I would confine the hunger for God to the personal realm so that it would not become something that people used to bash other people with. Does that mean you take your stand on the side of faith? No. No, having been raised a strict agnostic. A strict agnostic? A strict agnostic. Not an atheist? No. What's the difference? What's the difference? What's the difference? Atheism is a religion. Atheism is a religion. Absolutely. You mean it's dogmatic? Absolutely dogmatic.
How so? Well, it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven. There is no God. You can't prove that. So what a strict agnostic. A strict agnostic says, you cannot pronounce as knowledge anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words, if you're going to call it knowledge, you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not. Therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief if you want to or if that is what grabs you. If you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that will be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge. When you were growing up reading the Bible regularly, what did the word God mean to you? Well, no.
It's a very nebulous word. God in the Bible, even, changes the way he appears, changes the way he interacts with human beings, appears in a number of different forms, burning bush, chariot of fire, back parts of scene by Moses walking in the garden with Adam, ancient of days, later on, still small voice, voice saying, Samuel, sometimes he's heard, sometimes you get, you never actually see an old man with a beard floating in the clouds. Not in the Bible, nobody says anything about that, dove descending, spirit descending. Never an old man with a beard in the clouds. So where did we get that? Well we probably got it from Zeus, the old Greek God, that picture, that portrayal of God as an old man with a beard in the clouds, is a lot like the Greek and Roman sculptors
of Zeus who was given or Jupiter who was given a beard to show his seniority. So Blake used to say that there was God, which was the real God, and then there was this other person called nobody, daddy, nobody, nobody, which is the false picture of God that human beings create for themselves. So the false picture of God seems to be the one that a lot of people believe in. Instead of believing in the living spirit, they believe in a tyrannical, angry person is going to squash you basically. So they believe in a series of rules and restrictions imposed by nobody, because they have a desire for rules and restrictions. Did you read Jack Miles? I love Jack Miles. His biography of God won the Pulitzer Prize, and he says in there, this God is a God of
radical unpredictability and terrifying moral ambivalence, the God of the Old Testament. That's right. Well, what everybody, of course, has been fascinated with forever as the book of Job. Why did God behave that way? His answer in a few words is, I'm God and you're not. But another interesting question to me is, why didn't Jesus write down the book of Jesus? Why didn't Jesus write down the equivalent of the Ten Commandments? Why didn't Jesus write a book? Here's the Jesus figure contained in a book, but Jesus himself doesn't write. How come? Yes. Go ahead. I think because once you write something down, it becomes a permanent fixture, and it becomes dogma, which is, in fact, what has happened with a lot of things that have been written down.
What's the difference between dogma and the story? I think that the story, if you want to call it that, or let's call it the oral tradition, they have to be transmitted by one person to another person or group of people. So it is the breath, which is the spirit moving from one person to another. And as we know in the oral tradition, every time the spirit moves, it takes a different shape. Myths, for instance, in the oral tradition, exist in different forms and different places. So possibly he wanted to keep his spirit, the spirit of what he was saying, possibly he wanted to keep it fluid, rather than causing it to be fixed and permanent and therefore unchanging. But before that we have God writing down the Ten Commandments for Moses, that's quite a change.
Well that is the usual contrast that is made between the letter and the spirit, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, but it is not a contrast that you can say being acted out in a lot of religious groups, they much prefer the letter. I heard you want to say that human nature hasn't changed in thousands of years. Yes. How do we know? Oh, because we've read the myths. And the myths lay out pretty clearly what's on the human schmorgasbord, what we want, what we fear, what we would like to have, what we would very much not like to have. Heaven and hell, for instance, heaven, what we want, hell, what we very much don't want. Okay? So we've always wanted to fly in the myths, the God's fly. We don't. We've now arranged it so that we can fly, not quite in the same way, but everything that
we do and every piece of technology we make is an extension of either a fear or a desire and those human fears and human desires really have not changed. And they're reflected in the myths that have been with us for a long time. Are they true? What is true? True means more than one thing. True means proven. You know, it has to be proven. It can mean that. And in a very materialistic society, that's all it means. Which is why people keep searching for the remains of Noah's Ark, you know, that it's not going to be true unless you can find the actual piece of wood. Okay, that's one kind of true. Another kind of true is that, is it true about human nature? Oh, is it true about who we are? Is it true about how we behave? People are divided opinion about why myths continue and why they're important and what
they are. People say they're maps of prehistory. Some people say they're maps of the human mind and psyche. And some people say that they're language dependent events, it's one of the characteristics of human beings that they have very elaborate languages. And these languages all have grammars. And the grammars all contain past tenses and future tenses. Now dogs have languages too. But we don't think that any dog has ever said to any other dog, where did dogs come from? You know, what is the origin of dogs? And what about before that? What about before there were any dogs? But because we have the kinds of languages we do, we go back in time as far as we can get in our imaginations.
