The Theist-Atheist Continuum

At this point I’ve made over 30 presentations focusing on communication and common ground among theists, atheists, and agnostics. In lecturing or leading workshops on this theme I try to sense what people find interesting and meaningful. One item that often strikes a responsive chord is a spectrum from very traditional theism to emphatic atheism, from Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics.

In the book I emphasize that in thinking and talking about God, there is no clear dividing line between literal and metaphorical language. Poetry and factual description shade off into each other. With that in mind, here’s the continuum:

God is a person who looks like us . . .
      God is a person but does not have a human body . . .
            Calling God a person is a human way of speaking
            about something far beyond our understanding . . .
                  The Ground of All Being is trans-personal,
                  but we can metaphorically think of it as a Thou . . .
                        The universe is physical but it has personal qualities . . .
                               The universe does not actually have such qualities, but
                               we can speak poetically as if it does . . .
                                      The universe, and whatever caused or created it,
                                      should never be thought of as personal.

People often shift and drift among these levels, sliding up or down this continuum as their moods change or when they move among their various social circles. Furthermore, there are also subtle gradations between these seven levels.

I want to emphasize the inevitable vagueness of our beliefs about all-that-is. Each person’s belief-complex is a pastiche of factual information, informed and uninformed speculation, and poetic imagery. A theist, for example, might believe that a person-like God exists, realize that in at least some respects “person” is a metaphor, but be unable to say in what ways and to what extent God is literally a person. Similarly, some atheists see the universe as a mixture of personal and non-personal features.

How many theists have carefully thought about whether and in what respects God is “really” a person? And how many atheists and agnostics have carefully considered whether the cosmos (or whatever gave rise to the cosmos) has personal qualities? I suspect the answer to both questions is “very, very few.” If they did contemplate these questions in depth, how often would believers and non-believers come to similar conclusions? I don’t know, nor does anyone else, and that is the point. We simply have no idea how much similarity is hidden by divisive theological labels. Without in-depth dialogue about religion, we can never hope to understand each other.

Roger Christan Schriner

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9 thoughts on “The Theist-Atheist Continuum

  1. Give me a reason to assume that the cosmos has personal qualities and I will consider them. At the moment, thinking about that leads to the same result as thinking about a stone having personal qualities… Even it I assume it has, it doesn’t change anything. And as there is no reason to assume it, I don’t.

  2. I myself do not typically tend to personalize the cosmos, but I can understand why some competent people do so. First, one can argue that personalization is always metaphorical, even in regard to ourselves. The very notion of “self,” for example, may be a fairly crude way of labeling various complex and poorly-understood neural processes. Second, Einstein used personal-god language to metaphorically speak of the universe and/or its laws. This suggests that at least some competent individuals find personalistic metaphors appropriate. Third, such metaphors can make a difference in one’s practical actions. Example: If in some metaphorical sense the cosmos sends us messages, it may be helpful to practice disciplines of open receptivity such as certain forms of meditation. Arguably Christian prayer can be useful as an encouragement to “listening” receptively, even if traditional Christian interpretations of what is happening during prayer are incorrect.

  3. Einstein used personal-god language to metaphorically speak of the universe and/or its laws.

    Roger … from what I’ve read, it’s doubtful that Einstein used god language at all except in the “Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

    There’s an excellent collection of Einstein’s views on god here:

    http://atheism.about.com/od/einsteingodreligion/tp/Einstein-on-a-Personal-God.htm

    • Exactly. As far as I know, statements in which Einstein seems to be affirming personal deity were always metaphorical. Sometimes he sounds like he might be speaking literally, as when he said, “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.” But his statements rejecting a literal personal deity are numerous and emphatic. Those who quote him to support traditional religion are off base. For example, Rick Warren used Einstein’s famous statement that “God doesn’t play dice” to support the idea that God carefully plans each of our lives (The Purpose-Driven Life, p. 22). This is as blatant a distortion of Einstein’s intent as if an anti-gambling organization had used this quote to show that Albert wanted to ban crap games.
      Thanks for the helpful URL. The web site seems to omit some well-known quotes that seem, on the surface, to support theism. But the passages they do cite are clearly-stated, and well-documented.
      Since Einstein sharply criticizes personal theism, one might think he would affirm atheism, but sometimes he condemns this lifestance. In Jesus Was a Liberal, Scotty McLennan quotes Albert as saying, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for support of such views” (p. 51)
      Not surprisingly, Einstein doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any particular theological pigeonhole.
      I may elaborate a bit on this response and post it as another blog entry.

  4. Looks like you have personal qualities and so do I and countless others. So in this vast universe there must be a being with the greatest intelligence and love as personal qualities whether in an eternal self or an evolution or progression of selves.

    While I do not comprehend a personal God who trumps the cosmos and creates nature from nothing, I am comfortable with the title of God for a personal being who has this greatest love and intelligence.

  5. I suspect, with all the planets scattered through the cosmos, there are probably creatures much more advanced than we are. From our perspective these might seem godlike. But of course, it may be that life on Earth is as intelligent and morally advanced as it gets. So what if the being with the greatest love and intelligence was someone we know about, like Albert Schweitzer? Would you be comfortable considering him to be God?

    • Well, when we lived in Chicago, people thought Michael Jordan was God! 😉

      At least if he is godlike in basketball, then he has this title by playing within the rules of the game, not by making them up out of nothing. And I use the present tense of “is” in the sense of timelessness of rememberance of the past and inspiration for the future even if at this moment he is not playing the game.

      My question on using the word godlike is whether you are being circular in meaning the word or the Word precludes the personal and the need to practice the laws of science and love. I would say that Albert Schweitzer has godlike characteristics and one of those is the humility to know he can continue to learn from others “greater” than him and serve others regardles of their level of progression. I think it is more reasonable to view that we all come from something and go to something rather than nothing. Each of us has a bit of the stars in us. We wonder and argue about when we should call that energy and matter a personal being yet life goes on.

      I like Marvin’s comments and would ask what historical reports of experience with the divine you find to be most credible and how can they be harmonized with science – Moses, Buddha, Mary, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Baker Eddy, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and people with Near Death Experiences?

  6. These are my thoughts from an article I blogged called “Where Did ‘God’ Come From?”

    A newborn child, cold and hungry, cries out to the universe for food and warmth. He is gathered up in his mother’s arms, and is comforted, and fed.

    We don’t remember this experience, but it is one we’ve all shared. I believe it leaves us with a sense that we might implore a greater being to come to our aid in time of trouble, and that it is likely the seed of the idea of ‘God’.

    On a cold day, I walked out of the apartment ready to shiver. Stepping out of the shadow and into the sunlight, I felt a warmth and comfort, as if I were loved by the Sun. And I understood how easy it was for our ancestors to view the Sun as a god.

    In early history people worshipped multiple gods, prayed to them for favors and offered them gifts so that the rains would water their crops, and the river would not flood their homes. By coincidence, this sometimes appeared to work. Psychologists have since discovered that behavior that was intermittently rewarded was more difficult to extinguish than behavior that was consistently rewarded. And so superstition flourished.

    But then something new was added. Monotheism took the strong position that there was only one God.

    And not only was this the God to pray to and worship, but this God also expected you to follow rules. If you followed the commandments, you would prosper, if not in this life, then in the next.

    I remember the preachers from my youth, Oral Roberts and Norman Vincent Peale, teaching that God is a Good God, and that following Him brings both blessings and expectations. I remember the prayer at dinner, “God is Great, God is Good …”.

    God became a way to make being good and doing good both valuable and sacred. And that is why the idea is still useful today, even by those of us who use the term in a literary rather than a literal sense.

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