When the famed prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi recently spoke to a Westside salon of creative types and politicos, he posed a question to an unsuspecting man in the crowd.
It goes like this: Winston Churchill and a bum each have something to say about World War II. Who are you going to believe?
The man answered, “It’s a loaded question, but what can I say but Churchill?”
Bugliosi responded, “No. That is not the answer to the question. The answer is ‘I have to hear what they have to say.'”
Simple — and that is Bugliosi’s point. We’ve been so trained to assume an answer that we’ve stopped listening to the question. Or even asking it.
Bugliosi, 76, has developed a reputation as an iconoclast with a flair for publicity. He was made famous for his prosecution of Charles Manson, which led to his bestselling book, “Helter Skelter,” adapted for TV in 1976 and 2004.
A decades-long fascination with the Kennedy assassination led to the 1,648-page volume, “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” which concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. It’s being adapted by Tom Hanks into an HBO miniseries.
His 2008 book “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder” is the subject of a long-in-the-works documentary that is near completion and will most certainly challenge the wisdom that the public has Bush fatigue.
So several weeks ago, on the urging of his publicist Ilene Proctor, I went to Bugliosi’s quaint Pasadena home, to get an update on the projects. Yet, quite naturally for an author anxious to promote his latest and greatest, the conversation quickly veered off into Bugliosi’s recently published book, “Divinity of Doubt: The God Question.” In it, he tackles the not-so-simple question, does God exist?
It’s an endeavor that takes a deal of self confidence (which Bugliosi obviously has) and a healthy dose of ego (he can quote lines from years-old reviews of his books just as he does Bible verses). The book is characteristic of Bugliosi’s works, in which he approaches topics like a prosecutor and draws powerful inferences from the evidence (with, of course, some sarcasm thrown in).
Bugliosi is an agnostic, so obviously the answer is simple; He doesn’t know.
“Perhaps a better definition of an agnostic is one who believes that existence vis-a-vis nonexistence of God is unknowable,” he said. “Of course it is unknowable.”
In making this point he shoots down precepts and theological contradictions, like free will. The Bible, he writes, supports the notion that there is none. He argues that scripture does not say Jesus was born of a virgin, a concept rooted in the mistranslation of the Hebrew word “almah,” which means “young woman.” He traces the idea of the “immortality of the soul” to an invention of Plato.
“If you don’t have immortality of the soul, you don’t have life after death and if you don’t have life after death, you don’t have heaven and hell,” Bugliosi said. “And I would ask the rhetorical question, ‘How does Christianity survive without heaven and hell?’ Heaven and hell is what it offers and threatens its followers with. Again, this is heavy stuff here.”
I’ll say. On a visit home I gave his book to my mom and, when our family priest came to visit, we wondered if we should hide it.
Sacreligious as it sounds, though, Bugliosi has taken his biggest knocks from atheists. He’s scathing of such figures as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whom he says “can’t find one non-sequitur they don’t like,” noting that they fall into the mistake of equating the debunking of religion to proving the nonexistence of God.
What intrigued me about Bugliosi was not theology — the issue over the “almah” translation has been around for a long, long time — but reasoning. It’s the idea that, as much information as is out there, media consumers increasingly are looking for their own like-minded tribes, on cable and the Internet, to validate what they already believe. Frank Schaeffer, the author and director, writes that Bugliosi will “have no friends of the kind who want to be comfortable in a group,” as communication these days means a type “where we all talk to people like us and distrust and even despise the ‘other.’ ”
In discourse it’s the difference between attention-getting certitude and healthy doubt. Perhaps the man at Bugliosi’s salon would have been better off answering, “I don’t know.”
“Just look at what is right in front of you,” Bugliosi said. “People don’t do that. They see what they expect to see, what they want to see, what conventional wisdom tells them to see. They only hear the music and not the lyrics of human events.”