Oversimplifying Theism: An Example from Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has suggested one reason it’s so hard for theists and atheists to talk with each other: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”

I have a lot of respect for Dennett. As I wrote in Your Living Mind, I have “sheepishly” come to realize that some of his radical ideas about consciousness are more insightful than they seemed at first. And in Bridging the God Gap I give him credit for being more open-minded about religion than many prominent freethinkers. I think he’s on to something very important in his comment about telling people they’ve lived for an illusion, but I would put the point somewhat differently:

“IF you assume that belief in God is all there is to someone’s religion, then questioning that belief means challenging their whole way of life.”

But that’s a false assumption. Religion is far more than a list of theological doctrines. It involves an incredibly complex array of spoken and written statements and countless hours of worship and fellowship, as well as art and music, moral principles, spiritual practices, spiritual experiences, personal relationships, and involvement with religious institutions.

One can revise or reject theological tenets without invalidating everything else. Atheist Sam Harris, for example, follows many Buddhist teachings without accepting the Buddha’s 2500-year-old worldview. And there are who atheists belong to religious organizations because they value the fellowship, the rituals, and/or their congregation’s ethical commitments (Bridging the God Gap, p. 160).

Because we are drawn to simple stereotypes, we often speak as if we could summarize entire worldviews in a word or a phrase. That makes it very hard to critique someone’s life-stance without seeming to insult and invalidate that person. Our simplistic minds make nuanced dialogue difficult.

Life is strange and our minds are limited. It may be that both religious and secular worldviews are partially right but radically incomplete. I may be correct in claiming that someone is in the grip of illusions. But perhaps my own follies are just as foolish.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Also posted at http://www.schrinerbooksandblogs.com. For the Dennett quotation see:

How To Tell When Your Mind Is Closing

One of the goals of this blog on theism and atheism is to help people become more open to the ideas of other people. If I can successfully encourage theists to be more open to the views of atheists, and encourage atheists to consider theistic perspectives, finding common ground between, say, Muslims and Christians or Hindus and Sikhs should seem easy by comparison.

Not surprisingly, few people seem motivated to become open-minded, especially about political or religious issues. I think of a comment by Rabbi Steven Reuben: “the only person in the world who really likes change is a wet baby” (A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage, p. 31).

If we want to escape the prison of self-justifying beliefs, we can try to identify early-warning signals that tip us off when our minds are closing. We can learn to feel ourselves slamming the door against new truth.

So ask yourself now, what warning signals occur when you start blocking out a good idea that might disturb your preconceptions? For example, is an alarm going off in your mind right this minute, just thinking about learning to notice when your mind is closing? If you can identify cues that alert you when this is happening, you can learn to catch your mind-gate just as it starts to swing shut.

Some cues are felt in the body and others are more “mental.” You may feel a vague unease, a mild irritation, or physical tension such as tightening your jaw.

Personally, I tend to hold my breath and focus on counter-arguments. I may not even state these counter-arguments out loud, but by concocting a rebuttal that I find cogent and clever, I feel relieved. I have succeeded once again in fending off the threat of mind-expansion.

As you read entries in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, watch for moments when you encounter something plausible that disturbs your preconceptions. When that happens, check what you’re feeling inside. Once you know what you experience when your mind is “threatened with expansion,” you can watch for that cue when you’re with people who challenge your belief system.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Speaking Personally

Last Sunday I spoke about theism and atheism at a church in Redwood City, California. I told them why it is personally important to me to help bridge the gap between theism and atheism. Here’s what I said:

“My thoughts about this issue were shaped by a personal life-crisis which turned out to be an amazing opportunity. In my early twenties, I had the unusual experience of being able to identify with both theism and atheism at the same time. I had grown up with a sense of continuous daily communion with God, but in college I began to question whether there was anyone present except myself as I sat silently in the Prayer Room at the University of Redlands Chapel. And so I began to incline toward atheism.

“For a while I was so evenly balanced between believing and disbelieving that I could see either side with equal clarity. It was as if I were perched high on a mountaintop. If I sat facing east I saw one valley, if I turned west I saw the other, and both were equally visible.

