Four Perspectives on God, Atheism and Agnosticism

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Over the years, Bill has become well known for his thoughtful discussions on eternal questions about God, faith and reason. Here, we’ve collected memorable moments from his conversations with prominent agnostics and atheists to shed light on issues of religion and identity.

Author Salman Rushdie, a self-described “hard-line atheist,” talks about the need to “broaden what we can understand and say, and therefore be.” (2006)

Watch the entire conversation between Bill Moyers and Salman Rushdie.

Author Margaret Atwood says it’s not a question of God or not God — it’s what you do with those beliefs. (2006)

Novelist Martin Amis says “our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature” to say God does not exist. (2006)

Author Richard Dawkins says that “evolution is about as certain as anything we know.” (2004)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-Jarvis/100000447560556 Barbara Jarvis

    Before? time or Space Nothing – Except Concepts. for everything that was/is to come. The three greatest are Wisdom, Truth and Love, Combined they are God, in whom all, everything exists forever. God is All, All is God. Few understand it ergo religion/cults which gaining power over us (the other creatures have no need of this) seek to keep it for whatever sick reasons that destroy what they purport to explain/uphold and therein ensue the worst problems we as humans have.

  • Janice A. Henry

    Well then……where did the jelly fish come from and how was it designed? The amoboa has a design (how was it designed)? Do you think that the sun and rain fostered the jellyfish into a frog, snake, turtle and man? How did man blossom? If all things have much of the same DNA. what destinquishes the jellyfish from man and woman? Where was the determining element that made man …man and woman…woman? Then there is another factor that has not been addressed; emotion, thought processes from animals and humans. How was this decided? I would seriously be offended if I was described as
    coming from a frog or a jellyfish …..a creature without a human perspective. I would say
    that there must be a supreme creator who uses the elements of the sea, air, DNA of

    many forms of life and creates a diversified animal, vegetative and elemental world.
    A supreme creator who has created us in his likeness to have guardianship over this
    wonderful world and everything that lives in it. We have been gifted with a soul for good
    and evil which is a free will. Look at the world as it exists todapeoy……bloodshed, brutality,selfishness, materialism, and man’s inhumanity towards men. They are expresses their free wills. And then what about our part of humanity that loves for the sake of
    loving and helping mankind. Does this describe a JELLYFISH?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    Who created the creator?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    Love is a neurological condition. How can a neurological condition exist without a brain?

  • http://twitter.com/lisa_ms1 lisa

    man :)

  • http://twitter.com/lisa_ms1 lisa

    created us in his likeness… I would like to point out that if you were to study that verse you would find that the original word for likeness in hebrew means the way one thinks, their thoughts, and ideas, not their physical form or body. People seem so quick to cling and hold onto a book not even researching their beliefs and then so quick to deny anything that goes against what they want to believe in, regardless if its been proven over and over and over again to be false.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    As Frank Zappa said “We’re all dumb, and if we’re created in God’s image, then God must be dumb. And probably a little ugly too”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    Exactly.

  • http://twitter.com/Lance_Farrell Lance

    Before time and space? What are you talking about? What does it mean to not be in time? Where is there a place without space? Your heady concoction is an evasion, not an answer.

  • Donald

    So why all the attention on one side? There was something like this a few days ago. Is Bill Moyers atheist? Maybe he should interview himself.

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    I think the problem is that we keep holding onto an old image and understanding of what, or who God is, I mean in the old Testament the concept of God was introduced as I am that I am, how awesome is that, something to think about, it is that it is! It’s like someone holdng onto a 15 century map of the new lands to be discovered. the map appears very fanciful, and has someones concept of what thes new lands look like. They are drawn with supernatural landscapes and people; so this is exactly what our sailor looks for. But then it comes to pass that he sails the ocean blue,and finally arrives a these new lands which no one from his part of the world had ever seen before. But this new place looks nothing like what is pictured on the map, or ever told to him. So this sailor instaed of saying the new lands exist but the map is wrong in it’s understandin and explanation of the new lands, he says that these new lands do not exist, because they are not as depicted in the map!

