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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Pope Francis and Atheists – from “Finding My Ground”

I recently quoted a WordPress blog called Finding My Ground, regarding a recent statement about atheists by Pope Francis. With the blogger’s permission, here is the complete entry, which may be found at:

http://findingmygrounduu.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/pope-francis-atheism-and-words-of-thanks/

Pope Francis, Atheism, and Words of Thanks

Posted on May 24, 2013

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

I smiled while reading the Huffington Post piece, Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics. (I’m assuming it applies to us agnostics who do good in the world as well, since the hair between the atheist and agnostic is the knowability of the presence of God.) Personally, the issue of my redemption matters little to me. I don’t hold to the idea of sins or sinners needing redemption. As human, I am fallible, and whether one calls those numerous failings human behavior, sins, transgressions against other living beings, or mistakes doesn’t really matter to me. And as human, I am accountable to myself and others for those shortfalls. I don’t see the role a divine being would have in my acknowledgement of my mistakes, my need to make amends, and my subsequent attempt to avoid those mistakes again.

And yet, to this agnostic, Pope Francis’s words matter. They don’t matter because agnostics and atheists are all excited about going to heaven, a place that doesn’t have meaning to those who don’t ascribe to the religious beliefs behind the concept (and I know that’s not the redemption issue, but it is bothering some Catholics, all of us nonbelievers thinking we’re a shoo-in for heaven). They don’t matter because atheists long for compassion from a god or knowledge that Jesus died for their sins (but plenty of us find Jesus to be a fine example of love and compassion).  They matter because they are inclusive in a way that past hierarchy of the church has not been, at least not in quite some time. They matter because intolerance for non-believers is alive in this country.

An unanticipated consequence of my movement from theistic Catholic to agnostic Unitarian Universalist has been awareness the negative view much of this nation has about nontheists. I’ve become a member of an untrusted minority. While I’ve been called a moral relativist and amoral by a few, overall, I’ve received very little heat for my lack of belief. Admittedly, I’ve chosen to associate with compassionate people of a variety of belief systems, but plenty of my friends are believers. Generally, I choose to listen to others statements of faith and their understandings of reality without injecting my own version. I identify as a UU, a faith tradition I’m glad to attempt to explain when asked, but I don’t go out of my way to say that I don’t believe in a god. That part just gets too sticky.

It shouldn’t be that sticky. I’m not pleased that I tend to avoid talking about that part of my understanding of the world. And I’m aware that too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, that we’re selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates. Others are just sad for my loss. I’d just like to be accepted as someone who works to do good in the world, who tries to love more fully, to show compassion more freely, and to work for a better world more often.

But I’m an adult, and I grew up in a faith-filled home, a variety of religious expression, and my own belief. I grew up sharing an essential belief with most Americans, and I felt, well, normal. My kids don’t share that experience.  My younger son, a staunch atheist since age five, a bit before I’d moved my hat to the agnostic peg, wonders if his atheism will limit him professionally. He has his eye on politics, and he’s well aware that this country, at least not now, sees atheists as amoral and suspect. They certainly aren’t presidential material, according to most Americans, he notes. As outspoken as he is, he learned early to curb talk of religion outside of our UU church, where varying opinions of divinity are regular Sunday school fare. He knows which of his friends are religious, and he has learned to listen but leave his own opinion aside, a task that I know is hard for him and that I’m certain has improved relations with others. It feels less than ingenious, though.

His older brother briefly considered scouting, wanting to be outside, light campfires, and climb trees with other kids. Then he read the Boy Scouts of America’s oath. “I can’t say that,” he told me. “I don’t believe it.” Now, given his preference for shirts without buttons and sleeping indoors, scouting was nixed for more than religious differences (and, yes, their stance on gays was another issue we had), this wasn’t a tragedy, but it was a moment reminding us that we stand apart.

So what Pope Francis said about doing good, and about atheists doing good, matters to me. It matters that the head of the Catholic church, a church to which a quarter of the US belongs, says that atheists are redeemed. It’s the message to believers that those of us who don’t believe are recognized as moral beings with the capacity of doing good, just as much good as a believer. Yes, I’ve read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that atheism is “…a serious problem of our time ” and “a sin against the virtue of religion.” Agnosticism can express “…a sluggish moral conscience.”  Catholics are not Universalists, after all, the part of my faith tradition that believed in inclusive salvation. And that’s fine.

I’m not expecting open arms from all the Catholics I meet, although most of those I know already welcome me that way already. I do hope that those who only saw atheists as morally depraved, least sad sacks of selfishness, or angry or ignorant people wandering lost will take Pope Francis’s words to heart, listening to the call of love and inclusivity of his words on May 22. Let’s do good together to make this earth better for all its inhabitants.

Peace.

