Wrapping Up a Case for Atheism

For the past few weeks I’ve been sharing the text of a presentation in which I debate with myself about whether a personal God exists. In the previous installment, the theist, “Pastor Chris,” concluded by saying that “Dr. Schriner”

“never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support [theistic religion]. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Now the atheist, Dr. Schriner, replies:


That “great cloud of witnesses” is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans believe in God. However in Canada around 20 or 30% are atheists or agnostics. In the U.K. it’s 30-45%, and 65% in Japan.* Besides, he is supposed to prove there’s a personal God. But in a survey of sixty countries, only 45% thought a personal God exists, so those who believe in a personal deity are actually in the minority.**

My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life. He only says, “Gee, there are still gaps in our knowledge.” Of course there are, but the overall trend toward more and more knowledge is crystal-clear.

The pastor’s claim that God created the universe is based on flimsy speculation and taking the word of assorted mystics about highly ambiguous religious experiences. It’s ironic that mystics often say they can’t even begin to put their spiritual experiences into words, and then they turn around and draw all sorts of specific theological conclusions from those experiences.

I admit that religion does some people some good, and probably belief in leprechauns was helpful to some of the ancient Irish. But if religious people were in touch with a supreme goodness, they would tend as a general rule to be morally superior to us “heathens,” and they are not. Philosopher Daniel Dennett reports that believers are just as likely as unbelievers “to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises.”

Dennett is an atheist, so he does have a horse in this race, but he cites compelling data. American prisons include Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the non-religious, “represented about as they are in the general population.” And unbelievers “have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest.”***

And of course, believers are still committing hideous atrocities in the name of God. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s comment rings true: Without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”****

Thank you for listening. I hope you will agree with me that there is very little evidence that a personal God created the universe.

* Phil Zukerman in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, p. 109.

** http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm.

*** Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell, pp. 279-80.

**** https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Steven_Weinberg.


Next, Pastor Chris’ final rebuttal.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Pastor Strikes Back

My recent posts are based on a presentation I sometime make in which “Pastor Chris” debates “Dr. Schriner” about whether God exists. (I take both sides, wearing an ecclesiastical stole when Pastor Chris speaks.) So here is the pastor once again:

How sad that such a smart fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for the existence of life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible. Schriner quotes Bradley Monton to dispute this idea, but Monton himself is an atheist, so he’s hardly unbiased!

In the Twentieth Century biologists said we were on the verge of explaining the origin of life. Today we’re no closer than we were then. And many philosophers now admit that we have no idea how to show that consciousness could exist within a physical brain. I realize that Dr. Schriner has written a book on consciousness and the brain* but I have read his book and I am not convinced! The gaps in our knowledge remain, and in some cases are widening.

Schriner complains that people go to church and still do nasty things. But I once heard a preacher say that the church is the only organization in the world for sinners only. We sinners need churches and temples to help us become better people. But since sinful humans are in charge of religious institutions, they will sometimes pervert religion for terrible purposes. That’s why Jesus himself warned us against false prophets and corrupt priests.

Even fair-minded non-believers admit that religion is good for us. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett acknowledges that “for day-in, day-out lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so effective as religion:  it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away from drink or drugs or crime.”**

Notice that Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this “great cloud of witnesses” speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.

* This little joke refers to a book of mine called Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, available on Amazon.com.

** Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 55.

So – if you’ve been following this series, how are you feeling? Are you applauding ideas that you already favor, and inwardly arguing with the “other side?”

If you’d like to become more open-minded, see if you can identify the mental and physical warning signals that occur when you start blocking out another person’s idea. Watch for moments when you hear a persuasive argument that disturbs your preconceptions. Then notice what you’re experiencing. You may discover a vague unease, anger or irritation, or physical tension such as holding your breath. Once you know what you experience when you mind is “threatened with expansion,” you can learn to take a second look at ideas that seem unsettling.

Roger Christan Schriner

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More from the Atheist

This is the third post in a series in which I debate with myself about whether God exists. I’ll be making this presentation again at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Fremont, CA, Sunday, November 1, 10 am. See mpuuc.org for directions.

