Editor's Note: Today we begin running excerpts of Live Talks Los Angeles Q&As in Santa Monica. The first is Eric Weiner in conversation with Lisa Napoli, discussing his new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.
It was after a doctor told him "there's something funky with your CT scan"—it turned out to be a serious case of gas—that war correspondent and hypochondriac Eric Weiner, a lapsed Jew, decided to embed himself with different religions to get back in touch with God.
Drawn to the mystical, mainstream and the less mainstream religions, like Wiccan and Raëlism, Weiner—who had just turned in a manuscript for what would become a New York Times bestseller, The Geography of Bliss—set off on a journey across the globe, aiming to answer: where do we come from? What happens when we die? How should we live our lives? Where do all the missing socks go?
"All Things Considered" host on KCRW, Lisa Napoli, interviewed Weiner earlier this month at Track 16 at the :
Lisa Napoli: How did you narrow down where you wanted to go?
Eric Weiner: It's safe to say at this time at this place, Southern California, one has a greater smorgasbord of religious and spiritual options than ever before... we have this idea of choice, which is a very American thing... we figure if we can choose our calling plan and breakfast cereal than why not chose our god and our religion?
But I freeze up in the breakfast cereal aisle. I'm always afraid of making the less than perfect the choice... I am a quasi-vegetarian—I'm a fish-atarian—and the reason I am is because it makes it easier to choose a dish at a restaurant; you can eliminate the meat options... I'm not good at choosing. None is bigger than choosing a God or religion.
I eliminated religions that don't accept converts... others I thought were too narrow, [like] Hungarian folk religion... I was briefly toying with Rastafarianism. I told my book editor and he said he thought it seemed like an excuse to fly down to Jamaica, listen to Bob Marley and smoke some good weed. In all seriousness, I looked for a cross section. I wanted eight different possible paths to this thing we call 'God.' I wanted some maybe more intellectual, some that were more heart based.
Lisa Napoli: You make everything look very accessible. You seem to bring out the best of all the religions, even the one that is arguably the most unusual.
Eric Weiner: It was not my intention at all to poke fun at these religions, and believe me it would have been really easy to just do that.
I have a problem with the Bill Mahers of the world. I think that's going after the low hanging fruit. It's too easy to find hypocrisy in religion and to find ridiculous creation myths and to find absurdities—that's all there. If I was asked to do something strange like dress up like a woman in Las Vegas—which I was—I will do it and I will call it as strange, but I will look for what is it about this faith that draws seemingly strange people to it? What are people getting out of it?
Lisa Napoli: Let's talk about the Raëlians... let's dive right into the strange.
Eric Weiner: One of their refrains is, 'free your breast, free your mind,' which they say and they do. The Raëlians are the world's largest UFO-based religion. They believe we were put on this planet to have pleasure, to have a lot of pleasure. To have a lot of sex, pretty much. But not only that. Almost every Raëlian I met was a lapsed Catholic, this is a reaction to Catholicism... they sponsor events like national Go Topless Day... we think that's odd, that that can't be a serious religion, but why?
If the Raëlians were just as strange about the UFO thing but they said 'we believe in no sex and no fun,' we'd say 'oh, that sounds like a religion.'
Lisa Napoli: Tell us a little about Wayne from Staten Island, he's a good character.
Eric Weiner: So I’m in Kathmandu and my first attempt at meditation didn't go so well and i was convinced my problem was my teacher, it couldn't have been my monkey mind... I thought I need a wizen Tibetan lama. So I'm in this part of Kathmandu where there are hundreds of thousands of Tibetans living... and I'm asking around there's a lot of Americans there studying Buddhism: 'I'm looking for a lama.' There weren't any apparently. They were all in California or Colorado. I'm frustrated but determined and someone said to me, 'have you heard of Wayne? He's from Staten Island.' Wayne had been living in Kathmandu for 30 years, a lapsed Jew, a BuJew.
I agree to study with Wayne. Wayne is a funny guy. He writes all his emails in verse... so we're sitting on his roof, sitting on these tattered cushions. The Himalayas are in the background and we're attempting to mediate... the thing about meditation is it's often sold as a stress reduction technique in secular circles but the thing is the Tibetan word for meditation, the root, is to familiarize and you are familiarizing yourself with your mind and it's not pretty in there.
My first attempt at meditation... we're watching our breath... I had that seven seconds of bliss and then my mind started heading toward nail clippers. I didn't bring any nail clippers with me to Kathmandu and I was convinced there were none and that my nails would grow to grotesque Howard Hughes proportions, and it wasn't some fleeting thought... in a way when you go down this spiritual road you dredge up a lot of spiritual sh*t and you have to deal with it.
Lisa Napoli: I can't help but wonder what happens to your 7-year-old daughter when she sees people like us, this fusion culture. How do you think the next generations will look at religion?
Eric Weiner: They're bound to be more messed up than us. When I started writing the book, I didn't want her to have the same negative attitude toward religion that I had. I wanted to expose her to different choices... 'Would you like some Wicca, honey? Or a little bit of Kabala? I wanted to give her the choice that I didn't have and I think that's wrong, actually. She's too young to decide between Wicca and Kabala. It is important to ground our children in one faith so they learn it, and then when they're older, they can drop it and break our hearts.
We do need a foundation and I didn't feel that way in the beginning of this journey. But I got to Israel where I was investigating Kabala and I met a great man who told me that basically religion is a language of intimacy with God and you need to speak one fluently before you can learn another.
So while I think it is possible to construct what I call an IKEA God, some assembly required, it's tricky, just like constructing IKEA furniture is tricky. When something gets too hard, you move on to something else, or you don't fully understand one before putting another piece on. I have met people who have put together an IKEA God but they really understand all the components.
To watch a video of the discussion in its entirety, click here.
Correction/Clarification: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Bill Maher.