We want a beginning of the story. And we go as far ahead in the future as we can. We want an end to the story. And that's not going to be just us getting born and us dying. We want to be able to place ourselves within a larger story. Here's where we came from. Here's where we're going. In some version or another. And when you die, this is what happens. And some of those stories are happier than other of those stories. But there's always more. There's always, and then, and then what happens? And then, and then. And then, and then, and then. Once we have that kind of language, we're going to have to postulate either a god entity or an unknown. Even for instance, physicists will say, okay, instead of let there be light, there was the big bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, but what about before that?
What happened before that? And they will say, well, there was a singularity. And you will say. A singularity. Yes. You'll say, what is a singularity? And they will say, we don't know. So at some point in the story, there's going to be, we don't know, okay? So think about it as a stage like this. And in the wings, there is, we don't know. Let me put it another way. It's what came out called the life of Pi, what I called Jan Martell. And it begins by saying, I'm going to tell you a story that's going to make you believe in God. And then it goes off on this completely semen's yarn about getting lost in a lifeboat with a tiger and so on and so forth. And many strange and wonderful things happen to him until he pitches up on the shore of North America, South America's story, whereupon according to him, the tiger jumps off the boat and runs off into the woods. And he's found starving on the shore and he's put in the hospital and then these three
Japanese insurance inspectors turn up to find out what happened in the boat that blew up at the beginning of the story. And he tells them this whole story. And they conferred amongst them themselves and they say, we think that maybe your story isn't true and that there was no tiger. And he always says, well, that may be so, but tell me this, which story do you like better? The story with the tiger or the story without the tiger? And the other men confer amongst themselves and they say, well, actually, we like the story with the tiger better. And our narrator starts to cry and he says, thank you. So we like the story with the tiger better. We like the story with God in it better than we like the story without God in it because it's more like us.
It's more understandable. It's more, it's more human. More human with God. More human with God because the story without God is about atoms. It's not about somebody we can talk with in theory or that has any interest in us. So that the universe without an intelligence in it has got nothing to say to us, whereas the universe with an intelligence in it has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are. How about that? Does a strict agnostic believe that we have a soul? A strict agnostic could believe that but could not state it as a matter of knowledge. What do you think we mean by the Word? The soul?
Yes. It's another one of these things that we know what we mean. We know what we mean or we think we believe we know what we mean, but it's not something you can measure or approve. So it has to exist in the belief system. I prefer to believe that we have a soul because I like the story with the tiger better than the story without the tiger and I like the story with the soul better than the story without the soul. It's a better story. Marguerite would thank you very much and thank you. Coming up next, Martin Namus. Over and again at this gathering of writers, the question arose as to where it's even possible to have a discussion, a dialogue about faith and reason with dogmatic believers who claimed to know God's mind.
There was one moment in particular that seemed to crystallize the issue and not surprisingly, it was one of the most influential, innovative and controversial voices in British letters that spoke what was on the mind of many here. We've got to stop thinking in terms of reasons because we're not dealing with reason. That's Martin Namus, prolific author of more than 20 books of fiction, criticism and autobiography, winner of the Somerset Mom Award for the Rachel Papers, shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Times Error. But for some time now, Martin Namus has been unable to shake from his mind the images of 9-11. One week after the World Trade Center went down, he wrote in the Guardian of the fantastic vehemence unleashed against America. The apotheosis of the postmodern era, he said, has lifted the temperature of planetary fear towards the feverish. The suicide bombers who committed those atrocities became the focus of Amos' imagination, and on the eve of Penn's gathering of writers, the New Yorker published his fictional account
of the last days of Muhammad Atatah, who led the 9-11 attacks in what Amos describes as the cosmic war against God's enemies. Martin Namus, why did you want to get inside the mind of a dead killer? Well, Norma Mala said soon after September 11th that the right is temptation to weigh straight in, not immediately after, because we all said stunned and speechless. But after a few months, you know, you want to weigh into this subject. But as Mala said, you have to resist the initial temptation, because I find this is more less universal. A writer needs two or three years to process an event, especially one of that side. Because what needs to happen is the unconscious sitting around thinking about it will get you a certain distance, but it's a sort of glandular process in the end. You have to let your body absorb it, you've got to think about it silently, not in words,
but let it soak into your body. Did you do reading into Atatah's diaries or Atatah's past? Well, we know this anomalous fact that he and one of this muscle Saudis, so called went to Portman Maine. They drove to Portman Maine the day before September the 10th, and they took a very early shuttle flight from Portman to Logan, and he sauntered across the airport with less than an hour to go. And that gave me a sort of clue that there was a great deal of nihilistic insuseurs involved, a cool killer. The great motivator, the physics of the group, was based on religious belief and the idea of paradise, et cetera, and the idea of destroying the infidels. But I just intuitive that there would have been a great bit of competition in this sort
of nihilistic mode. How do you explain the streak of cruelty in this man? I mean, you write about the fact that he can don't punishing adulterers with the whip, hearing a lot of people who committed misogyny. You say he even hated music that he never laughed, that he found nothing funny. I mean, what, what, what manner of man was he? Well, these are all, it's a way of saying that his personality is in accordance with strict sharia doctrine, the law of Islam. The law of Islam, which there's no getting away from the fact it's a tremendously severe religion, Islam is nothing without its severity. It also is totalist, like Jewish fundamentalism and medieval Christianity. I mean, there's not one thing you can do without an instruction. For instance, it was Khomeini, the Ayatollah, who dictated which direction you ought to
sit in the bathroom when you defecate. Islam follows you into the bedroom, into the kitchen, into the bathroom, and after death into eternity. I mean, it, there's no crack of light. What you make me think in reading the piece is that when you're up against people who love death more than they love life, you're up against a very dangerous and sustaining powerful phenomenon. Yeah, well, it wasn't really ideology, it was the joy of killing. It's a secret, no longer well-capped, that killing is an absolute joyous experience. It's, especially to the parlors, it's an expansion, and all your failures are suddenly given meaning, and if you've got a religious rationale for it so much, the better, but don't underestimate what an intense pleasure it is for people who feel themselves oppressed, feel that
majority has moved on and away from them, feel the temptations of, of majority very strongly. Satan in the Quran is a tempter, and the last words of the Quran are the insidious whisperer in the hearts of men. When Khomeini calls America the great Satan, that's what he means, tempter, and the father of Islamist philosophy, Syed Kutut, had a very fascinating time in America in the late 40s, where, and you read his account of it, and it's tormented by temptation and sexual interest, which, of course, doesn't acknowledge for a moment, and he's pretending to be disgusted by it, but it stares you in the face that America is driving him crazy, and in fact, we have to face this sort of ridiculous notion that the meaning of the West for
them, what we've brought into being, with all these skyscrapers and clubs and restaurants and all that, is just there to tantalize Muslims. And you write in your piece that Ata was obsessed with the power of America, the power of America, every time you say, every time it turns over in its bed, it creates trimmers all over the world. Yeah, I mean, I think he's actually rather realistic about that. He says, and I think it's true, that power is always immensely blunt instrument, and there's never been a power as great as America's in the history of the world. So why did fundamentalism appeal to people like Muhammad Ata in the other 18? He was not an ignorant man, he was not an illiterate man. Educated in Egyptian schools, a good engineering education, I think. Yes, an architect.
Yeah, that's right. Spoke perfect Germans, perfect English. All analysis shows that suicide bombers consistently better educated than not, than the norm, and true of Hamas as well, and Hatsballer. These are cultured men. So how does this idea take root in the cultured mind, a mind that is informed by information history? The idea of jihad is just, by so many magnitudes, the most compelling idea of that generation. Jihad holy war? Holy war. Against the West. Against the West. I mean, it's always just so intoxicated. It's always been irresistible, the combination of rectitude and violence, you know, no one's been able to resist that. How do you care for that embrace of death? For many said that the life that you and I sense around us, the thing which is called world, is the scum of existence, he says. This is completely worthless, you know, the sentient life that we live is filth.
This was the Ayatollah of Iran, who, after the Shahros, the leader of the Islamic Revolution and a huge figure in all this. You know, for them death is not death and life is not life either. And the suicide bomber, I think we should call them suicide mass murderers myself, the suicide bomber is, the martyr is the only Islamic soul who can expect, you know, completely expeditious entry into paradise. One else has to molder in the grave for centuries and then get kicked awake by furious angels and interrogate it on the day of judgment. The suicide mass murder doesn't do that, he doesn't have to do it. It's a monstrous distortion of the Quran, a monstrous sort of theological moral deformity that they've made central to their new ideology.
