Theists and Atheists, on the Common Ground of Mystery

Julian Baggini has suggested that in seeking common ground between theists and atheists, “we should not look to substantive beliefs about the purpose and nature of life, but to shared values …” (See

Although I agree that shared values are crucial, I can also see a way of finding conceptual common ground between some believers and some skeptics. In each camp, many people are amazingly confident that they have The Truth about God. But others place their personal beliefs within the context of an underlying agnosticism. Those of us who realize that we could be wrong about deity have something extremely important in common with each other.

These days many of us have become “broad-spectrum” agnostics, willing to admit that we are fallible in dealing with all sorts of topics, including religion. Yet even though we realize that our knowledge of complex and controversial issues is limited, we need beliefs to guide our actions. So we place our bets – yes, there is a person-like god hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. All opinions about ultimate reality are spiritual wagers, “leaps of faith” into belief or “leaps of doubt” into unbelief.

Two people who are genuinely aware of the limits of their own knowledge have thereby established important common ground, even if one is a theist and the other is an atheist. One could even argue that the difference between belief and disbelief is less important than the difference between dogmatism and intellectual humility.

We can think of belief-systems as metaphors rather than as literal facts, and learn from each other’s metaphors. Using the metaphors of theism, some atheists might consider thinking of the cosmos as having personal characteristics. I have known atheists who appreciate James Jeans’ comment that the universe seems “more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Similarly Albert Einstein, who did not believe in a personal deity, saw the universe as manifesting a profound intelligence. He spoke of this intelligence as God, but he could have also have described this cosmic intelligence in atheistic language.

Similarly, theists can learn from atheists who write about the absence of God, since God frequently seems to be missing during the trials of everyday life. (The phrase, “God hides his face,” occurs repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, so even in ancient days God’s absence was often palpable.) Many atheists and agnostics have learned important lessons about living as if we are wholly on our own, with no invisible allies. Thus believers could benefit from reading, e.g., Andre Comte-Sponville’s work, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

In short, “belief and disbelief can meet on the common ground of mystery. Mystery-affirming theists and mystery-affirming atheists are brothers and sisters in disguise.” (From Bridging the God Gap, p. 101, emphasis added.)

A personal note: I’ll soon be leaving for a gathering that relates to my current book project. It’s the 10th annual Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, in Tucson Arizona. I’ll resume blogging around April 20.

Roger Christan Schriner

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