“That’s how I discovered that we can think about the universe in terms of either theism or atheism. But people typically build their theological ‘houses’ on one side of the mountain or the other. They either believe or disbelieve because that is the only side of reality they are able to see.”

To some extent today I can still interpret my everyday experiences in either theistic or atheistic term. I find it sad that many believers and non-believers are so unsettled by the prospect of trying to see from other viewpoints, so that theists could see atheism as legitimate and atheists could understand the possible validity of theism.

It ought to be possible for us to “try on” another theological perspective without overly quickening the heartbeat or elevating the blood pressure. The fact that it’s so hard to do this sort of thing tells us a great deal about the current limitations of human understanding.

Roger Christan Schriner

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My recent posts have focused on communicating about theology, drawing upon experiences I’ve had in teaching a class called Bridging the God Gap. Class participants have tried writing constructive responses to hostile comments about religion. Some responses seemed helpful and some did not, but virtually no one employed one of the most constructive communication strategies of all:

“Simple” mirroring.

I put scare-quotes around simple because even though the concept of mirroring is easy to understand, it is quite difficult to carry out in practice. In this active-listening approach, you repeat back what your friend has just said to you – usually not verbatim, but using slightly different words that convey his/her message accurately.

When this is done right, your friend will enjoy the rare experience of feeling understood. Most people appreciate this, and become more relaxed and less defensive. It’s a great way to establish rapport.

The challenge is to stick to what she/he has said, without adding anything. For example, suppose you are an atheist, and someone says, “If God doesn’t exist, there’s nothing stopping us from doing all sorts of horrible things.” You might reply,

“You think people like me have no morals and commit terrible crimes.”

No. You’re turning your friend’s general comment into a personal attack on you. How about:

“You think we have to cling to religious faith to stop ourselves from doing evil.”

Huh-uh. This comment editorializes too much to count as mirroring. “Cling to” implies weakness, childishness, and the person did not say, “We need childlike faith.”

A more exact response might be:

“You’re concerned that people might do terrible things if there is no God.”

Notice that this statement attempts to mirror the feeling (concern) as well as factual content. That’s tricky, but comments about religion often convey emotions, and mirroring can include this component.

Now suppose you believe in God and someone says, “Freud was right. Religion takes our emotional need for a strong parent and projects it into the sky.”

An editorializing reply: “So you agree with the atheist Freud that there is no basis for religion other than fantasy and wish-fulfillment.” Your friend may or may not think this is so, but that’s not what was said. Furthermore, generalizing from “one of the bases of religion is irrational” to “all bases of religion are irrational” tends to heat up the discussion unnecessarily.

A more faithful mirroring-reply: “You agree with Freud that people want to lean on a parent-figure, and religion helps fulfill this need.”

Try it yourself. Think of other ways of responding to the statements listed above, or the examples I’ve used in my “Hot Potato” postings during the past few weeks. I’d appreciate reading your replies.

Roger Christan Schriner

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How to Lose an Argument by Winning It

I’ve been following a helpful and prolific blog called Tafacory, which explores a wide range of theological and philosophical topics. Tafacory sometimes “reblogs” the work of other writers, and recently included an essay by Mila Jaroniek called “The Proper Way To Argue.” Jaroniek’s piece is clever and well-written, and in some cases its ideas would be quite useful. In other cases, however, they could backfire. Knowing whether to use her approach requires asking, “What is my agenda?” Here are some typical agendas that motivate conversations about religion:

1. I want to change the mind of the person I am addressing.

2. I want to change the mind of someone who is observing the discussion.

3. I want to humiliate someone whose views on religion are inferior to my own.

4. I want to make myself feel clever and superior.

So let’s be honest. What is our real agenda? What are we actually trying to accomplish?

Jaroniek’s approach would work well for agenda items 3 and 4, and it could work with #2. But if your goal is to change the mind of the person you are addressing, this is a questionable strategy. Examples:

Jaroniek suggests intimidating your “opponent” “with a steely gaze.” But as soon as you start thinking of another person as an opponent. your ability to constructively connect will diminish. And don’t forget that we are primates. With primates, a steely gaze triggers fight-or-flight responses that reduce our ability to reason objectively. I would hope we are trying to help people become more rational rather than less.

