May 8, 2009

The God of Howard Stern

I've been a Howard Stern fan since the early 1990's, but didn't start listening every day until I lived in North Carolina in 1998. I've hardly missed a show since.

Many people have asked me over the years how I as a christian can be a Howard Stern fan. I have hardly thought the question worth answering because to me it's a loaded question and absurd. Usually people that ask this question have already pronounced a judgement on Howard yet never even heard him on the radio for a full show and they assume you have to agree with everything he says and does in order to be a fan. It comes off as very condescending and judgemental, which is an attitude that alienates many people of faith to later come to revile faith. A more respectful approach is to try to understand the person before casting judgement, yet who really has the right to cast the first stone?

On todays show an interesting discussion on religion occured. Religion is one topic that is brought up fairly often on the show, but today was an especially interesting discussion when a frequent caller by the nickname "King of all Blacks" called in asking Howard about his views on God and religion. This wasn't the first time this caller asked these questions, which is why I found todays discussion very interesting. It was interesting because every time Howard and his crew are asked about their view on God and religion they treat it as if they never discussed it before. You can tell most of them are struggling with the answer and sometimes an answer they give one day is the opposite of an answer they gave two months prior.

For example, in the 1990's the crew on the Howard Stern Show gave little thought to religious matters. For the most part, the main cast of characters often answered they were all atheists because they associated religion with their persecutors and censors. Things started changing a bit in the early 2000's when Howard and Robin Quivers, his sidekick, started going to psychotherapy and working on their depression, anger and narcissistic issues. This process made them a bit more introspective and open in discussing matters of religion. Robin has since stopped going to therapy yet always seeks alternative methods of dealing with the issues in her life (to the point where she once experimented in Wicca, but now is very much involved in promoting veganism), while Howard daily practices Transcendental Meditation and goes to therapy three days a week.

Robin Quivers

What we do know about Howard's religious history is that he grew up in a Jewish-American household in Roosevelt, New York. He was raised in Conservative Judaism, though his parents had some very liberal tendencies. As such he studied the Torah and was Bar Mitzvahd. After this he hardly ever practiced Judaism though still had a certain respect for it in a cultural sense. As a fan of the Beatles, in the early 1970's he began to practice Transcendental Meditation which he has practiced daily ever since. He was encouraged to do this by his mother who was healed of her chronic depression through meditation. Recently Howard even spoke at a
rally promoted by the David Lynch Foundation to encourage the practice of Transcendental Meditation in public schools. However Howard has never viewed his meditation as a religious practice, but as a means to relieve the stress in his life. In his early radio career he has admitted that he even lived in a Buddhist Monastery for a year because it provided cheap rent for him. When he was married to his first wife Alison she made sure to raise their three daughters in Reformed Judaism and Howard in recent days has stated that his daughters are very much into practicing Judaism. Howard credits their enthusiasm for the religion to the fact that they grew up in a Reformed tradition, opposed to his upbringing which he found to be too strict, archaic and close-minded causing him to be totally turned-off to religion for the deep scars it left on his psyche. It was his rebellion to such close-mindedness in religion and public policy that inspired him to be more open-minded and honest on the radio. Over the years this approach caused much controversy from conservative and religious groups, giving him more fuel to excel in his novel broadcasting method. Being hated caused him to hate back with a vengeance making him the most successful radio broadcaster in history and the self-proclaimed "King of all Media". His hatred for religion often drew him and his crew to deny God's existence, but in more recent years things have changed. As the years go by it seems some are more open to belief in God and struggling to disassociate God from the religions that seem to only inspire hatred and repression in their view.

When I was living in the South, I had a chance to experience this attitude of right wing religious conservatives toward Howard more than I ever experienced it while living in Boston. These were the days when people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were denouncing Howard on their TV shows and rallying to get him off the airwaves by having people send letters of complaints to Congress and radio stations. One of the first places this campaign affected was my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. The rally became localized, to the point where some churches were preaching really corny sermons titled "What Would Jesus Say To Howard Stern?" In the Spring of 2001 Howard was cancelled unjustly to my dismay when Evangelicals for the most part boycotted the sponsors who advertized on the Howard Stern Show. After this I couldn't wait to move back to Boston, which I did a few months later. This campaign never ended until the FCC was fining Howard to the point of ridiculousness. In 2004 Howard left terrestrial radio for censor-free satellite radio, and today has somewhere between 15-20 million listeners daily making him one of the most influential voices in America.

