Yup, that’s true.

Religion makes kind people say unkind things: “I must prove my faith, so mutilate the genitals of my children.” They wouldn’t do that if God didn’t tell them to do so. And it makes intelligent people say stupid things: Condoms are worse than AIDS, for example. Things they wouldn’t dream of saying if the pope didn’t tell them to do that.

I agree and am appalled in the same way you are. Let me ask you this: The Greek myths, their fables, their folk tales that endured are not literally true, but there’s great value in the universal truths that are taught just by the story itself. I see so much of scripture in a similar way including, for example, the creation story. Can you agree with me that some of those stories are valuable just as metaphor?

The creation story is ridiculous garbage. And has given us a completely false picture of our origin as a species and the origins of the cosmos. If you want a good mythical story it would be the life of Socrates. We have no proof, as with Jesus, that he ever existed. We only know from witnesses to his life that he did. Like Jesus, he never wrote anything down. It doesn’t matter to me whether he did or not exist because we have his teachings, his method of thinking, and his extreme intellectual and moral courage. Anyone who can look me in the eye and say they prefer the story of Moses or Jesus or Mohammed to the life of Socrates is— I have to say it to you—intellectually defective. The great edition starts with Locutius and Epicurius who work out that the world is made of atoms and is not created by any design. It goes through Socrates and through, well, Galileo, Spinoza—people whose work is burned and despised by Jews and Christians and Muslims alike—to through Voltaire to Darwin to, I’m abridging the story somewhat, but it’s the last chapter of my book. It’s a better tradition for people who think for themselves and who don’t pray in aid of any supernatural authority. That’s what you should be spending your life is in spreading and deepening that tradition.

You say that nonbelievers, “Distrust anything that contradicts science or outrageous reason” that you respect free inquiry. I am a person of faith and absolutely agree with these two statements. But I do not believe that in order to be religious you have to disconnect your brain. Do you believe that and, if so, why?

The smallest privilege of faith over reason is a betrayal. My daughter goes to a Quaker school, for example. Do I think that the Quakers are the same as Hezbollah? No, of course I don’t, though I think there’s a lot to be said against Quakerism morally and what Quakers and Hezbollah do have in common is the idea that “faith” is an automatically good word. I think it’s not. When people say, “I am a person of faith,” they expect applause for it as we see in every election cycle. If I could make one change in the culture it would be to withhold that applause, to say, “Wait a minute, you just told me you’re prepared to accept an enormous amount on no evidence whatsoever. Why are you thinking that that would impress me?” I have no use for it, when I could be spending time looking through a telescope or into a microscope and finding out the most extraordinary, wonderful things. People say faith can move mountains. Faith in what, by the way? You haven’t said.

If you would like for me to talk a little bit about what I believe . . .

Well I would actually.

I don’t know whether or not God exists in the first place, let me just say that. I certainly don’t think that God is an old man in the sky, I don’t believe that God intervenes to give me goodies if I ask for them.

You don’t believe he’s an interventionist of any kind?

I’m kind of an agnostic on that one. God is a mystery to me. I choose to believe because—and this is a very practical thing for me—I seem to live with more integrity when I find myself accountable to something larger than myself. That thing larger than myself, I call God, but it’s a metaphor. That God is an emptiness out of which everything comes. Perhaps I would say “ reality” or “what is” because we’re trying to describe the infinite with language of the finite. My faith is that I put all that I am and all that I have on the line for that which I do not know.

Fine. But I think that’s a slight waste of what could honestly be in your case a very valuable time. I don’t want you to go away with the impression that I’m just a vulgar materialist. I do know that humans are also so made even though we are an evolved species whose closest cousins are chimpanzees. I know it’s not enough for us to to eat and so forth. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we’re going to die, which gives us a lot to think about, and we have a need for, what I would call, “the transcendent” or “the numinous” or even “the ecstatic” that comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t respond to things of that sort. But I think the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious.