Re: Radiolab’s “Are You Sure?”

For nearly a year now I’ve had two episodes of the podcast Radiolab in iTunes, just sitting there, waiting for me to address them. Or just to remain as a reminder of why I’ve had a chip on my shoulder with respect to the show for a while.

The episodes in question are:

The first one really, really bothered me. The second one had a minor annoyance that, combined with the first and other possible issues with an episode called “Yellow Rain”, pushed me over the edge to being frustrated at and unsure of the whole show. The first one is what I want to focus on.

But what am I talking about? Radiolab is a show kind of about science, kind of about philosophy, kind of human interest, and kind of audio theater. They move between these focuses generally in pursuit of an illuminating and interesting story. It is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. They have had some amazing episodes that have truly moved me. And they have had ones that were tedious and slow, as well.

In the first segment of the episode “Are You Sure?”, they tell the story of Jeff Viniard, a man who goes on a lengthy bike ride across major portions of the United States, in part, as we learn, to search for evidence for God. He has a fundamental disagreement with his fiancé, Megan, who must marry someone who is a theist, so he goes on this journey by himself to find answers.

I remember, a year ago, this segment was painful to listen to. And as I’m hearing it again, now, to finally put this lingering feeling behind me, it is again.

He’s riding, witnessing nature, looking for any sign that a supernatural force is out there: a miracle key that will allow him to be wed to his fiancé. He’s wrestling with trying to convince himself that the wind pushing him one day on his ride is a benevolent force, rather than just moving air.

I imagine being in his position. He doesn’t elaborate much on the show about why he came to nonbelief, saying it was an instant, a click (which is quite uncommon in all the atheist circles I’m in). But I try to put myself in his place, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I’m traveling all over to find someone or something that can help me on this assignment. And… I just get angry, and not just at the pegs. I get angry at the person who sent me on this journey. I get angry at the structures in society that make people toss and turn at night, trying to resolve this cognitive dissonance. I think about the pointless struggling, that mass of unhappiness that exists for no reason as people contort their thought to temporarily mimic believing. For a partner, for a friend, for family, some of whom may have gone through the same exercise, but landed on the side that perpetuates this cycle.

A year later he’s interviewed and recounts a story that (maybe?) convinced him. Towards the end of his trip, he’s feeling anxious that no sign has arrived. A ceiling tile falling on his sandwich at an Arby’s causes a stranger, who is a minister, to come over and talk to him. He shares his entire journey with the minister and leaves feeling… moved? But the way he characterizes it: admitting it’s silly, but saying that in that low moment for him, it was enough; that almost points to a self-awareness in him that it wasn’t a logical conclusion he came to.

He remains unsure, and his fiancé breaks up with him. She shares that the break-up was very hard, and I can’t help but remember that this disagreement, this barrier, this wall in their relationship, simply doesn’t have to exist. All these negative feelings and this unfortunate outcome were expended on a flawed edifice that Megan upholds.

Then a further year later, they are back together. Jeff had been going to church despite not actively believing, and he has an unusual experience during a service that, at least somewhat, convinced him. He says he believes in God. The show then plays a recording of the wedding when he is reciting his vows, and he emits an audible sob as he repeats them. Jeff explains later that this was not of resolution, but of relief.

And the segment ends.

I’m quite angry with this. The entire story is painted with Jeff as the only character with moldable views. And it is portrayed with the idea that his questions of faith were ones he willingly engaged with on his own, on a path of self-discovery. But that is not the case at all! Megan is the one who held her unchanging views and the mandate that he align himself with them. She, with the implicit backing and expectations of society, is the one who forced him on this wildly oscillating and sickening road.

When that sob is characterized as “relief”, I can only think of the tumultuous path he had to take to meet her religious requirements. I wonder if he’s glad this test of his belief, this arbitrary, willful convincing he had to endure to reach this moment, is over. I’m horrified at how much of those thoughts might be in that sob. How much human suffering had to go into that “I do.”

But the gut punch of this episode, the jab in my side was yet to come. Not only did ending the segment on “Amazing Grace” seem so tone-deaf. Not only did the hosts not recognize or sympathize with this plight. Not only was the fiancé’s immutable religious position completely unmentioned or unanalyzed.

At the end of the second segment, they next presented and endorsed one of the most facile and banal arguments for faith I’ve ever heard: Pascal’s Wager.


Bet on Russell’s teapot (Surly-Ramics)

This argument essentially says that one might as well believe in God, because the result is:

  • Great if one does believe and God does exist
  • Neutral if one does believe and God does not exist
  • Horrible if one does not believe and God does exist
  • Neutral if one does not believe God does not exist.

See, so if you do believe, you can only have a (result  0), while if you don’t, you can only have a (result ≤ 0)!

Essentially, Radiolab was connecting a segment on poker and probability with Pascal’s usage of it on theism. The reasons this argument is pathetic are numerous, but here are three:

1. Is belief in God actually a choice? One cannot simply begin to believe a particular claim without being convinced. Would God be satisfied with “belief” in him just out of “playing the odds”? It wouldn’t be “genuine”.

2. Actively believing in a god has an impact on the one life we know we have, and it can arguably be negative. Wasted time and energy worshipping and giving to organizations that purport to work on behalf of that god takes a measurable toll on one’s life. Belief in that which has not been proven can lead to other gaps in critical thinking and other ways to be taken advantage of or make mistakes.

3. Which god? Odin? Zeus? Believing “in God” is a convenient catch-all, but the fact is that most prominent religions denounce all others, including Christianity and Islam. So to pick one of thousands of exclusionary gods makes this wager thousands of times less useful. You’d have to pick The Right One, and since the wager speaks nothing of assessing the truth of any particular god claim, what is the likelihood of being correct?

Did the hosts address these serious, damning problems? No. They discuss Pascal’s Wager, addressing none of these criticisms that have existed for centuries, and eventually conclude that, yes, it sounds quite plausible!

And remember that this is on a show that many listeners viewed as a science-based program.

It was at this point that Radiolab severely lost the respect they had earned in previous, wonderful episodes for me. In “The Trouble with Everything”, two other instances further irked me. First, Abumrad continually describes a nonbelieving guest as “fallen from faith” or having “lost faith”. I understand these are common terms, but the repetition of this biased negative language wasn’t so easily excused in light of “Are You Sure?”. Second, Krulwich tries to insert his god into a discussion about theoretical physics with Brian Greene, which seemed unnecessary and self-interested.

All of this combined to change my perspective of the podcast and made me less trusting of the show’s adherence to rigorous truth.

As I finally returned to these two episodes, trying to make sense of it all, I was relieved to see I was not alone. The comments on the links to the episodes at the top echoed exactly my sentiments. Here are three from “Are You Sure?”, followed by one from “The Problem with Everything”:

…Then you go on with the Pascal’s wager. You none of you decided to bring up the criticism that the wager has received? Five minutes of research on the term would and you could have get yourself familiar with responses like the failure as proof, argument from inconsistent revelations, argument from inauthentic belief in bring them up in the show. But no, you leave it as it is fooling the audience into thinking that they should now go on and start believing in GOD. Which God? What if there is a God who will punish you for believing in him and reward you for not believing in him? Oh , that sounds like a silly idea of God? Not much more silly sounding than the God who murders millions of people in a giant flood but he still loves them.

Come on guys. Do the research next time.

The last segment was really haunting and thought provoking, but the first one was the most disappointing bit of Radiolab I have ever heard (and I love all of Radiolab). I thought this show was about science and rationality, and was really disappointed to hear the story end with a guy deciding to believe in God because he felt ‘something’ at one particular moment.

I too used to be religious and would interpret every tight feeling in my stomach, any muscle twitch as a sign that God exists. But then I realized I’m just telling myself a story and taking every opportunity I can to confirm it. Come on, I understand the need to have a human interest story but that was just really disappointing.

Dear Radiolab,
I have been a huge proponent of yours since I discovered you six years ago. I have donated, burned and distributed CDs for my friends, and constantly bug the producers at my local NPR station to have you as a regular feature. I defended your position on “yellow rain.” I waited for how you would respond to the Jonah Lehrer situation. I rejoiced in what I hoped was your return to glory in “Solid as a Rock” and “Bliss”

My proselytizing ends with this sad episode.

“Rocked by Doubt” sounds like the audiobook for “Chicken Soup for the Doubting Christian’s Soul” mixed with the worst of “This American Life (TAL).” I love TAL for its ability to recognize a mistake and correct it clearly and loudly in the same forum as its stories.

You clearly have lost your voice, and I have lost my love for Radiolab.

I don’t know what has happened to this show but I’m very disappointed. There has been a clear move away from solid Science stories in favor of ‘This American Life’ style human interest stories. I’m not against that kind of thing by any stretch of the imagination, but the appeal of this show has always been the Science as it relates to human society and psychology. Lately it seems like the Science has become secondary and the focus has been bizarrely on ‘faith’. There was an episode a few shows back about a guy having a crisis of religious faith. That was the entire substance of the show. Where is the Science in that? Nowhere. I’m not against that kind of story but it belongs on This American Life. Then they had a fairly interesting story about a Native American girl and the conflict between her biological father and white adoptive parents. Interesting, yes, but where is the Science? This last episode, while having an interview with Brian Greene to its credit, came across as Krulwich doing his mystery-mongering “ah so Science hasn’t quite figured this all out yet, therefore my belief in ‘spirituality’ remains justified”. As far as I’m concerned this is faulty logic and it translates into an unappealing and unenlightening show. I don’t have a problem with people having faith. I do have a problem with people attempting to jam their irrational beliefs into Science stories/education. I don’t know what has prompted this change in focus, but I don’t like it. I’m not one to endlessly complain about informational/entertaining shows so I’m not just being a bitter internet troll. I honestly want to know what happened to this show and why it seems to have gone downhill so rapidly. I’m still listening of course but I’m definitely much less excited when I see that there is a new episode available.

So if nothing else, finally resolving this frustration has made me aware that I am not alone. Many other people were disappointed in the episode in question and the trend from a few other episodes. I am reassured, though still disturbed by Jeff’s story and the larger issue of what a culture and expectation of religiosity causes people to do.

…And I still listen to Radiolab, just not “religiously” any more.

Featured image taken from “Are You Sure?” podcast site.

2 thoughts on “Re: Radiolab’s “Are You Sure?”

  1. A Fellow Believer

    I myself found Jeff’s story appealing. I have experienced the same situation/emotions from the crisis of faith to the chest sensation. I don’t understand why you have such an issue with the story. You simply cannot understand if you are not religious. This is one of many critiques of the Radiolab that seem to be anti-religious. Try as you may to rid of it, religion will always play a role in society whether explicit or discreet. You obviously need to learn tolerance and pluralism.

    1. Ross Post author

      I was religious, thanks. (This is the part where you baldly assert that I wasn’t religious “enough”, despite having no true metric to measure such a thing.)


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