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: 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:

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:


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Can Atheists Receive the Benefits of Theism?

(For a follow-up to this post, see my March 21 entry.)

In reading Julian Baggini’s “Heathens Progress” blog, I am impressed at how hard he tries to be objective in the theist-atheist debate. Although he’s an atheist, he often takes his fellow “heathens” to task, and he acknowledges positive aspects of religion that non-believers tend to ignore.

On January 5, for example, he posted “Can it be rational for the religious to be non-rational?” In this post and the next (January 12), he showed why the answer may be a qualified “yes.”

“We heathens may be proud that we have refused to sell off our reason to pay the unacceptably high price of faith. But we should admit that as a consequence, others are enjoying the rewards of their purchase while we have to make and mend do with alternatives that are adequate, better in some ways, but very possibly inferior overall.”

Seeing erroneous belief as the price people pay for practical benefits “offers atheists a richer credible error theory for why people persist with religious belief. Putting it down to just human stupidity or wishful thinking won’t do.”

Baggini also provides solid support for what I call broad-spectrum agnosticism. “[Decades of research in psychology have shown us to be unreliable, distorting, self-serving creatures who routinely reason with prejudice.” It is difficult or impossible to think our way out of these limitations. In fact, highly intelligent people “sometimes seem to be more capable of distortion than others, since they are clever enough to construct whatever argument they need to prop up what they already believe.”

Have you known bright people who outsmart themselves, glibly rationalizing irrational behavior? I certainly have!

Because we tend to be irrational, some philosophers despair of knowing anything at all, but I do not agree with such extreme skepticism. In principle, I admit that radical skepticism could be correct. In could be, for example, that the entire universe came into being five minutes ago, in a way that endowed every person with false memories of past experiences. But setting aside such unlikely scenarios, what we know about human cognition demonstrates that our beliefs are sometimes highly accurate, sometimes off-base but good enough to get by, and other times almost totally unreliable.

Obvious cases of well-justified beliefs: I’m now sitting in a chair, I’m quite hungry, and as I glance out the window I see that it’s sunny. These are the kinds of concerns we were evolved to address, and we deal with them well.

Politics and religion, on the other hand, are hard for us to get right. Although I have strong opinions in each of these areas, I know that I am probably wrong in at least some significant ways. Such issues are complex, involving many unknown factors. They also tend to be emotionally loaded. Complexity and emotionality befuddle us, especially in combination.

Even so, some of the reasoning power that helps us get ourselves in out of the rain also enables us to figure out some important things about more challenging issues. I’ll explain what I mean in a subsequent post.

Julian is also interested in finding atheistic analogues of traditional spiritual practices. His January 12 essay begins, “I’ve recently started praying. Well, not exactly praying …” He’s spending a few minutes each morning reflecting on topics such as: how he should be living, his responsibilities to others, his own failings, and being grateful for his relative good fortune.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have suggested something similar to UUs who are atheist or agnostic: Find out what “sings the god-song” for you. What plays roughly the same positive role in your life that belief in God plays for theists? Those who reject the concept of god can look for a related concept, a conceptual cousin of theism. Or if you dislike the very idea of deity, then just add an o to “god” and focus on your vision of the good.

Baggini doubts that non-theistic spirituality will ever amount to more than “small, fringe movements. Much as I appreciate the non-realist Sea of Faith movement and the non-creedal Unitarian church, there just isn’t a strong enough reason for most people to join such groups.”

Since he’s from the UK, I assume he’s referring to the Unitarian Church in England. American Unitarian Universalism is somewhat different, but we certainly aren’t as large a denomination as I would hope. Even so, it may take a long time to shape new ways of meeting age-old psychological and spiritual needs. Success in this endeavor is not assured, but it’s well worth the effort.

Roger Schriner

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Julian Baggini’s Articles of 21st-century Faith

I’ve been commenting on Baggini’s on-line series, Heathen’s Progress. One of his goals is to find common ground between atheists and non-supernatural theists, people who worship a god but do not think this deity is an invisible, miracle-working, thinking-and-feeling super-person. On November 21 he presented four articles of 21st-century faith which he hopes will be agreed upon by many atheists and progressive theists. This proposal is related to my idea of a theological Plan B, a theological position we are confident would be true even if it turns out that we are seriously mistaken about deity.

Here’s a possible theistic Plan B: “Even if there is no god, by living in accord with spiritual principles I am finding beauty and goodness in this Earthly life.” Similarly, an atheist might say, “Even if I find myself in a supernatural realm after I die, my secular humanist path has helped me savor life and act in ways that make this world a better place. And I’m not worried that God will smite me for having the ‘wrong’ theology. ” (For more about Plan B, see Bridging the God Gap, pp. 165-68.)

