Whether you believe in God or not, you cannot help but accept the fact that this world worships a higher being. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Pecca interviews Scott Shay, the Executive Chairman of Signature Bank, New York and the author of the book called In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism, about his interesting insights and experiences in religion. Sharing some excerpts from his book including his father’s story being a holocaust survivor, Scott talks about his learnings from interviewing people from various faiths and notes the common denominator between them. Learn how politics translate to ideology in this revealing episode.
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Listen To The Episode Here:
In Good Faith With Scott Shay
I’m great. Thank you for having me here, Dr. Kevin.
It’s an absolute honor to have you on. I’m very interested in your story and the book you have out. I’d like to get a little bit of a background of you, Scott. Where are you from originally?
Originally, I’m from Chicago, Illinois, East Rogers Park. For those who know Chicago, this is a lower middle class. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood.
I’ve never been to Chicago, but I’ve heard great things.
This is not where they take you on tours and buses. I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment where my parents had the bedroom. I live on the couch in the dining room and my uncle for many years had the living room, my mother’s brother.
Scott, what were you into growing up as a kid?
I was into all the standard things. I love to play baseball. We would come into parking lots wherever to play baseball, but big-time I was into hockey. In Chicago, starting in November, it gets cold enough that they ice down basketball courts. My friends and I with limited resources, we get to play hockey until we got frostbite.
There’s nothing better than playing pond hockey outside in winter. That’s my favorite activity.
It’s the greatest thing but the thing that shaped me when we get to that in the book was being my father’s son who was a Holocaust survivor.
That must have made a huge impact on the way he raised you and your beliefs growing up.
My father’s story is very brief and I talked about this a bit in the book. He was a fourteen-year-old with a big ruddy guy growing up in Sveksna, Lithuania. The Nazis invaded and took over Lithuania. Before he left Lithuania, they had rounded up all the Jews and murdered his father. His brother and his uncles were murdered. He was sent to a work camp because he was a strong young man. He was sent to one point to Auschwitz. He was back sent to another work detail. He was liberated from DACA. When he was liberated from DACA, he weighed 60 pounds. He had the good fortune to be liberated by the American forces because they knew enough that you can’t just give these people food because they go into insulin and they die. They can no longer tolerate regular food. They nursed him back to health in an American hospital in the occupied zone. He was sent to Feldafing, which was a displaced person’s camp. He came to the United States and he ended up in Chicago. He got married and he got his son. My father had a very interesting relationship with God but in a way was the seed for why I wrote this book.
My father knew with certainty that there were a hundred unexpected miracles that led him from being deported from Sveksna to ending up in Chicago and being able to marry and have a son. If the slightest thing that had changed. For example, to give you one, in the beginning, the Jews in Sveksna were separated into two lines. My father was in one line. He didn’t know where his father was. He was searching between the lines to find his father. A Nazi soldier took them and threw them into the line he wasn’t in. It turned out that everyone who was with his father was murdered right on the spot. They never left Sveksna. My father was sent to War Camp, but it was constantly like that. If my father would have been liberated days later, he probably would have been dead. He was down to 60 pounds. There was nothing left of him. He believed with certainty there is a God because he knows that without all of these miracles, there was no way he would be alive. At the same time, he was angry with God because how could God led his father, brothers and uncles to be murdered, essentially everybody he knew was murdered. Ninety-five percent plus of the Jews in Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis or by their Christian neighbors during the Holocaust. He had anger and he had a question that burned within him. Those questions passed on to me.
Scott, you still are a very successful investment banker. What made you gravitate to finally write this book? You wrote it in 2018.
It was five-plus years of writing. It was published in 2018 by Post Hill Press but it was something that’s been bubbling in me forever. I’m very active in the business world which means I talk to a lot of people. I had written another book many years ago on the American Jewish community. A funny thing started happening to me after I wrote that book. It was more sociological. It wasn’t all theological and people would come up to me and say, “Scott, you look like a reasonable guy. You’re building a bank and you’re in finance. What is it with all this God stuff? It doesn’t matter anymore in this modern world. We have all the answers from science.” I would get that surprisingly at those people asking me about God. I get another group of people who were coming to me and saying, “I believe in God, but it’s totally irrational to park my reason at the door to believe in God.” It kept bubbling me that I wanted to write a book that explained why it’s rational to believe in God with everything we know. That’s where the book came from.
What I also love about the book is you interviewed people from all different types of faith, including some atheists. You believe in God and you want that to express itself through the book. What was it like interviewing atheists on the different sides of the coin that don’t believe in God?
