An Interview with Jim Haught

James A. Haught was born in 1932 in a small West Virginia farm town that had no electricity or paved streets.  He graduated from a rural high school that had 13 students in the senior class.  He came to Charleston, worked as a delivery boy, then became a teen-age apprentice printer at the Charleston Daily Mail in 1951.  Developing a yen to be a reporter, he volunteered to work without pay in the Daily Mail newsroom on his days off, to learn the trade.  This arrangement continued several months, until The Charleston Gazette offered a full-time news job in 1953.  He has been at the Gazette ever since – except for a few months in 1959 when he was press aide to Sen. Robert Byrd.

During his half-century in newspaper life, he has been police reporter, religion columnist, feature writer and night city editor – then he was investigative reporter for 13 years, and his work led to several corruption convictions.  In 1983 he was named associate editor, and in 1992 he became editor. He writes nearly 400 Gazette editorials a year, plus occasional columns and news articles. Many of his articles may be found here.  

Haught has won 19 national newswriting awards, and is author of seven books and 60 national magazine articles.  Nearly 30 of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates.  He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He is listed in Who’s Who in America and Contemporary Authors.  He has four children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Personally, he enjoys hiking with Kanawha Trail Club, participating in a philosophy group at Edgewood Summit, and taking grandchildren swimming off his old sailboat at Lake Chaweva, where he lives.  When young, he played in state chess tournaments, and one of his games was published nationally. He is a longtime member of the Kanawha Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Q: Jim Haught, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for The Eloquent Atheist. You’ve been a great advocate for Humanism and Freethought for many years, as a journalist, researcher, editor and essayist, but lately your career has taken a turn, and you’ve become a novelist, writing the book “Amazon Moon” about the fabled Amazons, the warrior women. Tell our readers something about what drew you to this subject, how much research you did, and what it was like to create an imaginative work.

A:  Through a fluke, two new books by me were printed simultaneously this year. It happened this way:

My bitterness toward the Bush-Cheney government was dragging me down, so I escaped into the fantasy of a novel. I’m a longtime student of ancient Greece – partly through a philosophy group I attend – so I had a lot of background, including knowledge of Amazon lore.

As I hatched the imaginary tale, it naturally reflected my skeptic-humanist-scientific mindset. The novel belittles the rampant supernaturalism of that era: endless animal sacrifices to many gods on Mount Olympus (and even a few human sacrifices); constant consulting of oracle priestesses who spouted gibberish; the Sacred Wars fought over riches of the Delphi oracle; casting bones and horoscopes to predict the future; etc. Ancient Greece was the first known culture in which thinkers began seeking natural explanations for phenomena instead of accepting magical answers – thus it marked the start of the long war between science and religion.

As for the Amazons, most ancient writings portrayed them as an entire nation of women – but I find that implausible. Instead, my Amazons were slave girls, concubines, temple prostitutes, subjugated wives and others who fled from ancient Greece’s extreme male supremacy and lived in rebel bands as liberated females. They raided caravans and kept a few wounded male prisoners as slave-concubines of their own. The novel is narrated by a captured scribe. The tale begins in modern times when archeologists find the scribe’s long-buried parchment codexes.

Prometheus Books printed all my nonfiction books, and my contracts require me to give Prometheus first refusal on any new manuscript. Although Prometheus rarely prints fiction, I was obligated to offer “Amazon Moon” there first. The top editor declined, but said he needed more atheist nonfiction. So I suggested that several of my past magazine articles be compiled into an essay anthology. Prometheus did so, and released “Honest Doubt: Essays on Atheism in a Believing Society” just before “Amazon Moon” was released by BookLocker.

Q: Now that you’ve written one novel, do you have any plans to produce another?

A:  I don’t know. I’m swamped running West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, so there’s little time for private writing (and the long thinking it requires).

Q: I noticed that in the April-May 2007 issue of Free Inquiry you wrote about The Cristero War, when fledgling democratic reforms in Mexico were quashed by the Catholic Church.  You’ve described this event as another “Holy Horror,” a kind of travesty you’ve detailed in your non-fiction. Why is it that religion very often “gets a pass,” as Christopher Hitchens notes, when people examine the violent conflicts of history? Hitchens says that the conflicts are not viewed as fueled by religious but rather by cultural differences.

A:  In most faith-based bloodshed, it’s difficult to fathom how much of the hate and killing is caused purely by religion, and how much by ethnic-social-economic-political rivalry. “Religious tribalism” divides people into separate cultural communities, and these groups easily turn hostile to each other. Even young people who have stopped attending worship usually stick with their clan when the killing begins. Someone said the breakup of Yugoslavia was “a religious war fought by people who never attend church.” The Cristero War was more purely religious, because Bolshevik-like reformers tried to break the Catholic Church’s oppressive grip on Mexico, and bishops roused the faithful into a tragic armed rebellion.

Q: Speaking of Hitchens, what is your opinion of the so-called “New Atheists,” which also include Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins? They’ve received plenty of positive but also antagonistic coverage, and both kinds of opinion also have been expressed within the freethinking, nontheist community. Why do these authors rile some readers within what you’d think would be a sympathetic audience?

A:  I’m glad that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and other big-name writers scored a breakthrough, making skepticism more visible in America. It’s unfortunate that angry clashes arose – but I think they were inescapable. When a thinker says flatly that it’s absurd to believe in invisible spirits and magical heavens, this naturally upsets millions of American worshippers and clergymen whose worldview entails invisible spirits and magical heavens. Debate with them can turn into grim confrontation. As for fellow skeptics who prefer to avoid such confrontation, I’m not sure they can voice their disbelief clearly without provoking a backlash. I favor expressing “honest doubt” forthrightly.

Q: Although I, and no doubt many others, are quite familiar with your writings, I don’t know much about why or when you became a humanist and freethinker. Could you tell us something about your personal and philosophical development?

 A:  I was raised in a little West Virginia farm town that had no electricity or paved streets. My parents sent me to rural Protestant Sunday schools – but in my teen-age years, I became enchanted by science and grew to regard supernaturalism as fairy tales.  That outlook never left me.  I crave evidence, proof, facts – but there are none in the claims of gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles and so forth.

Q: You’ve been a longtime observer of and editorialist about politics. I always enjoy finding your personal web site, where a photo shows you shaking hands with Bill Clinton. Where do you see the United States headed, after eight years of an administration that has endorsed all sorts of faith-based initiatives, and successfully positioned the Supreme Court to overturn legal precedent?

A:  As I said, the Bush-Cheney government – and the puritanical “religious right” backing it – soured me badly. But I think a brighter day is coming. Secularism is growing rapidly in America. The number of Americans who answer “none” when asked their religion has doubled in two decades. I think America is experiencing a cultural shift, becoming more like Europe, where religion virtually has died. If this trend continues, harsh-minded fundamentalists, evangelicals and rigid Catholics will lose power to impose their values on others. And I hope that the sorry outcome of President Bush’s Iraq war has undercut America’s zeal for militarism.

Q: Would you like to see more common ground established between theists and nontheists in the U.S.? Is this possible, given the current political climate?

A:  Both atheists and church members can share common humanist concerns: compassion for the poor and disadvantaged; pursuit of improved health and education; fair treatment through democracy and human rights; etc.  I’d welcome mutual dialogue on these topics – as long as everyone agrees not to veer into theology.

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