Seth Andrews is the creator and host of The Thinking Atheist podcast and website. A former Christian broadcaster, he details his turn from religion in his book Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason. He is also the author of Sacred Cows: A Lighthearted Look at Belief and Tradition Around the World. (Both are available on Amazon.)
Seth’s mix of compassion and humor has made him a sought-after speaker at atheist and free-thought gatherings the world over.
He recently found time in his ever more hectic schedule to chat with me about atheism, religion, future projects, and…uh…Star Wars.
RE: Hi, Seth. First, a big thank-you for doing this. I’m very excited.
SA: Of course. Happy to.
RE: The first topic I wanted to talk about… In your book [Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason] you talk a lot about the sort of pop culture you were exposed to, growing up in a religious household. And I’m wondering, first of all, if you find any lingering religiosity in your choice of music or movies? Do you find yourself drawn to, say, Christian music?
SA: I don’t listen to Christian music for pleasure. It’s true that many of the songs on Christian radio from that era [when he was a disc jockey on a Christian station] will evoke memories. Many of them are fond memories; of friends, of concerts; of a certain time of my life. But the overwhelming feeling is one of regret, that this music is essentially presenting a message that is not based on the evidence. It makes people feel good. It makes some people money. But it’s not necessarily true, and so it’s difficult for me to enjoy the music when I think about the Christian life that I extricated myself from. It’s difficult on many levels for me to really enjoy the music. I certainly don’t seek it out.
RE: OK, sure. So what do you listen to? You know, just when you have the radio on in the car.
SA: I’m so busy producing content [laughs] that I don’t often get to enjoy the content of others. But I listen to… I’m an eighties music fan. I like classic rock. Orchestral film scores. And I listen to talk radio. Especially long-form talk radio—like Garrison Keillor telling a story to an audience—the kind of radio that’s almost retro, the way that it will take you on a journey. I enjoy the kind of radio that appeals to the theater of the mind.
RE: Right. Just as a side note, I recently received, as a gift, the complete Orson Welles Mercury Theater radio broadcasts.
SA: Oh, sure, that’s a perfect example. These days radio is all liner cards. You know, you read what’s on the card, you go to commercial break, you come out and plug a corporate sponsor, you play a song, then you come back and read another liner card. And you could be replaced tomorrow by somebody else, and nobody would know, or care. I don’t want to be too nostalgic for the old days of radio, but there was a magic to the times when personality radio really flourished in this country.
RE: OK, how about movies? People who have seen you speak, or listened to the podcast, know you are a fan.
SA: I just love the movies. I’ve always loved the movies. Ever since I was a kid. We didn’t go to the movies much, because my father is deaf. But when I was young, he took me to see Star Wars, and ever since that day I have been a movie buff. I love it all. I love drama, I love documentaries, action, horror movies. Comedy—if it’s done well. I try to go to the theater a couple times a month if I can. It’s a nice distraction. It gets Natalie [Seth’s wife] and I out of the house; gives us a date night. I just enjoy escaping, you know? You go, you sit back in a theater… It’s funny…the movie theater has kind of become my temple.
[Brief pause here for mutual laughter.]
Whenever someone is chatting in the theater, or they’re on their cellphone, or they’re being disruptive, I will be the guy who actually gets up, walks over, and informs them that I did not drop twenty-five dollars to listen to them yammer on their phone. One of these days that may get me in trouble.
But I really do enjoy movies. I love movie trivia and all those sorts of things. It’s a distraction for me. It’s bubblegum for the brain.
RE: Sure. It’s sweet and it tastes pretty yummy.
SA: This probably sounds too romantic, but sometimes you can… Film is a medium that can really effect people, and that’s one of the reasons I got into video production. Because I think if you’re in a medium like video, you can use visuals, and audio, and editing, and all of these powerful tools, to help further a conversation, to stir the pot of ideas, and to hopefully effect change. I think that’s very powerful.
RE: You also talk in your book about some of the old-school Christian films you were exposed to as a youngster. Obviously, the production quality has improved in the new Christian film environment, but is the content any different?
SA: Well… Christian film seems to be doing what Christian pop radio did in the mid-nineties: corporations, producers, film studios, are discovering—again—that there is a marketplace of casually religious people who enjoy feel-good movies that reinforce their faith. They have a built-in marketplace, and they can produce these religious films like God’s Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real, and Left Behind, and whatnot, relatively cheaply. They can put them out in a highly religious culture and at least expect to make their money back. It’s kind of a low-risk investment. I see it, honestly, as a business decision as much as anything else.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, and he did a church tour. He spoke from the platforms of churches. And, well, Mel Gibson was marketing. He was tapping into an eager audience of [potential] ticket holders, and that film became the most profitable R-rated movie ever, up to that time. It was ingenious, really.
RE: Would you say that he was also trying to energize that audience? Not in the sense of turning them into political activists or anything, but in the sense of energizing a sense of religious pride?