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    lol

  • J. Jordan

    The Bible ( asserted to be the inspired, true word of a god ), is not analogous to a vaguely correct map. The Bible offers no previously unknown knowledge, although it is supposed to be divinely inspired. A map can at least predict where, say North America is ( something not mentioned in the divinely inspired Bible ) for example.

  • Leighsa

    Scientists scour the solor system looking for intelligent life ..their radio telescopes and other electronic equipment searching for pulsed ordered signals or sequences…signs of a complex code that would indicate infallable proof there’s intelligent life that exists beyond our plantet and we are not alone. Ironically trading those telescopes for micorscopes and observing the DNA in the chromosomes of any living creature….they indeed see this highly complex code, an ordered language, making up the most highly complex, ordered information sequence in the universe.

  • Augustine

    Philosophical narcissism: circular reasoning that justifies one’s prejudices to one’s own ego. A form of solipsism. It is the vainglorious means and ends of all atheistic claims of logic and reason.

  • Robbie Lamons

    You must not have seen the jellyfish exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium, They are amazingly beautiful in how they move,and how their lights move. Any really nice god would have made it easier to bear chidren, and for girls to pee in the woods, and I want built in lights, and cuttlefish camophlage, and cat muscles and fur, and a tui bird voice, and wings. God could have done a much better job. What we did get is enough to reproduce, but what we have seems random rather than done by a great designer. I’m sure we evolved from one-celled critters, but unfortunately not from jellyfish.

  • Robbie Lamons

    Surely not all atheistic claims are circular, fewer I suspect than the claims for various gods. Surely you have heard the narcissistic and circular claim that humans are so perfect that god must have created us.

  • stephanieburke

    Wish i could speak with Susan Jacoby in person. She came off as a very intelligent person until she started giving her viewpoint about why God doesn’t exist in her mind. Her reasoning? Look at all the evil she says. I would tell her that God is all knowing and ll seeing if He chooses to do so. I believe that a God who is nothing but love could not bear to see the evil that goes on in this beautiful world He gave us When He decides to judge us that is when He will see it. In the meantime we have free will and what happens is up to us

    Stephanie Burke

  • Adam

    God is a rumor a gossip gone too far

  • Cecilia Drakopoulos

    Love my tapes .Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell. These interviews on on a par with those tapes. thank you Mr Moyers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    Augustine: The man who said that all non-believers should be executed.
    Persecution: The cornerstone of all religious reasoning.

    Also, what’s more solipsistic than theism, believing the entire universe was created just for you by a loving creator who simultaneously likes to massacre and torture people?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    If your god created us knowing exactly what we would do and what would be done to us, where is the free will? That’s the ultimate determinism. Then he has the audacity to send us to eternal torture (even though he loves us) for doing what he created us to do. And you worship this guy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    Actually, we’re pretty certain that here’s no other life in this solar system except for perhaps the moons of Jupiter, although that life certainly wouldn’t be intelligent.

    Also, define complexity in biological terms and explain how you know that it is more complex than any other biological pattern in the universe. I’m assuming of course that you have studied every alien species in the universe. Did you have trouble with the Zek Phalaxy species on planet Urnt Majesta in the Hoag’s Object galaxy, I know they’re pretty quick with those photon guns?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002568255608 Steve French

    I’ve heard mental patients who eat their own faeces come up with better analogies than that.

  • Eric Cheung

    In my mind atheism has less to do with whether or not a god or gods exist, and more to do with whether or not we should worship such beings, or even call them gods. Theism with the prefix A would suggest an absence of Theism, an absence of godliness. And even if a sentient being created the world, and all its creatures, or even the entire multiverse, that doesn’t mean we should put it on a pedestal inscribed with the word “god” on it. I can therefore be agnostic about the existence of a creator, but atheistic about what I should do with that information. I guess that would put me closest to Salman Rushdie’s statements, that one should “not by bowing the knee, whether to gods or to men.”

    Of course, I also understand how and why evolution is the best explanation possible for the diversity of life as we know it, so Richard Dawkins is right up there too.

  • Eric Cheung

    I should also inquire as to whether there is a better term for what I’ve described above. If so, I’d gladly cite that rather than atheism.

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    There again you are imposing your understanding of how to find what is meant by God, The intuition that humans have had ( at least as noted in 5000 years of recorded history) that humanity is part of something greater, and that the many parts of how we are made is also shared by this greater part, has to be considered as part of our DNA, and part of survival of the fittest. This curiosity has led us to research our world and our universe. If as scientist say, we are made from the same stuff which makes up universe, and that the earth is part of the universe, and we along with the universe are one organic system, then you have to strongly suspect that humans are not the only living organisms in the universe that have developed, memory, creativity and consciousness. I believe that all that we are doing now, which we are able to do because nature has equipped us to do it, is what by design must be done in order to move evolution forward. All our thinking our questioning our search for meaning, our pondering as to how we relate to this greater part of life which we have called by many names, including God ( which is not Christian or Judaic) we are able to do imperfectly and succesivley more perfectly for 5000 years ( and even more) we have done by design, If you say we are the only ones, you are making the same mistake as people in the past who believed we were the center of the universe, and there was no one else in the universe like us. Your mistake is that you want an exact map that will allow you to go up and see this living force, that we lable God, and many other things. But that’s the problem you have a preconcieved notion of what it should be, based on your human sense of reality. The same mistake made by humans in the middle ages who percieved the world as flat, becuse that was what it looked like to their senses..But that is not how humans discovered that we were not the center of the universe or that the world was round. You think we know the distance between the earth and the star Vega, by using a long ruler which measured the distance, or in order to calculate the speed of light we followed the light with a Speedometer. We discovered these facts indirectly, and we were surprised as to what we found. We are part of something greater, the universe is not indifferent to us, or we to it, unless we choose to be, Morality, chose, creativity is all parto evolution and the survival of the fittest!

  • J. Jordan

    Luz, Your florid prose aside, there are some issues I have with your post. First, thank you for pointing out how we make measurements by observation. I have had a physics class or 2 in engineering school. Which is why I have problems with a few items you mention. It is not “if” we are made of star-stuff, we are. It does not follow that the universe is one organic system. I am also not entirely sure what you mean by “what by design must be done in order to move evolution forward”. Are you saying there is a design, therefore a designer, which drives evolution?
    Then you assert that I believe we are the only sentient life forms in the universe. How did you arrive at that conclusion? Following this you assert that the universe in “not indifferent” to us. I would say in a very real sense our actions on this small planet have no effect on the vast, vast universe. I can assure you that I am aware of my perspective and the limits of our observations. We can however draw very real, testable conclusions from our observations. Everything is not unknowable. Even if we are a gleam in the eye of a programmer running a simulation on a system somewhere, we can still make observations and draw conclusions about the system that has been created. Yet I admit that I do not know if M-Theory is correct, or if we will observe some aspect of nature that contradicts it. I CAN however say, unless I misinterpreted your post, that saying the fanciful stories in the Bible are a map for us to discover, using absurd images as landmarks, is to say that it is inspired and predictive, and again I stand by my assertion that that is at best a flawed analogy.

