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Bill Moyers ponders ‘Faith & Reason’

Host discusses gap between spiritualism, secularism on PBS series
/ Source: The Associated Press

Monologues in silos. That’s how Bill Moyers sizes up the fractured state of discourse in the culture today. And there is no greater communication gap than between absolutists taking their isolated refuge in the silos of spiritualism and secularism.

With an eye toward charting some common ground, and exploring the richness of that terrain, “Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason” presents seven weekly hourlong sessions with writers of wildly varying positions on belief and disbelief — and who collectively disavow any simple either-or polarity.

So does their host.

“My point of view is that we need to consider that faith and reason are inherently part of the human experience, and embedded in us,” says Moyers, who sought out writers (as opposed to religious figures or scholars) to learn through in-depth conversations some of what they find on their creative odysseys.

Drawn from the distinguished group that gathered recently for the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, Moyers’ guest list begins with Salman Rushdie, who joins him for the series premiere at 9 p.m. EDT Friday on PBS (check local listings).

Rushdie knows all too well the price of religious dogmatism. Himself an Indian-born atheist, the British author was forced underground for five years when his 1989 novel “The Satanic Verses” resulted in death threats and a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie’s book was condemned by believers as offensive to Islam.

“It seems to me that when there is conflict between the liberty of speech and the beliefs of private individuals, the liberty of speech must always take precedence,” Rushdie declares. “Because otherwise every other liberty, including freedom of religious observance, is put into question.”

On the second edition of “Faith & Reason,” British philosopher Colin McGinn (“The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World”) speaks of his journey from belief to disbelief.

Putting faith to workOn the same show, novelist Mary Gordon (“The Company of Women”) describes herself as “a person of faith” and speaks of putting that faith to work when, say, encountering greedy motorists who drive gas-guzzlers.

“It seems to me the only thing that stops me from going out and shooting people in Hummers is a religious belief that, even though I don’t like them, they are sacred and valuable in the eyes of God,” she says.

On a later episode, Canadian author Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) sees a commingling of religion at the service of politics as something that, in the United States, has “been floating in the breeze this last little while. ... ‘This is the true religion: Follow our flag.”’

Moyers’ series reflects the diversity of attitudes he perceives in society at large, and, when sitting down with his guests, “I was pleased that they were able to express the nuances that most of us experience in our thinking about faith and reason,” he says. “And to do so in ways that make you want to listen to them.

“I don’t think the country is as polarized as the politics represent,” he adds hopefully. “I think it’s 5 percent on each side of the spectrum that’s driving discourse these days. But surveys show that people on the whole aren’t that divided, aren’t that dogmatic, and that they’re eager for solutions, for tolerance, for progress.”

End of a long careerMoyers, 72, has returned to the airwaves 18 months after stepping down as anchor of “Now,” the weekly public-affairs magazine he began, with the stated intention of bringing to a close his long career in TV journalism.

But he couldn’t resist its siren call, he says. And with his research completed in the interim for a memoir about President Lyndon Johnson, whom he served as special assistant, Moyers couldn’t resist a topic as timely, and tumultuous, as the current clash of faith versus reason.

As for his personal position, “I’ve always been a fellow who falls in the middle of this one,” he says.

And the record bears him out. Supplementing his more secular achievements, the Texas native’s resume includes a divinity degree, and he’s an ordained Baptist minister. He’s not easily pigeonholed.

That hasn’t kept agitators from pigeonholing Moyers as the enemy — in particular, as a favorite symbol of what they deem wrong with public television.

Asked how it feels to have been drafted into the culture war with his open-minded inquiries, Moyers says: “I have a regret that some people won’t listen because the right has demonized me. But I don’t do this to be divisive. I don’t do this to be controversial.”

Looking ahead to “Faith & Reason,” which aims to bridge some gaps and deliver some insights, Moyers says: “What is disturbing to me is that anyone would find it controversial.”