And you'd find all sorts of people saying that using their bodies is what people do because they don't have F-16s and tanks and so on. Well, would you like them to have F-16s and tanks? There's one question, but the other one is that it's not what people do. They talk about it as if it's an eternal ruse to get, you know, that this is what people have always done. It's not what people have always done. It's an innovation and it's an Islamist innovation. Islamist, help us to understand the distinction you make between Islam and Islamism. Well, Islam is the great religion that has been the donor of countless benefits to mankind that led the world in civilization throughout the Middle Ages, gave us algebra and all kinds of intellectual breakthroughs, all kinds of plus an example of tolerance that nowhere else in the world could offer at that time.
A level of tolerance, a respect for justice. That is Islam. Islamism started in, after the First World War, when the last empire was lost, the Ottoman because it sided with Germany in the First World War. And then, you know, if you can stand way back from it all, you can imagine Islam very much reduced, is coming towards modernity. And instead of advancing down that road, it turned around and the great leap backwards began. That's Islamism. When Islamism got going, it was instead of saying, okay, to come into modernity, we need slightly less emphasis on Islam. And the great leap backwards said, no, we need total emphasis on Islam. Fundamentalism. That's what it is. Radical fundamentalism. Islamism. That's what it means.
And you say it's a very modern phenomenon? Yeah. Islamism should be thought of as a wave, and it's the latest wave, and it has made stupendous gains over the last five years and 10, 15 years. And this is its central twist, is the reward of suicide bonus. The other great theme is, you know, when Islam was expanding, it had absolutely fantastic 500 years of nation after nation, sort of coming under Islam. And they could always point to that, and it was called, it has been called, the argument from manifest success, where you know you have God's blessing, because look at this extraordinary victory story that you're living through. So if what you believe in is the argument from manifest success, you're suddenly confronted by the argument from manifest failure.
Then walked, you know, why has God apparently favoured the infidel? This is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma for the Islamic soul. I told you what I reached out to you and asked you to join me, that I'd kept on my bulletin board at my office, and that's say you wrote one week after 9-11. You wrote, weirdly, the world suddenly feels bipolar, all over again, the West confronts a way of thinking that is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence. So they're never going to rest until we are eliminated. That's the program. They say it's a cosmic war and then eternal war. They're going to war forever against this, normally again has another phrase, a tolerable level of terrorism, and that sort of jumped out of me rather.
And I can quite imagine in 15 years' time, Western politicians in certain countries praising themselves for reducing terrorism to a tolerable level. But eradicating it, I don't think, is a possibility. In the end, the Soviet Union was brought down by its own inner contradictions. Is there any possibility that fundamental Islam is full of contradictions to in this world and that it could be its own enemy in time? I think there will be, it will atomize, and also there will be sectarian strife within it. So I think that it's so fantastically poisonous, in its most millennial form, Islamism, not Islam, Islamism. It's so poisonous that it will burn itself out to imagining the kind of full victory of Islamism with blood flowing bridal deep in the city squares.
You can't, you know, you have to look to Nazi Germany or Stalinist Campuchier to see anything quite so ferocious and death-fueled. And you know, Nazism lasted for 12 years, and Pol-Pot lasted for three and a half. It tends to burn itself out. Are Eurofellicitis and stiffening their resolve, I was just reading about how Britain's highest court has rejected a plea by a Muslim high school student who wanted to wear a head scarf and a long dress to school instead of the ordinary school uniform, so prominent in your country. And it hasn't been too long since the French said no to the head scarf. Is, is, is old Europe waking up? I'm, I'm not sure what I feel about this, about whether you, the trappings of a religion are what you should be directing your codes at.
I mean, in France, they've always been much firmer than that, but the French model has clearly failed in their absorption of their Islamic population. In England, it's a little better. America is the great model for what you do about immigrants. And it's been, all over the world, people look to it as the successful way of doing it. How so? Well, I mean, that's what America consists of, is immigrants. You end that essay on a halting note. You wrote, thinking of the victims, the perpetrators, and the near future. I felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear. Faith? Shame, fear. You felt all of those? Yes.