Skeptical “Dr. Schriner” has just spoken, and now the atheist gets to speak again. Why? Because in a debate, the negative side has an inherent advantage. It’s almost always easier to poke holes in some theory than to prove that this theory is true. To compensate for this handicap, the affirmative side needs some compensating advantage. One way to do this is to let the affirmative begin and end the contest. It’s very helpful to have both the first word and the last word on some topic. To make this possible, Dr. Schriner, who denies the existence of deity, makes his initial presentation and his first rebuttal in sequence, one after the other.

Returning to the lectern, Dr. R. C. Schriner will offer his first negative rebuttal:

Pastor Chris thinks the laws of the universe are “fine-tuned” to support intelligent life. But physicists say there may be other universes, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Only a few of these systems might happen to be suitable homes for living creatures. If these creatures didn’t know about all the other universes, it would seem as if “the” universe was specifically designed for their benefit. “Wow, how come everything is arranged so precisely for dear little me? I guess there must be a God!” These creatures would be very lucky to live in a cosmos that supports life, but someone has to live there and be amazed at their good fortune. Besides, the fine-tuning argument is speculation on top of speculation, because we still have so much to learn about cosmology.

Furthermore, the claim that even tiny changes in the laws of nature would eliminate all life is actually controversial. Perhaps natural laws could vary a lot and still support life. Philosopher Bradley Monton reports that we have no idea whether most physicists agree with the fine-tuning theory or disagree.* Besides, even if a super-intelligent mind created the universe, that doesn’t mean it’s a personal god. It might have no emotions, and no sense of right and wrong. It might not even be conscious! And it might be utterly uninterested in Homo sapiens.

In saying we need God, the Reverend resorted to a flippant comment about how matter “magically rearranged itself into dinosaurs.” Well, it’s religion rather than science that relies on magical explanations, and obviously SOMETHING wondrous did happen for no reason. Either matter exists for no reason, or God exists for no reason. People who say God made the universe don’t want to ask where God came from. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”

People may get tired of thinking, but science never grows weary of seeking new truth, shrinking gaps in our knowledge, whittling away at the need for the archaic God-hypothesis.

So what do you think of the skeptic’s arguments? In a few days I’ll post Pastor Chris’ reply.

Roger Christan Schriner

* Bradley Monton, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, p. 81.

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Dr. Schriner’s Case for Atheism

(I recently made a presentation at a Unitarian Universalist church in which I debated with myself about whether God exists. I’m posting it here, one speech at a time. For details, see my post from September 29. At this point “Pastor Chris” has already spoken in favor of deity, and here are opening remarks by “Dr. Schriner.”)

Thank you for your interest in this vital issue. Today I will show that there are no sound reasons for believing in an invisible cosmos-creator, and that there are good reasons to reject this theory. And my first argument is simple. The concept of God is superfluous. We don’t need it. People used to explain everything they didn’t understand by saying God did it, but this gives us a “god of the gaps.” As the gaps in our knowledge keep getting smaller, there is less and less reason for the God-hypothesis.

But even beyond this obvious point, I want to make a more daring claim. We can tell that there is no personal God by looking at the behavior of those who believe in God.

To see why this is so, I will pose a dilemma: Either a deity communicates with us, or it does not. If it does not communicate with us, we have little reason to believe in God. If a powerful and loving super-person existed, surely it would make itself known to humanity.

But now let’s grasp the other horn of the dilemma, and consider the possibility that God does communicate with us. Pastor Chris certainly based a lot of his case on the testimony of those who say they talk with God. And presumably talking with God would be helpful. Believers would become wiser and better than atheists and others who do not receive God’s messages. But that is not so.

Are Christians, for example, wiser than atheists? Christians say God has revealed hidden truths to them which they could never have discovered by themselves. How exciting! But Christianity has fragmented into over 30,000 denominations, repeatedly splitting about – guess what – disagreements about the hidden truths that God is revealing to them! Rather than hearing clear messages, theists are projecting their own fantasies and prejudices onto a great blank screen in the sky.