I have no problem with atheism. They also have more evidence for God for atheism, but it’s rational. Atheism is entirely rational. I argue that monotheism is entirely rational. There are two kinds of atheists, one of whom I can embrace. One of whom I’m scared to death of. The kind that I embrace are atheists who believe in the Golden Rule. As it was formulated, “Don’t do one to others as you wouldn’t want done unto yourself.” As a believer, I strongly believe that all of us are endowed with a spark of common divinity and a spark of shared humanity because that’s what the whole Adam and Eve story is about. We’re all brothers and sisters at one level. If an atheist believes that we all share that humanity, I’m good. The problem is that a lot of atheists don’t share that. I talk about some people I met on Wall Street. The only person who is important is themselves. Whatever they can do to promote themselves to keep more money, more power and more whatever, that’s okay. As Machiavelli put it, “You don’t get either as your opponent or you keep it secret.” Whatever you do to get you the most pleasure is okay. It doesn’t matter if you harm someone else as long as they can get revenge on you, as long as it doesn’t hurt you.
We see it on a micro-level. We’ve certainly read about Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein. The list goes on and on of people who are on micro-levels certainly abused others because they didn’t think that the Golden Rule applied to them. It is also very real on the macro-level. Another big point in my book is, “What is idolatry?” People don’t get what idolatry is. Most people have religion. Even a lot of atheists that say they aren’t religious, have a religion or it’s an idolatrous thing. The Bible is clear on what idolatry is. Most people think it’s about bowing down to statues or magic making, but that’s not what it is. The Bible explains that idolatry is about ascribing superpowers, the super authority to finite beings, individuals, ideologies, natural processes or in the ancient world, animals. That means that the God-King Pharaoh in the Bible had super authority. He could tell his subjects to throw the Israelite baby boys into the Nile to kill them all, to kill whoever he wanted, to abuse whoever he wanted and to enslave whoever he wanted because he had super authority. They also said in those days, superpower. People think that’s then that we look at the God-King Pharaoh 300 years ago. Think about the 20th century was all catalog of God-King Pharaoh, Mao, Al-Assad family, the Kim family, Hitler, Stalin and it goes on and on.
How did Stalin kill all the kulaks and sends tens of millions of people to the Gulag? He used all of the same tropes and methods as Pharaoh. Pageantry, courage, poetry, myths and theater. That’s true all over. Mao caused that of 75 million Chinese. Why? The super authority of the Chinese communist party was superior to anybody’s life. How does the Chinese communist party rationalize having a million Muslim Uyghurs in detention camps or prisons? They aren’t following what the Chinese communist party wants. That’s because fundamentally they don’t know the Golden Rule. That’s at a macro-level and it’s also as I talked about abuse on a micro-level. What do Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey and all these people get away with it? They turn themselves into idols. They are the authority. They were unquestioned and unquestionable within their industries and companies.
Do you feel like that sometimes the ideology of people gets in the way of being a good person or meeting new people such as if a Christian has a conversation with the atheist? If that’s the first thing being said, it’s going to drastically alter the conversation for some people because they hear atheist and the Christian shuts down. They think that person right away might not be a good person because they “don’t believe in God.”
I talk about this a little bit in the book and I’ve written about this on my blog, ScottShay.com. I talked about the end of the great American experiment. This question scares the daylights on me, because in the United States we are rapidly moving into tribal. It’s not just the Red States or Blue States. It’s not just Republicans or Democrats. There were three surveys done that show that about 40% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans don’t disagree with the people in the other party. They think other people are bad and evil. They don’t use quite that word in the survey, but more or less they think about that. All you have to do is read the New York Times or listening to MSNBC and Fox. The other side is demonized. There’s nothing to talk about with the other side because they’re inconvincible or as Hillary Clinton said, “They’re deplorable,” but that goes for both sides. Both sides think the other side is deplorable.
It’s pretty scary and funny how that example of politics can translate so well to ideology.
Why worry about it? I feel like we’re on the first stages of idolatry in this country, whether you’re on the progressive side or the conservative side. Whatever your leaders say you follow. That becomes the truth. Not only there’s no longer one central truth, but the truth is what your leader says the truth is. They can recharacterize the narrative to fit whatever is being sold. That’s what monotheism comes to say. “No.” In the article I wrote, the Bible Socialist, you have to remove the ideologies of both socialism and capitalism to think about what is the Bible getting at. What is really fair? How should we interact with each other economically? That’s tough because it means people taking away their preconceptions.
