Introducing My New Project: “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible”

My attempt to encourage communication between theists and atheists reflects my broader interest in bridging the gap between different theologies and philosophies of life. And one of the key issues dividing us is the question of Biblical inspiration. Is the Bible divinely inspired?

Here are six possible answers to that question:

1. The entire Bible is divinely inspired, and every verse is literally true.

2. Except for minor problems such as errors in translation, everything in this book was inspired by God.

3. The Bible may contain incorrect statements due to human error, but God ensures that no harm will result from these mistakes.

4. Some passages of the Bible reflect human opinions rather than divine wisdom, but the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired.

5. Much of the Bible is God’s Word and much of it is not.

6. None of this book was inspired by God. It is entirely a human creation.

My new blog is primarily intended for those who accept statements 1, 2, or 3, and are open to considering the possibility that these options may be incorrect.

Although millions of people believe that virtually every verse of the Bible was divinely inspired, some are troubled by passages that seem morally repugnant. Others are concerned about seeming contradictions between the Bible and modern science. Still others accepted the complete literal truth of the Bible when they were young, and feel that it’s time to revisit this decision.

Most readers of Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground are either humanists or liberal theists. But even if you reject Biblical literalism, do you have friends who say the Bible is entirely God’s word, but who might be open to reconsidering this belief?

In a series of at-least-weekly postings I will attempt to show beyond any reasonable doubt that options 1, 2, and 3, above, are incorrect and lead to dangerous and destructive consequences. I will take no position about items 4 – 6.

Some will wonder why I am bothering to address Biblical literalism when there are already web sites purporting to show that the Bible contains errors, contradictions, and hazardous ideas. But many of these web sites sneer at Christianity and Christian beliefs. They will persuade no one. I wish to explore this issue in a way that respects the three “Abrahamic” religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which all say that at least part of the Bible is Holy Scripture.

I have friends who are Biblical literalists, and I have no interest in denigrating anyone’s faith. I hope the conversation I am beginning will bring us all closer together, not push us farther apart.

I will publish most entries from “Did God Really Say THAT!?” on this blog. If you’re not interested in this topic, just skip these items. I will continue to post entries that specifically deal with theism and atheism, about once a week as usual.

For the new blog’s first entry go to: http://didgodreallysaythat.wordpress.com/. Or click “A blog about the Bible” on my blogroll. I’m looking forward to feedback about “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Should Children Think for Themselves About Religion?

In my latest post, I mentioned that many churches ask children to commit themselves to a particular theology, even though they lack the knowledge and the intellectual ability to make an informed decision. One reader commented that “Children are able to cope with hearing more than one side of the story from quite a young age, even though their abstract reasoning skills are still developing. It would be great to hear of a church where they are told ‘Some Christians believe X, and others Y, and others Z’ …’”

I certainly agree, and I’ve been thinking about why this so seldom happens. It seems likely that the human brain is wired up so as to make small children believe just about anything grown-ups tell them. Although some of us revise our views later on, the words of Ignatius of Loyola still ring true: “Give me a child till he is seven, and I care not who has him after.”

Parents want to give their children factual information about safety, social customs, good health habits, and so on. Since people tend to think that their own religious views are correct, they naturally want to provide this accurate information to their sons and daughters.

Unfortunately this leads well-meaning grownups to systematically indoctrinate impressionable young minds. But they will continue to do this until they realize that sincere and well-informed individuals can disagree about spiritual matters.

Humility is a virtue, and true intellectual humility is one of the hardest virtues to attain.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Greater Than Ourselves

In finding common ground between those who have different beliefs, there is one unifying idea that is easily stated but very important: All of us, theists, atheists, and agnostics, can dedicate our lives to something greater than ourselves.

For some this means obedience to the will of God. But those who do not believe in God can devote themselves to another high purpose, such as allegiance to a set of core values. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until we find rest in thee.” A secular humanist might say, “My heart is restless until I rise above my own narrow interests.”