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    Let me clarify, I used the example of the name given to God in the old testament, as one of many examples belonging to the many religions of the world. I often use it because it’s what I know most in terms of its literature its teaching, its impact on my thinking ( using myself as an example as being human ) and its what I know most as to how the teachings have been translated in our time into quiding our behaviour and our moral code and perception of reality. But that is one of the main problems among mdern intellectuals, when you mention the study of other religions, they are more accepting to consider it almost as a study in social anthropology, or as a research in the evolution of human knowlege and consciousness. In such situations they remain objective. But once you point to the religious believes in Judaism or Christianity, they are incapable of doing the same. They then begin to interject their subjectivity, or personal experience with both religions, instead it seems they feel the compulsion to immediately attack its teaching. They go on a tirade against it as if both religions are the only ones among all the religions of the world, that must be set straight, as far as making it very clear, that there is no God, or putting into question the existence of any God! I think in order to understand the full meaning and impact of any religion, including Judaism and Christianity, on all of a society, you must be able to study the role of any religion including in human civilization, including the present, as if you were a living being from another planet!

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    That is a very personal and subjective reaction to religious teachings mostly ofour time, that must be studied as part of one of many human reaction, to religious teaching. You would be the subject of a study not the researcher or the interpreter of a sudy.

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    They were fantastic. It is a perfect example of how religons should be studied and interpreted!

  • Luz Vega Hidalgo

    J. Jordan I think we are viewing the problem from two different vantage points. One of us is looking at the problem from the sky, as if on a plane, and another from the peak of a very high mountain!

  • Ted

    Theists believe that the universe was a) willed and b) designed and c) created because of its immensity and complexity. Complexity implies design and design implies a will, they say. They do not explain how this willful designer/creator came to be, or how it created the universe, or why this designer must still exist today, or why if it still exists today it must be worshiped and thanked, why it reads our thoughts and cares about us and must be worshiped, or why it is the source of love and morality, or why it rewards us with eternal heaven, etc. So when they say creationism or intelligent design is not religion they are being disingenuous.

  • A.O.W.M.

    Ha! Stellar as always. Frank is much missed.

  • Doris

    My problem with most verbiage about “God” is that the writer/speaker tends to outline the supreme diety in human terms, whether superhuman or otherwise. I don’t see God as a superhuman. I don’t see Him/Her as having human characteristics at all. To me, the native American belief in the Great Spirit is more authentic and spiritual that what passes today for most religious belief. The idea of a non-human Great Spirit which encompasses the best qualities of the human race but also surpasses them, is the truest and most spiritual of beliefs, I think. It engenders spiritual humility and a sense of the wonder and awe which people holding this view tend to have. It is most profoundly spiritual.

  • http://www.gmcbridellc.com/ TigerRag…

    I had a friend in college, who is now a devote Christian, by the way, who said that the existance of God is unknowable. That word, unknowable, sums up the agnostic position and Margaret Atwood states it perfectly. God, like some other things in our existance, is just unknoable. And tha statement is as clear today as it was back in Springfield, MO, in 1966 when Michael Dugan said it. It is the agnostic startingpoint. Her point, that people shouldn’t worry so much about the God figure and should put more emphasis on what goes with religion–ie. tolerance of life–is really the starting point of all philosophy. And I thank her for repeating it for us all to hear once again.

  • AC

    Delusional.

  • AC

    There’s no such thing as the supernatural. It doesn’t exist. No event has ever occurred that violated the laws of physics.

  • Russell Kicklighter

    When I hear these questions I think “Now there’s a scientist” and then I realize that person isn’t interested in the answers, they already have the answers. But there are those who are seeking the real answers to those questions, but the people who write post like this wouldn’t listen to those who have actually found the answers. Like the tape worm, they feed off the people who sustain them and better the world they live in.

  • CR

    Like Santa, the Easter Bunny and unicorns, God is a story I no longer believe in. I’ve never seen anyone walk on water, get pregnant without semen, turn water into wine, and I certainly can’t believe in a “Father” that causes harm to innocents and then demand I worship him. I don’t care what you label me, I just no longer believe the story.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gene.bivins Gene Bivins

    At least, none of which we have any record. Then again, if observation truly changes the observed, maybe someone has, and then wiped it out by observation!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gene.bivins Gene Bivins

    While I agree with everything you say, I also believe it’s dangerous to make such generalized statements as “Theists believe…” It would be less problematic to say “most theists believe…” We see enough differences between Christians, or between Muslims or members of any other collective religion, to extrapolate the probable inaccuracy of ascribing any particular belief to all theists.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t believe in god (or gods). It does not mean I believe beyond all doubt there are no gods, just that there has never been any evidence provided that requires god(s) to exist to explain anything we have observed in the universe.