It sounds like that you’ve talked to many people from many different ideological backgrounds and you get along with them. You’re friends with them. You share some common ground. After seeing and talking to so many people with so many different faiths, did that change your faith? Do you still belong to a certain type of faith? Has it changed after reaching out to all these people and hearing their side of the story?
I did a debate with someone you may or may not know Michael Shermer, who wrote The Moral Arc. He’s a well-known atheist. He has written a lot of books on atheism. I enjoyed the conversation because, in the end, he is a Golden Rule atheist. I pushed him to say, “That’s your choice to be a Golden Rule atheist, but nothing saying you need to be.” I worry about atheists becoming non-Golden Rule. When I Googled, the answers that are on Google talk, but also very much afterward. A lot of people were saying to me, “Isn’t reason just enough? Why do we need this whole God?”
I had some very deep conversations with people about why I worry about it. I understood it. For example Khan, a lot of people believed that he’s the father of reason being enough. I point it out to them that Khan also thought that he was a tremendous racist. He thought that Africans were subhuman. He thought women didn’t have the ability to reason anywhere near men. He hated the Jews too. He had all a bunch of prejudices, yet he believed in the moral imperative. He cites it. I think that’s an eye-opener when I talked to atheists. What underpins their need to be a good person and they get that not because it changes their mind about believing God. They still don’t believe in God.
It is very rare that you have a conversation with anyone and change their mind about God either way because the stakes are high from someone’s psyche. I never try to do that. I want to put us on the same similar platform. I want people to ask me questions that cause me to question. I believe deeply, as believers at least, we should never avoid questions. Don’t ever say don’t ask that, don’t get into that. That’s dangerous. If we believe that there we’re saying, “We don’t believe in an omnipotent God.” I have a problem talking about that. I talked to atheists and sometimes those conversations can go on very long. I talk to other atheists, I’m not trying to persuade anybody, but if I ask them a question, it’s a probing question about why they think one thing or another, they just shut down. “You’re trying to convert me.” They go into total shutdown mode. They don’t ask themselves deep questions.
No matter what faith you can find it in any religion, why do you think people get so angry or shut down and they get irate at a person asking a question. Why do you think that is?
Unfortunately, it’s going to a certain degree of tribalization. I think it’s a serious problem, but it has to do with, “You’re not part of my tribe.” I do think that tribalism is a step toward idolatry. If you’re not part of me, you don’t get my truth. You can’t even understand the truth. Therefore, I’m not going to try to talk to you. I’m going to try to dominate you and make sure that you don’t have any say. That’s a serious problem in our modern society. This is becoming a bigger problem. I’m thinking back to when I was growing up, I don’t think it was that hard to have these conversations as it is.
I want people to read the book, In Good Faith. What did you uncover writing this book? What did you find any new truths about interviewing all these people? Did you formulate a new opinion about ideology and faith? What did you gather from writing this book?
Just in brief, the book is divided. What I tried to do is focus on six major topics. One is what is the Bible coming to do? Why do we need the Bible and to explain what idolatry is. The second thing was the atheist says that the Bible is the most homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic prorate, pro-slavery, racist and sexist book that you can find. I talked to a lot of the faith leaders. I talked to Christian and Muslim and I’d provided the Jewish input. I think I gave some answers as I’m doing a book talk, people appreciate it. Some people thanked me a lot for that section on explaining the Bible’s bad parts, the bad sections.
The biggest section, this one I framed by my father’s story was good and evil. I frame it through my father’s life story and understanding it. That’s a big conversation. That’s a whole show by itself. It ultimately comes down to free will. If God’s sent down lightning bolts to kill all the Nazis, we would know there was it God. If you didn’t help a struggling person across the street and suddenly a lightning bolt hit you, you would behave in a certain way. You would certainly the next time help someone across the street. Ultimately, you would lose your free will. There would be no humanity. The Bible makes it clear, all we do is essentially a test. Our lives and what we do in this world is a test. God to a certain degree has to remain hidden.
Every decision will be based completely out of fear of not getting hit by that lightning bolt.
Whether you were a good person or an evil person, you’d behave exactly the same way. There would be no ethics and there’d be no humanity, there would be no humans. It wouldn’t be a very interesting world. The fourth section is on science in the Bible. I talked about creation and evolution. I focused on those two areas. The fifth section is on the historicity of the Bible. That chapter took me a year of research. If the Bible is something made up by some shepherds or too much time on their hands, then why give it any moral authority? This is a long-winded way of answering your original question. What changed about me in a certain way? It was the sixth-section, which is prayer. I pray now entirely differently than I prayed before I wrote the book. I realized that it’s a big conundrum. If we believe in an omnipotent God that controls the universe, then how can we as finite beings pray and expect to offer a better solution in some way or another?
People think, “What is prayer all about? Is it just some waste of time? Is it some community-building effort? Can we change God’s mind? Does that even make any sense to change God’s mind?” Through studying the text, when there is prayer and through thinking about it and through talking to Cardinal Dolan and Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, Reverend Dr. Chloe Breyer, Reverend Dr. Katharine Henderson, Imam Shamsi Ali, Tamara Akhmad. In terms of the people I interviewed, I got a sense of prayer. The nice thing about talking to all of these people is that with every single person I interviewed, if you’re in their room, if you’re in their presence, if you’re talking sitting with Cardinal Dolan, you can feel that belief in God is part of him. In other people’s cases, it’s their fabric of being. Prayer is not dealing with God like some cosmic vending machine, “I would like this, can you please give it to me?”
Rather figuring out what we can do in this world that will make this place a better planet. How we can best hasten in redemption? What we can do to make this place better? How we can move ourselves to make that happen? If we move ourselves to make that happen, I believe that God gives us a tailwind. We do get some help. If we don’t do anything, there’s no point in getting any help. If we’re praying for a new car or new boats or bicycles, it doesn’t matter. There’s no point to it. It’s not helping anything. It’s not helping the world. It’s not helping us make this world a better place than why should God take the world off of autopilot?
Why should there be any intervention? I do think that God at some point doesn’t let the rails come off. For example, even though six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, at a certain point, some relieved and redemption did come in the form of the Soviet Union, the United States. We Jews weren’t wiped out. The idea of Judaism remained. Israel was able to be formed because there were Jews who went there. There was a Homeland. At a certain point, even if we don’t do what we are supposed to do, God will prevent the worst-case scenario. There were plenty of people who could have done a lot to mitigate the Holocaust very early.
The Americans and the British knew what was happening. The authorities knew what was happening. There’s a book that was printed that was published a few years ago, Buried by the Times, by Professor Laurel Leff. The New York Times knew everything was going on in the final solution but chose not to publicize it in a serious way. There were people in the government who knew what was going on, but yet the United States didn’t bomb the train lines to Auschwitz. They didn’t do anything when there was a major conference. If you remember the conference in 1938. That’s the time the Germans would have been happy to let all the Jews leave, they wanted to get rid of them. They didn’t want any Jews.
They didn’t have in mind the final solution of killing them all. When all of the countries got together, only a couple of countries took any Jews, a couple of Latin American countries. Canada’s prime minister famously said, “No Jews would be too many.” The United States turned away to Saint Louis. Jews could have been saved, but the world chose not to be merciful. God didn’t help. If the world would have been merciful, I think God would have helped them. In a certain way, I only realized decades later that my father’s understanding is that God’s there to help. If we’re not merciful, God’s not going to be merciful. If we’re merciful, God’s going to make sure that that mercy is multiplied.
From talking to all those people that are pretty high up in their faiths, those reverends and doctors of all the different phases, was there a common denominator you found in between all of those people?
It’s that sense of being a servant of God. That belief in God and making this planet a better place is part of their fabric. I felt in all the cases that they would sacrifice everything for that. That was the commonality. It’s a deep commonality. It’s way beyond ideology.
Where can people find your book and find you online to help you spread your message?
I welcome them. They can go to ScottShay.com. You can get information about what I’ve been doing and study guides. There are churches, synagogues and mosques that are using the book as a study format, the six sections. You can get the Free Study Guides. You can listen to Google Talk. You can watch my debate with Michael Shermer. You can also contact me through the contact form on the website. I am happy to have people take the book, which they’ve been doing and use it as an entry point to consider their own lives and consider their own beliefs. That’s been the most rewarding part for me of this whole journey.
What is one piece of advice that has resonated with you over the years that you would like to give the audience? It could be absolutely anything.
The most fundamental advice that I would give is that if you’re going to take any action, if you’re thinking about doing something, think about whether or not you would want it done to you. That’s the Golden Rule. If you conduct your life like that, you’ll live a good life.
Scott, thank you so much for coming on. I enjoyed this episode. I appreciate your time.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it.
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