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 For the Dennett quotation see:

“Total Consolation in the Face of Death”

Today I’ll say a little more about Sam Harris’ lecture on death and religion, which is available on YouTube. According to Harris, one reason theists are uncomfortable with atheists is that atheism denies the afterlife. Atheism seems like a “death cult,” he says, because it’s the only view that admits death is real.

I believe the contradiction between theism and atheism is overdrawn, and this is one example. Many naturalistic theists and impersonal theists, as well as some who espouse process theology, deny that our individual consciousness survives death. And I’ve talked with atheists who believe in reincarnation! What’s more, many who believe in a personal God are open to doubt and a sense of mystery. “Yes,” they may say, “I expect that I will survive the grave. But nobody knows for sure, and I realize that this life on Earth may be all that I have.” (See Bridging the God Gap, Chapter Eleven, “God and Mortality.”)

But even if Sam is a bit off base, he’s in the right ball park. In America the vast majority of those who believe in a supreme being also say that this deity will preserve us after death (for better or worse, if you believe in heaven and hell). And Harris is spot-on in maintaining that “the thing for which there is no substitute is total consolation in the face of death.” He does not look to science to provide such consolation, except insofar as science can influence human psychology. We won’t learn to accept death by getting more information. “The answer is a change in attitude.”

To bring about this attitudinal shift, Harris has explored spiritual disciplines with more commitment than most churchgoers. He has gone on Buddhist retreats for months at a time. In his presentation on death and religion, he guides an audience of atheists through a meditation that involves learning “to pay attention to the present moment … not doing anything with it,” just noticing what you experience now … now … now.

[Added on March 1:] How does becoming aware of the present moment produce an attitudinal shift about mortality? The YouTube lecture doesn’t spell this out, but poets have given us some clues:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.” – Robert Frost

Also, my thanks to “Levi” for calling my attention to a 27-minute guided meditation by Harris:

For Levi’s comments on Harris’ book, Waking Up, see: [end of March 1 addition.]

On Monday I’ll be another year older. Changing my attitude about time and mortality becomes increasingly important. I appreciate Harris’ reflections on this issue. For his talk see:

Roger Christan Schriner

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Sam Harris on the Value and Limits of Atheism

My previous post mentions Sam Harris’ UTube talk on death and religion. In that lecture, Harris admitted that atheism offers no positive agenda. Atheism has various positive and negative aspects, of course, but denying the reality of deity does not in itself say how we should live or even how we should conceptualize the universe. And in reality, there are probably as many ways of being an atheist as there are of being a theist.

Harris’ key point is that even though atheism does not affirm any particular life-stance, it is a way of “clearing the space for better conversations.” Rather than discussing metaphysical speculations about invisible realms beyond this cosmos, we can focus on this life that we know. We are who we are. The world is what it is. So what shall we do?

I’ll offer one quibble. People should not have to abandon all talk of deity to engage in this “better conversation.” Harris says that “to not believe in God is to know that it falls to us to make the world a better place.” But those who see God as part of nature instead of as something over and above the physical universe can agree with Sam – we shouldn’t depend on a supernatural bailout. And even those who believe that God helps us can join in this discussion, if they also believe that humans are responsible for making this a better world.

On the other hand, as I point out in Bridging the God Gap, some theists say life on Earth is trivial. An old hymn by Albert E. Brumley claims that “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” And in God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, Anthony Freeman quotes a standard funeral prayer: “‘We give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world’ . . . The whole theme of the service is summed up in one of its sentences: ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery’” (pp. 52-53).

This sentiment can affect people’s opinions about public policy issues. Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that “The hydrogen bomb is not the greatest danger of our time. After all, the most it could do would be to transfer vast numbers of human beings from this world to another and more vital one into which they would some day go anyway.” By this logic it’s really no big deal if we all blow ourselves up, obliterating humanity in a thousand Hiroshimas. (See

I am drawn to Harris’ idea of clearing a space for a better conversation. Many atheists are good at that. But we need not exclude every person who uses theistic language. Look beyond words and labels, and widen the circle.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Sam Harris on Death and Religion

I attend a monthly discussion group that often considers philosophical topics. Our host recently sent us a link to a UTube video of a talk by Sam Harris. Some group members said it was terrific, so I decided to have a look. I have appreciated many of Sam’s ideas, but I thought The End of Faith further polarized communication about religion. However I was extremely impressed with his talk about religion and death:

I invite you to watch it yourself when you have about half an hour. I’ll share more detailed reactions in another post, but for now I’ll just make one comment. Sam’s remarks about the power of religion to reassure people who have lost loved ones to death are both empathetic and respectful. Despite the fact that Harris thinks religion is mostly malarkey, he clearly understands its psychological value.

Roger Christan Schriner

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