Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Muslim, but I now feel an affinity toward Muslims or, more accurately, toward one Muslim— Reza Aslan. Fox News personality Lauren Green unintentionally helped Aslan's book reach the top of bestseller lists when she repeatedly asked him why a Muslim would write about the "founder of Christianity." Aslan responded as a professional, mentioning his scholarly credentials and careful research that had helped him draw conclusions independent of his religious beliefs.
I must confess that I have a fantasy of Fox News interviewing me about my book, during which Lauren Green substitutes "atheist" for "Muslim" to discredit anything I say about Jesus. And here's my snarky response: "Jesus was born and died a Jew, knowing nothing of Christianity. The Bible refers to him as 'king of the Jews,' not 'king of the Christians.' My vote for founder of Christianity goes to a Jew named Saul, who later became Paul. Perhaps my Jewish background makes me more qualified to talk about Jesus, a fellow Jew, than does someone like you with a Gentile background. Just as we're both skeptical when members of the American Nazi Party praise Adolph Hitler, shouldn't we also be skeptical when Christians make claims about an infallible Jesus while literally worshipping the ground he walked on? Of course I'm not comparing Christians to Nazis. I'm just asking whether we have reason to suspect such biased accounts."
My Jewish upbringing neither qualifies nor disqualifies me from writing about Jesus, Hitler, or anyone else. It's fair to ask how any author's background or beliefs might have influenced his or her writings, but the focus should be on whether the author justifies assertions made.
Students in secular colleges are often surprised to learn that courses on religion are not designed to strengthen their faith, since classes in a weekday school have different orientations than classes in a Sunday school.
Green probably spent a lot more time in Sunday school than in religious studies classes. Her bio from Fox News mentions her degree in piano performance, but nothing about scholarly religious credentials. Fox adds that she was Miss Minnesota in 1984 and third runner-up in the 1985 Miss America contest. Gretchen Carlson, another Fox News personality, seems to have followed in the same high heels as Loren Green. Carlson was Miss Minnesota in 1988 and went on to become Miss America.
Wait a minute. Am I doing to Green what she did to Aslan—focusing on background and beliefs in an attempt to discredit? After all, winning a beauty contest neither qualifies nor disqualifies anyone from pontificating about religion or interviewing religious scholars. Are my comments about Green even relevant to this discussion? As Fox News is fond of saying, "We report, you decide."
Still, sometimes I'm asked why I, an atheist mathematician, write about religion. Though I've participated in a number of debates, I've had no formal religious training beyond my teen years. I know absolutely nothing about God, but I think that qualifies me as an expert on God. To paraphrase Socrates: He who believes he knows something when he knows nothing is more foolish than he who knows he knows nothing.
Thousands of books have been written on the history, culture, and myths about a multitude of gods, and countless books describe how scientific findings contradict claims in holy books. However, there is no credible evidence for the existence of any supernatural beings. Even so, many religious believers ignore the contradictions and lack of evidence, and embrace what they view as the "gift of faith." I don't mind this, as long as they don't try to force their gift on the rest of us. But I become alarmed when people describe things as "God's plan" and sometimes insist that everyone should follow God's plan, which turns out to be strikingly similar to their own plan. Whenever I hear "God's plan," I substitute in my mind "Zeus's plan."
And this reminds me of a dinner I shared at a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of secular college students. They became uncharacteristically excited when our fortune cookies arrived. The students gleefully read their "fortunes" aloud, adding "in bed" at the end of each. For example,
"We all have our bad days…in bed." And
"Your ability to accomplish tasks will follow with success… in bed "
I prefer "in bed" to "God's plan" because people can have harmless fun with it, and no one takes seriously either the fortune or the two added words. I wish the same could be said for "God's plan."
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of "Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt," and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.