[end of entry from Finding My Ground]

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Pope Francis on Christian-Atheist Cooperation

While reading a blog called Finding My Ground, I was surprised to see that Pope Francis has said some very friendly things to atheists. In one passage he imagines a fellow Catholic asking if Jesus has redeemed atheists, and he responds affirmatively. Later he invites those of all viewpoints to create a “culture of encounter” by cooperatively doing good. He acknowledges that an atheist might find this possibility hard to imagine, I presume because Christian churches have condemned non-believers so vigorously. Again he suggests that we can all cooperate by doing good works. Here’s what Pope Francis said:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Remarkable! I actually looked up the quote to be sure he really said these things:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html

Sadly, many comments on this statement were either unrealistically optimistic – “Wow! Francis says I’ll go to heaven if I’m a good person, no matter what I believe!” – or cynical – “No reason to feel good about this. Vatican officials are now saying that atheists will still go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus.”

Does anyone think it is likely that Pope Francis would formally announce that all Roman Catholics should henceforth believe in universal salvation? He’s an intelligent fellow, and I suspect he’d rather continue for some years as pope rather than having a tragic “accident” or being stricken with a mysterious and fatal illness just months into his papacy. It would be physically dangerous to make such a radical change in Catholic theology. If Francis or some other pope ever endorses universal salvation, that will show remarkable courage. In any case, the attitude shown in Francis’ comment is warm, respectful, and non-judgmental, and that is a most welcome development.

It may well be that the Pope is ambivalent about non-believers. Perhaps on other occasions he has said things about them that are hostile or demeaning. I don’t know. But it’s a fine step forward for the Holy Father to say this sort of thing even once. And of course, I’m hoping the pontiff is actually a closet universalist.

The author of Finding My Ground is an agnostic who writes that “too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, … selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates.” I encourage you to read her entire post, which includes comments about raising two children who do not believe in standard theism:

http://findingmygrounduu.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/pope-francis-atheism-and-words-of-thanks/#comments

For now, I’ll take the Pope’s words as an encouraging sign, and hope he says similar things in the future.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Hundredth Post

This is my one-hundredth posting in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. I’ve enjoyed the chance to share ideas, and it’s been exciting to see that people from all over the world visit this site. Yesterday someone from Turkey viewed one of my posts, and a few days ago I had a visitor from Nepal. I’ve had over 7000 page views so far.

I plan to continue this blog, but I admit I’m currently a bit distracted by my current book project. I’m writing about philosophical and scientific attempts to understand the mystery (or mysteries) of consciousness. I’ve been researching this topic for 20 years, and I’m afraid the project has been even more time-consuming than I anticipated. But I’m halfway through my fourth draft, and I hope to finish by this fall.

At some point I’ll begin a blog on puzzles about consciousness. I also plan to resume Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. I’ll let you know when those things happen.

Finally, here’s a special thank-you to those who have subscribed to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. It’s good to connect with people who truly care about building bridges, bringing people together instead of pushing them apart.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Bad News and Good News

I’m quite aware that atheists are often despised, but recently I was disturbed to read that “in at least seven nations [atheists] can be executed if their beliefs become known …”

This statement was made in an article published last December by Robert Evans: “Atheists around World Suffer Persecution, Discrimination.” But I can also report good news. The April edition of an excellent on-line periodical called The Interfaith Observer just published ten articles under the general heading of “Welcoming Atheists & Humanists into the Interfaith Community.”

Some non-theists will not want to accept this welcome, perhaps because they are uncomfortable with the word “interfaith.” I hope we will respect the way people prefer to use theological language, and not try to impose our favored terminology on others. But some humanists/atheists/agnostics will appreciate The Interfaith Observer for recognizing non-theism as a valid lifestance.

For more, see:

http://theinterfaithobserver.org/journal-articles/2013/4/15/offering-an-overdue-welcome-to-the-atheist-community.html

Roger Christan Schriner

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Concluding the Debate: Which One of Me Won?

Today I’ll finish reporting on a debate about the existence of God, in which I took both sides of the argument. I have become convinced that, in general, if a person cannot persuasively argue for both sides of a controversial issue, then he or she does not adequately understand that issue. So I tried to practice that principle a few weeks ago at a Unitarian Universalist church, and I had some fun in the process. When you read my posts quoting the debate, remember that debates tend to be feisty, so these entries are different in tone from most of my other blogs.

I began my presentation by assuming the role of a Christian minister, “Pastor Chris” (Chris is my nickname), and I responded to the pastor as the atheist, “Dr. Schriner.” In last week’s post, Pastor Chris quoted atheist Daniel Dennett as saying that religion gives people “sturdy support” in dealing with challenging life issues. The pastor concluded:

“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.”

Dr Schriner then strode to the lectern:

“That great cloud of witnesses is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans say they 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. (See The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, p. 109.) 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.” (See http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm.)

Dr. Schriner then critiqued the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” for intelligent life: “My opponent never responded to the idea that there could be an infinite number of universes, many of which could not support life. His 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 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. 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.”