SA: I think… It’s hard to know whether Mel Gibson was, or is, a true believer. Or is he is just a savvy businessperson. In regard to the film The Passion of the Christ, who really knows what’s going on in his mind. It’s very possible that he was passionate about producing the Jesus story because of a personal conviction that he held, and he wanted to share that enthusiasm with a wider audience. That’s very possible. But I’m not naïve enough to believe that he wasn’t cognizant of an eager and highly religious audience that genuinely thought they were doing God’s good work by showing up in the theaters. I have heard about church groups that rented out whole showings, and brought groups of their congregation. They made it an event, where only their congregation members were in the theater. And many of the Christian evangelicals saw The Passion of the Christ as potentially a life-changing event for those who don’t go to church. Look! Mel Gibson has produced the Jesus story! Many pastors thought the movie was going to be a game-changer. But, of course, nothing of the kind happened.
RE: Have you considered a full-length film project of your own?
SA: I have. I have a tremendous desire to produce a long-form documentary relating to the free-thought movement. There are two challenges.
One is, I haven’t been able to decide exactly which story I would like to tell, because there are so many. I’m leaning toward wanting to tell the story of the many people who are activists on the internet. There’s this culture of wonderful people who I think deserve a bigger spotlight. They have done some amazing work on the front lines of free thought, and I’d like to help tell their story.
But the second challenge is time and resources. I find myself overwhelmed by the work that I have in front of me now. I have a day-time job, I produce a weekly radio show, I produce video content, I travel the country and, in fact, internationally, to speak on behalf of free thought. And I have a family. And it’s difficult, even now, for me keep my head above water. But my hope is, one day I’d like to be able to tackle a long-form piece.
RE: That would be very exciting. Now, just one more thing about movies. I have an acquaintance who is a very devout Catholic. Some time ago he and I were having a few beers and began discussing Christian influences in Hollywood movies. We talked about The Lord of the Rings, of course, but he then went on to explain that the first three Star Wars movies were Christian allegories. Any thoughts?
SA: Uh…I haven’t heard that.
RE: Neither had I.
SA: And I don’t think that will hold water. I think that may be someone projecting their own belief system on an unrelated work. [Laughs]
RE: I was just curious.
SA: He’s a Catholic?
SA: To me [those movies] seem more like a Taoist thing. You know, the light and the dark side wrestling back and forth, and all that. I don’t see Catholicism symbolized anywhere in those movies.
RE: Right. Just thought I’d throw it out there. Moving on to a different topic. You talk, quite movingly, in your book about how your deconversion affected your relationship with your family and friends. What are those relationships like today?
SA: Well…my relationship with my Mother and Father is cordial, but muted. We speak on the phone. We see each other occasionally at family gatherings. There is always an undercurrent of sadness, and shame, and disappointment from them. They see my apostasy as their failure. They did not do enough to train-up a child in the way that he should go. If only they had shown me the love of Jesus more effectively, I wouldn’t have taken this path. And, of course, I try to encourage them that I’ve really come to this point in my life on my own, and that I am happy, and fulfilled, and that feel like I’ve got a legitimate gripe [laughing] with the religion that was foisted on me in my youth. Unfortunately, they feel they cannot rest until the prodigal is brought home. And for that reason, it has caused us to have a… It has weakened our relationship to the point where we rarely cross paths.
RE: I see. That’s too bad.
SA: It makes me sad. My dad is eighty; my mother is seventy-seven; they are in the winter of their lives. I feel, to a degree, cheated out of the opportunity to have a relationship, and to enjoy time with a mother and father. Because when they look at me all they can see, and talk about, and think about, is how I need to come back to Jesus. Adults disagree on subjects all the time, whether it’s about philosophy, or politics, or whatever. Why can we not disagree on the subject of religion, and enjoy everything else we have in common? Unfortunately, that just has not been the case, and I am tremendously disappointed by it.
RE: Do your friends who are religious, or your family, still attempt to get you to return to the fold?
SA: My friends don’t ever bring it up. My religious friends are conspicuously silent. It is a tremendous lack of curiosity, actually, that I find intriguing. My mother and father, from time to time, I’ll get an email, or a text, or a phone call, that quotes a scripture, or invokes Josephus* proving that Jesus is real, or speaks about a personal experience. Many of these correspondences are highly emotional.
I’ve had to draw some boundaries in my own life, because I am…how do I say this… I think a mother and father can have an opinion, they can disagree, but they are not allowed to inject negativity into my household. They are not allowed to constantly be a force for disruption. And so, a couple of years ago, I actually had to take a pretty hard stand: If you won’t stop with the calls and the letters, if you won’t stop pawing at me, if you won’t respect my right to live my own life, then I am going to have to remove you from my life. After taking that hard stand, we’ve come to a rather uneasy peace. But it is a peace.
RE: Still, it can’t be easy.
SA: It’s a very common story. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and friends, will expect you to think like they do. They will expect you to live an inherited worldview, instead of going out and discovering the world for yourself, instead of vetting the claims of world religions for yourself. And the minute you become too curious, or you ask too many inconvenient questions, then they try to emotionally blackmail you. Think like us, or we will cut you off. Think like us, or we will be wounded, and be ashamed of you.