    There are many things we still don’t know the answers to but unless the thing you invent to explain the unknown is itself explained and explainable all you are doing is moving “I don’t know” from the original phenomenon to the thing you invented. Saying “god(s) did it” but “god(s) is/are unknowable” adds precisely nothing to what you argue unless you can explain things about “god(s)”. In which case “god(s)” just becomes part of the universe amenable to scientific study.

    Does that make me an atheist or agnostic? Frankly you can label me what you like, I call myself an atheist because I don’t believe in any gods but if you prefer to label that belief set agnostic that’s fine too.

  • Anonymous

    Rushdie’s comment that “our sense of right and wrong, our moral sense…precedes religion, it’s not created by it. It’s what creates our need for religion.” Is a brilliant, insightful statement. So many religious people claim that without religion there would be no morality, yet they then condemn actions taken on behalf of certain religions. Christians like to claim some form of moral superiority, yet over the ages just as many deaths and atrocities can be attributed to christianity as to any other religion, if not more.

    No, religious writing was the way that cultures codified the moral precepts of their day. The reason that we find many of the commands of the bible immoral today is just due to changes in societal norms. Therefore the lie that without religion you have no morality is laid bare. Knowing that there are things in the bible that any rational person would find immoral today means that one must use some standard other than the bible to decide what is moral.

    Religion is an excuse to be lazy intellectually. It is used to try to eliminate doubt and uncertainty about things for which science doesn’t have complete answers. It is also used to try to control large numbers of people by a small number of leaders and to try to separate the gullible from their money. As John Lennon alluded to when he sang:

    “Imagine there’s no heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace”

    Without religion the world would be a much more peaceful place.

  • Anonymous

    Seems many English speakers have difficulty with the atheist vs. agnostic issue. Atheist = no belief. Agnostic = no knowledge. Belief and knowledge are two separate things. I can be an atheist and an agnostic because I have no knowledge of any existence of a god AND I do not believe in any god. Likewise, one can be a theist and an agnostic = I believe in God, but have no knowledge of the existence of a god. Etc. Agnosticism is not “Atheism-light.” Mere terminology, yes. But, M. Atwood seems to want to make some sort of point about it. And she speaks as if you can be on or the other, but not both. She’s absolutely wrong that Atheism is a belief system. By definition, Atheists have no belief.

  • Anonymous

    Well said J. Jordan.

  • Elizabeth Keimach

    I’d love a world of joy and peace,
    No codes or holy preaching.
    Where black-and-white
    Stand side-by-side
    And young and old are reaching
    An understanding of the need
    To learn each other’s mystery.
    Where science stands
    With head held high
    And ignorance is history.
    But that is just a fairy tale,
    That never will unfold.
    Our world will always have its strife
    And sacred texts of old.

  • Anonymous

    Well said. Absence of belief is not belief in absence.

  • Anonymous

    As I understand the terms a Deist is someone who believes in a god like creator but does not believe that creator is still involved in the running of the universe. A theist is a Deist who also believes that creator is meddling in the day to day running of the universe.

    Beyond that theists vary enormously in their belief sets but many of them (wrongly) make logical jumps like “argument X shows there had to be a creator therefore the creator is good and should be worshipped”. Even if there were an argument that made a creator probable it in no way automatically implies anything beyond that.

  • kingsailor

    Sometime in the past people imagined a humanlike “creator” and that idea came to be believed as “reality”. Anyone who subscribes any such belief is simply accepting what those people once imagined. Some time ago, some people imagined “ether”"?” and treated that idea as real – very real!