Many reviewers have described Breaking Up with God as “brutally honest.” Do you wish you had been less forthright (or even fibbed some) when writing your memoir?
I am a terrible liar. I can’t lie to save my life, so it would have been impossible for me to write a memoir that wasn’t true. I have asked reviewers what they meant when they called my book “honest,” and most responded by pointing out that it is unusual for people to make themselves look bad in their own writing, which made me realize that being called honest is not necessarily a compliment. I didn’t write the book to create a flattering version of myself (I hope the author photo does that work for me). I wrote the book to try to understand how I went from almost being a priest to not calling myself a Christian anymore. That said, I understand that memoirs—like identities, like theologies—are constructions.
What do your parents think about your breakup with God?
It doesn’t bother them at all that I no longer call myself a Christian. They raised me with a healthy dose of suspicion and taught me to be a critical thinker who asks questions. They understand that the book is about breaking up with a particular version of God—the man in the sky who watched over me and protected me when I was good and punished me when I was bad—not about breaking up with all versions of God. My parents have always cared more about what I do with my life than about what I believe, a sentiment that is mirrored in the sorts of theologies to which I tend to be attracted. I sent them a draft of my book before it was published. I thought that was a fair thing to do given they both make appearances in the book. My mother was not upset at all about my journey out of institutional Christianity. She was, however, mortified that “everyone in the world” was going to read about me having sex in the back seat of a car.
Do you think you’re going to hell?
I don’t believe in hell. I also don’t believe in a God who would send someone to hell based on whether or not they believed in God or that Jesus was the son of God. That seems very narcissistic to me. I can’t stake my life—or my afterlife—on a God who would peer inside my mind and look only for himself. Enough about me, I imagine this God saying. What do you think of me? I also don’t understand why we need to invent an afterlife when there are already so many people suffering in various forms of hell on earth. I am much more concerned with trying to end suffering now.
What if you’re wrong?
I think “What if I’m wrong?” is the most important question we can ask ourselves. I call myself an agnostic. Although “agnostic” is a philosophical term, I claim it for primarily ethical reasons. My mentor at Harvard, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that the question of God’s existence is not a question human beings can answer. As a result, it’s time to start asking different theological questions: How are we to live? To what causes should we devote ourselves? How will we make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone? It seems to me that we get in the most trouble and do the most violent things to other people, animals, and the environment when we forget that our ideas about God might be wrong. This is one of the biggest dangers that can come with religious belief—instead of recognizing that God is a mystery and that no human being can speak for God, some believers put their own words in God’s mouth. They use God as a way to justify mistreating others.
You’re a theologian who doesn’t believe in God. How does that work?
You don’t have to believe in God to be a theologian—just like you don’t have to be a politician to study political science or a bird to study ornithology. The word “God” is out in the world doing all kinds of work, good and bad, liberating and oppressive, and I understand my role as a theologian to be evaluating the effects of people’s beliefs. My theological project is both critical and constructive. I don’t really care what we believe; I care how our beliefs influence the way we live in the world.
You’re a scholar of religion. Do you have any marketable skills?
I am really good at reading. Is that marketable?
No. Reading is not a marketable skill. Name three things you are good at doing.
Reading, grammar, and predicting how much my groceries will cost in the checkout line.
Name three things you are not good at doing.
Skeet shooting, orienteering, and acting.
What does your writing practice look like?
I do my best writing early in the morning. It is imperative that I start writing before my critical brain is awake, before my censor starts telling me my writing sucks, my book is stupid and makes no sense, and I should just give it up and stop pretending to be a writer. So much of writing—so much of any creative activity—is about cutting through self-doubt and self-sabotage to make your way to the page. I have to work hard to get out of my own way. I have to work hard to trust myself.
What are you writing now?
I am writing a novel about a conscientious objector during World War II. I am also working on two edited volumes—one about Christianity and torture and one about artists’ responses to torture.
You spend a lot of time writing about torture. You must be fun to hang out with.
Is that a question?
Are you fun to hang out with?
Do you think you and God will ever get back together?
It’s possible, I guess, but unlikely. Right now we’re seeing other people.