Pastor Chris had the last word:

“As a religious person I get laughed at for believing in fairy-tale mythologies. But when scientists dream up wild stories about there being an infinite number of undetectable universes, all the secular humanists solemnly nod and agree. There is only one reason these bizarre multiple-universe scenarios get any press. People see that if this is actually the only universe, then it looks like the universe was fine-tuned for our benefit. Some great creative power intended for us to be here.” (For the context of this discussion of fine-tuning, see my October 14 and 20 posts.)

“When I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without any deliberate cause. This is not a faith-based argument. The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence.

“When Dr. Schriner presents evidence that believers are no more moral than non-believers, it makes me sad but it is completely beside the point. Perhaps the human tendency to be selfish and unloving is so strong that religion has not overcome these faults in most people. But those who truly open themselves to God’s presence are changed for the better. I’ll again quote the atheist, Daniel Dennett, who says that from a sincere theist’s point of view, ‘God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love” (Breaking the Spell, p. 250).

Those who are open to God’s love do become better persons. The tragedy is that so few of us fully accept this boundless grace. But we always have the freedom to open our hearts to redemption, and perhaps some who are here today will embrace this possibility. At least I hope you will agree, based on a preponderance of the evidence, a personal deity did create the universe.”

Looking back at this debate about deity, ask yourself what you experienced when you heard something plausible that pushed against your own opinions. What did you feel inside? If you discover what happens when a good argument disturbs your belief-systems, then you can learn to notice your own mind closing, and perhaps learn to prop it open.

And here is an idea that is obviously true but difficult to fully accept: There is no objective place where we can stand and say, “Now I can see who is right about deity.”

Many people believe they have attained The Truth about God. Some say it is quite clear that God is real. Others find it equally clear that atheism is correct. But there is no “tie-breaker,” no super-objective vantage point that settles this dispute. Honestly admitting that no one knows the truth about god is likely to make us squirm (unless we happen to be agnostics).

It would be more comfortable if we had certainty about this important subject, so that all people who are good, smart, and well-informed would agree, but that is not where we find ourselves. We cannot dismiss either the testimony of intelligent and well-informed believers or intelligent and well-informed unbelievers.

Does ultimate reality have personal qualities, or should we think of it impersonally, in terms of an It rather than a Thou? Each of us makes our choice – yes, there is an invisible person hidden in the darkness, or no, there is not. Both theists and atheists are speculating, and that is unavoidable. But theists, atheists, and agnostics who understand that life is deeply mysterious and who sincerely search for greater truth are kindred spirits despite their differences.

Roger Christan Schriner

P.S. I would be happy to debate the existence of God in any public setting. I’ll take either side. Contact me by commenting on this posting.

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The Heathen Manifesto: An Appreciative Critique

I’ve written a lot about Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Progress essays in the Guardian website. He completed this series with a Heathen Manifesto, and I’ll make just a few comments about this document. The Manifesto includes these points:

1 Why we are heathens

2 Heathens are naturalists

3 Our first commitment is to the truth

4 We respect science, not scientism

5 We value reason as precious but fragile

6 We are convinced, not dogmatic

7 We have no illusions about life as a heathen

8 We are secularists

9 Heathens can be religious

10 Religion is often our friend

11 We are critical of religion when necessary

12 This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others 

For full details see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/25/atheists-please-read-heathen-manifesto

I appreciate the way Julian strives for humility, “acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion.” He likes calling his atheistic outlook “heathen” “… because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.” Actually many religious individuals realize that our understanding is quite limited. This is one of the very few times that Baggini has fallen into the trap of equating religiosity with dogmatism.

Overall I think Baggini has succeeded in sketching a distinctive and constructive atheistic stance, and I appreciate his efforts. Even so, I do want to propose one “friendly amendment.” The ninth principle mentions religions that are compatible with heathenism: “These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities …” I have the impression that Julian sees American Unitarian Universalism as heathen-compatible, and as a Unitarian Universalist minister I would amend item nine, changing “reject” to “do not proclaim.” Thus:

“There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion which do not proclaim the real existence of supernatural entities …”

Many Unitarian Universalists are atheists or agnostics, or naturalistic theists who view some part of nature as divine. But we do not specifically prohibit our members from believing that gods, goddesses, or spirits exist.

This amendment fits the overall thrust of the manifesto, which respects those who arrive at traditionally religious beliefs “on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry” as heathens do. I would be uncomfortable if a congregant emphatically asserted the existence of invisible spirits on the basis of non-debatable divine revelation. But if someone believes in such spirits after careful reflection, and is open to the possibility that other world-views may turn out to be more accurate, I would welcome his or her involvement in Unitarian Universalism. My religion is more about the values I affirm than the doctrines I reject.

I also want to especially applaud one statement in this document that many quibblers have evidently overlooked: “It is … almost a precondition of supporting [this manifesto] that you do not entirely support it.”

Amen, Julian (if you’ll pardon the expression).

Roger Christan Schriner

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