Busted: Bob Abernethy

The man behind PBS' "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly" discusses The Life of Meaning

BH: A lot of people in your book speak very eloquently about transcendent experiences. In a way, the ineffable nature of these experiences forces them to almost become like poets in order to describe them.

BA: They really are. I was just thinking of some others. Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time. She told a story about a family dinner, at which their granddaughters were there, little girls, and they overheard this conversation about whether the universe and life had any meaning at all. I guess one of them was a little disturbed by that. Madeleine said when she was putting her to bed later, little girl named Lana, she asked “Gran, is it alright?” And Madeline said, she knew what she meant, “the whole thing, is it alright?” And she says ‘I swallowed everything and said, yes Lana, it’s alright.’

BH: We’re living in a time when there is a reductive debate regarding science versus religion, what do you make of the success of books by atheists like Richard Dawkins?

BA: Well I think there have been polls that indicate recently a slow growth in the number of people that identify themselves as being in a broad category with many names to it. It’s unchurched, it’s spiritual but not religious, its agnostic and atheist. It’s all that wrapped up together, there’s been a growth in it, and I think that there’s clearly interest in that point of view. I think that’s also a reaction against the hard religious right that may have prompted the books in the first place. I don’t know. It may have, but I think that’s out there. But I must say it makes me furious when some of these writers cut up all expressions of religion because of the excesses of some extremists. It’s so unfair to dismiss the whole religious enterprise, all the instincts people have, and have had, for centuries that there is something more. To dismiss all that because of some excesses, that just doesn’t seem to make good reporting.

BH: A lot what we discuss here at BustedHalo is the intersection of church and culture, especially as it relates to younger 20 and 30-somethings. Can you talk a bit about what you see as signs of hope or connection?

BA: Well I think in your mission statement, you’ve got it right. I think that there’s a large number of young people, and not so young who are very honest. They feel that there’s this instinct, this impulse, that there’s got to be something more than what we can see and touch, but they don’t want to have anybody tell them what it is, or try to find that theologically. They want to do their own theology I’m told. And they don’t have a lot of patience with traditional religious institutions, so a lot of people are trying to figure things out for themselves, and that’s terrific.

I hope our book will be of help for people trying to do that. Bill Moyers described our book in one of the blurbs as a feast for the intellect. Well that’s fine, and I hope people do find it, but were not trying to specify in any way for people what to believe, we’re laying it out like a smorgasbord. And people can take it or not, whatever they want. But I think that people concerned about the popularity of the books on atheism, I think people who are just trying to honestly figure things out, they’re trying to define how to live, I hope such people—and I include myself—can be inspired and helped by some of these wonderful things that the people we are talking about have said.

BH: How did covering world events for four decades for NBC affect you? Were you ever conscious of a spiritual dimension in any of the events you witnessed?

“Yes there has been a little growth in the number of people who would like to think of themselves as agnostics, or atheists. But if you look at the country as a whole, there are still a tremendous amount of people who say they are spiritual, they?re trying to mediate and be in touch with something that they feel is beyond just what they can reason
and touch.”

BA: Well in Russia, after 70 years or so of communism, there was still a strong expression of religion. Somebody marveled, at how many people there were at the churches. And somebody else said, ‘yeah but they’re all Babushkas, they’re all grandmothers,’ and somebody else said yeah, but there’s always another generation of Babushkas. So I think it’s a world-wide impulse. In Western Europe certainly religious connections have deteriorated over the last years, but in this country, as we’ve said before, yes there has been a little growth in the number of people who don’t go to church, or who would like to think of themselves as agnostics, or atheists. But if you look at the country as a whole, there is still a tremendous amount of people who say they’re spiritual, but not religious, they are spiritual, they’re trying to mediate and be in touch with something that they feel is beyond just what they can reason and touch. People I think are hungry for that, and more power to them.

BH: Is that unique to America?

BA: I think there is religious freedom that has helped us to have such religious diversity in this country, ever since Roger Williams up in Rhode Island. If you don’t like one church, start another. And within particular traditions, if you’re a little uneasy with how one pastor does it then, go try another. I think that diversity also measures their seriousness, so there is just an enormous number of ways that in this country that people worship, and very sincerely so. The government is not telling us how to worship or what to worship, so people misinterpret Supreme Court decisions, and accuse the Supreme Court of taking religion out the schools, but the great asset is that everybody wants to see religion flourish in this country. The great asset that religious institutions have is that the government is not on their back, that they are not trying to tell us anything, that we do not have an established church, we’re free to worship any way we want to, and how we worship, all that kind of thing, is considered none of the government’s business, so it’s something they don’t count in the census.

BH: I didn’t realize that.

BA: It’s about the only thing they don’t count.

BH: I would imagine that you’re a spiritual seeker in your own way, during your 10 years on Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, how has your work in this area changed your faith?

BA: I think it has helped me to define how I want to approach the world, and how I want to live in it. I think I’ve had various instincts about that. But I think coming into contact with all these really thoughtful and articulate, good humored people, brave people, has made me want to be like them, and made me realize that this is what I want to do, I think that’s very effective in my desire to be more honest, faithful.

BH: Any good advice for young people?

BA: Well just realize that they’re not alone, that millions and millions and millions of people are all involved in this journey, and all over the world are all doing the same thing, and that there are many ways to express this yearning that people have, and that I don’t think anyone should be shy at all for discussing that we’re all looking for that, and all wanting to deepen their sense of the presence of the transcendent in our lives, whatever we call it.