She also advocates amassing facts and references to “mercilessly lob at your opponent” – more warlike language. Note that one of her main headings is “Leave the emotions out of it” because “only weak-willed earthlings make emotional arguments.” Fine, but if you want to minimize emotionality, don’t do things that trigger fear and anger.

When I lead workshops on Bridging the God Gap, here is the statement that gets the biggest laugh, and it’s a laugh of understanding and agreement:

“Without knowing it we may approach a dialogue about religion as if we’ve entered a physical fight. When we smite someone on the forehead with a particularly weighty argument, we may expect this poor benighted soul to bow down in surrender, grateful for having been shown the light. How disappointing when people just resent us for making them look stupid.”

In other words, by humiliating someone you can win an argument “on paper,” but lose in your efforts to change that person’s mind.

I certainly agree with Mila that conversations about religion are often overly emotional. But I do think there is one legitimate use for emotional arguments in these discussions. An example or analogy that calls forth a feeling-response can help make an idea “real” rather than merely abstract and theoretical.

Suppose you are objecting to the idea that people who do not accept Jesus as their savior will all go to hell. Rather than just saying that a loving God would not send “good folks” to hell, speak specifically of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Many people find it hard to deal with bloodless abstractions. Putting a face on a theoretical argument may enable your friend to take that argument seriously. So an emotional appeal can actually be a prerequisite to rational discussion.

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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Yom HaShoah, 2012

I’ve just returned from the Yom HaShoah (holocaust remembrance) service at Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California. This annual program is sponsored by Tri-City Interfaith Council, and I have attended it several times.

My mood is always sober as the service begins, because I know I will hear of atrocities which are almost beyond belief. But there is great power in confronting the truth, facing what humans are capable of doing to other humans.

This post may seem off-topic, since this blog is about theists and atheists. But I want to find ways of breaking down artificial barriers that obscure our common humanity. Tonight I felt new hope that this is possible, partly because so many different faith traditions were present in that room. Yom HaShoah originated among Jews, but it is an important tradition for all of us.

It especially inspired me to see at least two Muslims in attendance. One of them participated in the program and the other helped plan it. Our main speaker was a marvelous Jewish storyteller, and I noticed that one of his stories was from the Sufi tradition of Islam.

As I left the temple, I recalled what Hosea Ballou wrote 200 years ago: “If we agree in … love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not no other agreement can do us any good.”

Thank you for reading this post, and welcome to the readers who have subscribed while I’ve been traveling. If any of you want to suggest specific topics for this blog, please let me know. I’m always happy to hear from people who want to build bridges between seemingly irreconcilable antagonists. That’s what we need, if we’re ever going to have a world that works.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Tribal Trap

I’ve been commenting a lot lately on Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Progress series on the Guardian web site. Baggini has completed this series, so I will conclude with posts about his last few entries.

On March 22, reviewing several months of reader comments, Julian found it “dispiriting to see how tribal so many people seem to be.” Although his readers often posted thoughtful remarks, “many more” seemed happy to find a “pretext to get in the familiar old digs against whoever the other tribe happens to be.” And whenever Julian criticized his fellow atheists, people thought this showed he was “on a certain ‘side’, as though … we only agree with friends and those we disagree with are enemies.”

Indeed. While reading responses to Heathen’s Progress, I was appalled to see childish schoolyard taunts disguised as intelligent theological discourse. In my January 17 post I noted that comments marked “recommend” by large numbers of readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning. One very effective way to be loved by some is to be hateful to others.

Our whole world is trapped in tribalism. So how can we get out?

On March 15 Baggini talked about finding common ground between theists and atheists. “It’s just not good to have families, streets, neighbourhoods or nations divided by faith, or lack of it.” He then suggested that we can find common ground in our common flaws. Every person has prejudices, blind spots, and intellectual weaknesses, and “no matter how sure we are, we could be mistaken.”

