“Coming Out” as Religiously Unconventional

Many of us have friends and family members who think we share their religious views. But what if we are religiously unconventional – atheists, agnostics, naturalistic theists, neo-Pagans, or just too creative to classify? Shall we tell others about our theological differences? And if so, how?

I’ve recently read a series of thoughtful comments about this issue on a web site called THE CLOSET ATHEIST.

This blogger is a young woman who attends a Christian college and has Lutheran parents. She recently wrote about a successful effort to tell a friend about her non-belief, but indicated that it’s still hard to imagine telling family members. Here are a few comments posted by her readers:

“Ask them whether they think someone should be free to believe in Christianity if they live in a Muslim community, or Judaism if they are in a Hindu community. Being an atheist is no different to that.” I agree, and this approach could be helpful in dealing with friends who are fairly open-minded. But I can’t agree with the next comment:

“Ask them if they consider themselves to be a Fascist, because if they don’t respect your right to freedom of belief, that is undoubtedly what they are!”

I’m confident that this line of questioning will shut off positive communication. It may indeed seem odd that so many people don’t grant others true freedom of belief. But this just points up the limitations of human nature as it’s developed so far. People live by agreement with others. Disagreement about such a fundamental point is deeply unsettling to many, many people. Another comment:

“… to the majority of people who are religious, I try to put out the concept that we have a common interest -to have a more loving, peaceful world.” Yes, look for common ground!

“Personally, if I knew you IRL [in real life], I would want to know how you really think and feel. I don’t want you to be afraid to live as yourself and not as a dancer in a masquerade.” Lovely, well put.

“… it’s OK not to tell them everything all at once. For many de-converts, including me, it took a while to discard belief … If you just drop this whole thing on your folks, that’s expecting them to be able to deal with your change all at once. If there’s any way to let them in on your journey a little at a time, with time in between to see that you have not become an evil person, that might help ease them into it.”

This line seems well worth repeating: “with time in between to see that you have not become an evil person.”

“It’s not because YOU’RE atheist it’s because it challenges THEIR own belief and they were all comfy and secure in their belief and now you’ve resigned from the club. Yikes!!”

Yikes indeed.

“…  I tend to use the term “non-believer.” Whether we agree or not, Christians have been taught that ‘atheist’ is a bad word (almost as bad as a ‘cuss’ word!” Right. Some words tend to shut down clear thought and constructive communication.

If in doubt, watch the other person’s body language and facial expressions. Start with less threatening comments, notice reactions, and keep going if it seems safe to do so.

And good luck to us all, believers and unbelievers alike!

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s Existence, Part Four

Today I’ll conclude my series on “fine-tuning.” Some scientists claim that if the basic physical laws of the universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Does this show that the universe was designed by God as a home for humans? In my previous post I quoted an imaginary conversation from my book, Bridging the God Gap. Theodore, a theist, Althea, an atheist, and Agnes, an agnostic, are debating this issue, and Theodore has said:

The idea of a godless cosmos offends my intelligence. … [A]n alarm goes off in my mind when people claim that all this wonderment happened for no reason at all.

The conversation continues:

Althea: Theodore, my nonsense-detector is ringing so loud it hurts my ears. You are forgetting what is completely obvious. SOMETHING basic and wondrous did have to happen for no reason we can ever know, whether it was the universe itself or a hidden reality which gave birth to the universe.

Agnes: People who say God made the universe don’t ask where God came from, because they don’t know how to even begin thinking about something so far beyond their own experience. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”

Theodore: Nevertheless there are brilliant scientists and philosophers who say that it looks like the whole shebang was set up as a home for creatures like us.

Agnes: This is all speculation on top of speculation. Sure, some scientists say the universe seems to have been designed to enable life to exist, but other scientists disagree. It’s easy to go on TV and proclaim that “researchers believe Blah Blah Blah,” but there is no clear consensus about this issue. I have a sneaking suspicion that in ten years, or ten thousand years, a bunch of sheepish physicists will publish an apologetic news release: “Sorry, everyone. We now realize that there are an unbelievably large number of ways that a universe could support intelligent life. For one thing, ‘intelligent life’ doesn’t need to be anything at all like us. Please disregard our previous statements about this matter.”