The crucial disagreement is not between belief and unbelief. It’s between those who are committed to a larger purpose and those who are unconcerned with the common good. Deep down we long to grow toward something larger and more lasting than ourselves, something that calls forth the best we can be.

When I think of focusing on the common good, I think of Frank Powell. I know Frank’s daughter Jean, who is now over 90. Jean suspects that her dad was an agnostic.

Frank was a dedicated humanitarian who founded the first bureau for handicapped children in Wisconsin and set up programs for kids with deafness, rheumatic heart trouble, and other ailments. When at last he was on his deathbed a local minister came by and asked him, “Frank, have you made your peace with God?” Echoing the words of Henry David Thoreau, the old man replied, “As far as I know, I have not quarreled with him.”

“Well then,” said the pastor, “are you confident that your soul will attain salvation?” “Reverend, I’ve spent my life up to this point thinking about other people and I’m not going to start worrying about myself now.”

At the funeral, that minister said he had to respect a man who could give those answers. Perhaps he sensed spiritual maturity in the old agnostic, Frank Powell.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Handling Hot Potatoes, Part Two

In my previous post I invited readers to think of constructive ways to deal with provocative comments about theology. I asked people to write down helpful responses to two hypothetical situations:

1. Imagine that you are a Christian, and an atheist family member sarcastically compares God to Santa Claus. How could you respond in a constructive manner? What could you say? Write down the best reply you can think of. (It’s important to actually write it down, so you can reflect on it later.)

2. Imagine that you are an atheist, and your mother says she cries every night because you are going to hell. Again, write the best reply you can think of.

 

Now here’s part two – please don’t read the following instructions until you have completed part one.

Part two is simple: Just write new responses to each hot-potato comment, this time trying to say something that connects with the other person. One basic principle of communication is to join with a person before attempting to influence him or her. So write responses that join, connect, contact, empathize, and/or establish rapport. Again, feel free to post these as comments if you wish. In a few days I’ll say more about making connections.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Guest Blogger: ChristianAtheist on Theological Anthropology

I have just returned from a trip to North Carolina, where I presented workshops on Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro. I learned some lessons I’ll be sharing in future posts, but for now here is a guest-post by ChristianAtheist, who sometimes comments on my essays. She writes about an idea that might be called “theological anthropology.”

 

Working at Oxford University is a wonderful way to get to know people from other cultures, and many of my conversations with visiting or newly employed researchers from abroad revolve around the bewildering unwritten rules of English culture. (These are amusingly described in Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, which I recommend to them.)

As part of their Oxford experience, I also recommend attending the service of choral evensong at an Oxford college chapel. This, like many other English rituals such as tea drinking, needs some deconstruction, both for the non-English and the non-religious.

I hate the idea of people going to a church service for the first time and not at least glimpsing some of the nuances of the rituals and symbols – it seems such a waste of an aesthetically rich experience. But, like most art forms, if you don’t get the references, you will only engage at a superficial level, and if you have any hang ups about religion, these can get in the way.

So maybe we should think about the cultural gap between English and non-English as similar to the gap between theist and non-theist: both should try to bridge that gap by explaining the unwritten behaviours, values, norms and beliefs of the alien culture. This can be done without any suggestion that one is right and one wrong, but just as a way of gaining insight into the culture and, in the case of evensong, appreciating its liturgy in greater depth.

This is an email I recently sent to a group of social psychologists before going to evensong and dinner at New College, Oxford:

Dear fellow amateur anthropologists of English culture,

If you are thinking about whether to come to evensong, but are worried you will feel like a member of the outgroup because you’re not a religious person (or maybe because you have negative feelings towards the Church as something oppressive or outdated), it may help to re-frame the experience of evensong in a non-religious way. The Church of England encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs, and is very un-dogmatic; although it is Protestant, in many ways it is not like the Protestant churches in the rest of Europe.