I emphasized the same idea in Bridging the God Gap. And I agree with Julian that the difference between theism and atheism is less important than the difference “between those who show the virtues of reasonableness and those who do not.”

To get out of the tribal trap, we must face our own limitations.

We must also learn to communicate across ideological divides, especially about political issues. Whenever people who follow a particular philosophy of life advocate some public policy, they need to justify that policy in terms that people with other world-views can understand and accept. As Julian stated on February 16, this “is simply the minimum requirement for fruitful, peaceful co-operation between people with different world views.”

If we want to promote cooperation among people of all faiths and philosophies, pluralism is the only practical path. Those who do not agree with this goal want to impose their lifestance on others, by force or by guile. That is an excellent game plan, if you want to cause endless warfare all over the world. But if we want to build peace, we must first break out of the tribal trap.

For Julian’s series see http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress.


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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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Do You Dread Christmas Because of Religious Disagreements? Perhaps It’s Time for “The Positive Dodge”

Because Christmas is both a religious holy-day and a cultural holiday, Christians and non-Christians are often thrown together at celebrations of the birth of Jesus. One spouse may be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist, for example, while the other spouse comes from a family full of Baptists or Catholics. On 12/25 they may all get together for meals, parties, and religious services.

Many people avoid debating religion (or politics) on such occasions, but such disagreements may surface in spite of our best efforts. There may be subtle frictions about who offers a blessing at Christmas dinner or what is said during this prayer. Non-Christians may be uncomfortable at a Christmas Eve service, or upset about part of the sermon. If some family members don’t attend services, others may resent their absence.

You may want to use these difficulties as an opportunity to deal openly with religious differences. In many cases this would be counterproductive, of course. But when disagreements are not extreme and both parties are relatively open-minded, such a discussion may be desirable. If you think it could be helpful to address this topic, check out my earlier blog, God-Talk: Ways to Break the Ice, July 28, 2011.

Nevertheless, Christmas is often an awkward time to talk about God. Holiday get-togethers tend to be busy and full of hustle-bustle, making it hard to have an in-depth conversation. If discussing spiritual matters seems either untimely or undesirable, you might try an approach I call the positive dodge.

A positive dodge is a way of ducking out of a difficult discussion, while saying or doing something positive for your relationship. Here are five examples:

1. Acknowledge that this is a big, complicated issue. “I guess it’s obvious that you and I are sometimes uncomfortable because of religious differences. This is such a big subject; I think it would literally take hours to deal with it. If you ever want to have some long talks about God, Jesus, and so on, I’d be open to that. But for now, I want to just enjoy your company and be grateful for having this family time together.”

2. Express warm feelings. “Joe, I doubt that we’ll ever agree completely about Christianity. But I just put that aside when we get together because I like you a lot, I know you’re a good person, and if your [religious faith / your non-religious philosophy of life] helps you be the way you are then it must have some good in it.”

3. Express regret. “It makes me sad when religion comes between us. Our relationship is important to me, and I don’t want theology to get in the way. I’m sorry for anything I’ve said about spirituality that may have hurt you, and I hope we can love each other even when we don’t understand each other.”

4. Transition to another important topic. “Helen, I know we see religion differently. But I just want to tell you how much I appreciate the way you have been helping Dad deal with his illness. I am so moved by what Sis told me you did at the hospital.”

5. Suggest humility about matters of faith. “When you and I disagree about religion, I just try to remember that all of these big questions about God and life and the universe are hard for any of us to understand. You’re doing your best to comprehend these mysteries and so am I. My beliefs may or may not turn out to be correct, and none of us have all the answers. But we love each other and we want the best for each other. So for today, let’s just enjoy Christmas together.” This approach may backfire if the other person is dogmatically certain of being right, but many people are more humble and open-minded than that.

All five of these examples dodge the issue at hand, but in a way that can move the relationship forward. Rather than just tensely looking for an exit, we can candidly state that this doesn’t seem like a good time to talk theology, and then say something that helps create closeness instead of distance.

If any of you want to share stories about religious disagreements at Christmas, please free to post them in a Comment. Merry Christmas to my Christian readers, and Happy Holidays to those of all faiths and philosophies.


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