The quest for faith: Michael Krasny’s new book details life as an agnostic

When it comes to God, KQED radio host Michael Krasny is a lot like U2 lead singer Bono: He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

Once a devout Jew, as an adult Krasny, 66, does not buy into the concept of an omniscient God as depicted in the Torah. But neither does he accept the curmudgeonly atheism of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Call him an agnostic.

That is what he labels himself. Krasny maps the contours of his reluctant agnosticism in his new book, “Spiritual Envy.”

Why envy those who unreservedly believe in God? Says Krasny, “You want to give gratitude. Sometimes you feel frightened, with a foxhole mentality, but for the most part I remain a skeptic and a doubter and a seeker.”

Krasny’s new book is similar to his last, “Off Mike,” in that it is part autobiography, but it is also part religious disquisition. As a college-level English literature professor and professional interviewer, Krasny knows a lot about a lot, and on every page, he quotes a wide range of thinkers, from Pascal to Hemingway to John Lennon.

It’s all in an effort to shed light on agnosticism, that vexing middle area on the piety scale, typified by doubt –– not certainty –– that there is no Adonai in the sky.

“I was brought up with a strong sense of Jewish faith and identity,” Krasny says. “When I’m talking about my own beliefs [today], I’m going away from the fold, and I recognize that for some people who still have that strong faith, it’s not necessarily something they look kindly on.”

Among the most cited figures in his book are the men who essentially invented agnosticism, 19th century thinkers such as Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Huxley (Huxley coined the term “agnostic”). They were rationalists, demanding proof before suspending unbelief, and dripping with contempt for organized religion.

Krasny feels no such contempt for religion, even though he shares an affinity for rational inquiry.

“Too often this debate boils down to science vs. religion,” Krasny says, “and that’s a phony, too simplistic and reductive way to see it. This country was founded on religious tolerance. I am uncomfortable with role of defender of the faith, but religion answers some kind of need that shouldn’t be denied. It gives comfort, solace, hope and peace.”

The Cleveland-born Krasny has sought to bring some of those same qualities to his audiences, both through his teaching career at San Francisco State University and with his daily show, “Forum with Michael Krasny” on KQED radio. He has interviewed thousands of writers, poets and politicos, and is, like his TV counterpart Charlie Rose, always erudite and astonishingly prepared.

Which makes the confessional quality of some sections of “Spiritual Envy” all the more surprising. Krasny admits the subject matter of the book is as personal as it gets.

“There are few things in life as intimate as one’s personal relationship with God,” he says. “Fear of death does play into a lot of what religion has to offer. I tend to feel that mortality, especially as I get older, is something I become more reconciled to. I recognize the fleetingness of life, and I don’t think there’s anything after it.”

Not that he’s gloom-and-doom about it. Krasny is upbeat about the response to his book so far, and eager to learn readers’ responses to the subject.

Apparently, they have already been weighing in.

“I wanted this book to be like a conversation and engage people’s minds,” he says. “It turned out to be a wonderful catalyst, with people of faith and without faith wanting to talk about their own stories. It’s like opening the phone lines.”

“Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest” by Michael Krasny ($22.95, New World Library, 249 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.