Althea: Besides, if a super-duper mind created the universe, why would it resemble our traditional concepts of God? It would have to be an incredible information-processing system with the power to shape matter, but look at all the ways that a matter-shaping mind might not be godlike. It might not be conscious. It might have no emotions, and no sense of right and wrong. It might be unaware of (or uninterested in) Homo sapiens. It might not be eternal, and in fact it might not even exist anymore. “It” might be several different entities, working together. Its attention might even be focused on some other universe, and our cosmos might be an accidental by-product of what it’s doing “over there.”

Theodore: Regardless, when I try to think about the universe reasonably, I reject the idea of existence without an intelligent cause. To me that is nonsense, pure and simple. If I am going to use my own reason, I can’t ignore what my reason is telling me.

Agnes: Theodore, I agree with you that there is evidence of intelligent design. I do find that intriguing, and I’d like to believe that it proves there is a god. But I agree with Althea that if we claim that the world had a cause, and call that cause God, we are only substituting one puzzle for another. Why not just assume that the world has no cause? Some physicists, such as Stephen Hawking, say that a causeless cosmos makes excellent sense. It seems backwards to drag in a mysterious extra entity in order to solve a mystery. Something must exist for no reason, either God or the cosmos.

Reviewing this discussion, which statements felt right to you? Which ones seemed far-fetched? What comments sounded reasonable even though they contradicted what you tend to believe? The controversy about how the cosmos began is a classic example of the way people can look at similar data and reach diametrically opposite conclusions. (From Bridging the God Gap, pp. 108-110, boldface type added.)

Roger Christan Schriner

For my main web site, click http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com

Pastor Chris Has the Last Word

This is the next-to-last installment of a series in which I debate with myself about the topic, Resolved: That a Personal God Created the Universe. When I make this presentation I wear an ecclesiastical stole as “Pastor Chris.” As the atheist “Dr. Schriner” I doff the stole and put on glasses. Dr. Schriner has just offered his final remarks, so here is the pastor once again. He begins by commenting on the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. (For more on fine-tuning, see the October 2 post.)

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 some great creative power intended for us to be here. Continue reading

Wrapping Up a Case for Atheism

For the past few weeks I’ve been sharing the text of a presentation in which I debate with myself about whether a personal God exists. In the previous installment, the theist, “Pastor Chris,” concluded by saying that “Dr. Schriner”

“never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support [theistic religion]. The overwhelming testimony of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism.”

Now the atheist, Dr. Schriner, replies:

That “great cloud of witnesses” is a whole lot smaller than Pastor Chris thinks. I realize that the vast majority of Americans 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.* 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.** Continue reading

Unitarian Universalist Humanism

Recently I’ve been following a discussion thread about how Unitarian Universalist humanists should relate to their UU congregations, and to the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole. Unitarian Universalism is a denomination that accepts people of all faiths and philosophies. It seeks unity by supporting common values rather than a common theological or philosophical creed.

Some of our churches contain sub-groups that focus specifically on one sort of lifestance, such as liberal Christianity, neo-Paganism, or non-theistic humanism. The Humanist Roots group that I sometimes attend at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is an example. But there are those who favor the formation of local UU congregations that are explicitly non-theistic.

Some discussants have been enthusiastic about this possibility, while others have been disappointed at the suggestion that our local congregations should be philosophically homogenous.

What do you think? Is there value in groups that include theists, atheists, and agnostics, and focus on common values? Or is it better for theists and atheists to attend different congregations?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Trey Medley on NOMA

I have appreciated Trey Medley’s blog, Whytheology. His latest post is called “Why NOMA is inadequate.”


NOMA is Stephen Jay Gould’s acronym for “Non-overlapping magisteria.” A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould said the scientific tools of empirical observation work well in dealing with facts, whereas the tools of religion are suitable for non-empirical areas such as meaning and value. “The two are entirely distinct according to Gould. … There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement.”

Trey Medley thinks Gould is mistaken. I’ll second the motion, but for slightly different reasons. For one thing, I want to encourage theist-atheist dialogue. NOMA undermines the possibility that believers and unbelievers could fruitfully discuss factual matters.