You will see the word “inclusive” used to describe New College Chapel on their website (as most of the college chapels do): this means they welcome people from all backgrounds, whatever their beliefs, sexuality, class, etc, and is a way of communicating that the chapel does not believe in the Bible as literally true, but attempts to find contemporary meaning in its stories (just as one might in other forms of literature).

The tradition of evening prayer goes back to at least the fourth century and at New College it has been conducted almost every day since the fourteenth century, so it can help to think of yourself as taking part in a historical tradition. It is also an uplifting aesthetic experience, which it is possible to describe as transcendent in some way that may or may not involve some kind of supernatural dimension! In other words, there can be some continuity between the aesthetic and the spiritual.

So I would suggest not thinking too much about the theological content or truth value of the words but about their poetry; and about how the symbolism of the architecture and rituals contribute to the experience.

There is also a political dimension to it – look out for the words in the Magnificat about the rich and the poor, for example. Oxford is very liberal theologically and politically, and this is the way many people come to a service like evensong, so don’t feel you are a member of the outgroup, but instead as a member of a superordinate group of people who are intelligent, sensitive, open minded, politically aware and with good taste.

I look forward to discussing your experiences over dinner!

 

Thanks to ChristianAtheist for suggesting ways of transcending ingroups and outgroups from a superordinate perspective. The more we identify with the group called “all humanity,” the more we will sense our kinship, regardless of our theological orientations.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Simplifications, Useful and Dangerous: The Case of Biblical Literalism

In my March 1 post, I suggested that human beings are easily confused when thinking about politics and religion. Both of these topics involve issues that are complicated and emotionally charged. Complexity and emotionality befuddle us, especially in combination.

Since we have trouble handling complexity, we need to look for useful simplifications. Here are two ways to do that:

1. Look at the big picture. Focus on core values and large-scale, long-term results. Don’t get bogged down in minutiae.

2. Beware of all-or-nothing thinking. One simple way to catch mistakes is to look for dangerous oversimplifications. We want so much to make life tidy, so we push complex realities into neat little boxes.

In religion, one of the most destructive examples of all-or-nothing thinking is scriptural literalism. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that “About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” Literalists accept “inerrancy,” meaning that the Bible is free from error. On the other hand, about half of Americans believe that the Bible “is the inspired word of God but that not everything in it should be taken literally.”

Many Christians fear that if they admit there is error in the Bible, they will no longer be able to rely on this book. So they take a literalist stance that contradicts obvious facts.

According to the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.’”

Bearing this in mind, read Deuteronomy 28, remembering that Christianity teaches that God is Love. Did a loving God really inspire this chapter? (Be sure to read beyond verse 14.)

For massive documentation of inconsistencies within the Bible, some trivial and some quite substantial, see Donald Morgan’s list on the Web:

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/inconsistencies.html.

But don’t go jumping all over Christian literalists about deplorable or contradictory Bible passages. Just suggest that they could reconsider literalism without giving up what matters most to them in their faith tradition. I’ve found that many are quite open to this idea, if it is stated respectfully.

Roger Schriner

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Postcard from Santa Ana

I must confess that I haven’t yet mastered the art of blogging while traveling. So this entry will be the internet equivalent of a postcard, sent from Southern California … where it’s chilly and raining.

My simple message: check out Julian Baggini’s latest blog. Here’s his title:

 “Give me a reasonable believer over an uncompromising atheist any day — In a coalition of the reasonable, I might have more fruitful dialogue with an evangelical or Catholic than a fellow atheist”

I’ll comment further on another occasion, but his essay is very much in the spirit of my book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. Theists, atheists, and agnostics who sincerely seek to discover deeper truths are kindred spirits despite their differences. And the greatest gap of all is not between belief and unbelief. It is between those who dedicate their lives to a greater purpose and those who care little for the common good.

For Baggini’s blog see:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/mar/15/believer-atheist-coalition-reasonable

Roger

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