I’ve had people who have been evicted from their homes. I’ve had college students who have had their college tuition revoked by their parents because they did not line up with the religion of the family. And I think this is tragic. Parents are to raise children, not clones. And a child is not obligated to be a replica of his or her mother or father. Their life is theirs to live, and they should be given the right to do so.
RE: Absolutely. I consider myself very fortunate—me and my brother—we were raised with no religion. We weren’t raised atheists. Our parents were both religious, but they both seemed to have better things to do with their Sundays than go to church. So I feel very lucky that I was spared the trauma faced by so many people I know.
SA: I want to be clear. I’ve had my challenges with a religious family, but I’ve got it relatively easy compared to people who live in much stricter cultures. We often hear about people who live under the umbrella of Islamic fundamentalism, and when they become an apostate, the Koran says they’re to be executed. They live in fear for their safety. They live in fear for their family’s safety. Many people who live in these areas…they are silent. They’re atheists, but they cannot speak a word about it, many of them finding refuge anonymously online—trying to find community and support online—because they certainly can’t say anything in their homes, or in their neighborhoods. So, while I’ve had my share of challenges, I have enough of a perspective on the situation to know that I’ve had it relatively easy.
RE: As your profile in the free thought world has increased, have you become more security conscious?
SA: Well, I don’t travel with security, but I keep my eyes and ears open. It’s funny, but I am often asked about the fact that I have a conceal and carry permit. Gun ownership in the free-thought community is a very hot topic. There are a wide array of opinions, and I respect those opinions. I, for myself, have decided that I am going to take that measure of responsibility for my safety and the safety of my family. I do so responsibly. I’ve been educated about gun ownership. I have a gun safe. I take this very, very seriously.
RE: Very good. Now, you live in Tulsa, right?
SA: Uh-huh. Yes.
RE: I live in Colorado, but I lived for three years in various parts of Oklahoma. When I… This is a kind of lengthy preamble to a question, if you’ll bear with me.
RE: When I started becoming more active in the free-thought community I found that the level of activism in Colorado was nothing compared to what was happening in Oklahoma. So I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that sort of dichotomy?
SA: I’ve noticed on the speaking tour circuit, if I go to a highly religious town or city there seems to be an urgency. People are so eager to get together. People who don’t think they are going through a “phase” or a “crisis,” or don’t think they have been tainted by Satan, or whatever. They really want to come and be around friends. So if you do a free-thought event in Oklahoma, in Arkansas, in any of the cities in the South, you find that there seems to be this sleeping giant [made up of] people who are desperate for someone to understand them, and they will come out and really be a part. Those free-thought groups are starting to really thrive. Meanwhile, if you go to, I don’t know, San Francisco, and you have a free thought event, it’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that it’s not as big a deal because there’s not an aura of religious persecution and suffocation.
RE: Within the atheist, free-thought community there is, I believe, what I’m going call an obnoxious level of infighting. Bitter Facebook arguments, regional groups fracturing into antagonistic splinter groups. It reminds me of the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. A group my brother is involved with in Missouri has splintered into two groups. A group I’m familiar with in Oklahoma seems to spend more time engaged in factional spats than anything else. Even Elevator Gate a few years ago. If we can’t stop bitching at each other, I wonder if the free thought movement really stands a chance. But that’s me. What do you think?
SA: Yeah. When you have a culture of people who pride themselves on being independent thinkers, and you combine that with an activist nature, you are going to have clashes. I do think that it’s important that we understand the difference between conflict and positive conflict. I think positive conflict is necessary. To be able to disagree, even to be able to passionately disagree, but still see the bigger picture, and to be able to love the people that we disagree with is something that we are getting better at, but we still have a long way to go.
I, myself, don’t spend a lot of time focused on internet arguments, specifically in comment sections. You can get lost in a YouTube comment section. [Laughs.] You can fall into this black hole of shouting and capital letters and swear words, accusations and insults, and ad hominem attacks, and nothing ever gets done. I will monitor the comment sections when I post a new video or podcast just to make sure that I didn’t get some content wrong, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time there because you can really trip up on these pebbles and never get to your destination. They’re just momentum killers. On The Thinking Atheist I haven’t done a perfect job, but I try to steer clear of a lot of the infighting, the drama, the conflict, and focus on what we can agree on.
RE: Truth be told, I was kind of hoping your response would be something like that, if only because it makes me feel less pessimistic.
SA: Even on The Thinking Atheist there will be people who disagree with me, people who say No, you’re wrong, and here’s why you’re wrong. But we will often have a very productive exchange. I’ve had times where I’ve actually had to change or reverse my position because someone just presented a perspective and evidence that was better. And that’s what I mean by positive conflict.
We have to be able to agree, but also to be passionate without turning on each other, without turning into piranha. And I’d like to see a little more of that.
RE: I agree. Seth, thanks again for the chat, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross.
SA: You’re very welcome.
[* Josephus was a 1st-century Roman historian. Jewish by birth, his treatise Antiquities of the Jews (93-94 CE) is often cited by Christians and Biblical scholars as containing important historical “proofs” of the existence of Jesus Christ.]