I agree with Trey that Christianity typically sees the Bible as making lots of claims about the physical universe. Some of these assertions, such as the notion that Earth is just a few thousand years old, can be ignored without undermining core Christian doctrines. The same could be said about demon possession, which Medley mentions. Many church-goers agree with psychologists who say that all serious mental illnesses are due to brain malfunctions. But other Biblical claims are more essential to traditional Christianity, such as the idea that God interacts with the universe and even suspends natural law to perform miracles.

Trey also points out that acceptance of the empirical method can’t be justified by using the empirical method. He’s right to say that would be circular. But of course choosing a method for understanding reality is a prelude to actually using that method. When we decide to try using science to understand the universe we are not at that moment using science.

Medley’s essay states that when science makes claims about events that are non-observable, those “are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims.” I’d analyze that issue a bit differently. ANY scientific claim must go beyond empirical findings. A report which asserts facts based on scientific findings has already gone beyond the data. Typically data are fitted into theories which are considered well-grounded. Based on theory + data, we draw conclusions.

Suppose I observe that every time a one-ton boulder falls on someone’s head, that person dies. That is an empirical finding. To claim that the boulder killed those people, I have to go beyond this datum, although in this case not by very much! By using a widely-accepted theory of physical causation I can assert that the fatal results were more than mere coincidence.

I think Trey may be suggesting that claims about events in the very distant past or future are not scientific claims, because such events are not observable. But they are empirically-based claims, if research data is combined with scientific theories.

Without theory, science is mute.

Note, however, that sometimes scientists speculate about the cosmos in ways that seem to be based more upon their personal world-views than on well-proven facts. I’m thinking, for example, of some statements made by Stephen Hawking. Such speculations may be brilliant or misguided, but they are theology or philosophy, not science.

Medley is planning to say more about NOMA, and I’m looking forward to reading his next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Reflections on Faitheist, by Chris Stedman

“What is most personal is most universal.” So said the great psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. I saw this principle confirmed years ago in my personal growth workshops. When people who were feeling lonely and isolated told their personal stories, they were often surprised by the way other group members empathized, identified, and responded.

Today I finished reading a highly personal memoir that will speak to a great many people – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. The author, Chris Stedman, is smart and passionate. He is also ruthlessly honest, even about his own faults. With this combination of brains, intensity, and candor, it’s not surprising that he sometimes takes unusual risks. During a high school retreat, for example, he got up the nerve to tell his classmates why he’d taken course-work at a community college that year: Because of being gay, he said, “I didn’t feel safe here.” He received a standing ovation, led by a fellow named Nate, a popular athlete that Chris had assumed would look down on him. Afterward Nate “approached me and gave me a hug. ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, dude, but that was brave’” (pp. 80-81).

Even when we don’t identify with someone’s actions or ideas, we may admire that person’s courage.

It also takes courage to criticize both religious and non-religious viewpoints, running the risk of being sniped at from both directions. A religion teacher said to Stedman, “‘When I talk about God, I mean love and justice and reconciliation, not a man in the sky. You talk about love and justice and reconciliation — why can’t you just call that God?’” Chris replied, ‘Why must you call that God? Why not just call it what it is: love and justice and reconciliation?’” (P. 123)

Chris has also critiqued prominent atheists and atheist organizations. At his first atheist conference he heard “speeches comparing religion to sexually transmitted diseases. It was, for me, a nightmare. … I called friends of mine back home — atheists, no less — and recalled what I’d seen. They were shocked and appalled. One friend said to me: ‘You see, this is why I don’t want to call myself an atheist” (p. 145).

Stedman wrote an article suggesting that organized atheism often talks about religion in ways that deepen divisions. After it appeared in the Washington Post, he got “unexpected feedback. ‘This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,’ wrote one reader” (p. 138).

Faitheist contains several other remarkable stories of risk and (mostly) reward. It’s a moving and readable memoir, highly recommended for theists, atheists, agnostics alike.

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Song for the Holidays

To get yourself in the mood for holiday gatherings with your theist or atheist friends and relatives, check out this humorous and yet insightful parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “I Am Sixteen”:



Roger Christan Schriner

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Theism Fights Back

In my recent postings I have described a presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner.

Last week I quoted “Dr. Schriner,” who offered evidence that religion does not typically make people more moral. In fact, it sometimes makes them more hostile to those of other faiths and cultures. Schriner concluded:

“If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.

This week I read an essay by philosopher Georges Rey called “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Rey cites a splendid passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty which discusses the gap between theology and morality. I’ll quote it at length, boldfacing one key passage.

Mill notes that doctrines which should make a powerful “impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding … [This] is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. … These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of [Christian] ethical maxims, … and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that … it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; … that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with…. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”


Here is how “Pastor Chris” replied to the claim that Christianity does not improve Christians, and the other charges made by Dr. Schriner:

How sad that such a smart young fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for intelligent life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is truly revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible.

In the Twentieth Century biologists said we were on the verge of explaining the origin of life. Today we’re no closer than we were then. And many philosophers now admit that we have no idea how to show that consciousness could exist within a physical brain. The gaps in our knowledge remain, and in some cases are widening.

Schriner complains that people go to church and still do nasty things. But I once heard a preacher say that the church is the only organization in the world for sinners only. We sinners need churches and temples to help us become better people. But since sinful humans are in charge of religious institutions, they will sometimes pervert religion for terrible purposes. That’s why Jesus himself warned us against false prophets and corrupt priests.

Even fair-minded non-believers admit that religion is good for us. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett acknowledges that “for day-in, day-out lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away from drink or drugs or crime” (Breaking the Spell, p. 55).

Notice that 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. [End.]

If you’re an atheist or agnostic, what would you say in response to these remarks? Post a comment and let me know. Next week I’ll conclude this series with final statements from Dr. Schriner and Pastor Chris.

Roger Christan Schriner

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A Case for the Existence of God

In my most recent blog-entry I invited readers to post Comments with arguments for and against God’s existence. Thank you for submitting items such as the cosmological argument and the argument from design.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a Unitarian Universalist church called “Does God Exist? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner.” In that presentation I debated with myself about the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I defined “personal deity” as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, and communicating.

Here are excerpts from the opening statement I made as Pastor Chris:

Obviously God is not literally a person, with arms and legs, and fingernails that need trimming once a week. But calling God a person conveys more truth than any other way of describing our Creator. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, we speak about God “indirectly, through analogy.” So in saying that a personal God exists, I mean that God is like a human being in many ways, and also far beyond us.

One thing persons do is communicate, and countless individuals testify that they have clearly experienced the presence of God, listening to them and speaking to them. Some communications are subtle, as when Elijah heard the still, small voice. Others are dramatic, as when Paul was struck blind while hearing the voice of Jesus.

And here’s what’s really important. This sense of communication with deity is extremely common. I do not believe that so many people, in all cultures, in all periods of history, and at all levels of education, could be so deeply mistaken.

God’s communications show us what God is like, and mystical experiences are especially important. In a wonderful book called Is God a Delusion? Eric Reitan notes that the typical features of mystical experiences are exactly what we would expect if mystics were in contact with a loving and powerful deity, a transcendent reality which has both the power and the desire to fulfill our deepest hopes.

So God’s communication with countless humans shows that deity is a personal being. My second point is that this personal being created the universe. People have always wondered where the world came from, but atheism has no answer to this question. Someone on the Internet defined atheism as:

the belief that there was nothing
and nothing happened to nothing
and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything
and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself
for no reason whatsoever into self-replicating bits
which then turned into dinosaurs.

“Makes perfect sense,” the author ironically concluded.

Some dedicated individuals have devoted their lives to spiritual exploration, with the same commitment as those who have studied physics or chemistry. Many of these spiritual seekers have felt an intuitive realization that this is what brought the cosmos into being. So these teachers have connected their own religious experiences with an understanding of how the world was made.

On top of that, there is compelling scientific evidence that the universe was created on purpose. Physicists report that if certain cosmic laws had been infinitesimally different, intelligent life would have been utterly impossible. Many scientists say that it looks as if the whole shebang was deliberately set up as a home for creatures like us.

So science shows that the cosmos was intentionally created, and the religious experiences of innumerable individuals show that a powerful and caring deity exists. These two ideas fit together. There is a God, and God created the universe.

What do you think? Do these ideas from “Pastor Chris” make sense? If not, what are their flaws?

After the Pastor spoke, I removed my ecclesiastical stole and put on my glasses, thereby transforming myself into the atheistic Dr. Schriner. Next week I’ll share his remarks.

Roger Christan Schriner

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