Shame, fear, because I am, I am, of the species of the man who perpetrated that and perpetrating, you know, God knows what, all over the world. But since then, that was written in 2001, and since then, there's been a kind of moral crash worldwide, like the Great Depression, the spiritual equivalent of the Great Depression. And any groping towards a species consciousness has been set back here to a dire extent. And by species consciousness, you mean the ability to see the world from the experience of other people and to share that empathy? Yes. You know, the old thing of, we're all brothers and sisters, we all have the common ancestor. So what are you feeling more powerfully right now, grief, shame, or fear? Ah, alienation is what I'm feeling. I can't believe that it's my species out there that's doing these things.
I don't recognize it. It's great experiment and violence in Iraq. I don't recognize it. It looks like another planet to me. But now that America's dispoiled back down, that's going to be a fire that will burn for generations. They came into our holiest, you know, third holiest city. They oversaw the looting of our national heritage, you know, the home of the caliphate. I've had very little about this, but I'm sure it's an enormous recruiting slug. What brought you to this pin festival of writers on faith and reason, because you're not, you're not, you're not, you're not a believer. Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist anymore. I think that's a, it's a sort of craved word and agnostic is the only respectable position simply because we are ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature.
It's about eight Einstein's away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So while I don't, you know, it's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all. It's going to be, but why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me, makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence, not a being, but an intelligence. And I, I don't mean intelligent design, but I just be, you know, why is it so fast? As Updike said, you know, why not just a attractive, spattering of stars in the background would be perfectly enough, you know, why, why all these multiple universes, these parallel universes, these extraordinary, you know, quasars and black holes, and what do we need all that for?
So I mean, so many questions remain that I wouldn't call myself an atheist anymore. Do you imagine what the answer might be? To, to those questions you ask, why is this so complex? Yes, I do. And I will ask those questions. I remember talking to Sorbello about this in his last years, and he, he did believe in, in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I die. And he wrote in his last novel, Ravel Stein, he said, and we all, we all believe that. We just talk tough. And I said, I was talking about this with my mother, who's 75, and I said, I don't believe that, do you? And she said, no, I don't believe that, you know, in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.
Yeah, that's part of the issue is that how can a, a Europe vacated a faith tolerate a dynamic minority that is all faith? Yeah. Well, this is what we're going to find out. Martin Amos, thank you very much for joining me. Pleasure. Thank you. Log on to to read more from Martin Amos, to hear Margaret Atwood retell the story of Penelope, to sign up for podcasts, and to take our poll, connect online at Next time on faith and reason, author Pema Shodran. In Buddhism, they say, we do not believe in God or disbelieve in God. We keep it as an open question. It's next time on faith and reason.
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Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason
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Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis
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Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group (New York, New York)
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BILL MOYERS ON FAITH AND REASON features provocative conversations with unique voices drawn from the 2006 PEN World Voices Festival on Faith and Reason in New York: Margaret Atwood, Mary Gordon, Richard Rodriguez, Salman Rushdie, Sir John Houghton and others. Moyers takes viewers on a rare journey deep into these writers’ work and their own experience to plumb new ways of thinking about the role of religion in shaping our world. Reverent, irreverent, thoughtful and often humorous, these authors deliver fresh perspectives that tap into an undercurrent in the national discussion and will resonate with the religious, the non-religious, and those in between.
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Canadian Margaret Atwood, author of the classics THE HANDMAID'S TALE, THE EDIBLE WOMAN, and THE BLIND ASSASSIN, speaks to Bill Moyers about agnosticism, the hunger for meaning, and the distinction between belief and knowledge.
Segment Description
In the Martin Amis novel LONDON FIELDS, a cynical and disjointed society hurtles toward doomsday; in Amis' follow-up book, TIME'S ARROW, the narrative follows an absurdly reversed course backward from the Holocaust to purity and innocence. Bill Moyers talks with Amis about humanity's present condition and the ongoing conflict between fundamentalism and secular values.
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: Wharton, Rebecca
Associate Producer: Allen, Reniqua
Director: Ganguzza, Mark
Editor: Fredericks, Andrew
Editor: Moyers, Judith Davidson
Editor: Erskine, Lewis
Executive Producer: Doctoroff O'Neill, Judy
Executive Producer: Firestone, Felice
Producer: Meerow, Jennifer
Producer: Roy, Sally
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Chicago: “Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason; 106; Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis,” 2006-07-28, Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 16, 2024,
MLA: “Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason; 106; Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis.” 2006-07-28. Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 16, 2024. <>.
APA: Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason; 106; Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. Boston, MA: Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from
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