What’s worse, these alleged communications do not make believers better persons. Of course some religious people are saintly, but so are some atheists. And church history reveals the wickedness of religious organizations – church leaders burning heretics alive, stirring up witch-hunts, and fomenting “holy” wars. Even today religion fans the flames of inter-group conflict.

You’d  think that those who give their whole lives to religion would become especially good people, but we now know that the priesthood of a prominent and powerful denomination was for many years a haven for sexual predators. I trust that those priests were praying every day, but they kept right on abusing children.

Here’s another shocking discovery. Membership in Christian churches is correlated with “ethno-centrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, … rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and … prejudice, especially against Jews and blacks.”* The more traditionally religious you are, the more prejudiced you are likely to be! Stanford chaplain Scotty McLennan offers “evidence that religion is itself a root cause of conflict and violence.”** In giving us a sense of identity, it divides us into in-groups and out-groups, so it intensifies people’s viciousness instead of reforming them. If religious people were really relating to an all-powerful being that wanted to fill their hearts with love, wouldn’t this make them better instead of worse?

If churchgoers as a group show no evidence that their spiritual life is making them better persons, how can we believe their testimony that God is speaking to them? Suppose I tell you that I exercise every day in an invisible gymnasium in my house. Even if I managed to convince you that a gym could be invisible, wouldn’t you be skeptical of my claim if you noticed that I was getting weaker instead of stronger?

So if God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive such communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.

How did you respond to Dr. Schriner’s statement? I welcome your feedback.

Roger Christan Schriner

* David Wulff, cited by William R. Murry, Reason and Reverence, p. 118.

** Scotty McLennon, Jesus Was a Liberal, p. 116.

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Pastor Chris Makes His Case for Deity

I recently made a presentation in which I argued with myself about whether God exists, and I’m posting it here, one speech at a time. For details, see my previous entry. As you read, notice what you think and feel when you are reading statements by the “other side.”

This talk was set up on a modified college debate format. The master of ceremonies begins:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, speaking for the affirmative on the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe, here is Pastor Chris. (Pastor Chris steps to the lectern.)

Good morning and thank you for attending this important debate, in which I will show that a personal deity exists and created the universe. By a personal deity, I mean a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, making judgments, and communicating with us.

Obviously God is not literally a person, with arms and legs, and fingernails that need trimming once a week. But calling God a person conveys more truth than any other way of describing our Creator. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, we speak about God “indirectly, through analogy.” “The Lord is my shepherd,” means that God’s relationship to me is analogous to a shepherd’s relationship with sheep, even though God doesn’t actually walk around carrying a shepherd’s crook. So in saying that a personal God exists, I mean that God is like a human being in many ways, and also far beyond us.

One thing persons do is communicate, and countless individuals testify that they have clearly experienced the presence of God, listening to them and speaking to them. Some communications are subtle, as when Elijah heard the still, small voice. Others are dramatic, as when Paul was struck blind while hearing the voice of Jesus.

And here’s what’s really important. This sense of communication with deity is extremely common. I do not believe that so many people, in all cultures, in all periods of history, and at all levels of education, could be so deeply mistaken.

God’s communications show us what God is like, and mystical experiences are especially important. In a wonderful book called Is God a Delusion, philosopher Eric Reitan says that the typical features of mystical experiences are exactly what we would expect if mystics were in contact with a loving and powerful deity, a transcendent reality which has both the power and the desire to fulfill our deepest hopes (p. 141).

So my first point is that God’s communication with countless humans shows that deity is a personal being. My second point is that this personal being created the universe. People have always wondered where the world came from, but atheism has no answer to this question. Someone on the Internet defined atheism as “the belief that there was nothing and nothing  happened to nothing  and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.” “Makes perfect sense,” the author sarcastically concluded.

Some people have devoted their lives to spiritual exploration, with the same commitment as those who study physics or chemistry. These spiritual seekers have sensed the presence of a wise, loving, and creative force that has unlimited power. They have experienced an intuitive realization that this is what brought the cosmos into being. So these seekers have connected their own religious experiences with an understanding of how the world was made.