As I said, the King of all Backs calls in fairly often and he himself believes in God and finds it odd that Howard doesn't fully embrace faith. A few years ago a very serious religious discussion started in which Howard was asked if he believed in God and if he was afraid of dying. He has consistently maintained that he is very afraid of death and often in times of trials and danger finds himself praying to God, though he has always maintained all religions are man-made. Again on March 23, 2009 King of all Blacks called in and asked Howard if he believed in God. This time he responded that because his parents brainwashed him so thoroughly, he does believe in God, even though he knows there is no God. "I know there is no God, but I believe in God", he said. To this his sidekick Artie Lange, who was raised Italian Catholic, responded that he is an atheist too, but what leans his mind towards theism was the question "how did we go from dirt to texting on iPhones or from cavemen to iPhone?" Then Howard admitted that the most convincing argument for God's existence is the argument from design by saying: "Every design has a designer." His analogy to prove this was that he had recently gone to a fashion show with his model wife Beth. He said that seeing the intricate designs of the show make him think how unfathomable it would be to think the designs of fashion would have no designer, let alone the design of the universe. And just when things get too serious, the conversation usually ends and they get to more humorous material. This always leaves the discussion to be probed for another day.

Artie Lange

The next time religious issues came up in a serious discussion was on todays show when the King of all Blacks started asking Howard about his Jewish upbringing and his thoughts on God and religion. Howard responded: "Religion is free entertainment, it gives a sense of community and a sense of hope. Thank God for religion though. Can you imagine if poor people didn't have religion? They would be going down the street killing people." By saying this it seemed Howard was implying that people who aren't poor don't need religion because they are more capable of living happier and more pleasant lives. Then he went on to make a dichotomy between religion and belief in God. "I didn't say I didn't believe in God. I said religion is a bunch of horseshit."

When King of all Blacks asked specifically: "Do you believe in God?" Howard responded: "I don't know. I want to. Who the fuck knows. Here's how I'm playing it - I figure this is it." I wonder if Howard ever heard of Pascal's Wager? For someone who wants to believe in God and is agnostic on the matter, but chooses to live life like there is no God seems to imply that Howard refuses to believe in God because it doesn't fit his morality.

To this Robin responded: "Here's how I figure it. Einstein believed in God and he was the smartest guy around, so I go with him." This was probably the most interesting point in the discussion because for years Robin had always been vocal about her atheism. Now she seems to justify the rationality of faith by invoking the faith of Einstein, who claimed to believe in the God of Spinoza which was a pantheistic God.

At this point Artie, a professional comedian who is currently undergoing treatment for his alcohol and drug addiction, chimed in and talked about his father who was the man he most admired in his life. He explained how his father was always an atheist, but after an accident falling off a ladder he became a quadriplegic. In his fathers last days he explained how a priest came to visit his father and heard his confession. Later that day Artie's father told him that he had made his peace with God and was ready to die. (It's interesting that Artie's autobiography is filled with references to God and his guardian angel and he speaks to his dad as if he is a living spirit). From this Artie once again brought up that the greatest argument for God is the question of where all this began. This time he said: "How did we go from mud to Howard texting a vote on American Idol?"

Fred Norris

Fred Norris is considered by far the smartest guy on the Howard Stern Show, having just about memorized the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. Howard wanted to hear his opinion on the matter. Fred responded: "A personal God that lives up in the sky that says 'you live, you die' - no. There may be some sort of intelligence out there, though we don't know what it is. This is it. When we die we are food for the plants and the soil. That's what I'm betting on.... There is no happy guy in the sky; there is no evil guy in the sky - depending on which Testament you believe." Robin then asked Fred how he explains the energy of our souls, which can neither be created nor destroyed? Fred didn't deny this, but explained that energy can change into something else. At this point they went to a commercial break and they came back with Fred, who controls the music on the show, playing John Lennon's "God".

Benji Bronk

Two other key members on the show who did not voice their opinions today are writer Benji Bronk and producer Gary Delabate. Gary usually expresses the same opinion as Howard on these matters, but Benji does believe in God and is a semi-practicing Jew though he is considered one of the most crazy and perverse members on staff by the staff themselves. Probably the ones who believe in God the most is prankster Sal Governale who is Italian Catholic and TV producer Scott Depace who is a staunch Republican though liberal on social issues.

What is most interesting and unique about the Howard Stern Show is that it is probably the only open-forum where all manner of diverse thinking, beliefs and lifestyles are discussed and treated with a sense of equality. It invites open and honest discussion and nothing is exempt from humor and criticism, even Howard himself. As far as I know, there is no other forum like this in the world. In many ways, the Howard Stern Show can be considered the equivalent of Mars Hill in Ancient Athens. And this is one of the main reasons I listen to Howard Stern and avoid most other talk radio.