Here is an abridged version of Julian’s four principles, with my responses.

“1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices.”

Response: Right! It is absolutely crucial to move from belief-centered to value-centered philosophies. Beliefs about ultimate reality will be debated for centuries, but people of many different faiths and philosophies can agree upon core values.

“2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles …”

Response: There is a difference between not requiring assent to miracles and rejecting the possibility of miracles. I think it is unlikely that miracles occur, but I do not reject their possibility. I suspect Julian wants to completely rule them out.

“3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe.”

Response: If someone makes such claims, based upon, e.g., mystical experiences, I see no problem as long as these claims are testable in a publically verifiable manner. They seldom are.

“4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.”

Response: It’s hard for me to object to this principle. I think divine inspiration of sacred books is unlikely, and every sacred book I have read absolutely oozes with obvious signs of human flaws and foibles. But many intelligent, well-educated, and sincere individuals believe that some texts are divinely inspired. If I were smarter, more knowledgeable, and/or more sincere than any of these folks, I might dismiss their opinions. But I’m not, and I don’t.

In short, I appreciate Julian’s attempt to find common ground, but I would frame these articles of faith more broadly. I think he wants to include only those who categorically reject all supernaturalistic or non-physicalist orientations. That’s a legitimate approach, but few who consider themselves religious will sign up.

A lot more would come on board if he welcomed those who are open to both physical and trans-physical interpretations of reality: “I think there’s a God, but I realize this may just be a human projection” and “I don’t believe in God, but it’s conceivable that we will eventually discover something at least vaguely godlike that now escapes the reach of science.”

For Baggini’s full statement, see:


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Why People Misunderstand Each Other in Talking About Religion

In my previous post about “Heathen’s Progress,” I mentioned that “Even religious liberals may struggle with scientific principles.” In response, one reader reported that his religiously liberal minister rejected “the prevailing scientific understanding of evolutionary biology (an unguided and undirected process without an overseeing intelligence directing it). She didn’t like the theological implications and said that the evolutionary process only “appeared” to be undirected/unguided …”

In Bridging the God Gap I suggest that a lot of what people say about religion is ambiguous, with many possible interpretations. In such cases it’s easy to think I know what someone means, because I know what I would mean if I said those words. (Or at least I think I do!)

In reality, even the speaker may not know what s/he is driving at, not having thoroughly explored the many ways one can look at a seemingly straightforward theological issue. Let’s take the minister’s statement about evolution as an example. Here are some ways of interpreting “Evolution only appears to be unguided, but actually an overseeing intelligence directs it.”

Interpretation 1. Evolution is directed by the God described in the Christian Bible.

2. Evolution is directed by a personal God (a being that does what persons do – thinks, makes decisions, acts). But this deity is different in important ways from the Christian God.

3. Evolution is directed by an impersonal intelligence that knows about us as individuals and intervenes on our behalf.

4. Evolution is directed by an impersonal intelligence that works for good in a general way, but does not intervene in our personal lives.

5. The universe itself has or is a sort of mind and works toward positive goals. Evolutionary of progress is evidence of its intelligence. (Remember, some people construe “mind” and “intelligence” rather abstractly. For example, some say that the Internet, the human immune system, the stock market, and the American electoral process are examples of intelligent systems. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call the stock market or the electoral process intelligent, but you get the idea.)

6. Saying evolution is “directed” by “intelligence” are metaphorical statements, meaningful but not literally true.

7. Sometimes people say things they didn’t mean (or are misquoted). “I didn’t intend to imply that a supernatural mind is running the show. Evolution is ‘a design without a designer,’ but that means it isn’t really random. It has a positive direction.”

I could give more examples, but I needn’t belabor the point. When someone says something about religion, your first interpretation of their words may be exactly correct – or completely off base. Try asking clarifying questions:

“Basically, then, you are saying ______. Is that right?”

“Are you saying ____ or are you saying ____?”

Remember, even the speaker may not know exactly what s/he is thinking. Someone who says evolution is intelligently guided may not have reflected upon the varied ways of interpreting this statement which I listed above. Clarifying questions help people sharpen up their own opinions.

To the fellow who offered this example: Your interpretation of the liberal minister who has qualms about evolution may be exactly right. I am not in a position to pass judgment about what she wanted to convey. Regardless of what she intended, I appreciate this opportunity to offer a case study about ambiguous language. Thanks.


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