On top of that, there is compelling scientific evidence that the universe was created on purpose. Physicists report that if certain cosmic laws had been infinitesimally different, life would have been utterly impossible. Many scientists now say that it looks as if the whole shebang was deliberately set up as a home for creatures like us.

So science shows that the cosmos was created on purpose, and the religious experiences of innumerable individuals show that a powerful and caring deity exists. These two ideas fit together. There is a God, and God created the universe.

(In the next installment, skeptical Dr. Schriner will make his opening remarks.)

Roger Christan Schriner

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Is God Real? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner

I recently enjoyed making a presentation in which I argue with myself about whether God exists, debating the issue to a decisive draw. Pastor Chris, my theistic persona, makes a case for theism, and skeptical Dr. Schriner pokes holes in it.

In my university days I loved debate, so I decided to use a modified college debate format, with pro and con statements on the proposition:

Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe

Each side makes one five minute opening presentation and two shorter rebuttals.

It’s usually harder to prove that something is true than to show that it could very well be false. So because the negative side has an inherent advantage, the affirmative side is allowed to begin the contest and also to have the last word. Therefore Pastor Chris, who maintains that a deity exists, will begin AND end the debate.

In listening to a debate, people typically root for “their team” while inwardly arguing with the other side. Research shows that we strongly resist data that contradict our preconceptions. We are, then, in a prison of our own making, the prison of self-justifying beliefs. If we want to break out of this conceptual jail, we can identify early-warning signals that tip us off when our minds are closing. We can learn to feel ourselves slamming the door against new truth.

I’m going to present this debate as a series of blog-posts. In reading these, notice the mental and physical warning signals that occur when you start blocking out an idea that disturbs your preconceptions. If you can identify these cues, you can learn to catch your mind-gate just as it starts to swing shut. Watch for moments in the debate when you hear something plausible that unsettles your preconceptions, and check what you’re feeling inside. You may notice a vague unease, a mild irritation, or physical tension such as tightening your jaw. Once you know what you experience when your mind is threatened with expansion, you can watch for that cue when you’re with people who challenge your beliefs.

One reason I love to present this God-debate is that I can state each side of the issue emphatically, without pulling my punches. Obviously I do not personally believe everything that Pastor C and Dr. S proclaim. But I acknowledge the rhetorical (and sometimes substantive) force of their arguments. My role is to act as a conduit for the argumentative vigor of these two passionate partisans. I’ll post Pastor Chris’ opening statement a few days from now.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Oversimplifying Theism: An Example from Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has suggested one reason it’s so hard for theists and atheists to talk with each other: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”

I have a lot of respect for Dennett. As I wrote in Your Living Mind, I have “sheepishly” come to realize that some of his radical ideas about consciousness are more insightful than they seemed at first. And in Bridging the God Gap I give him credit for being more open-minded about religion than many prominent freethinkers. I think he’s on to something very important in his comment about telling people they’ve lived for an illusion, but I would put the point somewhat differently:

“IF you assume that belief in God is all there is to someone’s religion, then questioning that belief means challenging their whole way of life.”

But that’s a false assumption. Religion is far more than a list of theological doctrines. It involves an incredibly complex array of spoken and written statements and countless hours of worship and fellowship, as well as art and music, moral principles, spiritual practices, spiritual experiences, personal relationships, and involvement with religious institutions.

One can revise or reject theological tenets without invalidating everything else. Atheist Sam Harris, for example, follows many Buddhist teachings without accepting the Buddha’s 2500-year-old worldview. And there are who atheists belong to religious organizations because they value the fellowship, the rituals, and/or their congregation’s ethical commitments (Bridging the God Gap, p. 160).

Because we are drawn to simple stereotypes, we often speak as if we could summarize entire worldviews in a word or a phrase. That makes it very hard to critique someone’s life-stance without seeming to insult and invalidate that person. Our simplistic minds make nuanced dialogue difficult.

Life is strange and our minds are limited. It may be that both religious and secular worldviews are partially right but radically incomplete. I may be correct in claiming that someone is in the grip of illusions. But perhaps my own follies are just as foolish.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Also posted at http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com. For the Dennett quotation see: